The ancient civilisations of the Near East have fascinated me for as long as I can remember. These stories and historical records would have disappeared into oblivion if not for the scribes of the ancient world who left us with an incredible treasure trove of knowledge about the lives of our distant ancestors.
Enheduanna–who lived around 2300 BCE–has been credited as the world’s first author. She lived in the Sumerian city of Ur and was the High Priestess of the Goddess Inanna. In addition to gifting us modern humans with documentation of life in the ancient world, Enheduanna’s poems also played a role in cementing the syncretism between Inanna and the Akkadian goddess Ishtar. Inanna and Ishtar were originally two separate deities, but came to be equated with each other during the reign of Enheduanna’s father, King Sargon of Akkad.
Mistress of the divine, resplendent light,The Exaltation of Innana by Enheduanna
Woman of radiance, righteous and beloved
She who grasps the seven sacred powers!
In this fireside chat, I am fortunate to have with me Dr. Louise Pryke. She is the author of Ishtar, the first book dedicated to providing an accessible analysis of the mythology and image of this complex goddess. Dr. Pryke is a lecturer and honorary research associate at the University of Sydney and was one of five recipients of the IAA Fund–an international award for promising scholars in the field of Assyriology. Her research interests include narrative literature in the ancient Near East and the interplay between humanity, animality and divinity in ancient myths and epics.
Dipa: I’m curious to know—how did you first discover the Goddess Ishtar? What inspired you to set out on a path to write a book on this Mesopotamian goddess who seemingly appears to be lost to the modern world?
Louise: I found my way to Ishtar while writing my Honours thesis at the University of Sydney. I was looking at how the Egyptian goddess Isis and our Mesopotamian Ishtar have been compared in the writing of history. I was astonished by how little scholarly works have been written on this remarkable goddess of love—Ishtar was revered across the broad geographical reach of Mesopotamia for a period spanning thousands of years. Working to bring this ancient deity to a broader modern awareness has proved a fascinating topic of research.
Dipa: Ishtar was associated with Planet Venus. Why was she was associated with this planet? What was its significance in the ancient world?
Louise: Ishtar’s family are at the top of the celestial order. Her twin brother is Shamash, the Mesopotamian sun god, and her father is the moon god, Sin. Ishtar’s worship as Venus, the morning and evening star, is a feature of her image from a very early time: as early as the fourth millennium BCE. The dualistic nature of the planet Venus, appearing in the morning and evening, may have influenced the goddess’ characterisation in myth, where she is associated with love and war.
Dipa: Known as the Queen of Heaven, the Goddess Ishtar was associated with love, beauty, sex, war, justice and political power. She was also associated with a variety of sexual rites. In a world where goddesses are typically portrayed as dutiful mothers—how would you describe Ishtar as a Goddess?
Louise: Powerful, passionate, and dynamic!
For the legendary scholar of the Ancient Near East, Thorkild Jacobsen, Ishtar was “all women and of infinite variety.” While she is the mother of two deities, her maternal role doesn’t define her—and she’s very rarely dutiful! Instead, it’s Ishtar’s connection to love that infuses every aspect of her image.
The goddess’ love is an extremely powerful force in antiquity with the potential to provide ‘life’ and blessings, to heal, and even to care for her loved ones after death.
Goddess, protector of the powers, and giver –The Exaltation of Innana by Enheduanna
Behold your necklaced hand and fingers. Yours,
The gathering of the powers and yours to clasp
Against your breast.
Dipa: Enheduanna is known as the world’s earliest known poet on record. She was a high priestess of the Goddess Innana—also known as Ishtar. How was Ishtar worshipped in the ancient era? What were some of the rituals associated with her worship?
Louise: Enheduanna is indeed the world’s first individually identified author. As well as being a priestess, she was also a princess as the daughter of Sargon of Akkad (‘Sargon the Great’). Ishtar was worshipped with songs of praise, festivals, and libations. One of the archaeological sources for the poetess is the Disk of Enheduanna, which is inscribed with her dedication.
The Disk shows the priestess with three male attendants, and she appears to pour a libation at an altar. Enheduanna also worshipped the goddess by composing literary works in her honour. These works include the famous Exaltation of Inanna, a collection of forty-two temple hymns, and a myth where the goddess goes to war against a cheeky mountain.
Dipa: Poems and hymns have played a central role in the act of worship for millennia. Even in the modern era, many writers–myself included–feel they were ‘called’ to write in this ‘genre’. How do you see Enheduanna’s role in this? On that note, how do you perceive your own?
Louise: Enheduanna’s role is so important! During her life, her father (King Sargon) was the first ruler to unite northern and southern Mesopotamia. The earlier Sumerian culture and its language were at a point of transition, along with the goddess herself who was inseparably linked to these traditions. Enheduanna’s work preserves the Sumerian literary culture while re-establishing the centrality of the love goddess’ place in religious life.
It’s an interesting question! I like to use my role as an historian to give a voice to lost, overlooked, or mispresented figures and cultures from the past—kind of like a very bookish detective! Ishtar has indeed been overlooked and misrepresented by the scholarly tradition, and I’m pleased to be part of the current movement to bring her to a broader awareness.
Dipa: In the ancient world, many women held important positions in religious worship. We, in the modern world, consider ourselves having made ‘progress’. How can we reconcile this contradiction?
Louise: Ishtar has much to offer modern audiences in reframing how we think about women and religion in the past (and present). Women in the modern day have inarguably made progress in terms of many critical issues, such as suffrage. In reflecting on our “progress”, however, it’s easy to create a misleading contrast with the women of the past.
Developing a greater appreciation of the diverse experiences of ancient women in their religious lives offers a more accurate view of the past. This gives a more accurate basis for comparison with the present day, and a clearer context for the future.