Myths—Deities

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Myths—Deities

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Enlil. Enlil was one of the chief gods of the Sumerian and Babylonian pantheons. His spouse is Ninlil, who is also called Sud in a Sumerian myth. His offspring include the goddess Inana (the Queen of Heaven) and the gods Ishkur (a storm god, known in Babylonian sources as Adad), Nanna/Suen (a moon god, called Sin in Akkadian), the twins Nergal and Meslamtaea (underworld deities), Ninurta (principally a god of war also known as Ningirsu), Pabilsag (whose associated constellation was later identified by the Greeks as Sagittarius), Nuska (Enlil’s minister, who was also a god of fire), Utu (the sun god, known as Shmash in Akkadian), Zababa (a war god), Ennugi (the canal inspector), and Ninazu (an underworld god).

Enlil and Ninlil. A tale of rape and marriage, the Sumerian myth of Enlil and Ninlil, known from copies written in the Old Babylonian period (circa 1894 - circa 1595 b.c.e.), opens with Enlil spotting the young, beautiful goddess Ninlil bathing in the pure canal. He approaches and propositions her with offers of kisses and love, but the goddess demurs, explaining that she is young and innocent and does not know how to kiss. Furthermore, if her parents found out that she has had an affair they will punish her. Nevertheless, Enlil perseveres. He hugs her, kisses her, and finally impregnates her. When Enlil’s rape of Ninlil is reported in the assembly of the gods, Enlil is declared to be “unclean” and banished from the city. Enlil is taboo, his offense a crime. Despite the impropriety of Enlil’s advances, however, Ninlil, now pregnant, endeavors to stick by his side, determined to be with him and to bear him children. When Enlil tries to get away, she follows him. Enlil then disguises himself and tricks her into sleeping with him several more times. The myth ends with praise to the mother Ninlil, who has conceived Enlil’s children, and with a celebration of Enlil as bringer of fertility and prosperity. The story implies that even though Enlil raped and deceived Ninlil, she continued to follow him to fulfill her craving to be a wife and produce children. The story also implies that even though he wronged Ninlil and became an outcast, Enlil was never permanently barred

from returning to civilization. According to one interpretation, Enlil was god of earth and god of the moist winds of spring. The myth explains Enlil’s disappearance at the end of the long dry summer and his return in the spring to bring fertility and productivity to nature.

Enlil and Sud. The Sumerian myth Enlil and Sud, known from copies written in the Old Babylonian period (circa 1894 - circa 1595 b.c.e.), relates the story of the young god Enlil’s search for a wife. The poem describes Enlil’s infatuation with the beautiful young Sud (another name for Ninlil), his courtship, and subsequent marriage. The story opens with Enlil, the great god of heaven, searching for a wife. He spots Sud, a young inexperienced girl full of charm and delight, in the street in front of the house of her mother, the goddess Nisaba. Enlil assumes that she must be a disreputable woman or else she would not be alone in the street. Taken with her beauty, Enlil offers to rehabilitate her, give her proper clothing, and

make her a lady. Sud is confused by the directness of his advances and is taken aback by his disrespectful speech. She tries to brush him off, but Enlil persists, saying that he wants to express his love for her. Shocked by Enlil’s brash behavior, Sud turns away and enters her house. Enlil, however, does not give up. He instructs his emissary Nuska to go immediately to the girl’s house laden with bridal gifts and to ask Sud’s mother for the hand of her daughter. Nuska arrives and, in the name of Enlil, asks the goddess for the hand of her daughter. The great goddess is flattered that Enlil wishes to marry her daughter and responds that the message gladdens her heart. Enlil’s behavior toward her daughter will be forgotten; proper amends have been made; and she will gladly become his mother-in-law.

Enlil’s Wedding. Enlil now prepares for the wedding, sending great gifts of meats, cheeses, fruits, nuts, gold, silver, and topaz. After the wedding the finest perfumes are poured over Sud, and Enlil makes love to his wife. He then sits on his throne, blesses her, and decrees that she will be known as “Nintu, the Lady-who-gives-Birth.” Nintu is then placed in charge of all the secrets pertaining to women. Like her mother, the grain goddess, Sud becomes a great fertility goddess and is given another name, Ninlil (“Lady of Full-grown Wheat”). She is also made mistress of the scribal arts. Ending with praise for Enlil and Ninlil, the story illustrates the Mesopotamian view that a woman’s role was to be both fertile and the manager of her husband’s household.

Enki. The Mesopotamian god called Enki in Sumerian and Ea in Akkadian was considered the god of the subterranean fresh waters, called the abzu in Sumerian (Akkadian: apsu). In Sumerian and Akkadian mythology he is a wise and clever deity and determiner of destinies. Associated with magic and incantations, he is described in some stories as the son of An, the sky god. Other myths depict him as the offspring of Enlil, while at other times he is the issue of the goddess Namma. In art, Enki is depicted as a water god, shown with streams of water flowing over his shoulders to the ground. As a provider of fresh water, he was considered to be favorable to mankind.

Enki and Inana. A Sumerian myth called Enki and Inana, known from copies written in the Old Babylonian period (circa 1894 - circa 1595 b.c.e.), revolves around an attempt by Enki’s daughter Inana, the goddess of sex and love, to visit her father in his temple at Eridu, so that she can obtain greater powers through possession of the me (pronounced “may”). The me are the divine powers and wisdom, the norms underlying all facets of human civilization, including religion, government, morality, warfare, family and society, art, economy, technology, and crafts. Inana receives the me from her father while he is drunk and successfully brings them to her home city of Uruk, in spite of Enki’s attempts to stop her and retrieve the powers. The story may represent a mythological justification for the transfer of regional hegemony over the land of Sumer from the city of Eridu to the city of Uruk at the beginning of the Early Dynastic Period (circa 2900 - circa 2340 b.c.e.).

Erra. The underworld god Erra was associated with warfare, anarchy, and plague. His activities are known mainly from an Akkadian myth called Erra and glshum, preserved

served in copies produced during the first millennium b.c.e. The myth deals with the sources of violence and explores issues arising from the gods’ dislike of any human actions that upset the equilibrium between humans and deities. The myth describes the Seven, a group of terrifying demons who serve as Erra’s assistants and when needed are employed to crush mankind. Erra takes control of the heavens and earth and denigrates man’s malevolent actions. He orders all the enemies of Babylon to fight each other to the end, so that only Babylon will remain to rule. The Seven are sent to devastate Babylon’s enemies. Led by the god Ishum, they obliterate the cities and their wildlife. The myth expresses Babylonian attitudes toward the hostile and violent nature of its enemies.

Inana. Known as Ishtar in Akkadian, Inana, “The Lady of Heaven,” was a goddess of war and fertility and the most important female deity in the Sumerian and Akkadian pantheon. In most stories, she is described as the offspring of the moon god Nanna and his consort Ningal. Her brothers included the sun god Utu and the storm god Ishkur. She was also the sister of Ereshkigal, queen of the Netherworld and goddess of death and gloom. Inana had no permanent spouse, but in most myths she was linked to the shepherd god Dumuzi. According to most accounts, she did not have any children, but the warrior god Shara may be an exception. In Sumerian myths she is depicted as an assertive female—powerful, sexual, independent, petulant, selfish, and naive.

Inana and Dumuzi. Dumuzi, known as Tammuz in the Bible (Ezekiel 8:14), was a fertility god. In the sacred marriage ceremony in which Sumerian kings were ritually married to the goddess Inana, Dumuzi was identified as Ama-ushumgal-ana, a reference to the date-palm bud, a symbol of fertility and growth. It was believed that the sexual union of Dumuzi and Inana produced new life and prosperity. In songs accompanying the sacred marriage ceremony, Inana chooses Dumuzi, a passive shepherd-king, to be her husband. She is attracted by his beauty and views him as a good provider. Beginning with the Third Dynasty of Ur (circa 2112 - circa 2004 b.c.e.), the ritual featured a marriage, either real or symbolic, of the king representing Dumuzi and a female partner or statue representing Inana.

Inana’s Descent to the Netherworld. The second millennium b.c.e. Sumerian myth Inana’s Descent to the Netherworld describes the goddess’s journey to and return from the “Land of No Return.” In this myth Inana attempts to take control of the Netherworld, the domain of her sister Ereshkigal. When her plan fails, she is turned into a corpse and hung on a hook like a slab of meat. While she is trapped in the Netherworld, the earth withers. The minister Ninshubur approaches the gods Enlil, Nanna, and Enki, begging for their intervention to save the goddess. Understanding the gravity of the situation, the wise god Enki fashions figures that sneak into the Netherworld and sprinkle life-giving waters on the goddess, bringing her back to life. Before Inana can leave, she is told that she will have to provide a substitute for herself. Demons escort her from the Netherworld and locate the festively dressed Dumuzi seated on his throne. When Inana finds out that her husband has been enjoying himself in her absence, she becomes furious that he has not been mourning her death. The goddess then gives permission for the demons to make Dumuzi her substitute in the Netherworld. The end of the myth is fragmentary and difficult to understand. Inana asks Dumuzi’s sister, the goddess Geshtinana, to take her brother’s place in the Netherworld for half of each year. A shorter Akkadian version of the myth, The Descent of Ishtar into the Netherworld, dates to the latter half of the second millennium b.c.e. A copy of this text was found in the library of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal (668–627 b.c.e.) at Nineveh.

Ninhursanga. Ninhursanga was a Sumerian mother goddess. An early second millennium b.c.e. Sumerian tale, Enki and Ninhursanga, describes a sacred land called Dilmun, in which “the raven was not yet cawing, the partridge not cackling. The lion did not slay, the wolf was not carrying off lambs, the dog had not been taught to make kids curl up, the pig had not learned that grain was to be eaten.” Before the advent of human civilization this land is virginal and pristine, a place where there is no disease, no death, and no old age. The latter part of the story revolves around Enki, the mother goddess Ninhursanga, and their offspring and descendants whom Enki has impregnated. One descendant, the spider goddess Uttu, has Enki’s semen removed by Ninhursanga. From this seed grows eight plants, which Enki devours, causing him great pain. Ninhursanga then heals Enki and gives birth to eight divinities. The composition ends with Enki assigning destinies to each of his offspring.

Sources

Jeremy Black, Graham Cunningham, Jarle Ebeling, Esther Flückiger-Hawker, Eleanor Robson, John Taylor, and Gábor Zólyomi, The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, The Oriental Institute, University of Oxford, 1998— <http://www-etcsl.orient.ox.ac.uk>.

Luigi Cagni, The Poem of Erra, Sources and Monographs, Sources from the Ancient Near East, volume 1, fascicle 3 (Malibu, Cal.: Undena Press, 1977).

Miguel Civil, “Enlil and Ninlil: The Marriage of Sud,” Journal of the American Oriental Society, 103 (1983): 43–66.

Benjamin R. Foster, Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature, 2 volumes (Bethesda, Md.: CDL Press, 1993).

Thorkild Jacobsen, The Harps that Once … : Sumerian Poetry in Translation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987).

Samuel Noah Kramer and John Maier, Myths of Enki, The Crafty God (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).

Yitzhak Sefati, Love Songs in Sumerian Literature: Critical Edition of the Dumuzi-Inanna Songs (Ramat Gan, Israel: Bar-Ilan University Press, 1998).

Diane Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer, lnanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer (New York: Harper & Row, 1983).

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Myths—Deities

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