Length: 25.200 cm
Width: 8.700 cm
Thickness: 3.000 cm
Excavated by A.H. Layard
Room 55: Mesopotamia
Cuneiform tablet telling the legend of Ishtar's descent to the Underworld
Neo-Assyrian, 7th century BC
From Nineveh, northern Iraq
Part of the library of King Ashurbanipal (reigned 669-631 BC)
The legend, written in Akkadian, describes how Ishtar, goddess of sexuality and warfare, went to the Underworld. Ishtar decided to undertake the journey, although the Underworld was known as the 'land of no return' for humans and gods alike. On the way down she passes through seven doorways and each time the gatekeeper removes from her the symbols and clothes of her divinity. Eventually Ishtar comes face to face with Erishkigal, the goddess of death, and collapses. All sexual activity stops on earth. The gods are distraught and Ea, god of wisdom, creates an impotent boy who is attractive to Erishkigal. He manages to persuade Erishkigal to have Ishtar sprinkled with the waters of life and revived. Ishtar passes back through the seven doors, and regains her clothing and attributes.
The story is known from earlier texts and a later version written in Sumerian, where Ishtar succeeds in escaping the Underworld by substituting her husband, the shepherd Dumuzi. This text appears to be connected with the cult of Dumuzi, since it can be interpreted as ending with ritual instructions for the bathing, anointing and lying in state of a statue of Dumuzi. He periodically died and returned from death, causing seasonal fertility.
S. Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia: Creati (Oxford University Press, 1991)
J.B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern texts rel, 3rd ed. (Princeton University Press, 1969)