Detail of a modern depiction of the goddess Ishtar.

Love is a Battlefield: The Legend of Ishtar, First Goddess of Love and War

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Louise Pryke /The Conversation

As singer Pat Benatar once noted, love is a battlefield . Such use of military words to express intimate, affectionate emotions is likely related to love’s capacity to bruise and confuse .

So it was with the world’s first goddess of love and war, Ishtar, and her lover Tammuz. In ancient Mesopotamia - roughly corresponding to modern Iraq, parts of Iran, Syria, Kuwait and Turkey - love was a powerful force, capable of upending earthly order and producing sharp changes in status.

Ishtar holding her symbol

Ishtar holding her symbol ( CC BY 2.5 )

From Aphrodite to Wonder Woman , we continue to be fascinated by powerful female protagonists, an interest that can be traced back to our earliest written records. Ishtar (the word comes from the Akkadian language; she was known as Inanna in Sumerian) was the first deity for which we have written evidence. She was closely related to romantic love, but also familial love, the loving bonds between communities, and sexual love.

She was also a warrior deity with a potent capacity for vengeance, as her lover would find out. These seemingly opposing personalities have raised scholarly eyebrows both ancient and modern. Ishtar is a love deity who is terrifying on the battlefield. Her beauty is the subject of love poetry, and her rage likened to a destructive storm. But in her capacity to shape destinies and fortunes, they are two sides of the same coin.

Playing with Fate

The earliest poems to Ishtar were written by Enheduanna — the world’s first individually identified author . Enheduanna (circa 2300 BCE) is generally considered to have been an historical figure living in Ur, one of the world’s oldest urban centres . She was a priestess to the moon god and the daughter of Sargon of Akkad (“Sargon the Great”), the first ruler to unite northern and southern Mesopotamia and found the powerful Akkadian empire.

The sources for Enheduanna’s life and career are historical, literary and archaeological: she commissioned an alabaster relief, the Disk of Enheduanna , which is inscribed with her dedication.

The Disk of Enheduanna. Object B16665. Courtesy of the Penn Museum.

The Disk of Enheduanna. Object B16665. Courtesy of the Penn Museum.

In her poetry, Enheduanna reveals the diversity of Ishtar, including her superlative capacity for armed conflict and her ability to bring about abrupt changes in status and fortune. This ability was well suited to a goddess of love and war — both areas where swift reversals can take place, utterly changing the state of play.

On the battlefield, the goddess’s ability to fix fates ensured victory. In love magic, Ishtar’s power could alter romantic fortunes. In ancient love charms, her influence was invoked to win, or indeed, capture, the heart (and other body parts) of a desired lover.

Dressed for Success

Ishtar is described (by herself in love poems, and by others) as a beautiful, young woman. Her lover, Tammuz, compliments her on the beauty of her eyes, a seemingly timeless form of flattery, with a literary history stretching back to around 2100 BCE. Ishtar and Tammuz are the protagonists of one of the world’s first love stories. In love poetry telling of their courtship, the two have a very affectionate relationship. But like many great love stories, their union ends tragically.

Ishtar’s Midnight Courtship, from Ishtar and Izdubar, the epic of Babylon, 1884.

Ishtar’s Midnight Courtship, from Ishtar and Izdubar, the epic of Babylon, 1884. ( The British Library )

The most famous account of this myth is Ishtar’s Descent to the Underworld, author unknown. This ancient narrative, surviving in Sumerian and Akkadian versions (both written in cuneiform ), was only deciphered in the 19th Century. It begins with Ishtar’s decision to visit the realm of her sister, Ereshkigal, Queen of the Underworld.

Ostensibly, she is visiting her sister to mourn the death of her brother-in-law, possibly the Bull of Heaven who appears in the Epic of Gilgamesh . But the other gods in the story view the move as an attempt at a hostile takeover. Ishtar was known for being extremely ambitious; in another myth she storms the heavens and stages a divine coup.

Old Babylonian period Queen of Night relief, often considered to represent an aspect of Ishtar.

Old Babylonian period Queen of Night relief, often considered to represent an aspect of Ishtar. ( Public Domain )

Any questions over Ishtar’s motives are settled by the description of her preparation for her journey. She carefully applies make-up and jewellery, and wraps herself in beautiful clothing. Ishtar is frequently described applying cosmetics and enhancing her appearance before undertaking battle, or before meeting a lover. Much as a male warrior may put on a breast plate before a fight, Ishtar lines her eyes with mascara. She’s the original power-dresser: her enrichment of her beauty and her choice of clothes accentuate her potency.

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