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The goddess in Mesopotamia who embodied sexuality in all its aspects was known as Inanna (in the Sumerian language) and Ishtar (in the Akkadian language). Inanna/Ishtar was the manifestation of sex and eroticism—bride of brides, solace of married women, and patron of prostitutes.

It is difficult to evaluate when Inanna was first linked with sexuality. In the fourth millennium bce, Inanna was primarily venerated as the planet Venus. Her two epithets morning and evening describe the two manifestations of the goddess, one shining in the morning and one in the evening. Her dyadic character stemmed from her bipolar astral disposition, which incorporated all extremes of behavior in her complex personality. Thus, over time, she became both the beautiful goddess of love, sexuality, and sexual behavior, and the power hungry goddess of war and violence.

By the latter part of the third millennium bce, 'Ashtar (the earliest form of Ishtar) was invoked in Akkadian love incantations. This aspect became preeminent in the Sumerian corpus of love lyrics from the Neo-Sumerian period (c. 2112–2004). The theme of this corpus is the love between the young maiden goddess Inanna and the shepherd god Dumuzi as the archetypal bride and groom.


The sexual identity of this goddess is controversial. In one late text, Ishtar says of herself: "I am a woman, I am a man." Ishtar could be viewed as a beautiful goddess of love who rules the day and as a bearded god(dess) of war who rules the night. It is claimed that the androgyny of Inanna/Ishtar provided a powerful symbol of the ambiguities of pure sexuality reflected in her cult, and in the transvestism of her cultic personnel (Groneberg 1986).

It is not so clear, however, that Inanna (in contrast to Ishtar) had male or androgynous features. In Sumerian poetry, the goddess repeatedly lauds her own sexual beauty, both in lyric song and mythic narratives. Inanna sings: "These [my] female genitals,… my moored boat of heaven, clothed in beauty like the new crescent moon … this high well-watered field of mine: my own female genitals, the maiden's, a well-watered opened-up mound—who will be their ploughman?" (Dumuzi-Inanna Song P, ii 16-26).

In the first millennium bce, the two appearances of Venus were attributed to two distinct sexual manifestations: As morning star, Venus was female; as evening star, male. The two aspects are said to correspond to the double character of Inanna/Ishtar as goddess of love and war. Among the thousand prayers, hymns and references to her, there are only scattered mentions of a bearded form of Ishtar among the overwhelming evidence that she was female. In his hymn to Ishtar of Nineveh, Ashurbanipal, the king of Assyria (r. 668–627 bce), describes her as "Like the god Ashur, she wears a beard" (line 7). Ishtar of Babylon is once described as bearded and male. The question is whether Ishtar has a completely separate male manifestation or not. The references to her beard may allude to an astronomical phenomenon because her star, Venus, also has a beard. On the other hand, in Semitic cities, such as Mari, in the third millennium, there were several 'Ashtar manifestations, of which one was a male. Ishtar has been considered androgynous because even in her male role she never becomes fully male, but seems to be a female with male gender characteristics. She is nevertheless always referred to as female with feminine grammatical agreement.


Inanna and Ishtar assumed various gender roles. The proper gender role of Inanna is a theme in various Sumerian narratives. For instance,

"But why did you treat me, the woman, in an exceptional manner? I am holy Inanna—where are my functions?"

Enki answered his daughter, holy Inanna: "How have I disparaged you? Goddess,… How can I enhance you?… I made you speak as a woman with pleasant voice. I made you go forth [―] I covered [―] with a garment. I made you exchange its right side and its left side. I clothed you in garments of women's power. I put women's speech in your mouth. I placed in your hands the spindle and the hairpin. I [―] to you women's adornment. I settled on you the staff and the crook, with the shepherd's stick [symbols of kingship] beside them."

                 (Enki and the World Order, 422-436)

The feminine gender roles served by Inanna/Ishtar run the spectrum of possibilities: young girl and bride, wife and mother, prostitute, and mistress.

In the Sumerian love poetry concerning Dumuzi's courtship of Inanna, Inanna is portrayed as a young woman, with her teenage enthusiasms, passionate love, and sexual yearnings for her beloved. Compositions in which the king takes the role of Dumuzi probably had their cultic context in the "sacred marriage" rituals. The royal sobriquet "spouse of Inanna" and the royal love songs for the divine bride are hallmarks of Sumerian kingship.

When Sumerian theologians organized the gods into families, they placed Inanna as a mother of other deities, although her maternity was of no real consequence. The father of the children is not Dumuzi, and her sons play no role in her mythology or worship. In the second millennium and later, however, ordinary individuals appealing to her for clemency addressed her as "mother."

Further, one hymn puts these words into the mouth of Inanna: "When I sit in the alehouse, I am a woman, and I am an exuberant young man. When I am present at a place of quarrelling, I am a woman, a perfect figure. When I sit by the gate of the tavern, I am a prostitute familiar with the penis; the friend of a man, the girlfriend of a woman" (Inanna Hymn I 16-22).


The festivals of this goddess involved reversals in categories of age, status, and sex. As articulated in one Sumerian hymn to Inanna:

Inanna was entrusted by Enlil and Ninlil with the capacity to gladden the heart of those who revere her,… to turn a man into a woman and a woman into a man, to change one into the other, to make young women dress as young men on their right side, to make young men dress as young women on their left side, to put spindles into the hands of men [―] and to give weapons to the women; to see that women amuse themselves by using children's language, to see that children amuse themselves by using women's language.

             ("Hymn to Inanna for Ishme-Dagan" 19-25)

The chief participants and actors in the goddess's cult are well known by name but of uncertain sexual identity. These religious officiants may represent the undefined sexless characters who occur in mythic tales concerning Inanna and Ishtar, although gender ambiguity often has religious connotations. While it is known that these cultic functionaries dressed in distinctive garments and adorned their hair and body in certain peculiar manners, their physical and mental constitution are uncertain. They could have been born with physical abnormalities, such as hermaphrodites, or emasculated into physically castrated persons, or they could have been persons whose mental sexual identity was androgynous, such as transvestites. It is also possible that the inversion of their sexual identity and/or gender roles was maintained only in the performance of rituals. Through symbolic inversion, such beliefs and rituals provided a context for the resolution of conflicts often associated with gender roles and gender identity.

see also Goddess Worship.


Abusch, Tzvi. 1999. "Ishtar." In Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, ed. Karel van der Toorn, Bob Becking, and Pieter W. van der Horst, 452-456. 2nd edition. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Glassner, Jean-Jacques. 1992. "Inanna et les me" [Inanna and the me's]. In Nippur at the Centennial, ed. Maria deJong Ellis, 55-86. Philadelphia: Samuel Noah Kramer Fund, Babylonian Section, University Museum.

Groneberg, Brigitte. 1986. "Die sumerisch-akkadische Inanna/Ištar: Hermaphrodotos? [The Sumerian-Akkadian Inanna/Ishtar: Hermaphrodite?]" Welt des Orients 17: 25-46.

Groneberg, Brigitte R. M. 1997. Lob der Ištar: Gebet und Ritual an die altbabylonische Venusgöttin [Praise of Ishtar: Prayer and ritual to the Old Babylonian Venus goddess]. Groningen, Netherlands: Styx Publications.

Harris, Rivkah. 1991. "Inanna-Ishtar as Paradox and a Coincidence of Opposites." History of Religions 30(3): 261-278.

Szarzyńska, Krystyna. 2000. "Cult of the Goddess Inana in Archaic Uruk." NIN: Journal of Gender Studies in Antiquity 1: 63-74.

Westenholz, Joan Goodnick. 2000. "King by Love of Inanna—An Image of Female Empowerment?" NIN: Journal of Gender Studies in Antiquity 1: 75-89.

Wilcke, Claus. 1976. "Inanna/Ištar (Mesopotamien): A. Philologisch [Inanna/Ishtar (Mesopotamia): A. Philological]." Reallexikon der Assyriologie 5: 74-87.

Zgoll, Annette. 2003. Die Kunst des Betens: Form und Funktion, Theologie und Psychagogik in babylonisch-assyrischen Handerhebungsgebeten an Ištar [The Art of Prayer: Form and Function, Theology and Psychology in the Babylonian and Assyrian Hand-raising Prayers to Ishtar]. Münster, Germany: Ugarit-Verlag.

                         Joan Goodnick Westenholz