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Sumerian religion refers to the mythology, pantheon, rites and cosmology of the Sumerian civilization. The Sumerian religion influenced Mesopotamian mythology as a whole, surviving in the mythologies and religions of the Hurrians, Akkadians, Babylonians, Assyrians, and other culture groups.


A cuneiform temple hymn from the 19th Century BCE; the hymn is addressed to the Lugal Iddin-Dagan of Larsa.

Written cuneiform

Sumerian myths were passed down through the oral tradition until the invention of writing. Early Sumerian Cuneiform was used primarily as a record-keeping tool; it was not until the late Early Dynastic period that religious writings first became prevalent as temple praise hymns[1] and as a form of "incantation" called the nam-šub (prefix + "to cast").[2]


In the Sumerian city-states, temple complexes were originally small, elevated one-room structures. In the Early Dynastic Period, temples developed raised terraces and multiple rooms. Toward the end of the Sumerian civilization, Ziggurats became the preferred temple structure for Mesopotamian religious centers.[3] Temples served as cultural, religious and political headquarters until around 2500 BCE, with the rise of military kings known as Lu-gals (“man” + “big”)[2] after which point the political and military leadership was often housed in separate "palace" complexes.[3]

The priesthood

Until the advent of the Lugals, Sumerian city states were under a virtually complete theocratic government controlled by independent groups of En, or high priest. Priests were responsible for continuing the cultural and religious traditions of their city-state, and were viewed as mediums between humans and the cosmic and terrestrial forces. The priesthood resided full-time in temple complexes, and administered to matters of state including the large irrigation processes necessary for the civilization's survival.


During the Third Dynasty of Ur, the Sumerian city-state of Lagash was said to have had 62 "lamentation priests" who were accompanied by 180 vocalists and instrumentalists.


The Sumerians envisioned the universe as a closed dome surrounded by a primordial saltwater sea.[4] Underneath the terrestrial earth, which formed the base of the dome, existed an underworld and a freshwater ocean called the Apsu. The god of the dome-shaped firmament was named An; the earth was named Ki. The underground world was first believed to be an extension of Ki, but later developed into the concept of Kigal. The primordial saltwater sea was named Nammu, which became known as Tiamat during and after the Sumerian Renaissance.

Creation Story

According to Sumerian mythology, the gods originally created humans as servants for themselves but freed them when they became too much to handle.[5]

The primordial union of An and Ki produced Enlil, who became leader of the Sumerian pantheon. After the other gods banished Enlil from Dilmun (the “home of the gods”) for raping Ninlil, Ninlil had a child: Nanna, god of the moon. Nanna and Ningal gave birth to Inanna and to Utu, god of the sun.[6]

Gods and goddesses

The Sumerians originally practiced a polytheistic religion, with anthropomorphic deities representing cosmic and terrestrial forces in their world. During the middle of the 3rd millennium BCE, Sumerian deities became more anthrocentric and were "...nature gods transformed into city gods." Gods like Enki and Inanna were viewed as having been assigned their rank, power and knowledge from An, the heaven deity, or Enlil, head of the Sumerian pantheon.

This cosmological shift may have been caused by the growing influence of the neighboring Akkadian religion, or as a result of increased warfare between the Sumerian city-states; the assignment of certain powers to deities may have mirrored the appointment of the Lugals, who were given power and authority by the city-state and its priesthood.[7]

The Pantheon

The majority of Sumerian deities belonged to a classification called the Anunna (“[offspring] of An”), whereas seven deities, including Enlil and Inanna, belonged to a group of “underworld judges" known as the Anunnaki (“[offspring] of An” + Ki). During the Third Dynasty of Ur, the Sumerian pantheon included sixty times sixty (3600) deities.[8]

The main Sumerian deities are as follows:

  • An: God of heaven/the firmament.
  • Enlil: God of the air (from Lil = Air); patron deity of Nippur.
  • Enki: God of freshwater, male fertility, and knowledge; patron deity of Eridu.
  • Inanna: Goddess of sexual love, female fertility and warfare; matron deity of Uruk.
  • Ki: Goddess of the earth.[9]
  • Nanna, God of the moon; one of the patron deities of Ur.[10]
  • Ningal: Wife of Nanna.[11]
  • Ninlil: An air goddess and wife of Enlil; one of the matron deities of Nippur; she was believed to reside in the same temple as Enlil.[12]
  • Ninurta: God of war, agriculture, one of the Sumerian wind gods; patron deity of Girsu and one of the patron deities of Lagash.
  • Utu: God of the sun at the E'barbara temple[13] of Sippar.



The Sumerians experienced an ongoing linguistic and cultural exchange with the Semitic Akkadian peoples in northern Mesopotamia for generations prior to the conquest of their territories by Sargon of Akkad in 2340 BCE. Sumerian mythology and religious practices were rapidly integrated into Akkadian culture,[14] presumably blending with the original Akkadian belief systems which have been all but lost to history. Sumerian deities developed Akkadian counterparts, and some remained virtually the same until later Babylonian and Assyrian rule. The Sumerian god An, for example, developed the Akkadian counterpart Anu; the Sumerian god Enki became Ea; and the Sumerian gods Ninurta and Enlil remained very much the same in the Akkadian pantheon.


The Amorite Babylonians gained dominance over southern Mesopotamia by the mid-17th Century BCE. During the Old Babylonian Period, the Sumerian and Akkadian languages were still used for religious purposes; the majority of Sumerian mythological literature known to historians today comes from the Old Babylonian Period,[1] either in the form of transcribed Sumerian texts (most notably the Babylonian version of the Epic of Gilgamesh) or in the form of Sumerian and Akkadian influences within Babylonian mythological literature (most notably the Enûma Eliš). The Sumerian-Akkadian pantheon was altered, most notably with the introduction of a new supreme deity, Marduk. The Sumerian goddess Inanna also developed the counterpart Ishtar during the Old Babylonian Period.

Hurrians and Hittites

The Hurrians adopted the Akkadian god Anu into their pantheon sometime no later than 1200 BCE. Other Akkadian deities adapted into the Hurrian pantheon include Ayas, the Hurrian counterpart to Ea; Shaushka, the Hurrian counterpart to Ishtar; and Ninlil,[15] whose mythos had been drastically expanded by the Babylonians.


Some stories in Sumerian religion appear similar to stories in other Middle-Eastern religions. For example, the Biblical account of Noah's flood resembles some aspects of the Sumerian deluge myth. The Judaic underworld Sheol is very similar in description with the Sumerian and Babylonian Kigal. Sumerian scholar Samuel Noah Kramer noted similarities between many Sumerian and Akkadian "proverbs" and the later Hebrew proverbs, many of which are featured in the Book of Proverbs.[16]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 "Sumerian Literature". Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature. Retrieved 2009-06-22. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 "The Sumerian Lexicon". John A. Halloran. Retrieved 2009-06-23. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 "Inside a Sumerian Temple". The Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University. Retrieved 2009-06-22. 
  4. "The Firmament and the Water Above". Westminster Theological Journal 53 (1991), 232-233. Retrieved 2010-02-20. 
  5. "Sumerian Myth". Grand Valley State University. Retrieved 2010-02-20. 
  6. "Enlil and Ninlil". Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature. Retrieved 2009-06-22. 
  7. Karen Rhea Nemet-Nejat, (1998). "Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia", 178-179.
  8. Karen Rhea Nemet-Nejat, (1998). "Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia", 182.
  9. "Gilgamec, Enkidu and the nether world". Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature. Retrieved 2010-02-20. 
  10. "A balbale to Suen (Nanna A)". Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature. Retrieved 2010-02-20. 
  11. "A balbale to Nanna (Nanna B)". Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature. Retrieved 2010-02-20. 
  12. "An adab to Ninlil (Ninlil A)". Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature. Retrieved 2010-02-20. 
  13. "A hymn to Utu (Utu B)". Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature. Retrieved 2010-02-20. 
  14. "Mesopotamia: the Sumerians". Washington State University. Retrieved 2009-06-22. 
  15. "Hurrian Mythology REF 1.2". Christopher B. Siren. Retrieved 2009-06-23. 
  16. Samuel Noah Kramer, (1952). "From the Tablets of Sumer", 133-135.
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