During The Akitu festival, (which means building life on earth), the Assyrian king would initiate the union between Ishtar and Tamuz in temple ritual, signifying the coming together of two energies to give life. Quite naturally, the celebration of all this rebirth comes at the time when everything starts growing again - in the spring. The festival starts on Babylon's New Year's Day, named Zagmuk, which is the first New Moon after the spring equinox. All the Mesopotamian cities had an Akitu, but most celebrated it on different days (spread through winter and spring), however, some celebrated it a second time in the fall.
The Akitu ushered in the Ishtar Festival, celebrated by the Assyrians to signify fertility and fruitfulness, and the resurrection and renewal of nature.
During the Ishtar Festival, Assyrians would dye eggs in various colors and hang them on the temple walls to symbolize fertility and birth. They would also light candles in the temple and pray for a fruitful Assyrian nation. Assyrians would bake sweet breads in honor of Ishtar and to show the fruits of their harvest. They used barley and wheat to bake these sweet breads because those two plants ripened first.
Centuries later, the Celtic Hittites leaving Assyria and settling in Europe, took with them these traditions. They called the Spring goddess Estarte, and the fertility celebration as the Festival of Estarte. This festival spread to other European regions and the name of this festival became known as Easter.
She was often depicted as winged, wearing a starred rainbow necklace, with burning eyes (the symbol of the spiritual light) and a burning navel (the symbols for the fertility of the land and her people). Because of her descent to and return from the Underworld, she is linked with Demeter, and to further this connection, she is often shown with ears of corn (grain) sprouting from her shoulders. This associated her as the Mother Earth Goddess with the fertility of the land; it is from her that the world received nourishment. This goddess, as Sharrat Shame, the Queen of Heaven, ran the natural world; she was in charge of wool, the rain, meat and grain. In this aspect, her worshippers gave her offerings of Kamanu, sacrificial cakes.
Ishtar was also the divine mediator between deities and between deities and humans. Thus, it was usually she who possessed the Assyrian mediums. So the “overwhelming majority” of the prophets are associated in some way with Ishtar’s cult. When on occasion another deity wanted to contact a king through an oracle, s/he “used the channel” of a medium of Ishtar. Ishtar induced ecstasy in her devotees.
Cross-dressing was part of her cult, and she had the ability to alter a person’s sex, so that a man became a woman and vice versa. In Mesopotamian treaties, the curse on treaty breakers often included lines like the following, from an Assyrian vassal treaty: “… may Ishtar, the goddess of men, the lady of women, take away their `bow,’ [potency?] cause their steri[lity]…”
Ishtar was goddess of love and war, as well as of the Venus star. Later, as often in earlier periods, Ishtar’s warlike qualities were definitely emphasized by warrior conquerors like the Assyrians. For their kings, Ishtar was not only “Lady of Battle” but often a personal deity. She fought beside them in battle and led them to victory. Ishtar of Arbela was an especially warlike figure. Hence it is surprising to encounter in the oracles the goddess’s nurturing character. Blood-thirsty goddess she might be, but she shows concern for her “calf” in the most motherly of ways. This adds a further dimension to her complex character.
That Ishtar, gender-bending source of ecstasy that she was, should have been served by many female as well as some transvestite and eunuch mediums is not surprising either. We can only speculate on what great influence these predominantly female prophets must have had in their temple and on the warlike Assyrian kings, when their powerful goddess spoke through them.
~Collected from a variety of sources.