Inana/Ištar (goddess)

Inana (Sumerian)/Ištar (Akkadian) is among the most important deities and the most important goddess in the Mesopotamian pantheon. She is primarily known as the goddess of sexual love but is equally prominent as the goddess of warfare. In her astral aspect, Inana/Ištar is the planet Venus, the morning and the evening star.

Cylinder seal TT  (the Adda seal) at the British Museum, showing the goddess Ištar (full face) carrying weapons on her back, standing on a mountain (BM 89115). The seal dates to the Old Akkadian period (ca. 2300 BCE). © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Glazed brick relief from the city of Babylon, showing the lion, the symbol of Ištar. The relief was part of the processional way from the temple of Marduk to the akītu-house, where the New Year's festival was celebrated. The relief dates to the time of king Nebuchadnezzar II (r. 604-562 BCE). (Louvre Museum, AO 21118) © RMN.


Inana/Ištar is by far the most complex of all Mesopotamian deities, displaying contradictory, even paradoxical traits (Harris 1991; see also Bahrani 2000). In Sumerian poetry, she is sometimes portrayed as a coy young girl under patriarchal authority (though at other times as an ambitious goddess seeking to expand her influence, e.g., in the partly fragmentary myth Inana and Enki, ETCSL 1.3.1 and in the myth Inana's Descent to the Netherworld, ETCSL 1.4.1). Her marriage to Dumuzi is arranged without her knowledge, either by her parents or by her brother Utu (Jacobsen 1987: 3). Even when given independent agency, she is mindful of boundaries: rather than lying to her mother and sleeping with Dumuzi, she convinces him to propose to her in the proper fashion (Jacobsen 1987: 10). These actions are in stark contrast with the portrayal of Inana/Ištar as a femme fatale in the Epic of Gilgameš. Taken by the handsome Gilgameš, Inana/Ištar invites him to be her lover. Her advances, however, are rejected by the hero who accusingly recounts a string of past lovers she has cast aside and destroyed (Dalley 2000: 77ff).

There is, arguably, a persistent commonality between these two natures of Inana/Ištar: her sexuality. The young Inana of Sumerian poetry, who says "Plough my vulva, man of my heart" Leick 1994: 91) is no less desirous than the Inana/Ištar portrayed in Gilgameš: "Let us enjoy your strength, so put your hand and touch our vulva!" (Dalley 2000: 79). Accordingly, Inana/Ištar was the recipient of prayers regarding (im)potency or unrequited love (Biggs 1967: 115; Leick 1994: 193ff). Inana/Ištar was also the patron goddess of prostitutes. (Abusch 2000: 23).

Inana/Ištar is equally fond of making war as she is of making love: "Battle is a feast to her" Harris 1991: 269). The warlike aspect of the goddess tends to be expressed in politically charged contexts (Leick 1994: 7) in which the goddess is praised in connection with royal power and military might. This is already visible in the Old Akkadian period, when Naram-Sin frequently invokes the "warlike Ištar" (aštar annunītum) in his inscriptions (A. Westenholz 1999: 49) and becomes more prominent in the Neo-Assyrian veneration of Inana/Ištar, whose two most important aspects in this period, namely, Ištar of Nineveh and Ištar of Arbela, were intimately linked to the person of the king (Porter 2004: 42). The warrior aspect of Inana/Ištar, which does not appear before the Old Akkadian period (Selz 2000: 34), emphasizes her masculine characteristics, whereas her sexuality is feminine.

The role of the goddess in legitimizing political power was not, however, restricted to her masculine aspect as the warlike Ištar but is attested also for the sexual Inana in her female aspect. Attributed to early Sumerian history, the so-called "sacred marriage" ceremony celebrated the marriage of Inana (represented by her high priestess) and Dumuzi (represented by the ruler) during the New Year's festival to ensure prosperity and abundance (Szarzyńska 2000: 63). Practiced in the late third and early second millennium BCE, the sacred marriage rite, which may have "have been only an intellectual construct, rather than an event in real life", nevertheless served to express the relationship between the king and the divine world (Jones 2003: 291). Accordingly, that many third-millennium rulers described themselves as her spouse, points to Inana's significant agency in wielding political power (Westenholz 2000: 75).

Some mythological narratives dwell on the astral aspect of Inana/Ištar, albeit indirectly. In the myth Inana and Šu-kale-tuda (ETCSL 1.3.3), the clumsy gardener boy Šu-kale-tuda has intercourse with the goddess whilst she is asleep under a tree. Enraged at what has happened, Inana/Ištar goes in search for the hiding boy. The course she takes in searching her violator has been suggested to mimic that of the astral course of the Venus star (Cooley 2008). Likewise, her movements in the myth of Inana and Enki (ETCSL 1.3.1), in which the goddess travels first to Enki's city Eridu from Uruk and travels back again, recalls the cycle of Venus. Presumably the same journey was carried out terrestrially in festivals (Alster 1975: 27-9).

A liminal, that is, in-between, role may also be ascribed to Inana/Ištar by virtue of having travelled to and back from the underworld (Barret 2007). In her mythological descent to the netherworld, she sits on her sister Ereškigal's throne, rouses the anger of the Anunnaki and is turned to a corpse. Only through the agency of her minister Ninšubur, who secures the help of Enki/Ea, is Inana/Ištar able to come alive again and return to the world above (Dalley 2000). Notably, in another myth, among the MEs TT  she takes from Enki/Ea are those associated with "going down into the netherworld" and "coming up from the netherworld". It has been argued by Barret 2007: 19-20 that Mesopotamian grave goods reflect the iconography of Inana/Ištar more than that of any other deity because of this inherent association with transition between the world of the living and the dead.

Divine Genealogy and Syncretisms

The family tree of Inana/Ištar differs according to different traditions. She is variously the daughter of Anu or the daughter of Nanna/Sin and his wife Ningal; and sister of Utu/Šamaš (Abusch 2000: 23); or else the daughter of Enki/Ea. Her sister is Ereškigal. Inana/Ištar does not have a permanent spouse per se, but has an ambivalent relationship with her lover Dumuzi/Tammuz whom she eventually condemns to death. She is also paired with the war god Zababa.

In the Assyrian Empire, Ištar of Nineveh and Ištar of Arbela were treated as two distinct goddesses in royal inscriptions and treaties of Assurbanipal. Also during this period Ištar was made the spouse of Aššur and known by the alternative name of Mulliltu in this particular role (Porter 2004: 42).

Cult Place(s)

The main city of Inana/Ištar is Uruk [~/images/Uruk.jpg]. As one of the foremost Mesopotamian deities, she had temples in all important cities: Adab [~/images/Adab.jpg], Akkade [~/images/Akkad.jpg], Babylon [~/images/Babylon.jpg], Badtibira [~/images/Badtibira.jpg], Girsu [~/images/Girsu.jpg], Isin [~/images/Isin.jpg], Kazallu, Kiš [~/images/Kish.jpg], Larsa [~/images/Larsa.jpg], Nippur [~/images/Nippur.jpg], Sippar [~/images/Sippar.jpg], Šuruppak [~/images/Fara.jpg], Umma [~/images/Umma.jpg], Ur [~/images/Ur.jpg] (Wilcke 1976-80: 78; see also George 1993 for a comprehensive list).

Time Periods Attested

Inana is listed in third place after An and Enlil in the Early Dynastic Fara god-lists (Litke 1998). Inana/Ištar remains in the upper crust of the Mesopotamian pantheon through the third, second and the first millennia. She is especially significant as a national Assyrian deity, particularly in the first millennium.


The Iconography of Inana/Ištar is as varied as her characteristics. In early iconography she is represented by a reed bundle/gatepost Frankfort 1939: 15; Szarzyńska 2000: 71, Figs. 4-5), which is also the written form of her name in very early texts (Black and Green 1998: 108). The uppermost register of the famous Uruk Vase shows the goddess in anthropomorphic form, standing before two such gateposts (Black and Green 1998: 150, Fig.122). In human form as the goddess of sexual love, Inana/Ištar is often depicted fully nude. In Syrian iconography, she often reveals herself by holding open a cape. The nude female is an extremely common theme in ancient Near Eastern art, however, and although variously ascribed to the sphere of Inana/Ištar (as acolytes or cult statuettes), they probably do not all represent the goddess herself. A sound indication of divine status is the presence of the horned cap. In her warrior aspect, Inana/Ištar is shown dressed in a flounced robe with weapons coming out of her shoulder, often with at least one other weapon in her hand and sometimes with a beard, to emphasize her masculine side. Her attribute animal as the goddess of war is the lion, on the back of which she often has one foot or fully stands. In praise of her warlike qualities, she is compared to a roaring, fearsome lion (see Inana and Ebih, ETCSL 1.3.2). In her astral aspect, Inana/Ištar is symbolized by the eight-pointed star. The colours red and carnelian, and the cooler blue and lapis lazuli, were also used to symbolise the goddess, perhaps to highlight her female and male aspects respectively (Barret 2007: 27).

Name and Spellings

Inana/Inanna is the Sumerian name of this goddess. It is most often etymologically interpreted as, literally "Lady of the heavens" (Selz 2000: 29). A different interpretation (Jacobsen 1976: 36) translates her name as "Lady of the date clusters."

The Semitic name Ištar originally belonged to an independent goddess that was later merged and identified with the Sumerian Inana (Abusch 2000: 23). The meaning of her name is also unclear (for more information see Westenholz 2000: 345).

Written forms:
Inana: dINNIN, din-nin, din-ni-na, i-ni-en-na, en-nin, den-ni-na, din-na-na, in-na-na, in-na-an-na, na-na, ni-in, nin, ni-in-ni, dnin?-ni-na, dnin-an-na, ni-in-na-na, dir-ni-na (Gelb 1960).
Ištar: eš4-tár, d4-tár, (d)IŠTÁR, diš-tar, d15 (= IŠTÀR) (Wilcke 1976-80: 75).
Normalised forms:
Inana: Inana, Inanna
Ištar: Ištar, Eštar, 'Aštar, Ištar, Ashtar

Inana in Online Corpora

Ištar in Online Corpora

Further Reading

Yaǧmur Heffron

Yaǧmur Heffron, 'Inana/Ištar (goddess)', Ancient Mesopotamian Gods and Goddesses, Oracc and the UK Higher Education Academy, 2013 []

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