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Ishtar and Zombies

September 16, 2009

Ishtar has this nasty habit of threatening to release the dead upon the world of the living. My question, and the question of my students, is why is this the case? Why does Ishtar have this thing for zombies?

In the Gilgamesh Epic, Ishtar threatens Anu that unless he gives to her the Bull of Heaven, all hell will literally break loose:

“If you do not give me the Bull of Heaven,
I shall smash [the gates of the Netherworld, right down] to its dwelling,
I shall bring up the dead to consume the living,
I shall make the dead outnumber the living. “
(Andrew George’s translation, VI 96-100)

This is not the only time that Ishtar threatens to release her zombie army upon the unsuspecting land of the living. She makes the exact same threat to the gatekeeper of the Netherworld in The Decent of Ishtar:

“Gatekeeper, open you gate!
Open your gate that I may enter!
If you do not open the gate to let me enter,
I shall break the door, I shall wrench the lock,
I shall smash the door-posts, I shall force the doors.
I shall bring up the dead to consume the living,
I shall make the dead outnumber the living.”
(Translation my own)

Traditionally, Ishtar’s sister Ereshkigal is seen as queen of the Netherworld. The latter is the ruler in the Decent of Ishtar. While Ishtar’s journey to the Netherworld is to expand her own power base by usurping her morbid sister, she does not have this power at the outset when she makes the threat recounted above.

It should also be pointed out that Ishtar’s threat is not present in the (probably) older Sumerian version of the story, Inanna’s Descent. It is an open question as to whether the threat in Gilgamesh influenced that in the Decent of Ishtar or vice versa. What is apparent is that Ishtar has some zombie powers.

Now of course, the term “zombie” denotes reanimated corpses. The word comes into the English, through Caribbean Creole, from either Kikongo zumbi “fetish” or Kimbundu nzambi “god.” (link) As such, it might be argued that the dead that Ishtar threatens to unleash are not quite zombies in the modern sense of the world; but if there’s a more adequate term, I am unaware of it.

Ishtar as the goddess of sex and violence doesn’t seem the obvious choice to have her own zombie army. However, if there is anything that modern sensibilities can add to this discussion it is definitely that zombies are currently very sexy. Perhaps, there is some cultural tie in here. Maybe we aren’t all that different from our Mesopotamian forbearers.

  1. September 16, 2009 11:16 am

    Whoa! That is awesome. Awesome article. Before now I’ve only heard of these divine beings through death metal songs and the like, and I had no idea the profundity of wicked that inheres in these epics. Man, this is awesome. I’m going to go write a death metal song about making the dead outnumber the living.

    Aw, who am I kidding, I’m sure someone beat me to the punch. Still, great story.


  2. Steve Wiggins permalink
    September 23, 2009 11:53 am

    I am very glad to see another scholar looking at zombies! I was beginning to fear that I was the only (quasi-)academic to take an interest in where these creatures originate. The world of the undead has deep religious ties not only with zombies, but also vampires, currently also in the cultural ascendant!


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