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Ishtar's descent into the Underworld

Depiction of the Babylonian goddess Ishtar on an "Ishtar Vase" from Larsa, early 2nd millennium BC.
Depiction of the Babylonian goddess Ishtar on an "Ishtar Vase" from Larsa, early 2nd millennium BC.
Photo by Jastrow, found at

In Fort Collins at Colorado State University, there was a certain tenured English professor in the early 2000s. Professor Mitchell is retired now, but she taught classes throughout all the levels of underclassman and also graduate classes for masters students. One of those classes was E336 Goddess Religions which focused on the study of the development of religions that featured a goddess or multiple goddesses. For example, in Catholicism the Virgin Mary plays a huge part in the religion and with its followers as does Isis in Egyptian mythology.

One goddess Professor Mitchell taught about in her Goddess Religions class was Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of sex and light among other things. And, no, it’s not very surprising that there was a deity of sex as sex outside of marriage was not generally thought of in such a prudish light as it is today. America has its pilgrim ancestors to thank for that.

Every good system of beliefs has its own underworld story - whether it’s Japan’s Izanagi-no-Mikoto traveling down into the underworld to recover Izanami-no-Mikoto after she dies or Christianity’s Jesus dying, going to hell, and then being resurrected. Sumer was no different. Unfortunately, there is also more than one version to this story. Here’s the more romantic version that was widely accepted in the early 1900s:

Ishtar was very much in love with a man named Tammuz. He was the Sun god of Spring until he chose instead to become mortal in order to live among the people and help them. Unfortunately, it was Ishtar’s love itself that killed Tammuz. One day she looked down upon him from the sky and burned so fiercely with love for him that he was overwhelmed and killed.

Ishtar mourned for him and wanted to bring him back so she went on a journey down to the Underworld where her twin-sister, Ereshkigal, ruled. For this mission she went fully dressed in all her queenly attire; however, at the first gate to the Underworld she was stopped by a guard and told to remove her royal crown which she did. There were seven gates in all that she had to pass through in order to reach Ereshkigal and at each gate she had to remove an item of her clothing. The order and details of which article of clothing/ornament is debatable but this is one list given. To be continued…