One of the first civilizations to grace the Earth, the Sumerians banded together and settled in ancient southern Mesopotamia (modern day south-central Iraq) around 3500 BC.
Like most ancient civilizations, the Sumerians came to believe that just about every earthly phenomenon, anthropological aspect, and astronomical event was somehow controlled by unseen deities. This gave rise to more than 3,000 Sumerian gods and goddesses.
Over the millennia, Sumerians branched off into Akkadians and later Babylonians, with the core mythology undergoing anywhere between minute and massive changes.
Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia
There were many notable differences between most modern religions and Sumerian religion apart from the aforementioned polytheism.
Fundamentals of Mesopotamian Religion
While most religions today are firmly rooted in the idea of a perennial god who transcends the very concept of time, the Sumerians believed that their primary gods came from the union between the goddess Nammu — the Sumerian goddess of what was considered the “primordial sea” or salt water bodies — and her partner Engur, who was not a deity but a personification of what was assumed to be an underground ocean of freshwater called the Abzu or Apsu. These entities gave birth to An, the god of the “sky” which doubled as heaven, and Ki, who represented the Earth.
An and Ki then proceeded to mate, and birthed Enlil. Enlil was known as the god of rain, wind, and storm, and it was he who separated heaven from Earth and made way for life as we know it, also becoming the god of earth in the process.
However, it wasn’t just heaven and Earth; there was also the Netherworld or Kur, which was a bleak, dark, underground version of Earth which was home to every deceased soul regardless of their actions on the living plane.
It is important to remember that records from that long ago are often unreliable, and that there is plenty of overlap between deities as to what they are gods or goddesses of. For example, although Engur was the original personification of the Abzu, it was later declared that Enki, who was something of a stepson to him, was in charge of all water, and even later, the Abzu was deemed a deity in and of itself in the Babylonian version of events.
The Human Nature of the Sumerian God
One of the most stark examples of Sumerian religion being different from modern ones is the sheer humanness of ancient Mesopotamian gods. Sumerian myth dictates that while almost every Sumerian god was a powerful being with supernatural abilities at their disposal, they were far from being the kind of omnipotent, supreme deity we have become accustomed to thanks to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
No deity in the Sumerian pantheon of gods was above making mistakes, and these errors and lapses of judgment were often regarded as parabolic lessons. Additionally, these deities were depicted to either be human in form or, at the very least, anthropomorphic. They also required food, water, and shelter much like the people who worshiped them. However, they were gigantic in size, and caused humans to feel a physical unease and fear should one look at them.
It wasn’t just their powers that separated them from humans, though. Members of the Mesopotamian pantheon were immortal, and as long as they were above the Netherworld, had an “aura” about them called melammu, which was described as a glow which instantly distinguished them from mere mortals.
Moreover, they were also meant to live leisurely lives and be treated as whimsical masters at best, ominously present just beyond sight and sound as temperamental overseers to humans. There was no ‘fair’ system of karmic give-and-take as there appeared in later religions — the average Mesopotamian god could grant a difficult wish or take a life as they pleased, even if the person in question had been a devout worshiper and a good human being.
Such inconsistencies were also common when it came to what a god was the god of, with multiple gods being in charge of one aspect of the cosmos, and a singular deity’s purview changing over the course of time.
The Concept of the Patron Deity
Another interesting concept that was common in the Sumerian civilization was that of patron deities. Each of their major cities worshiped a different god as their chief local deity. For example, the people of Uruk revered the god An and the goddess Inanna, while the residents of Nippur considered Enlil to be their patron deity, and Eridu saw Enki being held as most important.
This was not done at random, however, as the patron deity of a city defined its strength and significance in the region, and the god of a city ascended the ranks in mythology in accordance with the rise of a city itself.
Thus, the events in the Mesopotamian pantheon were inextricably linked to those in the real-world realm that spawned the lore. Worshipers of each city would go to the main temple to pay their respects to the main god. These temples began as little more than elaborate buildings, but as construction became more advanced, they were transformed into massive ziggurats, Babylonian pyramids, and a home to religious traditions and celebrations.
The Most Important Ancient Sumerian Gods
With more than 3,000 Sumerian gods and goddesses, the pantheon is immense. But of this massive group, a few stand out in their significance to Sumerian religion and mythology.
Nammu – The Goddess of the Primordial Sea
One of the most highly regarded female deities in early Mesopotamian religion, Nammugave birth to An and Ki — the gods of heaven and earth. She was the embodiment of the primeval sea, which played a major part in the creation of the world, and also considered the mother goddess.
The symbol that denotes her name is the same as the one used to designate Engur, her mate and the personification of the mythical underground freshwater ocean known as Abzu. It is believed that Nammu held greater importance in earlier times, but as there are no written records of those times, this is impossible to say with certainty.
In later times, Engur was essentially superseded by Enki, the Sumerian god of water, wisdom, water, and crafts whom we will meet later on. One version of the myth states that when Enlil proposed the idea of creating humans to Nammu, she told him that she could make such beings with the help of Enki — who was also her son. Another version attributes the idea to Nammu herself.
Either way, she went on to enlist the help of Enki to create a clay figurine in the image of the gods themselves. She then proceeded to turn it into a living, breathing human with the help of seven goddesses including Ninmah, who played the role of a midwife.
An – The Sky God
An, the Sumerian deity who ruled heaven, was the most important god, and the most important deity, in the religion overall. Despite his position in the mythological hierarchy of ancient Sumer, there are almost no surviving visual depictions of him, and written ones are vague and inconsistent.
The only consistent aspect of any visual portrayals is his symbol, which was a horned cap. The god of heaven or the sky, he was also the patron god of the city of Uruk. Essentially the supreme lord of all the gods and mortals according to Mesopotamian religion.
An was said to be both the brother and husband of Ki, the goddess of the Earth, and was at some points considered the de facto father of all creation. In some cases, he was denoted as a consort of Nammu. An took control of heaven and separated the sky from the Earth when Enlil came between himself and Ki, allowing for the creation of the universe.
Unlike the modern idea of heaven, Sumerian heaven was essentially the sky, which was where some gods lived. This included the aforementioned air god Enlil, air goddess Ninlil, moon god Nanna, and sun god Utu. His other children, depending on the version of the myth, were Enki, Nikikurga, Nidaba, Baba, and even Inanna and Kumarbi.
The highest echelon of gods in Sumerian religion were known as the Anunnaki. The group consisted of 7 gods: An, Enlil, Enki, Ki/Ninhursag, Nanna, Utu, and Inanna.
Ki – The Earth goddess
Named after the Earth itself, Ki was a direct descendent of Nammu. Together with An, she created a portion of the vegetation of the planet and also gave birth to Enlil and the other gods collectively known as the Annunaki.
After being separated from An by the former, Ki stayed on Earth to rule over the domain. She later married her son Enlil, and the two proceeded to create all the plants and animals on the planet. She was also a consort to Enki at some point, and had three children: Ninurta, Ashgi, and Panigingarra.
Although she is referenced at length in Sumerian myth, there are some who doubt her status as a deity as there are not very many references to her in the ancient records. There was also no cult formed to worship her, and it is said that she is the same entity as the goddesses Ninmah, Ninhursag, and Nintu, among others.
According to an ancient seal, she was pictured as a woman with long arms wearing a traditional garb and a horned helmet. Whether a deity or not, she played a major role in creating the universe as well as humans and human civilization. Her temples were found in Nippur, Mari, and in several other places under different names.
Enlil – The Air God
By now, Enlil should require little in the way of an introduction. The god of air, rain, storms, and even the Earth, Enlil may have created life by mating with his mother, but he later married the goddess Ninlil, with whom he birthed the gods Ninurta, Nanna, and Utu, among others.
The patron deity of the city of Nippur was given the names “father,” “creator,” “lord,” “the great mountain,” “raging storm,” and “king of the foreign lands.”
Enlil’s importance was immense as he was said to be the being that granted kingship to kings, and the force behind most of the aspects of the universe. In fact, legends spoke of how he had Nanna and Utu illuminate the sky after being unhappy about the darkness in his heavenly home.
The clash in tone between his names is not an outlier. Numerous ancient texts describe him as both an aggressive, antagonistic god, while others have him down as a kind, friendly, and benevolent being who protected Sumerians.
The latter descriptions are supported by a tale of how Enlil and Enki ordered the gods Labar and Ashnan to Earth in order to give cattle and grain to its inhabitants.
Followers of the cult in his name worshiped him at the temple of Ekur, a word which translates roughly to “mountain house.” To this day, the ruins of the temple still stand. A small statuette of Enlil which shows him as a bearded man sitting on a throne was found in Nippur.
Despite Enlil’s symbol having been a horned crown, no horns can be seen in this instance — although that is likely to be a result of thousands of years of damage.
Enki – The God of Water, Wisdom, Arts, Crafts, Male Fertility, and Magic
One of the four gods to whom creation was attributed, Enki was primarily the god of fresh water, and was said to have filled the Tigris and Euphrates rivers with both water and marine life.
As a result, he was visually depicted as a bearded man in a typical garb of the time — complete with horned hat — sitting down, with flowing streams and fish around him. Unlike most major gods, Enki did not live in heaven, Earth, or the Netherworld; he lived in the Abzu.
Enki’s primary consort was Ki, but in this case she was always referred to as Ninhursag. He also had relationships with Damkina, and Ninsar and Ninkurra — who were his daughters. He was father to three other children as well — Marduk, Uttu, and Ninti.
Although some other gods had a relatively higher share of support as far as surviving records testify, Enki’s contribution to legends was perhaps just as significant, if not more.
Dabbling in all kinds of knowledge, art, crafting, magic, and spells, Enki — also known as the god Ea later on — was involved in almost every brainy aspect of life in ancient Mesopotamia.
In fact, Sumerian poetry referred to him as being greatly concerned with human civilization as a whole.
As the patron god of the city of Eridu, Enki’s job was to imbue the ruler of the land with knowledge, skill, and intelligence. However, he was far from being autonomous, as his actions were almost entirely dictated by Enlil, with Enki being something of an agent of execution.
Unlike Enlil, however, Enki was almost always nice to humans, appearing to be wiser and more peaceful than his master. Some sources also say that it was not Enki, but Abzu itself that was worshiped by the people of Eridu as the personification of the freshwater supply.
Inanna – Goddess of Female Fertility, Love, and War
While Nammu may have been considered to be higher up in earlier forms of the religion, Sumerian goddess Inanna was unquestionably the most important female deity in the history of ancient Mesopotamia , and one of the most revered goddesses from all ancient civilizations. .
Said to be in control of female fertility, sexual love, reproduction, and war, she was a catalyst of both life and death, showering the civilization with blessings when pleased. Daughter to Enlil and the twin sister of Utu, she had another sibling called Ereshkigal, who was the goddess in charge of the Netherworld. She was also a patron of Uruk, where she was later known as Ishtar in the Babylonian version of events. Other cult centers of renown include Agade and Nineveh.
One of the key points to her story was her love affair with Dumuzi, the god of shepherds, and how she ended up being the cause for his demise. As the myth goes, she allowed the demons of the underworld to take him after he failed to show a satisfactory level of sadness upon her own descent into the Nether realm.
However, she also felt pity later on, and allowed him to join her in heaven for half a year — albeit at the expense of having his sister replace him for the duration.
This myth nicely rounds up Inanna’s personality:lustful, violent, and vengeful. . She was known to accompany her favorite king in battle in the shape of the planet Venus, the morning star, or the evening star.
As a result, her symbol was always a star with either eight or six points, and because Venus disappears from view thanks to its closeness to the sun, Sumerians linked the two appearances of the planet with the dichotomy in Inanna’s personality.
In an ancient seal that dates back to the period, Inanna was depicted to have several weapons ready on her back, a horned helmet, wings, and with her foot on a lion whose leash she was holding. The goddess was also said to have crafted a set of legislations that shaped the code of law and etiquette in the area.
Ereshkigal – The Goddess of the Netherworld
Of the four planes of existence in Sumerian mythos, the Netherworld, otherwise known as Kigal or Irkalla, was by far the most depressing.
Inhabited by demons, gods, and the dead, it was ruled by the goddess of death and gloom — Ereshkigal. The goddess was married to Nergal, the god of war, death, and disease. She was older than her more lively sister Inanna, hated her passionately, and was a stone-cold queen who enforced the law that no one could leave the underworld without leaving a replacement behind.
When Inanna visited the Netherworld, Ereshkigal had her stripped naked by the time she crossed the seven gates of hell, and proceeded to change her into a corpse.
However, Inanna had planned for this in advance, telling her vizier Ninshubur to inform the greater gods in the event that she did not return on time. Although the gods Nanna and Enlil refused to come to her aid, good old Enki sprang into action and tried to have Inanna extracted from the Nether realm. However, this would be impossible to do without leaving behind a replacement, and it was then that Inanna chose Dumuzi to stay in her stead, upset that he had not mourned her loss enough.
Gula – Goddess of healing
Unlike Ereshkigal, the healing goddess of Sumer had a much brighter reputation in the region.
Gula was also known as Ninisina, Nintinuga, Ninkarrak, and Meme. She was referred to as the patroness of doctors, and was said to be in possession of medical equipment such as scalpels, herbal medicine, and bandages.
It is unclear as to who her husband was, but it was either the god of war Ninurta or the god of plants Abu. With either or each of them she birthed Damu and Ninazu, both gods of healing. The minor god Damu also had the power to drive demons away, and had many a Sumerian poem written about him.
Gula was also known to be the goddess of dogs and other animals, and this is immortalized in depictions of her with a dog carved into a boundary stone dating from the period. Her popularity saw a spike in the early days of Babylon, eventually going on to become the foremost of healing deities for the civilization. Gula’s cult center was Umma, but her popularity stretched to Adab, Nippur, Lagash, Uruk, and Ur. Her primary temples were called Esabad and Egalmah.
Nanna – The Moon God
Different from many other major pantheistic societies, such as the ancient Egyptians or the ancient Aztecs, the chief astral god of the Sumerians wasn’t the sun god, but the moon god Nanna — otherwise known as Sin.
The offspring of air deities Enlil and Ninlil, Nanna was responsible for bringing light to the dark sky, which was said to be divided into three domes over a flat Earth with each dome made of a precious substance. He scattered stars and planets around the sky, and together with his wife Ningal, gave birth to Inanna and her twin brother Utu.
It is said that Enlil himself betrothed the two divine beings. Strangely, Nanna was also considered to be the god of cattle because their horns resembled the crescent moon. Nanna was also the father of fire god Nusku and one of Enlil’s trusted ministers. Like his son Utu, Nanna was determined to be a judge of good and bad due to his all-seeing position.
A patron deity of Ur, Nanna’s main temple was Ekishnugal, which was rebuilt or restored many times by different rulers. Other establishments dedicated to him were the temple Kurigalzu I and a ziggurat called Elugalgalgasisa. His cult featured princesses as priestesses, who were given residence in a building called a Gipar. There is even evidence of cults which considered Nanna to be the primary god. Nanna was depicted as a bearded man sitting on a throne with a symbolic crescent moon in the sky.
Utu – The God of the Sun, Truth, and Justice
Utu was the personification of the brilliance and warmth of the sun — unfailing and perpetual. With his life-giving energies, Utu also helped plants grow. The sun god’s appearance was similar to those of other important deities of the region, with a knife and some rays of fire differentiating him from his peers. Utu was Nanna’s son and Inanna’s twin brother, but he was not as ardently worshiped as other Sumerian gods. The god was later known as Shamash.
Utu was also known as the god of truth and justice because he was deemed to be able to see everything from his vantage point. He was one of the rare unilaterally “good” gods who oversaw the maintaining of law and order in the land, and he was said to protect what was good and banish evil.
Utu had one child — a daughter named Mamu who was one of many goddesses who presided over the realm of dreams. Utu’s chief place of worship was at Sippar, with the temple being called the White House.