Inanna, Ishtar, and Esther

Ishtar, Queen of Heaven

I’m writing this on Purim, the holiday when Queen Esther is purported to have saved the ancient Hebrews from destruction. As you will see below, it is a perfect day to review Judy Grahn’s new book, Eruptions of Inanna. For those unfamiliar with her, Inanna was the chief goddess of the Sumerian pantheon—the Queen of Heaven.

I’m awed by the breadth of research that went into Eruptions of Inanna. The author draws links between the traditions of ancient Sumeria and its successive civilizations, down to those of the modern Abrahamic religions. Some of the ground she covers is familiar to me from previous study. Other insights are original and to my mind, quite wonderful.

You might ask, what’s the importance of fables from the Bronze Age? These stories, Grahn says, can serve as road maps for getting through hard times. They helped her through the worst times of her life. They helped my wife Sylvia when faced with life-threatening illnesses. And they helped me when a women’s group I’d devoted myself to broke up, and I spent a year in self-imposed exile in a tiny hamlet in northern California.

Grahn quotes extensively from the works of a woman forced into exile: Enheduanna, daughter of King Sargon, who appointed her high priestess of Inanna in the Sumerian city-state of Ur. During her brief life (2286-2251 BCE), she composed numerous hymns to her goddess that continued in use for hundreds of years. She is the first writer in human history whose name is known to us. How many other writers preceded her? What traditions did she draw on? That we do not know.

Enheduanna’s poetry survived because the fires that destroyed Ur and Nippur baked the clay tablets they were written on, allowing archaeologists to dig them up in the 20th Century. Four millennia after her death, and no doubt influenced by the contemporary feminist movement, astronomers honored her by giving her name to a crater on Mercury.

Some Original Insights

In what is perhaps the most significant of her works, “The Exaltation of Inanna,” Enheduanna tells us how she was deposed and banished from her city. Yet she never lost her faith in the goddess, who eventually brought her home and restored her position. Grahn compares this hymn to the Book of Job, not only in plot but also in language, and posits that Enheduanna’s work—so well known in its time—served as the template for the Biblical tale. The similarity is striking but shouldn’t be all that astonishing, especially since we are told that Abraham, the father of the Hebrew peoples, came from Ur. And given men’s historical blindness to women’s achievements, we shouldn’t even be surprised that Grahn was the first to point out the resemblance.

I’d like to mention two other original observations in Grahn’s book. First, when Enheduanna tells how Inanna destroyed the mountain Ebih, she describes the goddess in terms exactly like volcanic eruptions—therefore the title, Eruptions of Inanna. And those same descriptors are found in Job—but of a creature called Leviathan. “Smoke comes from his nostrils, as out of a boiling pot; his breath kindles coals, and flames come from his mouth…” On land and sea, “he makes a hoary path that shines” as he goes along—that is, lava. Other writers have have seen Leviathan as a crocodile or whale. Grahn’s interpretation makes more sense.

In the subsequent passage, after Inanna brings down the mountain, she installs new temple personnel. These are the pilipili, who have gone through the “head-overturning” ritual where they are given tools of the opposite sex and then officially become that other sex. A “manly-hearted woman” gets a mace and becomes a warrior. Inanna also identifies these people as reed-marsh men and reed-marsh women. Grahn identifies the pilipili as what we would now call gay or trans. This also makes sense to me. Many decades ago I read Thesinger’s book on the marsh Arabs of Iraq and remember that they were nominally Muslims but not particularly observant. The women were considerably freer than other Arab women, often hiring themselves out to do construction work. We have no way of knowing how their society changed from Sumerian times to the 20th Century, when Thesinger and others wrote about them.

From Queen of Heaven to Dutiful Daughter

We envision gods in our own image, and those gods embody the values of the cultures that create them. What must it have been like to be a Sumerian woman, when the greatest of gods was female? Inanna, Queen of Heaven wasn’t just a destroyer of mountains, but also a goddess of erotic love, justice, war, the growth of plants, and the useful arts and trades. In her, power and sexuality are inseparable. Grahn quotes her love poetry: “I rule with cunt power. I see with cunt eyes.”

Before any of the male vegetation gods (Tammuz, Adonis, and Osiris) died and were reborn, before Jesus was crucified and resurrected, Inanna descended into the Underworld. Her body was hung on a hook for three days, and then she came back to the world of the living. One poem about Inanna declares “that bread is flesh and beer is blood”—an obvious precursor to the Christian ritual of communion.

In subsequent civilizations, Inanna became Ishtar, Astarte, and Asherah. But as the position of women declined, so did her powers. Her sexuality was denigrated, her sovereignty stripped, her virtues reduced to poverty, chastity, and obedience. In Christianity she became Mary, the human mother of a male deity, and one who bears a child without having sex at all. Catholics adore her, Protestants ignore her. Muslims venerate Fatima, the human daughter of Muhammad, whom he married off to his cousin Ali. She was a dutiful wife. “For several years after her marriage, she did all of the work by herself. The shoulder on which she carried pitchers of water from the well was swollen and the hand with which she worked the handmill to grind corn was often covered with blisters.”

Asherah, the Hebrew goddess, was demoted to being wife of Yahweh and later cast out altogether. In rabbinical Judaism, she was replaced by the Shekhinah, the disembodied divine presence of God—His feminine aspect.

Still, Judaism has one remaining holiday with traces of the ancient goddess, and that’s Purim. During the 6th Century BCE the Hebrews were captive in Babylon. This was the time of the Babylonian New Year, a riotous 10-day celebration equivalent to Carnival, when the locals honored their gods, Ishtar and Marduk. What the rabbis gave us instead was a day or two of drinking, gambling, dressing up in costumes, and honoring two humans. We get Queen Esther, the dutiful niece who saves her people by following her uncle Mordecai’s instructions.

Even after the Babylonian captivity, it took a long time for the Hebrews to give up their ancient traditions. The prophet Jeremiah castigates the women, who insist that they and their husbands will continue to bake cakes in honor of the Queen of Heaven. And we still eat those little triangular cakes, though we call them ears or pockets. They’re nothing of the sort—they’re shaped like vulvas and filled with poppy seeds or fruit preserves.

 In modern times women’s sexuality continues to be disparaged. Grahn talks about those women who are considered most beautiful, like Helen of Troy or Marilyn Monroe, and “why this archetype depends heavily on that woman’s downfall, degradation, and death.” But at the end, she expresses hope, stating that “each new wave of women’s collective voices” is growing in volume and scope, and that “this eruption will not be stilled.”

Get the book. It’s coming out in May. I’ll remind you when it becomes available.

2 Responses to Inanna, Ishtar, and Esther

  1. Halina Minadeo May 3, 2022 at 9:31 pm #

    Dear Martha Shelley:
    Thank you for this wonderful information. I have always been fascinated by the goddess known as Innana, Ishtar, Astarte. These insights have added to my knowledge, which is insatiable, as there is so much that is unknown, waiting, I hope, to be discovered. I am particularly thrilled to know about the origin of the hamantaschen filled with poppy seeds. Being Ukrainian, I am familiar with the Jewish customs of Eastern Europe. Now I will have a totally new outlook on the triangular pastries, especially in connection with poppy seeds and their connection with goddesses.
    Halina Minadeo

    • Martha Shelley May 3, 2022 at 10:24 pm #

      Thank you for your comment. I was delighted to hear from you. I gather from your email that you are at the University of Michigan. Is that correct?

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