Utu, Babbar, Chemosh
The Epic of Gilgamesh, Great Hymn to Utu
Son of the moon god Sin
Shamash (also known as Utu in Sumerian) was the sun god in the Akkadian mythology of the ancient Near East. Associated with truth and justice, he was one of the most active gods in the pantheons (collection of recognized gods and goddesses) of ancient Sumer, Babylonia (bab-uh-LOH-nee-uh), and Assyria (uh-SEER-ee-uh). Shamash was responsible for maintaining the order of the universe; Hammurabi, the Babylonian king who oversaw the first written code of laws in recorded history, claimed that they were given to him by Shamash. Nothing could hide from his bright light, which banished darkness and revealed lies. In Babylon those who wished to know the future would call on Shamash, for it was said that his eye could see everything.
Shamash was considered the defender of the poor and the weak, and therefore the enemy of evil. Those who wished for defense against witchcraft would call on Shamash for help. Travellers prayed to him before setting out, as would armies, since Shamash himself travelled across the sky. In addition to these duties, Shamash also aided women in labor, freed captives, and healed the sick.
Shamash was the son of the Akkadian moon god Sin (pronounced SEEN) and the brother of the goddess Ishtar (pronounced ISH-tahr). His wife Aya (meaning “youth”) bore him four sons: Giru (fire), Kittum (truth), Mesharum (justice), and Nusku (light). As god of the sun, Shamash moved across the sky during the day; according to some legends, he also moved through the underworld , or land of the dead, during the night. In other stories, the god and his sons crossed the sky in a chariot by day and rested in a palace on a mountain at night. In the Babylonian heroic poem Epic of Gilgamesh, Shamash offered the hero help and advice in carrying out a dangerous quest for immortality, or the ability to live forever.
Shamash in Context
The relation of Shamash to the other gods in the Assyrian/Babylonian pantheon reflects the type of society in which he was worshipped. For most societies based upon farming and agriculture, the sun is considered to be the most important element in nature, and is therefore worshipped as the main deity. The moon is often referred to as a child or sister of the sun god. In the case of the ancient Babylonians and Assyrians, however, the sun god is considered to be a child of the moon. This suggests that Shamash may have been worshipped prior to the widespread development of agriculture-based culture, at a time when the moon was seen by these ancient people as the ultimate supernatural figure.
Key Themes and Symbols
To the ancient Babylonians and Assyrians, Shamash represented justice. Light was considered to be the force that revealed all by banishing shadows. The sun—the symbol of Shamash—was the revealer of secrets and bringer of truth. Shamash was also a symbol of protection from the darkness, which was thought to contain demons or evil spirits. Shamash is often shown as an old man with a long beard with sun rays rising from his shoulders, and his foot stepping on a mountain he has just cut with his saw-toothed knife. In ancient art, Shamash was usually shown as a disk or wheel, although sometimes he appeared as a king holding a staff of justice and a wheel of truth. A human-headed bull is sometimes with him, or he is attended by servants who open the gates of the dawn. His special symbol is the four-pointed star set in a disk with flames shooting out from between the star points. The winged disk was another of his symbols.
Shamash in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
Shamash enjoyed great popularity in the ancient cultures of the Near East, with temples erected to him in Babylon, Ur (pronounced OOR), and Nineveh (pronounced NIN-uh-vuh), among other places. Some scholars contend that the god was the source of the name given to the central stem of the Jewish menorah, a candle-holder that is a key symbol in Judaism.
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
In ancient Babylonian culture, darkness was associated with evil and dangerous forces. The same still holds true today, even though much of our modern world is kept from darkness thanks to electricity. Why do you think the association of darkness with evil and danger has held true across so many cultures, and through so many centuries?
Shamash was the sun god in the mythology of the ancient Near East. Associated with truth, justice, and healing, he was one of the most active gods in the pantheons of ancient Sumer*, Babylonia*, and Assyria*.
The son of the Sumerian moon god Sin, Shamash was the brother of the goddess Ishtar. His wife Aya (youth) bore him four sons—Giru (fire), Kittum (truth), Mesharum (justice), and Nusku (light). As god of the sun, Shamash moved across the sky during the day, and according to some legends, he moved through the underworld during the night. In other stories, the god and his sons crossed the sky in a chariot by day and rested in a palace on a mountain at night.
Shamash was responsible for maintaining the order of the universe. Nothing could hide from his bright light, which banished darkness and revealed lies. The defender of the poor and the weak, he was the enemy of evil.
pantheon all the gods of a particular culture
underworld land of the dead
epic long poem about legendary or historical heroes, written in a grand style
immortality ability to live forever
In the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh, Shamash offered the hero help and advice in carrying out a dangerous quest for immortality. In ancient art, Shamash was usually shown as a disk or wheel, although sometimes he appeared as a king holding a staff of justice and a whee l of truth.
See also Gilgamesh; Ishtar; Semitic Mythology; Sun.