4 The Mythology of Sumer

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The Flood


... a deity declares that mankind will return and rebuild their cities and shrines. When An, Enlil, Enki and Ninhursag had created mankind and the plants and animals, and set up kingship, then the rites were perfected and five cities built as cult centres[a]. Eridu was given to Nudimmud, Badtibira to (unreadable), Larak to Endurbilhursag, Sippar to Utu, and Šuruppak to Sud[b] ...

The decision having been taken[c] to destroy Sumer by flood, the gods appear repentant. Nintu, Inanna, Enki, and Ninhursag are disturbed and cry out to An and Enlil. A warning is therefore sent to Ziusudra[d] out of a wall. ... Great winds blow and the flood comes, overwhelming the cult-centres. For seven days and nights the flood sweeps over the land tossing the big boat, but then the sun comes out. Ziusudra gives thanks to Utu. ... Vegetation is reestablished and Ziusudra thanks An and Enlil. To Ziusudra, preserver of the name of vegetation[e] and the seed of Man, they give immortality, and they allow him to dwell in Dilmun, where the sun rises...


Mesopotamia is the country to which the flood myth is most likely to be native, spreading from there to lands such as Greece and Palestine where flooding can never have loomed large in the inhabitants’ psyches. Before the taming of the two rivers the floods must have been terrible, quite sufficient to bury a city. Evidence of flooding has been discovered at several sites such as Kiš, Uruk, Lagaš and Šuruppak itself,161 but they are not all of the same date, nor even prehistoric. The most notable flood evidence came, however, from the excavations at Ur. There Woolley discovered a thick layer of silt whose significance was obvious to his wife. Her verdict was that ‘Well, of course, it’s the flood’ – and Woolley agreed.162 In the later excavations of the so-called ‘Flood Pit’ Woolley found a layer of silt 11 feet deep dating to the ‘Ubaid period and calculated that the flood that produced it might have been 25 feet deep and have covered an area 300 miles long by 100 broad.163 Unfortunately this event has had no corroboration elsewhere and is now considered merely local.

This Sumerian legend of the flood has been found only in a single inscription with many lacunae. Šuruppak did indeed suffer a flood towards the beginning of the ED period. An Akkadian version that may be of an older tradition also exists in which the hero is Atrahasis (‘Most Wise’). The tale is more fully given in the Akkadian epic of Gilgameš (where the hero is Utnapištim, ‘Who Found Life’) and has its most significant successor in the tale of Noah’s Ark.164 In Greece it was an obvious source of the myth of Deucalion’s flood165 though the paths of transmission for these last are as yet conjectural.

  1. This is the same tradition of antediluvian cities as preserved in the Sumerian King List.

  2. The god of Badtibira was Latarak (see the myth ‘Inanna’s Descent to the Nether World’). Sud was identified by the later Babylonians with the goddess Ninlil166 and Šuruppak was the city of Ziusudra, son of Ubar-Tutu(k)167 (‘Friend of Tutu’).

  3. Because of the preceding lacuna we do not know what moved the gods to this action. Presumably, as in all other versions of the myth, it was some wickedness on the part of the creatures.

  4. The name Ziusudra means ‘life of long days’ which is merely a reference to his mythological fate. In the Akkadian versions he is called Atrahasis, ‘exceeding wise’, and later Utnapištim, ‘he has found life’.

  5. The emphasis on vegetation is odd but it probably signifies no more than the wonderful resurgence of vegetation after a flood.

Inanna and Enki: The Civilising of Uruk


Inanna decided that she wished to make her city Uruk the chief city of Sumer, exalting thereby her own name. To do this she knows that she will have to go to Eridu where Enki lives in his shrine, the Abzu, and take from him the mes. As she approaches Eridu Enki bids his vizier Isimud welcome her into the Abzu, which he dutifully does. Enki and Inanna eat and drink together but Enki apparently drinks too much for he gives away the precious mes to Inanna. She happily accepts and loads them onto her ‘boat of heaven’ for transport to Uruk.

When Enki recovers his senses he sees that the mes are gone from their usual place[a]. Isimud tells him what has passed but Enki, in great wrath, resolves not to allow the mes to reach Uruk. He sends Isimud after her with sea monsters, like the enkum and ninkum[b], to intercept her at the first port of the seven that lie between Eridu and Uruk. Their instructions are to commandeer her boat but to allow her to continue afoot to Uruk. This intention is frustrated by Inanna’s vizier Ninšubur. The same thing occurs several times but finally Inanna is able to disembark at Uruk and unload her cargo of precious mes amidst the rejoicing of the citizens.


The intent of the myth is quite straightforward: it explains how it is that Uruk has the ascendancy amongst the cities of Sumer when Eridu is acknowledged to be the oldest of the cities and the home of the god of wisdom himself. It shows that Inanna is fully responsible for the present glory of her city and that the transference was legitimate.

The importance of this myth is in the repetition in three places of the list of the mes which it appears was felt to be a summary of the essence of Sumerian civilisation. This approaches an ancient anthropology. There seem to be more than a hundred entries but not all have survived and some of those that have are incomprehensible. A list follows.

(1) en-ship, (2) godship, (3) the exalted and enduring crown, (4) the throne of kingship, (5) the exalted sceptre, (6) the royal insignia, (7) the exalted shrine, (8) shepherdship, (9) kingship, (10) lasting ladyship, (11) (the priestly office) ‘divine lady’, (12) (the priestly office) išib, (13) (the priestly office) lumah, (14) (the priestly office) guda, (15) truth, (16) descent into the nether world, (18) (the eunuch) kurgarra, (19) (the eunuch) girbardara, (20) (the eunuch) sagursag, (21) the (battle) standard, (22) the flood, (23) weapons(?), (24) sexual intercourse, (25) prostitution, (26) law(?), (27) libel(?), (28) art, (29) the cult chamber, (30) ‘hierodule of heaven’, (31) (the musical instrument) gusilim, (32) music, (33) eldership, (34) heroship, (35) power, (36) enmity, (37) straightforwardness, (38) the destruction of cities, (39) lamentation, (40) rejoicing of the heart, (41) falsehood, (42) art of metalworking, (47) scribeship, (48) craft of the smith, (49) craft of the leatherworker, (50) craft of the builder, (51) craft of the basketweaver, (52) wisdom, (53) attention, (54) holy purification, (55) fear, (56) terror, (57) strife, (58) peace, (59) weariness, (60) victory, (61) counsel, (62) the troubled heart, (63) judgement, (64) decision, (65) (the musical instrument) lilis, (66) (the musical instrument) ub, (67) (the musical instrument) mesi, (68) (the musical instrument) ala.

  1. That the me should be stored in a place suggests that they are physical objects. They are probably tablets as they appear to correspond to the Akkadian ‘tablets of destiny’169

  2. The enkum and the ninkum are also the names of purificatory priests at Eridu.170

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