Study Guide

Ishtar in The Epic of Gilgamesh

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Ishtar, the goddess of love and war, has a small, devastating role in the epic. She basically lets all fire and brimstone loose, which leads to a clash with Enkidu and Gilgamesh, which in turn leads to Enkidu getting the death penalty from the gods, which in turn sends Gilgamesh off on his failed quest for immortality.

It all gets started when Ishtar develops a mammoth crush on Gilgamesh after he and Enkidu return from killing Humbaba. Ishtar isn't shy about making her feelings known: she marches right up to Gilgamesh and asks him to marry her. Bold gal.

But Gilgamesh launches into a tirade against her, basically claiming that Ishtar is a marauding sexual predator who falls in and out of love at the drop of a hat, and always inflicts horrible punishments on her ex-lovers. (For some reason, Gilgamesh doesn't mention that he used to be something of a marauding sexual predator himself.)

Ishtar doesn't really appreciate his interest in staying single. So, she speeds on up to the highest heavens to talk to her daddy, the sky-god Anu. What does Ishtar want? She wants to borrow the Bull of Heaven, send it down to earth, and have it punish Gilgamesh and Enkidu.

Do you notice anything the matter with her plan? Like, if she's all ticked off because Gilgamesh said she inflicts horrible punishments on her ex-lovers, is inflicting a horrible punishment on her would-be lover supposed to change his mind? It doesn't look like Ishtar is all that self-aware.

A Goddess Scorned

It also looks like she gets what she wants by having Defcon 2-style tantrums. Even though her father reminds her that everything Gilgamesh said happens to be true, she doesn't budge. Then, he reminds her that there will be a long famine if they unleash the Bull of Heaven without having put away a ton of food in storage. She snips that of course she's done all that: "I have heaped grain in the granaries for the people; I made grasses grow for the animals" (6.109-110).

So, she gets the Bull. But, we have to wonder, has she done all this grain storing so that she could get that Bull of Heaven when the time came? It is hard to tell here if Ishtar cares for the people or not. It is hard to know, in fact, if she is even being truthful in what she says.

Add to Ishtar's list of charming qualities: she's also a sore loser. When Gilgamesh kills the Bull of Heaven, she goes up to the top of the wall of Uruk, mourns and "hurl[s] her woeful curse: 'Woe unto Gilgamesh who slandered me and killed the Bull of Heaven'" (6.152-153).

Now that doesn't sound so woeful to us, but it must just lose something in translation because this makes Enkidu so enraged that he throws the Bull's hind leg at her. All the Urukian women of Ishtar's cult then gather together with her to mourn over the Bull's … ahem, thigh.

Is Ishtar really sad about the bull? Is she worried about what she'll have to tell daddy? When all else fails, do we just drop everything and start mourning? We don't know for sure. But, we sure are glad that Ishtar doesn't have a crush on us. (We also think it is pretty fascinating how the women in this epic are very strong minded characters who have a healthy interest in sex.)

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