Sumerian Mythology faq by Christopher Siren, 1992, 1994, 2000

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Sumerian Mythology FAQ

by Christopher Siren, 1992, 1994, 2000

Contents:

I. History and Overview

II. What do we know about Sumerian Cosmology?

III. What Deities did they worship?

A. The Four Primary Dieties

B. The Seven who decreed fate

C. The Annuna and others

D. The Demigods, mortal Heroes and Monsters

IV. What about the Underworld?

V. What are me anyway?

VI. I've heard that there are a lot of Biblical parallels in Sumerian literature. What are they?

VII. Source material

VIII. Other books of interest.

I. History and Overview -

Sumer may very well be the first civilization in the world (although long term settlements at Jericho and Çatal Hüyük predate Sumer and examples of writing from Egypt and the Harappa, Indus valley sites may predate those from Sumer). From its beginnings as a collection of farming villages around 5000 BCE, through its conquest by Sargon of Agade around 2370 BCE and its final collapse under the Amorites around 2000 BCE, the Sumerians developed a religion and a society which influenced both their neighbors and their conquerors. Sumerian cuneiform, the earliest written language, was borrowed by the Babylonians, who also took many of their religious beliefs. In fact, traces and parallels of Sumerian myth can be found in Genesis.

History

Sumer was a collection of city states around the Lower Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is now southern Iraq. Each of these cities had individual rulers, although as early as the mid-fourth millennium BCE the leader of the dominant city could have been considered the king of the region. The history of Sumer tends to be divided into five periods. They are the Uruk period, which saw the dominance of the city of that same name, the Jemdat Nasr period, the Early Dynastic periods, the Agade period, and the Ur III period - the entire span lasting from 3800 BCE to around 2000 BCE. In addition, there is evidence of the Sumerians in the area both prior to the Uruk period and after the Ur III Dynastic period, but relatively little is known about the former age and the latter time period is most heavily dominated by the Babylonians.



The Uruk period, stretched from 3800 BCE to 3200 BCE. It is to this era that the Sumerian King Lists ascribe the reigns of Dumuzi the shepherd, and the other antediluvian kings. After his reign Dumuzi was worshipped as the god of the spring grains. This time saw an enormous growth in urbanization such that Uruk probably had a population around 45,000 at the period's end. It was easily the largest city in the area, although the older cities of Eridu to the south and Kish to the north may have rivaled it. Irrigation improvements as well as a supply of raw materials for craftsmen provided an impetus for this growth. In fact, the city of An and Inanna also seems to have been at the heart of a trade network which stretched from what is now southern Turkey to what is now eastern Iran. In addition people were drawn to the city by the great temples there.

The Eanna of Uruk, a collection of temples dedicated to Inanna, was constructed at this time and bore many mosaics and frescoes. These buildings served civic as well as religious purposes, which was fitting as the en, or high priest, served as both the spiritual and temporal leader. The temples were places where craftsmen would practice their trades and where surplus food would be stored and distributed.

The Jemdat Nasr period lasted from 3200 BCE to 2900 BCE. It was not particularly remarkable and most adequately described as an extension and slowing down of the Uruk period. This is the period during which the great flood is supposed to have taken place. The Sumerians' account of the flood may have been based on a flooding of the Tigris, Euphrates, or both rivers onto their already marshy country.
The Early Dynastic period ran from 2900 BCE to 2370 BCE and it is this period for which we begin to have more reliable written accounts although some of the great kings of this era later evolved mythic tales about them and were deified. Kingship moved about 100 miles upriver and about 50 miles south of modern Bahgdad to the city of Kish. One of the earlier kings in Kish was Etana who "stabilized all the lands" securing the First Dynasty of Kish and establishing rule over Sumer and some of its neighbors. Etana was later believed by the Babylonians to have rode to heaven on the back of a giant Eagle so that he could receive the "plant of birth" from Ishtar (their version of Inanna) and thereby produce an heir.
Meanwhile, in the south, the Dynasty of Erech was founded by Meskiaggasher, who, along with his successors, was termed the "son of Utu", the sun-god. Following three other kings, including another Dumuzi, the famous Gilgamesh took the throne of Erech around 2600 BCE and became in volved in a power struggle for the region with the Kish Dynasts and with Mesannepadda, the founder of the Dynasty of Ur. While Gilgamesh became a demi-god, remembered in epic tales, it was Mesannepadda who was eventually victorious in this three-way power struggle, taking the by then traditional title of "King of Kish".

Although the dynasties of Kish and Erech fell by the wayside, Ur could not retain a strong hold over all of Sumer. The entire region was weakened by the struggle and individual city-states continued more or less independent rule. The rulers of Lagash declared themselves "Kings of Kish" around 2450 BCE, but failed to seriously control the region, facing several military challenges by the nearby Umma. Lugalzagesi, ensi or priest-king of Umma from around 2360-2335 BCE, razed Lagash, and conquered Sumer, declaring himself "king of Erech and the Land". Unfortunately for him, all of this strife made Sumer ripe for conquest by an outsider and Sargon of Agade seized that opportunity.

Sargon united both Sumer and the northern region of Akkad - from which Babylon would arise about four hundred years later - not very far from Kish. Evidence is sketchy, but he may have extended his realm from the Medeterranian Sea to the Indus River. This unity would survive its founder by less than 40 years. He built the city of Agade and established an enormous court there and he had a new temple erected in Nippur. Trade from across his new empire and beyond swelled the city, making it the center of world culture for a brief time.
After Sargon's death, however, the empire was fraught with rebellion. Naram-Sin, Sargon's grandson and third successor, quelled the rebellions through a series of military successes, extending his realm. He declared himself 'King of the Four corners of the World' and had himself deified. His divine powers must have failed him as the Guti, a mountain people, razed Agade and deposed Naram-Sin, ending that dynasty.

After a few decades, the Guti presence became intolerable for the Sumerian leaders. Utuhegal of Uruk/Erech rallied a coalition army and ousted them. One of his lieutenants, Ur-Nammu, usurped his rule and established the third Ur dynasty around 2112 BCE. He consolidated his control by defeating a rival dynast in Lagash and soon gained control of all of the Sumerian city-states. He established the earliest known recorded law-codes and had constructed the great ziggurat of Ur, a kind of step-pyramid which stood over 60' tall and more than 200' wide. For the next century the Sumerians were extremely prosperous, but their society collapsed around 2000 BCE under the invading Amorites. A couple of city-states maintained their independence for a short while, but soon they and the rest of the Sumerians were absorbed into the rising empire of the Babylonians. (Crawford pp. 1-28; Kramer 1963 pp. 40-72)

Culture


Seated along the Euphrates River, Sumer had a thriving agriculture and trade industry. Herds of sheep and goats and farms of grains and vegetables were held both by the temples and private citizens. Ships plied up and down the river and throughout the Persian gulf, carrying pottery and various processed goods and bringing back fruits and various raw materials from across the region, including cedars from the Levant.

Sumer was one of the first literate civilizations leaving many records of business transactions, and lessons from schools. They had strong armies, which with their chariots and phalanxes held sway over their less civilized neighbors (Kramer 1963, p. 74). Perhaps the most lasting cultural remnants of the Sumerians though, can be found in their religion.

Religion

The religion of the ancient Sumerians has left its mark on the entire middle east. Not only are its temples and ziggurats scattered about the region, but the literature, cosmogony and rituals influenced their neighbors to such an extent that we can see echoes of Sumer in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition today. From these ancient temples, and to a greater extent, through cuneiform writings of hymns, myths, lamentations, and incantations, archaeologists and mythographers afford the modern reader a glimpse into the religious world of the Sumerians.

Each city housed a temple that was the seat of a major god in the Sumerian pantheon, as the gods controlled the powerful forces which often dictated a human's fate. The city leaders had a duty to please the town's patron deity, not only for the good will of that god or goddess, but also for the good will of the other deities in the council of gods. The priesthood initially held this role, and even after secular kings ascended to power, the clergy still held great authority through the interpretation of omens and dreams. Many of the secular kings claimed divine right; Sargon of Agade, for example claimed to have been chosen by Ishtar/Inanna. (Crawford 1991: 21-24)

The rectangular central shrine of the temple, known as a 'cella,' had a brick altar or offering table in front of a statue of the temple's deity. The cella was lined on its long ends by many rooms for priests and priestesses. These mud-brick buildings were decorated with cone geometrical mosaics, and the occasional fresco with human and animal figures. These temple complexes eventually evolved into towering ziggurats. (Wolkstein & Kramer 1983: 119)
The temple was staffed by priests, priestesses, musicians, singers, castrates and hierodules. Various public rituals, food sacrifices, and libations took place there on a daily basis. There were monthly feasts and annual, New Year celebrations. During the later, the king would be married to Inanna as the resurrected fertility god Dumuzi, whose exploits are dealt with below.

When it came to more private matters, a Sumerian remained devout. Although the gods preferred justice and mercy, they had also created evil and misfortune. A Sumerian had little that he could do about it. Judging from Lamentation records, the best one could do in times of duress would be to "plead, lament and wail, tearfully confessing his sins and failings." Their family god or city god might intervene on their behalf, but that would not necessarily happen. After all, man was created as a broken, labor saving, tool for the use of the gods and at the end of everyone's life, lay the underworld, a generally dreary place. (Wolkstein & Kramer 1983: pp.123-124)

II. What do we know about Sumerian Cosmology?

From verses scattered throughout hymns and myths, one can compile a picture of the universe's (anki) creation according to the Sumerians. The primeval sea (abzu) existed before anything else and within that, the heaven (an) and the earth (ki) were formed. The boundary between heaven and earth was a solid (perhaps tin) vault, and the earth was a flat disk. Within the vault lay the gas-like 'lil', or atmosphere, the brighter portions therein formed the stars, planets, sun, and moon. (Kramer, The Sumerians 1963: pp. 112-113) Each of the four major Sumerian deities is associated with one of these regions. An, god of heaven, may have been the main god of the pantheon prior to 2500 BC., although his importance gradually waned. (Kramer 1963 p. 118) Ki is likely to be the original name of the earth goddess, whose name more often appears as Ninhursag (queen of the mountains), Ninmah (the exalted lady), or Nintu (the lady who gave birth). It seems likely that these two were the progenitors of most of the gods.

According to "Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Netherworld", in the first days all needed things were created. Heaven and earth were separated. An took Heaven, Enlil took the earth, Ereshkigal was carried off to the netherworld as a prize, and Enki sailed off after her.

III. What Deities did they worship?

Nammu


Nammu is the Goddess of the watery abyss, the primeval sea. She may be the earliest of deities within Sumerian cosmology as she gave birth to heaven and earth. (Kramer 1961 p. 39) She is elsewhere described both as the mother of all the gods and as the wife of An. (Kramer 1961 p. 114) She is Enki's mother. She prompts him to create servants for the gods and is then directed by him on how, with the help of Nimmah/Ninhursag to create man. (Kramer 1963 p. 150; Kramer 1961 p. 70)
A. The Primary Deities

It is notable that the Sumerians themselves may not have grouped these four as a set and that the grouping has been made because of the observations of Sumerologists.

An

An, god of heaven, may have been the main god of the pantheon prior to 2500 BC., although his importance gradually waned. (Kramer 1963 p. 118) In the early days he carried off heaven, while Enlil carried away the earth. (Kramer 1961 p. 37-39) It seems likely that he and Ki/Ninhursag were the progenitors of most of the gods. although in one place Nammu is listed as his wife. (Kramer 1961 p. 114) Among his children and followers were the Anunnaki. (Kramer 1961 p. 53) His primary temple was in Erech. He and Enlil give various gods, goddesses, and kings their earthly regions of influence and their laws. (Kramer 1963 p. 124) Enki seats him at the first seat of the table in Nippur at the feast celebrating his new house in Eridu. (Kramer 1961 p. 63) He hears Inanna's complaint about Mount Ebih (Kur?), but discourages her from attacking it because of its fearsome power. (Kramer 1961 pp. 82-83) After the flood, he and Enlil make Ziusudra immortal and make him live in Dilmun. (Kramer 1961 p. 98) (See also Anu.)

Ninhursag (Ki, Ninmah, Nintu)

Ki is likely to be the original name of the earth goddess, whose name more often appears as Ninhursag (queen of the mountains), Ninmah (the exalted lady), or Nintu (the lady who gave birth). (Kramer 1963 p. 122) Most often she is considered Enlil's sister, but in some traditions she is his spouse instead. (Jacobsen p.105) She was born, possibly as a unified cosmic mountain with An, from Nammu and shortly thereafter, their union produced Enlil. (Kramer 1961 p. 74) In the early days, as Ki, she was separated from heaven (An) and carried off by Enlil. (Kramer 1961 pp. 37-41) It seems likely that she and An were the progenitors of most of the gods. She later unites with Enlil and with the assistance of Enki they produce the world's plant and animal life. (Kramer 1961 p. 75)

"Enki and Ninhursag"

In Dilmun, she (as Nintu) bears the goddess Ninsar from Enki, who in turn bears the goddess Ninkur, who in turn bears Uttu, goddess of plants. Uttu bore eight new trees from Enki. When he then ate Uttu's children, Ninhursag cursed him with eight wounds and dissapears. After being persuaded by Enlil to undo her curse, she bore Enki eight new children which undid the wounds of the first ones. (Kramer 1963 pp. 147-149; Kramer 1961 pp. 54-59)

Enki seats her (as Nintu) on the big side of the table in Nippur at the feast celebrating his new house in Eridu. (Kramer 1961 p. 63)
"Enki and Ninmah"

She is the mother goddess and, as Ninmah, assists in the creation of man. Enki, having been propted by Nammu to create servants for the gods, describes how Nammu and Ninmah will help fashion man from clay. Prior to getting to work, she and Enki drink overmuch at a feast. She then shapes six flawed versions of man from the heart of the clay over the Abzu, with Enki declaring their fates. Enki, in turn also creates a flawed man which is unable to eat. Ninmah appears to curse him for the failed effort. (Kramer 1963 pp. 149-151; Kramer 1961 pp. 69-72)

(See also Aruru)

Enlil

An and Ki's union produced Enlil (Lord of 'lil'). Enlil was the air-god and leader of the pantheon from at least 2500 BC, when his temple Ekur in Nippur was the spiritual center of Sumer (Kramer 1961 p. 47). In the early days he separated and carried off the earth (Ki) while An carried off heaven. (Kramer 1961 p. 37-41) He assumed most of An's powers. He is glorified as "'the father of the gods, 'the king of heaven and earth,' ' the king of all the lands'". Kramer portrays him as a patriarchal figure, who is both creator and disciplinarian. Enlil causes the dawn, the growth of plants, and bounty (Kramer 1961 p. 42). He also invents agricultural tools such as the plow or pickaxe (Kramer 1961 pp 47-49). Without his blessings, a city would not rise (Kramer 1961 pp. 63, 80) Most often he is considered Ninlil's husband, with Ninhursag as his sister, but some traditions have Ninhursag as his spouse. (Jacobsen p.105) "Enlil and Ninlil"

He is also banished to the nether world (kur) for his rape of Ninlil, his intended bride, but returns with the first product of their union, the moon god Sin (also known as Nanna). (Kramer, Sumerians 1963: pp.145-147). Ninlil follows him into exile as his wife. He tells the various underworld guardians to not reveal his whereabouts and instead poses as those guardians himself three times, each time impregnating her again it appears that at least on one occasion Enlil reveals his true self before they unite. The products of these unions are three underworld deities, including Meslamtaea (aka. Nergal) and Ninazu. Later, when Nanna visits him in Nippur, he bestows Ur to him with a palace and plentiful plantlife. (Kramer 1961 p. 43-49) Enlil is also seen as the father of Ninurta (Kramer 1961 p. 80).

"Enki and Eridu"

When Enki journeys to Enlil's city Nippur in order for his own city, Eridu to be blessed. He is given bread at Enki's feast and is seated next to An, after which Enlil proclaims that the Anunnaki should praise Enki. (Kramer 1961 pp. 62-63)

"The Dispute between Cattle and Grain"

Enlil and Enki, at Enki's urging, create farms and fields for the grain goddess Ashnan and the cattle goddess Lahar. This area has places for Lahar to take care of the animals and Ashnan to grow the crops. The two agricultural deities get drunk and begin fighting, so it falls to Enlil and Enki to resolve their conflict - how they do so has not been recovered. (Kramer 1961 pp. 53-54; Kramer 1963 pp. 220-223)


"The Dispute between Emesh and Enten"

Enlil creates the herdsman deity Enten and the agricultural deity Emesh. He settles a dispute between Emesh and Enten over who should be recognized as 'farmer of the gods', declaring Enten's claim to be stronger. (Kramer 1961 p. 49-51).


"Enki and Ninhursag"

He helps Enki again when he was cursed by Ninhursag. Enlil and a fox entreat her to return and undo her curse. (Kramer 1961 p. 57)


"Enki and the World Order"

The me were assembled by Enlil in his temple Ekur, and given to Enki to guard and impart to the world, beginning with Eridu, Enki's center of worship. (Kramer 1963 pp. 171-183)


"Inanna's Descent to the Nether World"

Enlil refuses Ninshubur's appeal on behalf of his [grand-]daughter, Inanna to help rescue her from Ereshkigal in the underworld. (Kramer 1961 pp. 86, 87, 89, 93)


"Ziusudra"

After the flood, he and An gave Ziusudra eternal life and had him live in Dilmun. (Kramer 1961 p. 98)


"Gilgamesh, Enkidu and the Netherworld"

When Gilgamesh looses his pukku and mikku in the nether world, and Enkidu is held fast there by demons, he appeals to Enlil for help. Enlil refuses to assist him. (Kramer 1961 p. 35-36)

(See also the Babylonian Ellil)

Enki

Enki is the son of Nammu, the primeval sea. Contrary to the translation of his name, Enki is not the lord of the earth, but of the abzu (the watery abyss and also semen) and of wisdom. This contradiction leads Kramer and Maier to postulate that he was once known as En-kur, lord of the underworld, which either contained or was contained in the Abzu. He did struggle with Kur as mentioned in the prelude to "Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Underworld", and presumably was victorious and thereby able to claim the title "Lord of Kur" (the realm). He is a god of water, creation, and fertility. He also holds dominion over the land. He is the keeper of the me, the divine laws. (Kramer & Maier Myths of Enki 1989: pp. 2-3) "Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Underworld"

Enki sails for the Kur, presumably to rescue Ereshkigal after she was given over to Kur. He is assailed by creatures with stones. These creatures may have been an extension of Kur itself. (Wolkstein and Kramer p. 4; Kramer 1961 p. 37-38, 78-79)

"Enki and Eridu" Enki raises his city Eridu from the sea, making it very lush. He takes his boat to Nippur to have the city blessed by Enlil. He throws a feast for the gods, giving Enlil, An, and Nintu spacial attention. After the feast, Enlil proclaims that the Anunnaki should praise Enki. (Kramer 1961; pp. 62-63)
"Enki and the World Order"

The me were assembled by Enlil in Ekur and given to Enki to guard and impart to the world, beginning with Eridu, his center of worship. From there, he guards the me and imparts them on the people. He directs the me towards Ur and Meluhha and Dilmun, organizing the world with his decrees. (Kramer 1963 pp. 171-183)

"The Dispute between Cattle and Grain"

Enlil and Enki, at Enki's urging, create farms and fields for the grain goddess Ashnan and the cattle goddess Lahar. This area has places for Lahar to take care of the animals and Ashnan to grow the crops. The two agricultural deities get drunk and begin fighting, so it falls to Enlil and Enki to resolve their conflict - how they do so has not been recovered. (Kramer 1961 pp. 53-54; Kramer 1963 pp. 220-223)

"Enki and Ninhursag"

He blessed the paradisical land of Dilmun, to have plentiful water and palm trees. He sires the goddess Ninsar upon Ninhursag, then sires Ninkur upon Ninsar, finally siring Uttu, goddess of plants, upon Ninkur. Uttu bore eight new types of trees from Enki. He then consumed these tree-children and was cursed by Ninhursag, with one wound for each plant consumed. Enlil and a fox act on Enki's behalf to call back Ninhursag in order to undo the damage. She joins with Enki again and bears eight new children, one to cure each of the wounds. (Kramer 1963 pp. 147-149; Kramer 1961 pp. 54-59)


"Enki and Ninmah: The Creation of Man"

The gods complain that they need assistance. At his mother Nammu's prompting, he directs her, along with some constructive criticism from Ninmah (Ninhursag), in the creation of man from the heart of the clay over the Abzu. Several flawed versions were created before the final version was made. (Kramer 1963 pp. 149-151; Kramer 1961 pp. 69-72)


"Inanna's Descent to the Nether World"

He is friendly to Inanna and rescued her from Kur by sending two sexless beings to negotiate with, and flatter Ereshkigal. They gave her the Food of Life and the Water of Life, which restored her. (Wolkstein and Kramer pp. 62-64)


"Inanna and Enki"

Later, Inanna comes to Enki and complains at having been given too little power from his decrees. In a different text, she gets Enki drunk and he grants her more powers, arts, crafts, and attributes - a total of ninety-four me. Inanna parts company with Enki to deliver the me to her cult center at Erech. Enki recovers his wits and tries to recover the me from her, but she arrives safely in Erech with them. (Kramer & Maier 1989: pp. 38-68)

(See also Ea)
III B. The Seven Who Decreed Fate

In addition to the four primary deities, there were hundreds of others. A group of seven "decreed the fates" - these probably included the first four, as well as Nanna, his son Utu, the sun god and a god of justice, and Nanna's daughter Inanna, goddess of love and war.



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