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UTU . Utu was the Sumerian god of the sun (he is identified with the Akkadian Shamash) and the city god of both Sippar and Larsa, where he had temples bearing the same name "shining house." Utu was the son of the moon god, Nanna, and therefore brother of Inanna and Ishkur. Hence he belongs to the fourth generation of gods after the supreme god An, and he represents the third cycle, coming after that of the annus sideralis related to the sky vault of Anand that of the lunation of the moon god Nannawho is the first divinity of light, a bridge between the "invisible" (New Moon) superior divinities, namely Enlil, Enki, and Ninhursaga, and the "illuminator" divinities, namely the sun, Venus, and lighting. The cycle attributed to Utu is the diurnal one, not the annual one, and it is this aspect that determines his functions. As god of the sun, Utu was believed to ride the heavens from sunrise to sunset in a chariot pulled by four storm-beasts and then to descend to the netherworld at sunset to continue his circuit until the morning. A frequent scene in cylinder-seal iconography shows Utu rising in the eastern mountains holding a "saw" (the sun's rays).

Utu held an important position in the pantheon, although he does not figure prominently in mythological tales. According to the myth of Enki and the world order, Enki entrusted Utu with the borders of the universe; all of Utu's other functions derived from this role. Foremost was the administration of justice by defining the borders of rights and wrongs; in this task his attendants were Justice and Righteousness, two deities of his suite which includedamong othershis wife Aja and his main assistant Bunene. Judgment actually took place in the morning, when the gods assembled; without Utu's rising, there could be no justice. Hence kingshipregulating society according to the divine laws and defending or enlarging the borders of the cosmos (i. e., the kingdom,) against the chaosis placed under Utu's jurisdiction. The evil actions of ghosts and the harm brought about by demons or sorcerersall affecting the outlines of the cosmic orderare battled by the god, who, for this reason, is invocated in the incantations. Yet an Utu hymn, which also concerns ghosts, may be imploring Utu to allow a dead man into the netherworld (Cohen, 1977).

Utu as Helper and Rescuer

In the same cultural frame Utu plays a crucial role in purification ceremonies such as the bit rimki, an ablution ritual against evil caused by eclipses. Of capital importance too is his role in the counter-witch maqlû ("burning") ritual. After the night trial that convicted the witch and absolved her victim (originally judgement took place by day) and the witch's consequent destruction in the morning under the sun's beams, the purifications were carried out, thus freeing the victim from evil and restoring his or her previous relationship with his or her personal god (Abusch, 2002). Sunlight also provides the means of detection, and consequently Utu is the one who knows the most hidden aspects of the universe. Because of this skill he (together with Ishkur/Adad) is the "lord of the omina," for the truth the oracle manifests reveals the ways of the cosmic order known to the god. The omen is signifier of other realities; hence in the poem "Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta" the god plays a determining role in the invention of writing. Being all-knowing of hidden connections, he can also indicate the right direction to anyone who is lost or does not know the way (see the myths of Gilgamesh and Huwawa and of Lugalbanda). In addition he is merciful. Misfortune is a consequence of the actions of evil entities, and the god repels them into the darkness. Utu was considered to be the helper and advocate of the oppressed, safeguarding the orphan, the widow, and the poor (a task entrusted to the sovereigns), a role that was also attributed to the goddess Nanshe. It was Utu's function to right injustice, and the oppressed turned to him with their cry "I-Utu" ("O Utu!"), a phrase that came to mean oppression itself, and even (complaining) malcontents. As master of the borders, of the signs, and of the laws that govern them all, he is also master of all physical features, that is, of people's borders. In fact Utu transforms Dumuzi, pursued by the demons, into different animal forms in order to rescue him.


Utu has control over access to and egress from the netherworld, a power possibly related to his own ability to enter the netherworld every evening and emerge at sunrise as lord of the border between day and night. Thus in the myth of Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the netherworld, Enkidu is trapped in the netherworld until Enki has Utu open a "window" so that Enkidu may ascend. Utu also served as judge of the netherworld, a function shared somewhat with the deified dead Gilgamesh and Dumuzi. This judgment of the dead and of the other denizens of the netherworld does not seem to have involved a concept of eternal reward and punishment, and it probably consisted of settling disputes and keeping the peace between the souls there. The character of Utu/Shamash, as mentioned above, is an element wedged between two related systems: binary (invisible versus visible divinities) and trinary (year, month, day). This could be the reason for his limited diffusion outside Mesopotamia (although his qualities of omniscience, justice, and mercifulness made him popular where Mesopotamian culture penetrated). A solar divinity is mentioned in the Eblaite texts (twenty-fifth century bce) with the Sumerian cuneiform ideogram Utu. Although a Semitic reading Sipish for that ideogram is supported by a geographic name, it is not clear whether only a masculine sun god was meant, as in Mesopotamia, or a solar goddess, in accordance with the Western Semite tradition of the eastern Mediterranean coast in later times. The most realible hypothesis is that two sun divinities were present in Ebla, a masculine one occurring in royal rituals (which were cerainly Eblaite in origin) and a feminine one found in an exorcism. From Hittite Anatolia comes an important hymnwith evident and very strong Babylonian influencesto the sun god Iltanu, notwithstanding the importance of the sun goddess of Arinna.

In later times the "sophisticated polytheism" led the major divinities to be considered aspects of Marduk (Lambert, 1975). Shamash was Marduk when exercising justice. It was perhaps with this configuration that Shamash was emancipated from his original double frame, and his importance was felt even outside the bounds of Mesopotamia. Thus in Hellenistic times he was ready to meetpossibly through the mediation of the ancient Iltanu of Hittite timesthe character of Apollo, who was in many aspects similar and who had been formerly present on the Anatolian coasts from the end of eighteenth century bce. For more on the diffusion in late antiquity Hellenistic culture of the god Shamash in Hatra, in the Nabatean site of Khirbet Tannur, and in the Syrian region, in towns such as Harran, Edessa, Dura Europos, Palmyra, and Heliopolis (Baalbek in the Beqaa Valley), see Tubach 1986 and Fauth 1995.

See Also

Dumuzi; Kingship; Mesopotamian Religions; Sun.


For a general treatment of Utu, see Pietro Mander, "La difesa del Debole e la Giustizia nella Civiltà Sumerica: Dal Piano Divino e della Speculazione Teologica al Piano Sociale," in Non Violenza e Giustizia nei Testi Sacri delle Religioni Orientali, edited by C. Conio and D. Dolcini (Pisa, Italy, 1999), pp. 1328. For peculiar aspects of the god, see Mark E. Cohen's "Another Utu Hymn," Zeitschrift für Assyriologie 67 (July 1977): 119; W. Heimpel, "The Sun at Night and the Doors of Heaven in Babylonian Texts," Journal of Cuneiform Studies 38 (1986): 127151; B. Alster, "Incantation to Utu," Acta Sumerologica (Japan) 13 (1991): 2769; Mark J. Geller's "Very Different Utu Incantations," Acta Sumerologica (Japan) 17 (1995): 101126; and W. G. Lambert, "The Historical Development of the Mesopotamian Pantheon: A Study in Sophisitcated 'Polytheism,'" in Unity and Diversity, edited by H. Goedicke and J. J. M. Roberts (Baltimore and London, 1975), pp. 191200. For discussion of Shamash as judge, see the Shamash hymn in W. G. Lambert's Babylonian Wisdom Literature (Oxford, 1960), pp. 121138; and T. Abusch, Mesopotamian Witchcraft (Leiden, 2002).

For Ebla, see A. Archi, "Substrate: Some Remarks on the Foundation of the West Hurrian Pantheon," in Hittite and Other Anatolian and Near Eastern Studies in the Honor of Sedat Alp, edited by H. Otten, E. Akurgal, and A. Süel (Ankara, Turkey, 1992), pp. 714. For Syria in late antiquity, see Jürgen Tubach, Im Schatten de Sonnen Gottes: Der Sonnenkult in Edessa, Harran und Hatra am Vorabend der christlichen Mission (Wiesbaden, Germany, 1986); and Wolfgang Fauth, Helios Megistos: Zur synkretistischen Theologie der Spätantike (Leiden, 1995).

Tikva Frymer-Kensky (1987)

Pietro Mander (2005)