Today I’m going to look at a myth that is super, super old. Old as balls. Over 4000 years old, to be precise, and one that’s one of the earliest examples of the “hero goes to the underworld to save a loved one” myth.
That myth, my friends, is the story of Ishtar’s descent into the underworld.
So, who is Ishtar, you may ask? Ishtar is the Babylonian goddess of war, love, fertility, and a metric fuckton of other things. So, yeah, she’s pretty important. Ishtar was married to a shepherd named Tammuz, who, being mortal, dies one day.
This will not stand, so Ishtar decides to head down to the underworld to get him back, or at least to hange out with him for a little while.
While she’s down there, she passes through seven different gates. At each of these gates, Ishtar has to give up one article of her clothing and jewelry. Until she is naked. Not really sure why that’s necessary, but OK.
OK, that was a bit of a joke. It’s basically meant to symbolize her being strippped (literally) of her power the deeper she goes into the underworld. Naturally, a fertility goddess in the land of the dead is probably not going to do very well.
So, when Ishtar gets to the queen of the underworld, her sister Ereshkigal, she outright demands that she let her see her husband. Ereshkigal is outraged by Ishtar’s sheer fucking audacity, and quite vehemently tells her no. Ishtar’s like, “OK, fine, fuck you,” and tries to leave.
And here’s where she runs into a bit of a problem. See, the underworld is like the Hotel California: you can never leave. Ereshkigal then decides to make sure that Ishtar doesn’t even try by giving her all the diseases and throwing her into a cell.
This proves to be a problem due to the sheer number of things in Ishtar’s domain, particularly fertility. So Ea, the god of water and wisdom, among other things, decides that he needs to do something about that. That thing he decides to do is create a gender non-binary called Asu-shu-namir, and send them down to try and bust Ishtar out.
So Asu-shu-namir heads down and basically seduces Ereshkigal, because they are super, super cute. At some point, Asu-shu-namir asks Ereshkigal for some of the water of life, which she grants. This turns out to be a mistake on her part, since they immediately pour some of it on Ishtar, reviving her.
So the two of them decide it’s time to get the fuck out of dodge, grabbing Ishtar’s clothes and jewelry along the way. It should be noted at this point that Ereshkigal is fire pissed. She is so pissed off, in fact, that she curses anyone like Asu-shu-namir to be forever outcast from society.
Ishtar takes some pity on them, though, and grants him some nifty healing and prophetic powers. This is interesting because there are a lot of ancient (and some modern) societies that revere trans and non-binary people as holy, so that’s pretty cool.
Like any other myth, howver, there are variations. One of the more well-known is one where Tammuz actually doesn’t die, but Ishtar decides to head down to the underworld basically just to flex on her sister. Ereshkigal basically has the same reaction, but in this version Ishtar is realeased because Tammuz agrees to take her place.
I just think it’s neat that not only can different cultures have their own version of the same story, but that there can be so many diffferent variations of that story within its own culture.