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In the beginning . . .

In the beginning . . .

Chapter 2 in Freeing the Feminine by Elspeth and Gordon Strachan,
Labarum Publications, Dunbar 1985, pp. 27-46.

Republished on our website with permission of the authors

Before Heaven and Earth existed
There was something nebulous:
Silent, isolated,
Standing alone, changing not,
Eternally revolving without fail,
Worthy to be called Mother of All Things.
I do not know its name
And address it as Tao.
If forced to give it a name, I shall call it `Great'. (1)

This beautiful Chinese poem, believed to have been written in the sixth century BC by the philosopher Lao-tse, expresses most eloquently a concept which has its roots in the world's earliest religious traditions, namely, that in the beginning of time there was a mysterious, transcendent, all-embracing Presence who was the potential source of life and therefore worthy to be called `Mother'. The Taoist philosophy of Lao-tse was highly sophisticated and he was reluctant to give this great Presence a name, for that would limit it. Nevertheless he did consider it appropriate to call this being `Mother of All Things' and `Great'. Other religious traditions have been less reticent about naming this great maternal being, and her titles are myriad. They range from Queen of Heaven, Mother Earth and Tellus Mater, to Creatress of the Gods and Great Mother. Her worship was one of the earliest manifestations of religious belief and this was not as a mere fertility figure. Primarily she was identified with nature, but not exclusively. The following address, found in Apuleius's The Golden Ass gives some indication of her grandeur:

I am Nature, the universal Mother, mistress of all the elements, primordial child of time, sovereign of all things spiritual, queen of the dead, queen also of the immortals, the single manifestation of all gods and goddesses that are. My nod governs the shining heights of Heaven, the wholesome sea breezes, the lamentable silences of the world below. Though I am worshipped in many aspects, known by countless names, and propitiated with all manner of different rites, yet the whole round earth venerates me. (2)

In terms of the history of the worship of the Mother Goddess, this testimony is relatively recent, yet its sentiments transcend time. Even today this great maternal deity is being worshipped with considerable devotion. for the Kagaba people of Colombia in South America, for instance, she is the ' only mother we possess':

The mother of our songs, the mother of all our seed, bore us in the beginning of things and so she is the mother of all types of men, the mother of all nations. She is the mother of the thunder, the mother of the streams, the mother of trees and of all things . . . .
She has no cult, and no prayers are really directed to her, but when the fields are sown and the priests chant their incantations the Kagaba say, "And then we think of the one and only mother of the growing things, of the mother of all things." (3)

Although this supreme being is associated with maternal imagery, nevertheless in her capacity as creatress of the gods and of all heaven and earth, she was understood to contain and transcend both feminine and masculine characteristics. She was a great androgynous deity who would not be limited by sex or gender. In the previous chapter we heard of the Greek goddess Gaia. She was the primeval Mother Earth from whose womb Heaven (Uranos), the mountains, valleys, vegetation and lesser gods and goddesses were born. She `emerged from Chaos and bore her son Uranos as she slept'(4) Implicit in the archetypal Great Mother was her capacity to contain all life in its complexity within her cosmic womb. She could therefore fertilise herself without need of a male consort, and bring to maturity the embryo of the world. This ability also gave her the paradoxical title Virgin Mother.

The waters of the Virgin's magical womb were analogous to the primeval waters that were believed to exist in a state of chaos before creation began. In Genesis 1, for example, the word for `the deep' is tehom, which is related etymologically to Tiamat (`Ocean'), the Babylonian goddess of the primeval ocean. In the Egyptian Coffin texts dating from 2250-1580 BC the Egyptian High God describes himself as `the spirit in the Primeval Waters', the `drowned one':

I was (the spirit in?) the Primeval Waters,
he who had no companion when my name came into existence.
The most ancient form in which I came into existence was as a drowned one.
I was (also) he who came into existence as a circle, he who was the dweller in his egg. (5)

The cosmic circle or egg is another recurrent image in many world myths and also relates to the womb of the Great Mother. Just as in the human womb the embryo lives in an unconscious state with no sense of identity or differentiation, so in many creation myths the embryo of the world is first pictured as an egg in which the yolk and white are undifferentiated. Heaven, earth, and all the opposites of life are contained within the shell, but in an unseparated state at first. The following eighth century Japanese creation myth is a good example of this tradition:

Of old, Heaven and Earth were not yet separated, and the In and Yo not yet divided. They formed a chaotic mass like an egg, which was of obscurely defined limits and contained germs. The purer and clearer part was thinly diffused and formed Heaven, while the heavier and grosser element settled down and became Earth. The finer element easily became a united body, but the consolidation of the heavy and gross element was accomplished with difficulty. Heaven was therefore formed first, and Earth established subsequently. Thereafter divine beings were produced between them.(6)

Although there is no named maternal presence in this picture, there is the implicit recognition of some great feminine impulse which originally produced the egg concept. These, and many other stories of the Great Mother with her primeval womb and miraculous powers of creation have a lyrical beauty which is perhaps surprising to our modern minds, and in direct contrast to the popular picture of the mother goddess in the west today.

The very word `goddess' seems to conjure up images of a pagan, orgiastic fertility figure of minimal importance in the pantheons of the deities and totally subservient to the supreme high gods. As a participant in the vegetation fertility rites, she is seen as wholly concerned with sexuality and prostitution. There is no doubt that in some of its manifestations throughout history, the religion of the goddess has been cruel, blood-thirsty and promiscuous. In some forms it has involved cultic marriages, human and animal sacrifices, self-castration and sacred prostitution. These cannot be ignored. just as nature can be both kind and cruel, gentle and vicious, so the Great Mother who is said to give birth to nature can also be both life-giving and death-dealing. In her positive aspect she was the great creator, sustainer and protector of life governing `the shining heights of heaven'; in her negative role she was the devouring, ensnaring dealer of death, unfaithful wife, cruel mother and ruler of "the lamentable silences of the world below". Her dual character as both creator and destroyer is revealed in one Latin inscription to Astarte which reads:

Diva Astarte, hominum deorumque via, vita, salus: rusus eadam quae est pernicies, mors, interitus (Divine Astarte, the power, the life, the health of men, and gods, and the opposite of this which is evil, death and destruction). (7)

When we are considering the religious rites surrounding the worship of the goddess, however, it is important to remember their antiquity, for they were being practised at a time when such things as human sacrifice and cultic prostitution were common. The goddess religion dates as far back as 5000 BC in organised form-long before bible times. We cannot judge the morality of early religions by modern standards. The vegetation cults of the goddess are most commonly dismissed as depraved and superstitious. Yet, according to the distinguished Assyriologist Stephen Langdon, this is too simplistic. While very aware of the dark, vicious side of the rites, he also discovered in his researches a very much more elevated, spiritual aspect which has generally been ignored. Writing in 1914 about the Babylonian vegetation cult, involving Tammuz and Ishtar he said this:

The mysteries of the death and resurrection of the youthful god, the weeping mother and her descent to the shades of Aralu, were probably represented in some material way, but the chants themselves have little reference to such things. They are both spiritual and thoroughly human, poetical and skilfully liturgical.(8)

Of the cult itself he said:

The consciousness that human life is unstable, transient, and full of sorrow, gave rise to asceticism, fasting and the adoration of eternal life. The measure of development of such a cult is a sure test of the culture of a people, and measured by this test the Babylonian religion ranks high among the great culture religions of antiquity. (9)

This is a very different picture of the goddess religion from the one usually presented by teachers and textbooks, but Langdon is not alone in his analysis. More recently Professor John Bright, in his acclaimed History of Israel, warns against over-simplification. While highly critical of the fertility rites in the Canaanite religion, he also points out that it was not devoid of more elevated aspects such as social concern for others.(10)

That the great Mother Goddess was ruler of love, fertility and the family, none would deny; yet the hymns, laments and liturgies of the period indicate that she was much more than that. She was also venerated as a warrior, a ruler of battles, a hunter, a shepherdess, a law-giver, judge, healer, teacher and prophet, as well as maker of heaven and earth. Her many names and titles reflected her different roles. Some of her complexity is revealed in her address to Apuleius:

The primeval Phrygians call me Pessinunctica, Mother of the gods; the Athenians, sprung from their own soil, call me Cecropian Artemis; for the islanders of Cyprus I am Paphian Aphrodite; for the archers of Crete I am Dictynna; for the triligual Sicilians, Stygian Proserpine; and for Eleusinians their ancient Mother of the Corn.(11)

She goes on to say that although others know her as Juno, Bellona of the Battles, or Hecate and Rhamnubia, it is the Ethiopians and especially the Egyptians who know her true name:

. . . both races of Aethiopians, whose lands the morning sun first shines upon, and the Egyptians who excel in ancient learning and worship me with ceremonies proper to my godhead, call me by my true name, namely, Queen Isis. (12)

The Egyptian goddess Isis was one of the greatest syncretistic mother goddesses combining in herself the attributes of some of the most ancient and powerful female deities of surrounding countries. According to E O James, `. . . [Isis] unquestionably was the greatest and most beneficent female deity, personifying all that was most vital in motherhood.' (13) She came to be equated with the Magna Mater of western Asia, Greece and Rome, and in her attributes became indistinguishable from the Hebrew Astarte and the Babylonian Ishtar. Her name meant literally `seat' or `throne', and as James observed, `. . . since enthronement has long been an essential element in royal installation, "the throne which made the king" readily would become the Great Mother charged with the mysterious power of kingship. '(14)

In its later manifestations the religion of Isis became highly spiritualised and ascetic, and the image of her seated on a throne with the god Osiris on her knee was actually adopted by later Christian artists to depict Mary and Christ. Rosemary Radford Ruether has pointed out:

The religion of Isis, the Egyptian goddess, was one prototype of many of the ideas taken over in Christian teaching about Mary. Chastity typified her image and worship. Her priests were tonsured and celibate. Fasting, prayer, vigils, and moral renewal preceded the initiation of her devotees. She appeared as a beautiful figure who rose from the sea, crowned with a moon, wearing a dark mantle bordered with stars. On the basis of moral renewal of their lives, her devotees were promised prosperity in this life and assurance of life after death. She was above all wisdom, the companion of purified souls. When the religion of Isis was defeated by Christianity, much of her power and attraction lived on in the devotion to Mary.(15)

As we can see, the Great Mother Goddess was a highly complex and paradoxical figure, often androgynous and frequently with conflicting qualities. Although a female deity, she was not a purely `feminine' figure. She was a complex representative of all human qualities, masculine and feminine. However, the single most important factor in her worship has been her maternity. Even her androgyny was part of this for, as James remarks, . . divine androgyny has been a recurrent phenomenon in the Goddess cult everywhere, reflecting the primeval cosmic unity from which all creation has been thought to have emerged."(16) The reason for the primacy of maternity in the goddess worship lies in the prehistoric past.

Among the earliest archaeological finds relating to primitive religions has been a number of female figurines which we call 'Venuses'. These statuettes were of full-breasted women, either pregnant or with their maternal attributes clearly emphasised. They were discovered in central and western Europe and date back to between 25,000 and 30,000 BC. Although it is considered unlikely that at that early stage these figurines represented an actual deity, it is clear that they did represent the mysteries of womanhood and motherhood. It is very significant that these Venuses were found in hunting communities where agricultural and vegetation rites were not known. This would appear to rule out the possibility that they were simply animistic representations of a vegetation fertility cult. It is far more likely, as anthropologists have observed, that these statuettes were linked to the mysteries of the woman as mother.

It is the assumption of many anthropologists that in earliest times the role of men in the procreative act was not understood, as is the case in some primitive tribes even today.(17) If this was so, then women would naturally have been seen to possess some stupendously miraculous ability to produce and feed children. This power would be of crucial importance in societies where nourishment was a matter of life and death. This gave them a special mana or religious significance associating women with wisdom, mystery and magic. It was out of this understanding that the idea of the Virgin Mother developed - the Great Mother who was creatress of all life and who contained all that was necessary for the birth and sustenance of the human species inside her own womb. Since they were unaware of the physiological process of generation, the earliest people had no way of protecting the continuation of the human species, so the role of the mother in the family must have been of primary importance. At a time when survival was a question of braving hostile elements, when storms, floods, droughts, earthquakes and disease could bring immediate annihilation, and when the precariousness of finding food and shelter must have been a constant source of anxiety, it was the figure of the all-knowing, all-embracing mother to whom the early earth-dwellers turned for protection, aid and comfort.

This mother could not, of course, reign unchallenged forever. Eventually it must have occurred to the men, and indeed the women, that the sexual process was more complex yet more predictable than they had realised. It seems probable that in general this realisation dawned around the time when communities were changing from hunters to stock-raisers and from gatherers to farmers. This led to new religious practices. E O James explains:

As the great Mother became more clearly defined, and consciousness of the duality of male and female in procreation was recognised increasingly, from being Unmarried Mother personifying the divine principle in maternity she was associated with the young god as her son and consort. Then, while she remained the crucial figure, the goddess cult assumed a twofold aspect in the ancient seasonal drama in which both the partners in generation played their respective roles of creative energy, the one female and receptive, the other male and begettive. From Neolithic times onward, phallic emblems were increasingly prevalent, though maternal imagery was predominant in Western Asia, and the Eastern Mediterranean, where in the first instance the male god was subordinate to the goddess. (18)

As the dual roles in the act of procreation were recognised, the mother inevitably lost her monopoly of generative and spiritual power. She now needed a consort to produce life. As agricultural practices developed and increased in importance, so did vegetation fertility rites, for survival was still precarious and dependent both on finding rich soil and being assured of regular rains. The fecundity of a woman's womb, her intimate connections with the rhythms of her body through menstruation, child-birth and lactation, as well as her apparently passive role in receiving the male `seed' made her an obvious symbol to early peoples of the fertility of the earth, the rhythms and cycles of the seasons and the passivity of the soil in receiving the seeds of vegetation. The man's apparent transcendence over the rhythms of his body while producing the life-giving semen led to the association between man and the transcendent sky or heavens which produced the fertilising rains. Thus there developed a sacred cult marriage in which the goddess became the earth-mother and her consort became sky-father. There were many exceptions to these transferences of earth-mother and sky-father, for instance, in Egypt where the sky deity was the goddess Nut and the earth was her brother Geb, but in general the earth came to be seen as feminine and the sky or heavens masculine. The sacred marriage of heaven and earth was an early manifestation of the recognition that both male and female, masculine and feminine forces were needed in the creation of all life.

As a sign of this new awareness, as James emphasises, phallic symbols became increasingly prominent from Neolithic times onward. It is significant that these symbols and the development of a sacred marriage rite began to appear during the Neolithic period - at a time when some degree of mastery of nature was being achieved in the form of farming and herding. The discovery of male sexual potency and the introduction of a sky-father paralleled the growing human ability to transcend the bondage of nature and move away from an almost unconscious identification with her to a conscious determination to master her forces.

This process also led to the domination of women by men. When society knew only its mothers the question of parentage was simple - the connection was obvious, physical, natural and binding. Establishing the paternity of a child, however, was a very much more uncertain affair. It required not only logical reasoning and self-control, but also the curtailing of a woman's freedom in a wide range of social aspects. Her `nature' had to be subdued and her relationships with other men restricted. She became in effect, the man's private property.(19) She became the stronger partner's `garden', and her children his `produce'. As we would expect, the masculine drive to control the instinctive powers of nature, in particular of women and of their representative Mother Goddess, is revealed in many of the earliest myths and legends.

One of the most famous epic struggles is that contained in the Babylonian account of creation the Enuma Elish. Written towards the end of the second millennium BC, it tells how Marduk, new champion of the gods, set about destroying Tiamat, goddess of the primeval ocean. In Mesopotamia the essence of ancient religious belief was that the universe should be ordered, that chaos was evil and that whatever was above in the heavens should also be reflected below on earth. The forces of chaos in Babylon were represented by the Great Goddess Tiamat. Marduk, a much younger god challenged her to single combat, because:

Against Anshar, king of the gods, thou seekest evil; (Against) the gods, my father, thou hast confirmed thy wickedness.(20)

The great Tiamat was furious at this precocious young upstart's audacity and in fury cried aloud, but she had met her match:

Then joined issue Tiamat and Marduk, wisest of the gods.
They strove in single combat, locked in battle.
The lord spread out his net to enfold her,
The Evil Wind, which followed behind, he let loose in her face.
When Tiamat opened her mouth to consume him,
He drove in the Evil Wind that she close not her lips.
As the fierce winds charged her belly,
Her body was distended and her mouth was wide open.
He released the arrow, it tore her belly,
It cut through her insides, splitting the heart.
Having thus subdued her, he extinguished her life.
He cast down her carcass to stand upon it.(21)

This was not merely a battle between a feeble young goddess and a great lord. The intense violence shown towards Tiamat is an indication of the threat she was felt to be. Marduk crushed her skull and severed her arteries, spreading her out across the heavens; making of her one half the heavens, of the other half the earth. His fathers were joyful and jubilant, but he was still watchful:

Half of her he set up and ceiled it as sky,
Pulled down the bar and posted guards.
He bade them to allow not her waters to escape.(22)

This Babylonian creation myth was repeated once a year at the New Year festival as part of a ritual drama to reaffirm the power of order over chaos; it ended with the all-triumphant cry 'Marduk is King!'

Marduk protected the military supremacy of Babylon, the authority of the king on the political and social levels, and it was hoped that he would prevent natural disasters such as drought, disease and earthquake from overtaking the people. He became the chief god of Babylon, and he won the people's respect. His authority, however, depended on the prosperity and importance of his own city. Those sky-gods such as Anu, Enlil and Enki who were supreme deities avoided this problem by becoming totally transcendent and un-involved in the ordinary lives of humanity. However, the price they paid for this was that although recognised to be the supreme heads of the pantheon of lesser gods and goddesses, they were often too distant and otiose to gain the affection of the people. They seemed much too far away in the transcendent heights of heaven and unconcerned about the daily cares of the mere mortals whom they ruled. Many of these celestial gods were eclipsed by younger, more virile sons, as was the case in Canaan where El was outshone by his son Baal. However, in Mesopotamia, and indeed throughout western Asia and the near east, even these younger sons could not compete with the continuing splendour of the Mother Goddess herself.

Although she had lost her independent status as sole creator of life and as Virgin Mother, although her monopoly had been challenged by the new race of male gods, and although the primeval goddesses such as Tiamat had been defeated, the goddess's ancient religion was still very strong and could not be rooted out. It continued to capture the hearts and minds of the people. In theory she may have been under the authority of the Supreme High Gods, but in practice it was she who ruled. As James said `From India to the Mediterranean, in fact, she reigned supreme, often appearing as the unmarried goddess.' (23) Although unmarried, she was still a mother and this was perhaps her primary role, but it was not a subservient one. Langdon observed, `Having cast off many concrete qualities which were personified into female consorts of local gods, she retains for herself the commanding position of a detached deity, mother of humanity, defender of her people.(24)'

The Mother Goddess's pride of place was due to her crucial role in the seasonal vegetation drama of the dying and rising god. In this drama the young god represented the vegetation which withered and died in the summer drought or autumn cold. As he died, the goddess became the lamenting mother, grief-stricken in her bereavement and determined to restore him to life. Said Langdon, `In the service of this cult the figure of the father god an is a mere shadow to explain the existence of the mother and son. (25) It was the Mother Goddess who embodied the source of life. So James points out:

In the primeval and perennial struggle between the two opposed forces in the seasonal sequence, manifest in the creative powers of spring and the autumnal decline, dearth and death, the Goddess was always supreme because she was the source of life, and her male partner was only secondarily her spouse. In short, the creative powers were secondary, and dependent upon forces over which man had but a limited measure of control. (26)

As the maternal source of life, it was the goddess who sought the dying son in the underworld and brought him back to life, not any male god. This co-incided with the blossoming of spring after the ravages of winter. There is no doubt who was the dominant figure in this rite. It was he, not she, who died as the vegetation faded, and it was because of her life-giving capacities that he was reborn. He bowed to her awe inspiring power, becoming her submissive son, following her commands and dying as a symbol of the reproductive forces to be renewed as the seasons changed.

The great goddess of Babylonia, Ishtar, was one of the oldest and most powerful Mother Goddesses of all time. In organised form her worship dates back before 3000 BC.' Her son's name, Tammuz, meant `faithful son' and her own title was Queen of Heaven. So widespread was her worship that the name Ishtar came to be a synonym for `goddess' in the near east.(28) Like Isis she was a great syncretistic deity and had many symbols, including the serpent, the asherah or stylised pillar, and the lion. One of her temples was called Eanna, and was situated in Uruk, biblical Erech, which was very near Ur. It was here that many sacred rituals took place. Her son Tammuz had no temple of his own. His worship was entirely identified with his mother. Nineveh, that great city against which Jonah was forced to preach with such spectacular results, was also widely regarded for the worship of Ishtar.

Something of the grandeur of this Great Mother as mother of sorrows is revealed in an early liturgy in which she is described seeking her son in the underworld. On her way to Hades she is accosted by the gatekeeper who discourages her from going further because he fears that she will meet the queen of Hades and this is forbidden. But she is determined to go on:

O Innini, go not; the queen of the great house
Not should'st thou know; not shouldst thou enter.
Not shalt thou press forward, not shaft thou know
But the maiden went, to the darkness went.
`A queen am I' (she said); the maiden went,
to the darkness went
To him seized away, her beloved not should she go,
into darkness go.
In the place of desolation among the hungry ones she should not sit. (29)

Innini-Ishtar was a great queen who would not be overawed by anyone, even the queen of Hades. At considerable risk to her own life she eventually found Tammuz, her beloved son, and brought him back to life. The flowers blossomed, the leaves of the trees burst forth, the young animals leapt from their mother's wombs and the people were no longer hungry and lamenting.

Although Ishtar's role as Mater Dolorosa was central to her status, she also had many other attributes and her authority was unchallenged even among the gods. As Great Mother she was both giver of life and destroyer of it, both loving mother and terrible mother, both virgin and harlot. She was the patroness of sexual love and family life; she was also judge, prophet, healer and goddess of war. Her word, for the Babylonians at least, was supreme among the gods as the following extract from a 1600 BC hymn shows:

Ishtar among the gods, extraordinary is her station
Respected is her word; it is supreme over them.
She is their queen; they continually cause her demands to be executed.
All of them bow down before her.
They receive her light before her.
Women and men indeed revere her. (30)

In another prayer of the first millennium BC, Ishtar is described in the most glowing and splendid terms. It is a prayer of lamentation in which her supplicant asks for his sins to be forgiven. He praises her ability to heal the sick and raise the dead as well as to rule battles and govern heaven and earth. He is clearly in distress and feels that his lady has turned her face from him, but he reminds her that he has remained true to her, `I have paid heed to thee, my Lady; my attention has been turned to thee.' The genuine love and devotion in this prayer to valiant. Ishtar is unmistakable:

I pray to thee, O Lady of ladies, goddess of goddesses.
O Ishtar, queen of all peoples, who guides mankind aright,
O Irnini ever exalted, greatest of the Igigi,
O most mighty of princesses, exalted is thy name.
Thou art indeed the light of heaven and earth,
O valiant daughter of Sin.
O supporter of arms, who determines battles,
O possessor of all divine power, who wears the crown of dominion,
O Lady, glorious is thy greatness; over all the gods it is exalted.

Anu, Enlil and Ea have made thee high; among the gods they have caused thy dominion to be great.
They have made thee high among all the Igigi; they have made thy position pre-eminent.
At the thought of thy name heaven and earth tremble.
The judgment of the people in truth and righteousness thou indeed dost decide.
Thou regardest the oppressed and mistreated; daily thou causest them to prosper.
O deity of men, goddess of women, whose designs no one can conceive,
Where thou dost look, one who is dead lives; one who is sick rises up;
The erring one who sees thy face goes aright.
I have cried to thee, suffering, wearied and distressed, as thy servant.
See me O my Lady; accept my prayers.
Faithfully look upon me and hear my supplication.
Promise my forgiveness and let thy spirit be appeased.
I toss about like flood-water, which an evil wind makes violent.
My heart is flying; it keeps fluttering like a bird of heaven.
I mourn like a dove night and day.
I am beaten down, and so I weep bitterly.
With "Oh" and "Alas" my spirit is distressed.
I - what have I done, O my god and my goddess?
Like one who does not fear my god and goddess I am treated.

The supplicant then goes on to describe the dreadful things that are happening to him: `sickness, headache, loss and destruction' are provided for him, the anger, choler and indignation of gods and men are visited upon him, and he is expecting `dark days, gloomy months and years of trouble'. His chapel is silent as are his house, his gate and his fields. His family is scattered, his roof broken up, and he himself is dressed in sackcloth, pursued by enemies. Even his god has `turned to the sanctuary of another'. But Ishtar's devotee insists that he cannot be accused of deserting his beloved Lady:

(But) I have paid heed to thee, my Lady; my attention has been turned to thee.
To thee have I prayed; forgive my debt.
Forgive my sin, my iniquity, my shameful deeds and my offence.
How long, O my Lady, wilt thou be angered so that thy face is turned away?
How long, O my Lady, wilt thou be infuriated so that thy spirit is enraged (32)

It was clearly very uncomfortable to have Ishtar's wrath visited upon one, and only her forgiveness and favour would restore prosperity. We do not know what her supplicant's sins were, but he assures her that whatever else he may have done, he has remained faithful to her. Indeed he wishes her to show him mercy so that others might follow her too:

Let my prayers and my supplications come to thee.
Let thy great mercy be upon me.
Let those who see me in the street magnify thy name.
As for me, let me glorify thy divinity and thy might before the black-headed (people), [saying]
Ishtar indeed is exalted; Ishtar indeed is queen;
The Lady indeed is exalted; the Lady indeed is queen.
Irnini, the valorous daughter of Sin, has no rival. (33)

The followers of Ishtar may have felt obliged to proclaim that she had no rival. To be untrue to Ishtar was evidently dangerous, bringing dreadful calamities. Yet Ishtar did have a rival, one whose claims to greatness were far more splendid even than hers, one whose transcendence, authority, compassion and power were incomparably grander and one who ultimately not only defeated her, but changed the face of history. The name of that rival was Yahweh.


1. Lao-tse: Tao Te Ching, in The Wisdom of Laotse, translated by Lin Yutang, Michael Joseph, London, 1958, p 14.

2. Apuleius: The Golden Ass, translated by Robert Graves, Folio Society, 1960, p 190.

3. Mircea Eliade: From Primitives to Zen, Collins, London, 1967, p 14.

4. Robert Graves: Greek Myths, Cassell, 1958, p 31.

5. Eliade: op. cit. p 24.

6. Ibid. p 94.

7. Cited by M. Esther Harding: Woman’s Mysteries, Rider and Co., London, 1971, p 167.

8. S. Langdon: Tammuz and Ishtar, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1914, p vi.

9. Ibid. p 1.

10. John Bright: A History of Israel, SCM Press Ltd., London, 1982, p 119.

11. Apuleius, op. cit. p 190.

12. Ibid.

13. E. O. James: The Ancient Gods, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London, 1960, p 85.

14. James: The Cult of the Mother-Goddess, Thames and Hudson, London, 1959, p 61.

15. Rosemary Radford Ruether: Mary-The Feminine Face of the Church SCM Press Ltd., London, 1979, p 14.

16. James: The Cult of the Mother-Goddess, p 245.

17. See E. S. Hartland: Primitive Paternity, David Nutt, London, 1909, and P. Malinowski: The Father in Primitive Psychology, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner and Co. Ltd., London, 1927.

18. James: Man and His Gods, edited by Geoffrey Parrinder, Hamlyn, London, 1973, p 33.

19. For detailed discussion on the historical relationship between matriarchy and patriarchy see J. J. Bachofen: Myth, Religion and Mother Right, translated by Ralph Mannheim, Princeton University Press, Princeton 1967; Robert Briffault: The Mothers, George Allen and Unwin, London, 1927 and Evelyn Reed: Woman’s Evolution, Pathfinder Press Inc., New York, 1975.

20. The Creation Epic, Tablet IV, lines 83-84, translated by E. A. Speiser: Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, ed. James B. Pritchard, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1955, p 67.

21. Ibid. lines 93-104.

22. Ibid. lines 138-140.

23. James: The Ancient Gods, p 77.

24. Langdon, op. cit. p 110.

25. Ibid. p 29.

26. James: Man and His Gods, p 33.

27. See Langdon, op. cit. chs 1/2 and M. Esther Harding op. cit. p 98/ch 12 for the dates of Ishtar.

28. See Donald Wiseman: Man and His Gods, p 100.

29. Langdon, op. cit. p 19.

30. Hymn to Ishtar lines 27-32, translated by Ferris J. Stephens: Ancient Near Eastern Texts p 383.

31. Prayer of Lamentation to Ishtar, op. cit., lines 1-8; 18-20; 39-45; 62-78.

32. Ibid. lines 79-81; 93-94.

33. Ibid. lines 99-105.

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