Alan F. Alford
thousand years ago, an enigmatic people emerged from the cloak of
prehistoric anonymity, and began to build marvellous cities in the
fertile plain between the mighty Tigris and Euphrates rivers (a
region roughly equivalent to modern-day Iraq). These cities – Eridu,
Ur, Lagash, Uruk, Shuruppak, Nippur, Kish and Sippar – were the
cities of the Sumerians, and the entire region was known as Sumer,
or in later days by the Greek name Mesopotamia, meaning ‘(the land)
between the rivers’.
instigated a technological revolution in fields such as agriculture,
commerce, mathematics, architecture and metallurgy. From the mid-4th
millennium BC, this remarkable people began to develop sophisticated
forms of government and established the earliest known social
institutions, such as schools and courts of law. Most significantly,
the Sumerians invented writing c. 3300 BC, initially in a
pictographic form, but later in a style known as cuneiform – a
curious system of wedge-shaped signs, which were impressed into clay
tablets using a stylus.
These clay tablets
relate an amazing story – of gods who created the heavens and the
Earth, and physically descended to the Earth at the beginning of
time, in order to lay the foundations of the Sumerian cities. In
those days, the gods alone had occupied the great land of Sumer, but
soon they grew weary of their work and set about creating mankind to
release themselves from the burden of their toil. The result was the
Sumerian ‘people’, known by the enigmatic title ‘the black-headed
The first Sumerian
‘people’ lived in the underworld (compare the Greek myth of
Prometheus) which was conceived as the ‘garden of the gods’. All
good things in this garden had been sent down by the gods from
Heaven to Earth – cattle and grain, trees and vegetation, the vine,
the date-tree, and, of course, the seed of mankind itself. Man
worked up an abundance for the gods in this garden, and eventually,
after he had proved himself worthy, the gods granted him the
insignia and regalia of kingship, along with the various gifts of
civilisation, all of which they lowered from Heaven. At this point,
it would seem, mankind was elevated from the underworld to the
surface of the Earth. It is intriguing to note that in ‘The Epic of
Gilgamesh’ the mythical subterranean garden is described as ‘the
plain of E.DIN’ – a forerunner to the Garden of Eden in the Hebrew
Book of Genesis. The Sumerian term E.DIN meant ‘the abode of the
Circa 2400 BC, the
Sumerians began to lose control of their territory to the Akkadians,
a Semitic-speaking group of peoples, who soon dominated the region
of Sumer. But they, in turn, yielded to the Gutians c. 2200 BC.
Then, after a brief Sumerian revival (c. 2100-2000 BC), the entire
region was conquered by the Amorites c. 2000 BC.
The new millennium
brought more chaos, with first the Babylonians, then the Kassites,
and finally the Assyrians rising to power. But, amazingly,
throughout all of these turbulent centuries, the religion of the
Sumerians survived virtually intact. By and large, the same gods
were worshipped, the same temples and ziggurats were repaired or
rebuilt, and the same myths were copied and translated piously, with
only minor adaptations or alterations. The ideas and ideals of the
Sumerians thus became the basic creed and dogma of much of the
ancient Near East, being passed from one generation to another over
the course of some three thousand years.
The reason for such
constancy was an unprecedented obsession with religion, which was
summed up by the Assyriologist Georges Roux as follows:
for more than three thousand years the religious ideas promoted by
the Sumerians played an extraordinary part in the public and private
life of the Mesopotamians, modelling their institutions, colouring
their works of art and literature, pervading every form of
activity... In no other antique society did religion occupy such a
prominent position, because in no other antique society did man feel
himself so utterly dependent upon the will of the gods... the
religious motives should never be forgotten or minimised.
What was the nature of this enduring religion?
At the heart of it
was the Creator-God and the myth of creation. In each of the key
cities, a Great God and a Great Goddess personified the powers which
had brought the Universe into existence. In Eridu, the God was
called Enki (or Ea); in Ur, the God was called Nannar (or Sin) and
the Goddess was called Ningal; in Lagash, the God was called Ninurta
(or Ningirsu); in Uruk, the God was called An (or Anu) and the
Goddess was called Inanna (or Ishtar); in Nippur, the God was called
Enlil and the Goddess was called Ninlil; and in Sippar the God was
called Utu (or Shamash).
Originally, each of
these Gods would have been the Creator in his own right. But in
later times they formed a pantheon, headed by Anu, in which each
deity became specialised: Enki as the god of the subterranean sea (Apsu),
Nannar as the Moon-god, Inanna as Venus, Enlil as the sky-god, and
Utu as the Sun-god. There were numerous other Gods too, such as
Nergal and Erra who became gods of the underworld, and a
multiplicity of Goddesses who were generally identified with Mother
The Sumerian myth of
creation begins with a cataclysm in the sky. The God or the Goddess,
portrayed as a Great Mountain, explodes into fragments and rains
down upon the primeval Earth. As a result, the Mountain of Heaven,
personified by the God, impregnates the Mountain of Earth,
personified by the Goddess, with his seed.
In the Sumerian poem
‘Dispute between Summer and Winter’, we read:
the king of all the lands, set his mind.
He thrust his penis into the Great Mountain (HAR.SAG)...
Summer and Winter, the fecundating overflow of the land, he poured
into the womb.
Wheresoever Enlil would thrust his penis, he roared like a wild
There, HAR.SAG spent the day, rested happily at night,
Delivered herself of Summer and Winter like rich cream...
Similarly, in another
poem, the Sacred Marriage is described as follows:
big Earth made herself resplendent, beautified her body
Wide Earth bedecked her body with precious metal and lapis lazuli,
Adorned herself with diorite, chalcedony, and shiny carnelian.
Heaven arrayed himself in a wig of verdure, stood up in princeship.
Holy Earth, the virgin, beautified herself for Holy Heaven.
Heaven, the lofty god, planted his knees on Wide Earth,
Poured the semen of the heroes Tree and Reed into her womb.
Sweet Earth, the fecund cow, was impregnated with the rich semen of
Joyfully did Earth tend to the giving birth of the plants of life,
Luxuriantly she brought forth rich produce, and gave birth to wine
Other myths describe
the God descending from Heaven to take up residence in the
underworld, or the Goddess descending from Heaven to take over the
mantle of the Earth.
The descent of the
God or Goddess from Heaven to Earth is often portrayed as a Deluge –
the forerunner of the Hebrew myth of the Great Flood. In some myths,
the descending God ejaculates a great flood of water from his body,
thus filling up the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. In other myths, the
descending God brings a great flood of stone, which he piles up in
‘heaps and mounds’ upon the face of the Earth.
When the God or
Goddess disintegrates in the heavens, the result is the emanation of
gods – with a small ‘g’. This multiplicity of gods, who collectively
make up the former body of the God, personify the Deluge of waters
and meteoritic material. Upon falling to the Earth, they become
denizens of the underworld – the faceless and anonymous Anunnaki.
The Earth is thus
reshaped, but the final act of creation is yet to come. It is called
‘the separation of the heavens from the Earth’. In this final drama,
the Great God seemingly creates the Sun, the Moon, and the stars by
separating them (or rather their material) from the Earth. The
Sumerian myths are extremely vague on this point, but it seems to
happen in parallel with the resurrection, or spiritualisation, of
the God and the gods, who are translated back to the sky after their
fall to the Earth. This mysterious transformation seems to
re-create, in a metaphysical sense, the original Mountain of Heaven,
and perhaps at the same time the Sun, the Moon, and the stars are
created. A significant point here, is that the final act of creation
is geocentric, and results in a geocentric Universe (compare Egypt
and Greece where this idea is made more explicit).
As for the creation
of man, the Sumerian myths are diverse but consistent. In one myth,
man is created when Enlil uses his ‘pickaxe’ to hack open a hole in
the Earth. In another myth, man is created from the flesh and blood
of sacrificed sky-gods (he is thus created in their image; compare
the Book of Genesis). Whilst in other myths, man is created in the
Womb of the Earth from a clay that has been flung down from Heaven.
A bizarre feature of the Sumerian myths is the idea that man first
existed as a subterranean race who was enslaved by the Anunnaki gods
in the underworld. It was only at a later juncture – possibly when
kingship was lowered from Heaven – that man was elevated to the
surface of the Earth.
As the Sumerians used
to say, “Let the wise teach the mystery to the wise.”
Sumerian religion was
a ‘cult of creation’. The Great God and Great Goddess personified
the cataclysm of creation and the formative Universe.
*** *** ***
A.F. Alford, ‘When The Gods Came
Down’, Hodder and Stoughton, 2000.
S. Dalley, ‘Myths from
Mesopotamia’, Oxford University Press, 1998 edition.
H. Frankfort et al, ‘The
Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man’, University of Chicago Press,
Heidel, ‘The Babylonian Genesis’,
University of Chicago Press, 2nd ed., 1951.
Heidel, ‘The Gilgamesh Epic and
Old Testament Parallels’, University of Chicago Press, 1963 edition.
T. Jacobsen, ‘The Treasures of
Darkness’, Yale University Press, 1976.
S.N. Kramer, ‘The Sumerians’,
University of Chicago Press, 1963.
S.N. Kramer, ‘History Begins at
Sumer’, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1956.
J.B. Pritchard, ed., ‘ANET’
(‘Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament’),
Princeton University Press, 3rd edition, 1969.
G. Roux, ‘Ancient Iraq’, Penguin
Books, 1992 edition.