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Ishtar is the goddess of love and fertility, as well as the goddess of war, and the patroness of Uruk. She serves as a representation of female sexuality, offering a contrast to the love between Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Proud and tempestuous, Ishtar’s actions are never subtle—as a goddess, she feels entitled to what she wants, not unlike Gilgamesh at the beginning of the story—and ultimately her character presents key opportunities for conflict that propel the story forward.
As the goddess of both love and war, Ishtar deals in extremes. Following his killing of Humbaba, Ishtar is overwhelmed with lust for Gilgamesh. When he refuses her advances, her fury is just as intense as her lust. As her father Anu states, Gilgamesh is correct in his repudiation of Ishtar—she does punish her human lovers. But as the goddess of the city of which Gilgamesh is king, Ishtar makes it clear that scorning her is tantamount to disrespecting her, and her unrelenting wrath spells out disaster for Gilgamesh and Enkidu. When the pair kill the Bull of Heaven she releases as punishment, her curse reflects a change in Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s relationship to the gods. Where before their goals were more or less aligned—killing Humbaba may have angered Enlil, but it was the will of Shamash, to whom the pair made sacrifices—now the tides have turned. Ishtar isn’t the only one who thinks Gilgamesh and Enkidu are flaunting their hubris as they parade throughout the town asking who the best heroes are.
It’s revealing that Ishtar wept when the flood came, demonstrating her humanity. For all her faults, she did grieve for her people. That the end of Gilgamesh’s quest is linked with the temple of Ishtar suggests a return to feminine power, and underscores the centrality of what she stands for: love, sex, fertility, and birth. Gilgamesh’s repudiation of Ishtar is a major catalyst that ultimately leads to the death of Enkidu, but in the end, Ishtar’s character suggests the existence of life is inherently feminine. Gilgamesh’s realization that life is all there is, and that all he can do is ensure prosperity for his people and the ones that come after, enables him to become the king he was always meant to be.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Epic of Gilgamesh!