Weird and wonderful Sumerian gods
Move over Egypt; we’ve got a new pantheon to talk about
Humanity as we know it started in Sumer, although, likely, you’ve never heard of the place. In ancient times, Sumer was located in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq and Kuwait) and is the home to life as we know it.
The people of Sumer (Sumerians) formed humanity’s first civilizations around 3500BCE – that’s about 5500 years ago. They created writing, were pioneers in agriculture and architecture, and created the first recognizable form of governance. Not bad. To add to their many attributes, they also had a vibrant religion.
If you know anything about ancient religions (Norse, Egyptian, etc.) you know they are weird, gruesome, melodramatic, and strangely compelling. Sumerian gods are no different.
If you’d like to meet a few, keep reading. We’ll cover the heavy hitters as well as the ones we’d likely love today.
Enlil was regarded as the King of the Gods. He had the power to create and destroy as he saw fit, and once he’d made a decision, it was impossible to reverse it. He nourished fields and gave humans the tools to build their cities, but it wasn’t all love and happiness.
Enlil was a harsh and angry god. In one story, we humans were too loud and kept Enlil up at night. He didn’t love this, so he responded by sending disease, famine, and flooding to Earth as a means of culling the population, and in the quiet aftermath, it allowed him a good night’s sleep. Charming.
Damgalnuna is the powerful mother goddess of the Sumerian pantheon. She is referred to as the Mother of Gods and the Mother of Men in many texts due to her role in the many tales of the creation of humankind.
Regardless of the story, Damgalnuna is always portrayed as a loving mother and protector that inflicted great pain on those who wronged her. She is the ultimate mother; caring, supportive, but vindictive when her children’s welfare is involved.
We’ve met Mom and Dad, so now it’s time to meet the rowdy teenage daughter of the pantheon. Although not the daughter of the two, in reality, her role within the gods fits for this title.
Ninkasi is the revered goddess of alcohol. It is her job to daily prepare vats of beer and to make the heart ‘feel light.’ The Sumerians adored her, and so do we even if we don’t know it. With every sip of alcohol, we pay tribute to Ninkasi – the goddess of alcohol and the goddess of the world’s first beer.
In the same way that we unknowingly worship Ninkasi, we are also devout yet unwitting followers of Inanna.
Inanna is the Sumerian goddess of love, beauty, sexuality, passion, and war. With every act of passion, every utterance of love, and with every cry of war, we are invoking Inanna.
Even today’s crops are owed in part to Inanna. It was only through the marriage of Inanna and Dumuzi (the god of vegetation) that the world became fertile enough to sustain our agricultural practices. That’s a long list of achievements for one goddess and a list that I’d bet we’re all thankful for.
“If you know anything about ancient religions (Norse, Egyptian, etc) you know they are weird, gruesome, melodramatic, and strangely compelling. Sumerian gods are no different.”
It would be remiss to mention Inanna without introducing you to her sister Ereshkigal, the Queen of the Dead. Ereshkigal presides over the gloomy underworld, where souls eat dust and drink from muddy puddles. It’s a bit different from the passionate life of her sister, but I’m sure it pays the bills.
Ereshkigal isn’t as prolific in Sumerian texts as the rest of the pantheon (no surprises there), but her two main features don’t speak kindly on her temperament. In one, she kills her sister Inanna. In the other, she marries the god of the plague (Nergal) and grants him six months a year to leave the underworld and wreak havoc on humanity.
So whether you’d rather hang out with Mother Damgalnuna, the terrifying Ereshkigal, or have a drunken party with Ninkasi, there’s no denying that Sumerian myth was rich with compelling and bizarre characters.
And hey, if these gods don’t tickle your fancy, there are approximately 3595 more Sumerian gods for you to find out about. You’d better get reading!
A deeper dive – Related reading from the 101:
- A comprehensive guide to all the cool Norse gods | History 101
Marvel makes Thor and Loki look tame compared to their true nature.
- Greek mythology gods and their stories | History 101
Meet the gods of the Greek pantheon.