NINHURSAGA ("lady of the mountain") was the name given by Ninurta after his victory over the Kur to his mother Ninlil, who gave birth to him from his father Enlil, the powerful god of Nippur. Under the name Ninhursaga, she created the "black heads" (as the Sumerians called themselves) along with An and Enlil. She also took part in the council of the major gods—An, Enlil, Enki, and Ninhursaga—when they decided to inflict the universal flood upon the earth. In the myth of Enki and Ninhursaga she instead appears as the wife of Enki, here with the name Nintu. After intercourse with Enki she gives birth to Ninsar, "the lady of vegetation." In the underworld myths Ninhursaga receives gifts from Gilgamesh.
Under the name Ninhursaga, she plays an important part in Sumerian texts of the pre-Sargonic period. She is directly linked to the institution of the divine kingship: she "breastfeeds with delicious milk" the future sovereign at the moment of his birth (Eannatum of Lagash and Lugalzaggesi of Uruk), while Mesalim styles himself the "beloved son of Ninhursaga." Ninhursaga also appears with the great gods who guarantee the treaty between Lagash and Umma in the list of curses on the Vulture Stele, where she is given the second rank in the company of Enlil, Enki, Utu, and Ninki. The pre-Sargonic royal texts of Lagash record that their sovereigns erected the Gigunu of Tirku for her, whereas in texts from Ur one learns that A'annepada of Ur built her a temple.
The text of the Barton cylinder, which Jan van Dijk says is a copy of a much older story predating the neo-Sumerian period, mentions Ninhursaga by her epithet "mighty sister of Enlil." The text may be subdivided into two sections: the first is an etiological description of the outbreak of the mythical storm, which takes place in "a day, a night, a year," near the sanctuary of Nippur, the historical abode of the poliad god Enlil, and which causes the sky and the earth to touch. The second part describes a sacred marriage between An and Ninhursaga, the mighty sister of Enlil. The appearance of a dragon, with whom the earth talks, introduces the mythical serpent into the story.
The myth of "Enki and Ninhursaga," as recognized by Thorkild Jacobsen, is actually a conflation of two stories that must have been transmitted separately. This can be clearly seen from the name of Enki's wife, who is called Ninsikil in the first story and Nintu-Ninhursaga in the second. There are various perplexing difficulties with the text, so that, for example, Ninsikil is first the wife of Enki, whereas later Ninhursaga gives birth to her.
With this caveat in mind, here is the structure of the myth as it survives. It starts with a description setting the scene where events take place—Dilmun, which is still in pristine condition but needs to be provided with water. When Ninsikil complains about the lack of this essential commodity; Enki promises that the god Utu will not only provide Dilmun with water but will grant it a host of good things from other countries. This is virtually the entire first story.
The theme of the second story consists of accounts of sexual intercourse between Enki and his wife, then with successive daughters, who are in turn produced incestuously: Enki and Nintu beget Ninsar, who begets Ninkurra, who begets Ninimma, who begets Uttu. After Enki has tricked Uttu into having intercourse with him, Ninhursaga intervenes and makes eight plants grow to protect Uttu's daughter, but these are eaten by Enki, who as a result becomes afflicted with eight illnesses. At this point Ninhursaga curses Enki and goes off to hide so she will not see her hated husband any longer. However, the death of Enki, the god of wisdom, would have broken the balance of the universe, so Enlil (with the help of a fox) manages to bring Ninhursaga back to Nippur, where she is finally ready to forgive her husband. Ninhursaga now gives birth to eight gods who will cure Enki of the eight illnesses that have attacked and weakened his body, and she gives these gods eternal life.
Jacobsen suggested that the goddess Nintu, whose name means "lady of childbirth," may be simply a secondary name for Ninhursaga, a theory upon which Marcos Such-Gutierrez (2003) has cast doubt. In favor of Jacobsen's theory is the fact that the sign TU in the name Nintu ends with the consonant r, though it should end with the consonant d. Furthermore it has been demonstrated that during the second dynasty of Lagash and the third dynasty of Ur, Ninhursaga is considered the wife of Enlil and is therefore synonymous with Ninlil. This last assertion is confirmed by the myth an-gim-dím-ma, in which Ninurta has Enlil as his father and Nintu as his mother.
Along with the identification of Ninlil with Ninhursaga, documented in the myth of "Ninurta from Lugal-e," the mythological texts suggest other interesting identifications. In the document "Ninurta, Enki, and the Turtle" one finds that Ninurta's mother is Ninmena, "lady of the tiara," whereas in the Akkadian myth "Ninurta and Anzu" the hero's mother is Mami, which suggests that the term had a generic value and meant "mother-goddess." In almost all the myths analyzed, the role of "mother" of the heavenly gods is played by Ninhursaga, who is mentioned under various names, including Mami, as in the last myth, and Nintu, as in the story of "Enki and Ninhursaga," as well as Dingirmah and Ninmah.
Ninhursaga also had the epithets Ninzizna (mistress of the embryo), Nindim (mistress fashioner), and Nagarshaga (carpenter of the womb). She is a very early goddess, with roots in European and Anatolian Neolithic cultures. A plaque dating from Old Babylonian times pictures her nursing an infant and with babies' heads protruding from her shoulders. On either side of her hangs on pegs her omega-shaped symbol, a representation of the uterus of a cow, and on the ground squat two emaciated figures supporting their chins in their hands. They represent embryos, possibly prematurely born fetuses, for which a Sumerian term was shusagaduga ([with] the hands put to the head). Such figures have been found with images of a birth goddess in Romania and Moldavia dating from the fifth millennium bce.
It is certainly surprising that Ninhursaga is mentioned in the myth "Death of Gilgamesh," where she is listed among the gods of the underworld who receive Gilgamesh, who has just arrived in the Land of No Return. The goddess Ninhursaga is mainly active in heaven or on earth in the role of a nurse for those destined to be king, as in the case of Eannatum and others.
Ninhursaga has been connected with the theory of primitive matriarchy by some scholars. However, most contemporary historians of religion accept the anthropological view that a stage of matriarchy never existed, although a few eminent scholars continue to support the idea of an age of "mother right" that preceded patriarchy. They insist that this has been confirmed by archaeological evidence. Although most feminist scholars of the early twenty-first century agree with the anthropological position, there remain a few articulate feminist authors who continue to perpetuate the idea of an original matriarchal stage.
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Thorkild Jacobsen (1987)
Giovanni Pettinato (2005)
Translated from Italian by Paul Ellis