An Introduction to the Gods of Sumer

It is often said that there are over 40,000 Gods in the Sumerian religion. This can seem an overwhelming concept to grasp. However, when you understand the nature and structure of the Sumerian Pantheon, this all becomes exceptionally clear. The best way to visualize the Sumerian religion is as one extended family of Gods. I like to picture this as a family tree of two great families, both of whom the divine embodiments of nature personified, and the union between both of those great families. This makes everything fall into a much clearer focus.

From the South of Sumer, home of the marshlands and the first great City Eridu, there arose the first Great mother Goddess Nammu, Goddess of the Abzu, and personification of the Universe, to her first born son, the Lord of the Earth and of the Fresh Waters, Enki. From the North of Sumer in Ur and Uruk there arose first Great father God An, Lord of the Heavens, with his consort Ki by his side, the personification of the Earth, to their first born son, Lord of the air and wind, Enlil. Between these two great children of the first Gods; Enki and Enlil, and between their progeny, civilization would be brought into order.

From Enki’s seed there came a daughter, the Goddess of fertility, Ningal, and from Enlil’s seed there came a son, the God of the Moon Nanna. It would be the union of these two great families of Gods, and the unification of the North and South of Sumer, that all things were put into order. Between this sacred union of the Moon God Nanna and his Queen Ningal, there was born the God Utu, living embodiment of the Sun, bringing with him Law and Justice, and the God Ishkur, living embodiment of storms and fertile rain, bringing with him fertile rains that ensured good harvests, and the Goddess Inanna, living embodiment of love, passion and warfare, bringing with her more abundant childbirth and increased infant mortality rates, and her sister Ereshkigal, Queen of the Netherworld, carer and protectress of their ancestors, and of all who have passed from this life. Between all these divine unions, civilization was created.

The nature of the Gods and the Gods of nature

The Sumerian Gods were Gods of civilization. They were Gods who brought order to the Universe. Each God had a place in the divine order of things. You can tell a lot about Sumer from the Gods who are missing. There were no Gods of chaos or disorder or trixter Gods, like you have with many religions that came after. Yes, some Gods may have had certain of those aspects, but is was not their primary function. The Gods of Sumer were Gods of order, and their main purpose was to bring that order to the Universe, and civilisation to their society.

You never really know a god or goddess in the Sumerian pantheon unless you understand their names and where they come from. Each god has a name that tells not only what they were called, but also who they were. Their names were descriptive and told something about them. Their names were epithets.

The Akkadians adopted the Sumerian religion and the Sumerian gods, but called them by different names. These different names weren't different gods, but rather different ways to understand the same gods. The Akkadian language was vastly different from the language of the Sumerians meaning that the symbols and words that could be used to describe the gods would be different, but the gods were still the same.

The Sumerian language is interesting in that every word could be used to mean about a half dozen things, and some words could be given many more definitions than that. This pun filled language is useful in understanding their culture in that each word association told a little more. It can be confusing in that the same word could be used to mean something vastly different in two differing contexts.

Though it is perfectly valid to use the Akkadian language to talk about the gods, we will be using the Sumerian names to differentiate between Sumerian and later Babylonian beliefs. The Babylonians used the Akkadian language, but over time they changed some of the core Sumerian beliefs.

The Seven Who Decree Fate

In the Sumerian religion there are seven Great Gods who are elevated above all others. These seven are made up of two trinities of Gods, and between them one great mother Goddess. The first of these trinities is known as the Supreme trinity, and is made up of the three most powerful Gods in the Mesopotamian Pantheon: An, Enlil, an Enki. The second of these is the Cosmic Trinity, which is made of the three Gods that represented the Astral Bodies of the Moon, the Sun, and Venus (the morning star): Nanna, Utu and Inanna. Finally we have the Great Mother Goddess Ninhurgsag.

These were the seven greatest gods. They each had a hand in determining destiny. Presumably each of these gods had a copy of the tablet of destiny, or else they had possession of the Divine Me. The Me in many ways is a symbol of divine legitimacy.

These were equivalent in that they gave those who possessed them an understanding of the nature of the universe. To understand a thing was to have power over a thing.

Though each of the gods had a say in the way destiny would play out the determining of destiny was not a democratic process. One god could over rule the other six if that god were aggressive enough. This happened in myth on several occasions.

Though the seven seemed all powerful and all knowing, there were a few things that they were forbidden to have power over. No god could have control of destiny and also have control over the land of the dead. When Inanna attempted to take the throne of Kur from Ereshkigal she was slain for it. When Enki went down to the underworld to save Ereshkigal at the dawn of time he gave the ruler ship of the realm to Ereshkigal rather than attempting to keep it for himself.

Ningal

The Goddess Ningal was one of the earliest fertility Goddesses in ancient Sumer. She was the daughter of the Great God of Magic Enki, and her very ancient origins are indicated in her association with reeds, the primary building material from the marshes of South Mesopotamia, where the first settlements were built. It was reeds that were widely used for the first constructions such as huts, shrines, and the first sailing rafts. c. 5500 - 4000 BC.

Ningal was a Goddess of dreams and divination, her association with the magical arts no doubt passed down through her father, Enki. She was also, according to Kramer, thought to be the original Goddess upon whom the Sacred Marriage Rite was based. Originally a fertility Goddess, she was the bride of the Moon God Nanna, and she bore four important children with him: The Goddess Inanna (Akkadian Ishtar), the living embodiment of love, passion and warfare; The God Utu (Akkadian Shamash) was the living embodiment of the Sun, and God of Justice, Law and the Lord of Truth; the storm God Ishkur (Akkadian Adad / Canaanite Ba‘al/Hadad), was the living embodiment of the rain, and whose absence was thought to bring dry spells, starvation, death, and chaos; and the Goddess Ereshkigal, Queen of the Netherworld, and protector of all who have passed. From the warmth of the Sun, to divine fertility, to the replenishing rain, to the care of our ancestors, all four of her children were incredibly important for civilization to function.

Enheduanna, the World's first author known by name, daughter of Sargon of Akkad and High Priestess of the Moon God Nanna, was believed to be the living embodiment of the Goddess Ningal. Her role as En Priestess included carrying out all of the functions of the Goddess here on earth. c. 2300 BC.

Ningal's worship continued until Canaanite times, where she was worshiped under the Canaanite rendering of the name: Nikkal. The world's oldest surviving written melody, Hurrian Hymn Text H6, c. 1400 BC, was written to Nikkal. The Hymn was rediscovered in Southern Syria in the early 1950s, and has since been deciphered and reconstructed by Richard Dumbrill. It is widely available online.

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