The Epic of Gilgamesh

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Ishtar Character Analysis

Ishtar is a god of fertility, love, sex, and beauty. Brash and proud, she is enraged when Gilgamesh rejects her marriage proposal. She threatens to release the dead into the world of the living if her father Anu does not release the Bull of Heaven—an event that ultimately leads to Enkidu’s death.

Ishtar Quotes in The Epic of Gilgamesh

The The Epic of Gilgamesh quotes below are all either spoken by Ishtar or refer to Ishtar. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Civilization and the Fall from Innocence Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Penguin Classics edition of The Epic of Gilgamesh published in 1960.
Part 3 Quotes

Which of your lovers did you ever love for ever? What shepherd of yours has pleased you for all time?

Related Characters: Gilgamesh (speaker), Ishtar
Page Number: 86
Explanation and Analysis:

After defeating Humbaba, Gilgamesh is approached by the goddess Ishtar, who proposes marriage. The arrogant Gilgamesh, however, rejects her offer and chastises her (albeit rather justly) for how she has previously taken and rejected many lovers before him.

These questions show the increasingly brazen way that Gilgamesh interacts with the gods. Though he had previously shown a considerable ego, he was always certain to ask for divine aid and pray appropriately. The killing of Humbaba marked an indirect affront to the gods, but here the provocation is entirely direct. Gilgamesh’s tone is mocking, and he chides Ishtar for promising what she will not keep. Of course, this is a rather ironic challenge considering Gilgamesh’s own licentious behavior. Perhaps, he is articulating a sexist viewpoint in which men can move quickly between many lovers whereas women should not. Or perhaps he is simply trying to defend his own right to be with many women by avoiding marriage—even with a goddess. (At the same time, he is partially justified in criticizing Ishtar, who was famous for her fickle nature and transient lust for mortals.)

The image of the shepherd also recalls the earlier reference to how the ruler of Uruk should be a shepherd. Gilgamesh juxtaposes the role of human ruler with Ishtar’s divinity and points out, presumably accurately, that she will soon tire of him. Despite all his brashness, Gilgamesh does seem aware that there is a fundamental difference between gods and humans, and that the immortality of the first will make any marriage a transitory affair.


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My father, give me the Bull of Heaven to destroy Gilgamesh. Fill Gilgamesh, I say, with arrogance to his destruction; but if you refuse to give me the Bull of Heaven I will break in the doors of hell and smash the bolts; there will be confusion of people, those above with those from the lower depths. I shall bring up the dead to eat food like the living; and the hosts of dead will outnumber the living.

Related Characters: Ishtar (speaker), Gilgamesh, Anu
Page Number: 87
Explanation and Analysis:

After being spurned by Gilgamesh, Ishtar is infuriated and seeks revenge by appealing to her father, Anu. She requests that he unleash a divine bull to destroy Gilgamesh, and that he also weaken Gilgamesh by rendering him even more arrogant.

These lines offer good insight into the inter-workings of the gods in this text. Rather like humans, they quarrel and threaten each other. Ishtar cannot attack Gilgamesh directly, it seems, so instead she must ask her father to do so—and she must leverage the danger of unleashing the underworld to blackmail him into doing so. Her threat also builds on the theme of human mortality, for opening the underworld would upset the natural order of human death and life. That allowing the dead to resurface would be taken as a dire action indicates the importance of this equilibrium.

Ishtar's request that Anu fill Gilgamesh “with arrogance” casts Gilgamesh’s relative confidence as not the result of his personal mental state but rather as the result of specific actions from the gods. Furthermore, it indicates that bravery should be a weakness when he fights the Bull, whereas it was notably useful when he defeated Humbaba. Ishtar thus reiterates the folly of arrogance, for the same quality that caused Gilgamesh to defy her will supposedly lead to his demise.

Part 5 Quotes

‘Alas the days of old are turned to dust because I commanded evil; why did I command this evil in the council of all the gods? I commanded wars to destroy the people, but are they not my people, for I brought them forth? Now like the spawn of fish they float in the ocean.’ The great gods of heaven and hell wept, they covered their mouths.

Related Characters: Ishtar (speaker), Utnapishtim (speaker)
Related Symbols: Water
Page Number: 110
Explanation and Analysis:

As she watches the flood destroy mankind, Ishtar laments her own actions. The other gods follow in turn, saddened that they have slaughtered the very humans they brought forth into the world.

This passage shows a surprising affection from the gods toward humans. Though Enlil may have acted originally out of anger, others such as Ea did not agree with his actions—and still others resent it once they observe the consequences. When Ishtar says, “but are they not my people” she shows that the gods' pity stems from a paternal ownership over humans. Like children, humans were brought forth by the gods, so for them to be mere dead floating “fish” causes an expected emotional pain. Utnapishtim’s story thus reiterates the fact that gods are privy to rash action as well as regret—and it shows them to be less antagonistic toward humans than Gilgamesh’s own narrative might imply.

Ishtar’s prominent role here is far from accidental, considering it was her marriage proposal that Gilgamesh spurned earlier in the text. Utnapishtim’s tale implies that her anger is mixed with a generous and loving nature. So it instructs Gilgamesh that if he were to treat her and the other gods with more courtesy, he might receive better treatment in turn.

Part 6 Quotes

Gilgamesh spoke to him, to Urshanabi the ferryman, ‘Urshanabi, climb up on to the wall of Uruk, inspect its foundation terrace, and examine well the brickwork; see if it is not of burnt bricks; and did not the seven wise men lay these foundations? One third of the whole is city, one is garden, and one third is field, with the precinct of the goddess Ishtar. These parts and the precinct are all Uruk.’

Related Characters: Gilgamesh (speaker), Ishtar, Urshanabi
Page Number: 117
Explanation and Analysis:

Gilgamesh and Urshanabi have arrived empty-handed in Uruk, but the narrative suddenly shifts to a more hopeful tone. Here, the speaker recounts how Gilgamesh explained to Urshanabi the wonder of the city walls he had built.

The text shows, then, a striking character shift in Gilgamesh. Having abandoned his previous quest for immortality, the hero can return to Uruk with fresh eyes and notice his true accomplishment: the way he has built a civilization that will endure long beyond his death. These walls are not an indication of his personal strength or of any triumph against the gods. Rather they reveal a strong work ethic, a wish to empower the people of Uruk, and an ability to cooperate with deities. Indeed, the fact that Gilgamesh cites Ishtar shows just how deeply Utnapishtim’s tale has touched him: he no longer scorns the goddess, but rather recognizes her as an important supporter of Uruk's livelihood.

In a way, then, Gilgamesh has acquired immortality—not through his physical or heroic deeds, but rather through cooperation and social betterment. As Enkidu said far earlier, Gilgamesh's status as two-thirds god could allow him to be either light or darkness for humankind. And the text implies, here, that his journey has not given him everlasting life, but rather the moral wisdom to play the role of the light.

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Ishtar Character Timeline in The Epic of Gilgamesh

The timeline below shows where the character Ishtar appears in The Epic of Gilgamesh. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 3: Ishtar and Gilgamesh, and the Death of Enkidu
Friendship, Love, and Sexuality Theme Icon
Pride and the Gods Theme Icon
...weapons, and puts on his royal robes. Once he puts on his crown, the goddess Ishtar speaks to Gilgamesh: she tells him to come to her and be her husband. She... (full context)
Friendship, Love, and Sexuality Theme Icon
Pride and the Gods Theme Icon
Gilgamesh’s speech enrages Ishtar. She tells her mother and father, Antum and Anu, that Gilgamesh has insulted her. Ishtar... (full context)
Heroism in Nature vs. Comfort in the City Theme Icon
Pride and the Gods Theme Icon
Anu grants Ishtar the Bull of Heaven. She leads it to Uruk, where the Bull goes to the... (full context)
Part 5: The Story of the Flood
Civilization and the Fall from Innocence Theme Icon
Mortality and Meaning Theme Icon
Pride and the Gods Theme Icon
...night, and a tempest comes that is so terrible even the gods fear it. Then Ishtar, the Queen of Heaven, asks herself why she had commanded that mankind be destroyed, for... (full context)
Civilization and the Fall from Innocence Theme Icon
Pride and the Gods Theme Icon
...a mountaintop in a heated cauldron. The gods “gathered like flies over the sacrifice.” Finally, Ishtar comes. (full context)
Civilization and the Fall from Innocence Theme Icon
Pride and the Gods Theme Icon
Ishtar swears that she will remember the flood and all that happened. She tells all the... (full context)