Inanna was the deity revered as the planet Venus in ancient Sumer, located between the river Tigris and Euphrates, in present-day Iraq. Known as Ishtar to the Accadians to the north, she held an enduring appeal for the people of ancient Mesopotamia, her cult lasting nigh on 4000 years. She was goddess of love, sexuality and war.
Accompanying her brother Utu the sun god, appearing now at twilight now at dawn, she governed the borderlands, the magical, liminal realm between day and night, darkness and light. Radiantly beautiful yet bloodthirsty and voracious, impatient yet serene, callous, heartless yet loving spouse, it’s easy to see why Jacobsen refers to her as ‘of infinite variety.’(1) But before embarking on an analysis of the cultural icon that is Inanna, a brief introduction to Sumerian cosmology and cosmogony is in order.
Inanna’s place in Sumerian cosmology
Sumerians believed the universe was made up of an-ki, heaven and earth. The earth was thought to be flat and heaven was conceived of as being enclosed top and bottom by a solid vault and surrounded by the primal waters. In between heaven and earth was lil, air, out of which the luminaries, planets and stars were created. Heaven and earth were thought to have been one, and once separated and once the heavenly bodies had been created, life on earth came into being.
Nammu was the goddess of the primeval sea and the original, primal mother who gave birth to heaven and earth, the cosmic mountain. Her anthropomorphic offspring were An, the sky deity and Ki the earth goddess. The fruit of their union was Enlil, Air god, who was responsible for separating sky and earth. The union of Ninlil, Lady of the Air and Enlil produced Nanna, Moon god, who in turn would go on to father Utu and Inanna with Ningal. So we see that Inanna is the great great grand daughter of the primal goddess of the deep and great grand daughter of Ki .(2)
By 2500 BCE Enlil was the ruler of the pantheon, though it seems likely that at an earlier stage An held that position and earlier still Ki held highest rank, as ‘her name often preceded that of Enki, god of the waters when the four gods were listed together’.(3) She was also known as the mother of wild beasts, Nintur, ‘lady birth hut’ and ‘the opener of the womb of all women’. The Sumerian term for ‘womb’, according to Jacobsen, is the ‘‘pen’ or ‘birth house’ of the inside’. He goes on to assert that, ‘She is also called “The lady of the womb ”(be-lit re-e-me) and her emblem, shaped like the Greek letter omega, has been convincingly interpreted from Egyptian parallels as a representation of the uterus of a cow.’(4) Indeed, she presided over all women’s mysteries. As great cow goddess, Ki-Ninhursag was described as nourishing the early Sumerian rulers with her milk in countless royal inscriptions and royal hymns.
Inanna as Queen of Heaven and Earth
The goddess associated with the dazzling, luminous body of the planet Venus in ancient Mesopotamia is sometimes seen as encompassing the whole of the heavens. Then the zodiac is described as her girdle and she proudly asserts, ‘My father gave me the heavens, / gave me the earth…/..the heavens he set as a crown upon my head, / the earth he set as sandals on my feet.’(5)
Similarly, in Enheduanna’s hymn to the goddess known as Nin-me-sara (Lady of countless cosmic powers), Inanna is referred to as ‘high as heaven’ and ‘wide as the earth.’(6)
Rochberg writes of the notion of the heavens being symbolically anchored to earth by means of a rope, which she traces back to an Early Dynastic hymn from the 3rd millennium. Quoting from an article by A R George we see Ishtar described as the goddess ‘who holds the connecting link of all heaven and earth.’(7) She describes herself thus, ‘I (Ishtar) am in possession of the symbols of the divine offices, in my hands I hold the lead-rope of heaven.’(8) This lead rope passed through the nose of an animal or indeed the nose of a prisoner of war was seen as synonymous with this cosmological feature. Of the Bull of Heaven in the Epic of Gilgamesh we read, ‘Anu heard this speech of Ishtar / the Bull of Heaven’s nose-rope he placed in her hands.’(9)
There is a not insignificant connection here to the Sumerian temple, which evolved from the cow-byre and sheepfold, associated with Ki-Ninhursag, Inanna’s grandmother as Nintur, into the ziggurat temple representative of the original cosmic mountain. The ziggurat of Ur-Nammu, dating from the end of the third millennium BCE, had three levels, representing the triune underworld, earth and heaven. Levy notes that the temple was also known as ‘ the Bond of Heaven and Earth (Dur-an-ki)…This bond, like the tree pillar, connected Heaven and Earth, and the ziggurat was thus conceived as a kind of Jacob’s ladder..’. (10)
In a variation on the theme she is depicted as goddess of rains, thunderstorms and devastating floods. In the poem entitled ‘Loud Thundering Storm’ she is addressed thus, ‘Proud Queen of the Earth Gods, Supreme among the Heaven Gods, / Loud Thundering Storm, you pour your rain over all the lands and all the people. / You make the heavens tremble and the earth quake.’(11)
In this dark aspect she appears on cylinder seals accompanied by the lion-headed thunder bird Imdugud, also linked to Ninurta, god of thunder storms and Ishkur, another of her brothers.
There seems to be a link here to her facet as goddess of war, hence Nor Hall’s description of her as a symbol of ‘the creative submission to the demands of instinct, to the chaos of nature.’(12)
The New Year Festival sacred to Inanna
In the temples of all the major city-states of ancient Mesopotamia, daily offerings were laid before the tutelary deities in the form of food, libations and incense. There were a great many festivals; the calendar being lunar with an intercalary month to make up a 365 day year, regular feasts were held on the day of the new, waxing quarter, full and waning quarter moons.
For the people of Mesopotamia sexuality and procreation were sacred and the cult of Inanna centred on physical love and carnal union. This was viewed as a ritual of participation, a communing with the energy of the divine. ‘It was an expression of the divine because in their total abandonment to the sexual instinct inspired by the goddess, men and women offered themselves as the vehicle of her generative power.’(13)
At the first new moon after the vernal equinox the new year celebration began, a festival lasting 12 days and nights to usher in the lush new life budding and unfolding as the whole of nature began to burst into life once more. The central focus of the celebrations was the sacred precinct of the goddess, the Eanna, her temple, populated by priests, priestesses, castrates, hierodules, musicians and singers. The festivities culminated in a sacred rite known as the hieros gamos, probably enacted in the ziggurat by the high priestess, Inanna’s representative on earth and the King of Sumer.
Ordinarily, the people of Mesopotamia slept on mats on the floor, but it seems likely that for ritual purposes terracotta beds, inlaid with a woven basketry base were used. Wolkstein reports such beds being found at a cemetery site in Mari. Then rushes are placed upon the bed and sprinkled with sweet cedar oil. In the story of Enmerkar and Ensuhkesdanna two kings of Sumer vie for Inanna’s affections. In this ‘splendid bed..strewn with pure plants’, Inanna’s twin lions at head and foot, Enmerkar, King of Uruk lies with the goddess for thirty hours of ecstatic union.(14)
Stringed instruments, such as harps and lyres, were associated with potency and parallels are drawn in texts between the sound they make and the thunder of the storm god. That actual bulls were used to form the soundbox of lyres has been attested to in instruments excavated at the Royal Cemetery in Ur.
Texts testify to the sacred nature of these temple instruments – evidently offerings were laid before lyres and musicians had to ritually purify themselves before playing. Allusions to the tautness of the strings are found in Sumerian and Accadian love charms to ensure potency. It seems that the tambourine is also associated with sexual love and seduction; they feature amongst the mes which mysteriously materialise in the Boat of Heaven as Inanna docks triumphantly at Uruk and appear on cylinder seals held by nude females and in one example by Inanna herself.
During the festival the people of Sumer beat the holy drum, play the holy harp and wear the sword belt, dressed in their finery. Male prostitutes ‘drape the cloak of the gods about their shoulders.’(15)
There are games, competitions, skipping ropes and coloured cords. The young men carry hoops while the young women carry swords and the double edged axe. Rivkah Harris writes of Inanna’s cultic celebrations as being times of ‘disorder and antistructure, (16) akin to the traditional mayhem and pagan rites associated with the Beltane festival in Britain. ‘She is, one might say, externalized into unordered, carnivalesque celebration that demonstrates a reaching beyond the normal order of things and the breakdown of norms. The goddess’s festivals are institutionalised license. They celebrate and tolerate disorder.’(17)
Ritual theatre was performed with masks and costumes. In the Games text, at one time thought to be simply a list of children’s games, mention is made of improper speech, lewd and bawdy behaviour and flaunting of taboos. Rivkah Harris refers to what may be a shamanic element to the festival, where celebrants don lion masks perhaps in honour of the goddess Inanna in her guise as labbatu (lioness).(18)
Inanna as Union of Opposites
Part of Inanna’s enduring appeal lies in her bipolar nature. Hymns and texts portray her in her guise as evening star as associated with nightfall, sexual pleasure, the holy tavern, food and rest, whereas as morning star heralding the new day, her qualities are those of judgement and administration of justice, clarity and discrimination. One exception to this is a hymn mentioned by Jacobsen from the time of Iddin-Dagan of Isin which tells how at the new moon ‘she holds court for the gods to hear their petitions, how music is played for her and war games staged by her guardsmen attendants, ending in a mock parade of prisoners and a perhaps not so mock shedding of blood.’(19)
What is without doubt is that Inanna is able to embrace the opposite sides of her nature as evidenced in the hymn ‘Loud Thundering Storm’, where she is able to go from playing havoc with all heaven and earth, to serenely donning her royal robes, fastening ‘combat and battle to your side;/ You tie them into a girdle and let them rest.’(20) This done, she regally ascends to her royal throne alongside her husband Dumuzi, ready to decree the fate of ‘the gods of heaven and earth.’.(21) It is worth noting that this transformation occurs ‘On the seventh day when the crescent moon reaches its fullness ....' (22) Wolkstein points out that there appears to be a link between the wild, anarchic side of Inanna and the dark of the moon, which may also explain the new moon rites referred to above. ‘Thus the moment each month when the crescent moon took its shape was a time of great import for Sumer, for it symbolized the time when the raging Inanna purified herself and assumed her role as divine woman, wife of Dumuzi and guide to her people.’(23)
Additionally, Inanna is depicted as embodying both male and female qualities. She says, ‘Though I am a woman I am a noble young man..’ (24) Her androgyny is attested to in her cultic personnel, which included eunuchs and transvestites and during her festival young men carried hoops, a feminine symbol, while young women carried swords. The(25) In-nin-sa-gur-ra says, ‘She (Ishtar) [changes] the right side (male) into the left side (female), she [changes] the left side into the right side, she [turns] a man into a woman, she [turns] a woman into a man, she ador[ns] a man as a woman, she ador[ns] a woman as a man.’ For Sjoberg this merely refers to the changing roles of men and women in cult ceremonies, but given the world-turned-upside-down nature of her cultic festivities an element of gender role reversal does not seem unfeasible. As Harris says, Inanna was ‘a deity who incorporated fundamental and irreducible paradoxes.’ She argues that through her embodiment of these opposing qualities she succeeded in transcending them.
It is clear from the evidence of the many myths and hymns recorded in Sumer that Inanna was revered as Queen of heaven in her dual role as spouse of the sky god An and as giver of omens, ‘From the base to the zenith of heaven/ you are the great queen..’. (26) Descending from the heavens, she was the ‘cosmic force’(27) that awakened love in the hearts of men and women and quickened life on earth in her role as spouse of the vegetation god Dumuzi and queen of earth. She is both the chaos and raw power of nature and the radiance of the morning and evening star. She is undeniably majestic and at the same time intrinsically fragile, since she is destined forever to make the perilous descent to the underworld. But her cycle is perfect, she arises in perfectness!
In addition, as a reading of the stories of the Inanna cycle will reveal, Inanna is and has to be both canny and feisty, persuading her grandfather Enlil to bequeath her the divine offices in what is arguably a test of initiation. Part of her bipolarity can be found in the offices themselves, with their central notion of antithesis and contradiction. (28)
It goes without saying that, unlike her foremothers Ki and Nammu, her powers are not a given but something she has to stand up and fight for. And yet could she who holds the lead rope of heaven and earth, the original world tree, have originally been the all powerful matriarchal goddess? It is important not to lose sight of the fact that Inanna was revered for millennia and inevitably will have undergone many changes and may be an amalgamation of a number of goddesses. Arguably however, it is what became the essentially precarious nature of her situation that made her so compelling and enigmatic.
In an attempt to get to the bottom of this, let’s return for a moment to Inanna as planet Venus. Astronomically speaking, a key to understanding her essentially paradoxical nature lies in the phenomenon whereby as morning and evening star, she grows brighter and more brilliant even as she wanes.(29) Her strength and magnificence lie both in her beauty and the fact that despite her vulnerability she always returns triumphant. She can also be defined by the fact that she defies categorisation, dwelling as she does at the threshold, a place of becoming and changing, between night and day and also historically speaking, between matriarchy and patriarchy, ‘She represents the liminal, intermediate regions, and energies that cannot be contained or made certain and secure….she symbolizes consciousness of transitions and borders, places of intersection and crossing over..’. (30)
2. Kramer, Samuel Noah, The Sumerians, their History, Culture and Character, (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1963) [hereafter Kramer, Sumerians], p.123
4. Jacobsen, Darkness, p.107
5. Zimmern, H., Sumerische kultleider aus altbabylonischer Zeit, I-II, VS II, X (Leipzig, 1912-1913), no. 199 rev. I 8-9, 17-18 in Jacobsen, Darkness, p.138
6. Anon., ‘Nin-me-sara’ at www.angelfire.com/mi/enheduanna/Ninmesara.html [accessed on 24 November 2006]
7. Rochberg, Francesca, The Heavenly Writing ( Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004)
9. George, Andrew, The Epic of Gilgamesh ( London: Allen Lane The Penguin Press, 1999) [hereafter George,Gilgamesh], p. 51
10. Levy, Gertrude Rachel, The Gate of Horn (London: Faber and Faber, 1948), p.169
11. Wolkstein, Diane and Samuel Kramer, Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth (New York: Harper and Row, 1983) [hereafter Wolkstein, Inanna], p95
13. Baring, Goddess, p.197
14. Berlin, Adele, Enmerkar and Ensuhkesdanna (Philadelphia: The University Museum, 1979) p.45, in Wolkstein, Inanna, p.154
15. Wolkstein, Inanna, p.97
16. Harris, Rivkah, ‘Inanna-Ishtar as Paradox and Coincidence of Opposites’, History of Religions, Vol. 30, No. 3. (Feb., 1991) [hereafter Harris, Paradox], p.273
17. Harris, Paradox , p.273
18. Harris, Paradox, p.272
19. Ibid, p.138
20. Wolkstein, Inanna, p.96
21. Ibid, p.96
23. Ibid, p.70
24. The Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of Chicago, vol. M/2, p.306
25. Sjoberg, A.W., In-nin-sa-gur-ra: A Hymn to the Goddess Inanna, Zeitschrift fur Assyriologie 65, no. 2 (1976) p.225
26. Nin-me-sara, p.8
27. Wolkstein, Inanna
28. See Wolkstein and Kramer, Inanna for the Inanna cycle
29. See Sobel, Dava, The Planets, (London:Harper Perennial), p.57
30. Brinton Perera, Descent, p.16
The Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of Chicago, vol. M/2
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Brinton Perera, Sylvia, Descent to the Goddess A Way of Initiation for Women,
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George, Andrew, The Epic of Gilgamesh, (London: Allen Lane The Penguin Press, 1999)
Hall, Nor, The Moon and the Virgin, (London: The Women’s Press Ltd., 1980)
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