The Descent of Ishtar to the Netherworld
Artifact: Clay tablet
Period: Neo-Assyrian (ca. 911-612 BC)
Current location: British Museum, London
Text genre, language: Literary; Akkadian
CDLI page, and CDLI composite with translation
Description: This Akkadian poem tells the myth of the descent of Ishtar, goddess of love, fertility, and war, into the Netherworld and her resurrection. The poem begin's with Ishtar's descent to the Netherworld and a stock literary description of this mythical place. She passes through the seven gates of the Netherworld, and at each gate, she is required to relinquish a garment or piece of jewellery. Stripped of her clothing and jewellery – and thus symbolically stripped of power – she faces a furious queen Ereshkigal, the queen of the Netherworld, who refuses to let Ishtar leave this land of no return. With the intervention of the god Ea, Ereshkigal finally allows the goddess Ishtar to leave on the condition that she find a replacement for her in the Netherworld, which Ishtar finds in her husband Dumuzi. Ishtar is then allowed to leave through the seven gates, at each of which the gatekeeper restores her clothing and finery to her. The poem is related to an earlier Sumerian poem that tells of the descent of Inana to the Netherworld in a much more elaborate account of the descent and resurrection, and the Akkadian version of the story omits much of the detail that appears in the Sumerian work. B. Foster's analysis of Late Akkadian literature provides a window onto the context for the abbreviated character of the later poem: the shortening of the Descent of Isthar as compared with Inana's Descent reflects a continued process of "modernisation, simplification, expansion, and corruption of texts throughout the second millennium BCE (Foster 2007: 100). The myth may have also served to explain the periodic disappearance and reappearance in the evening sky of Venus, with which Ishtar is also associated.
Edition(s): Lapinkivi, P. 2010: The Neo-Assyrian Myth of Ištar's Descent and Resurrection (State Archives of Assyria Cuneiform Texts 6 / Helsinki: Neo Assyrian Text Corpus Project); Foster, B. R. 2005: Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature, 3rd ed. (University of Maryland Press) [translation only]; Dalley, S. 2000: 'The Descent of Ishtar to the Underworld', Myths from Mesopotamia, rev. ed. (Oxford University Press), 154-162 [translation only].
Bibliography: Black, J. 1998: Reading Sumerian Poetry (London: The Athlone Press); Foster, B. R. 1995: From Distant Days: Myths, Tales, and Poetry of Ancient Mesopotamia (Bethesday: CDL Press); Foster, B. R. 2005: Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature, 3rd. ed. (University of Maryland Press); Foster, B. R. 2007: Akkadian Literature of the Late Period, Guides to the Mesopotamian Textual Record, vol. 2 (Munster: Ugarit-Verlag); Reiner, E. 1985: Your Thwarts in Pieces, Your Mooring Rope Cut: Poetry from Babylonia and Assyria (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan); Westenholz, J. G. 2007: 'Inanna and Ishtar in the Babylonian World', in Leick, G., The Babylonian World (Routledge), 332-347.