Inanna, Goddess War, Sex, and Justice

Seal showing the goddess Ishtar, Neo-Assyrian, c720-c700 BC.
Relief of the goddess Inanna/Ishatar, Neo-Assyrian.

Print Collector / Getty Images

In the ancient Mesopotamian kingdom of Sumer, Inanna was known as a powerful goddess of war, sex, and the dispensation of justice. Associated with political power and the underworld, the goddess Inanna evolved over time, spreading throughout the ancient world and blending with both Ishtar and Astarte. Today, she is still honored by many practicing Pagans, who see her as a symbol of divine feminine empowerment.

Did You Know?

  • Inanna was a goddess of ancient Sumer, but existed for millennia before that. She may have evolved from Semitic polytheism.
  • Over time, Inanna became known as a deity of war, sex, and power.
  • Today, Inanna is honored by many members of the transgender community, and is seen as a symbol of feminine empowerment.

Inanna in the Ancient World

For the people of Sumer, some three to four thousand years ago, Inanna was already an ancient goddess. Although her origins are still unclear, there are two possible theories as to where she came from before she was adopted by Sumerians. The first possibility is that she emerged as a deity within the polytheistic Semitic groups of the Near East around 3500-4000 B.C.E., and then was eventually adopted by the Sumerians to fill in some gaps in their pantheon, taking on roles that hadn't already been designated as the domain of existing gods and goddesses. The second theory is that Inanna was a syncretic goddess—one who formed as a blend of the characteristics of several already existing deities in the Sumerian world.

Regardless of how she came to be, over time Inanna merged with the figure of Ishtar in the ancient world, and they are often portrayed as one and the same. She was widely venerated all over Mesopotamia, and her cult's primary temple was located in the city of Uruk, near the Euphrates River in what is present-day Iraq. She became known as a queen of both heaven and earth, and soon evolved into a goddess associated not only with war and the underworld, but also with sex and power; much of this is reflected in her mythologies.

Many of Inanna's early priests were androgynous men, and those who were what we today would view as transgender. Her priests were believed to dress in women's clothing, take traditionally female names, and sing lamentations that were historically the domain of feminine worshipers. Some scholars have theorized that the priests of Inanna were similar to those the people of India refer to as hijra. Although there was once a theory that these priests engaged in sacred prostitution, modern scholars have rejected this idea

Mythology

Terracotta relief of the goddess Astarte (Inanna) standing on two animals.
Terracotta relief of the goddess Astarte/Inanna. Print Collector / Getty Images

Inanna appears in a number of myths and legends that explain her various roles. A Sumerian hymn details how she became a goddess of sexual love, particularly for women. In the story, Inanna asks her twin brother Utu to accompany her to a magical place called the kur, where sacred plants grow; she is forbidden from traveling alone. When they arrive, she wants to eat a sacred fruit of knowledge so that she can learn the secrets of intimacy, telling Utu,

What concerns women—namely, men —I do not know. What concerns women—lovemaking—I do not know.

Utu relents, allowing her to eat the fruit, and so Inanna becomes aware of the power of her own sexuality.

Her connection to the underworld is portrayed in the myth of her descent into the "great below." When she decided that heaven and earth weren't quite enough, and it was time to expand her domain, Inanna packed up all of her things and traveled to the underworld, where she demanded entrance. As she passed through the seven gates, she was stripped of both her finery and her power, and once arriving at the center, her sister Ereshkigal condemned her to death. Inanna was later revived and restored to life by the magic of her priests.

She was also honored by Sumerians as a violent and bloody war goddess, and one of her hymns reveals that

In her joyful heart she performs the song of death on the plain... Axes smash heads, spears penetrate and maces are covered in blood... On their first offerings she pours blood, filling them with death.

Honoring Inanna Today

Today, many modern Pagans have adopted Inanna as a symbol of female empowerment, in no small part due to her role as a goddess of sexual freedom and agency. In addition, she has become associated with many members of the transgender community, related to the gender-nonconformity of her early priests. Author Sara Amis describes a passage in The Lady of the Largest Heart and relates a ritual:

Inanna removes the symbols of womanhood and “consecrates [a] maiden’s heart as male,” then does the same with a man, granting each the role and status of another gender by divine fiat and simultaneously inducting them into her priesthood.

Amis goes on to say that Inanna herself often appears as whichever gender she wants, and doesn't bother conforming to stereotypical expectations and norms.

Finally, thanks to her ability to command men to do her bidding, Inanna is often represented in the BDSM community.

Resources

  • Amis, Sara. “Inanna, the Sacred B and the Sacred T.” A Word to the Witch, Patheos. 17 Nov. 2015, www.patheos.com/blogs/awordtothewitch/2015/11/15/inanna-the-sacred-b-and-the-sacred-t/.
  • Black, Jeremy; Cunningham, Graham; Flückiger-Hawker, Esther; Robson, Eleanor; Taylor, John; Zólyomi, Gábor. Inanna's Descent to the Netherworld: Translation. Oxford University, Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature. etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/section1/tr141.htm.
  • Collins, P., 1994. The Sumerian Goddess Inanna (3400-2200 BC). Papers from the Institute of Archaeology. https://pia-journal.co.uk/articles/10.5334/pia.57/galley/145/download/
  • Leick, Dr Gwendolyn. Sex and Eroticism in Mesopotamian Literature. Taylor and Francis, 2013.
  • Leick, Gwendolyn. A Dictionary of Ancient near Eastern Mythology. Routledge, 1998.