© Ian Lawton 2000

The gods played a crucial role in the Sumerians' lives, both as a nation and as individuals - most Sumerians appear to have had a personal god or gods with whom they forged a special relationship. Their texts and stelae indicate that they looked to them for protection and assistance in all things, while also blaming them or looking upon it as a punishment - just or otherwise - when things went wrong. As with the endurance of their literature these gods, with some amendments, continued to be worshipped right through to the late Assyro-Babylonian period. Since they play a crucial role in the literary texts which we will consider in subsequent papers, it is appropriate that we take time out to consider the key figures.

The collective name most often given to the Sumerian pantheon is the Anunnaki, although another name, the Igigi, is also encountered. These two names appear to be interchangeable in some texts, although in others there are inconsistent and conflicting roles accorded to each as greater or lesser gods. For example, in Atra-Hasis the Anunnaki are the 'great gods' while the Igigi 'do the work'. By contrast, in the Epic of Creation, Erra and Ishum and in the Epic of Anzu the Igigi are made out to be superior, the first two referring to 'the Igigi of heaven and the Anunnaki of the Abzu' (the latter term referring to 'the deep', sometimes regarded as the 'watery underworld').

The numbers of gods in the (or each) pantheon also differ from text to text, sometimes referring to 'fifty great gods' and sometimes to as many as three hundred. It is likely that this confusion arises because of changing roles allocated to various pantheons over time as part of a 'creative editing' process underpinned by political and religious motives, a subject to which we will return in the next paper; for example, it appears that the Igigi tend to be the younger gods who appear primarily in the later Akkadian works, while the Anunnaki are the older great gods of the Sumerians.

This confusion about different pantheons and a potentially hierarchical structure permeates most of the Assyriologists' work. In his book The Chaldean Account of Genesis, published in 1876, George Smith - who succeeded Henry Rawlinson as the head of the Department of Oriental Antiquities at the British Museum - describes a pantheon of 'twelve great gods' who despite having been given somewhat different names in his day are broadly the same figures, with similar associations, that we currently regard as having been pre-eminent.[i] He suggests the hierarchy then proceeded through a further fifty gods before the level of the Igigi, and then finally the Anunnaki.

Meanwhile Samuel Kramer describes the 'seven gods who decree the fates'.[ii] He suggests these are probably made up of four 'creative gods': An who rules heaven, Enlil the air or atmosphere, Enki water, and Ninhursag earth; and of three 'astral deities': Nanna associated with the Moon, Utu with the Sun, and Inanna usually with Venus. As with Smith they are followed by 'fifty great gods', but Kramer identifies these with the Anunnaki (as 'children of An'), while relegating the Igigi to a 'relatively minor role'.

What is clear is that there are a number of key players in this pluralistic pantheon of anthropomorphic gods who appear time and again in Ancient Mesopotamian literature and sculpture. In the diagram below I have attempted to piece together a 'family tree' from the texts, not because this is a strictly correct or appropriate way of looking at them but because this approach makes them come to life and puts them into some sort of context.[iii] Of course assembling the 'apparent relationships' is hugely complicated by a number of factors: the gods' apparently protracted lifespans which lead to significant overlap; the multiple liaisons between them to produce children, including incestuous relationships involving brothers, sisters, children and grandchildren - which is in fact a common behaviour pattern adopted by the pantheons of most polytheistic philosophies around the world; and the repeated editing of texts over the millennia. As a result what follows should not be regarded as anything more than a guide to introduce the major deities to those new to the subject. It should also be pointed out that the most likely interpretation of the texts is that as groups the Anunnaki and the latecoming Igigi were regarded as subservient to the major deities listed below.

For consistency and ease of understanding I have tried to use the original Sumerian names of gods, people and places - and also the most up-to-date renderings thereof - not only here but also throughout subsequent papers, including when commenting on the later Akkadian texts. The family tree does however indicate the most commonly found alternative names (in brackets), especially the Akkadian versions used through to the end of the Assyro-Babylonian epoch. It also attempts to show the relationships between long-term consorts, and the main associations of gods with the elements and so forth; and the notes which accompany it contain various points of detail, especially indicating the areas of greatest uncertainty.

The Sumerian Pantheon

Notes accompanying the family tree:

1 These two are sometimes recorded as direct offspring of An (Ishkur in the Epic of Anzu, Inanna in the Epic of Gilgamesh); however Ereshkigal is consistently recorded as Inanna's sister, similarly Utu as her brother - therefore if she were to shift up the generations, arguably they should do likewise. Note also that gods are often misleadingly described as the 'son or daughter of An' as a poetic metaphor, perhaps to indicate that they are part of the main pantheon. The determination of his main offspring as shown is based on more substantial statements.

2 Nergal and Ninurta are sometimes assimilated with each other; I suspect this is because, in Enlil and Ninlil, Nergal is reported as their second son whereas Ninurta is not mentioned. Furthermore, in Erra (Nergal) And Ishum, Nergal is again reported as Enlil's son. Occasionally Nergal is also assimilated with Gibil - this may be due to nothing more than the similarity in their Akkadian names of Erra and Gerra respectively.

3 Marduk is only recorded as Enki's son in the Epic of Creation; he only came to prominence in the late Assyro-Babylonian period, so the importance attached to him by some must be viewed with some scepticism. Note also that he is so well known by this, his Akkadian name, that I have made an exception and used this throughout; his original Sumerian name was Asalluhe.

4 The fact that Ninhursag appears to be Enlil's consort in that they are Ninurta's parents does not detract from the fact that in Enki and Ninhursag she is clearly Enki's consort. The continual editing of texts, the assimilation of one god with another at various times, and the polygamous and incestuous nature of most relationships, mean that we should not get too hung up on such details. Although, of course, such changes in pairings may have a deeper esoteric significance.

Despite the controversies over elements of detail, it is clear that certain gods in the Sumerian pantheon stood head and shoulders above the others, especially in earlier times: namely An, Enlil, Enki and Ninhursag. It is also clear that the relative importance of various gods changed over time. Kramer suggests that as the father of the gods An was originally the head of the pantheon (as portrayed in pictographic texts found at Uruk dating to c. 3000 BC), but this position was subsequently transferred to Enlil. The latter has built a widespread reputation for bringing devastation (such as the Deluge) to mankind, but Kramer suggests that this reputation is misplaced and due only to the order in which the texts were discovered - the ones found later, such as Hymn to Enlil, tending to show him in a softer light. However he and his offspring do tend to be associated with storms and war, and he is often represented as a bull. By contrast Enki, often represented as a serpent and who was in charge of the Abzu, is associated with kindness and compassion, and also the transfer of civilisation and scientific knowledge to mankind (via a set of 'divine rules' known as me's). Although there is some consensus that this 'cosmic triad' were probably the most important of all, both Kramer and Thorkild Jacobsen suggest that Ninhursag - possibly as An's incestuous consort - may have been regarded as superior to Enki prior to the Isin-Larsa dynasty c. 2000 BC. Certainly her accepted role as the original prototypical earth-mother and birth goddess is a crucial one. Then, moving on down the generations, Marduk eventually usurped Enlil as the head of the pantheon by the middle Assyro-Babylonian period c. 1000 BC.

This pantheon clearly forms, at least in part, the basis for the subsequent more-celebrated western pantheons of the Greeks and Romans. For example there is little doubt that Inanna, as the goddess of love, was the role model for Aphrodite and Venus. However any prolonged and detailed attempt to match the pantheons up exactly is, in my view, a misguided and fruitless exercise.

It is also worth noting that, as with other religions and philosophies, genuine human figures could become at least partly deified in the Mesopotamian world. The most concrete example is that of Dumuzi, one of Inanna's many lovers, who appears in the King List under the sobriquet 'the shepherd', as the 5th antediluvian patriarch who ruled from Bad-Tibira (uniquely the same name appears a second time in the list, under the sobriquet 'the fisherman', this time for the 4th ruler of the 1st Dynasty of Uruk - but this is less likely to be the figure who was deified); since the subjects of the King List were not normally regarded as members of the pantheon, this entry gives him a definite human flavour. However in the many literary texts in which he appears he is quite clearly positioned as a god, and undoubtedly merits his place in the pantheon of 'great gods' shown above. Indeed to his disgust Ezekiel (Ezekiel 8:14) finds the women of Jerusalem still worshipping him under his later name of Tammuz in the 6th century BC. Another example is Ziusudra, the hero of the Flood and equivalent of the biblical Noah: although he doesn't appear to merit inclusion as a 'great god', the texts clearly state that he was deified - perhaps within the more subordinate levels. This has echoes of the biblical patriarch Enoch, who was 'taken' by God (Genesis 5:24) supposedly without, according to some commentators, actually dying in the normal sense - and this whole subject is one of enormous esoteric importance which must be left for a separate work.

As to the philosophical role that these Mesopotamian deities played, and how it can be compared to that of the deities in other polytheistic pantheons, this difficult but vital subject again must be left for a separate work. But one thing should be made abundantly clear... orthodox attempts to dismiss these deities en masse as primitive philosophical constructs are as misguided as those of certain 'alternative' writers who insist that they were anthropomorphic 'flesh and blood' beings.

Source References

[i] George Smith, The Chaldean Account of Genesis (London, 1876), Chapter 4.

[ii] Samuel Noah Kramer, The Sumerians (University of Chicago Press, 1963), Chapter 4, pp. 122-3.

[iii] An invaluable source in this exercise was Stephanie Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia (Oxford University Press, 1989), Glossary, pp. 317-331.