There are many characters in Gaiman's Sandman stories that have multiple names; Morpheus is one of them. For the most part, they usually don't mind if someone calls them by one name or another. The first that I've seen this happen was with Ishtar.

After meeting Ishtar, Morpheus calls her by two other names for goddesses of love (Belili and Astarte). She corrects him both times, asking him to call her only "Ishtar."

both images from The Sandman #45

Dream: Hello, Belili.
Ishtar: Ishtar.


Ishtar: What brings you here?
Dream: You do, Astarte.
Ishtar: Ishtar.

This exchange is interesting, and makes me wonder if there is a reason that Ishtar insists on that name, as opposed to the others? Perhaps there is a historical element of worship that Ishtar had that Belili and Astarte didn't, that allowed her to draw the power she needed to live from the nightclub where she danced?

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    I thought it was for the same reason he used anachronistic names for the three witches; and in this case, maybe Gaiman was pointing out that the three goddesses are the same, only taken by different cults and renamed. I wonder if she somehow inspired Bilquis from American Gods. (Also, there's nothing about this in The Sandman Companion.) Commented Jul 18, 2017 at 7:25
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    Oh right. I forgot about the witches. They did correct him, but seemed less annoyed about it. I thought the witches may have been an honest mistake, whereas "Belili" and "Astarte" may have been deliberate attempts to antagonize Ishtar.
    – Shokhet
    Commented Jul 18, 2017 at 15:23

3 Answers 3


I think @Shokhet is probably correct in that it's likely a form of teasing/light antagonism, but, on further reflection, it probably goes deeper than that.

  • It is an older, less known name for Ishtar.

    Names have power, and Morpheus is showing some by reminding her he knows her entire history. (The Endless are older than the gods, and likely more powerful.)

  • It is related to Tammuz.

    This has multiple implications with negative emotional resonance:

    • Tammuz is the slain lover of Ishtar/Belili, and so the reference has negative emotional resonance.

    • When Ishtar returns from the underworld, she finds Tammuz/Dumuzid on his throne, "not mourning her at all".

    In the Tammuz version of her descent to the underworld, Ishtar's agency could be said to be diminished by the involvement of Tammuz as the objective—Gaiman is post-modern so this may be a consideration.

    In the Babylonian version, Belili is distinct from Ishtar, presented as a version of Geshtinanna, sister (and lover?) of Tammuz, who takes Ishtar/Inanna's place in the underworld.

Belili is the underworld version of Ishtar, and the Sumerian underworld is no kind of fun.

  • Using Belili carries the implication that she is in a kind of hell.

Specifically, working in a strip club where dancers have to put up with a lot of crap, as men in such settings do not always act in a respectful manner. This is particularly problematic when you remove the "temple" context [see note], resulting in a degraded form. Sex workers are widely stigmatized.

Further, as I seem to recall, she cannot really dance, in the sense of her status as the Great Goddess, which must be a kind of torture. (She cannot be herself, only a diminished reflection of herself.)

This may be a reference to a certain conception of the cycle of Greek Mythology, which from certain perspectives (certainly Graves's) can be understood as a subjugation of feminine power, which is to say diminishment of the power and status of the Great Goddess.

Note: The idea of "temple prostitution" in Mesopotamia is disputed, but the idea caught hold, as it can be regarded from many perspectives, including a feminist perspective, and is definitely present in modern, speculative fiction. It is this idea Gaiman is referencing with Ishtar's situation and existence. Taking the life of her lovers is sometimes referred to as the Great Marriage (aka death). Gene Wolfe wrote about this aspect of the Goddess in There Are Doors.

  • But why would Morpheus antagonise her? Commented Jul 18, 2017 at 20:08
  • @Gallifreyan It's been a while since I read that specific story, but there could be several. (He is being playful b/c they are old friends, he is reminding her of his power, he wants to influence her and so tries to put her off balance, etc.)
    – DukeZhou
    Commented Jul 18, 2017 at 20:09
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    They're definitely not old friends, Duke. Morpheus seems pretty unhappy that he has to deal with her, but does what he has to. He does warn her that her life may be in danger, but I think that's only because he feels obligated to. There is some residual animosity between them, because Morpheus did not approve of Ishtar's relationship with his brother, Destruction.
    – Shokhet
    Commented Jul 18, 2017 at 21:27
  • @Shoket Individuals with a complicated history then. It would help if you could refresh me with the details of this particular narrative arc... Regardless, comments have prompted me to consider it more deeply, and I have amended my answer to reflect a more specific literary analysis.
    – DukeZhou
    Commented Jul 18, 2017 at 21:45
  • The Akkadian name Ishtar is older than Astarte, the Hellenized version of the Hebrew/Phoenician version of her name. Belili was apparently Babylonian. The oldest form was Sumerian Inanna, but it's not clear Sandman necessarily merged those two, iirc.
    – lly
    Commented Jun 22, 2018 at 12:49

You're overthinking it. As the 'great mother goddess', Ishtar is literally the 'many-named', the 'thousand-named', the 'myriad-named' and—while you can guess at why the character Morpheus goaded her into suicide by calling her by her lesser names—the author Gaiman is just taking the occasion to point out her other names and former importance, amid her present squalor.

...is [there] a reason that Ishtar insists on that name, as opposed to the others?

Ishtar is her stage name at the strip club.

Dancers don't want Johns bringing their personal business and lives into the clubs or with shutting up their coworkers once they catch wind of it. She goes by Ishtar these days for everyone, including her coworker and roommate. So she coldly shuts off his nonsense. Gaiman is writing at both the level of gods interacting with one another and the pedestrian life of a stripper amid her Johns. He hits both notes very well.

As for why Ishtar and not the others? Eh, 'it goes way back...'

  • I do tend to overthink things. Your answer makes a lot of sense...I'm gonna have to think about it ;-p || (Thank you :-)
    – Shokhet
    Commented Jun 25, 2018 at 2:43

The reason for her insistence on the name Ishtar could be quite simple.

Belili is the name applied by the Canaanites (1) who were Hebrew, and had their own God. Astarte is the Hellenised form (2), as in Greek. They too had their own Gods. Ishtar is the original Mesopotamian version (3,4) and was associated with far more than just sex.

This could suggest that this is the name that represents her most powerful, and original (5), form. If you consider that she talks about temple prostitution, this would have been a ritual - whether real or made up by Herodotus (6) - that gave her A LOT of power, since worship is what give Gods power in the Sandman universe (7).

By calling her by these other names Dream might (whether unconsciously, or on purpose I cannot say) be reminding her of less powerful forms. Her decline from a main goddess to an exotic dancer who is barely hanging on to power.

  • That's an interesting perspective, but wasn't Ishtar herself based on even older goddesses? Commented Jul 25, 2017 at 8:12
  • I can't see anything about that. Can you provide a reference so that I can look into it further? The reason I called it 'her oldest... form' is because of the mentions in The Epic of Gilgamesh, which is the oldest known piece of fiction (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epic_of_Gilgamesh) Commented Jul 25, 2017 at 9:15
  • Inanna seems to have originated roughly at the same time. I don't exactly have a reference, I might have conflated a few things when I was researching an answer for this question :) Commented Jul 25, 2017 at 10:35
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    You might be using different terms than I'm used to, but I'm fairly certain that Canaanites and Hebrews are two different things.
    – Shokhet
    Commented Jul 25, 2017 at 14:09
  • 1
    succubus.net is not a reputable source. Wikis are only as good as the sources they cite. Don't link to Wikis, link to their sources. And the content of succubus.net appears to be mostly scraped from wikipedia.
    – user111
    Commented Aug 2, 2017 at 15:07

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