Episode 59. Louise Pryke: Ishtar then and now: transcript

0:13  JTLouise

Ishtar is the embodiment of all sorts of contradictions and complexities. Is she one goddess or a bundle of many? Is she male, female, both, or neither? She is the model of transgression, but also central to the structures of power. Where does she appear in modern popular culture, and what does she mean to us now?

1:00  JT

This remarkable goddess crossed paths with the most famous figure of all from ancient Iraq–the hero Gilgamesh, who himself was a complex character. How did that meeting go?

1:14  JT

Our guest as published books on each of these figures. She guides us through the many aspects of Ishtar and Gilgamesh, in antiquity, and in the modern world.

1:25  JT

So get yourself a cup of tea. Make yourself comfortable. And let’s meet today’s guest

1:39  JT

Hello, and welcome to Thin End of the Wedge. Thank you for joining us.


Thank you so much for having me, Jon.

1:44  JT

Could you tell us please: who are you, and what do you do?

1:49  LP

I am Dr. Louise Pryke and I am an assyiologist based in Sydney, Australia.

1:56  JT

Okay, so today we’re going to talk about a few things. The first topic is Ishtar. Now, you wrote a book about the goddess a few years ago. And of course there are different issues worshipped over many centuries in the ancient Middle East. My first question really is how many Ishtars are there?

2:15  LP

Right. So it’s a good question, but I think it’s one that’s one of those impossible to answer properly ones, because we probably don’t have enough information. But I think that why people tend to ask “How many Ishtars are there?” is because she is such a major figure in the Mesopotamian pantheon. But she has different texts that talk about Ishtar tend to focus on different parts of her. And also there’s that major syncretism between Ishtar and Inanna from Sumerian sources. And people kind of wonder, you know, where are the lines blurring between them? But even also with Ishtar, you have like Ishtar of Nineveh and Ishtar of Arbela. And there have been scholars who have suggested that these sort of local surnames suggest entirely different deities. And then you’ve got other scholars who sort of tread the other line, who sort of look at them as all being related to one another. So it’s a complicated question, but I think that it just reflects a very complex deity.

3:20  JT

Okay. There are cases when Ishtar seems to have a beard. Is there a male Ishtar and a female Ishtar? Or is there something else happening there?

3:28  LP

Oh, that’s another tricky one. And again, it’s a question where I think Ishtar is the kind of deity that tends to court controversy. And so there are some scholars who view the beard as suggesting a certain amount of androgyny with the deity; that she may have a male persona, as well. And she may at times embody male and female genders, which is amazing, and obviously a very rich scholarship there.

3:58  LP

But then there’s other people who tend to see the beard as being like a sign of wisdom, that doesn’t necessarily reflect anything about her gender. So it’s a little bit complicated, and I think we don’t really have enough evidence to know for sure. There are times that Ishtar is described doing things in a masculine way; sort of leading a ball in a masculine sense. And there’s other times where she speaks … well Inanna speaks in love poetry about the sort of more female parts of her anatomy. So sort of her breasts and her vulva and so forth. So yeah, I think that there’s a lot to talk about with Ishtar and gender. And there’s a lot more to discover.

4:45  LP

But one thing that I think is really interesting about Ishtar’s reception, which we might talk about a little bit later on, her reception more generally, is that she seems to have been having a little bit of a resurgence in the trans community, who have embraced her for the way that she can sort of encompass and sort of bridge between different genders. And I think that’s a really interesting new way of looking at the goddess.

5:11  JT

Uh-hmm. Ishtar is actually relatively popular. She’s one of the few characters from Mesopotamian mythology that people may have heard of. Could you tell us about some of the key stories about her and what they mean; what we learn from these stories?

5:26  LP

Yeah, she is super popular in the ancient world, largely unknown in the modern world. {LAUGHS}  But in the ancient world there’s just so many myths about Ishtar and about Inanna. Obviously, the two most well-known ones would be the Epic of Gilgamesh, where she turns up as being something of an antagonistic character. Where she and Gilgamesh just, I mean, it’s sort of kismet on Ishtar’s side, but not so much for Gilgamesh, who rejects her quite famously.

5:54  LP

And then we’ve got Ishtar’s Descent to the Netherworld. It’s such a great myth. And there’s been a lot that’s been done on it. And I think that there’s going to always be something new to be said about that myth. So she sort of journeys to the underworld, and tries to usurp her sister, Ereshkigal, and still manages to come out on top in the end. But then there’s a few other myths that I think aren’t perhaps as well-known, but still a really rich territory for thinking about.

6:25  LP

And one of my favourite myths about Inanna to research, and also to talk about with students, is Inanna and Shukaletuda, where the goddess is sleeping in a garden, and then she’s sexually assaulted by a gardener. And the text has some really interesting things to say about his capacity as a gardener, and none of it’s very flattering. And then she comes around and realises something terrible has occurred. And then she goes on this amazing hunt for vengeance, and sends these plagues against the land. And then one of them’s like a dust storm and one’s like a river of blood. So you’ve got one of your water-to-blood motifs, which we see have quite a wide currency in the ancient Near East. And then you’ve got her sending like a traffic jam, which was obviously considered to be very unpleasant in the ancient world, as it is now. Eventually, she hunts him down and hides away from her. And then it’s really amazing. The text describes her as kind of, she becomes really large, she sort of stretches out above him like a rainbow, and he becomes really small. Yeah. And then she gets her revenge, which I just think is such an interesting story.

7:38  JT

Yeah, yeah, yeah. So perhaps that is the next question. We tend to picture women in the ancient Middle East as living quite tightly controlled lives. Ishtar as a goddess seems to embody male fears about female behaviour. At the same time, she is revered as a character who not only embodies opposites and transgresses boundaries, but she is responsible for those features of life. In other words, she’s, she’s meant to transgress boundaries. Is she a representation of the human female population? Or of what they couldn’t and shouldn’t do? How do we see her? What is the meaning of Ishtar?

8:16  LP

I think that it’s a big question, because you’re always going to run into that debate of how much of a goddess can be considered to be similar to a mortal woman. Like, should we even consider them to be sort of god women? Obviously, they’re depicted anthropomorphically. But then they do things that tend not to be … you know, most humans don’t go to the underworld; most of them can’t conjure rivers of blood and so forth. So there’s obviously a little bit of human and a little bit of the divine in her portrayal. And so then the question is, “How much of that human side can we say is reflecting the lives of ancient Mesopotamian women?” Because wouldn’t it be exciting if it could tell us some things about gender dynamics in the ancient Near East?

8:59  LP

And I think that with Ishtar, you’re right, she is transgressive. And I think that that’s one of her defining characteristics is that she’s so ambitious. You know, she’s trying to steal the underworld from her sister. There’s, I think there’s one point where she’s trying to steal the heavens from An. She’s always after a little bit more than she’s meant to have.

9:21  LP

But at the same time, I do think that there is a lot you can see about … particularly in the love of poetry, I think, you really get that sense of what it must have been like to be a young woman about to get married. You know, you hear a lot of the excitement from her perspective and her close relationship with her mother. And her fiance is kind of trying to say “Don’t listen to your mother. We should hang out more.” So I think we do think about women in the Middle East is living very restricted lives in terms of agency, but at the same time, there’s aspects of Ishtar’s life that I think are reflected in the historical reality. Even some of the more out there aspects, like she has a role in arranging her own marriage in some literature. And apparently, according to some legal scholars, some women have had that capacity in the ancient Near East as well.

10:15  LP

But I do think that it depends very much on which women we’re talking about. And when. And I think that Bahrani would have said to us that it’s very hard to talk about a specific woman, when we’re talking about so many different periods and so many different levels of status over such a long period of time, around 2000 years. So surely, she can tell us about some women. {LAUGHS} But again, I think we’re always going to be limited by having a deity is always going to make us have a little bit of a caveat about how far we can push it.

10:55  JT

She is revered not just by the female population, and not just by the lower classes, who might want to, you know, assert a little bit more authority. But she is revered, essentially by everyone. And she’s revered, also by the kings of Assyria, for example, she’s very much part of the official cult. She’s embraced in that sense. So could you maybe say something about that? What does she mean to the king?

11:16  LP

Yes. Oh, she means everything to the king. And the king means everything to her. Her relationship with the king is really one of the most stable and consistent elements of her image in all kinds of things. In art and all different kinds of literary genres. Because when I was trying to write about Ishtar, because there’s so much complexity. I think it was Thorkild Jacobsen who was saying, you know, she’s all women in an infinite variety. I was like, that’s great. Can we try and like make it a little bit more coherent, just so the book makes a bit more sense?

11:49  LP

And one of the most useful things was her relationship with the king. Because it really ties all her different elements together. When she is warlike, she’s often warlike on behalf of the king. You know, she goes to battle in front of him. When she is in love, there’s all of these, you know, sacred marriage hymns, where she’s getting married to the king and expressing her love for him. When she is using her healing capacity, or giving life, again, we see that being bestowed to the king. And then her close connection to death is something that she’s able to … that bond that she has with the king is able to transcend even that. So I would say that her relationship with the king is right at the heart of her image.

12:34  JT

Okay, what has the reaction to your book been? Is it mean, I guess you’re targeting really there a wider reading audience. What have they made of this peculiar character?

12:45  LP

Well, that’s a very good question. I think that Ishtar leaves people a little bit bewildered. {LAUGHS} But I think that there is a lot of interest in her ability to be transgressive, and to push past boundaries, and to also reflect this ancient powerful goddess, that is perhaps a little bit something that has been understood in a way that maybe doesn’t do justice to the ancient evidence. I think that our understanding of Ishtar has been very much distorted through, say, the biblical lens. And I think that there’s been a lot of focus on her sexuality at the expense of I think more of her, I wouldn’t say, more interesting. {LAUGHS} That wouldn’t be fair. I wouldn’t say to her more interesting qualities, but I would just say that there’s more to Ishtar than sex. And I hope that that’s what people understand when they read the book. And also they get a sense of … when I read a book, and I really, really like it, what I like is to see all the ways that I could then think of new research topics, and that’s what I would like people to get out of reading my book.

14:01  JT

Uh-hmm. Okay, interesting. So, moving on then to a new research topic. You mentioned earlier, the intersection between Ishtar and the most famous character from Mesopotamia–Gilgamesh. You’ve also worked on Gilgamesh. So can I ask, what’s your take on Gilgamesh?

14:19  LP

Look, my hot take on Gilgamesh is that he is the king that shows you how not to do it. {LAUGHS}  If you wanted to know how not to be a Mesopotamian king, then look no further than Gilgamesh, because he is the king who does everything wrong. But he is meant to be the person who is the mediator between the humans and the divine. That’s the king’s role in Mesopotamian religion. It’s a very important role. It’s very important for cosmic balance and all sorts of things. But instead he is a tyrant. And the humans actually circumnavigate him and go straight to the temple and say “You’ve got to do something about this guy.” And so straightaway, we’re aware that things are not going quite right. And then when he runs into … well, then he goes to the cedar forest. And, you know, he cuts down the trees, which are sacred. And he kills the sacred forest guardian.

14:21  LP

And then he meets Ishtar. And obviously, if he’s going to be a good Mesopotamian king, then he needs to love Ishtar and treat her really well. Why? Because otherwise, she will curse everyone. {LAUGHS} And so, no, but does he do that? No, he insults her. He calls her a drafty back door, and a shoe that bites the foot of its owner. {LAUGHS} And obviously, that doesn’t go well. She gets very angry, and there’s a giant earthquake, people die. And so … {LAUGHS} You can just see that I think there’s a lot of humour to how Gilgamesh is portrayed. But I also think there’s a lot of sympathy to how he’s portrayed in the text. It’s incredibly sophisticated literature. But at the end, he’s a man that learns the limitations of mortality, and also how to be a better king. And he learns that through his relationship with Utanapishtim.

16:09  JT

Would you say then, this is a kind of guide book for, you know, young rulers? A prince growing up in the palace, you tell him the story of Gilgamesh, and he, you can imagine it, you know, “When I grow up, I’m going to do this and I’m going to be bigger and faster and stronger. And I’m going to, …” You know, everything’s a bit more extreme. And perhaps the point of the story is to teach him the limits of royal power and the consequences of action. Do you think that’s part of the reason for this story?

16:33  LP

Yeah, absolutely. Apparently, there’s a Middle Eastern genre, I think it’s called a mirror for princes, where stories are told from, you know, the older male to the younger male to sort of prepare them for leadership. And there is some sense that I talked about a little bit in my Gilgamesh book about how the relationship between Gilgamesh and Utanapishtim tends to follow this mirror of the princes kind of style. So yeah, I think in some ways, it could definitely be a didactic story.

17:00  JT

Okay, so we move on to a slightly different topic. You’re an Australian, and you’re currently at the University of Sydney, right? So Australia, isn’t one of the traditional big players in ancient West Asian Studies.

17:16  LP

That’s true.

17:17  JT

Can I ask how that context shapes your research? How do you choose to work on Ishtar and Gilgamesh, say? How does that work?

17:24  LP

Look, it’s had a very formative effect on my research. As you say, there’s not that many Australian assyriologists. I have a colleague from South America, and every now and then we bump into each other at conferences. {LAUGHS} I can marvel at the fact that there’s other people that are studying assyriology as well. We get very excited about being at international conferences. But yes, I think that what it’s done is made me focus a little bit more on the big picture.

17:58  LP

And I think that I kind of have to do that, because there’s so little assyriology in Australia that I tend to end up teaching … I mean, I’ve sort of taught a lot of Biblical studies, I teach a lot in the classical world, I’ve taught a lot of ancient languages. And all of that, it’s been really useful in broadening my perspective. So that’s been, I think, really useful. And I think that that shows, in my work, because I’m constantly bumping into scholars, not in Australia with my colleagues, obviously, but scholarship, where in the classical world, or Biblical studies, where I’m constantly bumping into views that I think could use a little bit more engagement with our field. {LAUGHS} A little bit more up-to-dating in our field, I would even hazard to say. And so that makes me think, okay, we need to establish more of the general areas of assyriology, and make them more accessible for other scholars. So that we can have this wonderful transcultural dialogue, which was happening in the ancient world, and we can still be having it now, if we all read a little bit of each other’s work.

19:08  JT

Yeah, I mean, that is one of the bigger themes for assyriology, if you want to call it that. You know, it’s a fairly young, small field. Very dynamic. Lots of exciting research. But we do struggle a little bit to share that research with the wider community.

19:23  LP


19:23  JT

You know, you don’t get academic credit in the university system for … it’s not quite outreach, is it? But the wider dissemination of research. That tends not to be how the reward system works. What do you think about that situation? What are the opportunities for us?

19:39  LP

I think that it has … our field has tended to have quite a heavy balance on the side of very technical works. And I can understand why that kind of has to be. As you say, as a new field, kind of finding its limits and establishing itself in a really rigorous manner. But at the same time, I do worry that we’re, that we’re sort of wandering off so far in out technical direction that we may be leaving everyone else behind. {LAUGHS} And so I think it’s good to have a balance of both if possible.

20:12  JT

Yeah. Okay. When you talk to students or members of the public, what do you find that they’re most interested in? What are the bits of your work or the work of assyriology that people outside the field tend to pick up on?

20:27  LP

Ah, well, I think that people get excited about cuneiform writing. Because it’s so ancient, and it’s just cool. It’s just really, really cool. It looks cool. It’s interesting to learn. And there’s so much literature out there once you’ve learned it. So I think people find that exciting. As well as that, young women, when I teach topics like Ishtar, tend to get very excited about these sort of early go-getting goddesses. And I think that’s wonderful. And then I think the thing that most people get really excited about in terms of more general audiences are just the extreme antiquity of the material that we deal with, and its sophistication. And how much it has to tell us about the human condition. How much of it is still universal, while being distinctive? I think people find that very exciting.

21:25  JT

Yeah, I wonder if we could push a little more on this question. So you’re also interested in reception aren’t you? And then in your Ishtar book, you have a whole chapter talking about Ishtar in modern film and TV. And a lot of that was new to me. Could you tell us a little bit about that? Where does she crop up? And what aspects of Ishtar does a modern audience find interesting?

21:46  LP

That is an interesting question and an interesting area of scholarship. Ishtar turns up in a bunch of different places that you wouldn’t necessarily expect. One of them is she turns up in Marvel Comics. I think she turns up in one of the early Conan the Barbarian comics from like, 1974. What’s interesting about this, I’ve become quite a fan of comics since I started doing reception. Because before that, I didn’t take them that seriously. But I really learned that these guys who write comic books, they know their history. And a lot of them are even, you know, history teaching professionals who have then moved into comics.

22:32  LP

And so Ishtar, as she turns up in Conan the Barbarian, it’s pretty much like how you would expect Ishtar to be, including her capacity to heal, which I thought was quite remarkable. But then you find things that are a little bit less accurate. And there seems to be a real association of Ishtar with Egypt, and also with the deity Moloch, which I don’t understand. But I think the Moloch thing might come through the Bible, because I think that they are both related to apostasy in the Bible. And so I think people sort of draw a bit of an association that, as far as I’m aware, didn’t exist, but we can always learn. And then the Egypt thing, I’m just not quite sure. I think it’s got something to do with Near East and the boundaries are blurred.

22:40  LP

But she does turn up, interestingly, in works of … she doesn’t have a strong reception, I would say as other characters might have. I mean, you know, Aphrodite is everywhere. But Ishtar we see a lot of in works with a lot of fantasy elements. So that can be horror, or it can be science fiction. And I have a kind of theory that maybe these audiences are a little bit more myth literate, and therefore, you’re able to use slightly more obscure myths, and they will still keep up with you. That’s my theory.

22:40  JT

That’s quite interesting. I wonder if we loop back to an earlier part of our conversation about the books for wider dissemination? So these guys making these comic books feature Ishtar, what sources are they using? How did they actually find out about this relatively obscure deity? Who is it? Is it Kramer or Jacobsen? Or?

24:03  LP

Wow, I should really know the answer. {LAUGHS} I should know the answer to this, because I actually interviewed one of them. And he had studied I think Kramer and Jacobsen back in the day, when he was preparing for history teaching. And so obviously, you can get a lot out of that. And yeah, I think that those tend to be the sources. But at the same time, I mean, they always have the artistic license. I don’t know if you’re aware of Gilgamesh as the … he’s a Marvel Avenger. Like, I mean, I know he is now with the film. But he was also in some of the Captain American comics in the very early period. And he and Captain America tend to have these like, adventures. It’s almost like Captain America becomes Enkidu. And they go all the way back to ancient Mesopotamia. And they even dive deep down into the ocean, where they search for the herb of renewed youth, the amurdinnu-plant. It’s quite remarkable how familiar they are with the Epic. And I just think that it’s shows not only the quality of the people that are writing the comics, but also the expectations of the audience who are informed and will write and say “that’s not right”, if they get it wrong. {LAUGHS}

25:20  JT

That’s quite interesting. I must admit, I haven’t seen the Eternals yet. I haven’t quite built up my strength for that. But I guess that you’ve seen it?

25:28  LP

I did see it. And I was the happiest nerd in the cinema. It was so exciting.{LAUGHS}  My students sort of said, “It’s not really that good, is it?” And okay, maybe it’s not as great as I thought it was. But if you love this kind of history, then just seeing things like the Ishtar Gate on screen, it’s very exciting.

25:49  JT

Yeah. Okay, I’m going to schedule it. It’ll come to the top of my list. I will do it now.

25:54  LP

You’re gonna give it a go? {LAUGHS} Amazing!

25:58  LP

I got a new comic the other day, which was actually an Archie comic. And I think it’s from the 1960s. But Archie goes back to Babylon. And it’s all about Babylonian history. I’m very curious to see what his adventures will be.{LAUGHS}

26:13  JT

OK, excellent. I’ll loop back on this one. So perhaps a final question. What are you working on now? What’s next for you after all of this?

26:23  LP

Well, I’m currently writing. I just had a book come out on the cultural history of wind. So it’s kind of wind, even before prehistory, all the way through to popular culture. It’s like a natural history of wind, but also the deification of wind, and wind in Enuma Elish. All kinds of aspects of wind, which was a really interesting project, which I’m quite excited about. But my next book, I’m kind of on a bit of an ecological bent at the moment, because I am now doing a book on ancient eco-thrillers. And I’m trying to write about how people in the ancient Near East, including in biblical literature, wrote about environmental catastrophes and what that can tell us about how they understood their environment.

27:15  JT

Oh, wonderful. When does that come out?

27:17  LP

Well, the manuscript is due in October next year. {LAUGHS} So let’s see how that goes.

27:25  JT

Right, okay, well good luck with that. And thank you very much indeed.

27:30  LP

Thanks, Jon.

27:32  JT

I’d also like to thank our patrons. Enrique Jimenez, Jana Matuszak, Nancy Highcock, Jay C, Rune Rattenborg, Woodthrush, Elisa Rossberger, Mark Weeden, Jordi Mon Companys, Thomas Bolin, Joan Porter MacIver, John MacGinnis, Andrew George, Yelena Rakic, Zach Rubin, Sabina Franke, Shai Gordin, Aaron Macks, Maarja Seire, Jaafar Jotheri, Morgan Hite, Chikako Watanabe, Mark McElwaine, Jonathan Blanchard Smith, Kliment Ohr, Christina Tsouparopoulou, TT, Melanie Gross, Claire Weir, Marc Veldman, Bruno Biermann, Faimon Roberts, Jason Moser, Pavla Rosenstein, Müge Durusu-Tanrıöver, Tate Paulette, Willis Monroe, Toby Wickenden, Emmert Clevenstine, Barbara Porter, as well as those who prefer to remain anonymous.

28:41  JT

I really appreciate your support. It makes a big difference. Every penny received has contributed towards translations. Thanks of course to the lovely people who have worked on the translations on a voluntary basis or for well below the market rate. For Arabic, thanks in particular to Zainab Mizyidawi, as well as Lina Meerchyad and May Al-Aseel. For Turkish, thank you to Pinar Durgun and Nesrin Akan. TEW is still young, but I want to reach a sustainable level, where translators are given proper compensation for their hard work.

29:19  JT

And thank you for listening to Thin End of the Wedge. If you enjoy what we do, and you would like to help make these podcasts available in Middle Eastern languages, please consider joining our Patreon family. You can find us at patreon.com/wedgepod. You can also support us in other ways: simply subscribe to the podcast; leave us a five star review on Apple Music or your favourite podcatcher; recommend us to your friends; follow us on Twitter: @wedge_pod. If you want the latest podcast news, you can sign up for our newsletter. You can find all the links in the show notes and on our website at wedgepod.org. Thanks, and I hope you’ll join us next time.