4 The Mythology of Sumer

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The Myths


Kramer lists twenty Sumerian myths (in that language) or their fragmentary remains that have come down to us106. They are paraphrased below, in narrative order (as listed in the contents to this chapter) as far as possible. Note that two that Kramer lists have been combined to form the myth Inanna’s Descent to the Nether World (and the Death of Dumuzi).

The myths as we have received them are the literary creations of the scribes. The narrative form may be viewed as the flesh of a myth which makes possible the coordination of the symbolic bones which constitute the ‘true’ content of a myth. In order to interpret these myths it is first necessary to strip away the literary envelope. On the other hand the forms of symbolism are not inherently difficult. For example, a god of ‘X’ can usually be interpreted as the thing ‘X’ itself, though we must bear in mind that any god may be associated with several ‘X’s just as Enki is the god of both Water and Wisdom. Indeed the ambiguity may even be the point of the myth. The symbols themselves are in large part those seen to have been derived from the Neolithic religion as it was transformed into the Chalcolithic Sumerian system.

The narrative flow of the story enables a succession of symbolic forms to be presented but has usually no relevance to the interpretation. Most commonly we observe that when a god is described as giving birth to a god it usually signifies no more than that a relationship of subordination exists between the relevant aspects of the deities. An important point to note is that whereas a narrative action is discrete and unique, the thing which it describes may be cyclic or even continuous. We see this especially in the ‘Creation of Man’ myth.

There are further complications which are due to the literary nature of our sources. The scribes seem to have been only too willing to mix several myths into a single narrative, or in some cases to mythologize non-mythical material. The latter case may be seen in ‘Enki and the World Order’. In some cases it is difficult to distinguish myths from other material which treats of the gods of Sumer. In the case of the text known as ‘The Dispute between Cattle and Grain’ for example107 important mythological material is included, yet the format of the work is clearly that of a common exercise called a ‘Disputation’ and its preoccupations belong to that genre. For those reasons we use the mythological information it gives us but we do not count it amongst the myths; we do insist that they have some narrative content.

It has sometimes been put forward that myths are the spoken accompaniment to ritual acts but in Sumer the surviving myths are pretty consistently ‘explanatory’ (ie. they present analogies to causal explanations). Although ritual seem to have been of some importance in the religion and although myths accompany rites in later Mesopotamian civilisation this does not seem to have been true in Sumer. The only exception might be the myth ‘The Marriage of Dumuzi and Inanna’. Perhaps the myth-ritual nexus is a particularly Semitic feature.108

Enlil and the Creation of the Pickaxe

Paraphrase


109Enlil repaired the wound in the earth at duranki[a] caused by the splitting of Sky and Earth. Enlil creates the pickaxe and decrees its exalted fate. Enlil drives his own golden pickaxe into the ground at duranki in a spot called uzumua[b] and humans sprang from the earth.

110Enlil creates the pickaxe and decrees its exalted fate in Nippur. He has introduced labour[c] and directed ‘power’ to the pickaxe and the basket[d]. Having done so he gives the pickaxe to the Anunnaki who stand about him, and they pass this gift on to the black-headed people. The other deities each make a contribution to the power of the pickaxe and the myth ends with a description of all the useful things a pickaxe can do, such as building cities, putting down rebellious houses, weeding out bad plants, and so on. The pickaxe is exalted.

Commentary


This is a myth dealing with the organization of the world, although obviously less comprehensive than the myth of ‘Enki and the World Order’. This and the Šukalletuda myth are the only ones which deal with single innovations and the latter is only tangentially concerned with the origin of a culture item.

The text dates from about 2000 BC and appears to be a particularly difficult one. The translations of Jacobsen and Kramer disagree fundamentally at many places. It is probably pointless to try to analyse a text whose translation is so uncertain.



  1. The ‘bond of heaven and earth’: a name of Enlil’s shrine at Nippur.

  2. The ‘place where flesh sprouted forth’.


  3. This is a rather mild version of God’s decreeing that man shall live by the sweat of his brow. It may be considered that this small section of the 108-line myth expresses some subtle misgivings about the blessings of civilisation.

  4. In the pickaxe’s typical usage the basket is used to hold the material to be removed which the pickaxe has dislodged.

Enlil and Ninlil: The Birth of Nanna

Paraphrase111


The scene is set[a] in the city known as Duranki or Durgišimmar where was the river Idsalla, the quay Kargeštinna, the harbour Karusar, the well Pulal, and the canal Nunbirdu. There lived the god Enlil, the goddess Ninlil and her mother Nunbaršegunu. Ninlil is told by her mother that if she bathes in the stream and walks along the bank she will be seen by Enlil and he will embrace her. Ninlil does just what she has been warned against – with the predicted result. Enlil tries to seduce Ninlil but she is unwilling. When Enlil confides his desire to his vizier Nusku the latter brings up a boat, and Enlil takes Ninlil by force while sailing. Ninlil is now pregnant with the future moon god, Nanna[b].

The other gods, the fifty great gods, the seven fate-decreeing gods[c] know of their lord’s immorality and seize him as he walks in the Kiur[d]. For his crime he is sent from the city and goes towards the nether world. Ninlil follows him into exile which upsets Enlil[e].


When Enlil on his journey meets the gatekeeper of Nippur he disguises himself and takes his place with the gatekeeper’s cooperation. When Ninlil arrives and explains that she is carrying Enlil’s child he professes himself disturbed that Enlil’s child should be born in the nether world. He suggests that she should bear a child by him in order that his child might take the place of Nanna in the nether world[f]. Ninlil is then impregnated by him. To him she will bear the god Meslamtaea. The same thing happens twice more when Enlil disguises himself as the ‘man of the nether world river’[g] leaving Ninlil pregnant with Ninazu, and then as the ferryman of that river engendering a third, unidentified, god.



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