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Sukkal of An, Inanna and the divine assembly
Seal of Inanna, 2350-2150 BCE.jpg
Ancient Akkadian cylinder seal depicting Inanna resting her foot on the back of a lion while Ninshubur stands in front of her paying obeisance, c. 2334-2154 BC[1]
Major cult centerAkkil, Uruk, Lagash
Consortusually none, but rarely Nergal
Akkadian equivalentIlabrat
Seleucid Uruk equivalentPapsukkal

Ninshubur (𒀭𒊩𒌆𒋚; also spelled Ninšubur, Ninšubura or Nincubur)[2] was the sukkal (vizier) of the goddess Inanna in Sumerian mythology. Ninshubur also served as the vizier of the sky god An and by extension as the messenger of the assembly of the gods, similar to Greek Hermes or Iris. Her name means "Queen of servants" or "Queen of Subartu" in Sumerian.

She was originally worshiped in Akkil, but in the Early Dynastic Period she was already worshiped in other cities, including Lagash, Nippur, Shuruppak and Uruk. Many kings of Lagash regarded her as their personal deity. Due to the belief that she could intercede with higher ranking deities, she was popular in everyday religion, and many theophoric names invoking her and other references to personal worship are known from ancient sources.

In myths Ninshubur accompanied Inanna during many of her most famous exploits. She helped Inanna fight Enki's servants from the Apsu after Inanna's theft of the sacred me. In another myth, when Inanna became trapped in the Underworld, it was Ninshubur who pleaded with Enki for her mistress's release.

She was syncretised with other messenger deities, most notably Ilabrat and Papsukkal. In the second half of the first millennium BCE the latter replaced her in the role of primary servant of An. While originally regarded as a goddess, Ninshubur came to be viewed as a male deity in many sources, most likely due to syncretism.


Frans Wiggermann translates Ninshubur's name as "Queen of Subartu"[3] or alternatively "Lady of servants" (or "Lady of Subarian servants") based on another meaning of shubur ("servant")[3] and on Ninshubur's role as a benevolent intercessory deity.[4] Sometimes the name was written simply as Shubur,[3] while Nin-ŠUBUR.AL, appearing in documents from the Early Dynastic period, might be an alternate form or a similarly named deity.[5]

Names of Sumerian deities were often a combination of "Nin" and either a place, product or concept.[6] While "nin" can often be translated as "lady" (or "queen", "mistress"[7]), it's a grammatically neutral term and can be found in the names of both female (Ninisina, Ninkasi, Ninmena) and male (Ningirsu, Ninazu, Ningishzida) deities.[8] Some forty percent of earliest Sumerian deities had such names, including city gods, but also servants and children of major deities.[9]

The Sumerian term Shubur or Subir (Subartu) designated areas north of Mesopotamia.[10][11] Both in ancient documents and in past scholarship the terms "Subartu" and "Subarians" usually refer to Hurrians.[12] Assyriologist Beate Pongratz-Leisten notes that Hurrians were never regarded as outsiders in Mesopotamian sources, unlike other neighboring groups such as the Gutians, most likely due to their culture also having an urban character.[13] According to Tonia Sharlach, the inhabitants of Subartu were viewed as "neighbors whose language (and perhaps culture) were worthy of closer knowledge," as evidenced for example by the mentions of king Shulgi communicating with "Subareans" in their own language.[14] High-ranking courtiers of Hurrian origin are known from administrative texts from the reign of Third Dynasty of Ur, one notable example being the diviner Tahish-atal who served Amar-Sin and Shu-Sin.[15] Diviners at times served as royal advisors, which indicates the appointment of a Hurrian to such a position was an expression of respect for Hurrian cultural and religious expertise.[16]

Early translations of Ninshubur's name (for example Wilfred G. Lambert's from 1976[7]) relying on two lexical texts from the first millennium BCE explaining it as bel erseti - "lord of the earth" or "lord of the underworld" - are regarded as erroneous, as no other sources explain the meaning of shubur as erseti.[17] It is possible this uncommon understanding was based on a local tradition associating Ninshubur with Nergal.[18]


It is agreed that Ninshubur was always identified as female when associated with Inanna.[19][20] Many authors propose that Ninshubur was male when associated with An.[21] While the 2nd millennium BCE god list An=Anu ša āmeli explains that "Ninshubur is Papsukkal when Anu is concerned," Papsukkal being the name of a male messenger deity,[22] Frans Wiggermann argues that the only texts from the third millennium BCE which identify Ninshubur's gender state that she was a goddess, rather than a god.[23] Gábor Zólyomi also translates a passage related to Ninshubur's role as a servant of An as referring to a female deity.[24] Texts from Lagash from the Early Dynastic period refer to Ninshubur exclusively as a goddess according to Toshiko Kobayashi.[25]

In most Akkadian texts Ninshubur was male, though it is possible exceptions did exist.[23] In Old Babylonian and Kassite periods in Nippur Ninshubur was considered female.[26] Whether Ninshubur mentioned on Kassite seals is male or female is presently unknown.[27]

Uri Gabbay proposed that Ninshubur's identity was a mirror of the gala clergy, but this view isn't supported by other researchers, as regardless of gender Ninshubur was never described as a gala, and the only similarity between her and the class of priests was their shared ability to appease specific deities.[19] Wolfgang Heimpel suggested another solution: that 3 separate deities shared the same name, one female (according to him found for example in association with Inanna in Ur) and two male (one associated with An and yet another in Girsu) , with no ambiguity of gender in any case.[28] However, the matter of Ninshubur's gender was in some cases unclear to ancient scribes, with one Old Babylonian hymn ( CBS 15119+) possibly being an attempt at reconciling conflicting accounts by describing Ninshubur (identified as female in this context by Frans Wiggermann) as dressed in both feminine (left side) and masculine (right side) robes.[23]

The view that Ninshubur was male as a servant of An in Sumerian texts from the third millennium BCE relies on the widely accepted assumption that a deity's sukkal matched their gender,[19][28] though exceptions from it are known. Namtar, Ereshkigal's sukkal, was male.[29] The sukkal of the medicine goddess Gula, Urmašum, was a male deity too.[30] A text from Hattusa written in Akkadian names Ellabrat (Ilabrat) the sukkal of the goddess Pinikir, there identified with Ishtar.[31] Amasagnudi, regarded as a goddess in known sources and in one case equated with female Ninshubur, was also said to be a sukkal of Anu in one Old Babylonian document.[32] Ninshubur herself appears as the sukkal of Nergal instead of Ugur or Ishum (both of them male) in one Sumerian text dated to the Old Babylonian period.[33] In addition to these cases, Papsukkal takes Ninshubur's role in an Akkadian translation of Inanna's Descent,[34] but he is not directly designated as Ishtar's personal servant, and the text states that he was serving "the great gods" as a group.[35]

Ninshubur wasn't the only Mesopotamian deity whose gender varies in ancient sources, other examples include Ninkasi (the deity of beer, female in earlier sources but at times male later on) and the couple Ninsikila and Lisin, whose genders were in some instances switched around.[36]

Syncretism with male deities[edit]

It has been proposed that the variance in Ninshubur's gender is related to syncretism with the male Akkadian god Ilabrat.[37] In texts from the second millennium BCE, Ninshubur and Ilabrat coexisted[21] and in some cases Ninshubur's name was a logographic spelling of Ilabrat's, for example in Mari in personal names.[23]

Ninshubur was additionally syncretised with Papsukkal,[21] originally the sukkal of Zababa, tutelary god of Kish.[38] Papsukkal's rise to prominence at the expense of other similar figures, such as Ninshubur, was likely rooted simply in the presence of the word sukkal in his name.[39] While an association between the two is attested in the god list An-Anum already,[40] the conflation was only finalized in the Seleucid period in Uruk.[41] Papsukkal wasn't worshiped in that city in earlier periods,[42] but in the context of the so-called "antiquarian theology" relying largely on god lists, which developed in Uruk under Achaemenid rule,[43] he was fully identified with Ninshubur and thus became Anu's sukkal and one of the eighteen major deities of the city.[41] The late syncretic Papsukkal wasn't regarded as the sukkal of Anu and Ishtar, but rather Anu and Antu as a pair instead.[44]

Despite the syncretism leading to perception of Ninshubur as a male deity, it is possible that the goddess Amasagnudi, worshiped alongside Papsukkal in Seleucid Uruk, was originally an epithet of (female) Ninshubur, a manifestation of her or at least a similar goddess sharing Ninshubur's role as sukkal of Anu.[32] Frans Wiggermann translates Amasagnudi's name as "mother who cannot be pushed aside."[34]

Attributes and iconography[edit]

A seal of Lugal-ushumgal as servant of Naram-Sin, possibly depicting Ninshubur

Ninshubur's attribute was a staff,[45] a sign of her office as a sukkal representing right to rule granted to her by her masters,[46] It is possible it was believed that Ninshubur therefore bestowed similar privileges upon kings.[45] Other symbols associated with her were doors and shoes, and Inanna addressed her with the epithet "pure minister of the lapis lazuli shoes" in one text.[46] Other gods' divine viziers were depicted holding staffs too, including Alla (Ningishzida's), Isimud (Enki's) and Nusku (Enlil's).[47] A sukkal was expected to walk in front of their master, leading the way with their staff.[48]

Figures of Ninshubur were buried under temples of other gods in some cases during building rituals.[49]

Very few depictions of female Ninshubur have been identified with certainity, though it is possible she's the deity on seals of Lugal-ushumgal, governor of Lagash during the reigns of Naram-Sin of Akkad and his son Shar-Kali-Sharri.[50]

A letter-prayer possibly referring to a statue[51] mentions that the deity had a "face exuding allure,"[52] and describes Ninshubur's physique in terms similar to these sometimes applied to Inanna.[53]

It has been proposed that in Girsu, where Ninshubur was regarded as the wife of Meslamtaea (Nergal), she can be identified as a goddess accompanied by his symbolic animal, the "lion-griffin," similar to how Geshtinanna was accompanied by mushussu, a symbol of her husband Ningishzida,[54] and that on Old Babylonian seals the double lion-headed mace associated with Nergal might represent Ninshubur in the role of a deity related to him.[18]

The constellation Orion, known in ancient Mesopotamia as Sipazianna,[55] "the true shepherd of heaven,"[56] was regarded as the astral symbol of Ninshubur,[57] as well as Ilabrat and Papsukkal.[55]

Character and functions[edit]

Ninshubur is regarded by Assyriologists as "the earliest and most important" sukkal, linked to the deities she served "not as cause and effect, but as command and execution."[58]

Her two main functions were these of "intercessory goddess"[37] and "archetypal vizier of the gods,"[21] serving Inanna, but also An and by extension the entire divine assembly[4][59] One hymn (CBS 14073) describes her as a servant of not only her usual masters, but also Enlil, Enki, his wife Damgalnunna, Nanna, Ningal, Ninurta, Ninhursag and Utu.[60] She was addressed as sukkal anna, "heavenly vizier."[23] The association with An is known from sources from the reign of Third Dynasty of Ur onward, and might be a secondary development, with Inanna being her primary and original mistress.[4] As Inanna's sukkal, Ninshubur was believed to implement divine rules and regulations on her behalf.[4] Her role as a popular intercessory deity in Sumerian religion was derived from her position as a servant of major deities, which resulted in the belief that she was capable of mediating with her masters on behalf of human petitioners.[61]

A number of references to Ninshubur as "mother of the earth"[33] or "mother of the land" are known.[37] Gábor Zólyomi notes that the one known hymn focusing on Ninshubur in such a role (BL 195, known from the tablet Ash. 1911.326 from the Ashmolean Museum[62]) employs multiple topoi related to abundance in Sumerian literature (for example building of cattle pens and sheepfolds under her command), otherwise not associated with her.[63] Another hymn (CBS 14073) mentions both her role as a divine vizier and that of "mother of the land."[60] In addition to this metaphorical role, Ninshubur was also referred to as a "mother" in personal names.[54] However, references to her as an actual "birth mother" are uncommon and unusual according to Joan Goodnick Westenholz.[45]

Some ancient hymns indicate that the role of a divine healer was occasionally ascribed to Ninshubur.[64]

Association with other deities[edit]

No clear evidence exists regarding Ninshubur's parentage.[18] In early sources she usually didn't have a spouse.[18]

Ninshubur and Inanna[edit]

Frans Wiggermann describes the relation between Inanna and Ninshubur as very close.[58] It was believed that Inanna bestowed Ninshubur's titles upon her and made her a sukkal.[65] In one text, Inanna addressed Ninshubur endearingly as "my mother."[4] In another, she's called the "beloved vizier" and appears right after Dumuzi and before other relatives.[66] Ninshubur was regarded as a guardian of Inanna's secrets and as her adviser,[58] though according to one text the latter could scoff at offered advice, both incorrect and correct.[67] Ninshubur was also capable of "appeasing" Inanna,[46] and one of her epithets was "who flatters the heart of Inanna."[64] Epithers related to this function were preserved in the god list An-Anum.[68]

The role of a mediator between a major deity and worshipers played by Ninshubur in the cult of Inanna/Ishtar was similar to that played by the spouses of other major gods, for example Aya in the cult of Shamash or Shala in Adad's.[69]

Sumerian literary catalogs list at least 7[70] hymns dedicated to Ninshubur which based on surviving incipits described her lamenting over something that happened to Inanna.[71]

Ninshubur and the Lamma goddesses[edit]

Depictions of Lamma goddesses from the Isin-Larsa period, 2000-1800 BCE. Oriental Institute Museum, University of Chicago.

Ninshubur was associated with the Lamma class of goddesses,[72][73] likely due to their shared role in intercession between mortals and higher ranking gods.[74] An association with Lamma was also attributed to Nanaya, regarded as "lady of Lamma."[74] She was viewed as a servant of Inanna much like Ninshubur, and in god lists she usually appears right after the latter, before any further courtiers.[75]

Joan Goodnick Westenholz explains the purpose of Lamma as that of "protective and tutelary goddesses" and notes that they are the figures most commonly appearing in so-called presentation scenes in ancient Mesopotamian art, in which a minor goddess (eg. Lamma) leads a human to a more prominent seated deity.[76] Lamma could also be a designation for specific gods and goddesses in contexts in which their functions were analogous to these usually fulfilled by this category of deities, with Gudea going as far as occasionally calling the Anuna (a collective term for the major deities) gods "Lamma of all countries."[77] The nature of Lamma can be compared to that of the modern concept of guardian angel.[78]

Other associations[edit]

in Girsu, Ninshubur was the spouse of Meslamtaea,[54] a name used to refer to Nergal in early sources from southern Mesopotamian cities.[79] Frans Wiggermann notes that the pairing of Nergal with Ninshubur is unusual in that with the exception of Ereshkigal she was the only goddess sometimes regarded as his wife who had a well defined role other than that of his spouse.[80] He assumes that since many of Nergal's occasional spouses were associated with the earth,[81] this role of Ninshubur was tied to her function as "lady of the earth."[33] No other examples of Ninshubur being regarded as another deity's wife are known.[18] A single source refers to Ninshubur as Nergal's sukkal rather than wife.[33]

In Mari Kakka, a local healing goddess, attested only in personal names,[82] was associated with Ninshubur, but also with the medicine goddess Ninkarrak.[69] This goddess is regarded as distinct from Kakka, the sukkal of Anshar, known from the god list An-Anum (where the former Kakka appears separately in Ninkarrak's section) and from the later mythical composition Enuma Elish.[83] Ninshubur was identified with the latter Kakka in An-Anum but only in the specific role of "one who holds the great scepter."[83]


Akkil, where Ninshubur was associated with Inanna, was the most important location related to her cult.[23] Ninakkil ("lady of Akkil"), a name found in documents from the Early Dynastic period and from the reign of Third Dynasty of Ur, was likely used to refer to Ninshubur.[84] While older publications show uncertainity over whether Akkil was a town or a temple,[85] it is now known that it was a small settlement close to Bad-tibira.[84] However, in later times a temple of Papsukkal in Kish was also known as Akkil,[34] and a temple of Manungal, the goddess of prisons, bearing such a name is also attested in some documents.[86]

In the Early Dynastic period Ninshubur's cult was already established in Uruk, possibly transferred there from Akkil.[86] She was also worshiped in Shuruppak in that era.[87] In Lagash her cult existed already during the reign of Lugalanda (c. 2400 BCE), and she was celebrated during festivals of Nanshe and Ningirsu and received offerings from the king's wife, Barnamtarra.[88] There is no evidence pertaining to Ninshubur from the reign of Lugalanda's predecessor Enentarzi, which makes it possible she was only a deity worshiped by commoners at first, and only started to receive offerings from the official administration under Lugalanda's rule.[88] She also appeared in royal inscriptions of kings Meskigal of Adab and Urukagina of Lagash, in both cases addressed as dingir, "deity," while some other goddesses were addressed as ama, "mother," in similar contexts.[87] Urukagina additionally regarded Ninshubur as his personal deity,[45] and in offering lists from his reign she was placed above Mesandu, who possibly had an analogous role during the reigns of earlier rulers of Lagash.[89] There is also evidence for creation of cult statues and votive offerings dedicated to Ninshubur from various locations in the Early Dynastic period.[90]

A tablet mentioning sacrifices made to various gods worshiped in the state of Lagash, including Ninshubur. Louvre.

Puzer-Mama, who ruled Lagash around 2200 BCE, mentioned Ninshubur in his royal inscriptions, possibly in reference to Urukagina's reverence for her; it is regarded as plausible that they came from the same family and thus shared the same tutelary goddess.[45] It has been proposed that Puzer-Mama considered Ninshubur a divine mediator guaranteeing Lagash its territorial rights, regained from Akkadian rulers.[45] Another ruler of Lagash who regarded her as his personal goddess was Nammahani, brother in law of Gudea.[54] Gudea himself referred to Ninshubur as his nin ("mistress").[54] Statues dedicated for the life of a ruler to Ninshubur and to Ninhishzida are also known from the periods of Nammahani's and Ur-Ningirsu II's rule.[91]

King Shulgi of Ur likewise referred to Ninshubur as "mistress."[54] However, she doesn't appear in the official cultic calendars and offering lists from Ur from the reign of his dynasty, despite her popularity in everyday religion (a situation analogous to Nanshe's).[92] Eninbitum ("house fit for a lady"), a temple of Ninshubur (or a cella in Inanna's temple, according to Wolfgang Heimpel) is nonetheless attested from Ur.[28]

Chapels of Ninshubur and another prominent servant deity, Hendursaga, as well as votive objects to dedicated to them, are attested from Ur in the Isin-Larsa period.[93] It is uncertain if a statue found in the Ninshubur chapel represents any deity, or a human (ex. a princess or en priestess), though it has been noted that she lacks the horned crown associated with divinity.[94] A letter-prayer to Ninshubur (UET 6/1, 7) which indicates that such texts were presented to a statue of the deity, is also assumed to be from Ur,[51] though it is regarded as likely that it was sent by a king of Larsa in the Old Babylonian period, possibly Rim-Sin I of Larsa.[52] Records indicate that he built temples of both female and male Ninshubur,[92] and it is likely he was particularly devoted to this deity.[52]

Worship of Ninshubur is also attested from Nippur, where in the Old Babylonian period she had her own temple, but also received offerings in temple complexes of both Enlil and Ninurta.[26] Her cult is attested there in the Early Dynastic period already, and it is possible it was introduced from Akkil, like in the case of Uruk.[86]

Other cities with some degree of worship of Ninshubur attested in texts (mostly from the Old Babylonian period) include Babylon, Isin, Kish, Larsa, Malgium, Mari and Nerebtum (possibly Tell Ishchali), but it is difficult to tell if the deity in mention was female Ninshubur, male Ninshubur, or Ilabrat.[55]

Due to her intercessory role, Ninshubur was popular in the sphere of personal worship, for example as a family deity.[54] She was also among the deities invoked in theophoric names in many periods.[46] Sometimes the title sukkal anna was used in them too.[23] Unlike Ninshubur, Papsukkal appeared only infrequently as a family deity or in personal names.[95]


Ninshubur was an important figure in Sumerian mythology and she played an integral role in several myths involving her mistress, Inanna.

Inanna and Enki[edit]

In the Sumerian myth of Inanna and Enki, Ninshubur is described as the one who rescues Inanna from the monsters that Enki has sent after her to recover the stolen mes.[96][97] In this myth, Ninshubur plays a similar role to Isimud, who acts as Enki's messenger to Inanna.[97]

Inanna's descent to the Underworld[edit]

In the Sumerian myth of Inanna's descent into the Netherworld, before Inanna embarks on her journey, she instructs Ninshubur what to do if she will not return after three days.[98] This introductory scene is meant to establish right from the beginning that Inanna isn't going to be trapped in Kur (the Sumerian underworld) permanently.[99] Ninshubur, following her mistress' instructions, mourns her death by lamenting and wearing rags[100]and pleads with the major gods in an effort to persuade them to rescue Inanna.[101] While Enlil and Nanna refuse to help her, she manages to secure Enki's help.[101] After returning to the world of the living Inanna protects her from the galla demons searching for a substitute to take to the land of the dead in her stead.[102] Inanna states that she cannot let them take a faithful servant who followed all her instructions and mourned her death, and the galla ultimately are only allowed to take Dumuzi, who unlike Ninshubur didn't mourn her.[101]

Victor Avigdor Hurowitz considered it possible that the terms in which Ninshubur describes the possible dreadful fate of Inanna in the netherworld during her attempts to persuade other gods to help her might be a mythical reflection of a ritual of renewal of a damaged statue.[103]



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