4 The Mythology of Sumer

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The purpose of the myth seems to be to explain the connection of the moon with the underworld and why it regularly descends there. We should think of the liberation of the moon from the nether world not as a unique event but as one that occurs as often as the story can be told. Every new moon physically retells the myth. The description of the moon’s time in the underworld as its ‘day of rest’112 seems inconsistent with this, but would probably not have been a problem for the Sumerians who would have considered it to be describing the moon in a different, permanent, aspect. We are left to wonder where the equivalent myth of the Sun is to be found.

  1. The city is better known as Nippur and the point of the extended description appears to be to gratify the audience of the myth.113 These supernatural events occurred in the world with which they were familiar.

  2. Nanna’s parentage may reflect a cosmological speculation on the substance of the Moon. It is a product of air with the property of luminosity.

  3. The storyteller may have been in error at this point by unthinkingly using the formula for the leaders of the gods. The ‘seven who decree the fates’ surely include Enlil, and we suppose it also included Nanna, Utu, and Inanna, none of whom can have existed at this point.

  4. Enlil’s expulsion by the other gods in congress is thought to be a remembrance of the political behaviour possible in the primitive democracy of the archaic Sumerian culture. The preservation of this feature is due to the inherent conservatism of oral tradition.
  5. Probably the fear he expresses while in his disguises of the possibility of Nanna’s confinement to the nether world is behind Enlil’s distress – but this is not made clear.

  6. It is a feature of the nether world that none who enter it may leave without providing a replacement.114 In order for Enlil, Ninlil and Nanna to return to the upper world it is necessary to provide three substitutes: hence the generation of three more hapless underworld gods.

  7. This is the only source testifying to the existence of this river115.

The Journey of Nanna to Nippur


Nanna decides that he should visit his father Enlil and his mother Ninlil at Nippur. Therefore he loads up a boat with plants and animals of various kinds and sets out. En route he stops at five cities; Im (?), Larsa, Uruk, and two others[a]. At each town he is greeted by its tutelary god[b]. Arriving at Nippur’s lapis lazuli quay, its white quay, he asks Enlil’s gatekeeper to ‘open the house, thou who makest the trees come forth, open the house’. When Nanna lists the gifts he has bought the gatekeeper does so and Enlil rejoices and feasts with Nanna. Nanna then presents his petition for prosperity, abundance and long life in Ur. Enlil grants his wish.


As Enlil was the chief god of historical Sumer, so his temple in his home town of Nippur was the chief shrine of the Land. The cultic unity of the land was expressed in ceremonial journeys made by the gods (as represented by their cult objects, presumably) between the cities. The most important such journey would certainly be the journey to Nippur. Apparent depictions of such journeys have been preserved on cylinder seals of the early period. We can also imagine that these journeys would be invested with political significance, being used to mark an alliance between two states as reflecting the friendship of the gods of those states. Again, the centrality of the Nippur journey would have emphasised the cultural unity of the land and would have had a particular political significance if Nippur was used as the centre of an amphictyonic ‘Kengir League’ in Early Dynastic times as proposed by Jacobsen.117 The myth, like all of its type, is merely a narrative to describe the ritual journey of the Nanna statue to Nippur. It cannot, however, be thought of as a liturgy for the ritual.

  1. Note that Larsa and Uruk do not lie on the same ancient branch of the river, though there may have been a canal connection.118

  2. Larsa is Utu’s city, Uruk is Inanna’s city. These are both children of Nanna.

Enki and Ninmah: The Creation of Man


In the time after sky had been separated from earth the gods were required to earn their bread by their own labour. This not being to their liking they raised a complaint to Enki. He, the wise one, was sleeping in the deep and did not heed them. His mother Nammu therefore presented their case to him and begged him to create servants of the gods in the image of the gods. Upon consideration Enki agrees to this. Calling together the host of fashioners[a] he instructs Nammu to mix its heart from ‘clay that is over the abyss’[b] and decree its fate. Ninmah will supervise[c] the fashioning and stamp upon it the likeness of the gods. Thus Man is created[d].

Enki then prepares a feast for Ninmah. At this feast the gods express their satisfaction with what has been done but Enki and Ninmah drink too much and become assertive. Ninmah claims that it is in her power to make Man’s lot good or bad and Enki accepts the challenge. From the clay which is above the abyss Ninmah creates six types of malformed human, but for each of these Enki is able to decree a fate. The barren woman, for example, to be a lady-in-waiting. Then Enki tries his hand and creates u4-mu-ul (‘my day is remote’) who suffers all the afflictions of old age[e]. Ninmah is unable to find any use for this creature and in anger upbraids Enki who in return taunts her with his ‘triumph’. They quarrel. Ninmah curses Enki and condemns him to the nether world[f].

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