In this post, we are covering the main Sumerian Gods and Goddesses—their myths and roles in ancient Sumer and ancient Mesopotamia as a whole. It is important to note that, as with most ancient mythologies, there are several different versions of stories and their interpretations. We will focus on the most widespread and well established.
Heaven and Earth
In ancient Sumerian religion and mythology, the universe was at first a primordial sea or cosmic ocean, deified by the goddess Namma.
Namma is one of the oldest Mesopotamian deities, and in Sumerian mythology was believed to be the mother who gave birth to the first Sumerian gods and the world. She did so seemingly without a husband or consort, which hints at the first asexual reproductive act of the universe.
From the dark waters of this cosmic ocean, a mountain arose whose base was the earth and whose peak reached the top of heaven. Heaven consisted of the sky and the space above it. Earth consisted of the ground and the land of the dead beneath it. Underneath the earth’s crust and the netherworld was the primeval fresh waters called abzu, where the god Enki lived.
And then heaven and earth were separated by the air-god Enlil.
From that moment on, the universe was ordered in the basic duality of an-ki, or sky-earth, which is represented in the male sky An and the female earth Ki. When Enlil, their son, separated them, An carried away heaven and Enlil carried off the earth.
The Sumerians believed that the universe was a sphere split in two parts – that of the living and that of the dead, with deities inhabiting both.
The passing of the sun and moon through the gates between the two different worlds was what connected them.
Sun and Moon
Enlil and his wife, the air-goddess Ninlil, bore the moon-god Nanna. Nanna traveled across the heavens, lighting up the night sky. Nanna and his wife Ningal bore the sun-god Utu, who traveled across the heavens lighting up the day. He would rise from the mountains of the east and set in the mountains of the west.
O Utu, shepherd of the land, father of the black-headed people,
When you lie down, the people, too, lie down,
O hero Utu, when thou rises, the people, too, rise.
The ancient Mesopotamians are famous for their astronomy and astrology, though the Babylonians are credited with the more sophisticated observations and with creating a much more accurate calendar.
The importance of the sun, moon, planets and stars is evident in their deification and the roles they played in myths, science, literature and everyday life.
The Great Below
The Sumerian underworld is one of the more complicated concepts to describe, mainly because of its association with the word kur, which denotes many different things.
In the simplest definition, kur means land, and sometimes Sumer itself was called kur-gal, or “great land”.
But in the cosmological sense, kur was the netherworld, the land of the dead. It existed between the earth’s surface layer and the primeval waters below. The ruler of the underworld was the goddess Ereshkigal, whose name means “Lady of the Great Earth”.
Though she ruled the netherworld, and by virtue of doing so was a goddess of death, she was also a goddess of birth.
In earlier myths, Ereshkigal seems to have ruled the underworld alone, while in later myths she was married to one of the Sumerian deities of death, the plague-god Nergal.
In the myth titled Gilgamesh, Enkidu and the Netherworld, Ereshkigal was taken to the netherworld and the god Enki went after her. Enki faced attacks and obstacles, with a storm of rocks being thrown at him as he sailed on his boat through the netherworld. Even the waters of kur turned against him and attacked his boat.
The land of the dead was believed to be a place where the spirits (similar to shades in the Greek Hades) of the deceased lived in dismal conditions. The Mesopotamian afterlife was not made of a heaven and hell, where souls received punishment or reward. Sinners, do-gooders, kings and laymen alike ended up with the same sad fate… a dreary eternal life in the netherworld.
The only hope for these spirits, or gidim in Sumerian, was for their families to continue making offerings and prayers to the chthonic gods on their behalf. Otherwise, the gidim would go thirsty and have nothing to eat but dust.
Primary Sumerian Gods and Goddesses
There are dozens of Sumerian gods and goddesses who came in and out of importance throughout the years. Some morphed into others, some faded out completely, and some retained their strength throughout the ancient Mesopotamian timeline.
Therefore, we will only focus on a few key Sumerian gods and goddesses that make up the bulk of the mythological stories of Sumer.
The Supreme Triad
An (Akkadian: Anu)
Symbol: Horned Crown, Bull
Consort: Uras/Ki, Namma
Cult Center: Uruk, Der
Main Temple: E-anna (“House of An and Inana/Ishtar”)
As the first of the Supreme Triad of Sumerian gods, An/Anu was seen as the father of the gods. Many other Sumerian gods and goddesses were said to be his children in different myths and stories.
An, whose name means “sky” or “heaven”, was the sky-god who carried off heaven after its separation from earth, dwelling thereafter in heaven’s highest regions.
He was also the lord of constellations and king of gods, spirits and demons. One of his tasks was to assign roles and functions to other Sumerian gods and goddesses, changing their status at will. When gods’ powers increased, they were said to have “Anu-Power”, and he gave their decrees their authority.
When Marduk was elevated to that of highest in the Babylonian (and Mesopotamian) pantheon, he was given this new status when the gods exclaimed to him “your word is Anu!”
As An did with gods, he did with humans. He was the one who bestowed and legitimized the kingship of a king.
An’s wife was in some myths the goddess Uras, in others Ki, and in others Namma.
As “father of the gods”, An was thought to be the creator and head of the Sumerian gods and goddesses, the Annuna (Akkadian Annunaki). Annuna meaning “sons of An” or “princely offspring”. Many other Sumerian gods and goddesses were thought to be his children in different myths.
These children of An at some point or other included Ningirsu, Gatumdug, Baba, Adad, Enki, Enlil, Girra, Nanna, Nergal, Sara, Inana, Nanaya, Nidaba, Ninisinna, Ninkarrak, Ninmug, Ninnibru, Ninsumun, Nungal and Nukusu.
Enlil (Akkadian: Ellil)
Symbol: Horned Helmet
Cult Center: Nippur
Main Temple: E-kur (“Mountain House”)
At some point, we see the rise of Enlil’s prominence, overtaking that of An. Their roles are therefore similar with many overlapping functions. Enlil, like An, was said to decree the fates, gift kingship onto kings and give commands that cannot be changed.
In the creation of the cosmos, Enlil is the god that separated heaven and earth, with the god An carrying away heaven while Enlil carried the earth. He was the god of air, wind, height, distance and breath. He was the provider and lord of abundance. He was accredited with the invention of the mattock, an important Mesopotamian agricultural tool.
But as he giveth, he taketh away. Enlil could demolish and devastate. He was the one who decided to annihilate humankind with the great flood. He had the power to create and destroy. He could send down storms and plagues, but also help plants grow and make the land plentiful.
His authority is evident in many myths, including in those showing other gods giving him offerings.
Enlil’s wife is the goddess Ninlil. In some myths, Enlil is said to have raped or seduced the goddess Ninlil. Together they bore the gods Nanna, Nergal, Ninazu, Enbilulu, Ninurta and Baba. Again, different contexts show different genealogies.
Enlil also had a child with the goddess Ereshkigal—a minor god of disease and death named Namtar.
Enki (Akkadian: Ea)
Symbol: Goat, Fish, Goatfish
Cult Center: Eridu
Main Temple: E-abzu (“House of Abzu”)
In ancient Mesopotamia, he was the god of mischief, wisdom, magic, incantations, semen and fresh-water. He resided in the abzu, the sea underneath the earth.
In some myths, he was attributed with the creation of humankind by suggesting that his mother Namma insert clay from the abzu into her womb in order to birth human beings. Humans were created to take over the work of the gods.
For more information on how humankind was created according to different Mesopotamian traditions, read our earlier post.
As their creator, he also became their protector and managed to save them from the great flood that the god Enlil sent down to destroy them. He did so by advising a man to build an ark and take his family and many animals onboard.
In some myths, Enki was said to be the son of the sky-god An, and in others the son of the primordial cosmic ocean Namma.
As the god of fresh water, water that gave life to the people and the land, he was associated with fertility and sexual virility. As the god of magic and incantations, he was evoked for rituals, exorcisms and to keep away evil.
As the creator, he gifted humanity with arts and crafts, and the many things he taught them in order to create civilization.
In the abzu, the Abgal accompanied Enki. The Abgal were seven demigod sages that were half men half fish created to teach wisdom to humankind. He also had a minister named Isimu, a two-faced god who served him.
Enki’s wife, Ninhursag, is one of the oldest and most important of Sumerian gods and goddesses. Her name means “Lady of the Sacred Mountain” and she is a fertility and mother goddess who was a patron to many rulers. As Enki’s wife, she was sometimes called Damkina (“Faithful Wife”) and sometimes Ki (the earth goddess).
Together they had a few children, but in one particular myth, the genealogy of their daughters and granddaughters is explained in a surprising way…
In the myth of Enki and Ninhursag, Enki and his wife Ninhursag have a daughter, the goddess Ninsar (“Lady Greenery”). When Ninhursag left Enki, he came upon Ninsar and seduced her. Together, they had the goddess Ninkurra (“Lady Fruitfulness”). Ninsar then also left him, and in his sadness he stumbled upon his granddaughter Ninkurra. He seduced her too, which resulted in the creation of the spider goddess Uttu (“Weaver of the Web of Life”).
This same myth also depicts him as the civilizer of the cities and the one who turns the salty marshes into fertile land.
In another Sumerian story, called Ninurta and the Turtle, Enki’s tablet of destinies, which controls the future of humanity, is stolen by the demon Anzu. The hero Ninurta manages to get it back but then decides to keep it for himself. The cunning Enki creates a turtle from the clay of the abzu that catches Ninurta by the heel, digs a hole and drags him into it.
Triad of the Sky (Moon, Sun and Venus)
Nanna (Akkadian: Suen/Sin)
Symbol: Crescent Moon, Bull
Cult City: Ur
Main Sanctuary: E-gish-shir-gal (“House of the Great Light”)
Unlike most ancient cultures that primarily had moon goddesses, Nanna is the moon-god born to Enlil and Ninlil. He was of great importance to the Mesopotamians, almost as important as the Sumerian gods of the Supreme Triad. His daughter, the goddess Inana/Ishtar, was also one of the most significant Sumerian deities. Together with his children Utu and Inana, they form another triad.
His importance comes with his association to the moon, which lit the night sky, was connected with the menstrual cycle, and was observed as part of Sumerian astrology, astronomy and the lunar calendar.
The moon’s ability to renew itself was thought to reflect Nanna’s ability to regenerate every month. He was thought to bestow this power to other creatures as well.
Nanna’s main symbol was that of the bull, whose horns resembled the crescent moon, and he himself was often represented as a cowherd.
Being connected with cattle, menstrual cycles and the ability to gift his regenerative powers made him a fertility god. And as a fertility god with the ability to bestow said powers to human beings, he ensured the continuation of humanity, crops, animals and life in general.
Later on as the god Sin in Akkadian traditions, he was given the role of assisting in rituals of divination.
Nanna’s wife was Ningal, goddess of reeds, daughter of Enki and Ninkurra, who bore him the goddess Inana and the god Utu.
In the story Nanna’s Journey to Nippur, we see how the moon-god goes to visit the land of his father Enlil to gift him the first fruit offerings, underlining the prominence of Enlil.
Utu (Assyrian: Shamash)
Symbol: Sun Disc
Cult City: Larsa, Sippar
Main Temple: E-babbar (“Shining House”)
The sun-god Utu is the son of the moon-god Nanna and his wife Ningal. He is the twin brother of the goddess Inana, the brother of the god Ishkur and the goddess Ereshkigal.
As the god of the sun, he is the provider of light. His warmth helps the crops and his light fills the sky during the day. As the illuminator, he can see the truth in trials and verdicts, and so he is the bringer of justice, lord of truth and the god of law. In the underworld, he is a decider of fates.
During his daily journey, Utu comes from the mountain of the east, traveling across the sky in his barge to go down into the underworld through the mountains of the west.
His symbol of the solar disc was shown as a four-pointed star, and when he was depicted anthropomorphically, he was shown as a man with the sunrays emanating from his shoulders.
In later traditions, such as during the Assyrian and Babylonian periods, Utu became Shamash.
He is mentioned in the Epic of Gilgamesh as a helpful deity during Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s battle with the demon Humbaba of the Cedar Forest. He is also depicted on the Code of Hammurabi handing the king a rod and rope to measure justice with.
Utu/Shamash was married to the Sherida/Aya, goddess of light.
Inana (Akkadian: Ishtar)
Symbol: Sky, Clouds, Eight-Pointed Star
Cult City: Uruk
Main Temple: E-anna (“House of An and Inana/Ishtar”)
Inana means “Lady of Heaven” and she dwelt in the sky. She was associated with the planet Venus (the morning star) and the evening star. One of her depictions is that of an eight-pointed star.
Inana’s personality is split into two sometimes-opposing characteristics. On the one hand, she is a seductress and lover; on the other hand she is a battle-hungry warrior.
In Sumerian mythology, her descriptions are not as vividly lustful or warrior-like as in later Akkadian tradition. As a goddess of Sumer, she was shown to have more girl-like qualities and was obedient to her parents.
Inana/Ishtar bestowed power onto the kings who evoked her. She did so more obviously through her warrior side, sometimes represented by the lion (most famously portrayed on the Babylonian Gates of Ishtar). Military might and a thirst for war were aspects of this side that were called upon during political conflict.
But she also bestowed her power to kings through her other side—her sexuality. In the Sumerian sacred marriage rites, kings would invoke the god Dumuzi, consort of Inana, and have union with the high priestess of Inana who was a representation of the goddess herself. Kings would then be symbolically married to the goddess.
Details as to how this practice was performed, either in the flesh or purely intellectual practice is not specified; however, there are allegorically similar processes taught in initiatory inner alchemy work relating to the the marriage of the Sun and the Moon, or the King and the Queen, an alchemical conjunction of key aspects of the psyche that permanently expands consciousness.
Inana/Ishtar is present in many stories throughout Mesopotamian mythology.
In Inana and Shukaletuda, we get a beautiful vision of the goddess:
My lady stands among wild bulls at the foot of the mountains,
she possesses fully the divine powers.
Inana stands among the stags in the mountaintops,
she possesses fully the divine powers.
In the story of Inana and Enki, we get an insight into the progression of Mesopotamian civilization, which gives a mythological account of the transfer of the center of power from Eridu to Uruk.
The Queen of Heaven, Inana, patron deity of Uruk, decided she wanted her beloved city to become the prosperous center of ancient Sumer, and by doing so, also spread her own fame and glory.
To do that, she devised a plan to steal Enki’s divine decrees that outline the wisdom and knowledge of civilization-making. She came upon Enki’s territory to feast and drink with him, and delight him with her company.
The drunken Enki, in a moment of merriment, gifted Inana one hundred of the divine decrees. These decrees were specific to the basics of kingship, how to rule a kingdom, how to descend into and ascend from the netherworld, and other important knowledge. Inana then leaves on her boat with them, heading back to Uruk.
When he realized what he had done, Enki sent his Abgal, his seven sages of the abzu, to stop her. But Inana managed to reach Uruk with the decrees and was able to exalt her city to that of the center of civilization.
In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Inana tried to seduce the hero Gilgamesh, but having heard how she treats her lovers, he rejected her advances. In a fit of rage at his refusal, Inana sent down the Bull of Heaven to kill Gilgamesh and his companion Enkidu, but they managed to slay the bull instead.
In Inana’s Descent into the Netherworld, Inana went to attend the funeral of Gugalana, the bull that was slain by Gilgamesh. In this myth, the bull was the husband of Ereshkigal instead of the god Nergal. She then sat on the throne of her sister Ereshkigal, which angered the Annunaki, who turned her into a corpse and hung her on a hook.
Thankfully, before her descent, she had instructed her minister Ninshubur to bring the help of other deities if anything went wrong. He was able to get the help of the god Enki, who managed to bring her back to life and help her ascend.
Note: This myth is similar to the catabolic allegories of being ripped apart, and recombined, to be elevated to a new level of spiritual life—a process used in practical alchemy to exalt a substance to a spiritual level as a quintessence in order to ingest it as a true psycho-spiritual sacrament.
There are many more myths, roles, functions and depictions of this Sumerian goddess that show her versatility, power and complexity.
Demigods and Demons of the Sumer
Though there are many other major and minor Sumerian gods and goddesses in the Mesopotamian pantheon, it’s also important to understand the role of demigods and demons.
We’ve already talked about some of them in the Epic of Gilgamesh, including Gilgamesh himself, Enkidu and Gugalana (The Bull of Heaven), all of whom were considered demigods.
A very interesting collection of demigods is Enki’s Abgal.
The Abgal were the seven sages that were created by Enki to provide wisdom, culture and civilization to humankind. They were demigods that resided in the abzu with him as his priests and were sent to advise the first rulers of Sumer.
Before the Abgal were sent to human beings, humans were living in an uncivilized fashion without cities, arts, crafts, writing, temples, agriculture and other important technology.
In the Sumerian myth Lugal-e, there is an evil monster named Asag that is said to kill human beings by giving them fevers. In the myth of Ninurta’s Exploits, it is said that the day of Asag’s birth was a “day of disaster”. He was terrifying. In the end, the hero Ninurta managed to slay him.
Asag was a type of demon called edimmu.
The edimmu were the ghosts of those who were not buried correctly. They were thought to take revenge on the living by bringing them disease and evoke in them criminal behavior. Certain rituals could be performed to protect against them or dissolve their effects.
The edimmu were a type of utukku, a ghost or spirit of the deceased that escaped the underworld either by their own will or through summoning. The other types of utukku were the lamassu and aspasu, the “good” kind.
The lamassu (male) and aspasu (female) were helpful and protective; they represented stars, zodiacs and constellations. Their more famous depictions are those of the Akkadian culture, where they were shown as human-headed, bull-bodied entities with wings.
Spirits and Ghosts in Sumerian Religion
After death, the spirit or ghost (gidim in Sumerian) of the deceased would make its journey to the underworld, overcoming obstacles and threats along the way. Once there, the underworld judges would decree the fate of the ghost, giving it its place in the land of the dead and the role it would fill there.
The sun-god Utu was also a deity that decreed the fate of the dead in the netherworld.
In the netherworld, the dead lived similarly to the living, though in much worse conditions. They still had houses and work to do, friends and family to visit, and had to eat and drink as well.
The quality of their lives as the dead depended heavily on the actions of their living families—if they made offers to appease the chthonic deities and the monsters and demons of the underworld.
The living families did so not just out of love for the deceased, but also out of fear that the ghost of their dead family member would become angry and curse them with disease and misfortune. Many recorded illnesses were attributed to the curses of ghosts, demons and displeased Sumerian gods and goddesses.
Thus the importance of progeny was not just in having companionship and help with work during life, but was also a way to ensure that life after death would be tolerable.
Those whose bodies were ruined or lost at death would be at risk of having no ghost at all—dooming them to complete annihilation, a fate unthinkable to the people of the ancient world.