The World of Fables and Legends - 08

Sumer: A Glory of Ancient Mesopotamia

Continued from Previous Page

The exploration and study of the ancient world history is an interesting subject which apart from the origin and genealogical details of various kings and empires, reveals many other common as well as unique socio-religious and cultural attributes of various civilizations. It is often held that the Hinduism is the only surviving ancient culture and religion today but this also raises a similar natural corollary or question about the world cultures and religions that did not survive with the passage of time. We are aware of many civilizations like Greece, Roman, Persian, Assyrian, Sumerian, Egyptian, Chinese, Maya, and so on, with a glorious past of several thousand years, which independently evolved and prospered at some point of time in the world but were lost with the passage of time. In the previous part, we had learnt about the Maya civilization in the Central parts of the Americas and here we shall try to explore another very old civilization “Sumer”, which developed and thrived in the erstwhile Mesopotamian region of the Old World.

Sumer: A Brief Civilizational History & Attributes

Sumer or Sumerian civilization is one of the earliest civilizations in the Mesopotamia of the erstwhile old-world order. The Mesopotamia is actually a historical region of the West Asia within the Tigris–Euphrates river system, and in terms of the modern age states it corresponds with the most of Iraq, Kuwait, the eastern parts of Syria, South-eastern Turkey, as also regions along the Turkish–Syrian and Iran–Iraq borders. Sumerian civilization historically evolved in the Southern Mesopotamia which is now represented by most of the Southern Iraq, which probably evolved during the Chalcolithic and early Bronze Ages between the sixth and fifth millennium BCE. It is also among one of the earliest civilizations like ancient Egypt, ancient China, Mesoamerica and the Indus Valley in the South Asian region from Western point of view.

Towards the late 4th millennium BCE, Sumer is believed to be comprised of several independent city-states divided by canals and boundary stones. Most historians believe that the Sumerian civilization was marked with permanent settlements by 5500 - 4000 BCE by West Asian people who spoke the Sumerian language as is apparent from the ancient names of cities, rivers, occupations, and so on, although some other sources also suggest their origin from North African people who migrated from the Green Sahara into the Middle East. There are sufficient archaeological evidences and other indications that along the valleys of the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, Sumerian people lived and farmers grew grains and other crops. Arguably, each city-state was centred around a temple dedicated to some patron god or goddess and was ruled over by the governor of a priestly class or a king.

The history of the Sumerian city-states belongs to as back as the prehistoric Ubaid and Uruk periods of 6500–4100 BC and 4100–2900 BC, respectively. The written history of the Sumerian people dates back to the 27th century BCE and earlier but records often suffer with obscurity due to various constraints. The subsequent history is marked with dynasty period, famous Akkadian empire followed by some others till early second millennium BCE. Ubaid period is marked with distinctive pottery and agriculture, while by the Uruk period, also the trade and transportation of goods along the canals and rivers, temple-centred large cities with abundant slavery system had developed. The dynasty period began from 2900 BCE and is marked by many legendary patriarchal heroes such as Dumuzid (god of shepherds), Lugalbanda (King of Urul that supposedly ruled for hundreds of years) and Gilgamesh (major hero or demi-god of Mesopotamian mythology).

The Sumerians states were progressively invaded and humbled by the Semitic states from the northwest and area was ultimately conquered by the Semitic-speaking kings of the Akkadian Empire around 2270 BCE. During the Akkadian Empire (2234–2154 BCE), Sumerian and Akkadian cultures are believed to have co-existed together but gradually the civilization and language declined partly because of major shift in population due to ecological reasons as also political following the rise of Babylonia under Hammurabi (A King of Babylonian dynasty) in 1800 BCE.

During its hay days, Sumer’s largest city Uruk had an estimated population of about 50 to 80 thousand and a total Sumerian population of approximately 1.5 million in an estimated world population of 27 million. The Sumerians in their hay days had well developed agriculture with large-scale intensive cultivation and irrigation system. They domesticated sheep, goats, cattle, and pigs for milk, meat and wool, and employed oxen and donkeys as beasts of burden. The Sumerian language had multiple dialects and initial writings used hieroglyphs (pictures) followed by cuneiforms and ideograms. Archaeologists have discovered large number of clay tablets written in cuneiform script. The world-famous Epic of Gilgamesh was written in the standard Sumerian cuneiform script. The Sumerian people were deeply religious who credited their deities and divinities for all matters pertaining to them. They believed in many gods in human form and each city-state had its own patron god or gods, temples and priest-kings.

Like most others, the Sumerian civilization too was male-dominated and stratified; polygamy and polyandry were in vogue and but the latter is believed to have been abolished around 2350 BCE. The archaeological finds of pictograms suggest that during early Sumerian period, clay pottery for all purposes was plentiful besides stone vases, bowls and dishes was also used for similar purposes. People worn colourful feathered head-dresses, and carved wooden furniture, fire-places and fire-altars were used in houses. Clay tablets were used for writing purposes; time was calculated in lunar months; and people were apparently also fond of music using lyres and flutes. The instruments and implements like Knives, drills, wedges and saw were used domestically while daggers, spears, bows and arrows were used in war and hunting. Evidence of the use of daggers with metal blades and wooden handles as also gold necklaces and collars are found.

The Code of Ur-Nammu is the oldest known law code from Mesopotamia applicable to Sumerians and was found written on tablets in the Sumerian language of 2100–2050 BCE vintage. Sumerians usually believed in arranged marriages and marriages were made legal through the groom delivering a bridal gift to bride’s father. They did not approve premarital sex but it was abundantly prevalent secretly. The Sumerians had no knowledge of virginity in the context of hymen in women and had liberal attitude towards sex and sexual mores so much so that masturbation and other variants of sexual acts including prostitution were not considered illegal or taboo in the society. The dead were buried outside the city boundaries where small amount of food and offerings too were laid for the monsters believed to be guarding Kigal or Erkalla, the land of the dead or underworld in Sumerian mythology.

Sumerian Religion and Gods

The Sumerians people had belief in an anthropomorphic polytheism i.e., belief in multiple gods in human form. Also, there was no commonality in gods’ names as each city-state probably had its own patron gods, temples and priest-kings. They dedicated their deities with all life matters pertaining to them and heavily depended on the mercy and grace bestowed by these divinities. The religious faith was based on separate cosmogenic mythical beliefs. For instance, according to a myth the creation was the outcome of many sacred matrimonies (hieroi gamoi) between the male and female divinities. According to one Sumero-Akkadian myth, the creation was the result of sacred union between Abzu (the god of fresh water, also engur) and Tiamat (primordial goddess of salt sea) that initially began with creation of younger gods. There is yet another myth of similar union leading to the creation of the Anu (sky) and Ki (earth), and so on. Among numerous gods and goddesses, the following few more important ones are listed here:

Nammu: The divinity that led to the creation of the initial gods An or Anu, the god of sky/heaven and Ki, the earth goddess. This term is basically personification of the primeval sea considered to be the source of all life as one of the important mother goddesses. The creation theories are rather vague and ambiguous, and often do not fit into any articulation or logical derivation. At some places, she is also depicted as the lady of the mountain who was assisted by seven other lesser goddesses in the creation of mankind. Supposedly, initially a clay figurine was made which was brought to life by goddess Nammu.

An or Anu: In Sumerian language, the word implies the meaning of sky and An was believed to be the lord of heaven, the supreme deity and ancestor of all gods of the pantheon. An took over the charge of heaven after it was separated from the earth and played important role in creation of the world along with his consort Ki. In Sumerian mythology, heaven comprised of sky and space above it where all the sky gods and goddesses lived. He along with his sons Enlil and Enki, constituted the highest divine triad personifying the three bands of constellations of the vault of the sky. The Eanna temple in the city of Uruk was his primary cult centre. Also, there are indications that during the Akkadian empire time, the goddess Inanna gained more prominence in Uruk over An and Ki.

Ki: In Sumerian language, Ki means earth and she was prominent goddess and consort of An in Sumer pantheon. According to mythology, An and Ki together created Anunnaki (a group of deities), the most prominent among these deities was Enlil (the god of the air). The legend is that An and Ki were inseparable till Enlil was born, who cleaved the two and thus An (heaven) was carried away while Ki (earth) and Entil (air) stayed together. Another legend says that An and Ki, being born out of Anshar (Sky Pivot) and Kishar (Earth Pivot), were brother and sister, who became consort and together created animal and plant life. Ki is also identified in other avtars of goddesses like Ninmah, Ninhursag, or Nintu, and Akkadian goddess Antu, who are associated with birth and creation of life including man.

Enki: He is one of the Anunnaki and the Sumerian god of water, knowledge and creation. In Akkadian and Babylonian mythology, he is known as Ea and original patron god of the city of Eridu, but later became popular throughout Mesopotamia. According to legends, he blessed the Tigris and Euphrates rivers with sparkling water and fish. Enki was also the in-charge god of wisdom, magic, art and craft, therefore intimately associated with the life of human beings and favourably inclined to them.

Enlil: He is among the most important gods of Sumerians as also nearly all ancient Mesopotamians such as the Akkadians, Babylonians, Assyrians, etc., associated with air, wind, rain, earth, and storms. Enlil’s wife was air goddess Ninlil, and gods Nanna, Ninurta and Utu, goddess Inanna are their offspring. According to legends, the god Enlil was initially living in darkness in sky, so he produced Nanna, the moon god, and Utu, the sun god, to brighten the sky and universe. He was also the most beneficent god allocating land and kingship as well as planning and creating the majority features of the cosmos. In Sumerian legends, he is depicted as a friendly and fatherly god, responsible for the safety and wellbeing of humans, more so the inhabitants of Sumer.

Utu: Sumerians personified Utu as the sun god, who symbolized the brilliant sun light to illuminate and provide warmth to the world and lives of the people and allowed plants to grow. According to Sumerian mythology, Utu was the son of Enlil but another legend depicted him as the son of Nanna god and the twin brother of the goddess Inanna. The principal temple of Utu, called E-babbar or White House was at Sippar. The cult of Utu in Sumerian culture is traced back to very early times, where he was attired bearded and long-armed god. The common belief was that he emerged from the heaven at the dawn to make a daily journey across the sky. As he was supposed to watch everything from a height, he was also known as the god of truth and justice protecting the good and destroying the evil. His daughter goddess Mamu was linked with dreams.

Nanna: As moon god, Nanna was among the main astral deities of Sumerian people. Born of Enlil and Ninlil, he was responsible for the lighting of the sky and is also considered as the lord of wisdom. He was bearded and rode on a winged bull. He was among the patron deities of Ur and the god Nusku associated with fire and light was his son. Like Utu during the day, Nanna was regarded as the protective deity at the night when he kept a watch over the mankind.

Gula: The goddess Gula was associated with the diseases and health of the people; hence she was the healing goddess and patron of the people associated with medicine and health care. She is linked as consort with the war god Ninurta and even with god of plants Abu in some descriptions. She is known by several names in Mesopotamia and had two sons Damu and Ninazu, both associated with healing, especially the former, who was specialized in the driving away demons.

Ereshkigal: In Sumerian mythology, she was the goddess of Kur i.e., the underworld or land of the dead, which is described as the “great below” in Sumerian texts. She is given several names such as Irkalla, Ninkigal, and so on. She was married to Nergal and in an ancient Sumerian poem, she is mentioned as the elder sister of the goddess Inanna. In Sumerian mythical tales, she is perhaps the only goddess, who could make own laws and deliver judgment. As goddess of death and gloom, she inhabited the underworld which was also known as Kigal or Irkalla with an unbroken rule that anyone entering the underworld or netherworld could not return without presenting a substitute. She was also known for her bitter rivalry with younger sister Inanna, the goddess of love and war, and there is famous legend of Inanna’s descent to Kur in Sumerian mythology.

Inanna: She is among the most popular and followed deities and was associated with love, beauty, sex, justice and war. The Sumerians worshiped her in the name of Inanna and later Akkadians, Babylonians and Assyrians in Mesopotamia followed her in the name Ishtar. In Sumer, she was remembered as the "Queen of Heaven" and was patron deity of the Eanna temple (House of Heaven) in Uruk. She was linked with the planet Venus and her symbol was the lion and eight-pointed star. She was worshiped by Sumerians even during Uruk period (4000-3100 BCE) but by Akkadian period (2334–2218 BCE) she had become the most venerated female deity with following across Mesopotamia. As the goddess of love, she was essentially linked with the sexual love and procreation; hence remembered as the life-giving goddess associated with the prosperity of the people and land.

The aforesaid gods and goddesses were the principal deities in the Sumer pantheon although there are hundreds of other less influential deities in the Sumero-Akkadian gods genealogy. Also, different Sumerian gods were associated with different city-states, and the religious significance of these deities increased or declined with the following and passage of time. There is also mix-up of names and genealogy in many cases. In most Sumerian cities, the religion and government were closely linked, often a priestly-king as the head of both institutions. A unique feature of the Sumerian pantheon was the absolute inferiority of men to gods because in other religions, man could also achieve heaven with efforts but here it was reserved only for the gods.


Sumerian Mythological Legends

Among several mythological tales about the creation of life, rivalry among the gods and goddesses as also the conflicts of humans with them, a few representative legends are briefly described here.

1. The Enuma Elish - Creation Tale

The Enuma Elish is perhaps the oldest Mesopotamian mythological text of about a thousand lines recorded on seven clay tablets in Sumero-Akkadian cuneiform script. It was first published by English Assyriologist George Smith in 1876 and more research and excavations in later years led to further improvement in the text and translation. The 5th tablet could never be recovered, but sans that the narrative in the text is nearly complete. These seven tablets describe the creation of world from the Sumero-Akkadian point of view depicting the birth and battle of gods, emergence of Marduk as the late-generation god responsible for the creation of world and human beings for the service of the Mesopotamian gods.

The legendary story dates back to a period when there was no creation and only the primordial entities Apsu and Tiamat existed, of which the former represented sweet and fresh water while the latter salty and bitter water; there were no other gods are material creations in the world. Then from the mixture of Apsu and Tiamat two gods emerged namely Lahmu (male god) and Lahamu (first born female god); and next were created Anshar and Kishar from the combination of the latter two. Then from Anshar came the god Anu, and from Anu came Nudimmud, who is more commonly known as Ea.

These young gods, however, were extremely loud and noisy, troubling the sleep and peace of Apsu and Titamat at night and distracting them from work during day. Apsu proposed to destroy the new gods on the advice of his Vizier (chief advisor), Mummu but Tiamat was not inclined for this extreme measure so she alerted the younger god Ea about this plan. Hearing this plan, the younger gods were extremely worried and Ea crafted a spell in retaliation to put Apsu to sleep (in a coma sort). Mummu tried to revive him but failed and, in turn, he was also punished by Ea, who now took Apsu's halo and wore it himself and from his remains created own home. Ea and his wife Damkina now gave birth to Marduk.

Although Titamat had initially favoured the younger gods because she was against killing them but when they eliminated her consort, she was enraged and consulted another god Quingu who advised her to wage a war on the younger gods. She rewarded Quingu with the “Tablet of Destinies” thereby making his command unchallengeable, made him chief of her war efforts and created eleven ferocious monsters to destroy her own progeny, now the antagonized younger gods. Ea and other younger gods valiantly fought against Titamat but she proved much superior to their combined force till they chose Marduk as their leader who vowed to defeat Titamat and her troops.

Marduk was entrusted with the throne, divine sceptre and vestments, along with weapons like bow, quiver, mace, and bolts of lightning, together with the four winds by the combined forces of younger gods. In a fierce battle that followed, Marduk trapped Titamat with the help of four winds and used a net to catch her. Enraged Titamat tried to swallow Marduk but the evil wind on Marduk’s side filled her mouth disabling her. Marduk then fired an arrow hitting her heart and smashed head with the mace slaying her. The other gods and monsters on her side tried to flee but were captured and chained, while Quingu was handed over to the Angel of Death and the tablet of destinies recovered from him; thus, Marduk legitimized his own reign and supreme power.

With this achievement, all gods praised and accepted him as their leader. Then Marduk, in consultation with Ea (the god of wisdom), went on to create universe. He split Tiamat's remains in two to constitute the sky and earth followed by the creation of the night and day, the moon, clouds and rain, the water of which made the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Then from the blood of Quingu, the first human being was created with the aim that human being would henceforth serve the gods.

2. Great Flood Myth

In the Sumerian king list recension, an ancient text listing Sumerian kings’ genealogy, Ziusudra or Zin-Suddu is listed as the last king of Sumer along with the mention of a great flood. The tale of Ziusudra on a single fragmentary tablet written in Sumerian was published in 1914 by Arno Poebel. According to the tale, the gods decided to send a flood to destroy the mankind. The god Enki, the lord of water, crafts and creation, warned Ziusudra, the king of Shuruppak, to build a large boat as the flood was imminent to destroy everything. This was followed by a torrential rain and a terrible storm that continued for seven days.

Ziusudra’s huge boat which contained the king, his family and many other representative animals/plants kept tossing around in the great deluge but somehow it survived. Then Utu (Sun) appeared in the horizon, Ziusudra opened a window and prostrated before the god Utu and sacrificed an ox and a sheep. After considerable break, the flood subsided and Ziusudra then prostrated before An (Sky) and Enlil (Lord of air and breath), then the latter gave him "breath eternal" and gods took him to live in Dilmun forever. In Sumerian mythology, Dilmun is mentioned as the land of living and the place where the sun rises. The aforesaid mythical tale is described in a Sumerian poem which is partially lost/incomplete.

In the Epic of Ziusudra, the place where gods took him to dwell after the deluge is mentioned as KUR Dilmun; of this, the KUR part is said to have remained ambiguous, meaning of which scholar Samuel Noah Kramer interpreted as “mountain”. This implies that the gods took King Ziusudra to the mountain of Dilmun. There are different versions and interpretations of the story by the modern scholars. Somewhat similar tale is narrated in the Genesis flood narrative of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament where the God spares Noah and his family in the context of the creation of world after the great deluge. Matsyavtar in Hinduism choosing the righteous King Manu for the purpose and Safina Nuh in Islam also have similar narratives.

3. Epic of Gilgamesh

The Epic of Gilgamesh is a long Sumerian epic poem from the ancient Mesopotamia, which is regarded as one of the greatest surviving religious work of literature along with the Mahabharata and Ramayana of Hindus, and Iliad and Odyssey of Greek civilization. Gilgamesh is said to be a demi-god son of the parents Priest-King Lugalbanda and mother goddess Ninsun. The epic story was reconstructed much later by the scholars from the original 12 clay tablets of Sumerian-Babylonian vintage, of which 11th tablet could never be traced. In the legendary tale, Gilgamesh (also known as Bilgames in some narratives) lived exceptionally long life and possessed super-human strength and magical powers.

The Epic story of Gilgamesh, the famous king of Uruk and a demi-god, begins with his being arrogant and oppressive to his subjects, particularly the young women on whom he claimed lord’s right to sleep with brides on their wedding night. The harassed and unhappy people cry and pray for the help of gods, who also consider him proud and arrogant, and decide to teach him a lesson by detailing a wildman named Enkidu. Shamhat, a temple prostitute, tempts Enkidu and teaches him civic manners while Gilgamesh dreams about the imminent arrival of a rival and ultimate companion. Later, when Gilgamesh attempts to visit a chamber of newly wed woman, Enkidu defiantly blocks his way to save the bride which ensues a fierce duet between the two in which the latter is humbled. Now Enkidu sincerely acknowledges Gilgamesh's superior strength and the two become friends.

Subsequently, Gilgamesh proposes Enkidu to join him on a journey to the Cedar Forest against the advice of the council of elders to slay the monstrous demi-god Humbaba in order to earn name and fame for self. His mother goddess Ninsun prays to sun god for their protection and successful venture. In the Cedar Forest, Humbaba employs several tactics to frighten Gilgamesh and scolds Wildman Enkidu for the betrayal of wild people. The two are frightened but decide to carry on with the resolve; consequently, a fierce battle ensues and sun god takes side of Gilgamesh by dispatching thirteen winds that bind Humbaba leaving him at the mercy of Gilgamesh, who initially pities at him but ultimately kills him along with his seven sons to seal his victory over the Cedar Forest.

This episode attracts the attention and interest of Inanna (also known as Ishtar), the goddess of love, in Gilgamesh but he rejects her proposal considering earlier nemesis of her previous lovers such as Dumuzi, a Mesopotamian god of shepherds. Enraged Inanna dispatched the Bull of Heaven (a mythical beast) to Uruk to destroy Gilgamesh, which causes widespread devastation and finally with the help of Enkidu the beast is finally eliminated. But the incident of killing aforesaid two god creatures makes other gods unhappy, who then decide that one of the heroes responsible for it must die. Accordingly, despite the protestation from Shamash (Utu, sun god), Enkidu is condemned to death. Gilgamesh and entire Uruk deeply mourn the death of Enkidu, and the mourning is extended to even mountains, forests, fields, rivers and wild animals.

The death of Enkidu shatters Gilgamesh abandoning his characteristic vanity and pride and he sets out on a quest to find the meaning of life and a way to beat the death. He travels through the mountains and vast oceans encountering more adventures and a mythical ferryman Urshanabi; finally, he locates Utnapishtim (the only immortal man) who offers him two chances at immortality. As the first chance, he is asked to remain awake for six days and six night but he failed. The second time, he was required to protect a magic plant but he again slept and the plant was eaten by a snake. Failing to achieve immortality, Gilgamesh finally return backs to home and records his story. The story in the twelfth and final tablet is about Gilgamesh’s experiences with the underworld (the land of dead) including an encounter with the Enkidu's ghost.

4. Inanna’s Descent to Underworld

The Sumerians believed that the universe was literally comprised of the sky, earth and the “great below” or netherworld. The sky gods lived in heaven, other gods, demi-gods, human beings and other creatures lived on earth while the netherworld variously named as underworld, Kigal or Irkalla was inhabited by the underworld deities and the dead. Ereshkigal, the goddess of death and gloom, inhabited this domain and ruled it with her own laws and judgement. She was also the older sister and bitter enemy of Inanna, the goddess of love and war.

Inanna once decided to visit the underworld and, considering her rivalry with older sister, she asked her chief advisor Ninshubur to immediately alert the gods in case she fails to come back after three days. With this instruction, Inanna equipped with divine protective gears descended into the underworld to visit Ereshkigal’s temple of lapis lazuli. While she passed through seven gates of the underworld, her protection, ornaments and jewels were removed one by one and she was made to walk naked on her knees before Ereshkigal who then viciously turned her into a corpse.

When she did not return after three days, Ninshubur went to Enlil and Nanna one by one but both expressed their inability to help. Finally, Enki, the god of wisdom agreed to intervene and come to Inanna’s rescue. With his efforts, Inanna was brought to life but according to the infallible law of the underworld, she was needed to produce a substitute to come out of the wretched place. There was an unbroken rule that anyone who entered the underworld cannot return without presenting a substitute. So she chose Dumuzi, the shepherd god and her consort, who was tricked to visit the underworld and then compromised as the tragic substitute for Inanna’s release.


The Sumerian civilization is yet another ancient and glorious civilization that experienced invasions and natural disasters leading to its extinction. Evidently in the Mesopotamian history, apparently the Sumer people were the ones among the most evolved socially and culturally even as back as 4000 BCE. While the juggernaut of later Abrahamic religions gradually replaced nearly all ancient civilizations of the old and new world and at least one of them claims to be the most ancient and true religion in the world, the sheer vintage the great flood story of The Enuma Elish suggests it as being precursor and inspiration behind the Hebrew scribes who later created the biblical Book of Genesis. Though for many centuries, the Bible was cited as the oldest book in the world but later translation of the Sumerian cuneiform clearly suggest that a number of biblical narratives are actually Mesopotamian (Sumerian) in origin. It is a pity that a great civilization was lost and quite a few glorious features of it are claimed by others now.

Continued to Next Page 

All images depicting ancient Mesopotamia (c)


More by :  Dr. Jaipal Singh

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