Win the adventure of a lifetime!

UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


Sumeria - Religion

The Sumerians were pantheistic; their gods more or less personified local elements and natural forces. In exchange for sacrifice and adherence to an elaborate ritual, the gods of ancient Sumer were to provide the individual with security and prosperity. A powerful priesthood emerged to oversee ritual practices and to intervene with the gods. Sumerian religious beliefs also had important political aspects. Decisions relating to land rentals, agricultural questions, trade, commercial relations, and war were determined by the priesthood, because all property belonged to the gods. The earliest inscriptions reveal a polytheism in a developed state. Most of the gods have Sumerian as well as Semitic names. The pantheon, which was practically different in every period of Babylonian history, is exceedingly large. Some of the gods mentioned most frequently in the inscriptions are: Anu, Bel and Ea, the important triad of the early period; Merodach, Shamash, Sin, Ishtar, Nergal, Nebo, Nusku, Ninib, Gula, etc.

The chief gods of the Sumerian pantheon were Anu, the heaven god, of the' city of Anu, later at Durilu; Ellil, the god of Nippur; Ea or Ae, the sea god, of Eridu; Ningirsu of Lagash; Shuruppak of Shurrupak; Marduk of Eridu, later of Babylon, the son of Ea; Babbar or Utu, the sun god, of Larsa; Nannar, or Enzu, the moon god of Ur; Tammuz, the brother of Marduk, and lover of Nanai of Uruk; Nergal, the war god, of Kutha; and Zamama of Kish. Among the goddesses mention may be made of Bau and Ninharsag at Lagash; Ninlil at Nippur; Nanai at Uruk; Ereshkigal, the goddess of the nether world; Gatumdag, Ningal, and Ninmach. In remote antiquity Anshar and Kishar, gods of heaven and earth, Lahmu and Lahamu (worshiped at Tell Lahm) seem to have played an important r61e. Some of these gods were adopted by the Akkadians, or identified with gods they worshiped. Shamash of Sippara; Nabu of Borsippa; Sin, identified with Nannar of Ur; Ishtar, identified with Nanai; Ninib, of unknown origin, and his spouse Gula; Anunit of Accad are among these. The Amorites brought in new gods, such as Hadad, Amuru, Dagan, and the goddess Ashirta.

Numerous myths were told concerning these divinities and the many semi-divine heroes, such as the stories of the creation of the world through Marduk after his victory over the Chaos-monster Tiamat; of Adapa. or Adama, who just missed immortality by following too closely Ea's advice ; of the ten antediluvian kings; of the deluge from which Utnapishtim of Shuruppak is saved, so similar in its details to the story in Genesis; of Zu, the storm god, who stole from Ellil the tablets of destiny, of Ktana, who, seated upon an eagle, ascends to heaven, but is overcome by fear and falls to earth; of Nergal's violent entrance into the lower world and his marriage to Ereshkigal, through which he becomes ruler of the realm; of Ishtar's descent to hell and escape from there; of Gilganiesh, the hero of Uruk, his friend Eabani, their attempt to rescue Nanai from Elam, and the journey of Gilgamesh to paradise, where he hears from Utnapishtim the story of the flood. It is becoming increasingly evident that the Sumerians developed most of this mythical material. Some of the stories deal with the nether world, whither gods may go, and men must. Gods may be sprinkled with the water of life and returned from the realm below, but there is no intimation that men may. A hero like Utnapishtim is regarded as having been translated to a realm of the blest, apparently in the Persian Gulf, and a king like Gilgamesh may go there and return. For ordinary mortals, certainly, there was no hope of anything but the most shadowy existence beyond the grave, involving neither rewards nor punishments. It was important, however, that the dead should be properly buried; otherwise they might appear as ghosts to harass the surviving kinsmen.

There were various classes of priests, soothsayers, diviners, conjurers, exorcists, omen readers, seeking for signs in the entrails of animals, especially in the liver; astrologers, offerers of sacrifices, singers, and temple attendants. Liturgical formulas, prayers, and hymns have come down to us, revealing the intensity and warmth of the religious feeling. Great festivals were held, such as the New Year's Feast, when Marduk was carried in procession to the zagmuk Banctuary and back to his temple, and Nabu came from Borsippa to visit'his shrine in the temple of Marduk, and the Tammuz and Ishtar festivals. On the 7th, 14th, 21st, 28th, and also the 19th day of the month sacrifices were offered to give rest to the hearts of the gods and business was generally suspended. Among the hymns that have been found are many that were used on New Year's Day; others that were sung in honor of Shamash, Sin, and Ishtar, and some that were chanted as lamentations over Tammuz and as odes of rejoicing over his return to life.

Each city had its temple, which was dedicated to some particular god; for example, Ekur, at Nippur, was sacred to Bel; Esagila, in Babylon, to Merodach. In addition to the patron deity, shrines to other gods were found in each sanctuary. At Nippur, besides Bel, 24 other gods were worshipped, for whom shrines were set up within the temple precincts.

At the very commencement of the cuneiform sources, about the year B.C. 3000, in the original documents - royal inscriptions and documents pertaining to civil law - there is a perfectly confusing multitude of divine figures and names of temples. On closer inspection, these distribute themselves among various local cults, which possess greater or less importance, according to the political or religious eminence of the respective seats of worship. Now, seeing that in the earliest. times, the seat of the supreme political power often changed, it is clear that the city-gods of different and successive capitals might, in turn, have supreme significance for the whole land - a significance which, as a rule, continued to influence the cult long after the city in question had lost its political supremacy.

In connexion with this change of the seat of political power, it must early have been felt necessary to harmonize the local cults, which originally varied widely, and to bring the gods of the different places of worship into some definite relation to each other. In this way would be formed a divine State and divine families - preferably in the triad of father, mother, son - after the model of the earthly State and the human family. Along with this went the division of the different parts of the cosmos among the several gods. The matter is still further complicated by the fact that in most cases the cult of an earlier Sumerian population was taken over by their Semitic successors. Here there must naturally have taken place new combinations of the original Sumerian and the imported Semitic religions ideas.

The most important seats of worship and their local deities which have to be considered are, proceeding from south to north, as follows: Eridu with the cult of Ea, Uru (Ur) with Sin (the moongod), Larsa with Shamash (the sun-god), Uruk (Erech) with Anu and Ishtar-Nana, Laqash with Ningirsu, Nippur with Enlil, Isin with Belit-Isin, Kish with Zamama (Ninib), Kutu (Cuthah) with Nergal, Babilu (Babylon) with Marduk (Merodach), Barsip (Borsippa) with Nairn (Nebo), Sippar with Shamash, Akkad with Ishtar-Anunitu. In addition to these, we have in the Assyrian domain: Ashshur with the god Ashshur, Ntnua (Nineveh) with Ishtar, Arbau (Arbela) with Ishtar, and in Mesopotamia Harran with Sin. Among these cities or seats of worship, Uruk, Nippur, and Eridu must in the earliest times have been very specially prominent, since their gods, Anu, Enbl, and Ea, occupy from ancient days the chief place in the Babylonian pantheon-a position which they retained (even if this was often a mere form) down to the latest times.

Join the mailing list

Page last modified: 09-07-2011 02:48:44 ZULU