1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Ishtar
ISHTAR, or Ištar, the name of the chief goddess of Babylonia and Assyria, the counterpart of the Phoenician Astarte (q.v.). The meaning of the name is not known, though it is possible that the underlying stem is the same as that of Assur (q.v.), which would thus make her the “leading one” or “chief.” At all events it is now generally recognized that the name is Semitic in its origin. Where the name originated is likewise uncertain, but the indications point to Erech where we find the worship of a great mother-goddess independent of any association with a male counterpart flourishing in the oldest period of Babylonian history. She appears under various names, among which are Nanā, Innanna, Ninā and Anunit. As early as the days of Khammurabi we find these various names which represented originally different goddesses, though all manifest as the chief trait the life-giving power united in Ishtar. Even when the older names are employed it is always the great mother-goddess who is meant. Ishtar is the one goddess in the pantheon who retains her independent position despite and throughout all changes that the Babylonian-Assyrian religion undergoes. In a certain sense she is the only real goddess in the pantheon, the rest being mere reflections of the gods with whom they are associated as consorts. Even when Ishtar is viewed as the consort of some chief—of Marduk occasionally in the south, of Assur more frequently in the north—the consciousness that she has a personality of her own apart from this association is never lost sight of.
We may reasonably assume that the analogy drawn from the process of reproduction among men and animals led to the conception of a female deity presiding over the life of the universe. The extension of the scope of this goddess to life in general—to the growth of plants and trees from the fructifying seed—was a natural outcome of a fundamental idea; and so, whether we turn to incantations or hymns, in myths and in epics, in votive inscriptions and in historical annals, Ishtar is celebrated and invoked as the great mother, as the mistress of lands, as clothed in splendour and power—one might almost say as the personification of life itself.
But there are two aspects to this goddess of life. She brings forth, she fertilizes the fields, she clothes nature in joy and gladness, but she also withdraws her favours and when she does so the fields wither, and men and animals cease to reproduce. In place of life, barrenness and death ensue. She is thus also a grim goddess, at once cruel and destructive. We can, therefore, understand that she was also invoked as a goddess of war and battles and of the chase; and more particularly among the warlike Assyrians she assumes this aspect. Before the battle she appears to the army, clad in battle array and armed with bow and arrow. In myths symbolizing the change of seasons she is portrayed in this double character, as the life-giving and the life-depriving power. The most noteworthy of these myths describes her as passing through seven gates into the nether world. At each gate some of her clothing and her ornaments are removed until at the last gate she is entirely naked. While she remains in the nether world as a prisoner—whether voluntary or involuntary it is hard to say—all fertility ceases on earth, but the time comes when she again returns to earth, and as she passes each gate the watchman restores to her what she had left there until she is again clad in her full splendour, to the joy of mankind and of all nature. Closely allied with this myth and personifying another view of the change of seasons is the story of Ishtar’s love for Tammuz—symbolizing the spring time—but as midsummer approaches her husband is slain and, according to one version, it is for the purpose of saving Tammuz from the clutches of the goddess of the nether world that she enters upon her journey to that region.
In all the great centres Ishtar had her temples, bearing such names as E-anna, “heavenly house,” in Erech; E-makh, “great house,” in Babylon; E-mash-mash, “house of offerings,” in Nineveh. Of the details of her cult we as yet know little, but there is no evidence that there were obscene rites connected with it, though there may have been certain mysteries introduced at certain centres which might easily impress the uninitiated as having obscene aspects. She was served by priestesses as well as by priests, and it would appear that the votaries of Ishtar were in all cases virgins who, as long as they remained in the service of Ishtar, were not permitted to marry.
In the astral-theological system, Ishtar becomes the planet Venus, and the double aspect of the goddess is made to correspond to the strikingly different phases of Venus in the summer and winter seasons. On monuments and seal-cylinders she appears frequently with bow and arrow, though also simply clad in long robes with a crown on her head and an eight-rayed star as her symbol. Statuettes have been found in large numbers representing her as naked with her arms folded across her breast or holding a child. The art thus reflects the popular conceptions formed of the goddess. Together with Sin, the moon-god, and Shamash, the sun-god, she is the third figure in a triad personifying the three great forces of nature—moon, sun and earth, as the life-force. The doctrine involved illustrates the tendency of the Babylonian priests to centralize the manifestations of divine power in the universe, just as the triad Anu, Bel and Ea (q.v.)—the heavens, the earth and the watery deep—form another illustration of this same tendency.
Naturally, as a member of a triad, Ishtar is dissociated from any local limitations, and similarly as the planet Venus—a conception which is essentially a product of theological speculation—no thought of any particular locality for her cult is present. It is because her cult, like that of Sin (q.v.) and Shamash (q.v.), is spread over all Babylonia and Assyria, that she becomes available for purposes of theological speculation.