Ishtar’s Descent into ‘Hell’

Hand-drawn vector illustration with all seeing eye of God on an open palm. Human hand with eye of Providence in the triangle, esoteric symbols, magic runes, alchemical signs and the words Trust no one


“One of the incidents in the story of Christ which must have made a strong appeal to the Old Religionists, and helped to convince them of Christ’s adherence to, and (reincarnated) leadership of, their Cult, was the post-Crucifixion journey out of the world – synopsized into a few words in the Creed: ‘He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended into Hell, and rose again the third day.’ This, to the members of the Fertility Cult, was the exact expression of one of their fundamental beliefs – and if we may accept the assurances of the late Dr Gardner, it is what those of the Old Religion still believe today.

It is no argument against the truth of any belief that ‘people used to believe this five thousand years ago’. Nor need a devout Christian hesitate to recite the Creed, even knowing that, long, long ago, Ishtar, they believed, went down into the Land of No Return; as others had done before Her, and others were to do after she had visited the place of shadows and had come back. When she descended into Hell – to use the English of the Authorised Version – life went, as it were, into stasis:

Since the Lady Ishtar descended into the Land of No Return,
The bull does not spring upon the cow,
The ass does not bow over the jennet,
No more man bows over woman,
The man sleeps in his chamber,
The woman sleeps alone.

Ishtar seeking Tammuz, Isis seeking Osiris, Ceres seeking her daughter Proserpine, carried off to the Lower World by Pluto – these are all the poetic, romantic expressions of what seemed a fact to early peoples: that the crops spring up from the earth in the beginning of the year, and ‘return to the earth’ in the year’s end. The variant on this ancient theme is to be found in the legend of Ceres and Proserpine, where the sought one returns only for half a year. This version of the legend must have originated in a region where the year is pretty evenly divided between fallow and fertile.

The honest realisation, by all ancient peoples, that He Who governs the pattern of this world must have the dual function of the Life-Giver and the Life-taker presented the God with two complementary aspects, which made Him at once the Lord of the living and the Lord of the dead.

In his life-giving aspect, He was the fertiliser of women and all female things, the bestower of reproductive power on men and all male things. In His life-giving aspect, he made the plants and trees yield of their fruit; the seas shoal with fish. To men looking for His bounty, the God in this aspect must have seemed ‘good’. In that other aspect, when He chilled and killed the earth, so that few things – and none of them edible -grew; when the bull no longer sprang upon the cow, the ass no longer covered the jennet; when the trees were stripped of their leaves, and the game hid within its winter holes; the God must have seemed ‘bad’.

It was easier then – as it has been too often found easier since – not to try to reconcile the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ aspects of one Deity, at once all-provident and all-demanding; but to assume a dual Divine Management of the universe; to assume that what is good for Man comes from the loving-kindness of a ‘good’ God; what is bad from the malign impulses of a ‘bad’. Manichaeism – to give a fairly modern name to wrong-thinking perhaps as old as thinking Man – is an error into which all mankind must have a tendency to slip. And beyond Manichaeism – the belief in a Dual Direction of destiny – lies the far more dangerous error that the dominant partner in this Good-Evil partnership is … Evil.

Again we have an error into which it is no difficult matter to find oneself slipping. We remember the ‘bad’ things which have happened to us, simply because we do not notice the ‘good’. We take ‘good’ so much for granted that it is rarely that anything but the ‘bad’ captures our self-pitying attention. And so we may, if we are not careful of our souls’ health, tend to believe the world managed by evil influences, when (despite the Hounds of God, the foul lawyers who ministered to the greed of Henry VIII, the Godless Williams – alias Cromwell – and his life-hating Roundheads, Lenin and his malignant apes, Hitler and his fellow-diabolists) the world is still more good than evil.”

– Michael Harrison, The Roots of Witchcraft

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