Sumerian religion

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Statue of a Sumerian worshipper, ca. 2550 and 2520 BC

Sumerian religion was the religion practiced and adhered to by the people of ancient Sumer. Before the beginning of kingship in Sumer, the city-states were effectively ruled by theocratic priests and religious officials. Later, this role was supplanted by kings, but priests continued to exert great influence on Sumerian society. In early times, Sumerian temples were simple, one-room structures, sometimes built on elevated platforms. Towards the end of Sumerian civilization, these temples developed into ziggurats--tall, pyramidal structures with sanctuaries at the tops.

The Sumerians believed that the universe had come into being through a series of cosmic births. First, Nammu, the primeval waters, gave birth to An (the sky) and Ki (the earth), who mated together and produced a son named Enlil. Enlil separated heaven from earth and claimed the earth as his domain. Humans were believed to have been created by Enki, the son of An and Nammu.

The major deities in the Sumerian pantheon included An, the god of the heavens, Enlil, the god of wind and storm, Enki, the god of water and human culture, Ninhursag, the goddess of the earth and of fertility, Inanna, the goddess of sex, beauty, and warfare, Utu, the god of the sun, and Ereshkigal, the queen of the Underworld.

Sumerian religion heavily influenced the religious beliefs of later Mesopotamian peoples; elements of it are retained in the mythologies and religions of the Hurrians, Akkadians, Babylonians, Assyrians, and other Middle Eastern culture groups. Scholars of comparative mythology have noticed many parallels between the stories of the ancient Sumerians and those recorded in the early parts of the Hebrew Bible.

Worship[edit]

Cuneiform temple hymn from the 19th century BCE; the hymn is addressed to the Lugal Iddin-Dagan of Larsa

Written cuneiform[edit]

Sumerian myths were passed down through the oral tradition until the invention of writing. Early Sumerian cuneiform was used primarily as a record-keeping tool; it was not until the late early dynastic period that religious writings first became prevalent as temple praise hymns[1] and as a form of "incantation" called the nam-šub (prefix + "to cast").[2]

Architecture[edit]

In the Sumerian city-states, temple complexes originally were small, elevated one-room structures. In the early dynastic period, temples developed raised terraces and multiple rooms. Toward the end of the Sumerian civilization, ziggurats became the preferred temple structure for Mesopotamian religious centers.[3] Temples served as cultural, religious, and political headquarters until approximately 2500 BCE, with the rise of military kings known as Lu-gals (“man” + “big”)[2] after which time the political and military leadership was often housed in separate "palace" complexes.

Priesthood[edit]

Statuette of a Sumerian worshiper from the Early Dynastic Period, ca. 2800-2300 BC

Until the advent of the lugals, Sumerian city states were under a virtually theocratic government controlled by various En or Ensí, who served as the high priests of the cults of the city gods. (Their female equivalents were known as Nin.) Priests were responsible for continuing the cultural and religious traditions of their city-state, and were viewed as mediators between humans and the cosmic and terrestrial forces. The priesthood resided full-time in temple complexes, and administered matters of state including the large irrigation processes necessary for the civilization’s survival.

Ceremony[edit]

During the Third Dynasty of Ur, the Sumerian city-state of Lagash was said to have had sixty-two "lamentation priests" who were accompanied by 180 vocalists and instrumentalists.

Cosmology[edit]

The Sumerians envisioned the universe as a closed dome surrounded by a primordial saltwater sea.[4] Underneath the terrestrial earth, which formed the base of the dome, existed an underworld and a freshwater ocean called the Apsû. The deity of the dome-shaped firmament was named An; the earth was named Ki. First the underground world was believed to be an extension of the goddess Ki, but later developed into the concept of Kigal. The primordial saltwater sea was named Nammu, who became known as Tiamat during and after the Sumerian Renaissance.

Creation story[edit]

The primordial union of An and Ki produced Enlil, who became leader of the Sumerian pantheon. After the other deities banished Enlil from Dilmun (the “home of the deities”) for raping the air goddess Ninlil; she had a child, Nanna, god of the moon. Nanna and Ningal gave birth to Inanna, the goddess of war and fertility, and to Utu, god of the sun.[5]

Deities[edit]

Akkadian cylinder seal from sometime around 2300 BC or thereabouts depicting the deities Inanna, Utu, Enki, and Isimud

The Sumerians originally practiced a polytheistic religion, with anthropomorphic deities representing cosmic and terrestrial forces in their world. During the middle of the 3rd millennium BCE, Sumerian deities became more anthropocentric and were "...nature gods transformed into city gods."[according to whom?] Deities such as Enki and Inanna were viewed as having been assigned their rank, power, and knowledge from An, the heavenly deity, or Enlil, head of the Sumerian pantheon.

This cosmological shift may have been caused by the growing influence of the neighboring Akkadian religion, or as a result of increased warfare between the Sumerian city-states; the assignment of certain powers to deities may have mirrored the appointment of the Lugals, who were given power and authority by the city-state and its priesthood.[6]

Earliest deities[edit]

The earliest historical records of Sumer do not go back much further than c. 2900 BC, although it is generally agreed that Sumerian civilization started between c. 4500 and 4000 BC.[7] The earliest Sumerian literature of the 3rd millennium BC identifies four primary deities: An, Enlil, Ninhursag, and Enki. The highest order of these earliest gods were described occasionally behaving mischievously towards each other, but were generally involved in co-operative creative ordering.[8]

Lists of large numbers of Sumerian deities have been found. Their order of importance and the relationships between the deities has been examined during the study of cuneiform tablets.[9]

Pantheon[edit]

The majority of Sumerian deities belonged to a classification called the Anunna (“[offspring] of An”), whereas seven deities, including Enlil and Inanna, belonged to a group of “underworld judges" known as the Anunnaki (“[offspring] of An” + Ki). During the Third Dynasty of Ur, the Sumerian pantheon was said to include sixty times sixty (3600) deities.[10]

Primeval deities[edit]

Nammu was the primeval sea (Engur), who gave birth to An (heaven) and Ki (earth) and the first deities; she eventually became known as the goddess Tiamat. An was the ancient Sumerian god of the heavens. He was the ancestor of all the other major deities[11] and the original patron deity of Uruk.

Enlil and his family[edit]

Enlil was the god of air, wind, and storm. His name means "Lord of the Storm" and he was the patron deity of Nippur. Ninlil was an air goddess and Enlil's primary consort. She was one of the matron deities of Nippur; she was believed to reside in the same temple as Enlil.[12] Ninurta was the son of Enlil and Ninlil. He was worshipped as the god of war, agriculture, and one of the Sumerian wind gods. He was the patron deity of Girsu and one of the patron deities of Lagash.

Enki and Ninhursag[edit]

Enki was god of freshwater, male fertility, and knowledge. He was the patron and creator of humanity and the sponsor of human culture. He was also the patron deity of Eridu. Ninhursag was the Sumerian goddess of the earth[13] and Enki's primary consort.

Inanna[edit]

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 [14]

Inanna was the Sumerian goddess of love, sexuality, prostitution, and war.[15][16][17]:109 She was the divine personification of the planet Venus, the morning and evening star. Her main cult center was the Eanna temple in Uruk, which had been originally dedicated to An. Deified kings may have re-enacted the marriage of Inanna and Dumuzi with priestesses.[17]:151, 157-158 Accounts of her parentage vary; in most myths, she is usually presented as the daughter of Nanna and Ningal, but in other stories she is the daughter of Enki or An along with an unknown mother. She was one of the Sumerians' favorite deities and appears in nearly all their myths. Many of the myths involving her revolve around her attempts to usurp control of the other deities' domains.[18]

Ereshkigal[edit]

Ereshkigal was the goddess of the Sumerian Underworld, which was known as Kur. She was Inanna's older sister.[19]

Celestial deities[edit]

Utu was god of the sun, whose primary center of worship was the E-babbar temple[20] in Sippar. Nanna was god of the moon and of wisdom. He was the father of Utu and one of the patron deities of Ur.[21] He may have also been the father of Inanna and Ereshkigal. Ningal was the wife of Nanna,[22] as well as the mother of Utu, Inanna, and Ereshkigal.

Legacy[edit]

Ninurta portrayed with an eagle head, c. 860 BC, Temple of Ninurta, Nimrud

Akkadians[edit]

The Sumerians had an ongoing linguistic and cultural exchange with the Semitic Akkadian peoples in northern Mesopotamia for generations prior to the usurpation of their territories by Sargon of Akkad in 2340 BCE. Sumerian mythology and religious practices were rapidly integrated into Arabian culture,[23] presumably blending with the original Akkadian belief systems that have been mostly lost to history. Sumerian deities developed Akkadian counterparts. Some remained virtually the same until later Babylonian and Assyrian rule. The Sumerian god An, for example, developed the Akkadian counterpart Anu; the Sumerian god Enki became Ea. The gods Ninurta and Enlil kept their original Sumerian names.[citation needed]

Babylonians[edit]

The Amorite Babylonians gained dominance over southern Mesopotamia by the mid-17th century BCE. During the Old Babylonian Period, the Sumerian and Akkadian languages were retained for religious purposes; the majority of Sumerian mythological literature known to historians today comes from the Old Babylonian Period,[1] either in the form of transcribed Sumerian texts (most notably the Babylonian version of the Epic of Gilgamesh) or in the form of Sumerian and Akkadian influences within Babylonian mythological literature (most notably the Enûma Eliš). The Sumerian-Akkadian pantheon was altered, most notably with the introduction of a new supreme deity, Marduk. The Sumerian goddess Inanna also developed the counterpart Ishtar during the Old Babylonian Period.

Hurrians[edit]

The Hurrians adopted the Akkadian god Anu into their pantheon sometime no later than 1200 BCE. Other Sumerian and Akkadian deities adapted into the Hurrian pantheon include Ayas, the Hurrian counterpart to Ea; Shaushka, the Hurrian counterpart to Ishtar; and the goddess Ninlil,[24] whose mythos had been drastically expanded by the Babylonians.[citation needed]

Parallels[edit]

Some stories in Sumerian mythology bear strong similarities to the stories recorded in the older parts of the Hebrew Bible. For example, the biblical account of Noah and the Great Flood bears a striking resemblance to the Sumerian deluge myth, recorded in a Sumerian tablet discovered at Nippur.[25] The Judaic underworld Sheol is very similar in description with the Sumerian Kur, ruled by the goddess Ereshkigal, as well as the Babylonian underworld Irkalla. Sumerian scholar Samuel Noah Kramer has also noted similarities between many Sumerian and Akkadian "proverbs" and the later Hebrew proverbs, many of which are featured in the Book of Proverbs.[26]

Genealogy of the Sumerian deities[edit]

An
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Ninḫursaḡ
 
 
 
 
 
Enki
born to Namma
 
 
 
Ninkikurga
born to Namma
Nidaba
born to Uraš
 
 
 
Ḫaya
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Ninsar
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Ninlil
 
 
 
Enlil
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Ninkurra
 
 
Ningal
maybe daughter of Enlil
 
 
 
Nanna Nergal
maybe son of Enki
Ninurta
maybe born to Ninḫursaḡ
 
Baba
born to Uraš
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Uttu Inanna
possibly also the daughter of Enki or the daughter of An
 
Dumuzī
maybe son of Enki
Utu Ninkigal
married Nergal
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Meškiaḡḡašer Banda
 
 
 
Ninsumun
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Enmerkar Gilgāmeš
 
 
Urnungal

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b "Sumerian Literature". Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature. Retrieved 2009-06-22. 
  2. ^ a b "The Sumerian Lexicon" (PDF). John A. Halloran. Retrieved 2009-06-23. 
  3. ^ "Inside a Sumerian Temple". The Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University. Retrieved 2009-06-22. 
  4. ^ "The Firmament and the Water Above" (PDF). Westminster Theological Journal 53 (1991), 232-233. Retrieved 2010-02-20. 
  5. ^ "Enlil and Ninlil". Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature. Retrieved 2009-06-22. 
  6. ^ Karen Rhea Nemet-Nejat, (1998). "Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia ", 178-179.
  7. ^ Bertman, Stephen (2003). Handbook to life in ancient Mesopotamia. Facts on File. p. 143. ISBN 978-0-8160-4346-0. 
  8. ^ The Sources of the Old Testament: A Guide to the Religious Thought of the Old Testament in Context. Continuum International Publishing Group. 18 May 2004. pp. 29–. ISBN 978-0-567-08463-7. Retrieved 7 May 2013. 
  9. ^ God in Translation: Deities in Cross-cultural Discourse in the Biblical World. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. 2010. pp. 42–. ISBN 978-0-8028-6433-8. Retrieved 7 May 2013. 
  10. ^ Karen Rhea Nemet-Nejat, (1998). "Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia", 182.
  11. ^ Brisch, Nicole. "Anunna (Anunnaku, Anunnaki) (a group of gods)". Ancient Mesopotamian Gods and Goddesses. University of Pennsylvania Museum. Retrieved 17 June 2017. 
  12. ^ "An adab to Ninlil (Ninlil A)". Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature. Retrieved 2010-02-20. 
  13. ^ "Gilgamec, Enkidu and the nether world". Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature. Retrieved 2010-02-20. 
  14. ^ Wolkstein, Diane; Kramer, Samuel Noah (1983). Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer. New York City, New York: Harper&Row Publishers. pp. 92, 193. ISBN 0-06-090854-8. 
  15. ^ Kramer, Samuel Noah. Sumerian Mythology: A Study of Spiritual and Literary Achievement in the Third Millennium B.C.: Revised Edition. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1961, Philadelphia
  16. ^ Wolkstein, Diane, and Samuel Noah Kramer. Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer. Harper & Row Publishers, 1983, New York.
  17. ^ a b Black, Jeremy; Green, Anthony (1992), Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia: An Illustrated Dictionary, University of Texas Press, ISBN 0-292-70794-0
  18. ^ Vanstiphout, H. L. (1984). "Inanna/Ishtar as a Figure of Controversy.". Struggles of Gods: Papers of the Groningen Work Group for the Study of the History of Religions. Berlin: Mouton Publishers. 31: 225–228. ISBN 90-279-3460-6. 
  19. ^ "Inana's descent to the nether world". The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature. Oxford University. Retrieved 17 June 2017. 
  20. ^ "A hymn to Utu (Utu B)". Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature. Retrieved 2010-02-20. 
  21. ^ "A balbale to Suen (Nanna A)". Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature. Retrieved 2010-02-20. 
  22. ^ "A balbale to Nanna (Nanna B)". Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature. Retrieved 2010-02-20. 
  23. ^ "Mesopotamia: the Sumerians". Washington State University. Retrieved 2009-06-22. 
  24. ^ "Hurrian Mythology REF 1.2". Christopher B. Siren. Retrieved 2009-06-23. 
  25. ^ Kramer, Samuel Noah (1961). Sumerian Mythology: A Study of Spiritual and Literary Achievement in the Third Millennium B.C.: Revised Edition. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press. pp. 97–101. ISBN 0-8122-1047-6. Retrieved 17 June 2017. 
  26. ^ Samuel Noah Kramer, (1952). "From the Tablets of Sumer", 133-135.

External links[edit]