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The Descent of Ishtar

“Coming to the gate of Aralu, Ishtar assumes a menacing aspect, and threatens to break down the door and shatter its bolts and bars if she be not admitted straightway. The keeper of the gate endeavours to soothe the irate deity, and goes to announce her presence to Eresh-ki-gal (Allatu), the mistress of Hades.

The Burney Relief (also known as the Queen of the Night relief) is a Mesopotamian terracotta plaque in high relief of the Isin-Larsa- or Old-Babylonian period, depicting a winged, nude, goddess-like figure with bird's talons, flanked by owls, and perched upon supine lions. The relief is displayed in the British Museum in London, which has dated it between 1800 and 1750 BCE.    However, whether it represents Lilitu, Inanna/Ishtar, or Ereshkigal, is under debate.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burney_Relief

The Burney Relief (also known as the Queen of the Night relief) is a Mesopotamian terracotta plaque in high relief of the Isin-Larsa- or Old-Babylonian period, depicting a winged, nude, goddess-like figure with bird’s talons, flanked by owls, and perched upon supine lions. The relief is displayed in the British Museum in London, which has dated it between 1800 and 1750 BCE.
However, whether it represents Lilitu, Inanna/Ishtar, or Ereshkigal, is under debate.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burney_Relief

From his words it would appear that Ishtar has journeyed thither in search of the waters of life, wherewith to restore her husband Tammuz to life. Allatu receives the news of her sister’s advent with a bitter tirade, but nevertheless instructs the keeper to admit her, which he proceeds to do.

Ishtar on entering the sombre domains is obliged to pass through seven gates, at each of which she is relieved of some article of dress or adornment (evidently in accordance with the ancient custom of Aralu), till at last she stands entirely unclad.

At the first gate the keeper takes from her “the mighty crown of her head;” at the second her earrings are taken; at the third her necklace; at the fourth the ornaments of her breast; at the fifth her jeweled girdle; at the sixth her bracelets; and at the seventh the cincture of her body.

The goddess does not part with these save under protest, but the keeper of the gate answers all her queries with the words :

“Enter, O lady, it is the command of Allatu.”

The divine wayfarer at length appears before the goddess of the underworld, who shows her scant courtesy, bidding the plague-demon, Namtar, smite her from head to foot with disease—in her eyes, side, feet, heart, and head.

During the time that Ishtar is confined within the bounds of Aralu all fertility on the earth is suspended, both in the animal and vegetable kingdoms. Knowledge of this disastrous state of affairs is conveyed to the gods by their messenger, Pap-sukal, who first tells the story to Shamash, the sun-god.

Shamash weeps as he bears the matter before Ea and Sin, gods of the earth and the moon respectively; but Ea, to remedy the sterility of the earth, creates a being called Ashushu-namir, whom he dispatches to the underworld to demand the release of Ishtar.

Allatu is greatly enraged when the demand is made “in the name of the great gods,” and curses Ashushu-namir with a terrible curse, condemning him to dwell in the darkness of a dungeon, with the garbage of the city for his food.

Nevertheless she cannot resist the power of the conjuration, wherefore she bids Namtar, the plague-demon, release the Annunaki, or earth-spirits, and place them on a golden throne, and pour the waters of life over Ishtar.

Namtar obeys; in the words of the poem he

“smote the firmly-built palace, he shattered the threshold which bore up the stones of light, he bade the spirits of earth come forth, on a throne of gold did he seat them, over Ishtar he poured the waters of life and brought her along.”

Ishtar is then led through the seven gates of Arula, receiving at each the article of attire whereof she had there been deprived.

Finally she emerges into the earth-world, which resumes its normal course.

Then follow a few lines addressed to Ishtar, perhaps by the plague-demon or by the keeper of the gates.

“If she (Allatu) hath not given thee that for which the ransom is paid her, return to her for Tammuz, the bridegroom of thy youth. Pour over him pure waters and precious oil. Put on him a purple robe, and a ring of crystal on his hand. Let Samkhat (the goddess of joy) enter the liver. …”

These lines indicate with sufficient clearness that Ishtar descended into Hades in order to obtain the waters of life and thus revive her bridegroom Tammuz. The poem does not relate whether or not her errand was successful, but we are left to conjecture that it was.

There still remain a few lines of the poem, not, however, continuing the narrative, but forming a sort of epilogue, addressed, it may be, to the hearers of the tale. Mention is made in this portion of mourners, “wailing men and wailing women,” of a funeral pyre and the burning of incense, evidently in honour of the god Tammuz.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 129-31.

Sumerian Archeology

“Arriving in 1878, Rassam went to work with a will. Over a period of four years he opened excavations not only at Nineveh but at sites ranging from eastern Anatolia to southern Iraq, leaving the day-to-day excavation to his assistants and rarely visiting the sites.

Bronze band from the Palace Gates of Shalmaneser III in the British Museum.  The scenes show in the upper tier the king receiving tribute from Tyre and Sidon in Lebanon and in the lower tier the conquest of the town of Hazuzu in Syria. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balawat_Gates

Bronze band from the Palace Gates of Shalmaneser III in the British Museum.
The scenes show in the upper tier the king receiving tribute from Tyre and Sidon in Lebanon and in the lower tier the conquest of the town of Hazuzu in Syria.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balawat_Gates

His discoveries included panels of embossed bronze sheeting that had originally covered the great gates erected by Shalmaneser III at Balawat near Nimrud, and around 50,000 cuneiform cylinders and tablets in the Shamash temple at Sippar near Babylon. But times had changed since the cavalier days of the 1850s.

Relief image on the Tablet of Shamash, British Library room 55. Found in Sippar (Tell Abu Habbah), in Ancient Babylonia; it dates from the 9th century BC and shows the sun god Shamash on the throne, in front of the Babylonian king Nabu-apla-iddina (888-855 BC) between two interceding deities. The text tells how the king made a new cultic statue for the god and gave privileges to his temple. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tablet_of_Shamash#/media/File:Tablet_of_Shamash_relief.jpg

Relief image on the Tablet of Shamash, British Library room 55. Found in Sippar (Tell Abu Habbah), in Ancient Babylonia; it dates from the 9th century BC and shows the sun god Shamash on the throne, in front of the Babylonian king Nabu-apla-iddina (888-855 BC) between two interceding deities. The text tells how the king made a new cultic statue for the god and gave privileges to his temple.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tablet_of_Shamash#/media/File:Tablet_of_Shamash_relief.jpg

Considerable advances had been made in excavation techniques and recording methods. It was no longer enough to plunder sites for antiquities; buildings and other contexts had to be carefully investigated and recorded, and objects had to be recovered with care, without allowing them to “crumble to dust.”

Rassam was seriously criticized by other scholars in the field, and his departure largely saw the end of crude excavation methods in Mesopotamia—until the wanton destruction by bandits with bulldozers following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which threatens utterly to obliterate a huge number of sites.

As a native of the region, Rassam was very aware of the threat to the ancient cities from treasure hunters and brick robbers. When he left for Britain, therefore, he hired guardians to prevent future plundering in the important sites, including Kuyunjik and Sippar. Over the following decade, however, antiquities, and particularly tablets, that seemed likely to have come from these sites appeared in some numbers on the international market. The British Museum sent out Wallis Budge to investigate.

Budge arrived in Baghdad in 1888, armed with a permit to excavate Kuyunjik as a cover for his detective work. Within days, he purchased many tablets from local dealers, most of whom he found to be the very people appointed to guard the ancient sites, and skillfully foiled a plan to prevent him from exporting them.

Later in the year he reopened excavations at Kuyunjik, recovering some 200 tablets from the spoil of previous excavations. His luck turned the following year, however, when he excavated at ed-Der, part of ancient Sippar. The procedures involved in obtaining an excavation permit were long-winded and public: By the time Budge could start work, ed-Der had been thoroughly “examined” by the Vali of Baghdad, with the result that 10,000 tablets had found their way into the hands of dealers.

A similar fate befell the Frenchman Ernest de Sarzec, who excavated Telloh (ancient Girsu) in 1877–1881 and 1888–1900. This was the first serious investigation of a site belonging to Mesopotamia’s original Sumerian civilization, and the objects found here created great excitement in Europe, where they were displayed in the 1880s Paris exhibition.

     Stele of Vultures detail 01-transparent.png One fragment of the victory stele of the king Eannatum of Lagash over Umma, Sumerian archaic dynasties. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stele_of_the_Vultures#/media/File:Stele_of_Vultures_detail_01-transparent.png


Stele of Vultures detail 01-transparent.png
One fragment of the victory stele of the king Eannatum of Lagash over Umma, Sumerian archaic dynasties.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stele_of_the_Vultures#/media/File:Stele_of_Vultures_detail_01-transparent.png

The powerful and austere art style typified by the diorite statues strongly impressed European art critics, and a sculptured slab, dubbed the “Stele of the Vultures,” sparked great interest, because it showed for the first time in history an organized army going to war.

Telloh also yielded numerous tablets, some relating to border disputes with neighboring Umma, the fascinating first contemporary account of warfare—but most of them were not recovered by de Sarzec. During de Sarzec’s frequent absences, local people, often sponsored by Baghdad dealers, abstracted around 40,000 tablets from one of the mounds. These provided the first substantial body of works in the Sumerian language, whose very existence had been doubted in earlier decades.

The first U.S. expedition to work in Mesopotamia experienced an even more dramatic mixture of success and failure. Sponsored by Pennsylvania University, a team headed by John Peters arrived in 1887 to excavate Nippur, the holy city of ancient Sumer.

Hopelessly out of their depth in the complexities of dealing with the local villagers and authorities, their first season ended in an all-out attack in which their camp was set on fire, half their horses perished, and they lost $1,000 in gold—although they saved their antiquities.

Work resumed in 1890, under more auspicious circumstances, and continued intermittently until 1900. Among the 30,000 tablets recovered from Nippur were around 2,100 whose subject matter was literature, in contrast to the ubiquitous economic texts: These opened a window onto the fascinating world of the Sumerians and to this day form the bulk of known Sumerian literature.”

Jane R. McIntosh, Ancient Mesopotamia, 2005, pp. 30-2.

The Story of Mesopotamian Archeology

“Although official attentions were now turned elsewhere, strong popular interest in Mesopotamian antiquities continued, fueling a flourishing trade in material looted by local merchants from the ancient cities of Assyria. Scholarly plundering had already caused considerable destruction. Now the situation reached its nadir, with the retrieval of saleable pieces being the only aim, very much at the expense of the ancient remains.

Scholarly activity had not ceased, however, although it was no longer concentrated in the field. By the end of the 1850s the successful decipherment of Akkadian cuneiform meant that inscriptions and texts recovered from Nineveh and elsewhere could now yield a vast amount of information on the ancient Mesopotamian world.

One of the most surprising discoveries was the great time depth of the civilization. Biblical and Classical sources had painted a picture of the wealth and grandeur of Assyria in the first millennium B.C.E., and this had been confirmed by the excavations at Nineveh and adjacent cities.

The library uncovered in Ashurbanipal’s palace included texts written in the second millennium B.C.E., shedding light on the period of the Old Babylonian Empire and the early history of the Assyrians, the time of the biblical patriarch Abraham, native of the Mesopotamian city of Ur.

But there were also copies of even more ancient texts that revealed the existence in the third millennium B.C.E. of the southern Mesopotamian civilization of Sumer and Akkad.

The later nineteenth century was a time of great intellectual upheaval. The developing science of geology was revealing the immense age and gradual formation of the earth, while Charles Darwin was showing how life had evolved in all its diversity. This new knowledge undermined the certainties of the Bible, according to which the world was created in immutable form at a date calculated by biblical scholars as 4004 B.C.E.

In this epoch of challenge to established traditional views, many found it reassuring that archaeological research in the Near East was uncovering cities and records of individuals familiar from the Bible, thus confirming and buttressing its authenticity.

It was therefore electrifying news when George Smith, who had spent many years quietly studying cuneiform texts, announced in December 1872 that he had found part of a tablet recounting the story of the Flood. A serious-minded man, he amazed his colleagues at the moment of discovery by leaping to his feet, rushing round the room, and beginning to tear off his clothes.

In less than two months he found himself en route to Mosul to look for the missing pieces of the tablet, lavishly sponsored by the Daily Telegraph of London—a measure of the immense popular excitement that his discovery had generated.

Once Smith had accomplished the tedious and time-consuming task of extracting a permit from the Ottoman authorities, he achieved his objective in just five days of digging, finding among the debris left by previous excavators a piece of tablet that accounted for the major part of the missing section.

Smith later returned to excavate further at Nineveh, but in 1876 he contracted a fatal illness. As his replacement, the British Museum appointed Hormuzd Rassam, veteran of the 1850s excavations.”

Jane R. McIntosh, Ancient Mesopotamia, 2005, pp. 29-30.

Myths of Tammuz and Ishtar

“The myth of Tammuz is one of high antiquity, dating possibly from 4000 b.c. or even earlier.

Both Tammuz and Ishtar were originally non-Semitic, the name of the former deity being derived from the Akkadian Dumu-zi, ‘son of life,’ or ‘the only son,’ perhaps a contraction of Dumu-zi-apsu, ‘offspring of the spirit of the deep,’ as Professor Sayce indicates. The ‘spirit of the deep’ is, of course, the water-god Ea, and Tammuz apparently typifies the sun, though he is not, as will presently be seen, a simple solar deity, but a god who unites in himself the attributes of various departmental divinities.

An ancient Akkadian hymn addresses Tammuz as “Shepherd and lord, husband of Ishtar the lady of heaven, lord of the under-world, lord of the shepherd’s seat;” as grain which lies unwatered in the meadow, which beareth no green blade; as a sapling planted in a waterless place; as a sapling torn out by the root.

Professor Sayce identifies him with that Daonus, or Daos, whom Berossus states to have been the sixth king of Babylonia during the mythical period. Tammuz is the shepherd of the sky, and his flocks and herds, like those of St. Ilya in Slavonic folk-lore, are the cloud-cattle and the fleecy vapours of the heavens.

Ishtar has from an early period been associated with Tammuz as his consort, as she has, indeed, with Merodach and Assur and other deities. Yet she is by no means a mere reflection of the male divinity, but has a distinct individuality of her own, differing in this from all other Babylonian goddesses and betraying her non-Semitic origin.

The widespread character of the worship of Ishtar is remarkable. None of the Babylonian or Assyrian deities were adopted into the pantheons of so many alien races. From the Persian Gulf to the pillars of Hercules she was adored as the great mother of all living. She has been identified with Dawkina, wife of Ea, and is therefore mother of Tammuz as well as his consort.

This dual relationship may account for that which appears in later myths among the Greeks, where Smyrna, mother of Adonis, is also his sister. Ishtar was regarded sometimes as the daughter of the sky-god Anu, and sometimes as the child of Sin, the lunar deity.

Her worship in Babylonia was universal, and in time displaced that of Tammuz himself. The love of Ishtar for Tammuz represents the wooing of the sun-god of spring-time by the goddess of fertility; the god is slain by the relentless heat of summer, and there is little doubt that Ishtar enters Aralu in search of her youthful husband.

The poem we are about to consider briefly deals with a part only of the myth— the story of Ishtar’s descent into Aralu. It opens thus :

“To the land of No-return, the region of darkness, Ishtar, the daughter of Sin, turned her ear, even Ishtar, the daughter of Sin, turned her ear, to the abode of darkness, the dwelling of Irkalla, to the house whose enterer goes not forth, to the road whence the wayfarer never returns, to the house whose inhabitants see no light, to the region where dust is their bread and their food mud; they see no light, they dwell in darkness, they are clothed, like the birds, in a garment of feathers. On the door and the bolt hath the dust fallen.”

The moral contained in this passage is a gloomy one for mortal man; he who enters the dread precincts of Aralu goes not forth, he is doomed to remain for ever in the enveloping darkness, his sustenance mud and dust. The mention of the dust which lies “on door and bolt” strikes a peculiarly bleak and dreary note; like other primitive races the ancient Babylonians painted the other world not definitely as a place of reward or punishment, but rather as a weak reflection of the earth-world, a region of darkness and passive misery which must have offered a singularly uninviting prospect to a vigorous human being.

The garment of feathers is somewhat puzzling. Why should the dead wear a garment of feathers? Unless it be that the sun-god, identified in some of his aspects with the eagle, descends into the underworld in a dress of feathers, and that therefore mortals who follow him must appear in the nether regions in similar guise.

The description above quoted of the Babylonian Hades tallies with that given in dream to Eabani by the temple-maiden Ukhut (Gilgamesh epic, tablet VII).”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 126-9.

The View of Babylon at the Near End of History

“The influence and prestige of Mesopotamia ensured that its myths, legends, and history were widely disseminated in the Near East and beyond. Many elements of Assyrian and Babylonian legal institutions and laws, science, astronomy, mathematics and medicine, calendar and the division of time, as well as magical and ritual beliefs and practices such as divination were widely adopted, as can be seen in Classical and Hellenistic Greek literature and in the Bible.

Whereas the early Greeks knew of Mesopotamia at one remove, the Israelites had direct and often painful experience of the Mesopotamians. Mesopotamian myths and history are interwoven with biblical accounts of the early days of the world: for example, the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. From the mid-ninth century B.C.E., the biblical kingdoms of Israel and Judah suffered from Assyrian expansionism, and revolts against Assyrian, and later, Babylonian, rule led to the sack of their cities and the deportation of many of their citizens. The climax came in 588–587 B.C.E., when Jerusalem was put to the torch, the Temple destroyed, and its notables exiled to Babylon.

Although a substantial Jewish community flourished in Babylon for many centuries, becoming familiar with Babylonian traditions, it is the purple prose of the traditionalists who returned to Judah that formed the picture of Mesopotamia that passed into Western consciousness via the Bible. Centuries of conflict had produced a very hostile biblical view of Mesopotamian culture and civilization, especially of Babylon “the mother of harlots and of the abominations of the earth” (Revelation 17:5), ruled by supposedly corrupt and decadent rulers like Belshazzar, who was “weighed in the balance and found wanting” (Daniel 5:27).

Although the Greeks had no such political axe to grind, they also gave the Mesopotamians a bad press, contrasting their alien practices with the civilized behavior epitomized in the Greek mind by the Greeks. Thus, for example, Herodotus draws attention to the practice of sacred prostitution. He also gives an anecdotal and fanciful account of Mesopotamian history. In contrast, his descriptions of the cities of Babylonia, and particularly Babylon itself, are both accurate and informative.

Nevertheless, contemporaries came to doubt his accounts, which conflicted with those in the twenty-three-volume Persica of Ctesias, a Greek doctor at the Persian court in the fifth century B.C.E. In fact, Ctesias’s account is far less reliable than that of Herodotus, being filtered through the attitudes and knowledge of Mesopotamia’s Persian conquerors. Unfortunately, it was upon Ctesias’s work that later Classical scholars based their writings about Mesopotamia.

This was despite the existence of a far better account, a three-volume work by the third century B.C.E. Babylonian scholar Berossus. A native of Babylon, Berossus wrote in Greek but had access to many cuneiform texts that provided detailed and accurate information on Mesopotamian history and culture. Berossus’s Babyloniaca, which ran from the Creation to Alexander’s conquest, was copied and circulated for a few centuries but by the first century B.C.E. had been largely superseded by a digest in which a Greek scholar, Alexander Polyhistor, uncritically assembled material from a number of different and conflicting texts, including Berossus and Ctesias. Information was drawn from Berossus’s work to calculate chronology, particularly the dates of the Creation and the Flood, but his original was otherwise neglected. Little of it survived the Classical period.

The Hellenistic Greeks took an active interest in the visible relics of Mesopotamia’s past. Alexander the Great began reconstructing the ziggurat of Marduk (the Tower of Babel), although work ceased upon his death. His successors carried out restorations in the precinct of Marduk and of the temple of Nabu in Borsippa. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, reputedly built by Nebuchadrezzar for his Median queen, Amyitis, were regarded as one of the Seven Wonders of the World, their fame long outlasting their physical existence. Some versions of the list of Seven Wonders also included the great walls of Babylon, said by Herodotus to be wide enough to turn a four-horse chariot on.”

Jane R. McIntosh, Ancient Mesopotamia, 2005, pp. 21-3.

Lady Ishtar, Goddess

Ishtar was undoubtedly a goddess of Semitic origin and symbolized the fertility of the earth. She was the great mother’ who fostered all vegetation and agriculture.

It is probable that her cult originated at Erech, and in the course of centuries and under many nominal changes dispersed itself throughout the length and breadth of western Asia and even into Greece and Egypt. It is probable that a number of lesser goddesses, such as Nana and Anunit, may have become merged in the conception of this divinity, and that lesser local deities of the same character as herself may have taken her name and assisted to swell her reputation.

She is frequently addressed as ‘mother of the gods,’ and indeed the name ‘Ishtar’ became a generic designation for ‘goddess.’ But these were later honours. When her cult centred at Erech, it appears to have speedily blossomed out in many directions, and, as has been said, lesser cults probably eagerly identified themselves with that of the great earth-mother, so that in time her worship became more than a Babylonian cult.

Indeed, wherever people of Semitic speech were to be found, there was the worship of Ishtar. As Ashteroth, or Astarte, she was known to Canaanites, Phoenicians, and Greeks, and there is some likelihood that the cult of Aphrodite had also its beginnings in that of Ishtar. We shall enquire later whether she can be the Esther of the Scriptures.

Astrologically she was identified with the planet Venus, but so numerous were the attributes surrounding her taken from other goddesses with which she had become identified that they threatened to overshadow her real character, which was that of the great and fertile mother. More especially did her identification with Nin-lil, the consort of En-lil, the storm-god, threaten to alter her real nature, as in this guise she was regarded as a goddess of war.

It is seldom that a goddess of fertility or love achieves such a distinction. Gods possessing an agricultural significance are nearly always war-gods, but that is because they bring the fertilizing thunder-clouds and therefore possess the lightning arrow or spear. But Ishtar is specifically a goddess of the class of Persephone or Isis, and her identification with battle must be regarded as purely accidental.

In later times in Assyria she was conceived as the consort of Asshur, head of the Assyrian pantheon, in days when a god or goddess who did not breathe war was of little use to a people like the Assyrians, who were constantly employed in hostilities, and this circumstance naturally heightened her reputation as a warlike divinity.

But it is at present her original character with which we are occupied, indeed in some texts we find that, so far from being able to protect herself, Ishtar and her property are made the prey of the savage En-lil, the storm-god.

“His word sent me forth,” she complains; “as often as it comes to me it casts me prostrate upon my face. The unconsecrated foe entered my courts, placed his unwashed hands upon me, and caused me to tremble. Putting forth his hand he smote me with fear. He tore away my robe and clothed his wife therein : he stripped off my jewels and placed them upon his daughter. Like a quivering dove upon a beam I sat. Like a fleeing bird from my cranny swiftly I passed. From my temple like a bird they caused me to fly.”

Such is the plaint of Ishtar, who in this case appears to be quite helpless before the enemy.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 123-5.

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