The goddess Inana

The goddess Inana is the most fascinating figure in the Sumerian pantheon. Merged at an early date with her Akkadian counterpart Ishtar, Inana was the goddess of love, sex, war, and transformation, often associated with all that was paradoxical or that deviated from the norm. (Note that her name can also be spelled Inanna and Innana.)

Not only do two of Enheduana’s poems, the Exaltation and the Hymn, sing the praises of this mighty goddess, we also know that the historical Enheduana had a personal devotion to Inana: the Disk of Enheduana was created to commemorate an altar that Enheduana made for Inana. This devotion had a clear political subtext, since Ishtar was the patron deity of the Old Akkadian Empire.

In the myths about her, Inana appears in two radically different guises: as the goddess of love and sex, and as the goddess of war and destruction. The first role is associated with her youthful courtship of the shepherd god Dumuzi, but Enheduana’s two hymns focus on the latter role.

Because of this divine duality, Inana was associated with the planet Venus, which can only be seen by the naked eye on either the eastern horizon at dawn or the western horizon at dusk: the polarity of the planet matched that of the goddess. Further, since Inana’s roles were coded as feminine and masculine, respectively, the ritual performers associated with her worship often engaged in a playful subversion of gendered codes as well.

More generally, Inana was associated with transformation and paradox: She was thought to change everything around her, and her behavior is shaped by contradiction and reversal. At the end of Enki and the World Order, Inana is tasked with introducing chaos into the cosmic order that the god Enki had created: she is to destroy what should not be destroyed and create what should not be created. This paradoxical nature is particularly well expressed in the central section of the Hymn (l. 115–173), which lists Inana’s contradictory attributes.

Old Akkadian seal showing Inana standing on a “leashed lion” (as mentioned in the Hymn, l. 23). Wikimedia Commons.

Inana features in a wide range of myths and poems, but among the most important are Inana’s Descent, Inana and Ebih, and Inana and Enki.

Inana’s Descent tells of how Inana once attempted to conquer the realm of the dead, which is ruled by her sister Ereshkigal. Ereshkigal forces Inana to take off her me at the gates of the Netherworld, leaving her powerless against Ereshkigal’s attacks. Inana is thus trapped in the Netherworld, but Enki rescues her by creating a gala and a kurĝara, who trick Ereshkigal into releasing her. However, Inana must provide someone else to take her place in the Netheworld. On returning home, she finds that her lover Dumuzi has not been properly grieving her, and so he allows the demons of death to seize him. Grief-stricken, Dumuzi’s sister offers to take his place in the Netherworld for half the year, creating the cycle of seasons.

Inana and Ebih is the story of how Inana destroyed the mountain Ebih because it failed to honor her. All the other mountains pay obeisance to Inana, but Ebih refuses, and so Inana sets out to crush it. Ignoring the advice of her grandfather An, she completely obliterates the mountain. This myth is repeatedly referenced in the Exaltation and especially in the Hymn, where it is summarized in l. 109–11.

Inana and Enki is the story of how Inana acquired the me that give her control over human affairs. In a drinking competition with Enki, she manages to outdrink the god and then load his me onto her boat, making off with them while Enki sleeps. She makes it home to Uruk before Enki is able to catch up with her, thus gaining her mighty powers in a typically subversive fashion.

Further reading

Pryke, Ishtar.

Harris, “Inanna-Ishtar as Paradox.”

Heffron, “Inana/Ištar.”