This was adapted from a paper I wrote for Brandeis University USEM 9a+W, "The Wandering Hero in Ancient Literature", taught by Tzvi Abusch, Fall 2002.
(Note: The names Ishtar and Inanna are used interchangably in this writeup. They both refer to the same deity; Ishtar was her Babylonian name and Inanna was her Sumerian name.)
In the Gilgamesh Epic, tablet 6, Ishtar asks Gilgamesh to marry her. When he refuses, she becomes enraged and demands that she be given the Bull of Heaven in order to smite him. Why should she become so enraged as to cause large-scale death and destruction simply because Gilgamesh rejected her proposal? Well, it certainly is in line with her chaotic nature, and the goddess of love isn't accustomed to rejection, but there is more going on here. She does not offer herself to Gilgamesh simply because he is physically attractive, a mighty warrior, etc. In him, she sees Dumuzi, "the lover of her youth."1 There are strong parallels between Dumuzi and Gilgamesh. When Gilgamesh rejects her, it is as if the rejection was coming not only from Gilgamesh, but from Dumuzi as well. Furthermore, Ishtar has a hidden agenda in calling for the Bull of Heaven. The Bull is Gulganna, her sister Ereshkigal's husband,2 with whom she has a long-standing rivalry. Through these similarities, there is a strong connection between the Ishtar in tablet 6 of the Gilgamesh Epic and the Inanna of the Sumerian tradition.
Dumuzi was the ruler of Uruk prior to Gilgamesh. His predecessor was Lugalbanda, Gilgamesh's father.3 Furthermore, in the hymn "The Wiles of Women"4 she calls Dumuzi "wild bull," the same name she call Gilgamesh in line 22 of "Bilgames and the Bull of Heaven".5 Finally, it has been suggested6 that Ishtar, in her proposal, wanted to send Gilgamesh to the underworld. This is the same fate that Dumuzi receives in The Descent of Inanna. If one accepts this interpretation, her desire to kill Gilgamesh is explained by his connection with Dumuzi; he reminds her of Dumuzi, causing her to recall that he did not mourn for her, and sending her into the same fit of rage which was responsible for Dumuzi being taken to the underworld. Another interesting contrast between Inanna's relationship with Dumuzi and her relationship with Gilgamesh is the way in which the two are initiated. Dumuzi is the one who proposes to Ishar (although not without a bit of coercion), and his proposal is unilateral. In some stories, Ishtar has no say in the matter. In others, she has to, in the words of Jacobsen, "induce [Dumuzi] to propose."7 Similarly, Ishtar's proposal to Gilgamesh is unilateral.8 Finally, Ishtar's relationship with Dumuzi is explicitly referred to by Gilgamesh on lines 46-47 of tablet 6 of the Gilgamesh Epic.
The Inanna/Dumuzi cycle is not the only aspect of Inanna's Sumerian tradition which is referenced in tablet 6. There is a very close connection between the tablet and "The Descent of Inanna." There have been many different causes for Dumuzi's death given in various works, but the only one in which Inanna is resopnsible is Descent.9 It is interesting to note that if tablet 6 is accepting Descent, then according to Abusch's interpretation of Ishtar's proposal, Ishtar is oferring to Gilgamesh something which she wanted for herself but was not able to achieve; namely, rulership of the underworld. Another connection between tablet 6 and Descent is that in Descent, Inanna threatens to "bring up the dead to eat the living."10 This is the same threat that she makes in tablet 6 line 99 if she is not given the Bull of Heaven.
There is another reference in the tablet to Descent which is a bit more subtle. The Bull of Heaven is the husband of Ereshkigal, Ishtar's sister. Ereshkigal is the ruler of the underworld, which is the same position that Inanna attempted to claim in Descent and which Abusch believes she is offering to Gilgamesh in tablet 6. By having Gulganna attempt to destroy Gilgamesh, Ishtar comes out ahead either way; if Gulganna wins, Gilgamesh is destroyed (and thus she destroys Dumuzi a second time — a single death is surely not enough to satisfy the wrath of the godess of love and war), while if Gilgamesh wins, her sister's husband is destroyed. Based on the events of Descent, she has a strong rivaly with her sister, so she would view the destruction of Ereshkigal's husband as a favorable outcome. Indeed, in "Bilgames and the Bull of Heaven," "from flasks made of [the Bull's] two horns Inanna in Eanna did pour sweet oil."11 Interestingly, her actions in the standard Babylonian version are less celebratory; she performs rites of mourning over the Bull's haunch. This may be a Babylonian attempt to deemphasize the Inanna-Ereshkigal rivalry of the Sumerian mythos, but such speculation is beyond the scope of this writeup.
Note that the majority of this writeup has been addressing the Sumerian Inanna mythos and the Babylonian version of the Gilgamesh Epic. This has been done because the Sumerian version of Gilgamesh's tablet 6, "Bilgames and the Bull of Heaven," is significantly less complete than the Babylonian version. However, relevant departures of the two versions have been noted. The two versions appear to be substantively similar. Another interesting distinction is that the Sumerian version includes a section (lines Ai5'-Ai'7)12 where Inanna states that she will not allow Bilgames to "go pass judgements" or "go render verdicts," while that is his eventual role in the underworld. It is possible that his function in the underworld was not developed at the time of the Sumerian writing.
- Andrew George The Epic of Gilgamesh: A New Translation (New York, 2000), VI 46
- The Descent of Inanna, as found in Diane Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer (Toronto, 1683), 55
- B. Alster, Dumuzi: Karel van der Toorn, B. Becking, and P. W. van der Horst, eds., Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1995, 829
- Thorkild Jacobsen The Treasures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion (Yale University, 1976), 28
- George, The Epic of Gilgamesh, 170
- Tzvi Abusch, Ishtar's Proposal and Gilgamesh's Refusal: An Interpretation of the Gilgamesh Epic, Tablet 6, Lines 1-79, History of Religions 26 (1986) 143-187
- Jacobsen, Treasures of Darkness, 29-30
- Abusch, Ishtar's Proposal, 149
- Jacobsen, Treasures of Darkness, 48
- T. Abusch, Ishtar: Karel van der Toorn, B. Becking, and P. W. van der Horst, eds., Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1995
- George, The Epic of Gilgamesh, 175
- George, The Epic of Gilgamesh, 170
- Andrew George, The Epic of Gilgamesh: A New Translation, New York, 2000.
- Diane Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer, Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer, Toronto, 1983.
- Karel van der Toorn, B. Becking, and P. W. van der Horst, eds., Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1995.
- Thorkild Jacobsen, The Treasures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion, Yale University, 1976.
- Tzvi Abusch, Ishtar's Proposal and Gilgamesh's Refusal: An Interpretation of the Gilgamesh Epic, Tablet 6, Lines 1-79, History of Religions 26 (1986) 143-187.