© Ian Lawton 2020

The gods played a crucial role in Sumer, both for the nation and for individuals, and most Sumerians appear to have had a personal god or gods with whom they forged a special relationship. Their texts and stelae indicate that, like so many other cultures, they looked to their deities 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 that we’ll consider in subsequent chapters, it’s 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 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 Atrahasis the Anunnaki are the ‘great gods’ while the Igigi ‘do the work’. By contrast, in the Epic of Creation, in 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 number of gods in the – or each – pantheon also differs from text to text, with them 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 – something we encounter in the sacred texts of all religions and cultures, and to which we’ll return in the next chapter. 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 their potential hierarchical structure permeates most Assyriologists’ work. In 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.[1] He suggests the hierarchy then proceeded through a further fifty gods before the level of the Igigi, and then finally the Anunnaki.

By contrast Samuel Kramer describes the ‘seven gods who decree the fates’.[2] 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’re 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 Figure 2 I’ve 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.[3] Of course assembling the apparent relationships between them is hugely complicated by a number of factors: the gods’ apparently protracted lifespans that 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 cultures around the world; and the repeated editing of texts over millennia.

As a result the pantheon shown in Figure 2 shouldn’t 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 later Igigi were regarded as subservient to the major deities listed below.

Figure 2: The Sumerian Pantheon

For consistency and ease of understanding I’ve 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 chapters, 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. The following notes that accompany it contain various points of detail, especially indicating the areas of greatest uncertainty:

1. Ninhursag appears to be Enlil’s consort in that they’re Ninurta’s parents, and Enki’s consort in A Sumerian Paradise Myth. Yet overall she doesn’t appear to be anyone’s permanent 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 shouldn’t get too hung up on such details.

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

3. Nergal and Ninurta are sometimes assimilated with each other, probably because in Enlil and Ninlil Nergal is reported as their second son and Ninurta isn’t mentioned, while in the later Erra (Nergal) and Ishum the former is again reported as Enlil’s son. Occasionally Nergal is also assimilated with Gibil.

4. 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, so 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’re part of the main pantheon. The determination of his main offspring as shown is based on more substantial statements.

Despite the controversies over elements of detail, it’s 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, for example, in pictographic texts found at Uruk dating to c. 3000 BCE – but this position was subsequently transferred to Enlil. The latter has built a widespread reputation for bringing devastation to humankind – for example with the Flood – but Kramer suggests this is misplaced and due only to the order in which the texts were discovered. The ones found later, such as Hymn to Enlil, show him in a softer light. However he and his offspring do tend to be associated with storms and war, and he’s often represented as a bull.

By contrast Enki, who was in charge of the Abzu – or watery deep – and often represented as a serpent, is associated with kindness and compassion, and also the transfer of civilisation and scientific knowledge to humankind via a set of ‘divine rules’ known as me’s. Although there’s 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 BCE. 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 BCE.

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’s 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 almost certainly 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.[4] 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’s quite clearly positioned as a god, and surely therefore merits his place in the pantheon as Inanna’s consort in Figure 2. Indeed to his disgust the biblical Ezekiel finds the women of Jerusalem still worshipping him under his later name of Tammuz in the 6th century BCE.[5] Another example is Ziusudra, the hero of the Flood and the 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, presumably within the more subordinate levels.

So, let’s now move on to a consideration of the all-important Mesopotamian literary texts.

[1] Smith, The Chaldean Account of Genesis, chapter 4.

[2] Kramer, The Sumerians, chapter 4, pp. 122–3.

[3] An invaluable source in this exercise was Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia, Glossary, pp. 317–331.

[4] Uniquely the name Dumuzi 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.

[5] Ezekiel 8:14.