Inanna , known as Ishtar in Akkadian, is a
complex deity. The principal female deity in the Sumerian and Akkadian pantheons, Inanna is the goddess of war and fertility. In some stories, she possesses the ability to control storms. Her name may mean “Lady of Heaven.”
Inanna is the offspring of the moon god, Nanna, and Ningal, “goddess of the reeds,” and some myths mention the sky god, An, as her father. Other traditions name Inanna as the child of Enlil or Enki. Her brothers included the sun god, Utu, and the storm god, Ishkur. She was the sister of Ereshkigal, queen of the netherworld and goddess of death and gloom.
Inanna married Dumuzi, the shepherd king, who is identiﬁed with the bud of the date palm, a symbol of fertility and growth. Beginning with the third dynasty of the royal Sumerian city of Ur, at the end of third millennium B.C.E., a ritual was performed that featured a marriage. The ritual included the real or ceremonial marriage of the king, who represented Dumuzi, and a female partner or statue, representing Inanna.
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Inanna Challenges An
In this Sumerian myth, Inanna directly challenged An, the sky god, to surrender his temple of E-ana in Uruk. She openly claimed dominion over heaven and Earth. An, the powerful father of the Sumerian pantheon, was unable to counter Inanna’s bold move. He is described as anguished and full of grief.
Inanna celebrated her triumph. The E-ana temple, formerly the House of An, became known as “the house that is the place of the lady.”
The Myth of Inanna and Enki
In this myth, Inanna visited the wise god Enki, shared beer and sweet wine with him, and challenged him to a competition. The inebriated Enki allowed Inanna to take possession of the me, the sacred item that deﬁned all facets of Sumerian life—religion, government, morality, warfare, family and society, art, economy, technology, and crafts. Inanna embarked on the Boat of Heaven to bring her prize to the city of Uruk.
When Enki came out of his drunken state and realized his mistake, he sent beasts and monsters to try to recapture the boat. Inanna and her minister, Ninshubur, evaded many obstacles: the enkum (possibly a form of artiﬁcial life), the ﬁfty giants of Eridu, the ﬁfty lahama (meaning unknown), the great ﬁsh, the guardians of Uruk, and the Id-surangal beings.
When Inanna ﬁnally brought the boat through the Gate of Joy into Uruk, there was a great celebration. She had succeeded in transferring the numerous secrets of civilization to her city.
This Sumerian myth may have its roots in propaganda as a mythological explanation for the city-state of Uruk’s sudden rise in stature. Inanna’s legendary theft of the gifts of civilization from Enki’s temple in Eridu could have provided the perfect justiﬁcation.
Inanna and Ebih
This Sumerian myth depicts Inanna as the Lady of Battle, armed and deadly. When the Ebih mountain range refused to show proper respect toward her, Inanna was outraged. She vowed to destroy the mountains to punish their insolence, using a combination of weapons, storms, and ﬁre.
Before she set out to do so, however, she went before the sky god, An, and told him of her plan. An was hesitant about the punishing attack and told Inanna that she could not destroy the mountains. This only increased her outrage.
Inanna instantly took out her weapons and called upon storms to destroy the mountains, reducing them to nothing and establishing her authority over them. This is almost certainly an attempt to explain the relative ﬂatness of much of the Sumerian (now Iraqi) landscape.
Inanna’s Descent to the Netherworld
The story of Inanna’s journey to and return from the so-called Land of No Return is perhaps the most familiar of the goddess’s tales.
No speciﬁc reason is given for her journey. Related texts state that she either was undertaking the journey to save her lover, Dumuzi, from eternal death or had simply set her attention on the netherworld and resolved to journey there.
Inanna prepared for the trip by placing many amulets and jewels on her body. She wore a turban, a wig, small lapis lazuli beads around her neck, egg-shaped beads on her breast, a pala-dress, a pectoral ornament, and a golden ring on her hand. She held a lapis lazuli measuring rod, a measuring line, and her seven divine powers in her hand. Before she set out, she informed her minister, Ninshubur, what to do if she failed to return quickly.
At the gate of the netherworld, Neti, the gatekeeper, asked Inanna the reason for her journey. She made up a tale that she was there to visit her sister, Ereshkigal. She planned to pay her respects to Ereshkigal’s spouse, Gugulanna, who had recently died.
Ereshkigal was informed of Inanna’s arrival and became frightened at the prospect of facing her domineering sister. She told the gatekeeper to lead Inanna through the seven gates and to follow the rites of the netherworld, removing one article of clothing or an amulet from her body at each gate. This process was carried out, so when Inanna ﬁnally entered the netherworld, she was completely stripped of her protective amulets and garments. She greeted her sister as one of the dead, crouched and naked.
Despite her lack of protection, Inanna did not hesitate to take Ereshkigal’s throne. And so the seven Anuna judges of the netherworld rendered a decision against her, turning Inanna into a corpse and hanging her on a hook. Because she failed to return to Earth, Ninshubur, Inanna’s servant, carried out the instructions that her mistress had left: Ninshubur went before Enlil, Nanna, and Enki and begged them to save Inanna.
Enki understood the gravity of the situation, so he fashioned kur-gara and gala-tura ﬁgures, or artiﬁcial beings, to sneak past the gates. These ﬁgures were to provide sympathy for Ereshkigal and take possession of Inanna’s corpse. The ﬁgures sprinkled the life-giving plant and the life-giving water upon the dead goddess, which brought her back to life. Inanna was now ready to make her ascent from the Land of No Return.
Before Inanna left, however, the seven Anuna gods stopped her, demanding that she provide a substitute for herself, since no one was permitted to leave the netherworld without penalty. Demons escorted Inanna out, and together they began the search for a substitute. After sparing several possible victims, the demons came upon Inanna’s husband, Dumuzi, who was seated on his throne, festively dressed. Furious that her husband was not in mourning for her, the goddess allowed the demons to take him as her substitute to the netherworld.
Once Dumuzi descended to the Land of No Return, Inanna showed some remorse for having damned her husband. The narrative concludes with a fragmentary section about Inanna approaching Dumuzi’s sister, Geshtinana, and asking her to take her brother’s place in the netherworld for half of each year.
Inanna’s descent has been interpreted as describing a ritual journey of a cult ﬁgure of Inanna from the E-ana in Uruk to the city of Kutha, home of the gods of the underworld.
Inanna as Supporting Character
In addition to the myths in which she is the protagonist, Inanna also plays a signiﬁcant role in two of the Sumerian myths of Gilgamesh. In Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Netherworld, Gilgamesh cuts down a demon-infested tree for the goddess. In Gilgamesh and the Bull of Heaven, Inanna tried to seduce Gilgamesh. Inanna was rebuffed by Gilgamesh, which eventually led to the death of Gilgamesh’s companion, Enkidu, and Gilgamesh’s quest for immortality.
Many of the themes in the Sumerian stories also appear in Akkadian texts dating from the end of the second millennium B.C.E. Inanna, now with the Semitic name Ishtar, was still a goddess of sex and procreation, as well as a goddess of war. She was also identiﬁed with the planet Venus. As Ishtar, the goddess was associated with many other gods and goddesses in the ancient Near East, including the South Arabian male deity Athtar and the Syrian goddess Astarte, also known as Ashtoreth in the Bible.