4 The Mythology of Sumer

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The myth quite clearly describes the circumstances of Man’s creation. He is no more than their servant and will be expected to behave appropriately. Thus the myth answers the question of why we are here. It also justifies the centrality of the temple institutions in Sumerian society. In this respect, then, the myth has both an explanatory and a normative aspect.

The second part of the myth explains two quite different phenomena. First, it shows the origin of the imperfect forms of mankind. These are certainly not part of the original plan of the world and are rather ignoble in their origins. In this respect then the myth has an evaluative aspect. Second, it explains how it is that the sweet waters are to be found below the surface of the earth. Certainly it cannot be understood as making Enki a netherworld god.

  1. There may have been eight fashioners apart from Ninmah.120 Possibly these were to supervise the particular creation of various aspects of Man. A similar arrangement is seen in the myth ‘Enki and Ninhursag in Dilmun’.

  2. According to Frankfort121 ‘above the apsu (abyss)’ means below the earth but above the waters which form the apsu and is itself nearly identical with Nammu, the primeval ocean.
  3. Ninmah is told to stand above Nammu as she gives birth. Given that Ninmah is a name for Ninhursag whom we identify with Ki, the Earth, it makes sense that she should stand above the waters. Why the name Ninmah (‘noble lady’) is preferred in this myth is not known. It may be that the name, although universally recognised, denoted the favoured aspect of the goddess in a city whose tradition has been preserved here. She receives the name Ninhursag in a myth concerning Ninurta, but it is unlikely that the scribes would have been concerned to maintain consistency between myths.

  4. We assume that things went off as planned but the text at this crucial point is interrupted.

  5. It may be that Enki creates two hopeless creatures. Kramer and Frankfort disagree on this point.

  6. A break in the text obscures the course of the quarrel which precedes the curse and the final part of the myth is too obscure to attempt a translation. The fact that it does continue suggests that a reconciliation was accomplished.

The Deeds and Exploits of Ninurta


Ninurta’s weapon Šarur speaks to him urging him to attack and destroy Asag, the demon[a] of illness and disease who lives in the underworld. Ninurta is persuaded to try. At his first attempt Ninurta’s courage appears to fail him and he ‘flees like a bird’. But after reassurance from Šarur he tries again with all his might and achieves the destruction of Asag.

Asag’s destruction, however, is followed by disaster for Sumer. The waters[b] of the Kur rise up and prevent the fresh waters from reaching the fields and gardens. The gods responsible for the irrigation and cultivation of Sumer are distraught for there is no ‘good’ water in the Tigris and only weeds are growing. To hold back the underworld waters Ninurta piles up a great wall of stones above the Kur in front of Sumer. The waters which have already flooded Sumer Ninurta guides into the Tigris which then waters the fields. Sumer is saved[c].

Ninmah hears of the deeds of her son Ninurta and is greatly concerned. Unable to sleep she addresses a prayer to her son that she may visit him. He agrees and in honour of her own courage in visiting him in hostile territory during a battle he names the great pile he has built up ‘Hursag’ (Mountain) and her its queen, Ninhursag. Then he blesses the Hursag to be fruitful of all natural things. He blesses the stones which were his allies and curses those who were his enemies when he fought the Asag[d].


This tale is given in the well-known text lugal-e ud me-lám-bi nir-gál, which seems to be a type of exaltation of Ninurta. The combat motif became popular in later Mesopotamia and this myth may be an early example of the genre. In fact there seem to be two combat tales conflated here: that between Šarur and Asag, and another between Wind and Water. The idea of the latter struggle could well have been inspired by the observed effect of the south wind on the waters of the two rivers. Šarur is known in later lists of divinities as an independent being.

The tale of the Mountain is likely to be an attempt to reintegrate the various aspects of the great goddess. In the later Sumerian religion there may have been little understanding of the associations which were acknowledged to exist between Ninmah, the Mountain, fertility, the underworld, and stormy waters. These connections were natural in the Neolithic culture but needed to be justified afresh to the later civilisation. On the other hand it is suggested123 that the myth may dramatise the human achievement of the taming of the two rivers. There is also a possibility that this myth became transformed into the central myth of the Akkadians with Marduk as Ninurta and Tiamat as Asag.

  1. Asag means ‘the crippler’. Lists of Ninurta’s victories are found in the lugal-e and an-gim dím-ma myths and on Gudea’s Cylinder A.124 Asag is never mentioned but whenever the lists mention Anzu they also mention muš sag-imin, the seven-headed serpent. The Anzu myth is known from Akkadian texts and is seen on seals from that period (and possibly earlier). There is no known text describing the conquest of the Hydra but it too occurs in seal scenes. It is therefore possible125 that Asag is in fact the Hydra. Demons were part of the supernatural community. They could be either good or bad. Their origin is not explored by the mythographers but they seem to represent a subsidiary level of responsibility for events. They became of much greater importance later.

  2. It is unclear which waters are meant here; possibly the Apsu.

  3. Compare the deeds of Yahweh in Psalm 104 3-15. This may be a remnant of a Sumerian (via Canaanite) influence upon the Hebrew tradition.

  4. This explains why some stones are valued, like lapis lazuli, and some are trodden upon.126 The description of the actions of the stones in this myth seems to be lacking but they play a possibly similar part in the episode of the assault on Enki alluded to in the story ‘Gilgameš, Enkidu, and the Nether World’.

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