Joshua J. Mark
published on 15 October 2010
Inanna is the ancient Sumerian goddess of love, procreation, and of war who later, became identified with the Akkadian goddess Ishtar, and further with the Phoenician Astarte and the Greek Aphrodite, among others. She was also seen as the bright star of the morning and evening, Venus. Through the work of the Akkadian poet and high priestess, Enheduanna (2285-2250 BCE) daughter of Sargon of Akkad (who conquered Mesopotamia and built the great Akkadian Empire) Inanna was carefully identified with Ishtar and rose in prominence from a local vegetative deity of the Sumerian people to the Queen of Heaven and the most popular goddess in all of Mesopotamia. The historian Gwendoly Leick writes:
Inanna was the foremost Sumerian goddess, patron deity of Uruk. Her name was written with a sign that represents a reed stalk tied into a loop at the top. This appears in the very earliest written texts from the mid-fourth millenium B.C. She is also mentioned in all the early god lists among the four main deities, along with Anu, Enki, and Enlil. In the royal inscriptions of the early Dynastic Period, Inanna is often invoked as the special protectress of kings. Sargon of Akkad claimed her support in battle and politics. It appears that it was during the third millenium that the goddess acquired martial aspects that may derive from a syncretism with the Semitic deity Ishtar. Inanna's main sanctuary was the Eanna (`House of Heaven') at Uruk, although she had temples or chapels in most cities (89).
The goddess appears in many ancient Mesopotamian myths, most notably Inanna and the Huluppu-Tree (an early creation myth), Inanna and the God of Wisdom (in which she brings knowledge and culture to the city of Uruk after receiving the gifts from the god of wisdom, Enki, while he is drunk), The Courtship of Inanna and Dumuzi (the tale of Inanna’s marriage to the vegetation-god), and the best known poem The Descent of Inanna (c. 1900-1600 BCE) in which the Queen of Heaven journeys to the underworld. Besides these works and short hymns to Inanna, she is also known through the longer, more intricate hymns written by Enheduanna: Inninsagurra, Ninmesarra, and Inninmehusa, which translate as 'The Great-Hearted Mistress’, The Exaltation of Inanna’, and 'Goddess of the Fearsome Powers’, all three powerful hymns which influenced generations of Mesopotamians in their understanding of the goddess and elevated her status from a local to a supreme deity. Her personal ambition is attested to in a number of the works which feature her. Dr. Jeremy Black writes, "Violent and lusting after power, she stands beside her favourite kings as they fight. In a Sumerian poem, Inanna campaigns against Mount Egih. Her journey to Eridu to obtain the meh and her descent to the underworld are both described as intended to extend her power" (108). This ambition can also be seen through her manipulation of Gilgamesh in the tale of the Huluppu Tree: when she cannot handle the problem of the pests which infest the tree, and fails to find help from her brother Utu, she attracts the attention of Gilgamesh who takes care of the situation.
In the famous Sumerian/Babylonian poem The Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 2700 - 1400 BCE) Inanna appears as Ishtar and, in Phoenician mythology, as Astarte. In the Greek myth The Judgment of Paris, but also in other tales of the ancient Greeks, the goddess Aphrodite is traditionally associated with Inanna through her great beauty and sensuality. Inanna is always depicted as a young woman, never as mother or faithful wife, who fully aware of her feminine power confronts life boldly and without fear of how she will be perceived by others, especially by men. She is often shown in the company of a lion, denoting courage, and sometimes even riding the lion as a sign of her supremacy over the 'king of beasts’. In her aspect as goddess of war, Inanna is depicted in the armor of a male, in battle dress (statues frequently show her armed with a quiver and bow) and so is also identified with the Greek goddess Athena Nike. She has been further associated with the goddess Demeter as a fertility deity, and with Persephone as a dying-and-reviving god figure, no doubt a carry-over from her original incarnation as a rural goddess of agriculture.
Although some writers have claimed otherwise, Inanna was never seen as a Mother Goddess in the way that other deities, such as Ninsurhaga, were. Dr. Black notes, "One aspect of [Inanna's personality] is that of a goddess of love and sexual behaviour, but especially connected with extra-marital sex and - in a way which has not been fully researched - with prostitution. Inanna is not a goddess of marriage, nor is she a mother goddess. The so-called Sacred Marriage in which she participates carries no overtones of moral implication for human marriages" (108). Rather, Inanna is an independent woman who does as she pleases, quite often without regard for consequences, and either manipulates, threatens, or tries to seduce others to fix the difficulties her behaviour creates. There are no poems, tales, or legends which in any way portray her differently and none which depict her in the role of the Mother Goddess.
In the Mesopotamian pantheon Inanna is the daughter of the sky-god An, but also is depicted as the daughter of the moon-goddess Ningal and her consort Nanna. Alternately, she is the daughter of the god of wisdom Enki and sister to Ereshkigal (goddess of the underworld) and Utu the sun god. Her husband Dumuzi transforms in time (as Inanna does into Ishtar) into the dying-and-reviving god Tammuz and, annually at the autumn equinox, the people would celebrate the sacred marriage rites of Inanna and Dumuzi as he returned from the underworld to mate again with Inanna, thus bringing the land to life. Her temples throughout Mesopotamia were numerous, and sacred prostitutes of both genders were employed to ensure the fertility of the earth and the continued prosperity of the communities.
- Black, J. & Green, A. Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia. University of Texas Press, 1992.
- Durant, W. Our Oriental Heritage. Simon & Schuster, 1954.
- Jacobsen, T. The Treasures of Darkness. Yale University Press, 1978.
- Leick, G. The A to Z of Mesopotamia. Scarecrow Press, 2010.
- Wolkstein, D. & Kramer, S.N. Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth. Harper Perennial, 1983.
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