4 The Mythology of Sumer


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The Mythology of Sumer


4.2 The Cosmology
4.3 The Cosmogony
4.4 The Deities
4.14 The Myths

4.15 Enlil and the Creation of the Pickaxe

4.16 Enlil and Ninlil: The Birth of Nanna

4.17 The Journey of Nanna to Nippur

Enki and Ninmah: The Creation of Man

4.18 The Deeds and Exploits of Ninurta

4.20 The Return of Ninurta to Nippur

4.21 Enki and Eridu

4.22 Enki and Ninhursag in Dilmun

4.24 Enki and the World Order

4.25 Inanna and the Mortal Sin of Šukalletuda

4.26 The Flood

4.27 Inanna and Enki: The Civilising of Uruk

4.28 Dumuzi and Enkimdu: The Wooing of Inanna

The Marriage of Dumuzi and Inanna

4.29 Inanna and Bilulu

4.30 Inanna and the Subjugation of Mount Ebih

4.31 Inanna’s Descent to the Nether World (and the Death of Dumuzi)

4.32 Dumuzi and the Gallas

4.34 The Marriage of Martu

The Sumerian version of the early history of their world was certainly quite different from the evolution that archaeologists have traced. As we have already seen, the gods dominated their world from the very earliest times. Naturally then their explanations and stories of the way of the world were concerned with the deeds of the gods. The emphasis remained unchanged throughout the 3000 years of ‘Mesopotamian’ history which followed the rise of Sumer.

The archaeological evidence of the Predynastic periods reviewed above strongly suggests the early crystallization of the forms of Sumerian belief. The Enki temple at Eridu, for example, and the Alabaster Vase indicate that the identities at least of the later deities had emerged. Although it is not certain that the mythology of the earliest periods is accurately represented in the later documents there is at least no evidence of significant differences. It is also certain that many of the myths which have survived in Akkadian inscriptions, such as, in particular, the ‘Enúma Eliš’ and Nergal and Ereškigal are redactions of Sumerian originals. The assumption of continuity is convenient since most of the sources for these myths are late documents, none earlier than ca. 2500 BC.1

The Cosmology

The Sumerians called the world an-ki, a compound meaning Heaven-Earth, but quite how they imagined it we cannot be sure. There has not come down to us a clear-cut description of the world as the Sumerians understood it so that we must make guesses on the basis of material drawn from allusions and asides in the extant literature. These clues are often to be found in the introductory material to inscriptions where the Sumerian poets might set the cosmological scene.2

The first line of the ‘Disputation between Cattle and Grain’ has the phrase

On the mountain of Heaven and Earth
which rather suggests the image of a heavenly vault above the face of the earth.3 Since Tin was called the ‘metal of heaven’ it is suggested that the vault was made of that substance4 but the heavens were often likened to lapis lazuli.5 There is also mention of the du-ku(g), the ‘holy mound’ in the ubšuukkinna.6 This holy mound is said to be ‘on the mountain of heaven and earth’, but it may be a version of that very mountain, and later a representation of it. In that latter role there are shrines in Girsu, Nippur, and Eridu called after it.7

Between heaven and earth was the air, lil, of which Enlil was the lord, i.e. its en. In the myths we find that Enlil was always accounted the father of Nanna (also known as Sin), the moon god, which subordination suggests that the moon was thought to be a form of lil. Similarly, Utu of the sun and Inanna of the evening star were the offspring of Nanna and may indicate that the sun and that star were created from moon-stuff. The other planets and stars were described by the poets as ‘the big ones who walk about (the moon) like oxen’ and ‘the little ones who are scattered about (the moon) like grain’. Their substance we take to be similar to that proposed for Venus.8

Below the earth was the underworld, called kur or ‘mountain’. Its geography is quite unclear but there seems to be agreement that a river runs through it, though the only evidence for this is in the myth Enlil and Ninlil: The Birth of Nanna. The myth Inanna’s Descent to the Nether World claims that there is also a ‘lapis lazuli mountain’. According to information from two dirges on the Pushkin Museum tablet the sun at night travelled through the underworld, where it was, consequently, day. The moon too, we learn, spent its ‘day of rest’ at the end of each month in that region.9

The version of the myth Nergal and Ereškigal based on a text found at Tell el-Amarna (old Akhetaton) shows that kur was surrounded by 14 walls with 14 gates.10 By contrast the myth as found in the tablets at Sultantepe11 numbers the walls at 7, in line with other traditions.12 That version goes on to say that access to and from the underworld was by staircases. The standard opening between the world above and the world below was the ablal, but in the epic tale Gilgameš, Enkidu, and the Nether World it is clear that there were other portals. In Uruk was an opening, the ganzir, through which wooden objects could pass, and also a gate by which a person might descend to the other place. Probably other cities would claim to possess similar sites. The existence led by the gidim, the ghosts of the dead, was not happy. For them Kur was dark and dry, they squeaked like bats, and there was dust in their mouths. If they were not propitiated they could wander abroad to disturb the living. Generally speaking the Sumerians recognised death as being irreversible; the underworld was known as kur-nu-gi-a, the ‘land of no return.’

In a myth concerning Ninurta waters arise from the kur and require to be dammed behind the mountain hursag to prevent their overwhelming Sumer. They were then used to refill the Tigris and Euphrates. It seems from these that the kur was above a sea of primeval waters, possibly that known as the abzu/apsu but more likely those known as nammu. If there is a real distinction behind the different terms, the waters of the absu are fresh waters and are the source of springs and rivers. The nammu waters are salt and exist on a level below the apsu. These waters may in fact have completely surrounded the anki. The name of the goddess Nammu is written with the same sign as the name engur, which is a synonym for the apsu.13

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