In the polytheistic religions of ancient societies, the interactions between gods and goddesses often mimicked the relationships of the humans that worshipped them. The deities of Mesopotamia, the region where the first civilizations developed, were similarly anthropomorphic in their associations with one another. They had complex familial relations and animated interactions rivaling the myths of every other society in the ancient world. One of the most prolific relationships in the pantheon of Mesopotamian gods also provides us with possibly the first complicated marriage in human history: the marriage of Ishtar and Dumuzi. The marriage of Ishtar, the first goddess of love, and her long-time lover was as complex as a Greek tragedy, and it was so important to Mesopotamian society that it was associated with the continued prosperity of the first civilizations in history.
Ishtar and Dumuzi: The Goddess of Love and the Shepherd God
Ishtar was primarily worshipped as the goddess of love and war, and her sphere of influence included aspects that were associated with her primary roles, such as sex, fertility, and political power. However, Ishtar simultaneously fulfilled a number of additional roles, such as being the goddess of thunderstorms and a divine administrator of justice.
It is not entirely clear who Ishtar’s parents were. Some stories list her parents as the god of the moon, Nanna, and the goddess of the reeds, Ningal, while other texts describe her as the daughter of An, the supreme sky god of Mesopotamian myth. However, scholars are relatively certain that Ishtar was the twin sister of Utu, the god of the sun, and that she was the younger sister of the goddess Ereshkigal, who ruled the Mesopotamian Underworld known as Kur.
Mesopotamian texts portray Ishtar as a complex deity who was both an irresistible lover and a matchless warrior. Ishtar’s complex nature and broad sphere of influence made her one of the most powerful and prominent deities in the Mesopotamian pantheon. The goddess of love was worshipped by a number of different societies in Mesopotamia and, as a result, was often referred to by more than one name. Another common name for Ishtar was Inanna, which was first used by the Sumerians and may have referred to a similar, but distinct deity who was later integrated into the overall persona of the Mesopotamian goddess of love.
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Ishtar’s husband, Dumuzi, was primarily worshipped as a shepherd god whose sphere of influence focused on all things pastoral. As such, he was prayed to for the health of domesticated animals cultivated by the Mesopotamians for food and materials such as wool. Correspondingly, Dumuzi was also depended on for the preservation of luxury food that came from domesticated animals, such as milk, as well as the production of clothing. Although Dumuzi’s sphere of influence primarily focused on pastoral animals, the shepherd god was also believed to have control over the seasons and the fertility of vegetation, particularly agriculture. In Mesopotamian texts, Dumuzi is described as the son of Enki, the god of water, and the brother of Geshtinanna, the goddess of agriculture and dream interpretation.
Dumuzi is also listed as having ruled as a king in both the Sumerian metropolis of Uruk and another Mesopotamian city called “Bad-tibira”. One of the most significant aspects of Dumuzi’s mythos is that not long after he married Ishtar, the shepherd god died and became trapped in the Underworld. Later on, Dumuzi’s sister Geshtinanna offered to take his place for six months of every year, effectively allowing Dumuzi to spend half the year in the world of the living and the other half of the year in Kur. Although Dumuzi was not as prominent as Ishtar, he was also worshipped all over Mesopotamia and was referred to by more than one name. Another name that was commonly used for the shepherd god was Tammuz.
The Marriage of Ishtar and Dumuzi: A Convoluted Account
Among the Mesopotamian texts that have been found and translated by scholars over the years, a portion of them describe the marriage of Ishtar and Dumuzi. In particular, there are three stories that provide the most information about the relationship between the goddess of love and the shepherd god. The first story is called The Courtship of Inanna and Dumuzi. In this story, we are presented with an early stage of Ishtar and Dumuzi’s relationship in which the shepherd god is trying to convince the goddess to marry him.
The narrative begins with Ishtar’s marriage to Dumuzi being arranged without her knowledge. The goddess of love responds to this by rejecting the shepherd god and stating that she is already in love with a farmer. Dumuzi attempts to win Ishtar over by asserting that he is her equal in status and by promising that he would provide for her as competently as the farmer could. After encouragement from her mother and gifts from Dumuzi, Ishtar eventually accepts the shepherd god and the story ends with the consummation of Ishtar and Dumuzi’s marriage.
The second tale that provides the most information about Ishtar and Dumuzi’s marriage concerns the death of the shepherd god. Interestingly, there are two different versions of Dumuzi’s death which paint contrasting pictures of the relationship between the shepherd god and his wife. In one version, Dumuzi’s Dream, the shepherd god is killed by bandits and taken to the Underworld by demons. In this narrative, Ishtar bitterly mourns the passing of her husband along with his sister and mother. Eventually, Ishtar and Geshtinanna learn that Dumuzi can be partially resurrected if someone takes his place in the Underworld, and Dumuzi’s sister volunteers to replace her brother in Kur for half of the year.
In another Mesopotamian text, called Inanna’s Descent to the Underworld, Ishtar goes to Kur with the intent of conquering it, and her sister Ereshkigal, who rules the Underworld, kills her. Ishtar then learns through the Mesopotamian god of wisdom, Ea, that she can escape the Underworld if she finds someone to take her place and goes in search of a sacrifice. During her search, the goddess encounters her family and servants who are mourning her death. When Ishtar discovers her husband, however, she finds that Dumuzi is not mourning her death and is instead relaxing on a throne while being entertained by slave girls. Enraged by his disloyalty, Ishtar selects her husband to take her place and he is dragged to the Underworld by demons. As with the other version, Geshtinanna eventually frees her brother from the Underworld by offering to take his place for half of the year, but it is unclear if Ishtar helped with Dumuzi’s resurrection in this version or not.
The last major text in which we get information about Ishtar and Dumuzi’s marriage is the Epic of Gilgamesh. In the famous Mesopotamian poem, Ishtar offers to marry Gilgamesh and the king harshly rejects the goddess on the basis that she eventually destroys all her lovers. During his rejection, Gilgamesh mentions Dumuzi as one of the lovers the goddess destroyed, describing the shepherd god as Ishtar’s first lover and stating that she “ordained lamentations for him year after year” and eventually left him with a “broken wing”.
Two Sides of a Marriage Between Mesopotamian Gods
Mesopotamian mythology presents us with a convoluted, even contradictory, account of Ishtar and Dumuzi’s marriage. In some stories, Ishtar is passionate and loving toward Dumuzi. She describes him as “the man of my heart” and showers him with compliments such as “the light of An’s shrine” and “fit in all ways”. When Dumuzi dies, Ishtar mourns him and searches for a way to resurrect him alongside his sister. Correspondingly, Dumuzi is described as being so smitten with Ishtar that when she originally rejects him, he goes out of his way to win her affection and make her happy.
In complete contrast, however, other stories depict Dumuzi as so apathetic toward his wife that he does not even mourn her death. Similarly, Ishtar is portrayed as having continuously broken Dumuzi’s heart, leaving him injured, then condemning him to death and imprisonment in the Underworld for failing to properly mourn her.
Although we are clearly presented with conflicting representations of Ishtar and Dumuzi’s marriage, the exact nature of this duality is unclear. The different versions of Dumuzi’s death appear to suggest that there could have been multiple iterations of the Ishtar-Dumuzi marriage myth. Both deities were worshipped by a number of individual societies in Mesopotamia, each of which had its own distinct culture and separate beliefs. As such, it is not impossible that one group, such as the Sumerians, had a set of narratives about Ishtar and Dumuzi while another society, such as the Babylonians, had different stories about the divine couple. It is also possible that the narratives about Ishtar and Dumuzi’s marriage were meant to teach ethical lessons, such as the importance of loyalty, rather than provide a linear account of the relationship.
However, it is interesting to note that Ishtar herself was often depicted as dualistic and contradictory. One example of this is that Ishtar was worshipped as an administer of divine justice, but stories in Mesopotamian mythology depict her doing things that would have been against the law such as stealing divine powers from other Mesopotamian gods. However, scholars do not believe that these contrasting portrayals of Ishtar suggest multiple iterations of the goddess. Rather, many of them hypothesize that these contradicting narratives were integrated into Ishtar’s overall persona, transforming the Mesopotamian goddess into a complex deity that could occupy various, or even opposing, roles. Possibly, the conflicting depictions of Ishtar and Dumuzi’s marriage functioned in a similar manner to provide a more accurate portrayal of how complex marriage can be, rather than presenting a Disney-like fantasy of the institution.
The Defining Bond of Ishtar and Dumuzi
Despite the complex relationship between the Mesopotamian goddess of love and the shepherd god, or perhaps even because of it, the marriage of Ishtar and Dumuzi was also important to the personas of both deities. The contradictory relationship that Ishtar had with Dumuzi demonstrated her dualistic nature and solidified her as a liminal deity who occupied a variety of roles. Furthermore, her interactions with the shepherd god served to reinforce many of the roles associated with Ishtar. In the Courtship of Inanna and Dumuzi, Ishtar’s role as a sexual goddess was reinstated through her unabashed consummation of her marriage.
However, we are also reminded of her role as the goddess of war when the text points out that Ishtar’s desire for Dumuzi was triggered by her conflict with him after she refused to marry him. Ishtar’s status is further reinforced when she later expresses her acceptance of Dumuzi by saying “In battle I am you leader,/ In combat I am you armor-bearer”.
Similarly, the story of Ishtar’s descent into the Underworld reinforced her role as a liminal goddess with influence over transitional periods in life and death by demonstrating her ability to return from the land of the dead. Simultaneously, we are reminded that Ishtar was also considered an administrator of justice when she punished Dumuzi for being disloyal to her memory by having him dragged to the Underworld in her place. Throughout the entire narrative of Ishtar and Dumuzi’s marriage, the goddess demonstrates her status as a powerful and prominent deity by constantly exercising her agency and asserting her will over the other Mesopotamian gods, such as refusing to marry Dumuzi until he wooed her despite the insistence of her family.
Correspondingly, Dumuzi’s relationship with Ishtar was just as defining for the shepherd god, if not more so. One of Dumuzi’s primary attributes as a deity was his ability to return from the Underworld after his death, a situation that was significantly influenced by Ishtar one way or another. Similar to his wife, we are reminded of Dumuzi’s role as a shepherd god during The Courtship because he asserts that he can provide for Ishtar as effectively as his rival could by comparing the farmer’s gifts to what Dumuzi could give the goddess as a shepherd.
Correspondingly, the story also reinforces Dumuzi’s additional aspects by reminding us of his relation to other Mesopotamian gods and his history as a king. Dumuzi’s influence over agriculture is also connected to his marriage with Ishtar, and his ability to control the seasons is based on the time he spends in the Underworld for half the year. Additionally, his association with fertility is through the consummation of his marriage to the goddess of love. Overall, much of the information we have about Dumuzi is through stories about his marriage to Ishtar, as he is not as prominent in Mesopotamian texts as his wife. As a result, his relationship with Ishtar is a significant contributor to his general mythos.
The Sacred Marriage Rite of Ishtar and Dumuzi
Along with significantly contributing to the overall characters of Ishtar and Dumuzi, the marriage of these two deities played an important role in Mesopotamian society. The Sacred Marriage Rite was an annual ritual practiced in Mesopotamian societies in which a male ruler and the devotees of Ishtar would symbolically re-enact the marriage of the goddess and her husband with the king posing as Dumuzi. It is unclear whether this ritual involved any eroticism or if it was entirely symbolic in nature, but what is certain is that the rite was considered necessary to retain Ishtar’s favor and ensure the continued prosperity of their society. The rite also allowed Mesopotamian royalty to legitimize their rule by associating themselves with divinity through their symbolic “marriage” to one of the most prominent deities in the pantheon.
In addition to solidifying the status of the ruling class in Mesopotamia, the Sacred Marriage Rite also allowed devotees of lower classes to demonstrate their loyalty to the goddess and participate in ensuring the continuity of their society. Interestingly, this ritual also allowed people to cross social boundaries such as gender roles. Male devotees who participated in this rite were said to assume a feminine role, thereby temporarily transcending physical boundaries and coming closer to the divine influence of Ishtar. As a result, the Sacred Marriage Rite was one of the most prolific and important rituals in Mesopotamian society.
The cult of Ishtar and Dumuzi would continue to be worshipped in the Fertile Crescent until the fall of the Persian Empire. However, both deities would have an influence on the religion of other societies in the ancient world. Ishtar in particular would have a significant impact on the personas of goddesses of love and war in other religions, such as Astarte and Aphrodite. Additionally, themes such as complicated marriages and the death of a spouse would reappear in the narratives of many other divine couples in other polytheistic religions, such as in stories about Zeus and Hera and Osiris and Isis.