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The Sumerians were the earliest sophisticated civilization known in history. They were known for their worship of many gods. Enki was one of the major gods in the Sumerian pantheon and he is depicted in several works of art and literature.
Let’s find out more about this fascinating Sumerian god including how his identity and mythology evolved during the different periods of Mesopotamian history.
Who Was the God Enki?
Between 3500 to 1750 BCE, Enki was the patron god of Eridu, the oldest city in Sumer which is now modern-day Tell Abu Shahrain, Iraq. He was known as the god of wisdom, magic, crafts, and healing. He was also associated with water, as he dwelt in Abzu, also spelled Apsu – the freshwater ocean believed to be beneath the earth. For this reason, the Sumerian god was also known by the title Lord of the Sweet Waters. At Eridu, he was worshipped at his temple known as E-abzu or the House of the Abzu.
However, there’s still debate among scholars about whether Enki was a water god or not, as the role can be attributed to several other Mesopotamian deities. Also, there’s no evidence that the Sumerian Abzu was regarded as an area filled with water—and the name Enki literally means lord of the earth.
Later, Enki became synonymous with the Akkadian and Babylonian Ea, the god of ritual purification and the patron of craftsmen and artists. Many myths depict Enki as the creator and protector of humanity. He was also the father of several important Mesopotamian gods and goddesses such as Marduk, Nanshe, and Inanna.
In iconography, Enki is commonly depicted as a bearded man wearing a horned headdress and long robes. He is often shown surrounded by flowing streams of water, representing the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. His symbols were the goat and fish, both representations of fertility.
Enki in Mythology and Ancient Literature
There are several Mesopotamian mythologies, legends, and prayers that feature Enki. In Sumerian and Akkadian mythology, he was the son of An and Nammu, but Babylonian texts referred to him as the son of Apsu and Tiamat. Most of the stories depict him as the creator and the god of wisdom, but others portray him as the bringer of troubles and death. The following are some popular myths featuring Enki.
Enki and the World Order
In Sumerian mythology, Enki is depicted as the main organizer of the world, assigning gods and goddesses their roles. The story narrates how he blessed Sumer and other regions, as well as the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Even if his duty and power had only been given to him by the gods An and Enlil, the myth shows the legitimacy of his position in the Sumerian pantheon.
Enki and Ninhursag
This myth describes Enki as a lustful god who had affairs with several goddesses, especially Ninhursag. The story is set on the island of Dilmun, now modern-day Bahrain, which was thought to be the paradise and the land of immortality by the Sumerians.
In the Babylonian legend, Enki is depicted as the preserver of life on earth, where he inspired the god Enlil to give humanity a second chance to live.
At the beginning of the story, the young gods were doing all the work in maintaining creation, including overseeing the rivers and the canals. When these young gods became tired and rebelled, Enki created humans to do the work.
At the end of the story, Enlil decided to destroy humans due to their depravity with a series of plagues—and later a great flood. Enki made sure that life was preserved by instructing the wise man Atrahasis to build a ship to save himself and others.
Enki and Inanna
In this myth, Enki attempted to seduce Inanna, but the goddess tricked him into getting drunk. She then took all the mes—the divine powers concerned with life and the tablets which were blueprints to civilizations.
When Enki woke up the next morning, he realized that he had given all the mes to the goddess, so he sent his demons to recover them. Inanna escaped to Uruk, but Enki realized that he had been tricked and accepted a permanent peace treaty with Uruk.
In the Babylonian creation epic, Enki is credited as being the co-creator of the world and life. He was the oldest son of the first gods Apsu and Tiamat who gave birth to younger gods. In the story, these young gods kept interrupting Apsu’s sleep so he decided to kill them.
Since Tiamat knew Apsu’s plan, she asked her son Enki to help. He decided to put his father into a deep sleep and eventually killed him. Some versions of the story say that Apsu, the god of underground primeval waters, was killed by Enki so he could establish his own home above the deeps.
Tiamat never wanted her husband to be killed so she raised an army of demons to start a war on the younger gods, as suggested by the god Quingu. At this point, Enki’s son Marduk tried to help his father and the younger gods, defeating the forces of chaos and Tiamat.
Tiamat’s tears became the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and her body was used by Marduk to create the heavens and the earth. Quingu’s body was used to create human beings.
The Death of Gilgamesh
In this story, Gilgamesh is the king of Uruk, and Enki is the god who decides his fate. In the first part, the king had dreams of his future death and the gods having a meeting to decide his fate. The gods An and Enlil wanted to save his life because of his heroic deeds in Sumer, but Enki decided that the king must die.
Enki in Mesopotamian History
Each Mesopotamian city had its own patron deity. Originally a local god worshiped in the city of Eridu, Enki later acquired national status. Sumerian in origin, the Mesopotamian religion was subtly modified by the Akkadians and their successors, the Babylonians, who inhabited the region.
In the Early Dynastic Period
During the Early Dynastic period, Enki was worshipped in all the major Sumerian states. He appeared on royal inscriptions, especially those of Ur-Nanshe, the first king of the first dynasty of Lagash, around 2520 BCE. Most inscriptions describe the construction of temples, where the god was asked to give strength to the foundations.
Throughout the period, Enki held a prominent position whenever all the major gods of Sumer were mentioned. He was thought to have the ability to grant the king knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. The rulers of Umma, Ur, and Uruk also mentioned the god Enki in their texts, mostly regarding the theology of city-states.
In the Akkadian Period
In 2234 BCE, Sargon the Great established the world’s first empire, the Akkadian Empire, in an ancient region that is now central Iraq. The king left the Sumerian religion in place, so the Akkadians knew the Sumerian god Enki.
However, Enki wasn’t largely mentioned in the inscriptions of the Sargonic rulers, but he appeared in some texts of Naram-Sin, Sargon’s grandson. Enki also became known as Ea, meaning the living one, referring to the watery nature of the god.
In the Second Dynasty of Lagash
In this period, the traditions of Early Dynastic royal inscriptions describing the Sumerian gods were continued. Enki was recognized in the Temple Hymn of Gudea, which is said to be the longest preserved text describing the god in mythology and religion. His most important role was to give practical advice in temple constructions, from plans to oracular pronouncements.
In the Ur III Period
All rulers of the Third Dynasty of Ur mentioned Enki in their royal inscriptions and hymns. He was mostly featured during the reign of King Shulgi of Ur, between 2094 to 2047 BCE. Contrary to earlier inscriptions, Enki only had the third rank in the pantheon after An and Enlil. The Sumerian mythology of the period doesn’t refer to him as The Creator of the Earth.
Even if Enki’s role was often that of a wise counselor, he was also called The Flood, a title mostly used to describe warrior deities with terrifying or destructive force. However, some interpretations suggest that Enki played the role of a fertility god, filling the earth with his flood of abundance. The god also became associated with cleansing rites and canals.
In the Isin Period
During the period of the Isin dynasty, Enki remained one of the most important gods of Sumer and Akkad, especially during the reign of King Ishme-Dagan. In a hymn that exists from this time, Enki was described as a powerful and prominent god who decided over the fates of men. He was asked by the king to grant abundance from the rivers of Tigris and Euphrates, suggesting his role as a god of vegetation and abundance of nature.
In Isin royal hymns, Enki was referred to as one of the creators of mankind and seemed to have been nominated as the head of the Anunna gods by Enlil and An. It’s also suggested that several Sumerian myths about the god originated from the Isin period, including the Enki and the World Order, Enki’s Journey to Nippur, and Enki and Inanna.
In the Larsa Period
During the time of King Rim-Suen in 1900 BCE, Enki had temples built in the city of Ur and his priests became influential. He was called by the title The Wise One and was seen as the advisor of the great gods and the granter of divine plans.
Enki also had a temple in the city of Uruk and became the patron deity of the city. King Sin-Kashid of Uruk even stated that he had received supreme knowledge from the god. The Sumerian god remained responsible for granting abundance, but he also began to appear in a triad with An and Enlil.
In the Babylonian Period
Babylon had been a provincial center of Ur but eventually became a major military power when the Amorite king Hammurabi conquered neighboring city-states and brought Mesopotamia under Babylonian rule. During the first dynasty, the Mesopotamian religion underwent a significant change, eventually being replaced by the Babylonian ideology.
Enki, who was called Ea by the Babylonians, remained significant in mythology as the father of Marduk, the national god of Babylonia. Some scholars say that the Sumerian god Enki might have been a suitable parent for the Babylonian god Marduk because the former was one of the most prominent gods in the Mesopotamian world.
The Sumerian god of wisdom, magic, and creation, Enki was one of the major deities in the pantheon. As an important figure in Mesopotamian history, he was depicted in many pieces of Sumerian art and literature, as well as in the myths of the Akkadians and Babylonians. Most of the stories depict him as the protector of humanity, but others also portray him as the bringer of death.