Monday, May 16, 2011

The Power of Fertility in Inanna Literature and Today

Fertility has been on my mind lately. Not because I want another kid (ever!), but instead because of some lucky confluence of issues in my professional and personal lives. At the same time that I am preparing to teach a collection of myths surrounding Inanna, a Mesopotamian goddess of fertility, in my Honors humanities course in the fall, my daughter (now eight) has decided to educate herself on what will happen to her as she goes through puberty (a process that, experts say, begins for girls in the contemporary US between the ages of eight and 12). In a move surely representative of some sort of developmental milestone, Taegan apparently plucked American Girls’ The Care and Keeping of You: The Body Book for Girls off her shelf one day last week (it’s been there for at least a year) and started flipping through the pages. Minding my own business in another room, I was only alerted to the situation when she then bombarded me with a barrage of questions borne, I am certain, out of a mixture of fascination and horror at the diagrams and frank information presented in the book. Once I figured out what was happening, I made a point of stopping what I was doing and, as all of the childrearing advice books suggest that parents do, answered Taegan’s questions to the best of my knowledge. This was hard for many reasons, not least of all because I could really use a refresher course on female anatomy terms and functions myself (honestly, could you explain the female reproductive cycle off of the top of your head?). But the real stumper was a question fairly unrelated to anatomy: “So, if girls have to go through all of this so that we can have the babies, why don’t we get more respect? Why has there never been a girl president?”

Well, first of all, this is a super question, and I’m proud my little girl for thinking this way (one point for feminism!). Secondly, the answer is kind of counterintuitive. In fact, in a lot of ways, it is precisely because we have the babies that we are still not considered ideal for high-level political leadership. There is still a wide-spread assumption that our capability for nurturing life prevents us from making tough political decisions. And, perhaps more significantly, great measures have been taken over the course of history to contain female fertility, as it has been constructed (by a white, male patriarchal power structure) over time as posing some sort of threat to humanity, civilization, order, etc.

But I am learning that it has not always been this way! As my recent reading has shown, Inanna was revered for her duality of “feminine” and “masculine” traits. Inanna was the most prominent and lasting Mesopotamian goddess, not only of fertility, but also of sexual love and combat; she was worshiped for her ability to make babies and to make war. In a Sumerian hymn to Inanna entitled “Loud Thundering Storm” (ca. 2,000 BCE) for instance, the goddess is portrayed as simultaneously a sustaining life-force (“. . . you pour your rain over the lands and all the people”) and a destroyer of life (“You trample the disobedient like a wild bull . . .”) (Wolkstein 95). Inanna’s power is in her ability to nurture and to kill. And, in our contemporary world, wouldn’t this make her a great president? ;)

Within the context of a fertility cult like that of Inanna, it makes perfect sense that a god or goddess would be both loving and terrible. This is because the god or goddess represents the earth (or “Nature”) itself, the source of all food and shelter and human life, but also the cause of destruction on mass scale, due to flooding, drought, tornadoes, hurricanes, cold, heat, etc. If the earth is the model for god, then of course god is terrifying and unpredictable. This basic ideology, that the divine is both nurturing and destructive, carries over into most major world religions exactly because, at their core, all religions are fertility cults in that they function to explain the dual nature of the earth that both sustains and kills us.

Now, because we are all of the earth (and/or of god, if you prefer), I believe that we are all of dual natures, just like the earth, Inanna, Yahweh, God, etc. We are all capable of nurturing life; we are all capable of battle. The early Mesopotamians seemed to understand this, that fertility was not the purview of only women and that fighting was not the purview of only men. Gods were worshiped for their powers of fertility just as goddesses were; goddesses were worshiped for their powers of destruction just as gods were.

Over time, though, it seems that the Mesopotamians abandoned many of their fertility goddesses and placed more and more faith in their phallic gods. Indeed, Inanna is exceptional in that she lived on as a prominent fertility goddess—as Ishtar in the Semitic languages—until the end of the Ancient Mesopotamian era. Interestingly, though, along the way, Inanna/Ishtar develops in the literature into a castrating matriarch, a man-eater, not unlike the vagina flower in Pink Floyd’s The Wall (see my discussion of this little gem here). In the Babylonian The Epic of Gilgamesh (ca. 600 BCE), Gilgamesh declines Ishtar’s advances because of her long history of wounding and maiming her lovers. By way of refusal, he lists and explains Ishtar’s male conquests:

There was Tammuz, the lover of your youth, for him you decreed wailing, year after year. You loved the many-coloured roller, but still you struck and broke his wing . . . . You have loved the lion tremendous in strength: seven pits you dug for him, and seven. . . . You have loved the shepherd of the flock; he made meal-cake for you day after day, he killed kids for your sake. You struck and turned him into a wolf; now his own herd-boys chase him away, how own hounds worry his flanks. (Matthews 6)

Somewhere along the line, it seems, Innana/Ishtar’s sexuality, once celebrated as a representation of fertile lands and people, became threatening, perhaps especially to male kings like Gilgamesh. From a symbol of the life-giving and destructive powers of the earth, Inanna was therefore turned into an emasculating bitch.

These later Mesopotamian religions are not alone. Many religious traditions depict female sexuality as threatening instead of—as with the early fertility cults—as life-sustaining. Paula Kirby makes this point explicit in her recent post at The Washington Post:

The truth is that the Abrahamic religions fear women and therefore go to extraordinary and sometimes brutal lengths to control them, constrain them, and repress them in every way. Show me a non-religious society that feels so threatened by the thought of female sexuality that it will slice off the clitoris of a young girl to ensure she can never experience sexual pleasure. Show me a non-religious society that feels the need to cloak women from head to toe and force them to experience the outside world through a slit of a few square inches. All three Abrahamic religions share the myth of Adam and Eve, the myth that it was through woman that evil was let loose in the world. They share the heritage of Leviticus, which declared a menstruating woman unclean, to be set aside, untouched, a revulsion that remains even today among some orthodox Jews, who will refuse to shake a woman’s hand for fear she may be menstruating. What kind of lunacy is this? It is the lunacy of a Bronze Age mindset fossilized by the reactionary forces of religion.

Hmmm. So, now we don’t have “girl presidents.” It seems to me that it is perhaps time to reclaim our female right to leadership on the basis of our immense powers of fertility, sexuality, and, yes, even battle. We do have the babies, as Taegan says, which makes us literal embodiments of bounty, regeneration, and violence (see my description of the childbirth process here). Just like men, we are strong and powerful in our life-giving abilities and also weak in the face of an earth that is still so often unpredictable and terrifying. What we may even have over men is that we have not been socialized to deny our weaknesses and to engage in physical combat to protect our interests, but instead to acknowledge our very human shortcomings and work through battles with communication, empathy, and—and here’s that “feminine” word again—nurturance.

Note: I’m also working on putting together a presentation for my Humanities class on the development and meaning of fertility cults. I’d be happy to share my speech notes that will go along with the presentation.

Works Cited

Matthews, Roy T. and F. Dewitt Platt. Readings in the Western Humanities. Vol. 1. 3rd ed. London: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1998.

Wolkstein, Diane and Samuel Noah Kramer. Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth. New York: Harper & Row, 1983.


  1. Hi Andrea. You may not remember me...Jennifer Davis, Erika's sister. Erika forwarded this article to me as I have great interest in this topic. Thanks so much for sharing this information. I hope that more people come to appreciate the value of women, and can see in us the goddess that we all possess. Your daughter is one smart young lady!

  2. Of course I remember you, Jennifer! Tell me more about your interest in Cults of Fertility!