The problem with the Sumerian cosmogony is just the same as with their cosmology: the lack of any concise statement of the facts. Recognising this Kramer has assembled the relevant extracts and drawn some conclusions from them.
A tablet describes the goddess Nammu as:
the mother, who gave birth to heaven and earth
and since her name is written with the sign for the apsu, it therefore seems that the anki was created by or from the primeval waters in much the same way that land even today emerges from the water. The origin of the apsu is not explained so we must accept that the Sumerians felt no need to trace the chain of events further back than to an answer to the question ‘where did the anki come from?’14
At this stage An, the sky god, was not distinguished from An, the sky itself, and so we find in the lines introducing ‘The Dispute Between Cattle and Grain’:
On the mountain of heaven and earth
An begot the Annunaki
which was the collective title of the fifty great gods of Sumer. We are not sure which gods were included in that group but it is quite certain that Enlil (and, one might have thought, An too) would have been a member. It is probable that these gods were born of Ki (Ninhursag) but this is never mentioned.
The introduction to the myth Enlil and the Creation of the Pickaxe tells that:
The lord, in order to bring forth what was useful,
the lord whose decisions are unalterable,
Enlil, who brings up the seed of the ‘land’ from earth,
Planned to move away heaven from earth,
Planned to move away earth from heaven
This he apparently accomplished with the immediate consequence alluded to in this introductory passage of the epic Gilgameš, Enkidu, and the Nether World:
After heaven had been moved away from earth,
After earth had been separated from heaven,
After the name of man had been fixed,
After An carried off the heaven,
After Enlil carried off the earth...
So Enlil is supposed to have carried off his mother the earth. There is a similar episode with the god Enki impregnating his daughters. The easy acceptance of incest in these stories indicates that the Sumerians recognised that the rules of their myths were somewhat different from the rules of simple storytelling. In this, of course, they resemble other peoples whose myths showed scant respect for their morality.
When written records begin the divinities of Sumer had largely reached their final states. Their relationships to the primitive chthonic and other deities were disguised as their elemental natures were clothed in a fully anthropomorphic form. This anthropomorphism may be considered a primitive method of dealing with the abstract natures of natural phenomena which were felt to be in some way animated. The mechanics of anthropomorphism, however, were not considered to be important enough to be dealt with in any systematic way15; the mortal Sumerians were content to imagine their gods leading lives very like their own.
We know from various sources hundreds of names of Sumerian deities. Lists of names of gods were prepared in the schools and we also find many as elements of proper names. It is likely that gods continued to be created by their worshippers as epithets for various aspects of particular divinities became substantiated, as the society of the gods was expanded to mimic human society, and as philosophers and mythographers filled in gaps where they perceived them.
The gods are often described as being clothed in melam/melammu, a sort of divine glamour that can also be detected about demons, monsters, heroes, kings, or structures. The effect of this glamour is ni/puluhtu – awe, terror, making one’s flesh creep.16 In visual representations the gods are typically distinguished by the fact that they wear a peculiar crown made up of pairs of bull horns – thus called the ‘horned crown’. Many of the gods are also identifiable by particular attributes. Many also could be represented by symbols (as St John can be represented by an eagle, for example,) though many of the symbols of which we are aware seem to belong to later periods. In the lists which follow symbols and attributes are given only where those are known or plausible for the appropriate period.17
The Great Gods
The gods were not all of equal importance. There were groupings which were accepted by the Sumerians and presumably their membership was defined though no definitions have been found. The most obscure of these groups was the igigi. They are rarely mentioned. Another was the ‘Fifty Great Gods’ which may or may not be identical to the anunnaki, the children of An. Most important of all were the ‘Seven Who Decree the Fates’, possibly a subset of one of the other groups.18 They led the discussions in the ubšuukina amongst the assembled gods.19 Although they are not certainly identified Kramer suggests that the seven were An, Enlil, Enki, Ninhursag, Nanna, Utu, and Inanna, in about that order of importance. The Igigi lived on the duku(g), the ‘holy mound’ in the ubšuukinna.20 Their natures and those of the other important deities of Sumer are outlined here.
‘Heaven’ was the male principle in the Creation and the original chief of the gods. His original spouse was probably Ki and their offspring included Enlil who became the de facto head of the pantheon.
The ‘Lady of the Mountains’, also known as Ki, Ninmah (‘Great Lady’), Nintu (‘Lady of Birth’), Aruru (‘Germ-loosener’), and by many other names21, is the major remnant of the Mother Goddess of Neolithic religion. The likely female principle in the Creation, and mother of all the gods, she is involved in the creation of Man. In the historical period she was of lesser importance as her functions came to be transferred to other gods. Her transformation into Olympian form is traced above. Her cult centre was at Adab in the Emah. As Nintu (probably) she is associated with the sign, representing an uterus.22
‘Lord of the Wind’, became the most important god in the pantheon. He was a storm god and possibly an aspect or consort of the Neolithic divinity of the mountain. Although his destructive aspect as the executor of divine judgement features strongly in the preserved texts, he was a generally beneficent deity. His mate was Ninlil (identical to Sud, a grain goddess) who bore him Ennugi, Inanna, Iškur, Nanna, Nergal, Ninurta, Ningirsu, Pabilsag, Utu, Uraš, Zababa, and Nusku, who was his vizier. His cult centre was at Nippur, and his temple the Ekur (e-kur, ‘House of the Mountain’.) It included the e-ki-ur, the temple of Ninlil.
Also called Su’en23, Nanna-Su’en, Nannar, Ašimbabbar. The god of the Moon, son of Enlil. In earlier times he was perhaps more directly connected with An and a prehistoric Bull god whose horns he resembles. When in the underworld he was said to ‘decree the fates’ of the dead.24 The connection with the underworld was probably a result of the Sumerian cosmology rather than indicating a derivation from a primitive chthonic deity. His wife was accepted to be Ningal, though, during the Ur III period at least, a marriage to Gula, goddess of childbirth, was celebrated.25 He travelled the skies in a boat26, a method possibly suggested by his shape. His symbol was the (recumbent) crescent moon. His principal cult centre was at Ur at the Ekišnugal.
The god of the sun, son of Nanna. He was apparently of small importance in the early culture as merely the child of the moon, but later his rôle increased. By cosmological argument a frequent visitor to the underworld, he justified his presence by becoming involved in some sort of judgement of the dead. The judicial function is common amongst solar deities, probably because they are supposed to see all and enlighten all. The requirements of the increasingly complex Sumerian society were probably at the root of this developing function.27 In some cylinder seal impressions of the Akkadian period a god with emanating rays is seen emerging from a mountain brandishing the saw he may have used to effect an exit. Because of the rays and appealing to the idea that the sun would appear to rise up into the world through the mountains this god is almost always identified with Utu. No legend has survived to corroborate this identification but we may take the saw and the rays as his symbols. He is said to travel by chariot or on foot.28 His shrine was the Ebabbar (‘House of the Rising Sun’) in Larsa and Sippar.29
‘Queen of Heaven’30 (possibly from ‘nin-ana’), the goddess of Love, Fertility and Procreation, daughter of Nanna. Also known as Innin. Her evolution can be traced from an aspect of the Neolithic Mother Goddess. Thus we find her involved in ritual marriage and in visiting the Underworld for peculiar reasons. For the same reason she becomes, rather incongruously perhaps, the goddess of War.31 Her spouse was commonly Dumuzi, formerly a king of Uruk, but at Ur he may more consistently have been identified as An, formerly Ki’s mate, thus justifying her title. She was also accounted a celestial figure, being identified with the morning and the evening stars.32Ninšubur was her vizier. She was worshipped widely: in Uruk her temple was the E-Anna, ‘House of Heaven’. Her symbols are the star, the rosette, and the ring post or (equivalent) reed loops.33 As Ištar – the Akkadian goddess – her character was quite different.34
‘Lord of the Earth’. Also known as Nudimmud (‘Image fashioner’) or Ninšiku. God of sweet water and wisdom, he was presumably a son of An, and is said to be a twin of Iškur. Archaeological evidence make it certain that his cult existed in very early times but it seems to have only insignificant connections with the most primitive strata of Sumerian belief. The name suggests some relationship to Ki herself, but this is not so. Where she seems to represent the passive nature of earth, Enki, as water, was active and male.35 It is possible that a sweet-water god became necessary when the powerful influence of irrigation and the two rivers became apparent. Sumerian civilisation was the product of the rivers and so it is appropriate that in mythological terms Enki is given the credit for that civilisation. Hawkes likens him to a culture-hero.36 His home was called the Abzu (S) or Apsu (A), the ‘abyss’, the name of the subterranean waters which he ruled. His principal cult centre was Eridu, and his temple there was the E-Abzu, ‘House of the Abyss’. He travelled in a magur-boat called the ‘Ibex of the Abzu’37 and the two-faced Ša or Isimud (Akkadian Usmu) was his vizier. He commanded the enkum and the ninkum, who are male and female, and the fifty lahama of the engur.38His wife was Damgalnuna (Great Wife of the Prince) (Damkina), possibly an early mother goddess. Though her cult centre was at Malgum, she received fish offerings at Lagaš and Umma. Their children include Asarluhi, Enbilulu, Marduk and Nanše. He is pictured with a horned crown, of course, and with streams flowing from his shoulders – sometimes with fish. If his shrine alone is pictured, it is also surrounded by water.
God of the south wind, son of Ninmah (who is better known now as Ninhursag). The south wind is of special importance for Sumer as it brings the rain in Winter and ripens the dates in Summer.39 This god was another aspect of the Storm and was also accounted a warrior god. A hymn to Ninurta also names him Pabilsag and, more importantly, Ningirsu.40 The identification of Ninurta and Ningirsu (q.v.) was not common however and the texts generally speak consistently of either one or the other. Ningirsu is restricted to Lagaš. It is likely that Ninurta is, at least by name, the earlier form as he plays an important rôle in the mythology which Ningirsu does not
A particular form of the Storm god well known through his function as the city-god of Lagaš. In fact Ningirsu is purely local to that great city.41 On the silver vase of Entemena he is symbolised by the storm-bird Imdugud (q.v.) who variously holds pairs of lions, goats and oxen symbolising his destructive and productive aspects. Such symbolism is also used in a copper frieze from the temple of Ninhursag at al ‘Ubaid and suggests the derivation of this aspect from the ancient Mother Goddess. He appears in Gudea’s Dream in a clearly derivative form as a winged-man/flood-wave flanked by lions.42 He is the son of Enlil and a brother of Nanše and Nisaba.43 He was married to Bau (or Baba), daughter of An. She had temples in Lagaš and Girsu called the E-tarsirsir where oracles were given.44 He also possessed an extensive domestic establishment.45 His two sons were Igalimma the doorkeeper and Šulšagana the butler, and his wife’s seven daughters were ladies in waiting. Other staff were Šakanšabar the sukkal (‘steward’), Urizi the chamberlain, Ensignun the coachman, Enlulim the goatherd, Gišbare the bailiff. His temple in Lagaš was the Eninnu (‘House of the Fifty [me]’).46 His totem was the lion.47
Goddess of Ereš. Also known as Nisaba, Daughter of An and Uraš, sister of Inanna, she was a goddess of the reed who became identified with the gifts of civilisation which flowed from that plant.48 Her relationship with Inanna reminds us of that goddess’s connection to the looped reed bundle, and we also note that Ninhursag’s temple at Ur was called ‘a solid reed construction’ despite the normality of brickwork49 which probably indicates a sacred significance in the material. The use of the reed as a writing stylus made Nidaba goddess of writing, science and accounting. The reed in pipes created music and this was another of her responsibilities. In art she was represented as a lady with reeds sprouting from her shoulders. Haia was her husband.
The god of the Amorites, notable as a foreign god attempting entry to the Land by marriage to Adnigkišar, the daughter of Numušda (The Marriage of Martu) (whose shrine was in Kazallu.50) In the iconography he is shown with a gazelle and a staff.
The underworld was a separate realm of the Sumerian supernatural geography where we know that many gods had their homes. Several seem to have been sky gods who had fallen foul of the Sumerian mythographers.
Also called Irkalla. Sister of Inanna and queen of the underworld deities. In the epic tale Gilgameš, Enkidu, and the Nether World Ereškigal was assigned the Netherworld as her realm by Enlil ‘as a dowry gift.’ There she lived in a palace at the Ganzir. Her history before this time is unknown. Her first husband was Gugal-ana, who is perhaps identical with Ennugi, and who fathered Ninazu on her.51Namtar (‘fate’) is her son by Enlil and her vizier; Nedu or Neti was her chief gatekeeper; and her daughter Nungal was accounted thÿÿÿÿdge and protector of the ‘blacÿÿheaded people.’
An underworld deity also known as Erra. God of war and pestilence. Husband of Ereškigal according to the Akkadian poem Nergal and Ereškigal, which may reflect a later tradition. His vizier was also her vizier Namtar. A donkey-eared lion-head staff seen from the Akkadian period on is later identified as belonging to Nergal.52
‘The Good Child’. There are several traditions concerning this god. One tradition holds that he was originally from Ku’ara near Eridu, and he became a king of Uruk;53 but he is later known to be a god there and the consort of Inanna. The mechanics of this deification are unknown to us but may have to do with the celebration of a marriage rite between the king of a city and its goddess54 though such rites are only explicitly evidenced from after the Ur III period. This may have led to his rôle as a fertility god and possibly through the connection felt in antiquity to exist between death and fertility he was assigned to the underworld. As a fertility symbol he attracted the name Amaušumgalanna whose etymology is obscure but which has been translated as ‘the one great source of the date clusters’. This name originally belonged to an independent warrior-god from a village near Lagaš.55 In the tradition that makes him an early king of Bad-tibira he is a ‘shepherd’.56 He is a shepherd god in the myth Dumuzi and Enkimdu: The Wooing of Inanna, and has also been associated with milk and its powers. In the later poem Adapa, which may yet reflect beliefs of this period, he and Ningišzida (actually, Gišzida) are the gate-wardens of Heaven; in the epic tale The Death of Gilgameš, Gilgameš meets those two together down below. His sister Geštinanna (‘Leafy Grapevine’) was also a goddess tasked as a poetess, singer, and interpreter of dreams.
A king of Uruk, often accepted as an historical figure, and the hero of the famous epic cycle. His Sumerian name is properly Bilgameš. He claimed the goddess Ninsun as his mother but this sort of claim is not unusual even with rulers who had no pretensions to godhead. His own route to deification is even less clear than Dumuzi’s, particularly since the epic in which he features does not show him as being successful in his quest for eternal life! As a god he became the supervisor of the underworld. We don’t understand this either.
The Lesser Gods
The following is a short list of the less insignificant Sumerian deities who have not been sufficiently described already.
Son of Enki, god of magical knowledge. Originally the god of Ku’ara near Eridu.57
A grain goddess (‘Enki and the World Order’)
A grain god important in the North-West, especially in Mari. Attendant of Enlil. His wife is Šala
‘Child’. A healing god, son of Ninisin and Ningišzida; or a vegetation god, son of Ninazimua and Ningišzida, god of Girsu.
an underworld character58
the great farmer of Enlil who is responsible for the upkeep of the two rivers (‘Enki and the World Order’)
a farmer god (‘Dumuzi and Enkimdu’)
An underworld god, married to Ninmešarra. Primeval gods once said to be ancestors of Enlil. Associated with the suššuru pigeon.59
An underworld god associated with dikes and canals. Son of Enlil or Enmešarra. Spouse is Nanibgal. Perhaps identical to Gugal-ana, a husband of Ereškigal.60
(Akkadian Inšak). ‘The Fair Lord’, son of Enki61 (‘Enki and Ninhursag in Dilmun’). Main god of Dilmun, husband of Meskilak.62
a goddess who was the personal genius of Gudea of Lagaš.
Also Girra, Akkadian Girru. A fire god. Son of Nusku son of Enlil (q.v.).63
‘Great’. A healing goddess. She also took the names of the originally separate goddesses Nintinuga, Ninkarrak, Meme. Identified with Ninisina (q.v.). Wife of Ninurta or Pabilsag. Mother of Damu, a healing god, and Ninazu. The dog was sacred to her. Her cult was centred at Isin at the E-gal-mah, but temples also existed at Nippur, Borsippa and Aššur.64
the wife of Namtar.65
Known to the Akkadians as Adad.66 Another storm god, his name is written with the sign for ‘wind’. Son of An (‘Enki and the World Order’), twin brother of Enki67, husband of Šala (but c.f. ‘Dagan,’) ministers Šullat and Haniš.68 His beast is the lion-dragon.
(or Kabta69) a pickaxe, brick mould and brick god (‘Enki and the World Order’)
A cattle god (‘Enki and the World Order’)
A mother goddess, wife of Ninsikil (who elsewhere appears as a goddess). Paired with her brother Ašgi they were worshipped at Adab and Keš.70
Associated with Akkadian Latarāk. The two gods may have been originally identical, but came to be treated as a pair.71 Patron of Bad Tibira (‘Inanna’s Descent to the Nether World’).
‘Dream.’ A goddess associated with dreams. Daughter of Utu.72
A minor god. Became important only with the rise of Babylon which took him as its god. His symbol was a triangular headed spade (‘marru’).73
patroness of Dilmun, possibly a name of Ninsikil.74 Her husband was Enzag75 (‘Enki and Ninhursag in Dilmun’)
‘Who comes from the mesu-tree.’ A tree-god originally. Son of Enlil and Ninlil, brother of Ninazu (‘Enlil and Ninlil’), twin brother of Lugal-irra (‘Mighty Lord’).76 A form of Nergal, an underworld god and god of Cutha whose temple there was the Emeslam.
The great builder of Enlil (‘Enki and the World Order’)
The goddess of the primeval waters who begat An-Ki
A goddess of Nina near Lagaš concerned with fish, the interpretation of dreams, and justice. In various traditions she was the daughter of Enki, sister of Ningirsu, Nisaba, and Inanna. Nindara was her husband and Hendursag was her vizier.77
‘Lord doctor’; a healing god residing in the underworld, son of Enlil and Ninlil – or of Ennugi and Ereškigal, or of Gula (qq.v.). Brother of Meslamtaea (‘Enlil and Ninlil’), father of Ningišzida. His cult was originally centred at Ešnunna, but he was displaced by Tišpak. His beast is said to be the snake-dragon, though this is only represented from the Akkadian period.78
an architect god79
‘Lord of the Good Tree’, patron of Gišbanda. Son of Ninazu, husband of Ninazimua (Lady Good Branch,) he should be a tree-god, but his symbol was the horned snake (muš-ša-tur, Akkadian bašmu), a classic chthonic symbol,80 and he is known as an underworld god.81
‘Lady of Isin’, Gula (q.v.) as goddess of Isin. Goddess of medicine and healing82 (‘Enki and the World Order’).83 Originally a dog-goddess, her name is Bau (‘woof!’) in Uruku.
an obscure goddess. On the ‘Stele of the Vultures’ Eannatum swears an oath by Enlil, Ninhursag, Enki, Sin, Utu, and Ninki. She cannot be a minor deity, perhaps it is another name for Inanna
goddess of field mice and vermin85
‘Lady of Mountains’, daughter of Ninsar and Enki (‘Enki and Ninhursag in Dilmun’)
a sister of Inanna (‘Enki and the World Order’)
‘Lady Plant’ or Ninmu. Goddess of plants, was Enki’s daughter by Ninhursag (‘Enki and Ninhursag in Dilmun’)
‘The Pure Lady’, a name of Ninhursag (‘Enki and Ninhursag in Dilmun’).
‘Lady of the Wild Cow,’ a cattle goddess, wife of Lugalbanda and mother of Gilgameš.
The lord of Magan. His name seems to mean ‘The Lord of Tul’86 (‘Enki and Ninhursag in Dilmun’)
A snake god. Husband of Sataran. Worshipped at her city Der, and at the Ekur in Nippur.87 His symbol is the snake.
Ninlil’s mother (‘Enlil and Ninlil’)
Daughter of Ereškigal (q.v.), husband of Birtum. Worshipped at Lagaš and in the E-kur of Nippur.88
Son of Enlil, husband of Ninisina. Sometimes identified with Ninurta. He had cult centres in Ur and Isin, and he was somehow connected to the antediluvian city Larak.89
the protector of travellers90
Also called Ištaran. A god of Der (his wife is Šarrat Deri, ‘Queen of Der’), a god who settles complaints91 (‘The Justification of Entemena’) the son of Inanna. His minister is Nirah.
The god of Umma92 (‘The Justification of Entemena’) Worshipped at the Emah there.93
(Akkadian Sumugan/Sumuqan) the god in charge of cattle or of animals in general94 (‘Enki and the World Order’)
‘Brilliant Youth’. An underworld god (see the epic tale The Death of Gilgameš).
In some traditions the wife of An. Her name is said to mean ‘Earth’, as does ‘Ki’ the name of An’s usual wife. Daughters Ninisina and Nisaba.
Daughter of Ninkarru and Enki, a weaving goddess, responsible for clothes (‘Enki and Ninhursag in Dilmun’) Her name is written with the sign for ‘spider’.95
Known only as the warrior-god patron of Kiš96 where he was said to be espoused to Inanna. His temple there was the e-mete-ur-sag.97
The Genealogy of the Gods98
An Nin-Nibru Utu
Ki Nanna-Su’en Šerda
(Fire, Nergal Inanna
Gatumdu Geštinanna An Baba Igalima
Enlil Ningirsu Šulšagana
Females are in italics.
Double line indicates marriage.
Single line indicates descent.
Other Supernatural Beings
Apart from the various gods there were also other supernatural creatures, some of whom – but by no means all – we could class as demons (maškim/rabisu), who were always numerous in Mesopotamia. The following beings are relatively important members of the Sumerian supernatural community.
A giant (eagle) bird with a lion head, who appears in myths and epics, and in many visual representations. In verbal descriptions he has a beak but not in pictures. His name is written AN.IM.DUGUDmušen in Sumerian and was probably so pronounced. The Akkadian pronunciation is ‘Anzu’. Imdugud is a representation of the power of the storm and came to be associated with Ninurta, the god of that function. It may be that Ninurta is an anthropomorphism of Imdugud who represents a more primitive and elemental vision of the storm. In mythological terms the association took the form of Ninurta’s defeat of the Bird (in The Return of Ninurta to Nippur.) In artistic terms the association was represented by the presence of the bird in Ninurta-related designs – and this is even more true of Ningirsu in Lagaš. Anzu is usually found with his wife and children, who meet various fates (e.g. in the epic Lugalbanda and Enmerkar.) In the epic tale of Gilgameš, Enkidu and the Nether World he is seen perched in the branches of the Huluppu tree (gišha-lu-úb), in the An-gim text of the Deeds and Exploits of Ninurta he is in the gišha-lu-úb-HAR-ra-an, and in the Lugalbanda story he is by the ‘eagle tree’ (gišhu-rí-in).99 Only one late myth deals with any of his own exploits: he is said to have stolen the tablets of destiny in the Akkadian myth of Zu (q.v.).
A monster, the offspring of An and Ki100, defeated in battle by Ninurta. His exact form is not known, but there is some evidence that he may be the creature depicted as a seven-headed dragon (muš sag-imin). His function is also complex.101
The Bull-Man, and also, possibly, the man-headed bull. A creature who appears in many cylinder seals in animal combat scenes from ED II onwards, and from ED III he often appears with Lahmu, the hairy one, who is apparently some sort of protective deity associated with Enki.102 His function is obviously important, but there is no consensus as to what it is. There seems to be no relevant mythology for him in the extant literature.
The Bull of Heaven
A symbol of drought that appears in the epic Gilgameš and the Bull of Heaven (q.v.) and in very many cylinder seal designs.103 Summoned by Inanna, but destroyed by Gilgameš and Enkidu.
A creature that begins to be represented about the Ur III period. Much later it became explicitly associated with Enki/Ea.104
A monster. In the epic tale Gilgameš and the Land of the Living he is Enlil’s Keeper of the Cedar Forest. He appears with a human form, lion claws, and a hideous face. Clay models of his face are used for guides to extispicy!105
Other Groups of Supernatural Beings
The Sumerians had many minor supernatural beings who primarily existed in groups. The following is a list of the more significant of those groups that have not been described above.
Akkadian gallû. Underworld demons responsible for taking the dead below (They are prominent in the myth Dumuzi and the Gallas). They are not necessarily maleficent: Gudea had a friendly galla called Ig-alima.
Akkadian lammasu. Female protective deities, dressed in long flounced skirts, who introduce worshippers to their gods. The males were alad (šēdu).
A variable group of conquests of Ninurta/Ningirsu (The Return of Ninurta to Nippur).