When you know Ishtar and when you study her tale as a politician–because that’s who she was, a politician–you realise that one of her strategies as a politician was to form alliances with the right people.
A long long time ago, before Aphrodite and Venus, there was Ishtar. The veneration of Ishtar began in 4th millennium BCE. She was worshipped in antiquity as Venus, the morning and evening star. Ishtar was the Goddess of both Love and War. You may be wondering, how can these two contradictory aspects exist in one goddess?
Ishtar would choose her alliances and dalliances based on her political needs. The so-called Sumerian love poetry is a distraction. The catalyst for Ishtar’s thrust into political life is a story, a story that is the precursor for the Cain and Abel narrative in the Book of Genesis. It is where Ishtar has to choose between a farmer named Enkimdu and a shepherd named Dumuzi. Ishtar chooses the shepherd.
The alliance between the two potential marriage partners is designed to be a two-way street. Why were a particular bride and groom selected for each other? It was important for the kingdom, the land and a cohesive political legacy.
During antiquity, kings and queens had to marry someone of the right stature. Ishtar couldn’t choose a commoner, even if she preferred him. In the texts, it is stated that while Ishtar preferred the farmer, she still chooses the shepherd. Her family’s opinion and advise colours her decision-making process.
During this milieu of Sumerian society, livestock was preferable and valued more highly than crops. Livestock, particularly bulls and other beasts of burden, also allowed ancient Mesopotamians to make their fields more productive. It was the ancient equivalent of having a tractor.
Unfortunately, Dumuzi, her chosen shepherd, doesn’t take the union as seriously as Ishtar does. After they are married, he continues to frolic around. When Ishtar finds out, she’s not too happy about it. This leads to a whole long mythological tale of all kinds of crazy things happening. Ishtar faces many disappointments. But at the point of groom selection, she had no choice but to choose a groom of the right stature.
In the ancient world, when two people got married, it was also a marriage between the two families. It wasn’t a, “I like you, you like me, let’s get married.” Even till today, business and political interests do play a role in the choice of a marriage spouse. By choosing to simply follow our hearts, how many marriages have failed once the initial euphoria has ended? There is no foundation upon which the marriage can stand. The right marriage and the right partnership is the one that is deemed to be good for society.
Ishtar was a Queen who had to take a myriad of different factors into account when she chose her spouse. Nevertheless, her chief consideration was: how can we have the most productive relationships? This includes our in-laws. We inherit, you could say, or become a part of a new family, through marriage. Ishtar’s marriage-making decision hinges upon forging alliances that are for the good of society-at-large.
Recently, I had the opportunity to witness a political scandal unfold before my very eyes. It was painful to watch. As a former educator, I was used to hearing such sordid stories in a private setting. I’m immune and you could even say jaded to such stories. In the political arena, however, it becomes a scandal that takes centre stage. Something that is ordinarily dealt with in private ends up on the public’s radar and now everyone is privy to all the little details of your personal matters.
In the political arena, scandals are handled very differently than if it was a private family affair. The repercussions for such scandals are far greater as they impact society. Lawmakers have to investigate the scandal, they have to find out what happened, how it happened, who was in charge, and who was involved–and all of this costs taxpayers money.
Common private mishaps morph into monstrosities. At this stage, we are no longer simply the Self or even a small part of a family unit, we are part of a collective. As part of this collective, we have to keep in mind the needs of the collective.
In the story of Ishtar, her blessings are metaphorically seen as connected to the abundance of the land; and her curses are seen metaphorically as causing famine or strife. In the myth, Ishtar proclaims that with her support (which the texts call blessings), the king is ensured success. Without her, his throne is at stake.
While Ishtar is an extremely powerful woman in her own right, that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t face disappointments or losses throughout her journey. Through Ishtar’s political legacy, we gain exposure to overarching themes such as: justice, vengeance and retribution. This in turn forces us to view the legal system through a lens of reward and punishment.
The fundamental purpose of a legal system is to put down in writing that this is how it is and this is how it shall be. These written documents become binding–even to people who were not privy to the signing of these documents. It speaks to our contractual obligations, even if we didn’t personally enter into them. It isn’t about the individual’s needs. It is the collective needs of the people that need to be taken into account, even when we make a deeply personal choice. Compartmentalisation is not possible.
Ishtar’s political legacy reminds us that it is not the personal, but the political, that we need prioritise when we choose our alliances and dalliances.