How do female leaders differ from male leaders? Do they even differ? In the case of the Goddess Ishtar, who is also known as Inanna, she differed greatly from the pantheon Goddesses of the era by being one that is neither associated with motherhood nor with virginity. While she did have two children, her role as a mother is neither celebrated nor honoured in ancient Mesopotamian literature.

Why does Ishtar’s legacy mark such a distinct departure from the traditional role of a woman as a maiden and as a mother? While to modern scholars, the worship of Ishtar has faded into obscurity and anonymity, I argue that the Goddess lives on in the spirit of women who pursue their own bliss and do not permit their biological inheritance to define or shape their life’s legacy.

Ishtar is a complex goddess and one that inspires us not to rethink, but to actually define for ourselves the unique power of female leadership.

The Voice of Venus

Ishtar’s voice is revealed, not just through her speech, but also through her gift of song. The musical quality of her voice allowed her to lament in order to express her grief, as well as to sing in celebration of the joyous events of her life. Her mastery over the use of her voice included: the ability to whisper and to coax; as well as to abuse and to threaten. One does not exist without the other for it cannot. It is this very duality that never allowed her to be defined by anyone or anything.

In certain exchanges, she used her voice to warn–warn that she would scream. Ishtar is said to have possessed the ability to howl and to shriek. It is also said that her voice could cause the Land to tremble. Her cries could cover the heavens and the earth and she was known to use this voice against dangerous adversaries. The threats she made had the power to make others submit to her demands.

Ishtar’s power of speech, relayed through her spoken voice, was critical to her role as a Mesopotamian Goddess. Her words, and not her deeds, are what, in many ways, defined her ever-changing identity. Her voice was one of her most powerful attributes. She used it to decree destinies, enact blessings and curses, to enlist support as well as to express the powerful emotions that arose within her.

Ishtar’s words, in essence, had to power to influence and transform the world which she inhabited. At times, the boldness she embodied made her seem and appear dangerous. Not a woman to trifle with, it was her voice that meted out her vision of justice.

The order of the Universe is, was, and has always been a morally charged structure and the Goddess was involved in judging between good and bad actions and decreeing destinies accordingly. Her word, which was authoritative and binding, was a power gifted to her by Enki, the God of Wisdom. Her words had an especially close connection with either maintaining the world order or establishing a new one. In the enactment of justice, she was known for her vengeance against towards those who tried to hurt her.

The eight-pointed star of Ishtar


The martial union between Ishtar and Dumuzi had a transformative impact on the status and personal identity of Ishtar as well as their respective families. The happiness of the union is also shared with the larger community. Their marriage was a ‘lawful union’ for it existed within an ordered societal structure where limits were placed on the types of intimacy that were permissible between the various relationships that existed within a particular community.

The sanctity of their marriage was solidified through the expectation of exclusivity in the relationship; with Ishtar insisting on an oath of fidelity from Dumuzi; promising him not to touch another for as long as he lives. In the ancient texts, however, Dumuzi’s perspective of the union is not seen. It appears he does not undergo the same physical or psychological preparations for the union the way his partner does.

Allusions towards incest were commonplace in ancient texts. Utu, Inanna’s brother, makes it clear that he will not share the bed with her himself; while Dumuzi, on the other hand, invites his sister to join him in an incestuous relationship.

Through this, we can conclude that the power of Ishtar’s words were stronger and far more potent than Dumuzi’s. When she discovers that she cannot trust what he has said, the retributory outcome can be presumed to be one where trust is lost and where his word, unlike Ishtar’s, have no weight.

Geshtinanna, Dumuzi’s sister, was the ancient goddess of agriculture, fertility, and dream interpretation. Unlike Ishtar, however, Geshtinanna was a mother goddess. The story of the two siblings appears in the tale of Dumuzi’s Dream. The tale recounts an ominous dream, in which Dumuzi foresees his own death. Much of the story involves Dumuzi trying to escape death in the form of demons, while his sister tries to protect him. Ultimately, Geshtinanna is unsuccessful and Dumuzi dies.

There were many other deities as well as humans who came to inhabit the stories that were told as a result of Ishtar’s marriage to Dumuzi. Their marriage was not a private affair and was susceptible to numerous outside influences, quarrels as well as deep feelings of despair and alienation.

The early intimacy of marriage, which is expressed and experienced between the Divine Couple–Ishtar and Dumuzi–is expressed through what can be described as a duet. The duo use analogies of agricultural abundance to celebrate and glorify the sensual qualities of each other with references made to apples, beer, wine and dairy products.

Despite the repeated emphasis on agricultural abundance, the marriage of Dumuzi and Ishtar does not end in the begetting of children. While their marriage is consummated and sensual pleasures are enjoyed, theirs remains ‘a fruitless union’.

In the Ancient Near East, sex was viewed as both a destructive and creative force. The two overriding areas of concern in the ancient era were: the attempt to harness the life-giving power of desire and the effort to contain or minimise the damaging aspects of that power. While Ishtar’s role as ‘a goddess of sexuality’ has been dramatised in recent years, the texts, however, point out that not all sexual behaviour was appropriate. When Ishtar finds Dumuzi enjoying the company of slave girls, she is enraged and decides not to protect him and it is sometime before she has a change of heart.

Ishtar’s role in her husband’s death shows her disdain and disregard for disloyalty and her vengeful nature when a promise that was made is broken. While there are no shortage of stories–in the ancient world or in the modern world–regarding the vengeance that ensues when a woman is wronged; Ishtar’s story in particular sheds light on the impact that her act of vengeance can have, not just on her husband, but the repercussions it has on the community at large.

The concept of a sacred marriage, in which a king was married to a goddess, was a complex issue. The mingling of sex with religious and spiritual concerns in Mesopotamian myth is not unique for sex has always been a central tenet of religious law, regardless of the era.

While our laws regarding marriage have changed many times over through the course of history, the fact remains that there is a sense that once an intimate bond is established–be it between two people in a close setting or in a marriage–there are certain types of behaviours that are deemed inappropriate.

It is easy to conclude that Ishtar stuck to her end of the bargain and that Dumuzi did not. But perhaps this speaks to a larger trend that the masculine principle is, on average, less prepared for the demands of married life than the feminine principle. Dumuzi’s behaviour is not too different to a bachelor who has not worked out that he is now married; and that there are certain responsibilities that he now has towards his wife that go beyond sensual consummation. As theirs was a lawful marriage and not a simple tryst, it required more heightened responsibilities than what Dumuzi was aware of or accustomed to.

As numerous portions of the story are missing or destroyed, we will have to do our best and use our imagination to fill in the missing puzzle pieces.

Shakespeare may have written, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” but in Dumuzi’s case, angering Ishtar literally landed him there. Ishtar’s capacity for vengeance, however, is not driven or motivated by emotions alone, but rooted in maintaining structure–of what is owed and of what is due to her.

While a lot has been written and re-imagined about Ishtar in recent years, to me, she was a politician, through and through. While her marriage did play a role in her life story, it never defined her role in the political arena and in some sense it could even be said that her marriage to Dumuzi was nothing more than a marriage that did not work out.

By the time we get to the Epic of Gilgamesh, there is another man–or should I say several other men–who have come into Ishtar’s life. Dumuzi takes his place as the lover of Inanna’s youth, and is for the most part, becomes ancient history. The entire epic is too long to go into here and would take several ancient history courses to place into its proper context, but the short of it is that Ishtar moves on.

At one point, she even makes advances towards Gilgamesh. In response, Gilgamesh calls up the litany of her failed relationships with other lovers and says he wants no part of that. But he does it in an unrestrained way and is said to humiliate Ishtar in the process.

But then again, which politician has never encountered humiliation?

The Legacy of Ishtar

You could say that Ishtar’s legacy is no different to that of a male leader. She was an excellent diplomat and speaker and had a fair few failed marriages–or should I say, attempts at marriage. She encounters her failures, her rejections and her humiliations.

The first conclusion I came down to was that there were fewer female leaders than male leaders, but they did exist–even back then in ancient Mesopotamia. The other conclusion I came down to was not that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned; but more that Ishtar’s life had always been her own and that she had lived it on her own terms, without too much regard for anyone other than those who had been loyal to her.

Was she her own woman? I’d say yes. Did she enjoy her sensuality with her partners while it lasted? I’d also say yes. Did she crave a companion and not find one that was suitable? I’d say yes. Was she victorious in war? I’d say yes. Was there anything I found particularly unique about Ishtar’s legacy? In comparison to other women of the ancient era, I’d also say yes.

But in comparison to other men? The answer for me, was a clear and unequivocal, no.

The legacy of a man is not defined by him being a man; and therefore the legacy of a woman is not defined by it either.

A politician, at the end of the day, is still a politician.

The End.

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