In the cosmology of ancient Mesopotamia, it was believed that humans were created by the deities to perform their labours and monarchs were chosen to supervise this work in the earthly realm. The world of the divine and life on earth were governed by a hierarchy where deities dominated over human existence. In this ancient worldview, kings who were chosen by the divine functioned as intermediaries. The king was a vertex–a point where the horizontal hierarchy of divine order intersected with life on earth.
After a king passed away, the prevailing structure and system had a tendency to leave behind a vacuum. This often led to internal and external conflicts as well as to the destruction of the prevailing societal order. This was because the king’s role came with the tremendous weight of the responsibility that had been entrusted to him; as opposed to a thirst and lust for power. The throne, in essence, granted the king semi-divine status; but also bound him to follow the dictates of the deities. This was a culture that viewed deities as the creators of life as well as the ones who maintained order in the universe.
Intrinsically embedded into this order was the capacity and need for disorder.
Inanna, also known as Ishtar, was a Goddess associated with divine justice–as well as the one who presented a direct challenge to it. She was considered unlike any of the other Goddesses in the Mesopotamian pantheon due to her ability to create upheaval and disorder in her quest for divine justice.
The Path of Justice
Justice was a complex concept in ancient Mesopotamia and vengeance was not viewed as an antithesis to order; but rather, as a necessary component in the creation of justice. It is Inanna’s deep emotional capacity for both love and war that reshapes the world into a new world order after a period of disorder.
Inanna was known to seek retribution for regrettable commonplace scenarios that were tolerated by conventional laws. Her intrinsic capacity for vengeance is motivated by both desire as well as anger. Even before the Goddess enacts revenge, she is aware of the consequences that it will have on her targets. At the heart of Inanna’s quest for justice is a provocation. A provocation spurred on by perceived acts of disloyalty, slights to her status, romantic mishaps, sexual transgressions and even acts of violence.
Inanna’s initial reaction to provocation is anger, distress or a combination of both. The emotional response of this particular Goddess is important in that it foreshadows her attempts to gain retribution for her perceived injury. While many would consider her emotional response unworthy of the ‘crime’ in question; it neither diminishes her emotional response nor her capacity to use those emotions to rally herself and others into a particular course of action.
Inanna not only possessed a deep awareness of how the world works, but also understood that she could either enforce or subvert the established order depending on her aims and ambitions. The Goddess’ role as an arbitrator of divine justice is reinforced through the sentencing of the attacker. While Ishtar’s response initially has the consequence of further exacerbating the problem, she later reestablishes order by punishing the initial violation. Once revenge has been enacted, order is ultimately restored.
While Inanna is a goddess of both love and war, her arbitration of justice follows the structure of a legal proceeding. Firstly, there is a crime. Secondly, there is a trial where a sentence is pronounced and punishment is carried out. And lastly, there is the legal aspect of a satisfactory compensation for the crime.
A War of Vengeance
A woman’s war cry and her capacity for vengeance has been a recurring theme and warning in both mythology and folklore from around the world. In ancient Mesopotamia, women like Inanna were worshipped and revered for their ambition, their power and their quest to enact justice.
Compared to the other Goddesses of her time, Inanna was unique in that while she had two children, she was never worshipped as a ‘Mother’ Goddess associated with children and childbirth. Rather, Ishtar was a rain goddess associated with war. Storms were seen as necessary for the fertility of the land–but could also be a powerfully destructive force.
The chaotic nature of war creates a new reality in its wake, but the outcome can be vastly different depending on who prevails after the conflict. At times, Ishtar is even described as bloodthirsty, encouraging the King Ishme-Dagan to go to war under the promise of her protection and mercy.
In our modern world, however, women who embody the traits of vengeance are vilified for seeking to address a wrongdoing that had occurred. Ishtar’s message to the world, to the kings she watched over and to all women was brutally clear. Sometimes the world will not give you justice. You will have to create it for yourself. At the heart of Inanna’s quest is her ambition for more than what she had initially been allotted and what she believed she rightfully deserved.
Some scholars claim that the Goddess Inanna has vanished into anonymity and oblivion. I, however, believe she continues to live on in the hearts of women who rebel against the unjust social order and long to be free.