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Sumerians were the first literate people in Ancient Mesopotamia who wrote their stories in cuneiform, on soft tablets of clay using a sharp stick. Originally meant to be temporary, perishable pieces of literature, most of the cuneiform tablets that have survived today did so thanks to unintentional fires.
When a storehouse full of clay tablets caught fire, it would bake the clay and harden it, preserving the tablets so that we can still read them, six thousand years later. Today, these tablets tell us myths and legends that were created by the ancient Sumerians including stories of heroes and gods, betrayal and lust, and of nature and fantasy.
Sumerian divinities were all related, perhaps more than in any other civilization. The main gods and goddesses of their pantheon are brothers and sisters, mothers and sons, or are married to each other (or engaged in a combination of marriage and kinship). They were manifestations of the natural world, both earthly (the earth itself, plants, animals), and celestial (the Sun, the Moon, Venus).
In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the most famous and important gods and goddesses in Sumerian mythology who shaped the world of that ancient civilization.
Tiamat, also known as Nammu, was the name of the primeval waters from which everything else in the world originated. However, some say that she was a creation goddess who arose from the sea to give birth to the earth, heaven, and first gods. It was only later, during the Sumerian Renaissance (Third Dynasty of Ur, or Neo-Sumerian Empire, ca. 2,200-2-100 BC) that Nammu became known by the name of Tiamat.
Nammu was the mother of An and Ki, the personifications of the earth and sky. She was also thought to be the mother of the water god, Enki. She was known as the ‘lady of the mountains’, and has been referred to in numerous poems. According to some sources, Nammu created humans by making a figurine out of clay and bringing it to life.
An and Ki
According to the Sumerian creation myths, in the beginning of time, there was nothing but the endless sea called Nammu. Nammu gave birth to two deities: An, the god of the sky, and Ki, the goddess of the earth. As stated in some legends, An was Ki’s consort as well as her sibling.
An was the god of kings and the supreme source of all authority over the universe which he contained within himself. Together the two produced a large variety of plants on earth.
All the other gods who later came into existence were the offspring of these two consort divinities and were named the Anunnaki (sons and daughters of An and Ki). The most prominent of them all was Enlil, the god of air, who was responsible for cleaving the heaven and earth into two, separating them. Afterward, Ki became the domain of all the siblings.
Enlil was the firstborn son of An and Ki and the god of wind, air, and storms. According to the legend, Enlil lived in complete darkness, as the Sun and the Moon had not yet been created. He wanted to find a solution for the problem and asked his sons, Nanna, the god of the moon, and Utu, the god of the sun, to brighten up his house. Utu went on to become even greater than his father.
Known as the supreme lord, creator, father, and ‘raging storm’, Enlil became the protector of all the Sumerian kings. He’s often been described as a destructive and violent god, but according to most myths, he was a friendly and fatherly god.
Enlil possessed an object called the ‘Tablet of Destinies’ which gave him the power to decide the fate of all men and gods. The Sumerian texts state that he used his powers responsibly and with benevolence, always watching over the well-being of humanity.
Inanna was regarded as the most important of all female deities of the Ancient Sumerian pantheon. She was the goddess of love, beauty, sexuality, justice, and war. In most depictions, Inanna is shown wearing an elaborate headdress with horns, a long dress, and wings. She stands on a tethered lion and holds magical weapons in her hands.
The ancient Mesopotamian epic poem ‘Epic of Gilgamesh’, tells the story of the descent of Inanna into the Underworld. It was the shadow realm, a dark version of our world, where nobody was allowed to leave once they entered. However, Inanna promised the gatekeeper of the Underworld that she would send someone from above to take her place if she were allowed to enter.
She had several candidates in mind, but when she saw a vision of her husband Dumuzi being entertained by female slaves, she sent demons to drag him to the Underworld. When this was done, she was allowed to leave the Underworld.
Utu was the Sumerian god of the sun, justice, truth, and morality. It’s said that he returns every day in his chariot to brighten the lives of humankind and provide the light and warmth necessary for plants to grow.
Utu is often described as an old man and is depicted brandishing a serrated knife. He’s sometimes portrayed with rays of light radiating from his back and with a weapon in his hand, usually a pruning saw.
Utu had many siblings including his twin sister Inanna. Together with her, he was responsible for the enforcement of divine justice in Mesopotamia. When Hammurabi carved his Code of Justice in a diorite stele, it was Utu (Shamash as the Babylonians called him) who supposedly gave the laws to the king.
Ereshkigal was the goddess of death, doom, and the Underworld. She was a sister of Inanna, the goddess of love and war, with whom she had a falling out at some point during their childhood. Since then, Ereshkigal remained bitter and hostile.
The chthonic goddess is featured in many myths, one of the most famous being the myth of Inanna’s descent into the underworld. When Inanna visited the underworld where she wanted to extend her powers, Ereshkigal received her on the condition that she removed one piece of clothing each time she passed one of the seven doors of the underworld. By the time Inanna reached Ereshkigal’s temple, she was naked and Ereshkigal turned her into a corpse. Enki, the god of wisdom, came to Inanna’s rescue and she was brought to life.
Inanna’s savior, Enki, was the god of water, male fertility, and wisdom. He invented art, crafts, magic, and every aspect of civilization itself. According to the Sumerian creation myth, also named The Eridu Genesis, it was Enki who warned King Ziusudra of Shuruppak at the time of the Great Flood to build a barge big enough so that every animal and person would fit inside.
The flood lasted for seven days and nights, after which Utu appeared in the sky and everything went back to normal. From that day on, Enki was worshipped as the savior of mankind.
Enki is often portrayed as a man covered in fish skin. On the Adda Seal, he’s shown with two trees alongside him, which symbolize the female and male aspects of nature. He wears a conical hat and flounced skirt, and a stream of water flows into each of his shoulders.
Gula, also known as Ninkarrak, was the goddess of healing as well as the patroness of doctors. She was known by many names including Nintinuga, Meme, Ninkarrak, Ninisina, and ‘the lady of Isin’, which were originally the names of various other goddesses.
In addition to being a ‘great doctoress’, Gula was also associated with pregnant women. She had the ability to treat diseases of infants and she was skilled in using various surgical tools such as scalpels, razors, lancets, and knives. Not only did she heal people, but she also used illness as a punishment for wrongdoers.
Gula’s iconography depicts her surrounded by stars and with a dog. She was widely worshipped throughout Sumer, although her main cult center was at Isin (modern-day Iraq).
In Sumerian mythology, Nanna was the god of the moon and the main astral deity. Born to Enlil and Ninlil, the god and goddess of air respectively, Nanna’s role was to bring light to the dark sky.
Nanna was a patron deity of the Mesopotamian city of Ur. He was married to Ningal, the Great Lady, with whom he had two children: Utu, the god of the sun, and Inanna, the goddess of the planet Venus.
It’s said that he had a beard made entirely of lapis lazuli and he rode on a large, winged bull, which was one of his symbols. He’s portrayed on cylinder seals as an old man with a crescent symbol and a long, flowing beard.
Ninhursag, also spelled ‘Ninhursaga’ in Sumerian, was the goddess of Adab, an ancient Sumerian city, and Kish, a city-state located somewhere in the east of Babylon. She was also the goddess of the mountains as well as rocky, stony ground, and was extremely powerful. She had the ability to produce wildlife in the desert and foothills.
Also known as Damgalnuna or Ninmah, Nanna was one of the seven major deities of Sumer. She’s sometimes depicted with omega-shaped hair, a horned headdress, and a tiered skirt. In some images of the goddess, she can be seen carrying a baton or mace and in others, she has a lion cub next to her on a leash. She’s regarded as the tutelary deity to many great Sumerian leaders.
Each deity of the ancient Sumerian pantheon had a specific domain over which they presided and each played an important role not only in the lives of humans but also in the creation of the world as we know it.