The Descent of Ishtar and the Ascent of the Soul
To understand the Descent correctly it is essential to realize that it has nothing to do with “fertility” or “seasonal growth and decay” but, like the gnostic myth of the Fall of Sophia, addresses the question of man’s salvation from the bondage of matter. Its protagonist is the “Neoplatonic” Cosmic Soul, personified as the goddess Hekate in the Chaldean Oracles. The first half of the myth presents the soul’s heavenly origin and defilement in the “netherworld,” i.e. the material world, the latter half outlines her way of salvation. Like Sophia and Hekate Soteira, the goddess of the myth thus is a “two-faced” entity. Descending, she is the holy spirit entering the prison of the body; ascending, she is the penitent soul returning to her celestial home. This double role explains her contradictory figure, which combines the image of the Holy Spirit with that of the prostitute.
The affinity of the gnostic Sophia myth and the Descent of Ishtar is borne out by several considerations, most importantly by a Nag Hammadi treatise entitled The Exegesis on the Soul. This text has been taken as a rephrasing of the Valentinian myth of Sophia; in actual fact, however, its narrative much more closely follows that of the Descent of Ishtar, to the extent that it could be considered a running commentary or a paraphrasis of the latter. In contrast with most gnostic texts, it is written in easily comprehensible, plain language, clearly meant to explain rather than to conceal. It thus offers a most valuable interpretive parallel to the Descent of Ishtar, whose heavily metaphorical and allegorical language served just the opposite purpose.
The descent of Ishtar is presented in terms of a stripping metaphor. she leaves her home as the queen of heaven, the wise, chaste and pure “daughter of the moon,” dressed in her regal attire. At each gate of the netherworld, she has to take off one piece of her clothing, until she in the end arrives in the netherworld completely naked, stripped of all her virtues and powers. Her later ascent is expressed by reversing the metaphor: at each of the seven gates, she gets back a piece of clothing in an order mirroring that of their removal.
In Exeg. Soul we read: “As long as the soul was alone with the father, she was virgin and in form androgynous. But when she fell down into a body and came to this life, she fell into the hands of many robbers. Some made use of her by force, while others did so by seducing her. In short, they defiled her, and she lost her virginity. And in her body she prostituted herself.” Even though no reference to the removal of garments is actually made in the text, both the context and the use of the word “robbers” imply that the stripping metaphor underlies this passage too.
The same metaphor is also found in Jewish mysticism, where the Torah reveals herself by a process of undressing, while man ascends to higher worlds through a process of dressing. A student of the Torah aspire to become a bridegroom of the Shekhinah, and one who diligently studies the Torah clothes the Shekhinah, for she is naked in her exile in this world. Conversely, every sinner is thought of as one who disrobes the Shekhinah, and in so doing prolongs her exile.
The gates through which Ishtar has to pass on her way back from the netherworld correspond in Kabbalah to the gates of the sefirot, through which the soul must pass in order to reach the Divine King. In Gnosticism and in the mysteries of Mithras, they correspond to the seven planetary heavens or spheres. In each case, they are implicitly linked to a clear-cut doctrine of salvation, which we shall now consider.
ln Exeg. soul, the way to salvation is opened up by repentance, mourning, prayer, and mercy. Recognizing her miserable condition, the soul begins to call with all her heart upon the name of her father: “Save me, my father, for behold I will render an account for thee, for I abandoned my house and fled from my maiden’s quarters. Restore me to thyself again.” The text adds: “When the father, who is above, sees her in such a state, then he will count her worthy of his mercy upon her.”
In the Descent of Ishtar, the same idea is expressed through the penitent figure of Papsukkal, who weeps before Ishtar’s father, and through the creation of the effeminate assinnu, who releases Ishtar from Ereshkigal’s thrall. The assinnu corresponds to the gnostic “helper” sent by the Father to the suffering soul to comfort it, awaken it, and to provide it with the “food and water of life,” the word (logos) of salvation (Rudolph Gnosis,p. 119ff). The sprinkling of Ishtar with the water of life corresponds to the baptism which in Exeg. Soul affects the rebirth and cleansing of the soul.
In Exeg. Soul, the ascent of the soul – the restitution of her original unity with God – is presented in terms of a wedding allegory. The soul is a bride adorning herself for the arrival of the bridegroom, “her man and her brother,” to whom she was joined when she was “with the father.” The text then explicitly states: “This is the ransom from captivity. This is the upward journey of ascent to heaven. This is the way of ascent to the father … Then when she will become young again she will ascend, praising the father and her brother, by whom she was rescued.”
The ascent of Ishtar, too, requires a ransom: Tammuz, her brother and “the husband of her youth,” must be given to the netherworld as her substitute. The sacrifice of Tammuz – an etiology for the death of the king as Son of God – constitutes the culmination of the whole myth and must be regarded as a functional equivalent of the redemptory death of Christ. As in Christianity, it paradoxically becomes a promise of eternal life for man. At the end of the myth we are told: “When Tammuz rises, the lapis lazuli pipe and the carnelian ring will rise with him, the male and female mourners will rise with him! May the dead rise and smell the incense!”
In sum, it seems certain that the Descent of Ishtar contained the basic tenets of an ecstatic mystery cult promising its followers absolution from sins, spiritual rebirth and resurrection from the dead. These rewards were in store for those who were ready to follow the path of the Goddess from prostitution and suffering to the wedding in heaven. In the words of the gnostic document Thunder:
I am the first and the last. I am the honoured and the despised. I am the prostitute and the holy. I am the wife and the virgin. I am the mother and the daughter… I am the voice whose sound is manifold. and the logos which has many images… I am shame and boldness… I am war and peace. I am the union and the dissolution. I am what is beneath, and to me will they come up. I, I am sinless and yet the root of sin derives from me… Give heed then, O listeners- For many are the sweet forms which exist in numerous sins and incontinences, and disgraceful passions, And fleeting pleasures; which people embrace, Until they become sober and go up to their place of rest. And they will find me there, and live, and not die again.
We are poorly informed about the practical details of this cult. As in other ancient mystery cults, those who embarked on it were pledged by oath to lifelong secrecy. The main lines of it can, however, be reconstructed from the available evidence.
The overall goal of the cult was the purification of the soul so that it would regain its original unity with God. This goal was encoded in the Assyrian sacred tree, meditation on which certainly played an important part in the cult. The trunk of the tree, represented as a stylized date palm standing on a rock, symbolized Ishtar as the power bridging the gap between heaven (the crown of the tree) and the material world (the base of the tree). The union of the mystic numbers of the crown (1) and of the base (14) equals the mystic number of Ishtar (15).
For a spiritually pure person, union with God was believed to be possible not only in death but in life as well. This belief provides the doctrinal basis of Assyrian prophecy: when filled with divine spirit, the prophet not only becomes a seat for the Goddess but actually one with her, and thus can foresee future things.
To achieve the union, one had to emulate the Goddess, particularly her sufferings and agony, which provided the starting point for her salvation.
One way of doing this was self-inflicted bodily pain, whipping oneself to the point of fainting, stinging oneself with pointed spindles, cutting oneself with swords and flint knives, and even turning oneself into a eunuch in a frenzied act of self-mutilation. This ghastly act was widely practiced not only in Mesopotamia but all over the ancient Near East, and illustrates the tremendous power that the cult of lshtar exerted upon its initiates. The purpose of the act – which certainly was the culmination of a long process of spiritual preparation – was to turn the devotee into a living image of Ishtar: an androgynous person totally beyond the passions of flesh.
Another important way of emulating the Goddess was incessant weeping, sighing and lamenting. This method was directly prescribed in the Descent of Ishtar, and its significance was powerfully augmented by a passage in the Mesopotamian Flood story, where the Goddess bewails the fate of her perishing creations.
Any one of these practices, particularly when continued to the point of exhaustion, is liable to lead to paranormal states and experiences. From the viewpoint of Assyrian prophecy, the prominence of methods involving agitation of the eye (weeping) and the mouth (lamenting) is of particular interest, for these also play a prominent role in Jewish mysticism and ecstatic Kabbalah.
In his book Kabbalah: New Perspectives, Moshe Idel has analyzed in detail the mystical techniques used by kabbalists to induce the mystical union. He reviews several cases of self-induced suffering, weeping, and prayer leading to experiences of the Shekhinah, and then makes an important observation:
In the cases of Abraham Berukhim, Hayyim Vital, Levi Isaac, and Safrin, weeping preceded the appearance of the Shekhinah..The activation of the eye here ends in a visual experience. In the case of Karo and Alkabez, by contrast, the organ activated was the lips; indeed, this time the Shekhinah spoke from the throat of Karo…The correlation between the technique and the nature of the revelation is striking.
The apparition of the Shekhinah as either a vision or a voice, depending on the organ stimulated by the mystic, is indeed striking, and all the more so inasmuch as the same situation is encountered in Assyrian sources, which distinguish between visions and dreams received by seers (shabru) and oracles spoken by prophets (raggimu). While male gods, too, could be seen in visions and dreams, only Ishtar and other goddesses speak from the mouth of the prophet.
The evidence collected by Idel establishes a similar strong link between prophecy and the Shekhinah. According to R. Moses Azriel ben Eleazar ha-Darshan, “Whoever knows the divine name and prays using it, the Shekhinah dwells upon him and he prophesies like the ancient prophets.”
An anonymous source quoted by Moses de Cordovero expresses the same in another way:
Some of the ancients commented that by the combination and permutation of the name. .. after a great concentration, the righteous will receive a revelation of an aspect of a Bat Kol … until a great influx will descend upon him, on the condition that whoever deals with this will be a well-prepared vessel to receive the spiritual force.
Commenting on this passage, Idel notes that “in texts written in the ecstatic vein of Kabbalah and Hasidism … man is regularly viewed as a Temple or a vessel receiving the Shekhinah.
This is no place for a serious discussion of the complex figure of the Shekhinah, but she certainly shares many features with Ishtar and gnostic Sophia. Like the latter, she is a “virgin of light,” perceived in visions as a beautiful feminine apparition; she is the supernal holy soul with whom the mystic seeks to unite; she is the presence of God in man; she is the word of God; she is the love of God; and she is also known as the Supernal mother and the Infernal mother, the upper Shekhinah and the lower Shekhinah, paralleling the role of the soul in Ishtar’s Descent and Sophia’s Fall.
In Jewish esotericism, the Shekhinah is closely associated with Malkhut, “kingdom,” the receiver and transmitter of the “divine efflux” into the lower worlds. This association corresponds to the special relationship between Ishtar and the king in Assyrian religion.