plaque showing libations by devotees and a naked priest, to a seated
god and a temple. Ur, 2500 BCE
religion was the religion practiced and adhered to by the people of
Sumer, the first literate civilization of ancient Mesopotamia. The Sumerians
regarded their divinities as responsible for all matters pertaining
to the natural and social orders.
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.
Sumerians believed that the universe had come into being through a series
of cosmic births. First, Nammu, the primeval waters, gave birth to Ki
(the earth) and An (the sky), 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 Nammu and An. Heaven was reserved exclusively for deities and,
upon their deaths, all mortals' spirits, regardless of their behavior
while alive, were believed to go to Kur, a cold, dark cavern deep beneath
the earth, which was ruled by the goddess Ereshkigal and where the only
food available was dry dust. In later times, Ereshkigal was believed
to rule alongside her husband Nergal, the god of death.
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 fertility and the earth, Utu, the god of the
sun and justice, and his father Nanna, the god of the moon. During the
Akkadian Period and afterward, Inanna, the goddess of love, beauty,
and warfare, was widely venerated across Sumer and appeared in many
myths, including the famous story of her descent into the Underworld.
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 later in the early parts of the Hebrew Bible.
Written cuneiform :
of the word "Temple" (Sumerian: "É") in cuneiform,
from a 2500 BCE relief in Ur, to Assyrian cuneiform circa 600 BCE
Sumerian myths were passed down through the oral tradition until the
invention of writing (the earliest myth discovered so far, the Epic
of Gilgamesh, is Sumerian and is written on a series of fractured clay
tablets). 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 and as a form
of "incantation" called the nam-šub (prefix + "to
cast"). These tablets were also made of stone clay or stone, and
they used a small pick to make the symbols.
Plaque with a libation scene. 2550 - 2250 BCE, Royal Cemetery
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. Temples served as cultural, religious,
and political headquarters until approximately 2500 BC, with the rise
of military kings known as Lu-gals (“man” + “big”)
after which time the political and military leadership was often housed
in separate "palace" complexes.
of a Sumerian worshipper from the Early Dynastic Period, ca. 2800 -
Until the advent of the Lugal ("King"), 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.
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.
Early religious relief (c.2700 BCE)
Carved figure with feathers. The king-priest, wearing a net
skirt and a hat with leaves or feathers, stands before the door of a
temple, symbolized by two great maces. The inscription mentions the
god Ningirsu. Early Dynastic Period, circa 2700 BCE
The main source of information about the Sumerian creation myth is the
prologue to the epic poem Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Netherworld, which
briefly describes the process of creation: originally, there was only
Nammu, the primeval sea. Then, Nammu gave birth to An, the sky, and
Ki, the earth. An and Ki mated with each other, causing Ki to give birth
to Enlil, the god of wind, rain, and storm. Enlil separated An from
Ki and carried off the earth as his domain, while An carried off the
Ancient Sumerian cylinder seal impression showing the god Dumuzid
being tortured in the Underworld by galla demons
scene, with Temple
The Sumerian afterlife was a dark, dreary cavern located deep below
the ground, where inhabitants were believed to continue "a shadowy
version of life on earth". This bleak domain was known as Kur,
and was believed to be ruled by the goddess Ereshkigal.
souls in Kur were believed to eat nothing but dry dust and family members
of the deceased would ritually pour libations into the dead person's
grave through a clay pipe, thereby allowing the dead to drink. Nonetheless,
there are assumptions according to which treasures in wealthy graves
had been intended as offerings for Utu and the Anunnaki, so that the
deceased would receive special favors in the underworld. During the
Third Dynasty of Ur, it was believed that a person's treatment in the
afterlife depended on how he or she was buried; those that had been
given sumptuous burials would be treated well, but those who had been
given poor burials would fare poorly, and were believed to haunt the
entrance to Kur was believed to be located in the Zagros mountains in
the far east. It had seven gates, through which a soul needed to
pass. The god Neti was the gatekeeper. Ereshkigal's sukkal, or messenger,
was the god Namtar. Galla were a class of demons that were believed
to reside in the underworld; their primary purpose appears to have been
to drag unfortunate mortals back to Kur. They are frequently referenced
in magical texts, and some texts describe them as being seven in number.
Several extant poems describe the galla dragging the god Dumuzid into
the underworld. The later Mesopotamians knew this underworld by its
East Semitic name: Irkalla. During the Akkadian Period, Ereshkigal's
role as the ruler of the underworld was assigned to Nergal, the god
of death. The Akkadians attempted to harmonize this dual rulership
of the underworld by making Nergal Ereshkigal's husband.
dragon Mušhuššu on a vase of Gudea, circa 2100 BCE
It is generally agreed that Sumerian civilization began at some point
between c. 4500 and 4000 BC. The Sumerians originally practiced a polytheistic
religion, with anthropomorphic deities representing cosmic and terrestrial
forces in their world. The earliest Sumerian literature of the third
millennium BC identifies four primary deities: An, Enlil, Ninhursag,
and Enki. These early deities were believed to occasionally behave mischievously
towards each other, but were generally viewed as being involved in co-operative
the middle of the third millennium BC, Sumerian society became more
urbanized. As a result of this, Sumerian deities began to lose their
original associations with nature and became the patrons of various
cities. Each Sumerian city-state had its own specific patron deity,
who was believed to protect the city and defend its interests. 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.
the late 2000s BC, the Sumerians were conquered by the Akkadians. The
Akkadians syncretized their own gods with the Sumerian ones, causing
Sumerian religion to take on a Semitic coloration. Male deities became
dominant and the gods completely lost their original associations with
natural phenomena. People began to view the gods as living in a feudal
society with class structure. Powerful deities such as Enki and Inanna
became seen as receiving their power from the chief god Enlil.
cylinder seal from sometime around 2300 BC or thereabouts depicting
the deities Inanna, Utu, Enki, and Isimud
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.
was the god of air, wind, and storm. He was also the chief god of the
Sumerian pantheon and the patron deity of the city of Nippur. His primary
consort was Ninlil, the goddess of the south wind, who was one of the
matron deities of Nippur and was believed to reside in the same temple
as Enlil. 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.
was god of freshwater, male fertility, and knowledge. His most important
cult center was the E-abzu temple in the city of Eridu. He was the patron
and creator of humanity and the sponsor of human culture. His primary
consort was Ninhursag, the Sumerian goddess of the earth. Ninhursag
was worshipped in the cities of Kesh and Adab.
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
Inanna was the Sumerian goddess of love, beauty, and warfare. 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. The Sumerians had more myths about Inanna
than any other deity. Many of the myths involving her revolve around
her attempts to usurp control of the other deities' domains.
was god of the sun, whose primary center of worship was the E-babbar
temple in Sippar. Utu was principally regarded as a dispenser of justice;
he was believed to protect the righteous and punish the wicked. Nanna
was god of the moon and of wisdom. He was the father of Utu and one
of the patron deities of Ur.
was the goddess of the Sumerian Underworld, which was known as Kur.
She was Inanna's older sister. The gatekeeper of the underworld was
the god Neti.
was a goddess representing the primeval waters (Engur), who gave birth
to An (heaven) and Ki (earth) and the first deities; while she is rarely
attested as an object of cult, she likely played a central role in the
early cosmogony of Eridu, and in later periods continued to appear in
texts related to exorcisms. An was the ancient Sumerian god of the heavens.
He was the ancestor of all the other major deities and the original
patron deity of Uruk.
major gods had a so-called sukkal, a minor deity serving as their vizier,
messenger or doorkeeper.
stone relief from the temple of Ninurta at Kalhu, showing the god with
his thunderbolts pursuing Anzû, who has stolen the Tablet of Destinies
from Enlil's sanctuary (Austen Henry Layard Monuments of Nineveh, 2nd
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 BC.
Sumerian mythology and religious practices were rapidly integrated into
Akkadian culture, 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.
The Amorite Babylonians gained dominance over southern Mesopotamia by
the mid-17th century BC. 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, 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.
The Hurrians adopted the Akkadian god Anu into their pantheon sometime
no later than 1200 BC. 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, whose mythos
had been drastically expanded by the Babylonians.
Some stories recorded in the older parts of the Hebrew Bible bear strong
similarities to the stories in Sumerian mythology. 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. 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