The Geopolitics of Sumerian Mythology

In Sumer of the early 2nd millennium BCE there were four types of gods. There were the old primeval deities who were thought of as having participated in the creation of the cosmos but who as a rule had no major cults of their own. Second were the Seven Gods Who Decree. These seven deities commanded a special place in the pantheon of hundreds. Then third were the other major gods numbering between five and ten depending on the given perspective. Lastly there was the rest of an ultimately unknowable number of gods and goddesses right down to the level of personal protective deities akin in concept to guardian angels.

The main gods of Dynastic Sumer

Sumer’s Divine Taxonomy

The primeval deities are likely to remain enigmatic due to a scarcity of evidence but the other major gods are prominent figures in the periods great literary works such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Epic of Atrahasis and the Enuma Elish. Even with the prominence of Tiamat in the Enuma Elish no light is shed on her cult or area of origin. By the time of these epics the pantheon of Sumer had fallen into place and only changed slowly over the following 1500 years. The creation of this tiered pantheon was a process that dates back to before the dawn of history but early evidence allows us to trace some of the development of the divine order.

One course of development provides an answer to the question of how did the Seven Gods Who Decree become so important to the region as a whole, given each cities loyalty to its own gods. The Seven Gods Who Decree are likely representative of the five planets visible to the naked eye, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, plus the Sun and the Moon. Although for the planets besides Venus/Inanna the association of particular deities is difficult given the 3rd and early 2nd millennium sources. Notably the eventual inclusion of the Earth Mother Goddess as one of the Seven, would have seemed to open the number to eight if all the gods were to have a celestial body of their own. This would appear to suggest that even the Earth Mother was assigned a planet in the early astrological cosmologies.

Questions concerning the other deities questions abound. Such as what was it that separated an important deity like the goddess of death, Erishkigal, from the status which was enjoyed by her sister Inanna the goddess of love and war? For that matter why does Inanna enjoy a higher station than her own mother Ningal or her uncle Ninurta? Given the point of view of those writing the early god lists, myths and legends these answers become clear. By examining these ancient texts we will be able to decode some of the world’s most ancient mysteries with the simple realization that Sumer’s Early Dynastic warfare shaped the mythology of the following millennia.

Gods of Sumer

In 1923 amidst the ruins of Shuruppak an extensive list of deities was discovered. Named after the archeological site of Tel-Fara it became known as the Fara god-list. This artifact gives us a glimpse at the work of some scribes who, based on their world view, listed hundreds of gods in order of importance. The document was created somewhere around the year 2600 BCE just as Gilgamesh was making Uruk into a regional power. This is notably the era when syllabic writing and complete texts become available for translation and is 800 years earlier than the period of epic literature. This historical and linguistic timing locked in for following ages the tradition outlined on the Fara god-list as the effective beginnings of Sumerian Mythology. Although individual gods are certainly much older than the Fara god-list the list is the first known divine lexical text and the tradition it embodies was to endure for 2000 years.

The first column of the Fara God-List.

The first six gods on the list make up six of the Seven Gods Who Decree. Since what would become the generally accepted pantheon was not yet complete the list gives us a glimpse of divine prestige making in progress. It is important to note that gods seven and eight are unknown and may represent deities from cities that have yet to be realized as key players in dynastic Sumer. Whether one of these gods was originally considered a member of the Seven Gods Who Decree is also unknown.

The Missing Mother Goddess

Interestingly the seventh of the eventual Gods Who Decree who is missing from the list is the mother goddess Ninhursag whose primary cult center was Kesh. Kesh was either a major cult center that is as of yet unknown or it is an alternate spelling of the name Kish. For the purposes of this analysis it has been assumed that the later is true as proposed by Robert Biggs1. That this assumption is correct is seemingly verified by the connections discussed below. At the time of the Fara god-list Kish had long been a dominant player in Sumer’s geopolitics so the fact that its god Zababa was left off the list causes pause. Although Zababa is known from the Dynastic period it is possible that he was originally overshadowed by the even more ancient mother goddess cult of Ninhursag.

The answer to why Ninhursag was not originally mentioned as a top ranked goddess, even though Kish’s prominence was well established, may have been due to geopolitics in southern Sumer. The first dynasty of Kish had ruled for centuries seemingly unopposed, yet a powerful dynasty was ascending in the city of Uruk in the south. Uruk, as a fountain of Sumerian culture held tremendous influence among its neighbors of which Shurappak was one. This may indicate that the Fara-godlist was written in the years following the rise of Uruk around 2600 BCE in a city that was under Uruk’s control. This is further evidenced by the inclusion of Gilgamesh’s divine mother listed at number fifteen.

It is worth noting that number nine and ten on the list are the goddess Nisabe who is listed in two manifestations which were later synchronized. She is Ninhursag’s daughter and the caretaker of Ninhursag’s temple and may have been the original prominent female deity in Kish. This would indicate a renewed Mother Goddess cult gaining increased status in Kish after the fall of the First Dynasty in the mid 3rd millennium with an upgrade from daughter to mother. Still if this was the case Nisabe being listed at ten instead of seven or higher would have still been a blow to the prestige of the newly defeated but long dominant city of Kish. It should be noted that such a goddess presence in Kish would still have allowed for a vibrant cult for the war god Zababa to develop, a tradition that was likely fueled by Kish’s association with kingship.

At first glance it appears that Ninhursag does not even make the list of hundreds of gods. However the deity number nineteen, whose full name would be dingir-tu, meaning “the heavenly (divine) one of birth,” bears a closer look. Nintu is an alternate name for the mother goddess Ninhursag and the lack of the nin prefix, which means “Lady” may have been a local custom at the time which is plausible given the goddess’s wide variety of cults. Furthermore other goddesses, such as Inanna and Ereshkigal, seem to get by without the nin prefix as well.

Another factor likely at work in the eventual rise of the status of Ninhursag was the identification with her and other goddess cults. Ninhursag eventually became synonymous with many of the multitude of mother goddess’s in vogue at the time. Of course since gods seven and eight on the list are a mystery and must be presumed to be important one of these may have been an early form of Ninhursag. The Omega symbol which is identified with Ninhursag was present in Sumerian art since the before the Flood. So the Goddess was well established by the middle of the 3rd millennium and yet was likely snubbed on the Fara god-list.

Wife of the Chief God

One lingering mystery is the prominence of Enlil, Sumer’s chief god. Enlil’s city of Nippur became the religious center of Sumer with its priesthood receiving tribute from many other cities who wished Enlil’s favor. Unlike other prominent gods Enlil’s city of Nippur does not play a part in the regions dynastic warfare. From a mythical perspective Enlil as the god of the air was in control of everything between Heaven and Earth and thus all the gods who were worshiped on the earth’s surface owed him tribute. Only his father An was outside of his domain. However, unless future discoveries shed light on the subject, the riddle of Nippur’s religious status will remain unsolved. One thing is certain, the priesthood of Enlil did not simply proclaim themselves into their privileged position.

However the Fara god-list does offer some clues as to how one of Enlil’s wives gained her status. It may be that the Fara god-list played a part in raising the station of the local deity of Shurappak, Sud goddess of the harvest, who becomes Ninlil the wife of Enlil. Her name is not apparent on the Fara god-list but it is a safe bet that she originated as one of the unknown goddesses listed there. She would have been recognized on the list by its intended audience, the people of southern Sumer and perhaps this was enough to raise her status to a regional deity. Her original name was eventually changed to Sud and then to Ninlil after her marriage to Enlil became accepted mythology.

It would have been a natural move for Ninlil, wife of Enlil to be raised to the status of one of the Seven Who Decree. However it was in the end Ninhursag, Enlil’s other mate who made the cut. It is likely that it was Shurappak’s status as a pre-Flood city, which had reigned supreme for untold decades, that eventually gave Sud/Ninlil her status as wife of the chief god but this did not trump the prestige of Kish and its Mother Goddess.

An interesting twist in the Myth of Enlil and Sud, which describes their marriage, indicates they had to get permission from Nisaba who in this tradition was seen as the mother of Sud. Causing further consternation, the myth, whose text was found in Nippur, mentions the Seven Gods Who Decree as standing in judgment over Enlil as if Enlil was not among their number. However since this myth comes from the same time frame as the Fara god-list it is relatively certain that Enlil’s status was already in place. This may indicate the belief in Nippur that at one point in the distant past Enlil was not one of the Seven Gods Who Decree. Raising the possibility that the construction of the various myths of gods seducing goddesses into duplicitous relationships may have been a reflection of the changing geopolitics of the 3rd millennium BCE as the rise of the cities of Sumer challenged the prehistoric world order of the 4th millennium. Essentially these stories of lustful gods pursuing young goddess’s may reflect real world conquests and alliances.

Throughout this all Enki of Eridu maintains a prominent place in the mythology of the region for thousands of years. This durability suggests a deeply entrenched tradition going back to well before the Fara god-list which guaranteed Enki a prominent ranking. This status was afforded even though Eridu was in a state of decline at the time of the lists writing. Like Enlil, Enki had multiple wives making him a progenitor to almost as many gods as Enlil thus alluding to Eridu’s past glory. It could be argued that Enki is the oldest of the known Sumerian gods and thus maintained a status from prehistoric times that was almost on par with Enlil. This status is confirmed by the fact that the Sumerian Kinglist declares that “kingship descended from Heaven to Eridu.”

The Sumerian Kinglist

Now to the question of why in the first place did these six gods, soon to be followed by Ninhursag, rise to the status of the Seven Gods Who Decree signifying their dominance over the huge pantheon. To understand this we must turn to the Sumerian Kinglist whose first known copy dates to around 1900 BCE. This was a period of war between the cities of Isin and Larsa for hegemony over Sumer. Presumably these scribes had access to older records and legends and it is possible to see that the information available to them was of varied degrees of historical perspective. The entire history of kingship pivots upon the recollection of a disastrous flood in the distant past.

The history of the kinglist begins  with the Antideluvian Period when mythical kings ruled little known city states at the dawn of history. These early kings ruled over a period before the Flood of as long as five hundred years but likely less. During this time five dynasties were acknowledged as being supreme. These where Eridu, Bad-Tira, Larsa, Sippar and Shuruppak. By the time of the Fara god-list the gods of these cities had been elevated in status to the Gods Who Decree with the exception of Sud/Ninlil. Since Larsa and Sippar both worshiped the sun-god this accounts for four of the Gods Who Decree.

Ruling Dynasties

Following the list of the ruling dynasties it is easy to see why the other two gods, An/Uruk and Nanna/Ur, joined the elite pantheon to give us the original six major gods seen on the Fara god-list. If the Dynastic timeline is followed it becomes apparent that two cities, Kish and Uruk, were dominant with Ur getting an honorable mention and short term precedence over Kish. All three of these cities had ruling dynasties near the time of the Fara god-lists writing. As stated, Uruk was the rising contender and as a good neighbor Shuruppak’s priests may have constructed their god-list to give the goddess Sud an increased chance of prominence by acknowledging the supremacy of neighboring Uruk. With Sud portrayed as the daughter of An this would give her the status to be seen as Enlil’s wife while acknowledging An’s preeminence.

Building upon the foundation of such early lists as the Fara god-list subsequent generations of scholars would add gods to their own lists in accordance to the success of the given cities of each god. However the preeminence of certain deities remained clouded by politics. For example Ninurta, the war god and son on Enlil whose presence is doubtful on the Fara god-list, becomes prominent as his city Lagash rose to be a major political power. However since Lagash always ruled in competition with other dynasties it is never mentioned on the kinglists which therefore shadows its importance.

Kish and Uruk – 2600 BCE

As the warring dynasties sought control over the fertile lands of Sumer and the trade that flowed through it, what was seen as divine internecine conflict slowly shaped their mythology in an often confusing and contradictory way. However the story of the geopolitical events, what little is known, is relatively straight forward.

MapThe history of geopolitics in Mesopotamia begins around 4,600 years ago with the reign of Enmebaragisi, the king of Kish. Enmebaragisi is the first king listed in the Sumerian King List for whom separate archaeological evidence has been found. His son Aga is recorded as having attacked Gilgamesh of Uruk. Gilgamesh eventually won the confrontation and ended the rule of the First Dynasty of Kish which the King List records as having ruled for thousands of years (really was hundreds ) since the Great Flood had swept the land. At this time the association between regional hegemony and the kingship of Kish likely gained its foundation. Nippur was possibly given its unique religious status during this time with its cult dedicated to Ninhursag’s husband, Enlil. However after several centuries of rule the legendary Gilgamesh changed the balance and as we have seen Kish’s goddess was not given top ranking on the Fara-god-list.

Uruk had long been a powerful cultural center in south of Sumer and now it united much of the region under its rule. For six generations the First Dynasty of Uruk ruled as the most powerful royal house. Although documents like the king list make the role of the king seem preeminent in society the balance of the historical record shows that in most cases he simply worked on behalf of the city’s god(s) and therefore in close conjunction with large temple establishments. Gilgamesh is known for his defiance of such tradition and may represent a break from a more unified temple and palace establishment.

The House of Heaven

Uruk is identified as the cult center of An the god of Heaven but it was actually Inanna his great-granddaughter whose cult occupied his temple the E-Anna or House of Heaven. Eight hundred years after the Fara god-list was written the Epic of Gilgamesh tells how the “Gods of Heaven” ask An for help on the people of Uruk’s behalf and Inanna, when spurned by Gilgamesh, appealed to An for help. This is one of the few times An is actively involved in the region’s mythical politics. Around the same time as the Epic of Gilgamesh An is mentioned in the Enuma Elish creation story where he is only a background character who sits by while others take part in the action.

It is worth noting that An is the only god on the Fara god-list whose name is not preceded by the divine determinative, dingir, demonstrating a separation from the rest of the gods. It is possible that the writers of the Fara god-list identified An as the Primeval Heaven as the Sumerian word for heaven is An which would explain why symbols and images of the god are unknown until later periods. Since dingir can also be interpreted as “one of heaven” leaving off the prefix in the case of An makes perfect sense

Inanna’s cult, conversely to An’s, was widespread and variants of the goddess of love and war were found in several major cities. Given her popularity it is worth pondering why An was not simply overshadowed by her if he did not even have a proper cult of his own. To find an answer to the mysteries of Inanna it is crucial to remember her association with the planet Venus. Given the cosmology of the time Inanna was necessarily the daughter of the Moon/Nanna and the sister of the Sun/Utu. Due to Venus’s cycle which takes it below the horizon for part of the year Inanna was identified with a yearly descent into the underworld. This underworld myth cycle makes much of the fact that Inanna/Venus was the sister of Ereshkigal goddess of death and so Inanna was placed low on the divine family tree even though hers was among the most established cults.

Therefore it becomes possible to see An as the transition point between the primeval gods and the new gods. Before history began he had already handed over the scepter to his son Enlil but he maintained a place in the mythology because he was the ancestor of all of the gods at the time that the first of the god-lists was written. Also considering the importance of the Venus cycle and other stellar observations it becomes clear that there is no more fitting place for Venus to be worshiped than the House of Heaven since it was in heaven in which she was observed. So what we get in this instance is a prehistoric cosmology involving the birth of Inanna/Venus competing with the realpolitik of the dynastic struggles.

In the end this gives us a distant and removed god of Heaven who serves as a placeholder and a vibrant collection of myths about Inanna expressing her importance. These myths also emphasized her vixen-like nature as one of the younger generation of gods even though she was among the most ancient. By the end of the era no deity will have been as successful in the dynastic struggles as the goddess of love and war. 

To be continued in The Dynastic Wars of Sumer



Epic of Gilgamesh

Sumerian Kinglist

Enuma Elish

Enlil and Sud

Inanna and Her Descent to the Underworld

1Biggs, Robert D., Zeitschrift für Assyriologie und Vorderasiatische, Archäologie , Volume 61 (2), de Gruyter – Jan 1, 1971

Black, Jeremy and Anthony Green, Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia, University of Texas Press, Austin, 2003.