Monday, October 3, 2011

Heroines - Madonnas and Whores

by Laura Bickle

I've always loved reading about powerful heroines, women who are in charge of their own story. I grew up reading stories about women who slew their own dragons. I was even sympathetic to the legend of Medusa - in my eyes, she was a tragic figure who turned all her lovers to stone. Myths are rich in stories of women who have attempted to balance power and passionate love, who reject the idea that naivete is a virtue.

One of the myths I've been drawn to was the myth of Ishtar. Ishtar is the Babylonian goddess of love, war, and sex. Her love was known to be fatal - there's no blushing innocence, here. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh tells her:

“Listen to me while I tell the tale of your lovers. There was Tammuz, the lover of your youth, for him you decreed wailing, year after year. You loved the many-coloured roller, but still you struck and broke his wing… You have loved the lion tremendous in strength: seven pits you dug for him, and seven. You have loved the stallion magnificent in battle, and for him you decreed the whip and spur and a thong... You have loved the shepherd of the flock; he made meal-cake for you day after day, he killed kids for your sake. You struck and turned him into a wolf; now his own herd-boys chase him away, his own hounds worry his flanks."

One of the most famous myths about Ishtar involves her descent to the Underworld, in pursuit of the soul a lost lover. She descends through the gates of hell, shedding her weapons and clothing as offerings, until she reaches Ereshkigel, Queen of the Underworld. Ereshkigel poisons Ishtar, dooming her to the Underworld. She can only be freed if someone will take her place.

Ishtar returns to the surface of the earth, in the company of demons, to find someone to take her place. She finds that her husband, Tammuz, has not mourned her. In a fit of rage, she sends him back to the underworld in her place, with the demons.

The myth fascinated me, the idea of a mythic heroine who was a love goddess, who could also be so ruthless. She wasn't like any of the other tender love goddesses I'd studied. Ishtar didn't recline prettily on a fainting couch, twirling her hair, and awaiting her destiny; she picked up her sword and fought for who and what she wanted.

I've gotta respect that. And I respect that in a way that I don't respect naive and innocent heroines.

The first image is from Doreen Virtue's Goddess Guidance Oracle, and the artist is Jonathan Earl Bowser. The second image is by Nuktya


  1. You know, somehow I missed Ishtar in all my reading. I'll have to check her out!

  2. You may have read about her in her earlier Sumerian incarnation, Inanna. I think that both are very interesting in that they are quite unforgiving love goddesses who give out very harsh punishments. In the reading I've done for them, I've not found an ounce of regret in either one.

  3. Love, war, and sex -- all facets of passion, which is the most frequent excuse for irrational behavior. Not to say the actions are wrong, but that they are often defiant of expectation. It's always amused me that feminine deities were most often assigned to that particular triad.

  4. I think Ishtar is a very intriguing Goddess.
    One of the better uses of Ishtar in a story is in Gaiman's Brief Lives (part of the Sandman comics series). And I think you can guess what other great story I came across in my reading that mentions Ishtar ;-)

  5. @Sullivan McPig - yay for Sandman! That's the one I was also going to mention. Fabulous job there and one of my favorite appearances ever. :)

  6. Good point, KAK. I don't think that many of the old gods and goddesses got points for rationality. They were capricious and Hera hunting down and punishing her husband's many lovers and their children. Or Zeus and his catting about and forcing himself on any sweet young thing he saw wandering through a field. Or Poseidon raping Medusa in Athena's temple, and Athena turning Medusa into a Gorgon as punishment for...what, exactly?

    Hee, Sullivan! I haven't read Sandman in awhile - I shall have to look that up again. Thanks for the suggestion, Allison!