The story of Ishtar unveiled
An interpretation of the esoteric meaning of the descent of Ishtar into the underworld
Guest article by Erika Hahn
Introduction by Occult Mysteries
The Babylonian story of Ishtar, the Goddess of Love, who descended into the Underworld to find and release her lover, Tammuz, is one of the earliest fragments of the Ancient Mystery Teachings. The story is inscribed on clay tablets found in the famous library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh, discovered in the mid 19th century, and now housed in the British Museum, in London. It is a tale as old as man which tells the story of the Quest for Wisdom which is the goal of every seeker after Light and Liberation.
The legend tells us that in order to find and release her 'lover' Tammuz, who is imprisoned in the underworld, Ishtar passes through 'seven gates' to rescue him. At each gate she has to give up one of her 'jewels' or a part of her 'dress'. After she has passed through the seventh gate she is completely naked and is then rejoined by her lover, after which both are liberated. Our regular readers will recognise the occult symbols in this story, such as the 'lover', 'gates', 'jewels', etc., each of which has many layers of meaning.
The story which has come down to us from Sumeria has been dated to around 4000 B.C., but undoubtedly goes back much further, to Atlantis or even before. Ishtar was a Babylonian copy of the Sumerian Goddess Inanna who was frequently depicted standing on the backs of two lionesses—another important symbol. In the Babylonian pantheon, Ishtar was the daughter of the Moon, the Queen of Heaven and the Mother of all Life. Tammuz, her husband and lover, was the god of vegetation who each year came to life and then died again.
This is the same story that we find in Egypt where Isis and Osiris take the place of Ishtar and her lover. Like Ishtar, Isis searches for her husband who was first imprisoned by Set in a coffin, and then murdered and his body cut into fourteen parts (twice seven), each of which Isis has to find before she can bring Osiris back to life. For this reason alone, we may be sure that the story of Ishtar is a genuine fragment of the Ancient Mystery Teachings and as such, well worth studying to extract its many hidden meanings.
The actual jewels and clothes the Goddess discards during her journey do not matter very much as they are simply convenient props upon which to hang the tale. However, for the sake of completeness we give them below as they are listed in the Babylonian version of the myth:
1st Gate: crown
2nd Gate: earrings
3rd Gate: necklace
4th Gate: breast ornaments
5th Gate: girdle, studded with birthstones
6th Gate: hand and foot bracelets
7th Gate: loin cloth
What follows is one interpretation of the descent of Ishtar into the underworld. Erika Hahn has succeeded in extracting much of the hidden meaning of this story with great sensitivity and beauty. But there are many more ways in which the story may be interpreted, for it contains many facets, each of which reflects different truths together with some of the very deepest of occult secrets. This is the reason we have published it and commend it to you for careful study and meditation.
In our customary afterword we say something about our own work in creating this website: it's purpose, methods and some of our future plans on behalf of all sincere seekers after Truth. For we are all on a Quest for Wisdom, just like Ishtar, as you can read in the stories our readers have sent to us over the years of their own personal search for truth and meaning.
The Story of Ishtar interpreted
by Erika Hahn
On reaching the First Gate, Ishtar, the Queen of Heaven, handed the keeper her crown. He thanked her and asked: "What is the greatest sin?" Without hesitation the smiling goddess answered: "Ignorance!" adding, "For it is a heavy burden indeed, blacker than the blackest night."
Immediately the gate swung wide, to reveal a narrow path that descended straight as an arrow below her. Quickly Ishtar continued on her way, eager to find her lover and soon arrived at the Second Gate. After receiving her earrings in payment, the Keeper asked her the nature of her errand. "Take your time," he counselled, as she was about to speak. She smiled at the Keeper; such a grateful, gentle smile. "I have thought of little else; without my lover, I am not. Wisdom of Love is the nature of my errand."
The Keeper bowed low to Ishtar, and the Second Gate opened before her. The road ahead beckoned, as clear and shining as her eyes and joyfully she hurried on. But as she drew nearer to the Third Gate, the sky began to darken and Night suddenly fell, mantling all in its ebon folds; road and gate alike. Ishtar's steps faltered, she stood still and despair gripped her trembling heart. Anon the need to find her lover and a great longing to free him and rejoin him arose within her.
Despair and hesitation fled, and resolutely, but with great care, she resumed her journey. She had not taken many steps when, to her joy and amazement, a star appeared in the darkness that enshrouded her, then another and another, until she was surrounded on all sides by countless orbs of light, marvelling at their radiance and beauty. She could see the way clearly now, and there, so close, stood the Third Gate. Ishtar joyfully gave up her necklace to the Keeper, who asked: "What is Night?" Without hesitation she replied: "The garment of Light." Bowing low before her, he waved her through the open doorway.
The road to the 4th Gate was short and steep and very soon she stood before its keeper. Eagerly she took off the ornaments of her breast and handed them to him. He smiled, and asked: "What is Light?" She stood very still and the Keeper, watching her intently, thought he saw a golden cloud gather around the Goddess' head, filled with many sparkling motes in every colour of the rainbow. "Light is the thought of God," she answered and went on her way. The Keeper stared at the spot where Ishtar had stood, lost in contemplation.
The road now steeply descended, twisting and turning like the sinuous body of a serpent; slippery and uneven. Ishtar sighed, for she thought the way would be easier now, but though weary at times, she walked steadily onwards with a trusting heart and undoubting mind. At last she sighted the 5th Gate, but to reach it she had to cross a rocky escarpment, sharp-toothed and precipitous and cut by many a yawning chasm. Often she lost her foothold and slipped back, yet never once did her resolution falter, nor her courage desert her. Finally she reached the Gate, her jewelled dress tattered and torn, her body bruised and weary, yet a great peace reigned in her heart. She knocked at the Gate and taking off her girdle, studded with gems, she gave it to the Keeper. Immediately her weariness vanished and she waited expectantly for his question. "Who art Thou?" he asked with a ringing voice. "I am an Image of the Thought of God," Ishtar replied. "I am Night seeking light, and I am light seeking greater Light."
No sooner had she spoken these words than the gate opened wide. The road beyond was smooth, and wide and straight and in no time at all she arrived at the 6th Gate. There she handed the rest of her jewels, even the bracelets of her hands and feet, to the waiting Keeper, retaining only her plain loin cloth. The Keeper regarded Ishtar reverently. "What is Life?" he asked. Her reply was no more than a whisper: "The Breath of God." As she spoke, her words seemed to take shape, circulating in a Holy rhythm; a heavenly dance of harmony and joy, and strange sounds and scents filled the air; utterly ravishing, impossible to describe.
And so Ishtar passed on to the 7th and final Gate. As she drew nigh, she began to tremble, recalling the long ago, thinking of the now and dwelling upon the yet-to-be . . . Silently she slipped off her loin cloth and where it fell, there stood her Lover, radiant, bright as the morning Sun. And between them stretched a bridge of Light; pure essence of Divine Abstraction, resembling a fiery, formless breath, a holy emblem of the God Within. Upon the centre of that golden bridge the Lovers met in close embrace. The bridge became a circle and deep within its limitless circumference, within its very heart, the Lovers merge—are once more one—and Ishtar's Quest is done.
Commentary by Occult Mysteries
In the Babylonian version of the descent of Ishtar into the underworld, the story is split into several parts. This may have been done to better conceal the occult truths the story contains, or it may be the result of the many copyists who have embellished and altered the original narrative since its composition. None of this matters, for enough remains of this fragment of the Ancient Mystery Teachings of the long ago, to extract the glittering pearls of Divine Wisdom within it.
We find similar themes in the Greek myth of Orpheus who searches for Eurydice in the underworld, in the love of the poet Dante for Beatrice described in his Divine Comedy, and in many other tales and myths from all times and climes. All tell the age-old story of the search for Wisdom, the imprisonment of the soul (Higher Self in our terminology) in the body, and its quest for liberation from illusion and the bonds of matter.
The seven 'gates' Ishtar passes through find their exact counterpart in the gates described in the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead. Similar gates are also described in chapter 30 of the Book of Sa-Heti, published in full on this website, but there they are 12 in number, not 7. What are these gates, and how many of them are there? That depends on how we interpret them. They may refer to the divisions between the non-physical dimensions, or realms, to the actual realms themselves, to the signs and rulers of the Zodiac, and a host of other occult principles and laws.
This is the great stumbling-block for the casual seeker who lacks the guidance of a true Teacher. What is permitted to be revealed in writing about these gates and realms you can find in the aforementioned books, as well as in The Golden Star and The Quest of Ruru, which are the only books we know in which the truth about them can be found.
You will have noted that Erika Hahn associates a specific question and answer with each of the seven gates in her interpretation of the story of Ishtar. This again is reminiscent of the Book of the Dead in which the deceased must correctly name the components of each gate of the Egyptian underworld before he is permitted to pass through them. All this is fraught with deep symbolism that will repay careful study.
You can find various translations of the Story of Ishtar on the Internet, some of which we mention in our further reading list in the sidebar. We hope this article will encourage you to read them with a seeing eye and compare them with the interpretation we have published. If you do so, you may discover many more layers of hidden meaning in the story which will aid you in your own Quest for Wisdom. If you wish to write to us about any discoveries your own meditations may reveal to you we shall be very glad to receive them and either confirm them or make further suggestions to assist you to refine and enlarge your understanding of this important fragment of the Ancient Mystery Teachings.
NOTE: If you have enjoyed this investigation into an ancient myth you may also like John Temple's series of articles on The Search for Truth which, among other subjects, deal with the concealed wisdom and occult knowledge to be found in the Bible and other sacred texts.
You may also find our article on Esoteric Philosophy of interest. The primary aim of this investigation in three parts is to introduce those seeking occult knowledge and truth to this important but often neglected avenue of study.
© Copyright Erika Hahn & occult-mysteries.org. All rights reserved.
Published 12 March 2016. Updated 12 June 2022.