published on 15 October 2010
Marriage of Inanna and Dumuzi (TangLung)

Inanna is the ancient Sumerian goddess of love, sensuality, fertility, procreation, and also of war. She later became identified by the Akkadians and Assyrians as the goddess Ishtar, and further with the Hittite Sauska, the Phoenician Astarte and the Greek Aphrodite, among many others. She was also seen as the bright star of the morning and evening, Venus, and identified with the Roman goddess. Inanna is one of the candidates cited as the subject of the Burney Relief (better known as The Queen of the Night), a terracotta relief dating from the reign of Hammurabi of Babylon (1792-1750 BCE) although her sister Ereshkigal is the goddess most likely depicted. 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 notably 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 ancient Mesopotamian myths in which she brings knowledge and culture to the city of Uruk.

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:

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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.

Facade of Inanna's Temple at Uruk

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. In The Epic of Gilgamesh, as Ishtar, she is seen as promiscuous, jealous, and spiteful. When she tries to seduce Gilgamesh, he lists her many other lovers who have all met with bad ends at her hands. Enraged at his rejection, she sends the husband of her sister Ereshkigal, Gugulana (the Bull of Heaven) to destroy Gilgamesh's realm. Gugulana is then killed by Enkidu, the best friend and comrade-in-arms of Gilgamesh, for which he is condemned by the gods to die. Enkidu's death is the catalyst for the famous quest Gilgamesh undertakes to discover the meaning of life. Inanna, then, is central to the story of one of the greatest of ancient epics.

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.

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Although some writers have claimed otherwise, Inanna was never seen as a Mother Goddess in the way that other deities, such as Ninsurhag, were. Dr. Jeremy 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.

The Hand of Ishtar (Inanna)

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. She is also sometimes referenced as the daughter of the Supreme God of the Air, Enlil. Her husband Dumuzi transforms in time 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 (Ishtar and Tammuz) as he returned from the underworld to mate again with her, thus bringing the land to life. The Sacred Marriage of Inanna and Dumuzi was central to the fertility of the land and was re-enacted at important festivals (such as the Akitu Festival at Babylon) by the king and a priestess having sexual intercourse or, perhaps, only symbolically mating in a kind of pantomime. 

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Her temples throughout Mesopotamia were numerous, and sacred prostitutes of both genders may have been employed to ensure the fertility of the earth and the continued prosperity of the communities. Inanna continued as a powerful and popular goddess until the decline of the prestige of female deities during the reign of Hammurabi which, according to scholar Samuel Noah Kramer, coincides with women's loss of status and rights in society. Still, as Ishtar of the Assyrians, she continued to be widely venerated and inspired the visions of similar deities in other cultures of the Near East and beyond. 

About the Author

Joshua J. Mark
A freelance writer and part-time Professor of Philosophy at Marist College, New York, Joshua J. Mark has lived in Greece and Germany and traveled through Egypt. He teaches ancient history, writing, literature, and philosophy.

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Inanna Books

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Visual Timeline
  • 2285 BCE - 2250 BCE
    Life of Enheduanna, daughter of Sargon of Akkad, and world's first author known by name.
  • c. 2150 BCE - c. 1400 BCE
    The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh written on clay tablets.
  • c. 1900 BCE - c. 1600 BCE
    The poem "Descent of Inanna" is written.
  • c. 1900 BCE - c. 1600 BCE
    Composition of The Descent of Inanna.
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