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Early Sumerian Times Essay, Research Paper

Sumer may very well be the first civilization in the world (although long term settlements at Jericho and Catal Huyuk predate Sumer and examples of writing from Egypt and the Harappa, Indus valley sites may predate those from Sumer). From its beginnings as a collection of farming villages around 5000 BC, through its conquest by Sargon of Agade around 2370 BC and its final collapse under the Amorites around 2000 BC, the Sumerians developed a religion and a society which influenced both their neighbors and their conquerers. Sumerian cuneform, the earliest written language, was borrowed by the Babylonians, who also took many of their religious beliefs. In fact, traces and parallels of Sumerian myth can be found in Genesis.

Sumer was a collection of city states around the Lower Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is now southern Iraq. Each of these cities had individual rulers, although as early as the mid-fourth millenium BC the leader of the dominant city could have been considered the king of the region. The history of Sumer tends to be divided into five periods. They are the Uruk period, which saw the dominance of the city of that same name, the Jemdat Nasr period, the Early Dynastic periods, the Agade period, and the Ur III period – the entire span lasting from 3800 BC to around 2000 BC. In addition, there is evidence of the Sumerians in the area both prior to the Uruk period and after the Ur III Dynastic period, but relatively little is known about the former age and the latter time period is most heavily dominated by the Babylonians.

The Uruk period, stretched from 3800 BC to 3200 BC. It is to this era that the Sumerian King Lists ascribe the reigns of Dumuzi the shepherd, and the other ante-diluvian kings. After his reign Dumuzi was worshiped as the god of the spring grains. This time saw an enormous growth in urbanization such that Uruk probably had a population around 45,000 at the period’s end. It was easily the largest city in the area, although the older cities of Eridu to the south and Kish to the north may have rivaled it. Irrigation improvements as well as a supply of raw materials for craftsmen provided an impetus for this growth. In fact, the city of An and Inanna also seems to have been at the heart of a trade network which stretched from what is now southern Turkey to what is now eastern Iran. In addition people were drawn to the city by the great temples there.

The Eanna of Uruk, a collection of temples dedicated to Inanna, was constructed at this time and bore many mosaics and frescoes. These buildings served civic as well as religious purposes, which was fitting as the en, or high priest, served as both the spiritual and temporal leader. The temples were places where craftsmen would practice their trades and where surplus food would be stored and distributed.

The Jemdat Nasr period lasted from 3200 BC to 2900 BC. It was not particularly remarkable and most adequately described as an extenson and slowing down of the Uruk period. This is the period during which the great flood is supposed to have taken place. The Sumerians’ account of the flood may have been based on a flooding of the Tigris, Euphrates, or both rivers onto their already marshy country.

The Early Dynastic period ran from 2900 BC to 2370 BC and it is this period for which we begin to have more reliable written accounts although some of the great kings of this era later evolved mythic tales about them and were deified. Kingship moved about 100 miles upriver and about 50 miles south of modern Bahgdad to the city of Kish. One of the earlier kings in Kish was Etana who “stabilized all the lands” securing the First Dynasty of Kish and establishing rule over Sumer and some of its neighbors. Etana was later believed by the Babylonians to have rode to heaven on the back of a giant Eagle so that he could receive the “plant of birth” from Ishtar (their version of Inanna) and thereby produce an heir.

Meanwhile, in the south, the Dynasty of Erech was founded by Meskiaggasher, who, along with his successors, was termed the “son of Utu”, the sun-god. Following three other kings, including another Dumuzi, the famous Gilgamesh took the throne of Erech around 2600 BC and became in volved in a power struggle for the region with the Kish Dynasts and with Mesannepadda, the founder of the Dynasty of Ur. While Gilgamesh became a demi-god, remembered in epic tales, it was Mesannepadda who was eventually victorious in this three-way power struggle, taking the by then traditional title of “King of Kish”.

Although the dynasties of Kish and Erech fell by the wayside, Ur could not retain a strong hold over all of Sumer. The entire region was weakened by the struggle and individual city-states continued more or less independent rule. The rulers of Lagash declared themselves “Kings of Kish” around 2450 BC, but failed to seriously control the region, facing several miltary challanges by the nearby Umma. Lugalzagesi, ensi or priest-king of Umma from around 2360-2335 BC, razed Lagash, and conquered Sumer, declaring himself “king of Erech and the Land”. Unfortunately for him, all of this strife made Sumer ripe for conquest by an outsider and Sargon of Agade seized that opportunity.

Sargon united both Sumer and the northern region of Akkad – from which Babylon would arise about four hundred years later – not very far from Kish. Evidence is sketchy, but he may have extended his realm from the Medeterranian Sea to the Indus River. This unity would survive its founder by less than 40 years. He built the city of Agade and established an enormous court there and he had a new temple erected in Nippur. Trade from across his new empire and beyond swelled the city, making it the center of world culture for a brief time.

After Sargon’s death, however, the empire was fraught with rebellion. Naram-Sin, Sargon’s grandson and third successor, quelled the rebellions through a series of military successes, extending his realm. He declared himself ‘King of the Four corners of the World’ and had himself deified. His divine powers must have failed him as the Guti, a mountain people, razed Agade and deposed Naram-Sin, ending that dynasty.

After a few decades, the Guti presence became intollerable for the Sumerian leaders. Utuhegal of Uruk/Erech rallied a coalition army and ousted them. One of his lieutenants, Ur-Nammu, usurped his rule and established the third Ur dynasty around 2112 BC. He consolidated his control by defeating a rival dynast in Lagash and soon gained control of all of the Sumerian city-states. He established the earliest known recorded law-codes and had constructed the great ziggurat of Ur, a kind of step-pyramid which stood over 60′ tall and more than 200′ wide. For the next century the Sumerians were extremely prosperous, but their society collapsed around 2000 B.C. under the invading Amorites. A couple of city-states maintained their independence for a short while, but soon they and the rest of the Sumerians were absorbed into the rising empire of the Babylonians.

Seated along the Euphrates River, Sumer had a thriving agriculture and trade industry. Herds of sheep and goats and farms of grains and vegetables were held both by the temples and private citizens. Ships plied up and down the river and throughout the Persian gulf, carrying pottery and various processed goods and bringing back fruits and various raw materials from across the region, including cedars from the Levant.

Sumer was one of the first literate civilizations leaving many records of business transactions, and lessons from schools. They had strong armies, which with their chariots and phalanxes held sway over their less civilized neighbors. Perhaps the most lasting cultural remnants of the Sumerians though, can be found in their religion.

The religion of the ancient Sumerians has left its mark on the entire middle east. Not only are its temples and ziggurats scattered about the region, but the literature, cosmogony and rituals influenced their neighbors to such an extent that we can see echoes of Sumer in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition today. From these ancient temples, and to a greater extent, through cuneiform writings of hymns, myths, lamentations, and incantations, archaeologists and mythographers afford the modern reader a glimpse into the religious world of the Sumerians.

Each city housed a temple that was the seat of a major god in the Sumerian pantheon, as the gods controlled the powerful forces which often dictated a human’s fate. The city leaders had a duty to please the town’s patron deity, not only for the good will of that god or goddess, but also for the good will of the other deities in the council of gods. The priesthood initially held this role, and even after secular kings ascended to power, the clergy still held great authority through the interpretation of omens and dreams. Many of the secular kings claimed divine right; Sargon of Agade, for example claimed to have been chosen by Ishtar/Inanna. (Crawford 1991: 21-24)

The rectangular central shrine of the temple, known as a ‘cella,’ had a brick altar or offering table in front of a statue of the temple’s deity. The cella was lined on its long ends by many rooms for priests and priestesses. These mud-brick buildings were decorated with cone geometrical mosaics, and the occasional fresco with human and animal figures. These temple complexes eventually evolved into towering ziggurats. (Wolkstein & Kramer 1983: 119)

The temple was staffed by priests, priestesses, musicians, singers, castrates and hierodules. Various public rituals, food sacrifices, and libations took place there on a daily basis. There were monthly feasts and annual, New Year celebrations. During the later, the king would be married to Inanna as the resurrected fertility god Dumuzi, whose exploits are dealt with below.

When it came to more private matters, a Sumerian remained devout. Although the gods preferred justice and mercy, they had also created evil and misfortune. A Sumerian had little that he could do about it. Judging from Lamentation records, the best one could do in times of duress would be to “plead, lament and wail, tearfully confessing his sins and failings.” Their family god or city god might intervene on their behalf, but that would not necessarily happen. After all, man was created as a broken, labor saving, tool for the use of the gods and at the end of everyone’s life, lay the underworld, a generally dreary place. (Wolkstein & Kramer 1983: pp.123-124)

It is notable that the Sumerians themselves may not have grouped four primary deities as a set and that the grouping has been made because of the observations of Sumerologists.

An, god of heaven, may have been the main god of the pantheon prior to 2500 BC., although his importance gradually waned. It seems likely that he and Ki/Ninhursag were the progenitors of most of the gods. His primary temple was in Erech. He and Enlil give various gods, goddesses, and kings their earthly regions of influence and their laws.

Ki is likely to be the original name of the earth goddess, whose name more often appears as Ninhursag (queen of the mountains), Ninmah (the exalted lady), or Nintu (the lady who gave birth). It seems likely that she and An were the progenitors of most of the gods. She is the mother goddess and assists in the creation of man. There she added constructive criticism to Enki as he shaped several versions of man from the heart of the clay over the Abzu. In Dilmun, she bore eight new trees from Enki. When he then ate her children, she cursed him with eight wounds. After being persuaded by Enlil to undo her curse, she bore Enki eight new children which undid the wounds of the first ones. Most often she is considered Enlil’s sister, but in some traditions she is his spouse instead.

An and Ki’s union produced Enlil (Lord of ‘lil’). Enlil was the air- god and leader of the pantheon from at least 2500 BC. He assumed most of An’s powers. He is glorified as “‘the father of the gods,’ ‘the king of heaven and earth,’ ‘ the king of all the lands’”. Kramer portrays him as a patriarchal figure, who is both creator and disciplinarian. Enlil effectuates the dawn, the growth of plants, and bounty. He also invents agricultural tools such as the plow. He is also banished to the nether world (kur) for his rape of Ninlil, his intended bride, but returns with the first product of their union, the moon god Sin (also known as Nanna). (Kramer, Sumerians 1963: pp.118-121). Most often he is considered Ninlil’s husband, with Ninhursag as his sister, but some traditions have Ninhursag as his spouse. (Jacobsen p.105) The me were assembled by Enlil in Ekur and given to Enki to guard and impart to the world, beginning with Eridu, Enki’s center of worship. He helps Enki again when he was cursed by Ninhursag. Enlil and a fox entreat her to return and undo her curse.

Contrary to the translation of his name, Enki is not the lord of the earth, but of the abzu (the watery abyss and also semen) and of wisdom. This contradiction leads Kramer and Maier to postulate that he was once known as En-kur, lord of the underworld, which either contained or was contained in the Abzu. He did struggle with Kur as mentioned in the prelude to “Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Underworld”, and presumably was victorious and thereby able to claim the title “Lord of Kur” (the realm). He is a god of water, creation, and fertility. He also holds dominion over the land. He is the keeper of the me, the divine laws. (Kramer & Maier Myths of Enki 1989: pp. 2-3) The me were assembled by Enlil in Ekur and given to Enki to guard and impart to the world, beginning with Eridu, his center of worship. From there, he guards the me and imparts them on the people. He directs the me towards Ur and Meluhha and Dilmun, organizing the world with his decrees. Later, Inanna comes to Enki and complains at having been given too little power from his decrees. In a different text, she gets Enki drunk and he grants her more powers, arts, crafts, and attributes – a total of ninety-four me. Inanna parts company with Enki to deliver the me to her cult center at Erech. Enki recovers his wits and tries to recover the me from her, but she arrives safely in Erech with them. (Kramer & Maier 1989: pp. 38-68)

Enki sails for the Kur, presumably to rescue Ereshkigal after she was given over to Kur. He is assailed by creatures with stones. These creatures may have been an extension of Kur itself. He is friendly to Inanna and rescued her from Kur by sending two sexless beings to negotiate with, and flatter Ereshkigal. They gave her the Bread of Life and the Water of Life, which restored her. He blessed the paradisiacal land of Dilmun, to have plentiful water and palm trees. With Ninhursag, he created eight new types of trees there. He then consumed these children and was cursed by Ninhursag, with one wound for each plant consumed. Enlil and a fox act on Enki’s behalf to call back Ninhursag in order to undo the damage. She joins with Enki again and bears eight new children, one to cure each of the wounds. At the direction of his mother Nammu and with some constructive criticism from Ninhursag, he created man from the heart of the clay over the Abzu. Several flawed versions were created before the final version was made.

In addition to the four primary deities, there were hundreds of others. A group of seven “decreed the fates” – these probably included the first four, as well as Nanna, his son Utu, the sun god and a god of justice, and Nanna’s daughter Inanna, goddess of love and war.

Nanna’s daughter Inanna, goddess of love and war. A woman planted the huluppu tree in Inanna’s garden, but the Imdugud-bird (Anzu bird?) made a nest for its young there, Lilith (or her predecessor, a lilitu-demon) made a house in its trunk, and a serpent made a home in its roots. Inanna appeals to Utu about her unwelcome guests, but he is unsympathetic. She appeals to Gilgamesh, here her brother, and he is receptive. He tears down the tree and makes it into a throne and bed for her. In return for the favor, Inanna manufactures a pukku and mikku for him. Later, Inanna seeks out Gilgamesh as her lover. When he spurns her she sends the Bull of Heaven to terrorize his city of Erech.

Inanna also visits Kur, which results in a myth reminiscent of the Greek seasonal story of Persephone. She sets out to witness the funeral rites of her sister-in-law Erishkigal’s husband Gugalana, the Bull of Heaven. She takes precaution before setting out, by telling her servant Ninshubur to seek assistance from Enlil, Nanna, or Enki at their shrines, should she not return. Inanna knocks on the outer gates of Kur and the gatekeeper, Neti, questions her. He consults with queen Ereshkigal and then allows Inanna to pass through the seven gates of the underworld. After each gate, she is required to remove adornments and articles of clothing, until after the seventh gate, she is naked. The Annuna pass judgment against her and Ereshkigal killed her and hung her on the wall. (see Ereshkigal) (Wolkstein & Kramer 1983 p. 60)

Inanna is rescued by the intervention of Enki. He creates two sexless creatures that empathize with Ereshkigal’s suffering, and thereby gain a gift – Inanna’s corpse. They restore her to life with the Bread of Life and the Water of Life, but the Sumerian underworld has a conservation of death law. No one can leave without providing someone to stay in their stead. Inanna is escorted by galla/demons past Ninshubur and members of her family. She doesn’t allow them to claim anyone until she sees Dumuzi on his throne in Uruk. They then seize Dumuzi, but he escapes them twice by transforming himself, with the aid of Utu. Eventually he is caught and slain. Inanna spies his sister, Geshtinanna, in mourning and they go to Dumuzi. She allows Dumuzi, the shepherd, to stay in the underworld only six months of the year, while Geshtinanna will stay the other six. (Wolkstein & Kramer pp. 60-89) As with the Greek story of the kidnapping of Persephone, this linked the changing seasons, the emergence of the plants from the ground, with the return of a harvest deity from the nether world. (see also Dumuzi) Geshtinanna is also associated with growth, but where her brother rules over the spring harvested grain, she rules over the autumn harvested vines (Wolkstein & Kramer p. 168).

Another important concept in Sumerian theology, was that of me. The me were universal decrees of divine authority. They are the invocations that spread arts, crafts, and civilization. Enki became the keeper of the me. Inanna comes to Enki and complains at having been given too little power from his decrees. In a different text, she gets Enki drunk and he grants her more powers, arts, crafts, and attributes – a total of ninety-four me. Inanna parts company with Enki to deliver the me to her cult center at Erech. Enki recovers his wits and tries to recover the me from her, but she arrives safely in Erech with them.

Nanna is another name for the moon god Sin. He is the product of Enlil’s rape of Ninlil. (Kramer, 1963, pp. 146-7.) Nanna was the tutelary deity of Ur (Kramer 1963 p. 66), appointed as king of that city by An and Enlil. He established Ur-Nammu as his mortal representative, establishing the third Ur dynasty. Nanna was married to Ningal and they produced Inanna and Utu. He rests in the Underworld every month, and there decrees the fate of the dead. He averts a flood of his city by visiting Enlil in Nippur on a boat loaded with gifts and pleading with him. He refuses to send aid to Inanna when she is trapped in the underworld.

Son of Nanna and Ningal, god of the Sun and of Justice, Utu goes to the underworld at the end of every day and while there decrees the fate of the dead. When Inanna’s huluppu tree is infested with unwelcome guests, he ignores her appeal for aid. He aided Dumuzi in his flight from the galla demons by helping him to transform into different creatures. He opened the “ablal” of the Underworld for Enkidu, to allow him to escape, at the behest of Enki. Through Enki’s orders, he also brings water up from the earth in order to irrigate Dilmun, the garden paradise, the place where the sun rises. He is in charge of the “Land of the Living” and, in sympathy for Gilgamesh, calls off the seven weather heroes who defend that land.


? Crawford, Harriet, Sumer and the Sumerians, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1991.

? Kramer, Samuel Noah, and Maier, John, Myths of Enki, the Crafty God, Oxford University Press, New York,1989.

? Kramer, Samuel Noah The Sumerians The University of Chicago Press, Chicago,1963.

? Wolkstein, Diane and Kramer, Samuel Noah, Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth, Harper & Row, NY, 1983.

The New American Bible, Catholic Book Publishing Co., New York, 1970.

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