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Ishtar's Descent to the Underworld Pryke, Louise


Ishtar's Descent to the Netherworld is perhaps the most famous myth about the Mesopotamian goddess of love, war, and social connections, Ishtar. Ishtar’s Descent is known from its Sumerian and Akkadian versions, with the Sumerian considered to be the earlier text. Although there is some variation between the two texts, the main narrative is relatively consistent in the earlier and later versions. The narrative describes the journey of Ishtar to the Mesopotamian underworld, the domain of her sister, Ereshkigal. Ishtar is killed in the underworld, and Ea (wisdom deity) must find a way to revive her - as all earthly fertility has ceased. Finally, Ishtar is released from the Netherworld, but must provide a substitute in her place. Ishtar’s connection to death is an area where modern understanding is limited, yet her own experience of death is uniquely connected to her transgressive nature, seen in her broader image. Ishtar’s ability, demonstrated in myth, to visit the underworld and then to return to the land of the living, is a powerful manifestation of her supernatural qualities. Inanna’s unique expertise in entering and escaping the underworld is likely to be a leading cause for her association with death, the afterlife, and the voyage in between. Iconographic evidence, such as the Burney Relief, appear to reflect the goddess’ associations with death, and the myth of the Descent may also be connected to the deity’s role in healing. Ishtar’s healing ability is a prominent aspect of her close relationship with the Mesopotamian king. Among many blessings, she is said in hymns to give the king “life.” Although the granting of “life” is a complex blessing, several texts reference the goddess’ ability to add years to a lifespan, with the implied benefit of forestalling death. At other times, she is credited with the power to bring the dead back to life. Like other significant works of cuneiform literature, such as The Epic of Gilgamesh, Ishtar’s Descent was lost from general cultural awareness along with the cuneiform script, which disappeared around the 1st century CE. The recovery of cuneiform in the late 18th century allowed for the reintroduction of the ancient myth, and its divine protagonist, to modern audiences.

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