chapter  7
20 Pages

ISHTAR: The embodiment of tropes

Ancient goddesses have been the subject of both scholarly and popular fascination ever since the earliest days of archaeological discovery in Babylonia and Assyria. Exoticising fantasies of cultic prostitution and illicit sexual practices were woven around historically attested female deities in the scholarly literature, and these descriptions eventually became part of a larger imaginative picture of Oriental antiquity. Although a number of female deities were venerated in ancient Mesopotamian religion, none has attracted as much attention in the modern historical accounts of Mesopotamia as Ishtar, the goddess of love and war. Even in Classical antiquity there appears to have been a particular fascination with this goddess in her various guises and identifications with other Near Eastern goddessess such as Astarte, Anat, Asherah, and Ashtaroth, a fascination that was directly linked to the lurid sexual practices attributed to her cult. In more recent historical and Assyriological scholarship, Ishtar has come to be discussed as something of an interpretive challenge for scholarship. Her enigmatic, contradictory character and the shockingly explicit sexual language of her religious hymns have come to fascinate feminist scholars and traditional Assyriologists alike. In this chapter, I shall focus on the goddess Ishtar in order to explore her place within Mesopotamia’s cultural order. In doing so I shall diverge from the traditional reading of mythology as narrative tales, and a literary reading of hymns and prayers as poetry. Instead, I shall consider the cultural meanings and values embodied in the figure of Ishtar. Because mythology is an important aspect of cultural signifying systems, I shall analyse Ishtar as part of this system of signs. At the same time, I shall consider how modern conceptions of gendered categories of behaviour have influenced readings of this deity in scholarship.