The star of Ishtar and the Lion of Babylon are two main symbols of one of the most important goddesses of Mesopotamia civilization in particular and human civilization in general, expressing the core values and cultural identity of Iraq today.
1. History of Iraq
Iraq is located in the Middle East, West Asia, its capital Baghdad is the center of the nation and the main religion here is Islam. The 2 rivers Tigris and Euphrates run South through Iraq providing Iraq significant amounts of fertile land and the region between these 2 rivers is called Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilisation. This is where mankind first invented writing systems and the earliest civilizations since the 6th millennium BC. In different periods of history, Iraq used to be the center of great empires such as Sumer, Akkad, Assyria and Babylon. It also used to be a part of empires owned by the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabians, the Egyptians, the Mongolians and the Turks.
The modern borders of Iraq were formed mostly in 1920 when the Ottoman Empire was partitioned after World War I. Iraq then was ruled under the authority of the British Empire and only gained its independence since 1932. In 1958, the monarchy was overthrown and the Republic of Iraq was founded.
The national flag and national emblem of modern Iraq now bear them symbols of the symbolic system of the Islamic world, the main religion of the country. However, to really understand Iraqi national symbols, we need to look back to older clues. The coat of arms of the Kingdom of Iraq from 1932-1959 showed the image of a Lion of Babylon as the dexter supporter. In heraldry rules, the dexter position or the right position (the left position from the viewer’s point of view) is considered the side of greater honor, implied a very important role of the Lion of Babylon.
And the two 8-pointed stars are symbols of an ancient goddess in Mesopotamian mythology: Ishtar. Even when the mornachy was overthrown and the Republic of Iraq was founded in 1958, the national flag and emblem of this nation still showed the image of this 8-pointed star.
2. Ishtar goddess
Ishtar is the Babylonian counterpart of the Sumerian goddess Inanna whose origin was earlier. She is the goddess of love, beauty, sex, desire, fertility, war, justice, and political power. She was originally worshipped in Sumer and was later worshipped in Akkad, Babylon, and Assyria under the new name Ishtar. She was also known as the “Queen of Heaven” and the patron goddess of the Eanna temple at the city of Uruk, which was her main cult center.
The city of Uruk was also called the city of sacred prostitutes since sexual acts are a ritual to worship Ishtar – Inanna who is also the protector of prostitutes and brothels. Her priestesses can offer themselves to the men to donated money to her temple. It was conceived that this was an honor for a woman. This is the reason why Ishtar’s temples have become sexual and reproductive centers. The priests became nurses and sex therapists as well.
This type of worship – prostitution was later inherited from the Sumerians by several Mesopotamian civilizations until Christianity emerged in the 1st century. Ishtar continued to influence the Phoenician goddess Astarte and later the Greek goddess Aphrodite .
Like Aphrodite – Venus goddess of the Greeks and Romans, Inanna – Ishtar was also associated with the planet Venus, the daughter of the moon god Sin – Nana and sometimes the sky god An – Anu. Planet Venus is a star that appears in both the morning and evening, that is why Ishtar’s father is a Moon god, her twin brother is a Sun god (Shamash) and her older sister is the goddess of Underworld Ereshkigal. Ishtar was depicted as a virgin in the morning, responsilbe for war and killing, but a prostitute at night, responsible for love and sex, symbolizing the Morning star and the Evening star, which are relatively names for planet Venus’ appearance in the morning and evening.
3. The myth with Dumuzid
Ishtar’s husband is the vegetation god Dumuzid – Tammuz and her sukkal, or personal attendant, was the goddess Ninshubur. To symbolize the relationship between Ishtar and Dumuzid, in ancient Sumer, there was a festival where kings will play the role of Dumuzid and the chief priestesses will play as Ishtar and perform an intercourse ritual to ensure a abundant crop, when everything grows.
Ishtar appears in more myths than any other Mesopotamian deity, most of her myths show her agressiveness and fierceness. Ishtar conquered her lovers as fiercely as defeating enemies on battle. Her most famous myth is the story of her descent into and return from Kur, the ancient Sumerian Underworld, to conquer her older sister, the Queen of Hell, Ereshkigal. At every level of hell, she had to take off a piece of her clothes and finally found herself naked confronting Anunnaki, the 7 judges of the Underworld. They deemed her guilty of hubris and sentenced her death, and she became a member of the Underworld.
3 days later, Ninshubur pled with all the gods to bring Ishtar back, but all of them refused her except the water god Ea – Enki, who sends two sexless beings to rescue Inanna. They escorted Inanna out of the Underworld, but the Galla, the guardians of the Underworld, dragged her husband Dumuzid down to the Underworld as her replacement. In the end, an agreement was made that Dumuzid is permitted to return to Earth for half the year while his sister Geshtinanna remains in the Underworld for the other half, resulting in the cycle of the seasons. When Dumuzid returned to the ground, it is spring, crops are ripe, milk is overflown and all the flowers blossom. But when Dumuzid has to go back to the Underworld, then it is winter, everything is cold and dried up. This story bears many similarities of the myth about the Greek goddess Persephone.
4. The myth with Gilgamesh
The Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh is considered the earliest surviving great work of literature of mankind. First it was a series of 5 Sumerian poems about their hero, Gilgamesh, king of Uruk around 2100 BC. These stories were later used as source material for a combined epic in Akkadian language.
In one of these stories, Ishtar appeared to Gilgamesh after he and his companion Enkidu had returned to Uruk from defeating the ogre Humbaba and demanded Gilgamesh to become her consort. Gilgamesh frankly refused her, pointing out that all of her previous lovers had suffered her ill-treatment. Furious by his refusal, Ishtar went to heaven and demanded her father who is the sky god Anu to lend her the Bull of Heaven (the constellation Taurus) to attack Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh, who is a demigod, “two thirds divine and one third mortal“, possesses superhuman strength, along with the assistance from his companion Enkidu, he slayed the bull. Gods in heaven were outrageous, and they revenged by punished Enkidu with a disease, and he had to die. Gilgamesh became afraid of his own death, and went on his journey to find immortality. Gilgamesh repeatedly fails the trials set before him and returns home to Uruk, realizing that immortality is beyond his reach.
5. Star of Ishtar
The most important symbols of Ishtar are the 8-pointed star and the Lion of Babylon. The star of Ishtar usually has 8 points, is the most common symbol of Ishtar. It seems to have originally borne a general association with heaven, but by the Old Babylonian Period, it had come to be specifically associated with the planet Venus, with which Ishtar was identified. Since Ishtar is associated with planet Venus, the star of Ishtar also means the star of Venus.
During later times, slaves who worked in Ishtar’s temples were sometimes branded with the seal of the eight-pointed star. This star is sometimes shown alongside the crescent moon, symbol of Sin, god of the Moon, and the rayed solar disk, symbol of Shamash, the god of the Sun. These 3 gods make a trinity in Mesopotamian mythology.
In modern times, the star of Ishtar is usually incorporated into or appeared along with the sun disk of the Sun god Shamash – Utu. He is the twin brother of Ishtar, and together they are the enforcers of divine justice. Shamash is the god of the sun, justice, morality, and truth. He was believed to ride through the sky in his sun chariot and see everything that happened in the day on Earth. According to Sumerian mythology, he also helped protect Dumuzid when the galla demons tried to drag him to the Underworld and in the Epic of Gilgamesh, he helped Gilgamesh defeat the ogre Humbaba.
The rosette was another important symbol of Ishtar which had originally belonged to Inanna. During the Neo-Assyrian Period, the rosette may have actually eclipsed the eight-pointed star and become Ishtar’s primary symbol. The temple of Ishtar in the city of Aššur was adorned with numerous rosettes.
6. Lion of Babylon
The archetype of the Lion of Babylon is the Asiatic lion, or the Mesopotamian lion, which used to roam around this region. This is an ancient symbol symbolizes power and kings of Babylon, as well as a symbol of Ishtar.
Her associations with lions began during Sumerian times, a proof for this is a chlorite bowl from the temple of Inanna at Nippur city, Iraq, depicts a large feline battling a giant snake and a cuneiform inscription on the bowl reads “Inanna and the Serpent“, indicating that the big cat, or the lion, represent the goddess herself. During the Akkadian Period, Ishtar was frequently depicted as a heavily armed warrior goddess with a lion as one of her attributes.
The Gate of Ishtar was the eighth gate to the inner city of Babylon. It was constructed in around 575 BCE by the order of King Nebuchadnezzar II the Great (605-562 BC) (he is also the king who ordered the construction of one of ancient Wonders of the World: the Hanging Gardens of Babylon) on the North side of the city. It was adorned with many symbols of lion.
Another notable fact is that the construction of Iraq’s capital city, Baghdad, was begun in July 764, so that it occurred under the lion’s astrological sign Leo.
Lions also play an important role in the Epic of Gilgamesh, as one day, he crosses a mountain pass at night and encounters a pride of lions. Before sleeping he prays for protection to the moon god Sin. Then, waking from an encouraging dream, he kills the lions and uses their skins for clothing. Therefore, the lion symbolizes the divine strength of Gilgamesh. Sculpture statues often show Gilgamesh grabbing a lion’s neck, showing the extraordinary height and size of Gilgamesh. This victory of Gilgamesh’s bears many similarities to the story of Hercules against the Nemea lion in Greek mythology.
A very famous lion statue was found in Babylon city, Iraq. It is made out of black basalt black stone, depicting a 2-metre Mesopotamian lion standing above a 1-metre laying human. The statue is considered among the most important symbols of Babylon in particular and Mesopotamian art in general.
This statue is considered one of national symbols of Iraq, it has been used by several Iraqi institutions such as the Iraqi Football Association. The Iraqi national football team is even nicknamed “Lions of Mesopotamia“.
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Michael Jordan. (1993). Encyclopedia of gods: Over 2,500 deities of the world. New York: Facts On File.
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Wolkstein, Diane; Kramer, Samuel Noah (1983), Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer, New York City, New York: Harper&Row Publishers