L.. Cylinder seal. Ishtar & Shamash R. Temple of Innana.   (c. 2254-2193 BCE)
Maker:  AKKADIAN Anonymous (2334 BCE - 2157 BCE)
©Kathleen Cohen
California State University IMAGE Project
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In a hot semi-arid country the sun was not considered the bringer of fertility, rather it was the morning dew that people thought made the plants grow. The goddess Ishtar was identified with Venus, the morning and evening star, and it was believed that she brought fertility to the land. However, like most representations of the Great Goddess, Ishtar was associated with both life and death. As in images of many of these goddesses, the lion represents her control over death. Life and death were seen by the Mesopotamians as two sides of the same coin, as the continuos process of nature, often personified as two aspects of the same goddess.

The image of Ishtar and her lion is the imprint of a CYLINDER SEAL, which was a small round piece of stone carved with scenes like this one. When rolled across the damp clay used for documents, the pattern was imprinted in relief. The seal would identify the owner of the document and functioned as a signature. This particular seal was Akkadian, and it is very similar to Sumerian seals. You can see the imprint of the hieroglyphic script, as well as the figure of Ishtar and her lion.

Ishtar's divinity is indicated by the horned headdress that she wears. The swords behind her wings tell us that she is also the goddess of war. We will see that, unlike the Sumerians, the Akkadians were fierce warriors. In adopting the Sumerian Innana into their culture, they transformed the earlier agricultural goddess of life and death into a war goddess.

The Sumerians called the Great Goddess Inanna, but you should know her by the name of Ishtar; the more popular name given to her by later groups in Mesopotamia. In the relief on the right from the ancient Sumerian Temple of Inanna we can see the goddess with a vase of water, for water was the key to fertile lands, then as now. Water flows from her vase across and down the sides of her niche, forming the curves that are associated with a serpent. We will see that the serpent is also associated with life, for serpents can shed their skins, and thus renew themselves.