Fertility rites, which are basically ceremonies that are meant to ensure good crops, productive domestic animals, and even many children, existed in almost all ancient societies. In Babylon, the cult of the goddess Ishtar presents a good example. She was a highly complex deity, since she inherited the Sumerian and the Assyrian traits as well. Personifying the planet Venus, it would seem logical that she was the goddess of love and sex, but strangely enough, she was also the goddess of war. Even stranger was the fact that the Arabs turned her into a male god, named Athtar. Probably that happened since the Arabs were Semitic, and a goddess could not be as influential as a god in their patriarchal view of the world. As the goddess of love, Ishtar was described as “Goddess of the Morning and Goddess of the Evening,” and as the goddess of war, as “Lady of Battles, Valiant Among Goddesses.”
Despite this dual character, which made Ishtar responsible for the death of many on the battlefield, the world could not survive without her since she was the force behind any form of sexuality. One of the hymns says that if she would withdraw her influence reproduction would stop:
"The bull refuses to cover the cow, the ass no longer approaches the she-ass.
In the street the man no longer approaches the maid-servant."
One of her greatest adventures was descending to the underworld to rescue her favorite lover, Tammuz, who was a human who was killed by a wild boar. After the great difficulties of getting there, the worst happened. The queen of the underworld, who happened to be Ishtar’s sister, imprisoned her in a dark place. Without Ishtar, the earth became a place of desolation, where flowers did not bloom, animals did not mate, and children were not born. It took the intervention of the most powerful gods to release Ishtar from the underworld and her evil sister’s power. Sadly, Tammuz could not be saved.
Ishtar had many lovers, both divine and human, and even certain animals such as the lion and the horse were drawn to her charms. Generally, being her lover ended in violence done to the male, again because of the goddess' dual character. Nevertheless, she was also known to show great kindness to some people, including some very powerful and famous kings.
The fertility rite involved the marriage of a man with Ishtar. Each year, a man was chosen to become the goddess’ husband. For a year he would live comfortably, even luxuriously, among the priestesses (some of whom were known to engage in sacred prostitution) in the temple of Ishtar. At the proper time of year, which was the spring equinox, the man would be married to Ishtar in a ceremony conducted in the temple, then led to the fields. In the fields, he would mate with the head priestess of Ishtar. After the mating, the man would be killed as sacrifice, and a new man would be chosen for next year’s celebration.
Another form of the fertility rites, known as the sacred marriage (Hieros Gamos) was a yearly celebration, again at the spring equinox, when the king would mate with the high priestess of Ishtar. This was directly taken from the old tradition in Sumer, and associated with the goddess Innana, the predecessor of Ishtar who had given her many of her character traits. The ceremony, even the sexual intercourse, was conducted in public, in front of an appreciative crowd. It is thought that the priestess would enter a state of trance; both the participants and the crowd assumed that the goddess entered the priestess' body and occupied it during intercourse. The king was supposed to represent Tammuz.
This ritual was highly religious and spiritual, but in addition to giving hope to the population for abundant crops and healthy domestic animals, it also was directly connected to practical child rearing in Babylon. It was considered a sacred duty for the common people to have intercourse at the same day or night of the sacred marraige, which caused many babies to be born in winter. At that time of year, the mother had more time to take proper care of the newborn, thus minimizing child mortality, always a threat in the ancient world. To encourage the habit, the babies born in winter, were called “son/daughter of the gods” and their birth brought much joy.