Ishtar, Tammuz, and Sacred Kingship
November 20, 2016
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In some ancient civilizations, kings were more than just bearded old men who wore Burger King crowns and told people what to do. They were also the high priests of their people, ambassadors of the human race to the Gods (and vice versa). They didn’t just get to sit around and have topless women feed him grapes all day; they had to ensure that their nations’ crops didn’t fail, that their borders remained protected from foreign invaders, and that their people were cared for in times of disaster. They also had to perform religious rituals all the time to ensure that all of their peoples’ Gods were properly appeased. Not every king was successful in this regard, and there was a heavy price to pay for being a lousy ruler. Some kings who failed to procure good fortune for their people were ritually sacrificed.
In Babylon, one of Ishtar’s qadishtu would engage in hieros gamos with the reigning king each year during Akitu, the spring festival. During this particular version of the rite, the priestess became an incarnation of Ishtar and the king became an incarnation of Tammuz, the Akkadian God of food and vegetation. Ishtar and Tammuz were married in Their youth, but when Ishtar descended into the Underworld and was killed by Ereshkigal, Tammuz was the only being in the world who didn’t grieve for Her. So when Ishtar was resurrected and the demons of the Underworld demanded that She choose someone to take Her place in their realm, picking Tammuz was really a no-brainer. When the sister of Tammuz begged Ishtar for mercy, the Goddess agreed that He would be allowed to return from the Underworld each year in the spring, thereby establishing the seasons. So when the king and the qadishtu priestess joined in sacred marriage during Akitu, they were channeling the powers of Ishtar and the newly reanimated Tammuz to magically increase the fertility of the land. (And if things didn’t turn out so well for his country over the following year, a king might find himself cast in Tammuz’ bloodier role the next spring.)
That seems pretty ghoulish to us today, but bear in mind that things were very different back then. Most of us living in the West are used to shopping in stores for mass-marketed food, and apart from farmers, most of us have no concept of what it’s like to live or die by the success of our own crops. Hell, we had a pretty serious apple shortage here in Michigan back in 2012, but nobody died from any famine outbreaks, so clearly our way of doing things works much better for us today. But while killing a king for not bringing in a successful harvest is definitely pretty severe, those people were living in a pretty severe situation, and they couldn’t afford to fuck around with crop failure. (Lest we forget: most of them couldn’t read or write, either.) I also think there’s something to be said for the fact that even a king’s power wasn’t considered “absolute” in those days, and that even he could be held accountable and taken to task by his own people.