What the Temple of Ebla Tells Us About the Cult of Ishtar

According to Babylonian myth, Ishtar––known as Inanna in Sumerian Myth––was a powerful goddess who had control over war and love; she brought forth rain and thunderstorms, which, since her myth was mostly rooted in Mesopotamia, served a central role in the agricultural aspects of daily life. Ishtar, often represented by doves, was also the goddess of fertility and was revered by many, both of high and low status. As Ishtar rose in prominence, she became central in Babylonian and Sumerian society, and thus became the central figure in the Cult of Ishtar, which expanded throughout the Babylonian and Sumerian sphere of influence. How do archaeologists identify evidence for these cults? Ebla, a town located in modern day Syria, is presumed to be highly influenced by the Cult of Ishtar; the evidence found in the town’s religious temples could help archaeologists accurately describe the goddess and her worshippers, as well as describe the affect that the cult had on the society.

This image is a relief of Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of fertility, war, and love.

In order to determine the location of a cult, archaeologists must first find attention-focusing devices, such as sacred temples, where the community would presumably go to worship. In Ebla, temples were discovered; religious practices most likely took practice in a central space, bounded by cisterns. Archaeologists found the most evidence for the presence of Ishtar within the temple; As archaeologists began to excavate the stratigraphy around in a favissa, or pit, they discovered a plethora of artifacts, including carnelian lions, bronze bulls, and bronze snakes: all common iconography of Ishtar. The addition of figurines depicting domesticated animals and naked women––symbols of fertility––also suggest Ishtar’s influence within Ebla.

This image depicts the remains of a temple at Elba in modern-day Syria, a site that suggests influence from the Cult of Ishtar.

The archaeologists also began to find pottery sherds dumped in pits, which were then hypothesized to be influenced by the Cult of Ishtar; though they were unable to be completely reconstructed, the decorations of the pottery often depicted a common theme of birds. These birds however, were most likely doves than birds of prey; this hypothesis is supported by the presence of dove bones on the site, which were most likely used as offerings towards the goddess. The presence of doves suggests that Ishtar’s sphere of influence had expanded beyond the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Though the pottery is not complete evidence for the Cult’s presence, the contents within the pottery is what deems their religious significance. The pottery obtained at the site contained burnt offerings, such as processed food and bones; this signifies the town’s participation in the offering­­s, another major aspect of cult identification.

These findings within the temples’ favissa suggests that Ishtar’s influence was expanding westward, which indicates the Babylonian and Sumerian sphere of influence was growing towards the Mediterranean, allowing their culture to be adopted by more people.


Additional Readings:





Heffron, Yaǧmur. “Inana/Ištar (goddess)”, Ancient Mesopotamian Gods and Goddesses, Oracc and the UK Higher Education Academy, 2016 http://oracc.iaas.upenn.edu/amgg/listofdeities/inanaitar/

Marchetti, Nicoló. Nigro, Lorenzo.

1997  Cultic Activities in the Sacred Area of Ishtar at Elba During the Old Syrrian Period: the Favissae F.5327 and F.5238 Journal of Cuneiform Studies (49): 1-44.

Pinnock, Frances.

2000  The Doves of the Goddess. Elements of the Cult of Ishtar at Elba in the Middle Bronze Age Levant (32:1): 121-128.

Renfrew, Colin, and Bahn, Paul G. Archaeology Essentials: Theories, Methods, Practice. 2nd ed., Thames & Hudson, 2015.





1 thought on “What the Temple of Ebla Tells Us About the Cult of Ishtar

  1. What is the difference archaeologically between a religion and a cult? Why does this take the label of cult, while other types of sites with religious artifacts and centers for prayer are not given such a label. Is this a political distinction of the author, how it is written in literature, etc.? It is not a neutral term, and it’s something that struck me as odd because nothing else is strange about the site.

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