In The Desert Of Seth

By G. B. Marian

Ishtar and Sexism in Religion

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Some of the things I’ve described about Ishtar probably make Her sound pretty capricious by most people’s standards. I’d like to point out, however, that virtually every Deity in every religion has been described as being capricious at one point or another (except maybe for someone like Kuan Yin, who doesn’t seem to have a negative bone in Her proverbial body). That includes the God of the Bible, and if you don’t believe me, read the Old Testament; it features many lurid tales of Yahweh commanding the kingdom of Israel to commit murder, rape, child abuse, and even genocide. (Pay extra special attention to the book of Deuteronomy.)

Yahweh can get a free pass for His destructive deeds, but Ishtar doesn’t. And honestly, I think this has more to do with sex than it does with theology. Yahweh’s male, so anything He does that’s bad for humans must be something they “deserve”; He’s a stern father punishing His wayward children, and His followers are all supposed to be “faithful” to Him (like battered wives to an abusive husband). But Ishtar’s female, so anything She does that’s bad for humans must be due to simple vanity; She’s just a self-absorbed “slut,” and those who put up with Her “tantrums” are just “pussy-whipped.” Nobody stops to inspect Ishtar’s myths that closely; if they did, they’d notice that Tammuz and Gilgamesh are both assholes. Tammuz – Her own husband – didn’t give two shits when She died, so why shouldn’t She have been angry with Him when She came back to life? And Gilgamesh was a tyrant and a rapist who terrorized his own people (especially the womenfolk). His refusal to marry Ishtar and to accept Her power over him was actually an act of hubris. His titanic ego and his quest for immortality were more important to him than love or treating people right, so why shouldn’t Ishtar have tried to destroy him? Yet whenever I read a commentary on the Epic of Gilgamesh, the author almost always characterizes Her as an evil bitch who just gets in the male hero’s way. Yahweh can order the Israelites to rape all the virgin girls of their neighboring civilizations (Judges 21:10-24, Numbers 31:7-18, Deuteronomy 20:10-14, etc.) and that’s perfectly hunky dory; but Gods forbid if Ishtar dares to make a raging prick pay for his hubris!

Mind you, it’s highly debatable as to whether Yahweh Himself actually commanded anyone to do any of these things or not. Like all mythology, the Bible was written by fallible human beings, not by an infallible Deity; and the Old Testament was written by an especially radical Israelite sect well after Israel fell and the Babylonian Exile began. It might surprise you to learn that ancient Israel itself was overwhelmingly polytheist, just like its contemporaries. Yahweh was originally worshiped beside other Deities – including Ishtar – and it wasn’t until after the Israelites went into diaspora that Yahweh’s priests started emphasizing His jealousy and hostility toward other Deities and cults. So just because Yahweh “says” something in the Bible doesn’t necessarily mean He “says” it in real life. But by the very same token, the stories of Ishtar’s wrath were never meant to be taken literally either. Contrary to popular “wisdom,” ancient polytheists generally understood that their myths were symbolic of higher truths that really couldn’t be explained. Furthermore, most polytheist myths are about Gods interacting with other Gods, not Gods interacting with humans. So when Ishtar kills Tammuz or tries to kill Gilgamesh, it’s not the same thing as a human being committing actual murder.

However, validating misogyny and ordering genocide are still accepted events in Yahweh’s myth cycle. It therefore doesn’t matter how much people might want to overlook such grisly details and insist that He is a “God of love”; Yahweh has a powerful dark side, and even the Bible itself encourages His worshipers to accept this as an established fact. What else are we to make of the story of Job, who endures every conceivable form of abuse that Yahweh sends Satan to visit upon him, but who continues to dutifully worship Him anyway? As a polytheist, I don’t think all people everywhere should want (or even be expected) to follow Job’s example; if a Deity refuses to treat us well, we have a fundamental right (in accordance with Ma’at) to stop worshiping Them and explore other options. But then again, I also think it’s wrong for us to expect our Gods to be squeaky clean comic book superheroes who never do anything “bad.”

I just don’t understand how things ever got to this point where “male = good, light, civilized” and “female = bad, dark, primitive.” I understand that it happened, and I understand the incredibly negative effect it’s had on all of us (yes, even on men); but I can’t wrap my head around why it happened.

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