Ancient Mesopotamia has been called the “Cradle of Civilization” by many, but few realize the massive cultural and social impact its religion had on surrounding nations. Mesopotamian gods and goddesses are among the oldest in the world and their study provides invaluable insight into the world perspective of early man. After all, the gods seemed to make the world go round. Coincidentally, if you have asked the average ancient Mesopotamian – considering you had a time machine and were fluent in one of their many languages – they would say the gods did just that. They kept the world spinning.
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How Many Gods Did Ancient Mesopotamians Believe Existed?
The ancient Mesopotamians believed in over 3,000 gods and goddesses! Records of the ancient Mesopotamian gods have survived through various cuneiform tablets and cultural epics, such as the Enûma Eliš and the famed Epic of Gilgamesh. Like many ancient religions, the Mesopotamians practiced polytheism. So, the whopping 3,000 plus deities are nothing to scoff at.
How Old is Ancient Mesopotamian Religion?
The ancient Mesopotamian religion can be dated back to at least 6000 BCE. This makes the religion of ancient Mesopotamia roughly 3,000 years older than the ancient Egyptian religion! If that isn’t crazy enough, the religion is considered to be the oldest in the world, despite not being practiced today.
As a whole, Mesopotamian mythology is composed of several other cultural mythologies, including those of the Sumerians, Akkadians, Assyrians, and Babylonians. Depending on the era, some deities took on new names, although their role stayed the same.
Primordial Beings in Mesopotamian Mythology
All ancient gods come from somewhere. In the case of the ancient Mesopotamian gods and goddesses, we can look to a handful of primordial beings for responsibility.
Within the Mesopotamian pantheon, primordial beings were entities who were present at – or had a hand in – the creation of the world. They tended to capture the “bigger picture,” one could say. The primordial gods and goddesses represent big ideas such as the Earth, the sky, the sea, the passing of time, and so on. These entities also include the first ancestors of mankind.
Who are the Anunnaki?
The Anunnaki are a set of Mesopotamian deities responsible for determining the fates of mankind. There are frequently eight Anunnaki in any given Mesopotamian religious belief, though historical records listing all names and the exact number of gods do not currently exist.
These gods of fate are the celebrated children of An and Ki. Originally, they were recorded as important members of Sumerian mythology. They also doubled as Judges of the Heavens and Earth. Of them, Enlil was considered the most important.
- Ea (Enki)
The Most Prominent Gods of Ancient Mesopotamia
Thankfully for us, many Mesopotamian gods were recorded in a wealth of sources. A few prominent in the An = Anum (The Great God List) and the Fara god list were worshiped throughout the many great empires that arose from the Fertile Crescent.
Realm(s): Love, beauty, sex, fertility, divine law, and war.
Family Tree: Utu is her twin brother and Ereshkigal is her sister. Their parentage is disputed, but most historians agree Inanna’s parents are Nanna and Ningal.
Fun Fact: Compared to all other deities, Inanna appears most frequently in myths and legends.
Oh, gods of love – we can’t live without them! But, considering Inanna is also a war goddess…maybe we can’t live with them, either. Let’s just say it’s complicated.
Unsurprisingly, Inanna was one of the most popular goddesses of her time: she was the “it girl” of the Heavens. However, despite her popularity and the realms she is associated with, Inanna never rose to the prominence of a Mother Goddess.
Of all of Inanna’s myths, her most famous one deals with her delving into, and returning from the Underworld. She had a bit of a family reunion with her cold sister, Ereshkigal. During this time, Inanna is effectively dead. We can thank Enki – stubborn as ever – for her return. Well, we can probably thank her husband, Dumuzid, too: he took her place in the Land of the Dead.
By the Akkadian period, Inanna became known by the name “Ishtar.”
Realm(s): Creation, water, craftsmanship, and knowledge.
Family Tree: His father is An and his mother is Nammu; Ninhursag is his consort and Marduk is among his several children. In the Enûma Eliš, he is the son of Tiamat and Apsu.
Fun Fact: There are actually two gods named Enki in Mesopotamian mythology! This one was later known as the god Ea.
This Sumerian god is one of the most historied in the pantheon. He is attested in the Enûma Eliš as the creator of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. More importantly in these early myths, Enki fulfills the very important role of any upstart god: he is a rebel. By his will and through those of his bloodline (big thanks to the god, Marduk), Enki overthrows the primordial gods.
Enki is the patron deity of the ancient city of Eridu, which the Mesopotamians believed to be the first city established by the gods. He is heavily associated with water, namely the Tigris and Euphrates. Although mighty, influential, and central to myths, Enki is not considered the supreme god.
The gods Enki and Enlil are counted as the two most important figures in Mesopotamian myths and legends.
Realm(s): Wind, air, storms, and the atmosphere.
Family Tree: Born from the union of An and Ki, Enlil took his mother as a consort, along with the goddess Ninlil. He fathered several children including the gods Nergal and Nanna.
Fun Fact: Although he is a supreme deity, Enlil was banished to the Underworld in one myth!
If there is anything to take away from Enlil’s facts, this Mesopotamian god was all about wind. His name means “Lord Wind,” so you know this is a realm he takes seriously. This included everything from a gentle summer breeze to a raging hurricane.
The most famous myth about this deity is known simply as Enlil and Ninlil. To sum it up, Enlil was said to have laid with the maiden goddess, Ninlil. The issue was that the act was far from consensual. From this union came the moon god, Nanna, and as punishment, Enlil was banished to the Underworld. In some variations, Enlil was killed as retribution.
Enlil became the supreme god of the Assyrian pantheon despite his Babylonian origins.
Realm(s): Wind, air, and destiny.
Family Tree: As the wife of the god Enlil, Ninlil is mother to an assortment of deities, both major and minor.
Fun Fact: Ninlil belongs to the Sumerian pantheon.
There’s more to this goddess than meets the eye. Ninlil is often chalked up as nothing more than Enlil’s wife and the mother of his children. However, she is credited as the “Lady of the Gods” in more than one account and “Queen of the Heavens and Earth” in several more.
To the Greek historian Herodotus, Ninlil was equal to the celebrated goddess Aphrodite. While this is likely from several instances of her being converged with Ishtar, it was a huge compliment. More importantly, it was a testament to Ninlil’s popularity and influence among the Mesopotamians.
Realm(s): The moon.
Family Tree: He is married to Ningal. His parents are Enlil and Ninlil. Inanna and Utu are counted among his children.
Fun Fact: Nanna is his Sumerian name. In Akkadian, Nanna would be called Suen.
Following an outstanding trend in ancient civilizations, as a moon god, Nanna was incredibly wise. It only makes sense that he had been counted among the most important deities of Mesopotamia! His status was often equated with the likes of Enlil, his father, or Anu. The Mesopotamian god was known to have gained his vital role either by his mother, Ninlil, or the mighty deity Marduk.
As far as iconography goes, Nanna’s most common symbol was the crescent moon. There isn’t a ton of evidence of it lying around, though the crescent almost always appeared besides those of Inanna (Ishtar) and Utu (Shamash). This likely relied on their celestial importance, with Inanna representing Venus, Utu being the sun, and Nanna embodying the moon.
Realm(s): Fertility, mountains, and the kings of Sumer.
Family Tree: She is the sister of Enlil and Enki and has been their consort in separate myths. She is the mother of several deities.
Fun Fact: Her name was Ninmah before her son, Ninurta, changed it to Ninhursag.
This Mesopotamian goddess has had a handful of identities over the years, and not always by her own free will. It probably has something to do with the fact historians aren’t entirely sure which domains were Ninhursag’s originally. Thus, she has been everything from a goddess who influences the fertility of animals to the nurturing patron goddess of the Sumerian kings of Lagash.
Realm(s): Justice, compassion, healing, and magic.
Family Tree: His parents are Enki and Damkina. His sisters are Ninsar, Ninkur, Uttu, and Ninti. He fathered the god Napu with his consort Zarpanitu.
Fun Fact: In Babylonian mythology, Marduk is king of the gods.
Everyone make way: the patron god of Babylon has arrived! Marduk initially garnered influence in the First Millenium BC and the only way from there was up. In the Enûma Eliš, he was hailed as the “Son of the Sun.” Although this suggests Marduk was the offspring of the sun god, Utu (Shamash), he wasn’t. The great poets of eld simply wanted the world to know just how awesome this guy was.
Realm(s): The sun, divination, justice, and travelers.
Family Tree: Twin brother of Inanna. His consort is the goddess of dawn, Aya. Together they have several children, including the dream deities Mamu, Sisig, and Zaqar.
Fun Fact: Another common name for the Sumerian Utu is Shamash, which is Akkadian. Same god, different name!
Utu is famous for a lot of reasons. Being the sun god sort of lines one up to be lauded with praise, after all. One of his most famous feats could, arguably, be the laws passed by the famous Babylonian king, Hammurabi. That’s right: we can technically thank Utu for the whole “an eye for an eye” saying that originated in the Code of Hammurabi.
Now, besides being a divine justiciar, this Mesopotamian god stayed out of most famous myths. Who would have thought the literal sun would want to keep a low profile? In most iconography, he is shown emitting actual solar rays from his shoulders!
Realm(s): Agriculture, sheep, and shepherds.
Family Tree: Enki and Duttur are his parents. His sister is Geshtinanna. He is the consort of the goddess Inanna.
Fun Fact: Spoiler alert – this god failing to mourn his spouse got him thrown in the Underworld for half a year.
Dumuzid is partially the reason we have the seasons. He is a Mesopotamian god who definitely isn’t going to get the Husband of the Year award. This may be because he is only around half a year but…we’ll get to that in a second.
To the Mesopotamians, Dumuzid was known as “the Shepherd.” He guarded those of that profession along with their flocks. He dabbled in agriculture, too.
According to the myths, Dumuzid was the object of Inanna’s youthful affections before he properly competed for her hand in marriage. When Inanna died and was (eventually) resurrected, the Sumerian goddess determined that he didn’t mourn her enough. She encouraged great demons (gallûs) to take him to the Underworld in her place. Well, the hearts of gods are fickle, and Inanna regretted Dumuzid’s departure.
Inanna’s solution? She would have her husband there only half the year. Her sister-in-law would bear the other half.
Realm(s): Agriculture, hunting, healing, and war.
Family Tree: Enlil and Ninhursag are his parents. His consorts are either Gula or Bau.
Fun Fact: Ninurta wasn’t known as a mighty warrior until after his inception.
Ninurta, as with many deities on this list, has the reputation of being an endearing god. First beloved by the kings of Sumer, Ninurta eventually won favor among the Assyrian kings as a god of war.
In myths, Ninurta is known as the slayer of demons, monsters, and restless spirits. According to an epic from the Third Millennium BC called Lugal-e (Ninurta’s Exploits), he also had a hand in irrigation among the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. In some attestations, he is known as Ningirsu.
Realm(s): The Afterlife (Kur).
Family Tree: Married to Nergal, Ereshkigal mothered Nungal and Ninazu. Inanna and Utu are her siblings.
Fun Fact: Her alternate name, Irkalla, has also been used to describe her realm, Kur.
Leave it to the goddess of love to have a macabre sister. It’s just too iconic of a duo to pass up, even if the relationship was only really mentioned once.
Ereshkigal is the goddess of the Underworld, Kur. Her cult center was located in the Mesopotamian city of Kutha, where there was a large temple erected in her honor. Her role as “Lady of the Great Earth” varied, and not all peoples of Mesopotamia considered her its ruler. Sometimes Ninazu was instead cited as Kur’s lord. Other times, particularly among those settled in the northern reaches of the Fertile Crescent, her husband was the rightful ruler.
Some scholars posit that Ereshkigal and Nergal were only wedded in myth to settle religious disputes between worshippers from their respective regions. As can be expected, there are multiple versions of the myth, with some more violent than others. Regardless, Ereshkigal is among the most important deities of the era.
Realm(s): War, diseases, death.
Family Tree: Born from the union of Enlil and Ninlil. Nergal is the father of the underworld goddess, Tadmushtum.
Fun Fact: His major cult center was in Kutha, near the Upper Euphrates River.
We met Nergal’s wife, but now it is time to get introduced to the man himself. He was frequently in the company of an entourage of demons, devils, and spirits of disease. And, at least in one myth, his Ereshkigal. Some say the couple was inseparable.
By the time of the Neo-Babylonian periods (626 BCE – 539 BCE), Nergal was considered the third most prominent god of the pantheon. He fell only behind Marduk and Nabu. He was a popular local deity in the city of Kutha and was known as the god of “inflicted death.”
Realm(s): Rain, thunder, and storms.
Family Tree: He is the son of Nanna and married to the goddess Shala.
Fun Fact: In most imagery, Ishkur is depicted as a raging bull.
Storm gods tend to hold quite the sway in ancient religions and Ishkur is no different. Perhaps it has something to do with the might of thunderstorms or the fertility of rain, either of which would have rightfully earned the awe of early civilizations.
Ishkur was primarily worshiped in inland steppe regions, where storms would be their most volatile. He was also equated with a stampeding bull, whose thunderous charge would be heard from miles around. In Mesopotamia, he became identified with other deities from the Sumerian and Akkadian pantheons, respectively.
Realm(s): Literature, wisdom, the arts, and literacy.
Family Tree: Son of Marduk and Zarpanitu.
Fun Fact: He is the patron of scribes. No surprises, here!
Nabu is the god of literacy and wisdom, among other endeavors. Being the charming Mesopotamian god that he is, he was worshiped by both Babylonians and Assyrians alike. Due to his patronage of scribes, clay tablets were among the most common offerings at his temples.
Realm(s): Medicine and midwifery.
Family Tree: Gula is frequently cited as a spouse of Ninurta. She mothered Damu and Gunura.
Fun Fact: At some point, Gula’s popularity rivaled that of Inanna (Ishtar) throughout Mesopotamia.
Gula was a medicinal goddess from Babylonian culture. She became associated with dogs and a slew of other healing deities. Later on, even the other gods of healing became associated with dogs as a consequence of sharing a realm with Gula. Although Gula skyrocketed in popularity during the Second and First Millennia BC, we still don’t exactly know what the deal is with her and man’s best friend.
Realm(s): The sea, birds, fish, wetlands, public welfare, divination, and justice.
Family Tree: Born to Enki and Damkina, Ningirsu is her brother.
Fun Fact: Nanshe is a big fan of animals – she has sway over many, not just birds and fish.
Nanshe was first recorded in the Uruk Period (4000 to 3100 BCE) of Mesopotamia. Her worship lasted until at least the sixth century BCE. So, it is safe to say that Nanshe was a tried and true goddess. It also helps with her being a goddess of public welfare, since that means Nanshe had some measure of worship in most major Mesopotamian settlements for extended periods.
Besides being a goddess of the sea, marshes, the creatures in said biomes, and the public, Nanshe also was responsible for setting boundaries. Not personal boundaries, we should clarify. Physical boundaries fell under her domain, as well as dream interpretation and (occasionally) divine justice. This goddess has her hands full, that’s for sure!
Realm(s): Judgment, mandates, and justice.
Family Tree: He is likely married to Manzat.
Fun Fact: Istaran is one of the divine judges.
Quite a few major gods have “justice” as a realm of theirs. Istaran is yet another one of these heavenly beacons. He inspired several ancient rulers to enact fair laws upon their people and is praised in incantations to Nergal for his reputed skill in passing judgment.
Realm(s): Healing, motherhood, and midwifery.
Family Tree: Her consort is Ningirsu or Zababa, with regional differences. Anu is her father and she has nine children.
Fun Fact: Not many folks are sure how to say Bau’s name. A scholar once suggested her name could be pronounced “bowwow.” Definitely not it, but it was worth considering.
Bau is first and foremost a tutelary goddess of Girsu, a city from ancient Sumer. As a Sumerian goddess, she covers everything from motherhood to midwifery. Throughout history, Bau became frequently likened to goddesses of healing and medicine, such as Gula, though they weren’t interchangeable. A prime reason behind it is that Bau never became associated with dogs, unlike other popular healing deities in the pantheon.
Minor Mesopotamian Gods Worth Knowing
Not all gods are important gods. Some fulfill minor roles in the grand scheme of things.
Realm(s): Patron of Neo-Sumerian kings and a judge of the dead.
Family Tree: Son of the goddess Ninsun and the deified King of Uruk, Lugalbanda. His son is Ur-Nungal.
Fun Fact: Usually summed up as nothing more than a hero king, Gilgamesh was also a demigod.
We all know Gilgamesh of the timeless Epic of Gilgamesh, but did you know he was later worshiped as a minor Sumerian god? This deification would have taken place during the Early Dynastic Period (2900-2350 BCE) of Mesopotamian history. Throughout the Neo-Sumerian Period, Gilgamesh would be hailed as one of the gods, rather than a mere hero.
Family Tree: An uncle of Enlil, Enmesarra was married to Ninmesarra. He had seven sons.
Fun Fact: Enmesarra is so mysterious because he was part of an older generation of gods that are restricted to the Underworld.
Not too much is known about Enmesarra, save for him being somewhat of an antagonist in Sumerian myth and legend. Based on the detailed “Theogony of Enlil,” Enmesarra is a primordial entity. However, what counted as his spheres of influence were lost to the annals of history. He is considered the father of the fearsome Sebitti.
Realm(s): War and the ancient city of Kish.
Family Tree: He is married to the goddess Bau.
Fun Fact: Ninurta and Zababa are very similar, sharing a key realm and several epithets, though they are distinctly different gods!
Zababa is a favorite of the rulers of the Old Babylonian Empire. As a war god, he was naturally conflated with other gods of war, though he never quite held a candle to the other deities. It wasn’t until the rule of Hammurabi that Zababa and his cult gained much footing within the religion.
Realm(s): Love and sensuality.
Family Tree: Nanaya is a more mysterious goddess with multiple deities possibly being her parent. Nabu is cited as her consort.
Fun Fact: Despite her realms, she is not associated with the planet Venus like Inanna.
Nanaya is a bit more…mysterious than the other goddesses. She is undoubtedly a goddess of sensual love – incantations to her made that quite clear – but we’re not too sure where she came from.
Some scholars suggest she’s a variation of Inanna, though evidence is largely inconclusive. It is especially difficult because she is never associated with the celestial body of Venus, and some theories suggest that she is instead Inanna’s daughter. Other theories imply she is a minor goddess from the Assyrian Empire and nothing more.
Realm(s): The rainbow and the prosperity of cities.
Family Tree: Though her consort changes depending on the city, Manzat is thought to be the daughter of Nanna and his wife, Ningal.
Fun Fact: Manzat is known as the “Lady of the City.”
Manzat is an Akkadian goddess associated with rainbows, prosperity, and the Heavens. Based on several records, we know that offerings were made to Manzat around the time of the New Year. From what scholars could glean, Manzat and those deities identified as her spouses are counted as city gods.
Who are the Sebitti?
The Sebitti are seven lesser gods of war attested in Mesopotamia’s ancient history. The identity of the Sebitti changed with the religious traditions of the time. They have been known as the seven sons of Enmesarra, among others. Regardless of who the Sebitti were, they were almost always antagonistic and posed as monstrous challengers to the god Ninurta. Some accounts interpret these minor deities as the servants of Nergal.
What Were Sukkals?
In Mesopotamian mythology, sukkals were divine attendants to an important deity. They acted as mediators between mankind and the heavens. The most well-known of the mythological sukkals was Ninsubura, an attendant to the goddess Inanna.
The role of a sukkal was based on official roles that humans historically carried. Sukkals would enforce the execution of royal legislations and take on the role of an envoy on the king’s behalf in Sumerian society. Since sukkals were well-educated, talented individuals, the sukkal would also act as translators for foreign dignitaries. The roles of the Mesopotamian sukkals can be compared to the later viziers of the Abbasid Caliphate.
The Importance of Mesopotamian Gods and Goddesses
All in all, the gods and goddesses of ancient Mesopotamia were among the most central aspects of Mesopotamian religious beliefs. They held sway over politics, socioeconomics, laws, education, and one’s public and private lives. Nowadays, we may see them as nothing more than names in ancient history, but to ancient man, they were the undisputed rulers of the Heavens and Earth.