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INANNA . Inanna, the Sumerian astral deity representing the planet Venus, was known throughout the Mesopotamian world. The Akkadians (and later the Assyro-Babylonians) called her Ishtar. For both the Sumerians and the Akkadians she was the principal goddess in their respective pantheons. Inanna-Ishtar's closest counterparts to the west are the Canaanite Astarte and the later goddesses of Greece and Rome, Aphrodite and Venus.

When the Semitic Akkadians settled in the lower Tigris-Euphrates Basin, they assimilated the preexisting, predominantly Sumerian culture. Comparative Semitic evidence suggests that the Akkadian Venus deity was originally masculine but became completely feminized when identified with the female Sumerian deity Inanna. Because of the eventual syncretism of the Sumerian and Akkadian pantheons, the traditions concerning Inanna-Ishtar are extremely complicated. By one such tradition she is the daughter of the sky god An, by another the daughter of the moon god Nanna-Sin (and thereby the sister of the sun god Utu-Shamash), and by still another the daughter of Enlil or Ashur. Similarly, Inanna-Ishtar was associated with more than one consort, alternately Zababa of Kish, Ashur, An, and Dumuzi (called Tammuz by the Akkadians). Although her main cult center was Uruk, she was worshiped in many other localities, each of which gave her rather diverse epithets and characteristics.

Inanna in Sumerian and Akkadian Mythology

The myth entitled "Inanna Takes Command of Heaven" tells the story of how Inanna managed to bring down the Eanna, "the house of An," from heaven and thus become "mistress of heaven." Unfortunately the text has many lacunae, missing many passages of this remarkable adventure. The narrative begins with the decision of Inanna to take control of the Eanna and her appeal to her brother Utu for help in this task. The inner motives of the goddess, if her words are accurate, are the result of her wounded pride at being raped and a vague promise by An. However, no one knows where on earth the house of An is. Consequently, Inanna asks the assistance of a fisherman who has experience in sailing in the marsh. He willingly agrees, and after repeated attempts Inanna finally finds the Eanna in the marsh. It is impossible to know what defenses An had set up so the house would not be robbed, but certainly the scorpion with which Inanna fights must have been one. The text resumes with An's hurt and regret for the theft that has occurred, but at the same time he makes the prudent decision to leave things as they are. The Eanna will from now on be the "most splendid temple in Sumeria." A summary of the myth is given in lines 159163, where the theft that has taken place and the new reality are once more emphasized. The Eanna will be the abode of the rule of Inanna, who is praised as "the greatest of all the heavenly gods."

Completely different in tone is the narrative better known as the "The Descent of Inanna to the Underworld." It could be renamed "The Ascent of Inanna to the Land of No Return" because, on the basis of continuing scholarship and the recovery of less ambiguous epigraphic evidence, the country to which the goddess goes is once again the Kur, "the mythical mountain" located east of Sumer, in modern Iran. As Silvia Chiodi (1994) has shown, there is no mention in the Sumerian texts that the mythical Kurfrom which life arose, including the gods and plants, and to which the spirits of the dead return, as it were to return to the life-giving element from which they originatedis located beneath the earth. Besides, the ambiguous verb e// (to go up and to go down) used in this myth has been greatly clarified in the myth of Inanna and Shukalletuda by the variant verb íla, which can mean nothing except "to go up." The myth, which is written in an expansive, grandiose style and in highly poetic language, describes the attempt, on this occasion unsuccessful, made by Inanna to expand her sphere of influence by taking control of the Kur, the undisputed realm of Queen Ereshkigal.

After Inanna has decided upon this action, she leaves earth and the sanctuaries dedicated to her, dresses in an appropriate fashion with clothes and jewels that symbolize her divine power, and sets off on her journey. Before she leaves she tells her faithful ambassador Ninshubur that if things go wrong she must go to Nippur, Ur, and Eridu to plead for the assistance of the gods on her behalf. Inanna presents herself at the gates of the great palace, which is defended by seven walls, and asks Neti to allow her to come in. Neti asks her to wait so he can obtain permission from the queen. Ereshkigal apparently agrees but orders that Inanna should observe all the rituals customary in the Kur. No one may enter her realm dressed in finery, as the mistress of heaven had intended to do. So Inanna is allowed to enter, but at every gate she has to take off part of her clothing. When she comes before Ereshkigal, she is completely naked. Ereshkigal has a fit of uncontrolled rage when she sees her sister and turns her into a "corpse."

"Three days and three nights have passed," and Ninshubur carries out the orders Inanna gave her. Ninshubur goes to Nippur first and then to Ur, where she begs the gods of the two towns to save Inanna, who is being held in the Kur. But the two gods are unyielding. Ninshubur must go to Eridu. There the god Enki feels sorry for Inanna, although he criticizes the way she has behaved. Enki creates two sprites and gives them the job of saving Inanna by bringing her "the food of life and the water of life." Galatur and Kurgarra, the two sprites, go down to the underworld, and after a detailed discussion with Ereshkigal, they are allowed to take away the corpse of Inanna, which they bring back to life. But no one may break the unbending rules of the underworld, so Inanna must provide a substitute in her place. When she leaves the Kur, she is accompanied by demons ready to seize and take back the one who is to replace her. On her return Inanna meets Ninshubur first, then Shara her son, then Lulal, but she refuses to allow the demons to take any of them because they had mourned the disappearance of the goddess. Continuing the journey, the group arrives in Uruk, where Inanna's husband Dumuzi, instead of weeping, is amusing himself. The goddess becomes angry and lets the demons take Dumuzi. However, Dumuzi asks the god Utu to transform him into a serpent to escape from the demons trying to capture him.

In the variant from Ur, the demons are tired of the goddess's outbursts and ask her to return to the Kur, so Inanna hurries to have her husband seized. At this point the appeal to Utu and the request to be transformed into a serpent are repeated, and Dumuzi takes refuge in the house of his sister Geshtinanna. The demons arrive at Geshtinanna's house and ask for her brother, but she does not reveal that he has taken refuge with her. The demons nevertheless find Dumuzi in the sheepfold, where they capture him. When the main text resumes, the fate of the fly is decided, for reasons that elude the reader, and Inanna decides that Dumuzi's sister should share his fate: "six months for him, six months for her." The concluding doxology sweetly praises the queen of the underworld. Similar descriptions of the land of the dead are in the myth of Nergal and Ereshkigal and the classic Epic of Gilgamesh.

Of the two Akkadian recensions of the myth, the Middle Assyrian version, because of its shortness (a mere eleven lines), does not provide new information of any importance. The New Assyrian recension is 138 lines long and is complete, but a comparison with the Sumerian version of the so-called "descent" of Inanna to the underworld, over 400 lines long, is required despite their clearly different cultural milieus. The main events and divine characters are certainly similar if not identical. The queen of the underworld in both myths is the same, Ereshkigal, the Sumerian goddess who rules the realm of the dead. The heavenly goddess who goes to the other world is Inanna in the Sumerian myth, whereas in the New Assyrian myth it is Ishtar. The two goddesses had been amalgamated by Mesopotamian religious tradition. The other gods who become involved are mostly the same, starting with Dumuzi and ending with Sin and Ea (Nanna and Enki, respectively). The herald is different, Ninshubur in the Sumerian recension, Papsukkal in the New Assyrian version.

The New Assyrian account, though more condensed and concise than the Sumerian version, still provides substantial new elements. For example, the scribe stresses the disastrous consequences for humanity and livestock caused by Ishtar's departure from the earth, described by Papsukkal when he tries to get first Sin and then Ea to secure the release of the goddess from the underworld. He also describes the far from pleasant nature of life in the underworld, not only for the dead but also for the queen of the underworld. In place of the two sprites, Galatur and Kurgarra, created by Enki to save Inanna, here Ea creates "Asushunammir, the court jester," who is assigned the task of moving Ereshkigal. The ending of the story is also different. In the New Assyrian version the return of Dumuzi from the underworld altogether with the dead is mentioned, albeit optatively, something which is quite incomprehensible, as Wolfram von Soden (1967) points out in his commentary on the passage.

Once again the Kur is the main focus of Inanna's attention in the following myth, which illustrates the fundamental point that the Sumerians considered the "mythical mountain" the source of life and all good things. Inanna turns to her brother Utu, the sun god, and asks if she can sail with him in his daily journey across the vault of heaven toward the Kur to enjoy the wonderful plants there. She is particularly interested in discovering the secret of female charms and the techniques of love with man. Only after she has experienced what love may mean is she prepared to go back to the city of her birth and resume her family role as mother, mother-in-law, and sister-in-law. The text concludes with a new hymn to the sun god that emphasizes his assistance to all those in trouble, from travelers to widows and orphans. The final sentence expresses the joy and relief of all those who can travel in his light.

Another interesting Sumerian text begins with a description and a hymn to the goddess with clear warlike qualities. An auto-eulogy describes the activities of Inanna and observes that only the Kur has refused to submit. The goddess dresses suitably and appears before her father An, seeking justice. She virtually asks him to agree to her interfering in the Kur, but An strongly advises his daughter against such action because he is convinced that this is another of Inanna's tantrums. Inanna remains implacable and engages in deadly combat with the Kur. She sends a torrent of water and a burning fire to subdue the lively spirits of the Kur, and she reduces the mountain, previously an earthly paradise, to a silent desert. At this point the goddess describes the outcome of the war and sets out the fate of the vanquished. She follows with a new, haughty auto-eulogy, in which she praises her memorable victory over the Kur. The concluding doxology is addressed to Nisaba, the goddess of academia, from where this text definitely originated.

In Sumerian literature the following myth is often called "Theft of the Divine Powers by Inanna from Enki." In fact, nothing could be more inaccurate and inconsistent. On this occasion Inanna has done nothing wrong to anyone, and what has been considered "theft" is in fact a completely voluntary gift from the god of wisdom. As the myth begins the goddess of Uruk is standing in front of a mirror admiring her beauty, including her private parts. Inanna is not content, however; she needs something further to complete her portrait. So she decides to go to Enki and ask him for something related to sex. The god of wisdom foresees her visit and gives orders for Inanna to be received with full honors. When Inanna arrives, Enki's herald Isimud extends full hospitality and lays on a banquet for the guest, which Enki attends. But Enki drinks too much and becomes drunk. At this point Enki volunteers to give Inanna divine powers or the essence of all things, and she accepts them happily. She makes a list of all the good things she has received, loads the gifts on her ship and sets off back to Uruk.

When Inanna has left port, Enki becomes himself again and, aware that he has been thoughtless, wants to recover the divine powers now heading to Uruk. After an interlude about a frog, whose fate is determined by Enki, the god sends Isimud on a mission to ask Inanna to return the gifts she has been given. Six times Inanna, with the aid of Ninshubur's magic, manages to prevent the monsters sent by Enki from taking control of her ship, which is sailing the arc of heaven. The ship finally reaches Uruk, where it is welcomed joyfully. Enki still cannot take in what has happened and sends his herald to Uruk with a list of the goods taken by Inanna. Meanwhile, the joyous atmosphere at Uruk affects everyone. Inanna renames all the city districts and assures her people of all the benefits that will result from the arrival of the divine powers. At this point Enki has no choice but to accept the loss and forecast the undoubted future greatness of Uruk.

Love Stories

Among the accounts of the lovers and love stories of the goddess is the myth of "Inanna and Shukalletuda." The main theme is the misfortune of Inanna when she is raped by a mortal man, who must be punished with death. The story begins with a description of the goddess Inanna and her journey to the Kur, where she aims to enhance her divine powers. After the first break comes the story of the creation of the palm tree by Enki and the raven. Now the second main character Shukalletuda is introduced, seen trying desperately to water a flowerbed. Then follows the key moment in the myth, the rape of the virgin Inanna while she is resting under the shade of the only poplar in the garden. When Inanna realizes what has happened to her, she intends to punish the perpetrator. She sends plagues to the earth, first putting blood in the wells of the country, then she sends a hurricane and a sandstorm, in the end completely sealing off every road in the land.

Shukalletuda has been able to escape the anger of the goddess by hiding among his own people, so the goddess turns to Enki for help. Enki allows her to find Shukalletuda, who is condemned to death. The wrongdoer tries to excuse himself, explaining to the goddess that he was not really to blame, but this only angers her even more. Her only promise is that the name of Shukalletuda will be remembered in song after his death. After Shukalletuda's fate has been settled there is a hymn of praise for the holy Inanna.

The myth concerning the death of Dumuzi, the beloved husband of Inanna, on the other hand, is part of a series of stories about the strained relationship between Inanna, the mistress of heaven and of Uruk, and Dumuzi, the shepherd whom she loves, at least according to the love poems that have survived. A completely negative view of the lovers of Inanna is presented in the three redactions of the Epic of Gilgamesh that recount the episode when Ishtar falls in love with the hero. The passage in which Gilgamesh rejects Ishtar's offer that he become her husband, completely enraging the goddess, who at once sets about punishing him for this insult by sending down to earth the Bull of Heaven, has no equivalent in the Sumerian story of the same episode, where the reason for the quarrel seems to be political rather than emotional. To find anything like what is described here, it is necessary to resort to Sumerian literary texts on love concerning the goddess Inanna.

The detailed list of the jilted lovers of Ishtar spans the human and divine worlds and even includes the beasts of the earth, who have all received scant reward for their love of the goddess. Following is a list of the lovers and their rewards:

  • Dumuzi year after year of mourning
  • the bird Alallu broken wings
  • lion ditches dug
  • horse bridle, whip, and reins
  • shepherd changed into a wolf
  • Ishullanu the gardener turned into a mole

It can be understood why Gilgamesh refuses her enticing offer, especially when it becomes clear that the goddess is offering the king of Uruk a kingdom in the underworld.

The myth of "Ishtar and Saltu" was intended to be sung and includes notes on how it should be sung, as well as evidence of a refrain. It is reasonable to conclude that it was divided into more than ten songs that tell of the occasion when the gods were forced to take strong measures to curb the high spirits of the goddess. Its composition can be dated with certainty to the Old Babylonian period, more accurately during the reign of Hammurabi, who is mentioned by name. At the beginning the goddess and all her qualities are described, especially the strength that makes her so cut out for war. But the goddess certainly overdoes matters, because all the gods, particularly the god of wisdom Ea, find her behavior completely unacceptable. Ea decides to check the goddess's reckless behavior by creating a match for her. The new creature is formed from the dirt underneath the nails of the god of wisdom, and she is aggressive as well as beautiful. The god Ea gives her the task of defeating Ishtar, along with useful advice. Ishtar has learned of the changed situation, however, and sends her herald Ninshubur to find out what Saltu (meaning "strife") is like and how powerful she is. The contest between the two goddesses is fierce, but because they are evenly matched, neither wins or loses. Ishtar, at this point in the story, has a new name, Agushaya. She is unable to bear the shame of defeat, so she turns to Ea, asking him for an explanation of the changed situation and to eliminate her opponent. Ea willingly agrees to what Ishtar asks, reconfirming the function of the goddess on earth and inviting humanity to celebrate a feast to mark the creation of Saltu and the ultimate victory of Ishtar. In the doxology Ishtar and her patron Ea are praised for the defeat of Saltu.

See Also

Dumuzi; Gilgamesh; Goddess Worship, overview article; Hierodouleia; Hieros Gamos; Mesopotamian Religions, overview article.


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Giovanni Pettinato (2005)

Translated from Italian by Paul Ellis