Ishtar, the Earth Mother
To many in the Hyborian Age, the chief deity was a woman, Ishtar. The practice of worshiping this goddess had originated with the Shemite nomads, the people who eventually founded the kingdom of Shem. Ishtar was best known as the Earth-Mother and if there were any male gods in the Shemite pantheon, there names remain unknown to us. Goddess-worship completely eclipsed all other rituals in that pastoral land.
Ishtar’s temples were rich, lavish and exotic. They must have held great appeal to Westerners from the Hyborian lands who found their own chief god of Mitra too dry, too distant and too intellectual a deity. Ishtar’s colorful rituals included ornate ceremony and blood sacrifices—though only of animals. Ishtar, the ancient Mother Goddess, was often worshiped in rich temples and at lavish shrines with an orgiastic frenzy performed before sensuously carved idols of ivory. According to one scholar, these idols “combined southern sensuousness with northern restraint.”
For those who served her, Ishtar bestowed bountiful harvests and many children in exchange for sacrifice. The voluptuous temple prostitutes which were found in Ishtar’s temples were well known even outside the lands where the goddess was worshiped. Though a Shemitish goddess in Conan’s time, Ishtar was also worshiped in Shem, Ophir, Argos, Koth, Khoraja, Khauran and Zamora, and had small cults elsewhere wherever Kothian populations had settled. She was also known under such diverse names as Ishnigarrab, Shupnikkurat, Ashtoreth, Derketo and Shub-Niggurath.
Unlike the worship of Mitra, which used the altar only as a focus, the Shemites believed that their gods actually inhabited their omnipresent brass idols. These idols were caricatures: the swollen breasts and belly of Ishtar appeared repulsive to the more refined worshipers of Mitra.
Ishtar can take any form, male and female, although she is most likely to appear as a young, voluptuous woman dressed in white robes, wearing a golden crown. The birth of hideously deformed children, as well as drought, were regarded as bad omens from Ishtar.
Ishtar had both male and female priests. Their ceremonies included the blood sacrifice of animals, but never humans.