Friday, August 3, 2012

Oh My Goddess-es: Identities of Inanna, Astarte, Ishtar, ‘Athtartu, ‘Anatu, and Athiratu

15 Ra'shu Yeni (month), Shanatu 84 (year)

Astarte Syriaca by Dante Gabriel Rosetti, 1877
If I had a pinch of gold dust for every time a site on the internet or a Pagan book said Inanna, Astarte, Ishtar, ‘Anat, and Asherah are all the same goddess, or “aspects” of the same goddess, I’d be pawning my way to the crown jewels by now. There is a great deal of misinformation regarding who these ancient goddesses are and they are often confused. So let’s unravel this tangle. We’ll explore who is whom, how these goddesses interconnect or don’t, and the reasons they became grouped together to the point of losing individuality. 

The Goddesses

Inanna, also Inana

Sumerian goddess of sexuality, warfare, and the morning and evening star. She is depicted as having wings, and sometimes she is shown with lions. She often wears a hat with horns; the horns symbolize her power. Ishtar is Inanna’s name in Akkadian, another Mesopotamian language different from Sumerian. Inanna is the daughter of the god of the heavens, An, in one tradition and the daughter of the moon god Nanna in another, or even the daughter of the gods Enlil or Enki. In most traditions, she is the underworld goddess Ereshkigal’s sister. She has many lovers, one of who is Dumuzi.  Inanna and Ishtar bear a “Queen of Heaven” title. Neither she nor Ishtar are in any way “mother goddesses” nor do they care one whit for marriage. Inanna typically has wings, weapons, and is pictured with stars.

Ishtar, Ištar

See Inanna. Ishtar approaches Gilgamesh, in the Epic of Gilgamesh, asking him to become her lover but he refuses her. Battles are considered her “playgrounds.” Ishtar is pictured with lions, stars, or star-disks, and a horned helmet. Ishtar is a Babylonian and Assyrian goddess.Ishtar comes from the Assyrian and Babylonian pantheon. The Assyrians and Babylonians inherited much of Sumerian culture, but their language is from a different language family than Sumerian which sets them apart from the Sumerians.

Athiratu, Athirat,ʼAthirat, ʼAtiratu 

This Canaanite goddess is the queen of her pantheon. Although a mother, she is not a “mother goddess” in the classic sense, for she is measured by her responsibilities outside this title. She is in no way an “earth mother” for she sees to the workings of the universe with her consort Ilu (later called El in Hebrew). Ancient texts from the city of Ugarit (circa 1200 BCE) portray Athirat as early middle aged and of significantly greater rank than ‘Anatu and ‘Athtartu--these two goddesses perform due homage to her when in her presence. Athirat's iconography includes ibex and trees, especially the date palm. 
                She becomes Asherah in Hebrew lore. Athirat was never Baʻlu Haddu (Baʻal Hadad)’s consort, but always Ilu’s. There is a Hittite text which talks of a goddess Ashertu trying to catch Baʻal’s eye, however this comes from a different culture and is the only mention of this matter. Athiratu carries a “queen” title. She is associated with ibex or oryx and date palm trees. See Accept No Substitutes: The Goddess Athirat's Imagery for more information and for a contrast between her ancient depictions and some of the erroneous modern images. She is associated with marriage and appropriate duties of women and wives. Athirat has connections to the sun or daytime, but not with stars. Proper order concerns her, but not warfare. Athirat, and later Asherah (Israelite) and Tanit (Carthaginian/North African) are associated with the kappu, the palm of hand sign: The Palm of the Phoenix: The Kappu Symbol in NatibQadish.

Technical Stuff: 

Athiratu’s name begins with the Ugaritic ʼa/ʼalpu letter which is typically dropped from writing her name--it's usually shown as an apostrophe with its tips facing left ( ʼ  ) instead of right ( ʻ ). This becomes important later because these two different tail-wagging apostrophes, although they don't look important to English speakers, actually indicate two different letters in Ugaritic and Hebrew, and represent different sounds that English speakers have a hard time hearing, distinguishing, or reproducing. 

The apostrophe with its tips facing left ( ʼ  ) represents and ʼalef in Hebrew  א
and an ʼalpu in Ugaritic:
The letter ʼalpu in Ugaritic

The apostrophe with tips facing right  ( ʻ ) represents an  ʻayin in Hebrew ע
and an ʻenu in Ugaritic:
The letter  ʻenu in Ugaritic.

Just to make matters more complicated, sometimes in English translations, the ʼalpu/ʼalef letter  ( ʼ  ) is left out entirely, and the ʻenu/ʻayin ʻ is only occassionally written down and sometimes with the wrong apostrophe or one that has no indication of shape such as a ( ' ).

Why is this gobbledygook important? Because it means that Athirat's name actually begins with a different letter than that of the other goddesses with whom she is often confused: the names do not all begin with the English letter "A" despite appearances. 

‘Anatu, ‘Anat

She is the Canaanite goddess of warfare and probably hunting as well. Early scholars saw her as the consort of Baʻlu Haddu (Baʻal Hadad) the Canaanite storm god, but it is more likely that the two did not have sexual relations and that she is a virgin goddess. Some scholars have translated and tweaked the ancient Canaanite texts from Ugarit to make her appear more sexual than she actually is. For further explanation, see Neal Walls’s book The Goddess Anat in Ugaritic Myth or see Peggy L. Day's article "Hebrew Bible Goddesses and Modern Feminist Scholarship" in Religion Compass, 6-6-2012, pg 301. We know for certain that ‘Anat is young, adolescent, unmarried, belligerent, intensely loyal, and violent. She is a “tomboy”: she dresses in men’s clothing and plays a male warrior role. Ancient Canaanite iconography portrays her as young and having small breasts.
                Her name is more correctly written ‘Anatu or ‘Anat rather than “Anath,” as is sometimes seen translated in older resources. An Ugaritic scribe would write her name beginning with the letter ʻenu.
                Further technical stuff: Her name ends in an Ugaritic letter that has no cognate in Hebrew. The Hebrew letter tav (ת) absorbed the sounds of both a hard “t” and a “th” sound which were originally different letters in Ugaritic. ‘Anatu’s name ends in the Ugaritic cuneiform sign for the hard “t,” not in the Ugaritic sign for “th.” Therefore, her name should read ‘Anatu or ‘Anat but not “Anath.” In the Canaanite texts from Ugarit, she is portrayed as a separate being entirely from ‘Athtartu and Athiratu.

‘Athtartu, ‘Athtart

She is the goddess of justice, treaties, fairness, and possibly hunting in her earliest appearances in Canaanite-Ugaritic texts. No mention is ever made of her sexuality in the early Canaanite texts. In later times, she adopted some connections with animal husbandry. She has a connection to the morning or evening star, and she has a brother named ‘Athtaru. In the Canaanite texts from Ugarit, she a separate being entirely from ‘Anatu and Athiratu, although she goes on a hunt with her friend ‘Anatu. Sometimes she is later conflated with the Egyptian goddess Qudshu which represents a composite Semitic goddess. In artwork that depicts her, she is often naked and quite young with small breasts; some of her images are simple flat inverted conical shapes with a stylized face, small upraised breasts, and a pubic triangle. Her name over time is changed to ‘Athtart and ‘Ashtart, and later it gets morphed into the name Ashtoreth. Note that her name begins with an ‘enu letter . Her name is likely linguistically related to Ishtar, however the role of the Assyrian/Babylonian goddess is different from that of   ‘Athtartu in the Canaanite-Ugaritic pantheon. The Akkadian language which the Babylonians and Assyrians spoke was in the same language family as Ugaritic and Hebrew: there are similarities, but the languages and cultures are as different from one another as English is to German.


Astarte is a later Greek name. Although Astarte embodies many of the attributes of ‘Athtartu, Astarte also picks up more sexual and warlike attributes as well. She is arguably a later conflation of Canaanite ‘Anatu and ‘Athtartu, with the Babylonian/Assyrian goddess Ishtar. Astarte carries a “Queen of Heaven” title.


The Greek goddess of love. Sometimes the Greeks would conflate a Greek goddess with another locale's goddess to promote good relations or to firmly root themselves in another's local culture. Aphrodite, although a separate goddess in her own right, often got associated and conflated with ancient Near Eastern goddesses like ‘Athtartu and Astarte.


A Carthaginian goddess. Carthage, once a Phoenician colony, reached its height around Roman times. The Phoenicians, like the Israelites, were a daughter-culture of the Canaanites. Tanit was associated with the morning/evening star, and she was a protective goddess. Naturally she became associated with ‘Athtartu, Astarte, and Ishtar, although a goddess in her own right, but she may very well be a goddess indigenous to North Africa who became conflated with ‘Athtart, ‘Anat, Athirat, and Astarte. Tanit carries a “Queen of Heaven” title. The popular Sign of Tanit looks like a triangle with a circle atop it and a horizontal line running between where the circle and triangle meet: it vaguely resembles the icon often used to depict Women’s Room today.

It is important to note that Tanit is not strictly a "lunar goddess," she is in charge of cosmos--the moon as well as the stars and planets. Some Pagans try to portray her as a "triple moon goddess" but this is erroneous. More often the Tanit, and her signature sign-of-Tanit, are accompanied by both lunar crescent and an eight-pointed star or solar disk.

The "Queen of Heaven" in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament could be any one of these deities aforementioned who are associated with the "Queen of Heaven" title, or she could be another candidate altogether. Some suggest that the biblical Queen of Heaven might well be Asherah. But that's another debate for another time. 

Cursory Clarification of Cultural Terms

Sumer, Assyria, and Babylonia are in Mesopotamia (i.e. the Middle East). Sumer is the older culture of the three and its inhabitants spoke Sumerian, a language which does not clearly belong to any related language family. The Babylonians and Assyrians spoke Akkadian, a Semitic language which is in the same language family as Hebrew, Arabic, Ugaritic, and Canaanite dialects: keep in mind that having a language in the same language family does not mean they automatically understood each other. English and German are in the same language family together. French and Spanish are in the same language family together.But this doesn't mean that a native speaker of English automatically understand German, nor does it mean that if you learn French, you'll automatically know Spanish. Babylonian and Assyrian cultures were related more to one another than to their parent culture, the Sumerians.
                Most scholars consider the Ugaritans as exemplary of Canaanite culture; Ugarit was a city on the northernmost end of what was considered “Canaan.” Canaan was not one empire, nation, or state; the term is descriptive of an area of independent, sometimes interdependent, city-states. The Canaanite culture and the cultures of Mesopotamia (Sumer, Babylonia, and Assyria) are different. Ugaritic, the language of Ugarit, and the Canaanite dialects are in the same language family as Akkadian. The Canaanites are considered Near Eastern (also called “Levantine”) for they live closer to the Mediterranean Sea than the Middle Eastern cultures. The Canaanite culture is different from the Mesopotamian cultures (Sumerians, Assyrians, Babylonians).
                The Phoenicians and the Israelites are two very divergent daughter-cultures of the Canaanites. The Phoenicians were urban, coastal, and polytheistic, while the Israelites were rural, pastoral, and becoming increasingly monotheistic over time. They are both related to the earlier Canaanite culture of the Bronze Age, but by the Iron Age and later they begin to take on their own distinct cultural personalities. These cultures are still in the same geographic area of Canaan and also considered Near Eastern/Levantine.
                The Carthaginians (also described by the adjective “Punic”) come from the city of Carthage in northern Africa. The Phoenician city (originally Canaanite city) of Tyre founded the Carthaginian colony. Carthaginians have cultural elements in common with their parent culture (Phoenicia) and their grand-parent culture (Canaan), but still have some differing elements. Carthage has very little in common with the Middle Eastern cultures.
                Greek culture is not related to the Middle Eastern or Near Eastern cultures at all, although there were occasional cross-cultural exchanges. And now that I’ve made your head spin around like that kid on the movie The Exorcist, I shall return to the original topic.


Mistaken Identities? Yes, and No...

So why are all these goddess often put together into a confusing lump? We are looking through layers of history, layers of scholarship, and layers of historical scholarship such as what actually happened versus what these several ancient cultures believed themselves, the research or recollections of scholars who wrote about matters later, the scholars who wrote about what the previous scholars had said, as well as the various biases of different cultures and various biases of the scholars themselves.
                Historians in Classical times (Greek and Roman times, starting roughly 200 years after Canaanite times) often labeled a Near Eastern or Middle Eastern goddess with the name of their own local goddesses to promote a quick understanding of their audience. Tacitus the Roman historian called this process  interpretatio graeca when foreign deities were "translated" by being given Greek deity names and equivalents. He called the process interpretatio romana when the deities were translated or given as Roman deity equivalents. 
               For instance, Philo of Byblos uses primarily Greek names (interpretatio graeca) and may not even include the native name, therefore it is difficult knowing which deity he’s talking about. Of course, with conflations of goddesses over time, we have a more difficult problem sorting out which attributes originally belonged to which ancient goddesses. In addition, there are changes in one language itself over time, as well as in another language which is trying to render the same divine name. For instance, is Astarte the same as ‘Athtartu? In some respects, yes, if you connect changes over time and different cultural outlooks, but if you compare the later Astarte with the original ‘Athtartu, you can see quickly that they have distinctly different personalities. Time is fluid, and thus so is the change in understanding the deities. I find it useful to tighten a focus on one particular point in time and in one particular culture, while still trying to study and understand the differences further afield in time and culture.
                In times closer to our own, Victorian scholars didn’t have the Ugaritic texts we do today, since the texts were excavated in the late 1920’s. Spearheaded by James G. Frazer, influenced by Freud and Jung, and firmly rooted in the philosophical Romantic movement, the Myth and Ritual school of thought sought to find universal patterns and archetypes. In addition to this school of thought, scholars often sought to try to “prove” the Bible so they would tweak extra-biblical information (texts, archaeological finds, and so on) to support biblical narrative; and sometimes they had a prurient fascination with exotic sex so they tended to classify most goddesses as “fertility goddesses.” (For more information, see my blog post Orgies-R-Us: Sex, Lies, and Prostitution in Canaanite Religion). Combine these problems and the similarity of many of these goddesses’ names when we look at them in English, and later scholars often didn’t know who was whom or sometimes, as in the matters of goddesses, may not have cared. Indeed, later scholars often stilted translations of Ugaritic texts in favor of biblical bias, earlier scholarship, or both, though this problem is finally diminishing as more and more scholars become aware of this bias.
                Another problem many of us face is a common New Age idea that all goddesses are “aspects” or “facets” of one goddess: with this concept, there is a tendency to ignore differences then take the original conflations and compound them further with conflations that were not present in the ancient world. A visual example of this is a modern candleholder which depicts Isis, Diana, Kali, and Inanna in an absurdly loving sisterly embrace. Inanna might laugh at Diana’s virginity while Kali tried to eat Isis’s babies. Take a look.
                They are not all one, and it is alright.

For More Information:

Attridge, Harold W. and Robert A. Oden, Jr. Philo of Byblos: The Phoenician History. The Catholic Biblical Association of America, Washington, DC, USA, 1981.

Binger, Tilde. Asherah: Goddesses in Ugarit, Israel, and the Old Testament. Sheffield Academic Press, Ltd., Sheffield, England, UK, 1997.

Black, Jeremy and Anthony Green. Gods, Demons, and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia. University of Austin Press, Austin, TX, USA, 1992.

Walls, Neal H. The Goddess Anat in Ugaritic Myth. The Society of Biblical Literature, Scholars Press, Atlanta, GA, USA, 1992.

Marsman, Hennie J. Women in Ugarit and Israel: Their Social and Religious Position in the Context of the Ancient Near East. E.J. Brill, Leiden, The Netherlands, 2003.

Photo credits: All images are my own except the Astarte Syriaca by Dante Gabrielle Rosetti, 1877. Please do not reproduce my work without permission and without proper credit. The image of Astarte Syriaca is over one hundred years old, and to the best of my knowledge is in public domain. 

1 comment:

  1. I am very pleased to read this article. As an Oracle myself I know the differences between the above mentioned women of history. When you are able to walk in ancient lands as I do and see through the eyes of those whose history and life is so often guessed at, you learn to understand and to accept. I love your style of writing and will be browsing your pages again! Divine Blessings, Melanthe xxx