The Sumerians were the first known people to settle in Sumer between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (in modern day Iraq), later known as Mesopotamia, over 7,000 years ago. The Sumerian civilisation, which flourished between c. 4,500-c. 1,900 BC, was known for its significant inventions, innovative technologies and varied city-states. Often nicknamed the ‘cradle of civilisation‘, by the 4th millennium BC, Sumer had established an advanced writing system, enjoyed spectacular arts and architecture, and pioneered mathematical and astrological practices.
The Sumerians also followed a complex, polytheistic religion, worshipping a significant number of deities. The deities were anthropomorphic, meant to represent the natural forces of the world, and likely numbered in the hundreds or even thousands. Nonetheless, some gods and goddesses were more prominently featured and worshipped within the religion of Sumer, so can be considered to be the main deities worshipped by the civilisation.
So who were the most important Sumerian gods?
1. An: Lord of the heavens
The most important god in the Sumerian pantheon is An, who, as supreme deity, was believed to be a sky god and initially Lord of the Heavens. Dating from at least 3,000 BC, he was originally envisaged as a great bull, a form which was later separated into a mythological entity known as the Bull of Heaven. His holy city was Uruk in the southern herding region. Later, An’s leadership role was later shared or taken over by other gods; nonetheless, deities were still said to have received the ‘anûtu’ (the ‘An power’), demonstrating that his exalted status was maintained throughout.
2. Enlil: God of the atmosphere
Enlil, the god of the wind, air, earth and storms, was a chief deity of the Sumerian pantheon, but was later worshipped by other civilisations such as the Babylonians and Assyrians. He played a vital role in the creation myth, separating his parents An (heaven) from Ki (earth), thus making the earth habitable for humans. His breath was said to create the wind, storms and hurricanes.
Enlil is also said to have created a flood to exterminate the human race because they made too much noise and prevented him from sleeping. He was also regarded as the inventor of the mattock, a hand tool used for farming, and was the patron of agriculture.
3. Enki: Creator of mankind
Enki, the Sumerian god of water, knowledge, crafts, magic and incantations, was credited with the creation of mankind, and was also regarded as its protector. For instance, he warned of the flood created by Enlil which was intended to eradicate the human race. He is depicted in iconography as a bearded man wearing a horned cap and long robes, often ascending the Mountain of the Sunrise. He was a very popular god amongst the Sumerians.
4. Inanna: Queen of heaven
Known as the ‘Queen of Heaven’, Inanna was probably the most popular god of the Sumerian pantheon. The goddess of sexuality, passion, love and war, Inanna was associated with the planet Venus, while her most prominent symbols included the lion and eight-pointed star. In many of the most famous and replicated Sumerian stories, myths and hymns such as ‘The Descent of Inanna’, ‘The Huluppu Tree’, and ‘Inanna and the God of Wisdom’, Inanna played a prominent role.
5. Utu: God of the sun
The Sumerian god of the sun and divine justice, Utu is the son of the moon god Nanna and the fertility goddess Ningal, and the twin of goddess of sexuality, passion, love and war Inanna. He has been written about as early as c. 3,500 BC, and is normally depicted as an old man with a long beard whose shoulder emanate rays of light, or as a solar disc. The ‘Law Code of Hammurabi’ (1,792-1,750 BC) addresses Utu by the name Shamash, and claims it was he who provided humanity with law.
6. Ninhursag: Mother goddess
Associated with fertility, nature and life on earth, Ninhursag was known as the goddess of the stony, rocky ground, the ‘hursag’. She had power in the foothills and desert to create wildlife, and especially prominent amongst her offspring were the wild asses of the western desert. As the ‘mother animal’, she is the mother of all children. She is regularly depicted seated on or near mountains, sometimes with her hair in an omega shape and at times wearing a horned headdress or tiered skirt. Another symbol of hers was the deer, both male and female.
7. Nanna: God of the moon and wisdom
Sometimes considered to be the father of Inanna, Nanna is one of the oldest Sumerian gods since he was first mentioned at the dawn of writing in c. 3,500 BC. A number of inscriptions refer to Nanna, and his cult was situated at the great temple of Ur.
Nanna being the father of the sun, Utu, is thought to have originated in the early days of a hunter-gatherer social structure, whereby the moon was more important to a community for travelling by night and telling the time of the month: the sun only became more important when people were more settled and agricultural. The religious belief in Nanna as one of the most important deities thus mirrored the cultural development of the Sumerians.