views updated


NINURTA . A divinity of Nippur, Ninurta was the son of Enlil and Ninlil. Ninurta's epithets include Utaʾulu, "Sun of the South," as well as "conqueror of the Kur" and "upright diadem of Ashnan." He is said to have "sprung from Ekur," the main temple of Nippur and home of the divine couple Enlil and Ninlil. In Sumerian mythology his greatest feat is the epic war against the Kur, specifically against Asag, the fiendish monster begotten by An and given birth to by Earth, who wanted to oppose his supremacy. Ninurta not only kills him but lays the foundations of agriculture, the life-giving, essential activity of the land.

The Ninurta Story

The myth begins with a hymn to the god Ninurta and the background of the story. While he is sitting with all the other gods, Ninurta orders his weapon Sharur to keep watch on the Kur. The response he receives is far from reassuring. The Kur are in revolt, on this occasion provoked by an alliance formed between Asag and the coalition of stones, and what is more the rebels have actually triumphed. Ninurta wants to suppress the revolt immediately and rushes against the Kur, armed with all his divine weapons, unleashing a fiery tempest. But the weapon Sharur says that the attitude of the Kur is not completely hostile. Sharur, believing that the monster is no less powerful than the god, is afraid of a straight fight between Ninurta and Asag and advises Ninurta not to attack. Ninurta is not inclined to listen to reason, however, and wants the fight to take place in the open. So the two heroic figures fight a duel, and Ninurta indeed comes off the worse. All the gods get wind of the hero's difficulties, and the mood of the assembly of the gods is not pleased. Sharur returns to Enlil, Ninurta's father, asking him to intervene on behalf of his son, who is in difficulty. Enlil agrees and rallies his son, who launches a new, deadly onslaught and manages to defeat and kill the monster. The first part of the myth concludes with the cursing of Asag and the blessing of the weapon Sharur.

The second part of the story begins with a description of the organizing influence of the god. Up to this point the work has been undertaken entirely by the gods, and the mountain full of ice has required an enormous effort. Ninurta now melts the snows, channels the water along the bed of the Tigris, and creates dikes and canals for irrigation of the fields. In effect he invents agriculture.

After an interlude in which Ninurta's mother Ninlil is given the new title "lady of the mountain" to commemorate Ninurta's victory, this part of the myth is wholly concerned with the fate of the stones that had taken part in the war. The hostile stones are cursed, whereas the stones that surrendered meet with a more favorable fate.

Other Documents

The myth an-gim dím-ma is directly linked to the preceding tale and describes the triumphant return of Ninurta from his victorious campaign against the Kur. On this occasion the writers, just in case some doubt still remains, emphasize the extraordinary feat the hero achieved. The mere list of the trophies brought back from the Kur makes one realize that Ninurta engaged in combat with truly superhuman creatures.

This story begins with a hymn to the hero, who resumes his position in the Sumerian pantheon, and his exploits in the Kur. It tells how he plundered the six-headed wild ram, the warrior dragon, the Magilum of the deep sea, the buffalo Kulianna, the chalk, the strong copper, the eagle Anzu, and the seven-headed serpent. The son of Enlil loads these goods aboard his boat, lays them all out decoratively, and sets sail for Nippur. But the voyage is described as fraught with problems. A messenger from Enlil rushes to Ninurta and asks him not to frighten the gods with his powerful splendor. The hero understands the reluctance of the gods, because he has seen the fear of the divine world regarding the Kur already. After a detailed list of the wonderful weapons that helped him in his fight, he asks humbly to reenter the city of his birth. There follows a eulogy of self-praise, so Ninkarnunna, on behalf of Enlil, accepts his good intentions and invites Ninurta to enter the temple dedicated to him and his wife Ninnibru. The myth concludes with a hymn of praise for the hero, who has indeed shown his heroism.

Ninurta goes to Eridu to the house of Enki twice, once with hostile intentthat is, to steal the powers of Kur and the tablets of destiny from the god Enki. One journey finishes disastrously, but the second has a positive outcome as the hero pays a polite visit to the king of the underworld.

The first story begins with a meeting between Ninurta and the eagle Anzu, which the hero had caused to lose the "divine powers." After the defeat these powers returned to Eridu, to the house of the god Enki, the keeper and guardian of these symbols. Anzu bemoans the loss of the divine powers and tells Ninurta to go to Eridu to recover them. Ninurta goes to Eridu and is welcomed joyfully by Enki. But the visitor remains cold in the face of the happiness displayed by his host because he is not really coming for a polite visit but to carry out a theft. The god of wisdom knows the secret thoughts of the hero and considers his response. He creates a turtle that begins to dig a pit in the underworld. When Ninurta, unaware of the trap, finally leaves Enki's house and follows the turtle, the turtle grabs Ninurta by the ankles and drags him into the pit, from which the hero cannot escape. When Ninurta expresses surprise, Enki answers that he had been goaded into doing this by the arrogance of the conqueror of Kur. The myth concludes with an invocation by Ninurta's mother, Ninmenna, who, weeping, wonders what she can do to save her son.

In the above myth, Ninurta disgraces himself with Enki specifically because he is dishonest when he meets with his host, who punishes him by mocking him. On this second journey, which is to sanction the cosmic supremacy of Ninurta, matters turn out differently, in particular because everything happens with the complete consent of his father Enlil, who has now appointed him as his successor. After the introduction of the god, in which it is emphasized that he originates from Ekur, the reason behind the journey to Eridu is given, namely to ensure blessings and justice for the land of Sumer. Ninurta reaches the underworld of Enki, who greets him joyfully and agrees to his proper requests. The next part deals with the glorification of Ninurta, the rightful heir of Enlil. The epithets given to him rival those of the greatest gods in the pantheon. Following his war with the Kur, Ninurta has been duly awarded a preeminent place in the divine world. This document can be considered as the second part of the deeds of the god Ninurta, which are recorded in the myth Lugal-e.

Ninurta, the hero of the myth "Ninurta and Anzu," already paralleled in Sumerian mythology, also exists in Assyro-Babylonian mythology in the same "Ninurta and Anzu" but always as the savior of the cosmic order. In the Sumerian cosmos he actively suppresses the revolt of the Kur, the cosmic mountain, killing the monster Asag and showing complete mastery of the stones that rushed to help Asag. In the Assyro-Babylonian myth, Ninurta has to fight the lion-headed eagle Anzu, and he is responsible for a serious theft when he meets with his father Enlil.

It is a great pity that the Old Babylonian version is not complete, because the final outcome of the myth preserved in that version remains unclear. In contrast to the Sumerian myths, in the Old Babylonian version Ninurta is portrayed as disrespectful and rebellious. Instead of giving back the symbols stolen from Anzu, he refuses to return them to their rightful owner, thus causing disorder in the cosmos.

This myth is set down in three tablets. It unfolds with a hymn to the god Ninurta, called Ningirsu in the earliest version, in which his wonderful qualities are elaborated. After recalling the original drought, it continues with the story of the birth of Anzu, news of which is brought to Enlil. The god Ea advises his brother to take on the new being as his bodyguard, and Enlil does so. Anzu thus receives the task of helping the god in his private chambers. In this role he sees the god washing and getting dressed every day and also at times remaining completely naked. At this point he conceives of an evil plan to steal the symbols of power. Once he has stolen them, Anzu flees to the mountain, leaving the divine world in a state of near-complete despair. Champions are chosen to kill Anzu and bring back the stolen property. First Adad is sent, but his attempt is unsuccessful. Then Girru and Shara are chosen, with the same results. The god Ea next suggests calling upon Mami to ask her to send her son Ninurta. The mother goddess agrees to the request, calls her son, and instructs him regarding the battle. Ninurta, in full armor, goes to fight Anzu. The battle is bloody, but the divine hero does not prevail and is thus obliged to send his powerful weapon Sharur to Ea to ask for help. The god Ea understands the reason for the initial failure and suggests wearing out Anzu until he can no longer flap his wings. Sharur returns with Ea's advice, and by putting it into action Ninurta manages to kill Anzu and take from him the divine symbols of his father and the tablets of destiny.

Enlil, who is called Dagan at this point, learns of his son's victory and announces it to all the gods, who invite Ninurta to return. Ea suggests sending a messenger to his son to bring back the tablet of destiny, and Enlil sends Birdu. But Ninurta refuses to hand over the symbols of power, reacting as Anzu had previously. When the surviving text resumes, it deals with a long votive offering to the gods and a hymn of praise for Ninurta. The fragmentary nature of the final part of the third tablet prevents a full understanding of the significance of the long list of titles attributed to Ninurta and in particular syncretism with the other polyadic gods of the numerous cities of Mesopotamia and the surrounding region, which suggests an attempted and unfinished religious revolution.

As the god of war, Ninurta achieved special prominence in the militaristic Middle Assyrian and neo-Assyrian periods. Ninurta was also god of the hunt. Tiglath-pileser I (ruled c. 11151077 bce) recorded that at Ninurta's command, during a certain hunt, he slew numerous "extraordinary wild virile bulls," ten strong bull elephants, hundreds of lions, and every kind of wild beast and winged bird of the heavens.

See Also

Herakles; Mesopotamian Religions, overview article.


Alster, Bendt. "Ninurta and the Turtle, UET 6/1 2." Journal of Cuneiform Studies 24 (1972): 120125.

Annus, Amar. The Standard Babylonian Epic of Anzu. Helsinki, Finland, 2001.

Burkert, Walter. The Orientalizing Revolution. Cambridge, Mass., 1992.

Dijk, J. J. A. van. Lugal ud me-lam-bi nir-gal: Le récit épique et didactique des Travaux de Ninurta, du Déluge et de la Nouvelle Création, vols. 12. Leiden, 1983.

Hallo, William W., and William L. Moran. "The First Tablet of the SB Recension of the Anzu-Myth." Journal of Cuneiform Studies 31 (1979): 65115.

Hruška, Blahoslav. Der Mythenadler Anzu in Literatur und Vorstellung des alten Mesopotamien. Budapest, 1975.

Jacobsen, Thorkild. The Treasures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion. New Haven, Conn., 1976. See pp. 127134.

Pettinato, Giovanni, ed. Mitologia Sumerica. Turin, Italy, 2001.

Saggs, X. W. F. "Additions to Anzu." Archiv für Orientforschung 33 (1986): 129.

Seminara, S. "Gli dei Enlil e Ninurta nel mito sumerico Lugal-e : Politiche religiose, dibattito teologico e 'riscrittura' dei 'testi sacri' nell' antica Mesopotamia." Rendiconti dell'Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei 911, no. 3 (2000): 443468.

Such-Gutièrrez, Marcos. Beiträge zum Pantheon von Nippur im 3. Jahrtausend. Rome, 2003. See pp. 143172.

West, Martin L. The East Face of Helicon. Oxford, 1997.

Giovanni Pettinato (2005)

Translated from Italian by Paul Ellis