Ishtar is the ancient Akkadian goddess of fertility and war. She’s the daughter of the moon god, Sin (which sounds like “SEEN” and should not be confused with the biblical term for moral transgressions). She’s best understood as being an androgynous and bisexual “Sacred Prostitute” who shares Herself with all living things in exchange for their eventual deaths. This appears to have started when She descended through the seven gates of the Mesopotamian Underworld to confront Her sister, Ereshkigal, who promptly killed Her and hung Her on a hook for three days and nights. All sexual activity ceased upon the Earth during this time, prompting Ishtar’s grandfather Enki to send two asexual demons down to the Underworld to retrieve Her. By empathizing with Ereshkigal’s loneliness and misery, they convinced Her to release Ishtar back into the realm of the living. But in return, Ishtar had to choose someone to take Her place in the land of the dead. When She discovered that Her husband Tammuz hadn’t grieved for Her at all while She was dead, She gave His ass to Ereshkigal for half the year (thereby establishing the seasons).
Later, Ishtar fell in love with the half-mortal king Gilgamesh and proposed to him for marriage. Gilgamesh not only refused Her advances but actually insulted Her, accusing Her of murdering all of Her lovers. This prompted Ishtar to unleash the demonic Bull of Heaven upon the Earth. (She almost caused the dead to rise up all over the world and to devour the living as well—making Her the first individual to ever conceive of a “zombie apocalypse”—but thankfully She settled for just the Bull.) Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu somehow managed to kill the monster and remove one of its thighs, which was later mourned by Ishtar and the priestesses of Her cult. But Gilgamesh and Enkidu eventually paid the price for their transgressions, with Enkidu dying a painful death and Gilgamesh being forced to give up his quest for immortality in the end.
On the surface, Gilgamesh’s accusations against Ishtar may seem perfectly sensible, but we need to remember just who this guy was. He was a king who tyrannized his people to the point that he would break into their homes and rape all their womenfolk. He only stopped doing this when the gods created Enkidu to challenge him, giving him something else to do than just torment his own people. He then became so obsessed with finding the secret to immortality that he abandoned his people and left them to fend for themselves. (What an asshole!) So when Gilgamesh accuses Ishtar of being some kind of “Black Widow,” it’s kind of like listening to Rush Limbaugh hurl obscenities at Madonna for not being a perfectly servile housewife. Ishtar isn’t a Barbie doll or some character from My Little Pony, but She’s no “monster” either. She’s the force of nature that drives all creatures to spend their life energy engaging in activities that are biologically designed to produce offspring (whether any offspring are produced or not). Her love is not some romanticized ideal, but a ravaging hunger that brings new life into this world (and which sends old life back beyond the Veil). Ishtar is tied to the correlation between sexual capability and shorter lifespans, and those who worship Her think that having a shorter lifespan is worth being able to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh. Perhaps the greatest “death” Ishtar causes is not that of the body but that of the ego, which can be a terrifying experience for megalomaniacs like Gilgamesh.
(Personally, I think Gilgamesh was a doofus. If Ishtar appeared to me and told me She wanted me to marry Her, I’d say, “Okay.” Better to be mauled ecstatically by Ishtar’s lovely, blood-splattered mouth than to die by the hand of any mortal man!)
Lest we forget, Ishtar is also a goddess of war, and this is where Her androgynous aspects are most obviously revealed. In Babylonian art, She’s always drawn as a badass Amazon standing on top of a goddamn lion and getting ready to beat the shit out of someone. Assyrian kings prayed for Her to join them on the battlefield like a Valkyrie and slaughter their foes like cattle—and if their records are to be believed, She answered those prayers. As a warrior goddess, Ishtar became one of the most popular deities among the Hyksos, who worshiped Her by the name of Astarte and paired Her with their chief deity, Ba’al Hadad. When the Hyksos ruled Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period, they brought Her cult into the Land of the Pharaohs with them. And since Ba’al Hadad was identified with Set by the Egyptians, they came to view Ishtar/Astarte as one of His many romantic interests.
There’s a fragmentary Egyptian text in which the gods are menaced by a sea monster called
Ishtar is linked to the planet Venus, which is also known as the Morning and Evening Star. It’s the third-brightest object in the sky (after the Sun and the Moon), and it’s mistaken for a UFO fairly often. Despite having Mercury between itself and the Sun, Venus is the hottest planet in our solar system (with a temperature of at least 870° Fahrenheit). It also tends to be the first star we can see just before sunset and the last star we can see after dawn, which has led numerous cultures to imagine that it “defies” the Sun. (Hence why Lucifer, the Latin name for Venus, became an alternate name for the Christian devil.) Ishtar is certainly a defiant goddess, refusing to let Herself be controlled by any male and always finding some way of getting whatever She wants. It’s interesting to note that Venus aligns with the Earth and the Sun 5 times every 8 years, and that in doing so, it forms a gigantic pentagram in outer space. The number 8 shows up again in Ishtar’s 8-pointed star, which appears throughout Her religious iconography.
According to Herodotus and the biblical patriarchs, the priestesses of Ishtar—who were called the qadishtu or “sacred women”—were “cult prostitutes” whose earnings sustained Her cult and its temples. A much more accurate term for what these ladies practiced is hieros gamos (“divine marriage”), which is the sexual union of a human with a deity. It’s uncertain as to whether qadishtu performed the hieros gamos with everyone who approached them, or if just a single high priestess performed it with the king every year in the Spring. Either way, we do know that these women invoked Ishtar into their bodies and were possessed by Her during the rite, which meant that the male participants were perceived as actually having sex with Ishtar Herself. And as with most priesthoods throughout history, the qadishtu likely collected taxes and donations from the faithful for their services, which is probably what led their critics to call them “prostitutes.” One might argue that having sex for payment of any kind is the basic definition of prostitution, but even so, it must be understood that the qadishtu were not “prostitutes” in the way this term is generally used today.
When most people hear the word “prostitute,” they think of women who are advertised (or who advertise themselves) as “sex objects” that can be “bought” and “used” solely for men’s sexual gratification. Many prostitutes are women who live on the streets, have no higher education, are addicted to drugs, and are controlled and abused by (male) pimps, johns, traffickers and brothel owners. It’s certainly true that in situations where prostitution is illegal and unregulated, its female practitioners are more likely to be physically assaulted, raped and/or murdered than any other group of women on Earth (which is a huge part of why I think prostitution should be legalized, so that it can be properly regulated and perhaps even unionized). Given this, it’s no wonder so many people associate “the world’s oldest profession” with crime, misogyny, murder, and other dangers. Yet it’s foolish to think that a goddess religion—in which a female is worshiped as supreme—would have anything to do with objectifying or endangering women.
The qadishtu were an elite and well-educated matriarchal society; they were able to live independently from men, to own land, to work as professional scribes (which was the most lucrative job one could have in the ancient world), and to inherit, buy, own, rent, and sell real property. And although they were unmarried, their children were considered legitimate and were able to inherit their property by matrilineal descent. The qadishtu enjoyed greater independence than almost any other group of women in the ancient world, and they were treated with all the dignity and respect that is due to Ishtar Herself. After all, the goddess was believed to have sent Tammuz to hell, to have unleashed the Bull of Heaven on Earth, and to be capable of starting a zombie apocalypse whenever She pleased; what man would be so foolish as to harm any of Her qadishtu, given such possible results? Only Gilgamesh was egotistical enough to mistreat the goddess, and doing so earned him nothing but trouble. For this reason, Ishtar’s qadishtu were not subject to the same potential dangers that are faced by many prostitutes today. They weren’t victims of some seedy criminal underworld; they were powerful and privileged members of high society. (And if you ask me, they were clearly the inspiration for the Bene Gesserit in Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel, Dune.)
Most people don’t understand how a religion can be authentic while involving sex in its practices, but Ishtar’s worshipers viewed sex as a sacrament. They observed that by having sex and producing children, men and women do what the gods do and create life. In this way, sex is the ultimate act of sympathetic magic. By receiving this sacrament into their own bodies through the rites of foreplay, copulation and orgasm, worshipers could magically disperse Ishtar’s fertility to their crops, their animals, and their communities. Yet the spiritual significance of sex goes even deeper than this; it doesn’t even need to be justified by the production of offspring. From the ancient Tantric cabals of India to the Greek Maenads, numerous groups throughout history have viewed sexual ecstasy as a tool for elevating human consciousness to a Godlike state. Therefore, donating money to the qadishtu was really no different from placing money in the collection plate at a Sunday mass. (In fact, one might argue that referring to the qadishtu as “prostitutes” is like referring to Christian pastors as “extortionists” who only use threats of hellfire and brimstone to gain obedience and financial support from their followers.)
Now it’s a rather unpopular fact that the ancient Israelites were mostly polytheists. Most of them worshiped many deities, including Ba’al Hadad and Ishtar. Hebrew monotheism didn’t gain prominence until after the Babylonian captivity in the 6th century BCE, when the Jewish diaspora began. Only then did the version of world history that’s outlined in Genesis—in which (1) the entire world had originally worshiped Yahweh alone, (2) the worship of other deities was a kind of “spiritual adultery,” and (3) the biblical prophets were the only people who’d ever been “faithful” to Yahweh—become popular. At the same time, the city of Babylon became a metaphor for Jewish ideas about “false religion” in general. The one “false” religion that angered Jewish leaders the most was that of Ishtar and Her qadishtu, which is why the concepts of Babylon, Ishtar, spiritual adultery, cult prostitution, and the wrath of Yahweh were all combined into a single allegorical image: the infamous “Whore of Babylon” described in Revelation 17.
By the time Revelation was written, Babylon had already been a completely unpopulated ruin for hundreds of years. The author probably used its name as a dysphemism for Rome, which was the “Babylon” of its day (both literally and figuratively). It’s used in much the same way by Christians today; some Protestants, for example, believe the “Whore” is really the Roman Catholic Church. Others claim she’s an ecumenical “one world religion” that has yet to appear, but which will exclude and persecute Christians (and other exclusivist faiths) while worshiping the Antichrist. Babylon’s reputation suffered even more when Saddam Hussein started reconstructing the city on top of its ruins in 1983. Christians around the world saw this as a sign of Armageddon and claimed that his “New Babylon” would soon become the devil’s global headquarters. Naturally, such theories were disproven when Hussein was killed during the Iraq War in 2006, but this won’t stop evangelicals from using Babylon as a symbol for everything they hate. (This insult is compounded by the fact that medieval demonologists turned Ishtar into Astaroth, a male demon of laziness and sloth. I can understand re-characterizing Ishtar as a male, given Her history of androgyny; but why on earth would anyone associate Her with a “sin” that has nothing to do with Her proper element?)
On the other hand, some non-Christians have reinterpreted the “Whore of Babylon” in a more positive light. Aleister Crowley recognized Her as Ishtar and included Her in the theology of his new religion, Thelema. He also reclaimed Her dysphemistic name by calling Her Babalon (which is the Enochian spelling). Crowley invoked the goddess by this name into the various women with whom he practiced his “sex magick” rituals, including Rose Edith Kelley and Leah Hirsig. He referred to them as his “Scarlet Women,” and they fulfilled a very similar role to that of the ancient qadishtu. To the best of my knowledge, Crowley’s the first Westerner to have postulated that Ishtar/Babalon’s “prostitution” is really a good thing that leads to higher spiritual awareness. (Of course, Crowley’s also known to have treated these accomplished witches very contemptibly, which probably contributed to his downfall. Guess he should have treated Ishtar’s qadishtu like the goddess-possessed Bene Gesserit they really are, huh?)
Christians have also attacked Ishtar for being the alleged “pagan origin” of Easter. This claim goes back to Alexander Hislop, who published a pamphlet called The Two Babylons in 1853. Hislop claimed that Ishtar was originally a mortal Babylonian queen named Semiramis. According to him, Semiramis single-handedly invented polytheism to seduce the entire world away from Yahweh. She also deified herself and claimed to have been born from a cosmic egg. She supposedly renamed herself Ishtar—which some evangelical writers claim is pronounced “Easter”—and created a holiday to celebrate the resurrection of her “son,” Tammuz. Presumably, its from all of this that the modern Easter (with its rabbits and its candy eggs) is derived. Hislop was partially correct; Easter does have pagan origins, but its name is actually derived from Eostre, a Teutonic fertility goddess who bears no historical relation to Ishtar whatsoever. (Furthermore, Ishtar’s name is pronounced “EESH-tar,” not “Easter.”) The imagery of rabbits and eggs is taken from a myth in which Eostre transformed a bird into a rabbit that could lay eggs (i.e., the origin of the Easter Bunny). These symbols do not appear anywhere in Ishtar’s iconography, which has plenty more to do with bulls, dragons, lions, and owls. (Not to mention that Tammuz is Ishtar’s ex-husband, not Her son.) Nevertheless, evangelicals continue to regurgitate Hislop’s nonsensical bullshit at every turn, criticizing Easter as a so-called “satanic” rite to Ishtar.
I’m a Setian first and foremost, and most everything I say and do in terms of religion is focused on the Red Lord in some way. But Ishtar occupies the next-highest spot on my personal totem pole of “People and Things That I Have Deemed Sacred,” so it’s not unusual at all for me to mention or make references to Her as well. This article has been my attempt at righting some of the serious wrongs that have been done to Her by evangelical bigots and Western pop culture, and I hope you’ve learned something from reading it.