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Essay on Ishtar in Gilgamesh

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Death and the underworld are perceived through different civilizations. Where Egypt saw life in the underworld similar to their god Osiris, who was alive through death, Mesopotamia saw nothing but darkness. It was at death that the individual has stripped away from all clothing, all glory. “Associated first with darkness, but also with dusk, dryness, and thirst” the concept of the underworld in the eyes of Mesopotamia was nothing less than despair (Holland 149). The portrayal of the underworld is best described through the myth of Ishtar’s decline into the underworld. Ishtar, the goddess of love, decided to visit her sister, Erishkigal the goddess of the underworld. Similar to Egyptian mythology, the underworld consists of gates that one must pass. The difference is access to pass. Egyptian mythology believed it was through certain knowledge that was found in the Book of the Dead. Yet in the Enurna Elish -- Mesopotamian mythology -- it is through the shedding of clothing. In order to enter the underworld, one has to be similar to the dead, naked, and weak. At each gate, Ishtar who is known for her beauty and glory, striped one article of clothing. Ishtar finally enters the underworld stripped of her own clothing, along with her glory and strength. It is at this moment that the world loses fertility, similar to the Greek mythology of the kidnapping of Persephone, which explains the season. Ishtar's descent not only shows the ideology that Mesopotamia had on the afterlife but also the explanation of the seasons, an explanation of the loss of fertility during winter when nothing grows. This myth ends with Ishtar’s return in her glory bringing back fertility to the world.

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This concept of death is intertwined with other myths of Mesopotamia, such as Gilgamesh’s fear of death. Gilgamesh, who is made up of three fourth gods and fourth humans, lived a life of hedonistic behaviors. Yet soon he was given by the gods -- in order to control him -- Enkidus, a friend. Yet Gilgamesh was known for his sexual behaviors, which intrigued Ishtar, wanting to make him become one of her many lovers. Ishtar then faced rejection due to Gilhamesh’s knowledge of her past lovers -- who usually resulted in rejection or death. This led the goddess of love to consult the councils of the gods to send the bull of heaven to Gilgamesh. Being three-fourths a god, Gilgamesh was able to slaughter this bull which resulted in a curse; a curse that would be worse than death. This curse became the quickly fallen illness of Enkidus, who was mortal. The result of Enkidu's death caused Gilgamesh to seek out a journey to find eternal life. This myth ends with Gilgamesh’s acquisition of the plant to grant eternal life, yet falling asleep leads to a snake swallowing the plant whole. Shedding its skin to gain eternal life, this myth not only portrays a deep understanding of the fear of death in Mesopotamia but also an explanation of why snakes shed skin, explaining the unknown.

When compared to that of the Egyptians, who also had many myths that were used to explain the unknown, specifically the afterlife, there is a drastic difference between life and death. Mesopotamia saw death as darkness, whereas in Egyptian mythology life carried on, which in turn brought many of the deceased close to the gods. These were seen in the rituals that were conducted between humans and the gods. Yet the rituals seen in Mesopotamia, specifically the New Year's Festival, involved gods visiting other gods, and humans were not involved as closely with the realm of the gods as in the Egyptian mythologies. Akita (New Year Festival) was a multi-day festival to celebrate the defeat of chaos and the success of creation. The fifth day of the festival was the purification of the temple of Marduk, where a sheep would be sacrificed. This sheep was believed to carry all the sins of older times and the sins of the people. Being sacrificed and having its body dragged across the temple till it was thrown into the river purified not only the temple but the people and the land. This ritual is similar to the myth of Kingu who was the serpent demoness Tiamat’s lover. Tiamat was said to be killed by Maroluk and placed as the star of the world. For Kingu, he had to shed his blood for the sins that Tiamat and he committed, similar to how the sheep sheds its blood for sins committed. On the final day of Akitus, another ritual based on the myths took place. It was a day of celebration but also the day the king insured the fertility of the land. At the temple of Marduk, the king would partake in sacred sex with a priestess of Ishtar.

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