Sumer, the first of the civilizations of ancient Mesopotamia, was made up of a number of city-states. In the manner of most ancient civilizations, each of these city-states had their own supreme god. Sumerian mythology talks about seven great deities, also known as ‘the Annunaki.’
The Ancient Mesopotamian Gods
Among the many other gods worshiped by the Mesopotamians, some of the most important were the Annunaki, the seven gods who were the most powerful: Enki, Enlil, Ninhursag, An, Inanna, Utu and Nanna.
Sumerian myth is inconsistent in the naming of these gods. Even the numbers vary. But it is universally acknowledged that Enlil and Enki, the two brothers, were an integral part of this Mesopotamian pantheon. In fact, the Sumerian poem Enki and the World Order depicts the rest of the Annunaki paying homage to Enki and singing hymns in his honor.
Enlil and Enki, along with their father An, the god of the heavens, were a trinity within the Mesopotamian religion. Together, they ruled the universe, the sky and the earth. They were also very powerful in their own right and were the patrons of their own individual cities.
Enki, later known as Ea by the Akkadians and Babylonians, was the Sumerian deity of wisdom, intelligence, tricks and magic, fresh water, healing, creation, and fertility. Originally, he was worshiped as the patron god of Eridu, which the Sumerians considered to be the first city created when the world began. According to myth, Enki gave birth to the Tigris and Euphrates rivers from the streams of water flowing off his body. Enki’s waters are considered life-giving and his symbols are the goat and the fish, both of which symbolize fertility.
The Origins of Enki
The origins of Enki can be found in the Babylonian epic of creation, Enuma Elish. As per this epic, Enki was the son of Tiamat and Apsu, even though Sumerian myth names him the son of An, the sky god, and the goddess Nammu, the ancient mother goddess. Apsu and Tiamat gave birth to all the younger gods, but their constant noise disturbed Apsu’s peace and he made up his mind to kill them.
The story goes that Tiamat warns Enki of this and Enki realizes that the only way to prevent this catastrophe is to end Apsu. Finally, he sends his father into a deep sleep and murders him. This act horrifies Tiamat, who raises an army of demons alongside her lover, Quingu, to defeat the younger gods. The younger gods are driven back and lose one battle after another to the older gods, until Enki’s son Marduk defeats Quingu in single combat and kills Tiamat.
Her body is then used to create the earth and her tears the rivers. According to myth, Enki is a co-conspirator in this and thus comes to be known as a co-creator of life and the world.
The Meaning of His Name
The Sumerian ‘En’ translates roughly into ‘lord’ and ‘ki’ means ‘earth’. Thus, the commonly accepted meaning of his name is ‘Lord of the Earth.’ But this might not be the exact meaning. A variation of his name is Enkig.
However, the meaning of ‘kig’ is unknown. Enki’s other name is Ea. In Sumerian, the two syllables E-A put together mean ‘Lord of Water.’ It is also possible that the original deity at Eridu was named Abzu and not Enki. ‘Ab’ also means ‘water,’ thus giving credence to the god Enki as the god of fresh water, healing and fertility, the latter two also being associated with water.
READ MORE: Water Gods and Gods of the Sea
Patron God of Eridu
The Sumerians believed that Eridu was the first city created by the gods. It was where, at the beginning of the world, law and order was first conferred on human beings. It later came to be known as the ‘city of the first kings’ and remained an important religious site for thousands of years for the Mesopotamians. It is significant then that the god of wisdom and intelligence was the patron god of this holy city. Enki was known as the possessor of meh, the gifts of civilization.
Excavations show that Enki’s temple, built several times over on the same location, was known as E-abzu, which translates to ‘House of Abzu’, or E-engur-ra, a more poetic name meaning ‘House of the Subterranean Waters’. The temple was believed to have a pool of fresh water at its entrance and carp bones suggest the existence of fish in the pool. This was a design that all Sumerian temples followed henceforth, showing Eridu’s place as a leader of Sumerian civilization.
Enki is depicted on several Mesopotamian seals with two rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, flowing over his shoulders. He is shown wearing a long skirt and robes and a horned cap, the mark of divinity. He has a long beard and an eagle is shown to be flying down to sit on his outstretched arm. Enki stands with one foot elevated, climbing the Mountain of Sunrise. The most well-known of these seals is the Adda Seal, an old Akkadian seal that also depicts Inanna, Utu and Isimud.
Several old royal inscriptions talk about the reeds of Enki. Reeds, plants that grew by the water, were used by the Sumerians to make baskets, sometimes to carry the dead or the sick. In one Sumerian hymn, Enki is said to fill the empty riverbeds with his waters. This duality of life and death for Enki is interesting, given that he was primarily known as the life-giver.
The God of Trickery
It is intriguing that Enki is known as a trickster god by the Sumerians given that in all the myths that we come across this god, his motivation is to actually help both human beings and other gods. The meaning behind this is that as the god of wisdom, Enki works in ways that do not always make sense to anyone else. He helps to enlighten people, as we shall see in the myth of Enki and Inanna, but not always in a direct manner.
This definition of trickster god is rather strange to us, being used as we are to accounts of celestial deities who make trouble for mankind to entertain themselves. But Enki’s manner of trickery appears to be for the purpose of helping humanity, albeit in a roundabout manner.
Saving Humanity from the Flood
It was Enki who came up with the idea of the creation of man, a servant of the gods, made of clay and blood. He was helped in this by Ninhursag, the mother goddess. It was also Enki who gave mankind the ability to speak one language to communicate with each other. Samuel Noah Kramer provides a translation of a sumerian poem that speaks of this.
Eventually, as the humans grow in number and become louder and more difficult, they cause great disturbance to Enlil, the King of the Gods. He sends down several natural disasters, ending in a flood to wipe out humanity. Time and time again, Enki saves humanity from the wrath of his brother. Finally, Enki instructs the hero Atrahasis to build a ship to save life on Earth.
In this Babylonian flood myth, Atrahasis survives a seven day deluge and performs sacrifices to appease Enlil and the other gods after the flood. Enki explains his reasons for saving Atrahasis and shows what a good man he is. Pleased, the gods agree to repopulate the world with human beings but with certain conditions. Humans will never again be given the opportunity to become too populous and the gods will make sure that they die by natural means before they run over the earth.
Enki and Inanna
Inanna is the daughter of Enki and the patron goddess of the city of Uruk. In one myth, Inanna and Enki are said to have had a drinking competition. While drunk, Enki gives all of the mehs, the gifts of civilization, to Inanna, which she takes away with her to Uruk. Enki sends his servant to recover them but is unable to do so. Finally, he has to accept a peace treaty with Uruk. He lets her keep the meh despite knowing that Inanna intends to give them to mankind, even though this is something that all the gods would oppose.
This may have been a symbolic telling of the period when Uruk began to gain more importance as a center of political authority than Eridu. Eridu, however, remained an important religious center long after it was no longer politically as relevant, due to the importance of the god Ea in the Babylonian religion.
The Sumerian poem, Inanna’s Descent into the Nether World, tells of how Enki immediately expresses concern for and arranges for the rescue of his daughter from the underworld after she is trapped there by her older sister Ereshkigal and struck dead for seeking to extend her powers to the underworld.
Thus it becomes clear that Enki is a devoted father to Inanna and he will do anything for her. Sometimes this isn’t the fair or right choice, but it does always end in balance being restored to the world because of the wisdom of Enki. In the above case, Ereshkigal is the wronged party. But in saving Inanna and returning her to earth, Enki ensures that everything and everyone is restored to their rightful place and the equilibrium is not upset.
Descendents and Genealogy
Enki’s wife and consort was Ninhursag, who was known as the mother of gods and men for the role she played in creating both. Together, they had several children. Their sons are Adapa, the human sage; Enbilulu, the god of canals; Asarluhi, the god of magical knowledge and the most important, Marduk, who later overtook Enlil as the King of the Gods.
In the myth Enki and Ninhursag, Ninhursag’s attempts to heal Enki lead to the birth of eight children, minor gods and goddesses of the Mesopotamian pantheon. Enki is usually referred to as the father or sometimes uncle of the beloved goddess of war, passion, love and fertility, Inanna. He is also said to have a twin brother called Adad or Ishkur, the storm god.
Enlil, who was later known as Elil, was the Sumerian god of the air and wind. He was later worshiped as the King of the Gods and was much more powerful than any of the other elemental gods. In some Sumerian texts, he was also referred to as Nunamnir. As Enlil’s primary site of worship was the Ekur temple of Nippur, of which city he was the patron, Enlil rose to importance with the rise of Nippur itself. One Sumerian hymn, translated by Samuel Noah Kramer, eulogizes Enlil as being so sacred that even the gods feared to look upon him.
The Meaning of his Name
Enlil is made up of the two words ‘En’ which means ‘lord’ and ‘lil,’ the meaning for which has not been agreed upon. Some interpret it as winds as a phenomenon of the weather. Thus, Enlil is known as the ‘Lord of Air’ or, more literally, ‘Lord Wind’. But some historians think that ‘lil’ may be the representation of a spirit that is felt in the movement of the air. Thus, Enlil is the representation of ‘lil’ and not the cause of ‘lil’. This would tie in with the fact that Enlil is not given anthropomorphic form in any of the tablets where he is represented.
In fact, there is some speculation that Enlil’s name is not fully Sumerian at all but may be a partial loanword from a Semitic language instead.
Patron God of Nippur
The center of Enlil’s worship in ancient Sumer was the city of Nippur and the temple of Ekur within, although he was also worshiped in Babylon and other cities. In ancient Sumerian, the name means the ‘Mountain House’. The people believed that Enlil himself had built Ekur and that it was the medium of communication between heaven and earth. Thus, Enlil was the only god with direct access to An, who ruled over heaven and the universe at large.
The Sumerians believed that serving the gods was the most important purpose in the life of man. There were priests at the temples to offer food and other human essentials to the gods. They would even change the clothes on the god’s statue. The food would be laid out as a feast before Enlil every day and the priests would partake of it after the ritual was completed.
Enlil first grew in prominence when the influence of An began to wear away. This was in the 24th century BC. He fell from prominence after Sumer was conquered by the Babylonian king Hammurabi, even though the Babylonians did worship him under the name Elil. Later, 1300 BC onwards, Enlil was absorbed into the Assyrian pantheon and Nippur briefly became important once again. When the Neo-Assyrian empire collapsed, the temples and statues of Enlil were all destroyed. He had, by that point, become inextricably linked with the Assyrians who were widely hated by the people they had conquered.
It is important to note that despite being the supreme lord for hundreds of years, there is no proper image available to us of Enlil in Mesopotamian iconography. He was never depicted in human form, being represented instead as simply a horned cap of seven pairs of ox horns, one on top of the other. Horned crowns were a symbol of godhood and various gods were depicted as wearing them. This tradition continued for centuries, even till the time of the Persian conquest and the years after that.
Enlil was also linked to the number fifty in the Sumerian numerological system. They believed that different numbers had different religious and ritual importance and fifty was a number that was sacred to Enlil.
The Supreme God and Arbitrator
In one Babylonian story, Enlil is the supreme god who holds the Tablets of Destiny. These are holy objects that gave legitimacy to his rule and are stolen by Anzu, a giant monstrous bird who envies Enlil’s power and position, while Enlil is taking a bath. Many gods and heroes attempt to recover it from Anzu. Finally, it is Ninurta, Enlil’s son, who defeats Anzu and returns with the Tablets, thus cementing Enlil’s position as the chief god in the pantheon.
Sumerian poems credit Enlil with being the inventor of the pickaxe. An important agricultural tool for the early Sumerians, Enlil is praised for conjuring it into existence and gifting it to humanity. The pickaxe is described as being very lovely, made of pure gold and with a head made of lapis lazuli. Enlil teaches humans to use it to pull up weeds and grow plants, to build cities and conquer other people.
Other poems describe Enlil as being an arbitrator of quarrels and debates. He is said to have established the gods Enten and Emesh, a shepherd and a farmer, to encourage abundance and a flourishing civilization. When the two gods fall out because Emesh lays claim to Enten’s position, Enlil intervenes and rules in favor of the latter, leading to the two making up.
The Babylonian Flood Myth
The Sumerian version of the flood myth has barely survived since large portions of the tablet have been destroyed. It is not known how the flood came to be, although it is recorded that a man named Ziusudra survived it with the help of Enki.
In the Akkadian version of the flood myth, which is the version that has remained mostly intact, the flood is said to be caused by Enlil himself. Enlil decides to eliminate humanity because their large populations and noisiness disturbs his rest. The god Ea, the Babylonian version of Enki, thwarts the destruction of all of mankind by warning the hero Atrahasis, also called Utnapishtim or Ziusudra in different versions, to make a large ship and preserve life on earth.
After the flood is over, Enlil is furious to see that Atrahasis has survived. But Ninurta speaks up to his father Enlil on behalf of humanity. He argues that instead of a flood wiping out all of human life, the gods should send wild animals and diseases to make sure that humans do not overpopulate again. When Atrahasis and his family bow down before Enlil and offer him sacrifices, he is appeased and he blesses the hero with immortality.
Enlil and Ninlil
Enlil and Ninlil is the love story of the two young gods. The two are attracted to each other but Ninlil’s mother, Nisaba or Ninshebargunu, warns her against Enlil. Enlil, however, follows Ninlil to the river when she goes to take a bath and the two make love. Ninlil becomes pregnant. She gives birth to the moon god Nanna.
Enlil is cast out of Nippur by the angry gods and banished to Kur, the Sumerian nether world. Ninlil follows, searching for Enlil. Enlil then disguises himself as the different keepers of the gates of the underworld. Every time Ninlil demands to know where Enlil is, he does not answer. Instead he seduces her and they have three more children together: Nergal, Ninazu and Enbilulu.
The point of this story is a celebration of the strength of the love between Enlil and Ninlil. The two young gods do not allow challenges to keep them apart. They defy all the laws and the other gods themselves to love each other. Even banished to Kur, their love for each other triumphs and ends in the act of creation.
Descendents and Genealogy
Enlil was worshiped as a family man by the ancient Sumerians and was believed to have fathered several children with Ninlil. The most important of these are noted as being Nanna, the moon god; Utu-Shamash, the sun god; Ishkur or Adad, the storm god and Inanna. However, there is no consensus on this matter as Ishkur is said to be Enki’s twin brother and Enki is definitely not one of Enlil’s sons. In the same manner, Inanna is known in most myths as Enki’s daughter and not Enlil’s. The different cultures within the Mesopotamian civilization and their habit of appropriating the ancient Sumerian gods make these inconsistencies common.
Nergal, Ninazu, and Enbilulu are also said to have different parents in different myths. Even Ninurta, who is sometimes known as Enlil and Ninlil’s son, is the child of Enki and Ninhursag in some of the most well-known myths.
Assimilation with Marduk
Through the reign of Hammurabi, Enlil continued to be worshiped even though Marduk, the son of Enki, had become the new King of the Gods. The most important aspects of Enlil were absorbed into Marduk who became the chief deity for both the Babylonians and the Assyrians. Nippur remained a sacred city throughout this period, second only to Eridu. It was believed that Enlil and An had willingly handed over their powers to Marduk.
Even as Enlil’s role in Mesopotamian religion dwindled with the fall of Assyrian rule, he continued to be worshiped in the form of Marduk. It was only in 141 AC that the worship of Marduk declined and Enlil was finally forgotten, even under that name.