4 The Mythology of Sumer

Enki and Ninhursag in Dilmun

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Enki and Ninhursag in Dilmun


Dilmun[a] is described as a ‘pure’ land where there is no predation, sickness or old age; which lacks nothing desirable except fresh water. Ninhursag therefore requests of Enki that this be supplied and he orders Utu to bring up fresh water from the earth[b]. With this water Dilmun becomes a divine and fruitful garden.

Enki proposes to Ninhursag and after some hesitation she accepts him. Their offspring is Ninsar, or Ninmu, a goddess of plants. Enki then impregnates Ninsar and the goddess Ninkurra is born. To Enki and Ninkurra is then born Uttu, goddess of cloth and weaving[c]. In all three cases the pregnancy lasts just nine days and the birth is achieved without pain[d]. Ninhursag warns Uttu of Enki. Uttu follows her advice and insists upon marriage; but Enki is required to present gifts of cucumbers, apples and grapes[e] before she will wed him. Enki therefore presents himself at her door with these gifts and is accepted in. Enki gets her drunk on wine and has his way with her[f].

Eight plants have then been produced but Ninhursag has not yet assigned them their names and qualities. Enki decides to usurp this privilege. He instructs his vizier, Isimud, to pluck each plant in turn and to bring it to him. Enki eats each plant in turn and decrees its fate. So go the ‘tree-plant’, the ‘honey-plant’, the ‘road weed-plant’, the ‘water-plant’, the ‘thorn-plant’, the ‘caper-plant’, the ‘(unreadable)-plant’ and the ‘cassia-plant’. Ninhursag is outraged, curses him and disappears[g]. The gods are dismayed and Enki suffers sickness in eight parts of his body. The Fox declares that he can bring back Ninhursag, and indeed he does[h]. She heals Enki by seating him by her vulva and producing a god for each of his ailing parts[i]. So she sends Abu for his (unreadable), Nintulla for his jaw, Ninsutu for his tooth, Ninkasi for his mouth, Nazi for his (unreadable), Azimua for his arm, Ninti for his rib[j], Enšag for his (unreadable). The said deities are then assigned their fates. Abu to be king of the plants, Nintulla king of Magan, Ninsutu to marry Ninazu, Ninkasi to be she who sates the heart, Nazi to marry NinDAR, Azimua to marry Ningišzida, Ninti to be queen of the (month), Enšag to be lord of Dilmun.


The function of this myth is to integrate various elements of the Sumerian culture, but the integration is of a mythological rather than a logical nature. Nor is the integration particularly skilfully done; the myth falls naturally into two reasonably self-contained parts. The first section is concerned with the integration of the various processes which are involved in the making of cloth.136 Earth and Water are able to produce plants because Ninhursag/Ki (Earth) and Enki (Water) have the child Ninsar (Plants). By soaking plants in water the fibres which are useful in clothing can be separated out; this is probably how the birth of Ninkurra from Enki and Ninsar is to be understood. Finally water (bearing dye) and these fibres create the possibility of clothing when Enki and Ninkurra engender Uttu.

In the second section the integration, if it can be called so, is through the medium of punning similarities which exist between the names of the diseased body parts and the gods created to heal them. This is not necessarily a result of frivolity in the redactor for it is not unusual for great significance to be attached to the names of things (the name of the Hebrew god Yahweh is a significant example). Even in Greece we find Deucalion and Pyrrha after the Flood creating people (laos) from stones (laas).137 It is not known that there is any connection between the gods’ origins and the functions which are attributed to them.

Many correspondences have been detected between this myth and the Hebrew story of the garden of Eden and the Creation of Man – several of which will be described in the notes following. If these are valid then the fact that no Akkadian version of the myth is known138 must be due to the accidents of preservation, for surely the Genesis story would not have been inspired by an obscure (Sumerian) telling of an unpopular tale. The path of transmission presumably led through Babylon, Assyria, and Canaan, all of whom were influenced by the Sumerians139 and there is other evidence of influence from these sources in Genesis.140

  1. Dilmun, as an historical location, is generally identified141 with the island of Bahrein in the Persian Gulf. In this myth however it probably serves only to signify some far-off land. In Genesis ii, 8 we find that Eden was ‘eastward’ and the very name may come from the Sumerian word edin meaning ‘steppe’ or ‘field’.142 The an-edin-na, the ‘high steppe’ was the name for the elevated area between the cities Uruk, Badtibira, Larsa, Umma, and Zabalam.143

  2. Compare ‘There went up a mist from the earth and watered the whole face of the ground’ at Gen. ii, 6 (and the translation of éd as ‘mist’ is doubtful144). Fresh water from below the earth is a natural concept for Mesopotamians and occurs often in their myths (eg. in ‘Deeds and Exploits of Ninurta’), but the same is not true for the Hebrews (but see also Gen. i, 6-8). The rôle of Utu in the action is obscure.

  3. The clothing motif may conceivably be connected with the sudden awareness of nakedness in Adam and Eve after their disobedience at Gen. iii, 7 ff.

  4. This sheds some light upon the curse God pronounces upon womankind (at Gen. iii, 16) that her pregnancy shall be long and her labour painful. In the Sumerian myth it may have more to do with the lengths of time required for the clothmaking processes – if it signifies anything at all.
  5. Presumably some sort of dowry custom. In the records we have of dowry customs from much later times more obviously valuable gifts are preferred. Perhaps there is a reference to a ‘first fruits’ festival ritual here too.

  6. This entire section appears to be no more than a literary linking of two otherwise unrelated myths, though we cannot be certain of the link because the marriage is followed in the text by a severe lacuna.145 It seems reasonable to suppose, however, that the eight plants of the following section are the offspring of Enki and Uttu.

  7. Enki has eaten of forbidden fruit and must therefore die (c.f.
    Gen. ii, 17). There is no known relation between the plants consumed and the diseased body parts or the created deities. The offence of Enki may have been to partake of the fruits of the land without due deference to the goddess of the harvest, presumably a warning to mortals to observe the appropriate rituals. On the other hand the Sumerian ‘Farmer’s almanac’146 does not indicate that such rituals were much used. The disappearance of Enki may exemplify the drying up of the water sources in the summer.147

  8. The Fox in Sumer is known for its ‘cowardice and conceit’148 rather than its cleverness, therefore its actions here need explanation.

  9. Some of the recognisable puns are as follows. Ninkasi means ‘the lady who fills the mouth’149, á-zi-mu4-a suggests the reading ‘the growing straight of the arm’150. Ninti is ‘the lady of the rib’.
  10. The creation of Eve from a rib is suggested by the birth here of ‘the lady of the rib’. In Sumerian ti means equally ‘rib’ and ‘life’ so that Ninti may also be read as ‘the lady who makes live’. The preservation of this punning detail may explain why Adam’s woman was named Hawwah, or ‘life’151, though the original pun is, of course, unrecognisable in Hebrew. It may not be stretching the point to note that Ninti was born of Ninhursag, goddess of the Earth, whereas Eve was created from Adam whose name, Adámah, means ‘of the Earth’

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