Monday, March 26, 2018

The Ishtar story

Ishtar is a Mesopotamian goddess with an interesting story. She was Inanna to the Sumerians, Ishtar to the later Akkadians, Babylonian and Assyrians. In this week before Easter, it is timely to talk about her as some claim that her name was later appropriated as Easter., though this is debated. Ishtar was the Queen of Heaven and presided over sexuality and fertility, and is identified with the morning and evening star.
Photo credit: Wikipedia - Cylinder seal from ancient Akkadia
depicting Inanna/Ishta in a style we later see as Durga in India.

One of Ishtar's most famous stories is of her Descent into the Underworld. I will try to do it justice in summary.

The Underworld is ruled by her sister Ereshkigal, and it is not a place that folk usually return from. So before departing she arranges for the deities to rescue her if she does not return in three days. She dresses up in elaborate clothing and jewellery to denote her power and status.

To descend she must pass through seven gates. At each gate, in order to pass, she must surrender part of her clothing or jewellery and power objects, and so her power is progressively removed from her. When she arrives before Ereshkigal she is naked and powerless. Thus it is that her sister is able to overcome Ishtar and inflict such torments upon her that she dies and is cast upon a tree. On earth the consequence is the complete cessation of sexual activity, and thus of fertility.

However, Ishtar has her insurance policy and when she does not return, her faithful servant turns to the gods to rescue her and one of them responds, creating two sexless figures and instructing them on demanding Ishtar's corpse and how they must sprinkle it with the food and water of life.

This they do, gaining Ishtar's corpse from Ereshkigal with some drama, revive her and enable her to ascend, back through the seven gates, and as she passes them she regains the items she lost on the descent, regaining her powers.

When the Assyrians converted to Christianity, the cult of Ishtar was appropriated into Christian practice, many aspects of her worship entering into the cult of MaryAnd so too there is the claim that her name being taken on for the festival of Easter, along with practices of the fertility cult (eggs and rabbits). Even aspects of the Passion of Christ bear remarkable resemblance to Ishtar's descent into the underworld, the three days of death cast upon a tree (the cross), the resurrection and ascent to Heaven again.

There are other parallels with Ishtar in the cosmology of India. The Goddess Durga bears resemblance to Ishtar. And if we look west, the Germanic Goddess Eostre, whose name might also give rise to Easter, is a fertility goddess and associated with dawn (morning star).

The seven gates can be interpreted as the chakras. From base chakra to crown the seven chakras move from the gross to the subtle, from earth element, through water, fire and air, and in the higher chakras, increasingly rarified space. Ishtar's descent is a descent into embodiment, and in embodiment is life's opposite, death. But just as she could descend into embodiment, and die, so too could she ascend, becoming whole (restoration of powers) as she does. But the wholeness is always there. ascent through the chakras connects us with that essential spaciousness of Awareness which is always here. So the ascent is the salvation, and it is available to us all.