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Book Description: "The Sumerians were a non-Semitic, non-Indo-European people who lived in southern Babylonia from 4000-3000 B.C.E. They invented cunieform writing, and their spiritual beliefs influenced all successive Near Eastern religions, including Judaism, Christianity and Islam. They produced an extensive body of literature, among the oldest in the world. Samuel Noah Kramer spent most of his life studying this literature, by piecing together clay tablets in far-flung museums. This short work gives translations or summaries of the most important Sumerian myths." (Quote from sacred-texts.com)Table of Contents: Publisher’s Preface; Preface; Introduction; The Scope And Significance Of Sumerian Mythology; Myths Of Origins ; Myths Of Kur; Miscellaneous Myths; References And Notes; Supplementary Notes; EndnotesAbout the Publisher: Forgotten Books is a publisher of historical writings, such as: Philosophy, Classics, Science, Religion, Esoteric and Mythology. www.forgottenbooks.orgForgotten Books is about sharing information, not about making money. All books are priced at wholesale prices. We are also the only publisher we know of to print in large sans-serif font, which is proven to make the text easier to read and put less strain on your eyes.
Year:
1961
Publisher:
University of Pennsylvania Press
Language:
english
Pages:
92
ISBN 10:
1605060496
ISBN 13:
9781605060491
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Sumerian Mythology Index

Sacred Texts Ancient Near East

Sumerian Mythology
By Samuel Noah Kramer
[1944, 1961]
The Sumerians were a non-Semitic, non-Indo-European people who lived in southern Babylonia from 40003000 B.C.E. They invented cunieform writing, and their spiritual beliefs influenced all successive Near
Eastern religions, including Judaism, Christianity and Islam. They produced an extensive body of literature,
among the oldest in the world. Samuel Noah Kramer spent most of his life studying this literature, by
piecing together clay tablets in far-flung museums. This short work gives translations or summaries of the
most important Sumerian myths.
Frontispiece
Title Page
Preface
Contents
List of Illustrations
Introduction
Chapter I. The Scope and Significance of Sumerian Mythology
Chapter II. Myths of Origins
Chapter III. Myths of Kur
Chapter IV. Miscellaneous Myths
Chapter V. References and Notes
Supplementary Notes

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Sumerian Mythology: Frontispiece

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Click to enlarge

MAN'S GOLDEN AGE
This tablet (29.16.422 in the Nippur collection of the University Museum) is one of the unpublished pieces
belonging to the Sumerian epic poem 1 whose hero Enmerkar ruled in the city of Erech sometime during the
fourth millennium B. C. The passage enclosed by the black line describes the blissful and unrivalled state of
man in an era of universal peace before he had learned to know fear and before the "confusion of
tongues"; its contents, 2 which are very reminiscent of Genesis XI:1, read as follows:
In those days there was no snake, there was no scorpion, there was no hyena,
There was no lion, there was no wild dog , no wolf,
There was no fear, no terror,
Man had no rival.
In those days the land Shubur (East), the place of plenty, of righteous decrees,
Harmony-tongued Sumer (South), the great land of the "de; crees of princeship,"
Uri (North), the land having all that is needful ,
The land Martu (West), resting in security,
The whole universe, the people in unison ,
To Enlil in one tongue gave praise .

Next: Title Page

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Sumerian Mythology: Title Page

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SUMERIAN MYTHOLOGY
A Study of Spiritual and Literary Achievement in the Third Millennium B.C.

SAMUEL NOAH KRAMER
REVISED EDITION

University of Pennsylvania Press
Philadelphia
[1944, revised 1961]
Scanned at sacred-texts.com, October 2004. John Bruno Hare, redactor. This text is in the public domain in the US
because it was not renewed in a timely fashion at the US Copyright Office as required by law at the time. These
files can be used for any non-commercial purpose, provided this notice of attribution is left intact.

To My Wife
Next: Preface

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Sumerian Mythology: Preface

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p. v

PREFACE
The Sumerians were a non-Semitic, non-Indo-European people who flourished in southern Babylonia from
the beginning of the fourth to the end of the third millennium B. C. During this long stretch of time the
Sumerians, whose racial and linguistic affiliations are still unclassifiable, represented the dominant cultural
group of the entire Near East. This cultural dominance manifested itself in three directions:
1. It was the Sumerians who developed and probably invented the cuneiform system of writing which was
adopted by nearly all the peoples of the Near East and without which the cultural progress of western Asia
would have been largely impossible.
2. The Sumerians developed religious and spiritual concepts together with a remarkably well integrated
pantheon which influenced profoundly all the peoples of the Near East, including the Hebrews and the
Greeks. Moreover, by way of Judaism, Christianity, and Mohammedanism, not a few of these spiritual and
religious concepts have permeated the modern civilized world.
3. The Sumerians produced a vast and highly developed literature, largely poetic in character, consisting of
epics and myths, hymns and lamentations, proverbs and "words of wisdom." These compositions are
inscribed in cuneiform script on clay tablets which date largely from approximately 1750 B. C. a In the
course of the past hundred years, approximately five b thousand such literary pieces have been excavated
in the mounds of ancient Sumer. Of this number, over two thousand, more than two-thirds of our source
material, were excavated by the University of Pennsylvania in the mound covering ancient Nippur in the
course of four grueling campaigns lasting from 1889 to 1900; these Nippur tablets and fragments
represent, therefore, the major
p. viii

source for the reconstruction of the Sumerian compositions. As literary products, these Sumerian
compositions rank high among the creations of civilized man. They compare not unfavorably with the
ancient Greek and Hebrew masterpieces, and like them mirror the spiritual and intellectual life of an
otherwise little known civilization. Their significance for a proper appraisal of the cultural and spiritual
development of the Near East can hardly be overestimated. The Assyrians and Babylonians took them over
almost in toto. The Hittites translated them into their own language and no doubt imitated them widely.
The form and contents of the Hebrew literary creations and to a certain extent even those of the ancient
Greeks were profoundly influenced by them. As practically the oldest written literature of any significant
amount ever uncovered , it furnishes new, rich, and unexpected source material to the archaeologist and
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Sumerian Mythology: Preface

anthropologist, to the ethnologist and student of folklore, to the students of the history of religion and of
the history of literature.
In spite of their unique and extraordinary significance, and although the large majority of the tablets on
which they were inscribed were excavated almost half a century ago, the translation and interpretation of
the Sumerian literary compositions have made relatively little progress to date. The translation of Sumerian
is a highly complicated process. It is only in comparatively recent years that the grammar has been
scientifically established, while the lexical problems are still numerous and far from resolved. By far the
major obstacle to a trustworthy reconstruction and translation of the compositions, however, is the fact that
the greater part of the tablets and fragments on which they are inscribed, and which are now largely
located in the Museum of the Ancient Orient at Istanbul and in the University Museum at Philadelphia, have
been lying about uncopied and unpublished, and thus unavailable for study. To remedy this situation, I
travelled to Istanbul in 1937, and, with the aid of a Guggenheim fellowship, devoted some twenty months
to the copying of 170 tablets and fragments in the
p. ix

Nippur collection of the Museum of the Ancient Orient. And largely with the help of a grant
from the American Philosophical Society, the better part of the past three years has been devoted to the
studying of the unpublished literary pieces in the Nippur collection of the University Museum; their copying
has already begun. c

[paragraph continues]

It is the utilization of this vast quantity of unpublished Sumerian literary tablets and fragments in the
University Museum, approximately 675 pieces according to my investigations, which will make possible the
restoration and translation of the Sumerian literary compositions and lay the groundwork for a study of
Sumerian culture, especially in its more spiritual aspects; a study which, considering the age of the culture
involved, that of the third millennium B. C., will long remain unparalleled for breadth of scope and fullness
of detail. As the writer visualizes it, the preparation and publication of this survey would be most effective
in the form of a seven-volume series bearing the general title, Studies in Sumerian Culture. The first
volume, the present Memoir , is therefore largely introductory in character; it contains a detailed description
of our sources together with a brief outline of the more significant mythological concepts of the Sumerians
as evident from their epics and myths.
The five subsequent volumes, as planned by the author, will consist primarily of source material, that is,
they will contain the transliterated texts of the restored Sumerian compositions, together with a translation
and commentary as well as the autograph copies of all the pertinent uncopied material in the University
Museum utilized for the reconstruction of the texts. Each of these five volumes will be devoted to a
particular class of Sumerian composition: (1) epics; (2) myths; (3) hymns; (4) lamentations; (5) "wisdom."
It cannot be too strongly stressed that on the day this task is completed and Sumerian literature is restored
and made available to scholar and layman, the humanities will be enriched by one of the most magnificent
groups of documents ever brought to light. As the earliest
p. x

creative writings, these documents hold a unique position in the history of civilization. Moreover, because of
their profound and enduring influence on the spiritual and religious development of the entire Near East,
they are veritable untapped mines and treasure-houses of significant source material and invaluable data
ready for exploitation by all the relevant humanities.
The seventh volume, Sumerian Religion: A Comparative Study, intended as the last of the series, will sketch
the religious and spiritual concepts of the Sumerians as revealed in their own literature. Moreover, it will
endeavor to trace the influence of these Sumerian concepts on the spiritual and cultural development of the
entire Near East. This work is left to the last for cogent if obvious reasons; it is only after the Sumerian
literary compositions have been scientifically reconstructed and trustworthily translated that we shall be in a
position to treat adequately and with reasonable certainty that all-important but very difficult and
complicated subject. While, then, the first six volumes are to contain primarily the data and the sources, it
is the seventh which will attempt to formulate the results and the conclusions for the historian and the
layman. And the hope is not unjustified that, as a result of this method of preparation and publication, the
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Sumerian Mythology: Preface

final formulation will prove both significant and reliable.
I wish to express my sincerest and most heartfelt thanks to the Jayne Memorial Foundation and its board of
trustees, which selected me as the annual lecturer for 1942 to speak on the subject of Sumerian mythology.
I also acknowledge my gratitude to the board of managers of the University Museum; to Dr. George C.
Vaillant, its director; to Mr. Horace H. F. Jayne, his predecessor; and to Professor Leon Legrain, the curator
of its Babylonian section, for their scientific co-operation in making the Sumerian literary tablets available to
me for study. Profound thanks are due to the Ministry of Education of the Turkish Republic and its
Department of Antiquities, for permitting me to study and copy part of the Sumerian
p. xi

literary tablets in the Nippur collection of the Museum of the Ancient Orient at Istanbul. The Oriental
Seminar of the University of Pennsylvania acted in a sense as a sounding board for the reading of the first
draft of the contents of this study; the spontaneous interest and enthusiasm with which it was received by
the participating students and colleagues were of considerable spiritual support in the intricate and at times
almost despairing process of penetrating the meaning of the texts. In the matter of financial support I am
deeply indebted to the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation for selecting me as one of its fellows
for the years 1937-38 and 1938-39; it thus enabled me to travel to Istanbul and devote some twenty
months to research activity in its Museum of the Ancient Orient. To the Oriental Institute of the University
of Chicago I am indebted for several minor financial contributions. But primarily it is the American
Philosophical Society which has made the preparation of this study possible; it is the extraordinary vision
and generosity of this society which is enabling me to reconstruct and translate in a scientific and
trustworthy manner the extant Sumerian literary compositions; to piece together and recover for the world
at large the oldest literature ever uncovered, and one of the most significant.
To the Macmillan Company and the University of Chicago Press I am indebted for permission to reproduce
several illustrations; specific acknowledgment of this courtesy is made in the captions of plates V, VII, X,
XII, XIV, and XIX.
p. xii

NOTE TO THE REVISED EDITION
References and Notes to the original edition will be found on page 104. Supplementary Notes and
Corrections will be found on page 120.
Next: Contents

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Sumerian Mythology: Contents

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p. xx

CONTENTS
PAGE

INTRODUCTION.

The Sources: the Sumerian Literary Tablets Dating from Approximately
2000 B. C

1

The Scope and Significance of Sumerian Mythology
Myths of Origins
The Creation of the Universe
    The Organization of the Universe
    Enlil and Ninlil: the Begetting of Nanna
    The Journey of Nanna to Nippur
    Emesh and Enten: Enlil Chooses the Farmer god
    The Creation of the Pickax
    Cattle and Grain
    Enki and Ninhursag: the Affairs of the Water god
    Enki and Sumer: the Organization of the Earth and Its Cultural
Processes
    Enki and Eridu: the Journey of the Water-god to Nippur
    Inanna and Enki: the Transfer of the Arts of Civilization from Eridu to
Erech
    The Creation of Man
Myths of Kur
    The Destruction of Kur: the Slaying of the Dragon
    Inanna's Descent to the Nether World
Miscellaneous Myths
    The Deluge
    The Marriage of Martu
    Inanna Prefers the Farmer
References and Notes

26
30
30
41
43
47
49
51
53
54

CHAPTER

I.
II.

III.

IV.

V.

59
62
64
68
76
76
83
97
97
98
101
104

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Sumerian Mythology: Contents

Supplementary Notes
Index

120
125

Next: List of Illustrations

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Sumerian Mythology: List of Illustrations

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p. xxi

LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
PLATES
Man's Golden Age

Frontispiece
FACING PAGE

I.
II.
III.
IV.
V.
VI.
VII.
VIII.
IX.
X.
XI.
XII.
XIII.
XIV.
XV and XVI.
XVII and XVIII.
XIX.
20.

A Scene from the Nippur Excavations: Rooms of the Temple
"Tablet House"
Oldest Literary Catalogue
Nippur Archaic Cylinder
Gudea Cylinder
"Chicago" Syllabary
Nippur Grammatical Text
Gods and the Nether World
The Separation of Heaven and Earth
Enlil Separates Heaven and Earth
Miscellaneous Mythological Scenes
Enlil and Ninlil: the Begetting of Nanna
Gods of Vegetation
Enki and Ninhursag: the Affairs of the Water-god
Enki, the Water-god
Inanna and Enki: the Transfer of the Arts of Civilization from
Eridu to Erech
The Creation of Man
Gods and Dragons
Inanna's Descent to the Nether World
TEXT FIGURES

8
14
18
19
22
23
32
36
37
40
44
50
56
60
64 and 65
70 and 71
78
85
PAGE

1.
2.

The Origin and Development of the Sumerian System of
Writing
The Deluge

17
99

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Sumerian Mythology: List of Illustrations

1.

MAP
Sumer in the First Half of the Third Millennium B.C.

7

Next: Introduction

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Sumerian Mythology: Introduction

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p. 1

Sumerian Mythology
INTRODUCTION
THE SOURCES: THE SUMERIAN LITERARY TABLETS DATING FROM
APPROXIMATELY 2000 B. C.
The study of Sumerian culture introduced by the present volume, Sumerian Mythology , is to be based
largely on Sumerian literary sources; it will consist of the formulation of the spiritual and religious concepts
of the Sumerians, together with the reconstructed text and translation of the Sumerian literary compositions
in which these concepts are revealed. It is therefore very essential that the reader have a clear picture of
the nature of our source material, which consists primarily of some three thousand tablets and fragments
inscribed in the Sumerian language and dated approximately 1750 B. C. a It is the first aim of the
Introduction of the present volume to achieve such clarification. It therefore begins with a brief sketch of
the rather rocky road leading to the decipherment of the Sumerian language and continues with a brief
résumé of the excavations conducted on various Sumerian sites in the course of the past three-quarters of
a century. After a very brief general evaluation of the contents of the huge mass of Sumerian tablet
material uncovered in the course of these excavations, it turns to the Sumerian literary tablets which
represent the basic material for our study, and analyzes in some detail the scope and date of their
contents. The Introduction then concludes with a description of the factors which prevented in large part
the trustworthy reconstruction and translation of the Sumerian literary compositions in the past; the details,
not uninteresting in themselves, furnish a revealing and illuminating commentary on the course and
progress of one of the more significant humanistic efforts of our generation.
The decipherment of Sumerian differed from that of Accadian
detail

3

and Egyptian in one significant detail, a

p. 2

which proved to be one of the factors in hampering the progress of Sumerology to no inconsiderable
extent. For in the case of Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia, the investigating scholars of western Europe had at
their disposal much relevant material from Biblical, classical, and postclassical sources. Not only were such
names as Egypt, Ashur, and Babylon well known, but at least to a certain extent and with much limitation
and qualification, even the culture of the peoples was not altogether unfamiliar. In the case of the
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Sumerian Mythology: Introduction

Sumerians, however, the situation was quite different; there was no clearly recognizable trace of Sumer or
its people and language in the entire Biblical, classical, and post-classical literature . The very name Sumer
was erased from the mind and memory of man for over two thousand years. The discovery of the
Sumerians and their language came quite unexpectedly and was quite unlooked for; and this more or less
irrelevant detail was at least partially responsible for the troubled progress of Sumerology from the earliest
days to the present moment.
Historically, the decipherment of Sumerian resulted from that of Accadian, which in turn followed the
decipherment of cuneiform Persian. Briefly sketched, the process was as follows. In 1765, the Danish
traveler and scholar, Carsten Niebuhr, succeeded in making careful copies of several inscriptions on the
monuments of Persepolis. These were published between the years 1774 and 1778, and were soon
recognized as trilingual, that is, the same inscriptions seemed to be repeated in three different languages.
It was not unreasonable to assume, since the monuments were located in Persepolis, that they were
inscribed by one or more kings of the Achaemenid dynasty and that the first version in each inscription was
in the Persian language. Fortunately, at approximately the same time, Old Persian was becoming known to
western European scholars through the efforts of Duperron, who had studied in India under the Parsees
and was preparing translations of the Avesta. And so by 1802, with the help of the newly acquired
knowledge of Old Persian and by keen manipulation of the
p. 3

Achaemenid proper names as handed down in Biblical and classical literature, the German
scholar, Grotefend, succeeded in deciphering a large part of the Persian version of the inscriptions.
Additions and corrections were made by numerous scholars in the ensuing years. But the crowning
achievement belongs to the Englishman H. C. Rawlinson. A member of the English Intelligence Service,
Rawlinson was first stationed in India, where he mastered the Persian language. In 1835 he was
transferred to Persia, where he learned of the huge trilingual inscription on the rock of Behistun and
determined to copy it. The Persian version of the Behistun inscription consists of 414 lines; the second, now
known as the Elamite version, consists of 263 lines; while the third, the Accadian (designated in earlier
Assyriological literature as Assyrian or Babylonian--see note 3 ) version, consists of 112 lines. During the
years 1835-37, at the risk of life and limb, Rawlinson succeeded in copying 200 lines of the Persian version.
He returned in 1844 and completed the copying of the Persian as well as the Elamite version. The Accadian
inscription, however, was so situated that it was impossible for him to copy it, and it was not until 1847
that he succeeded in making squeezes of the text. To return to the decipherment of cuneiform Persian, by
1846 Rawlinson published his memoir in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society , which gave the
transliteration and translation of the Persian version of the Behistun inscription together with a copy of the
cuneiform original.
[paragraph continues]

Long before the final decipherment of the Persian text, however, great interest had been aroused in
western Europe by the third version of the Persepolis inscriptions. For it was soon recognized that this was
the script and language found in numerous inscriptions and bricks, clay tablets, and clay cylinders which
were finding their way into Europe from sites that might well be identified with Nineveh and Babylon. In
1842 the French under Botta began the excavation of Khorsabad, and in 1S45 Layard began his excavations
of Nimrud and Nineveh. Inscribed monuments were being found in large quantities at all three sites;
moreover,
p. 4

Layard was uncovering at Nineveh a large number of inscribed clay tablets. By 1850,
therefore, Europe had scores of inscriptions coming largely from Assyrian sites, made in the very same
script and language as the third version of the Persepolis and Behistun inscriptions. The decipherment of
this language was simplified on the one hand by the fact that it was recognized quite early in the process
that it belonged to the Semitic group of languages. On the other hand, it was complicated by the fact that
the orthography, as was soon recognized, was syllabic and ideographic rather than alphabetic. The leading
figure in the decipherment of Accadian, or Assyrian as it was then designated, was the Irish scholar Edward
Hincks. But once again a major contribution was made by Rawlinson. In 1851 he published the text,
transliteration, and translation of the Accadian version of the Behistun inscription, the large trilingual to
whose text he alone had access.

[paragraph continues]

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Sumerian Mythology: Introduction

As for the second, or Elamite version, of the Behistun inscription, it offered relatively little difficulty as soon
as progress was made in the decipherment of Accadian, since it uses a syllabary based on the Accadian
system of writing. The major figures in its decipherment were Westergaard and Norris. As early as 1855
Norris, the secretary of the Royal Asiatic Society, published the complete text of the second version of the
Behistun inscription, which had been copied by Rawlinson, together with a transliteration and a translation;
this remained practically the standard work on the subject until Weissbach published his
Achämenideninschriften zweiter Art in 1896.
As will be noted, nothing has yet been heard or said of the Sumerians. As early as 1850, however, Hincks
began to doubt that the Semitic inhabitants of Assyria and Babylonia had invented the cuneiform system of
writing. In the Semitic languages the stable element is the consonant while the vowel is extremely variable.
It seemed unnatural, therefore, that the Semites should invent a syllabic system of orthography in which
the vowel seemed to be as unchanging as the consonant. Moreover, if the Semites had
p. 5

invented the script, one might have expected to be able to trace the syllabic values of the signs to Semitic
words. But this was hardly ever the case; the syllabic values all seemed to go back to words or elements
for which no Semitic equivalent could be found. Hincks thus began to suspect that the cuneiform system of
writing was invented by a non-Semitic people who had preceded the Semites in Mesopotamia. In 1855
Rawlinson published a memoir in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society in which he speaks of his
discovery of non-Semitic inscriptions on bricks and tablets from sites in southern Babylonia such as Nippur,
Larsa, and Erech. In 1856 Hincks took up the problem of this new language, recognized that it was
agglutinative in character, and gave the first examples from bilinguals which had come to the British
Museum from the Nineveh excavations. The name of the language was variously designated as Scythic or
even Accadian, that is, the very name now given to the Semitic tongue spoken in Assyria and Babylonia. In
1869, however, the French scholar Oppert, basing himself on the royal title, "king of Sumer and Accad," and
realizing that Accad referred to the land inhabited by the Semitic population, rightly attributed the name
Sumerian to the language spoken by the non-Semitic people who had invented the cuneiform script.
Nevertheless, Oppert was not immediately followed by the majority of the Assyriologists, and the name
Accadian continued to be used for Sumerian for many years. 5
For several decades following the discovery of the existence of Sumerian, practically all the source material
for its decipherment and study consisted of the bilinguals and syllabaries from the so-called Ashurbanipal
library which was discovered and excavated at Nineveh. This material dates from the seventh century B. C.,
some fifteen hundred years after the disappearance of Sumer as a political entity. As for the material from
the Sumerian sites, it consisted almost entirely of a very small group of bricks, tablets, and cylinders from
the Sumerian and post-Sumerian periods which had found their way into the British Museum. In
p. 6

1877, however, began the first successful excavation at a Sumerian site. In that year, the French under De
Sarzec began to excavate at Telloh the ancient Sumerian city of
_____________________

MAP 1. SUMER IN THE FIRST HALF OF THE THIRD MILLENNIUM B. C.
The Sumerians were a non-Semitic, non-Indo-European people who probably entered Mesopotamia from the east prior to or during
the fourth millennium B. C. At the time of the Sumerian invasion much of the land between the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers was
no doubt inhabited by the Semites, and the entrance of the Sumerians marked the beginning of a struggle between the two peoples
for control of the two-river land, which lasted for some two millennia. To judge from our present data, victory first fell to the
Sumerians. There is reason to assume that at one time the Sumerians were in control of the better part of Mesopotamia and that
they even carried their conquests into more distant lands. It was no doubt during this period of conquest and power in the fourth
millennium B. C. that the Sumerians made important advances in their economic, social, and political organization. This material
progress, together with the growth and development of the spiritual and religious concepts which accompanied it, must have left an
enduring impress on all the peoples of the Near East who came in contact with the Sumerians during the fourth millennium.

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Sumerian Mythology: Introduction

But the early defeat of the Semites by the Sumerians did not mark the end of the struggle between the two peoples for the control
of Mesopotamia. No doubt with the help of new invasion hordes from the Arabian peninsula, the Semites gradually regained some of
their strength and became ever more aggressive. And so in the first part of the third millennium we find the Sumerians being
gradually pushed back to the more southerly portion of Mesopotamia, roughly from Nippur to the Persian Gulf on our map. North of
Nippur the Semites seemed well entrenched.
Approximately in the middle of the third millennium arose the great Semitic conqueror, Sargon, the founder of the dynasty of Accad.
He and the kings that followed him attacked and badly defeated the Sumerians to the south, making it a practice, moreover, to carry
off many of their victims into captivity and to settle Semites in their places. This defeat marked the beginning of the end for the
Sumerians. It is true that toward the very end of the third millennium the Sumerians made a final attempt at political control of
Mesopotamia, and under the so-called "Third Dynasty of Ur" met with a certain initial success. However, the important role played
by the Semites even in this "Neo-Sumerian" kingdom, which lasted for no more than a century, is indicated by the fact that the last
three kings of the dynasty bore Semitic names. With the destruction of Ur, their last capital, in approximately 2050 B. C., the
Sumerians gradually disappeared as a political entity. Not long afterwards, the Amurru, a Semitic people who had begun to
penetrate into lower Mesopotamia toward the end of the third millennium, established the city of Babylon as their capital, and under
such rulers as Hammurabi succeeded in obtaining temporary sway over Mesopotamia. Because of the prominence of Babylon in the
second and first millennia B. C., the country once held and ruled by the Sumerians came to be known as Babylonia, a name which
has continued in use to the present day. 4
(Map drawn by Marie Strobel, after one facing page 643 in Handbuch der Archäologie (München, 1939).)
p. 7

Click to enlarge
MAP 1. SUMER IN THE FIRST HALF OF THE THIRD MILLENNIUM B. C.
(For description, see opposite page.)

Ancient sites, ancient names (in vertical lettering)
Ancient sites, modern names (in oblique lettering)
Modern sites
p. 8

Lagash, an excavation which has been conducted by French archaeologists intermittently and
with long interruptions almost to the present day. It was at this site that the first important Sumerian
monuments were excavated, the objects and inscriptions of the ishakkus or princes of Lagash. Here more
than one hundred thousand tablets and fragments were dug up, dating from the pre-Sargonid and Ur III
periods."
[paragraph continues]

The second major excavation on a Sumerian site was that conducted by the University of Pennsylvania, the
first American expedition to excavate in Mesopotamia. All through the eighties of the nineteenth century
discussions had been going on in American university circles pertaining to the feasibility of sending an
American expedition to Iraq, where both British and French had been making extraordinary finds. It was not
until 1887, however, that John P. Peters, professor of Hebrew in the University of Pennsylvania, succeeded
in obtaining moral and financial support from various individuals in and about the university, for the
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Sumerian Mythology: Introduction

purpose of equipping and maintaining an excavating expedition in
_____________________

PLATE I. A SCENE FROM THE NIPPUR EXCAVATIONS: ROOMS OF THE TEMPLE
"TABLET HOUSE."
In the history of American archaeology, the Nippur expedition, organized by the University of Pennsylvania more than 50 yean ago,
will always be remembered with special interest and regard. For it was the Nippur excavations, supported over a number of years by
a relatively small group of Philadelphians of unusual vision and understanding, which were responsible to no small extent for making
America "archaeology-conscious." Moreover, it was largely the interest and enthusiasm aroused by the Nippur discoveries that led to
the founding and organizing of the University Museum, an institution which for almost half a century has proved to be a leading
pioneer in all branches of archaeological activity.
The ruins of Nippur, among the largest in southern Mesopotamia, cover approximately 180 acres. They are divided into two wellnigh equal parts by the now dry bed of the Shatt-en-Nil, a canal which at one time branched off from the Euphrates and watered
and fructified the otherwise barren territory through which it flowed. The eastern half contains the temple structures, including the
ziggurat and the group of buildings which must have formed the scribal school and library; it is in this part of the mound that the
"tablet house" was excavated. The western half seems to mark the remains of the city proper. 7

Click to enlarge
PLATE I
A SCENE FROM THE NIPPUR EXCAVATIONS: ROOMS OF THE ''TABLET HOUSE.''
(For description, see opposite page.)

p. 9

Iraq under the auspices of the University of Pennsylvania. Nippur, one of the largest and
most important mounds in Iraq, was chosen, and four long and extremely difficult excavating campaigns
were conducted during the years 188990, 1890-91, 1893-96, and 1896-1900.

[paragraph continues]

The hardships and handicaps were severe and discouraging. One young archaeologist died in the field, and
there was hardly a year in which one or the other of the members of the expedition did not suffer from
serious illness. Difficulties with the Arab tribes were not infrequent and at times assumed a most
threatening character. In spite of the obstacles, however, the excavating continued, and in the course of the
four campaigns which lasted more than a decade, the expedition achieved magnificent and in some
respects unparalleled results, at least in the inscriptional field. The Nippur expedition succeeded in
excavating approximately thirty thousand tablets and fragments in the course of its four campaigns, the
larger part of which are inscribed in the Sumerian language and date from the second half of the third
millennium to the first half of the second millennium B. C.
The contents of these tablets are rich and varied. The greater part is economic in character; it consists of
contracts and bills of sale, promissory notes and receipts, lists and accounts, wills, adoptions, court
decisions, and other legal and administrative documents. Many of the tablets are letters; some are historical
inscriptions; still others are lexical in character, that is, they contain Sumerian dictionary and grammatical
material of priceless value for our study of the language, since they were actually compiled by the ancient
scribes themselves. But especially noteworthy is the large group of tablets dated about 1750 B. C. a which
are inscribed with the Sumerian literary compositions consisting of epics and myths, hymns and laments,
proverbs and "wisdom."

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Sumerian Mythology: Introduction

After Nippur, the excavations by the Germans at Fara (the ancient "flood" city Shuruppak) in 1902-03 and
those by the University of Chicago at Bismaya (ancient
p. 10

Adab) in 1903-04 uncovered important Sumerian economic and lexical material dating largely
from the pre-Sargonid and Sargonid periods in the third millennium B. C. Excavations at Kish, begun by the
French in 1911 and continued under Anglo-American auspices from 1922 to 1930, have yielded important
inscriptional material. In Jemdet Nasr, not far from Kish, a large group of semi-pictographic tablets that go
back to the early beginnings of Sumerian writing were uncovered. Ur, the famous site excavated by a joint
expedition of the British Museum and the University Museum between the years 1919 and 1933, yielded
many historical and economic inscriptions and some literary material. In Asmar (ancient Eshnunna) and
Khafaje, east of the Tigris, a large number of economic tablets dating largely from the Sargonid and Ur III
periods, that is, the latter part of the third millennium B. C., were excavated by the Oriental Institute of the
University of Chicago in recent years. Finally in Erech, where the Germans conducted excavations from 1928
until the outbreak of the war, a large group of pictographic tablets antedating even those found at Jemdet
Nasr has been uncovered. 8

[paragraph continues]

This brief survey furnishes a bird's-eye view of the Sumerian inscriptional finds uncovered and brought to
light by legitimate excavations. d In addition, scores of thousands of tablets have been dug up clandestinely
by the native Arabs in the mounds of Sumer, especially in the ancient sites of Larsa, Sippar, and Umma. It
is therefore difficult to estimate the number of Sumerian tablets and fragments now in the possession of
the museums and private collections; a quarter of a million is probably a conservative guess. What now is
the nature of the contents of this vast accumulation of Sumerian inscriptional material? What significant
information can it be expected to reveal?
In the first place it is important to note that more than ninety-five per cent of all the Sumerian tablets are
economic in character, that is, they consist of notes and receipts, contracts of sale and exchange,
agreements of adoption and partnership, wills and testaments, lists of workers and
p. 11

wages, letters, etc. Because these documents follow a more or less expected and traditional pattern which
is found also in the Accadian documents of the same character, their translation, except in the more
complicated cases, is not too difficult. It is the contents of these tablets which furnish us with a relatively
full and accurate picture of the social and economic structure of Sumerian life in the third millennium B. C.
Moreover, the large quantity of onomastic material to be found in these economic documents represents a
fruitful source for the study of the ethnic distribution in and about Sumer during this period. 9
Of the Sumerian inscriptions that are not economic in character, one group consists of approximately six
hundred building and dedicatory inscriptions on steles, bricks, cones, vases, etc. It is from this relatively
small group of inscriptions that the political history of Sumer has been largely recovered. The translation of
these inscriptions, too, offers no very great difficulties, since the contents are usually brief and simple.
Moreover, the structure and pattern of the Sumerian dedicatory inscriptions are followed to a large extent
by the later Accadian building inscriptions; the bilingual material, too, is of considerable help. All in all,
therefore, except in the more complex instances, the Sumerian historical material is relatively simple to
translate and interpret. 10
In addition to the economic and historical material described above, there is also a varied and important
group of tablets inscribed with lexical and mathematical texts and with incantations. 11 But by far the most
significant material for the study of Sumerian culture, especially in its more spiritual aspects, consists of a
group of "literary" tablets dated about 1750 B. C. which are inscribed with Sumerian epics and myths,
hymns and lamentations, proverbs and "words of wisdom." And it is important to note that, in spite of the
vast quantity of Sumerian inscriptional material excavated to date, only some three thousand tablets b and
fragments, no more than one percent, are inscribed with Sumerian literary compositions. Of these three
thousand
p. 12

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Sumerian Mythology: Introduction

pieces, approximately nine hundred are distributed as follows. Some three hundred very small fragments
have been found in Kish by the French and were published by De Genouillac in 1924. Approximately two
hundred tablets and fragments were bought by the Berlin Museum from dealers; these were published by
Zimmern in 1912-13. Approximately one hundred were acquired by the Louvre from dealers; these were
published by De Genouillac in 1930. Less than a hundred pieces have found their way to the British
Museum and the Ashmolean Museum; these have been published in the course of several decades by King,
Langdon, and Gadd. To these must be added an uncertain number (two hundred?) excavated in Ur which
are to be published by Gadd of the British Museum in the near future. 12
The remaining two thousand and one hundred tablets and fragments, by far the major part of our
Sumerian literary tablets, were excavated by the University of Pennsylvania at Nippur some fifty years ago.
Of this number, over one hundred have found their way to the University of Jena in Germany;
approximately eight hundred are in the possession of the Museum of the Ancient Orient in Istanbul; almost
eleven hundred are located in the University Museum at Philadelphia. It is no exaggeration to state,
therefore, that it is the Nippur expedition of the University of Pennsylvania which is to be credited in large
part with the recovery and restoration of the ancient Sumerian literary compositions as written down at
approximately 1750 B. C. It is well worth noting that these Sumerian literary creations are significant not
only for their remarkable form and illuminating contents. They are unique, too, in that they have come
down to us as actually written by the scribes of four thousand years ago, unmodified and uncodified by
later redactors with axes to grind and ideologies to satisfy. Our Sumerian literary compositions thus
represent the oldest literature of any appreciable and significant amount ever uncovered .
p. 13

Let us now examine very briefly the nature of the contents of this Sumerian literature. As already
mentioned, it consists of epics and myths, hymns and lamentations, proverbs and "wisdom" compositions.
Of the epic tales at least nine can now be restored in large part. Six of these commemorate the feats and
exploits of the great Sumerian heroes Enmerkar, Lugalbanda, and especially Gilgamesh, the forerunner of
the Greek hero Heracles; these three Sumerian heroes lived in all probability toward the end of the fourth
and the beginning of the third millennium B. C., fully five thousand years ago. The remaining three epic
tales deal with the destruction of Kur, the monstrous creature which at least in a certain sense corresponds
to the Babylonian goddess Tiamat, the Hebrew Leviathan, and perhaps the Greek Typhon. As for the myths,
their contents, which obviously enough represent the prime source material for our Sumerian mythology,
will be sketched with considerable detail in the following chapters. Only the Tammuz myths dealing with the
dying deity and his resurrection will be omitted; the contents are still too obscure for reasonably safe
interpretation. 13
The hymns are both royal and divine. e The latter consist of songs of praise and exaltation directed to all
the more important deities of the Sumerian pantheon; they are quite diversified in size, structure, and
content. The royal hymns, frequently self-laudatory in character, were composed largely for the kings of the
Third Dynasty of Ur and of the Isin Dynasty which followed it. This is a significant historical fact, for it helps
us date the actual composition of much of our Sumerian literature. The Third Dynasty of Ur reigned during
the last two centuries of the third millennium. B. C.; with the defeat and capture of their last king Ibi-Sin in
approximately 2050 B. C. Sumer ceased to exist as a political entity. The kings of the Isin Dynasty which
followed were Semites; nevertheless their hymns, like those of their predecessors, were composed and
written in Sumerian, which continued to be used as the literary and religious language of the conquerors. 14
p. 14

The lamentation is a type of tragic composition developed by the Sumerians to commemorate the frequent
destruction of their cities by the surrounding more barbaric peoples; it is the forerunner of such Biblical
compositions as the Book of Lamentations. One large poem, consisting of more than four hundred lines
which lament the destruction of the city of Ur, has already been restored and published," and a similar
composition dealing with the destruction of Nippur and its restoration is in the process of being restored. In
addition it is now possible to reconstruct large
____________________________

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Sumerian Mythology: Introduction

PLATE II. OLDEST LITERARY CATALOGUE
This plate illustrates a literary catalogue compiled in approximately 2000 B. C. (clay tablet 29.15.155 in the Nippur collection of the
University Museum). The upper part represents the tablet itself; the lower part, the author's hand copy of the tablet. The titles of
those compositions whose actual contents we can now reconstruct in large part are as follows:
1. Hymn of King Shulgi (approximately 2100 B. C.).
2. Hymn of King Lipit-Ishtar (approximately 1950 B. C.).
3. Myth, "The Creation of the Pickax" (see p. 51).
4. Hymn to Inanna, queen of heaven.
5. Hymn to Enlil, the air-god.
6. Hymn to the temple of the mother-goddess Ninhursag in the city of Kesh.
7. Epic tale, "Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Nether World" (see p. 30).
8. Epic tale, "Inanna and Ebih" (see p. 82).
9. Epic tale, "Gilgamesh and Huwawa."
10. Epic tale, "Gilgamesh and Agga."
11. Myth, "Cattle and Grain" (see p. 53).
12. Lamentation over the fall of Agade in the time of Naram-Sin (approximately 2400 B. C.).
13. Lamentation over the destruction of Ur. This composition, consisting of 436 lines, has been almost completely
reconstructed and published by the author as Assyriological Study No. 12 of the Oriental Institute of the University of
Chicago.
14. Lamentation over the destruction of Nippur.
15. Lamentation over the destruction of Sumer.
16. Epic tale, "Lugalbanda and Enmerkar."
17. Myth, "Inanna's Descent to the Nether World" (see p. 83).
18. Perhaps a hymn to Inanna.
19. Collection of short hymns to all the important temples of Sumer.
20. Wisdom compositions describing the activities of a boy training to be a scribe.
21. Wisdom composition, "Instructions of a Peasant to His Son." 16

Click to enlarge
PLATE II
OLDEST LITERARY CATALOGUE
(For description, see opposite page.)

p. 15

parts of a lamentation over the destruction of Sumer as a whole, and of another that at present may be
best described as the "weeping mother" type. Finally we now have the larger part of a composition which
laments a calamity that befell the city of Agade during the reign of Naram-Sin who ruled in the earlier part
of the second half of the third millennium B. C.14
And so we come finally to the wisdom compositions of the Sumerians, the prototypes of the wisdom
literature current all over the Near East and exemplified by the Biblical Book of Proverbs . f Sumerian wisdom
literature consists of a large number of brief, pithy, and pointed proverbs and aphorisms; of various fables,
such as "The Bird and the Fish," "The Tree and the Reed," "The Pickax and the Plow," "Silver and Bronze";
and finally of a group of didactic compositions, long and short, several of which are devoted to a
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Sumerian Mythology: Introduction

description of the process of learning the scribal art and of the advantages which flow from it.

14

Some adequate idea of the scope and quantity of Sumerian literature may be obtained from the contents of
a hitherto altogether unknown tablet in the Nippur collection of the University Museum which I had the
good fortune to identify and decipher in the course of the past year. This tablet is not a literary
composition; it is a literary catalogue. That is, it lists by title one group of Sumerian literary compositions.
The scribe who compiled this list was one of those very scribes of approximately 2000 B. C. who wrote or
copied our Sumerian literary tablets; the catalogue, therefore, is contemporaneous with the compositions
which it lists. His purpose in compiling the catalogue was no doubt practical. For as is now clear, by
approximately 2000 B. C. a large number of literary compositions of all types and sizes were current in
Sumer, inscribed on tablets of all shapes and dimensions which had to be handled, stored, and cared for.
Some of the scribes in charge of the tablets in the temple or palace "tablet house," therefore, found it
convenient to note and list the names of this or that
p. 16

group of literary compositions for purposes of reference essential to the storing and filing of the respective
tablets.
The catalogue tablet is in almost perfect condition. g It is quite small, 2½ inches in length and 1½ inches in
width. Small as it is, the scribe, by dividing each side into two columns and by using a minute script,
succeeded in cataloguing the titles of sixty-two Sumerian literary compositions. The first forty titles he
divided into groups of ten by ruling a dividing line between numbers 10 and 11, 20 and 21, 30 and 31, 40
and 41. The remaining twenty-two titles he divided into two unequal groups, the first consisting of nine,
and the second, of thirteen titles. And what is most interesting, at least twenty-one of the titles which this
scribe listed in his catalogue are of compositions whose actual contents we can now reconstruct in large
part. Needless to say, we probably have the actual texts of many more compositions whose titles are listed
in our Nippur catalogue. But since the title of a
___________________

FIG. 1. THE ORIGIN AND DEVELOPMENT OF THE SUMERIAN SYSTEM OF
WRITING
The cuneiform system 17 of writing was probably originated by the Sumerians. The oldest inscriptions unearthed to date-over one
thousand tablets and fragments from the latter half of the fourth millennium B. C. which were excavated in Erech in very recent
years-are in all likelihood written in the Sumerian language. But whether or not it was the Sumerians who invented the script, it was
certainly they who in the course of the third millennium B. C. fashioned it into an effective writing tool. Its practical value was
gradually recognized by the surrounding peoples, who borrowed it from the Sumerians and adapted it to their own languages. By
the second millennium B. C. it was current all over the Near East.
The cuneiform script began as pictographic writing; each sign was a picture of one or more concrete objects and represented a word
whose meaning was identical with, or closely related to, the object pictured. The defects of a system of this type are obvious; the
complicated form of the signs and the huge number of signs required, render it too unwieldy for practical use. The Sumerian scribes
overcame the first difficulty by gradually simplifying and conventionalizing the form of the signs until their pictographic origin was no
longer apparent. As for the second difficulty, they reduced the number of signs and kept it within effective limits by resorting to
various helpful devices. The most significant of these consisted of Substituting phonetic for ideographic values. The table on the
opposite page was prepared for the purpose of illustrating this two-fold development in the course of the centuries; a detailed
description will be found in note 18.
p. 17

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Sumerian Mythology: Introduction

Click to enlarge
FIG. 1. THE ORIGIN AND DEVELOPMENT OF THE SUMERIAN SYSTEM OF WRITING
(For description, see opposite page and note 18.)

p. 18

Sumerian literary composition consists usually of the first part of the first line of the
composition, there is no way of knowing the titles of those whose texts we have in large part but whose
first lines are broken away. It goes without saying that the sixty-two titles listed in our catalogue do not
exhaust the number of literary compositions current in Sumer at the end of the third millennium B. C. There
is every indication that this number runs into the hundreds. Should the ancient city of Eridu in southern
Sumer, the cult center of Enki, the Sumerian god of wisdom, ever be thoroughly excavated, there is good
reason to believe that our store of Sumerian literary compositions will be considerably enlarged. 16

[paragraph continues]

So much for the scope and contents of Sumerian literature. Let us now turn to the problem of dating in
order to see what justifies the statement made in the preceding pages that Sumerian literature represents
the oldest written literature of any significant amount ever uncovered. The tablets
________________________________________

PLATE III. NIPPUR ARCHAIC CYLINDER
To judge from the script, the Nippur cylinder illustrated on this plate (8383 in the Nippur collection of the University Museum) may
date as early as 2500 B. C. Although copied and published by the late George Barton as early as 1918, 20 its contents, which center
about the Sumerian air-god Enlil and the goddess Ninhursag, are still largely unintelligible. Nevertheless, much that was unknown or
misunderstood at the time of its publication is now gradually becoming clarified, and there is good reason to hope that the not too
distant future will see the better part of its contents ready for translation.

PLATE IV. GUDEA CYLINDER
This plate (from E. de Sarzec, Découvertes en Chaldée (Paris, 1889-1912), pl. 37) illustrates one of the two Gudea cylinders dating
from approximately 2250 B. C. They were excavated by the French at Lagash more than half a century ago, and both cylinders are
now in the Louvre. They are inscribed with long hymns to the god Ningirsu (another name for the god Ninurta--see p. 80) and his
temple in Lagash. The style of the composition is highly advanced and points to a long preceding period of development, in which
much literary material must have been composed and written down. The contents of the two Gudea cylinders were carefully copied
and translated by the eminent French Assyriologist, Thureau-Dangin, as early as the first decade of our century. 19 The
Sumerological advance of the past several decades, however, makes a new translation imperative.

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Sumerian Mythology: Introduction

Click to enlarge
PLATE III
NIPPUR ARCHAIC CYLINDER
(For description, see opposite page.)

Click to enlarge
PLATE IV
GUDEA CYLINDER (For description, see page 18.)

p. 19

themselves, to judge from the script as well as from internal evidence, were inscribed in the Early PostSumerian period, the period following immediately upon the fall of the Third Dynasty of Ur. Just as a rough
point of reference, therefore, the actual writing of the tablets may be dated approximately 1750 B. C. a As
for the composition of their contents, to judge from the large group of hymns devoted to the kings of the
Third Dynasty of Ur, much of it actually took place in that Neo-Sumerian period which lasted approximately
from 2150 to 2050 B. C. h Moreover, an analysis of the contents of the hymns inscribed on the so-called
Gudea cylinders, 19 which date from approximately 2250 B. C., and of the myth inscribed on an archaic
Nippur cylinder published by George Barton, 20 which, to judge from its script, dates considerably earlier
than the Gudea cylinders, clearly indicates that not a little of the hymnal and mythological material had
already been composed several centuries earlier. Finally, an analysis of the religious concepts as revealed in
the building and dedicatory inscriptions of the classical Sumerian period, roughly 2600-2400 B. C., leads to
the same conclusion. In short we are amply justified in stating that although practically all our available
Sumerian literary tablets actually date from approximately 2000 B. C., a large part of the written literature
of the Sumerians was created and developed in the latter half of the third millennium B. C. The fact that so
little literary material from these earlier periods has been excavated to date is in large part a matter of
archaeological accident. Had it not been, for example, for the Nippur expedition, we would have very little
Sumerian literary material from the early post-Sumerian period.
Now let us compare this date with that of the various ancient literatures known to us at present. In Egypt,
for example, one might have expected an ancient written literature commensurate with its high cultural
development. And, indeed, to judge from the pyramid inscriptions, the Egyptians in all probability did have a
well developed written
p. 20

literature in the third millennium B. C. Unfortunately it must have been written largely on papyrus, a readily
perishable material, and there is little hope that enough of it will ever be recovered to give a reasonably

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Sumerian Mythology: Introduction

adequate cross-section of the Egyptian literature of that ancient period. Then, too, there is the hitherto
unknown ancient Canaanite literature which has been found inscribed on tablets excavated in the past
decade by the French at Rash-esh-Shamra in northern Syria. These tablets, relatively few in number,
indicate that the Canaanites, too, had a highly developed literature at one time. They are dated
approximately 1400 B. C., that is, they were inscribed over half a millennium later than our Sumerian
literary tablets. 21 As for the Semitic Babylonian literature as exemplified by such works as the "Epic of
Creation," the "Epic of Gilgamesh," etc., it is not only considerably later than our Sumerian literature, but
also includes much that is borrowed directly from it. 22
We turn now to the ancient literatures which have exercised the most profound influence on the more
spiritual aspects of our civilization. These are the Bible, which contains the literary creations of the Hebrews;
the Iliad and Odyssey, which are filled with the epic and mythic lore of the Greeks; the Rig-veda, which
contains the literary products of ancient India; and the Avesta, which contains those of ancient Iran. None
of these literary collections were written down in their present form before the first half of the first
millennium B. C. Our Sumerian literature, inscribed on tablets dating from approximately 2000 B. C.,
therefore antedates these literatures by more than a millennium. Moreover, there is another vital difference.
The texts of the Bible, of the Iliad and Odyssey, and of the Rig-veda and Avesta, as we have them, have
been modified, edited, and redacted by compilers and redactors with varied motives and diverse points of
view. Not so our Sumerian literature; it has come down to us as actually inscribed by the ancient scribes of
four thousand years ago, unmodified and uncodified by later compilers and commentators.
p. 21

And so we come to the crucial point. The basic value of Sumerian literature and its fundamental importance
for the related humanities being obvious, why has it remained largely unknown; why has it not been made
available to scholar and layman? What has hampered and impeded the decipherment of the Sumerian
literary tablets? Why has so little progress been made in the reconstruction and translation of their
contents? The factors responsible for this unfortunate situation are twofold: linguistic , the difficulties
presented by the grammar and vocabulary of the Sumerian language; and textual , the problems arising out
of the physical characteristics of our source material.
First, the linguistic difficulties. Sumerian is neither a Semitic nor an Indo-European language. It belongs to
the so-called agglutinative type of languages exemplified by Turkish, Hungarian, and Finnish. None of these
languages, however, seems to have any closer affiliation to Sumerian, and the latter, therefore, as yet
stands alone and unrelated to any known language living or dead. Its decipherment, therefore, would have
been an impossible task, were it not for the fortunate fact already mentioned that the Semitic conquerors of
Sumer not only adapted its script to their own Semitic tongue, but also retained it as their literary and
religious language. As a consequence, the scribal schools in Babylonia and Assyria made the study of
Sumerian their basic discipline. They therefore compiled what may be described as bilingual syllabaries or
dictionaries in which the Sumerian words or phrases were translated into their own language, Accadian. In
addition they also drew up interlinears of the Sumerian literary compositions in which each Sumerian line is
followed by its Accadian translation. Accadian, being a Semitic tongue related to numerous known
languages, was deciphered relatively early. And so these bilinguals became the basic material for the
decipherment of Sumerian, for by comparing the known Accadian word or phrase with the corresponding
Sumerian, the meaning of the latter could be deduced.
p. 22

Now while all this sounds relatively simple on paper, in actual practice the decipherment of Sumerian from
the bilingual texts has resulted in many grammatical and lexical misunderstandings. For Accadian and
Sumerian are as divergent in vocabulary and structure as two languages can be, and the seeming
correspondences in the ancient dictionaries and interlinears frequently proved very misleading, especially
since not a few of the earlier decipherers, for one reason or another, tended to draw hasty and superficial
conclusions. As a consequence so many errors crept into Sumerian grammar and vocabulary that when
scholars were presented with some of our unilingual literary tablets, that is with the tablets inscribed in
Sumerian only, the resulting efforts proved largely unproductive. Indeed in many cases the attempted
translations were almost entirely untrustworthy and dangerously misleading. It is only in the last

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Sumerian Mythology: Introduction

________________________________

PLATE V. "CHICAGO" SYLLABARY
The dictionaries and syllabaries compiled by the Babylonian scribes to aid their study of the Sumerian language, which formed their
basic discipline, varied considerably in make-up and structure. One of the most useful types is the "Chicago" syllabary, a scientific
edition of which was recently published by Richard Hallock, of the Oriental Institute. 23 It is illustrated on plate V, which is
reproduced here by permission of the University of Chicago Press. It was inscribed in the latter part of the first millennium B. C.,
although the indications are that it was actually compiled sometime in the second millennium B. C. Each side of the tablet is divided
into two halves, and each half is subdivided into four columns. The second column contains the cuneiform sign to be explained,
while the third column gives the name by which the Babylonian scribes identified it. The first column writes out phonetically the
Sumerian word which the sign represents, while the fourth column gives its Semitic translation.

PLATE VI. NIPPUR GRAMMATICAL TEXT
This plate (from Arno Poebel, Historical and Grammatical Texts (Philadelphia, 1914), pl. CXXII) illustrates another type of lexical text
devised by the Semitic scribes to further their knowledge of Sumerian. It is primarily grammatical in character. The tablet originally
contained 16 columns. Each column is subdivided into two halves. The left half contains a Sumerian grammatical unit, such as a
substantive or verbal complex, while the right half gives its Semitic translation. This tablet is much older than the "Chicago"
syllabary; it belongs to the same period as our literary material, approximately 2000 B. C. 24

Click to enlarge
PLATE V
''CHICAGO'' SYLLABARY
(For description, see opposite page.)

Click to enlarge
PLATE VI
NIPPUR GRAMMATICAL TEXT
(For description, see page 22)

p. 23

two decades, largely as a result of Arno Poebel's Grundzüge der Sumerischen Grammatik 25 that Sumerian
grammar has been put on a scientific basis. As for the lexical problems, these still remain serious and far
from resolved. 26
But troublesome and distressing as the linguistic problems frequently are in the process of reconstructing
and translating our literary tablets, they are not insuperable. The major impeding factor, the most serious

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Sumerian Mythology: Introduction

stumbling block, is the textual problem. Tablets, and especially those inscribed with the Sumerian literary
compositions which are largely unbaked, rarely come out whole from the ground. Usually they are in a
fragmentary, and not infrequently in a very fragmentary condition. Offsetting this disadvantage is the happy
fact that the ancient scribes made more than one copy of any given composition. The breaks in one tablet
may therefore frequently be restored from duplicating pieces which may themselves be mere broken
fragments. Thus in the case of "Inanna's Descent to the Nether World" (see p. 83), I utilized fourteen
different fragments. In the case of the recently published "Lamentation Over the Destruction of Ur," 15 the
text was reconstructed from twenty-two different fragments. And in reconstructing "The Feats and Exploits
of Ninurta" (see p. 80), I utilized 49 different fragments. To take full advantage of these duplications and
the consequent restorations, however, it is essential to have as much as possible of the source material
copied and available. But of the Nippur literary tablets excavated by the University of Pennsylvania and now
located in Istanbul and Philadelphia, some two thousand in number, only about five hundred have been
copied and published to date. And while all of the approximately seven hundred pieces in the British
Museum, Louvre, Berlin Museum, and Ashmolean Museum have been copied and published, 12 some of the
more important texts did not appear until a relatively recent date. Under these circumstances, the
trustworthy and scientific reconstruction and translation of our Sumerian literary compositions on any major
scale was obviously impossible.
p. 24

I first realized this situation and its implications in 1933, almost a decade ago, while working in the Oriental
Institute of the University of Chicago as a member of its Assyrian Dictionary staff. For in that year died
Edward Chiera, the scholar who copied more of the Nippur literary material than all others combined. Long
a member of the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, he devoted much of his time and energy during
his stay there to the copying of more than two hundred literary tablets and fragments in the University
Museum. Later, when called to the rapidly expanding Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago as head
of its Assyrian Dictionary project, he took his copies with him, and the Oriental Institute undertook to
publish them in two volumes. Upon Chiera's untimely death, the editorial department of the Oriental
Institute entrusted me with the preparation of these two posthumous volumes for publication. 27 As the
significance of the contents dawned upon me, I realized that all efforts to translate and interpret the
material would remain scientifically inadequate unless and until more of the uncopied and unpublished
material lying in Istanbul and Philadelphia should be made available.
From that day to this I have concentrated all my efforts on the reconstruction and translation of the
Sumerian literary compositions. After devoting years to a thorough study of the Sumerian idiom, I travelled
to Istanbul in 1937 and spent some twenty months in the Museum of the Ancient Orient, where I copied
one hundred and seventy Sumerian literary tablets and fragments from its Nippur collection; unfortunately
this still leaves approximately five hundred pieces in this Museum uncopied and unavailable. Since returning
to the United States in 1939, I have devoted practically all my time and energy to the Sumerian literary
tablets and fragments in the Nippur collection of our University Museum. I thus succeeded in identifying
approximately six hundred and seventy-five uncopied and unpublished Sumerian literary pieces in the
collection, almost twice as much as all the literary material copied and published
p. 25

by numerous scholars working in the Museum in the course of the past four decades. Of these six hundred
and seventy-five pieces, approximately one hundred and seventy-five are inscribed with epic and
mythological material; some three hundred are hymnal in character; fifty are parts of lamentations; the
remaining one hundred and fifty are inscribed with proverbs and "wisdom" compositions.
In the past two years my efforts were concentrated largely on the epics and myths. By utilizing all the
available published material, together with that part of the unpublished material which I copied in the
Museum of the Ancient Orient at Istanbul and all the relevant unpublished material in the University
Museum at Philadelphia, I succeeded in reconstructing the larger parts of the texts of twenty-four Sumerian
epics and myths; 28 this is the basic source material for the restoration of Sumerian mythology to be
sketched in the following chapters. As for the scientific edition of these epics and myths, that is, editions
consisting of the reconstructed Sumerian texts with line by line translations and commentary, these are now
in the process of preparation; unless the work is unexpectedly interrupted, they should be completed in the
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Sumerian Mythology: Introduction

course of the coming two or three years.
Next: Chapter I. The Scope and Significance of Sumerian Mythology

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Sumerian Mythology: Chapter I. The Scope and Significance of Sumerian Mythology

Sacred Texts Ancient Near East Index Previous Next
p. 26

CHAPTER I
THE SCOPE AND SIGNIFICANCE OF SUMERIAN MYTHOLOGY
The science of comparative mythology, like almost all the sciences, exact and inexact, is largely a product of
the nineteenth century; its origin and development followed closely upon that of comparative philology, the
science devoted to language and literature. The phenomenal growth of comparative philology itself was due
primarily to the recognition that both Sanskrit, the language of the oldest sacred literature of the Hindu
peoples, as well as Zend, or Old Persian, the language of the oldest sacred literature of the Iranian peoples,
were Indo-European languages; that is, they belong to the same family of languages as Greek and Latin.
The intense revival of Indo-European philology that followed was therefore based largely on the ancient
literatures of the Greeks, Hindus, and Iranians, and this led naturally and directly to a comparative study of
the myths and legends as related and revealed in them.
Moreover, toward the end of the first half of the nineteenth century, a new and unexpected field of study
was opened to comparative mythology. For it was about this time that the Egyptian hieroglyphic script and
the Babylonian cuneiform script were deciphered, and much new mythological material was gradually
recovered. What added impetus and excitement to this field of research was the fact that it offered a more
scientific approach to the study of the Old Testament. For it soon became evident that some of the Old
Testament material was mythological in character, since it presented clear parallels and resemblances to
the myths recovered from Egyptian and Babylonian sources. And so the study of comparative mythology,
following in the footsteps of philology and linguistics, was no longer restricted to the ancient IndoEuropeans; it now included the ancient Semites and Egyptians.
p. 27

Approximately at the same time, the growth and development of an almost entirely new science, that of
anthropology, proved of fundamental significance for the study of comparative mythology. In all the
continents outside of Europe, new peoples and tribes, in various stages of civilization, were being
discovered. Students and travellers, scientists and missionaries, studied the new languages, described the
strange habits and customs, and wrote down the religious beliefs and practices. Much hitherto unknown
mythological material was thus recovered from these more or less primitive peoples, and the science of
comparative mythology broadened and expanded accordingly.
And so, roughly speaking, we may divide the source material utilized by comparative mythology into two

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Sumerian Mythology: Chapter I. The Scope and Significance of Sumerian Mythology

categories. The first consists of the myths and legends of the ancient cultures such as those of the Hindus,
Iranians, and Greeks on the one hand, and of the Hebrews, Babylonians, and Egyptians, on the other;
these are revealed in, and derived from, the literatures of these peoples as written down largely in the first
millennium B. C. In this group, too, we may class such mythologies as the Scandinavian or Eddie, the
Chinese, Japanese, etc., which are derived from literary remains of a much later date. The second category
consists of the myths and legends of the so-called primitive peoples discovered in recent centuries, as
obtained by word of mouth from living members of those peoples and reported by travellers, missionaries,
and anthropologists. It goes without saying that basically, and in the long run, the recent, primitive source
material is every bit as important and valuable for comparative mythology and the related sciences as that
of the ancient cultures. On the other hand it is quite as obvious that for the history of the progress of our
civilization as we see and know it today, it is the tone and temper, the word and spirit of the ancient
mythologies, those of the Greeks and Hebrews, of the Hindus and Iranians, of the Babylonians and
Egyptians, which are of prime significance. It is the spiritual and religious concepts revealed
p. 28

in these ancient literatures which permeate the modern civilized world.
Still almost entirely unknown to this very moment is Sumerian mythology, the sacred stories of the nonSemitic, non-Indo-European people which in historical times, from approximately 3500 to 2000 B. C.,
inhabited Sumer, the relatively small land situated between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and stretching
from the Persian Gulf northward approximately as far as modern Bagdad; a land that may be aptly
described as the culture cradle of the entire Near East. Should the reader turn, for example, to Hastings'
Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics , 29 and examine the very long article on the cosmogonic or creation
myths of the world, he will find a large and relatively exhaustive list of peoples, ancient and modern,
cultured and primitive, whose cosmogonic concepts are described and analyzed. But he will look in vain for
Sumerian cosmogony. Similarly, the collection entitled Mythology of All the Races 30 devotes thirteen
volumes to an analysis of the more important mythologies in the world; here, too, however, there will be
found few traces of Sumerian mythology. Whatever little is known of Sumerian mythology is largely
surmised from the modified, redacted, and in a sense, garbled versions of the Babylonians who conquered
the Sumerians toward the very end of the third millennium B. C., and who used the Sumerian stories and
legends as a basis and nucleus for the development of their own myths.
But it is a known fact that in the long stretch of time between approximately 3500 and 2000 B. C. it was
the Sumerians who represented the dominant cultural group of the entire Near East. It was the Sumerians
who developed and probably invented the cuneiform system of writing; who developed a well integrated
pantheon together with spiritual and religious concepts which influenced profoundly all the peoples of the
Near East; who, finally, created and developed a literature rich in content and effective in form. Moreover,
the following significant fact must be borne in mind. By the end of the third millennium B. C. Sumer had
p. 29

already ceased to exist as a political entity and Sumerian had already become a dead language, for by that
time Sumer had been overrun and conquered by the Semites, and it is the Semitic Accadian language which
gradually became the living, spoken tongue of the land. Nevertheless Sumerian continued to be used as the
literary and religious language of the Semitic conquerors for many centuries to come, like Greek in the
Roman period and like Latin in the Middle Ages. Indeed for many centuries the study of the Sumerian
language and literature remained the basic pursuit of the scribal schools and intellectual and spiritual
centers not only of the Babylonians and Assyrians, but also of the many surrounding peoples such as the
Elamites, Hurrians, Hittites, and Canaanites. Obviously, then, both because of their content as well as
because of their age, the Sumerian mythological tales and concepts must have penetrated and permeated
those of the entire Near East. A knowledge of the Sumerian myths and legends is therefore a prime and
basic essential for a proper approach to a scientific study of the mythologies current in the ancient Near
East, for it illuminates and clarifies to no small extent the background behind their origin and
development. i
It is this practically unknown Sumerian mythology which I have the privilege of sketching briefly in the
pages to follow. The sketch will begin with the myths centering about the creation and organization of the
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Sumerian Mythology: Chapter I. The Scope and Significance of Sumerian Mythology

universe and the creation of man. It will continue with the myths of Kur, consisting of three versions of a
dragon-slaying motif and of the poem "Inanna's Descent to the Nether World." It will conclude with an
outline of three interesting miscellaneous myths. All in all, therefore, it is hoped that the reader will obtain a
fairly adequate cross-section of Sumerian mythology, a cross-section which, considering the age of the
culture involved, is remarkably broad in scope and surprisingly full in detail.
Next: Chapter II. Myths of Origins

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Sumerian Mythology: Chapter II. Myths of Origins

Sacred Texts Ancient Near East Index Previous Next
p. 30

CHAPTER II
MYTHS OF ORIGINS

1

The most significant myths of a given culture are usually the cosmogonic, or creation myths, the sacred
stories evolved and developed in an effort to explain the origin of the universe, the presence of the gods,
and the existence of man. And so we shall devote this chapter, by far the longest in our monograph, to the
creation theories and concepts current in Sumer in the third millennium B. G. The subject lends itself to
treatment under three heads: (1) the creation of the universe, (2) the organization of the universe, (3) the
creation of man.

THE CREATION OF THE UNIVERSE
The major source for the Sumerian conception of the creation of the universe is the introductory passage to
a Sumerian poem which I have entitled "Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Nether World." The history of its
decipherment is illuminating and not uninteresting. In 1934, when I first tried to decipher the contents, I
found that eight pieces belonging to the poem--seven excavated in Nippur and one in Ur--had already been
copied and published, thus: Hugo Radau, once of the University Museum, published two from Philadelphia
in 1910; Stephen Langdon published two from Istanbul in 1914; Edward Chiera published one from Istanbul
in 1924 and two more from Philadelphia in 1934; C. J. Gadd, of the British Museum, published an
excellently preserved tablet from Ur in 1930. 32 But an intelligent reconstruction
p. 31

and translation of the myth were still impossible, largely because the tablets and fragments, some of which
seemed to duplicate each other without rhyme or reason and with but little variation in their wording, could
not be properly arranged. In 1936, after I had sent off to the Revue d'assyriologie my first translations of
the myth "Inanna's Descent to the Nether World" (see p. 83), I decided to make a serious effort to
reconstruct the contents of the poem, which obviously seemed to contain a charming and significant story.
And it was then that I came upon the clue which enabled me to arrange the pieces in their proper order.
This clue crystallized from an effective utilization of two stylistic features which characterize Sumerian
poetry. The first is one which ranks very low in the scale of artistic technique but which from the point of
view of the decipherer is truly a boon. It may be described as follows. When the poet finds it advisable to
repeat a given description or incident, he makes this repeated passage coincide with the original to the very
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Sumerian Mythology: Chapter II. Myths of Origins

last detail. Thus when a god or hero orders his messenger to deliver a message, this message, no matter
how long and detailed, is given twice in the text, first when the messenger is instructed by his master, and
a second time when the message is actually delivered. The two versions are thus practically identical, and
the breaks in the one passage may be restored from the other.
As for the second stylistic feature, it may be thus sketched. The Sumerian poet uses two dialects in his epic
and mythic compositions, the main dialect, and another known as the Emesal dialect. The latter resembles
the main dialect very closely and differs only in showing several regular and characteristic phonetic
variations. What is more interesting, however, is the fact that the poet uses this Emesal dialect in rendering
the direct speech of a female , not male, deity; thus the speeches of Inanna, queen of heaven, are regularly
rendered in the Emesal dialect. 33 And so, on examining carefully the texts before me, I realized that what
in the case of several passages had been taken
p. 32

to be a mere meaningless and unmotivated duplication, actually contained a speech of the goddess Inanna
in which she repeats in the Emesal dialect all that the poet had previously described in narrative form in the
main dialect. With
_____________________________________

PLATE VII. GODS AND THE NETHER WORLD
One of the more remarkable contributions to art made by Mesopotamia is the cylinder seal. Invented primarily for the purpose of
identifying and safeguarding ownership of goods shipped or stored, it came to be used in time as a kind of signature for legal
documents. The procedure consisted merely of rolling the cylinder over wet clay and thus impressing the seal's design upon it. It is
the contents of these designs engraved by the seal-cutters on the stone cylinders which are of considerable value for our study of
Sumerian mythology. Especially is this true of the cylinder seals current in Sumer in the latter half of the third millennium B. C., not
a few of whose designs are religious and mythological in character. 31
The upper design clearly attempts to portray a more or less complicated mythological story. Three of the deities can be identified
with reasonable certainty. Second from the right is the water-god Enki, with the flowing streams of water and the swimming fishes.
Immediately behind him is his Janus-faced messenger Isimud, who plays an important role in several of our Enki myths. Seemingly
rising out of the lower regions is Utu, the sun-god, with his saw-knife and fiery rays. The female figure standing on top of the
mountain, near what seems to be a rather desolate tree, may perhaps be Inanna. If the figure to the left with bow in hand is
intended to be Gilgamesh, we have in this design most of the protagonists of the tale "Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Nether World."
However, it is to be noted that Enkidu is missing, and Isimud, who is pictured in the design, plays no part in the story. And so any
close connection between the design and the epic tale is improbable.
In the central design none of the figures can be identified with reasonable certainty. In the left half of the picture we note a deity
who seems to be rising out of the lower regions and is presenting a macelike object to a goddess. To the left is a god, perhaps
Gilgamesh, who seems to be chopping down a tree whose trunk is bent to a curve. The right half of the design seems to depict a
ritual scene.
The lower design may illustrate graphically the meaning of such a phrase as, "The nether world has seized him" (see p. 35). In the
right half of the scene we note a god actually within a flaming mountain (in Sumerian the word meaning "mountain" is the word
used regularly for "nether world"). To the right of the mountain is a god who may be putting it to flame with a torch. Behind this
deity is a goddess with fiery rays and ring who may perhaps be identified as Inanna. The left half of the design portrays a god
holding a bull-man by the tail; both are inside a mountain.
(Reproduced, by permission of the Macmillan Company, from Henri Frankfort, Cylinder Seals (London, 1939), plates XIXa, XXIa, and
XVIIIj.)

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Sumerian Mythology: Chapter II. Myths of Origins

Click to enlarge
PLATE VII
GODS AND THE NETHER WORLD (For description, see opposite page.)

p. 33

this clue as a guide I succeeded in piecing together the first part of this poem; this was published in
1938. 34 The latter half of the poem still remained largely unintelligible, and even the first and published
part had several serious breaks in the text. In 1939 I found in Istanbul a broken prism inscribed with the
poem. And in the course of the past year I identified and copied 7 additional pieces in the University
Museum at Philadelphia. 35 As a result we now have 16 pieces inscribed with the poem; over two hundred
and fifty lines of its text can now be intelligently reconstructed and, barring a passage here and there, be
correctly translated.
The story of our poem, briefly sketched, runs as follows: Once upon a time there was a huluppu -tree,
perhaps a willow; it was planted on the banks of the Euphrates; it was nurtured by the waters of the
Euphrates. But the South Wind tore at it, root and crown, while the Euphrates flooded it with its waters.
Inanna, queen of heaven, walking by, took the tree in her hand and brought it to Erech, the seat of her
main sanctuary, and planted it in her holy garden. There she tended it most carefully. For when the tree
grew big, she planned to make of its wood a chair for herself and a couch.
Years passed, the tree matured and grew big. But Inanna found herself unable to cut down the tree. For at
its base the snake "who knows no charm" had built its nest. In its crown, the Zu-bird--a mythological
creature which at times wrought mischief--had placed its young. In the middle Lilith, the maid of
desolation, had built her house. And so poor Inanna, the light-hearted and ever joyful maid, shed bitter
tears. And as the dawn broke and her brother, the sun-god Utu, arose from his sleeping chamber, she
repeated to him tearfully all that had befallen her huluppu -tree.
Now Gilgamesh, the great Sumerian hero, the forerunner of the Greek Heracles, who lived in Erech,
overheard Inanna's weeping complaint and chivalrously came to her rescue. He donned his armour
weighing fifty minas--about fifty pounds--and with his "ax of the road,"
p. 34

seven talents and seven minas in weight--over four hundred pounds--he slew the snake "who knows no
charm" at the base of the tree. Seeing which, the Zu-Bird fled with his young to the mountain, and Lilith
tore down her house and fled to the desolate places which she was accustomed to haunt. The men of
Erech who had accompanied Gilgamesh now cut down the tree and presented it to Inanna for her chair
and couch.
What did Inanna do? Of the base of the huluppu -tree she made an object called the pukku (probably a
drum), and of its crown she made another related object called the mikku (probably a drumstick), and gave
them both to Gilgamesh, evidently as a reward for his gallantry. Follows a passage of twelve lines
describing Gilgamesh's activity with these two objects whose meaning I am still unable to penetrate,
although it is in perfect shape. When our story becomes intelligible again, it continues with the statement
that "because of the cry of the young maidens" the pukku and the mikku fell into the nether world,
evidently through a hole in the ground. Gilgamesh put in his hand to retrieve them but was unable to reach
them; he put in his foot but was quite as unsuccessful. And so he seated himself at the gate of the nether
world and cried with fallen face: j
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Sumerian Mythology: Chapter II. Myths of Origins

My pukku, who will bring it up from the nether world?
My mikku , who will bring it up from the "face" of the nether world?

His servant, Enkidu, his constant follower and companion, heard his master's cries, and said to him:
My master, why dost thou cry, why is thy heart sick?
Thy pukku, I will bring it up from the nether world,
Thy mikku, I will bring it up from the "face" of the nether world.

Thereupon Gilgamesh warned him of the dangers involved in his plan to descend to the nether world--a
splendid passage, brief and concise in describing the taboos of the lower regions. Said Gilgamesh to
Enkidu:
p. 35

If now thou wilt descend to the nether world,
A word I speak to thee, take my word,
Advice I offer thee, take my advice.
Do not put on clean clothes,
Lest the (dead ) heroes will come forth like enemies;
Do not anoint thyself with the good oil of the vessel,
Lest at its smell they will crowd about thee.
Do not throw the throw-stick in the nether world,
Lest they who were struck down by the throw-stick will surround thee;
Do not carry a staff in thy hand,
Lest the shades will flutter all about thee.
Do not put sandals on thy feet,
In the nether world make no cry;
Kiss not thy beloved wife,
Kiss not thy beloved son,
Strike not thy hated wife,
Strike not thy hated son,
Lest thy "cry" of the nether world will seize thee;
(The cry ) for her who is lying, for her who is lying,
The mother of the god Ninazu who is lying,
Whose holy body no garment covers,
Whose holy breast no cloth wraps.

But Enkidu heeded not the advice of his master and he did the very things against which Gilgamesh had
warned him. And so he was seized by the nether world and was unable to reascend to the earth.
Thereupon Gilgamesh, greatly troubled, proceeded to the city of Nippur and wept before the great air-god
Enlil, the god who in the third millennium B. C. was the leading deity of the Sumerian pantheon:
O Father Enlil, my pukku fell into the nether world,
My mikku fell into the nether world;
I sent Enkidu to bring them up to me, the nether world has seized him.
Namtar (a demon) has not seized him, Ashak (a demon) has not seized him,
        The nether world has seized him.
Nergal, the ambusher, who spares no one, has not seized him,
        The nether world has seized him.
In battles where heroism is displayed he has not fallen,
        The nether world has seized him.
p. 36

But Enlil refused to stand by Gilgamesh, who then proceeded to Eridu and repeated his plea before the
water-god Enki, the "god of wisdom." Enki ordered the sun-god Utu to open a hole in the nether world and
to allow the shade of Enkidu to ascend to earth. The sun-god Utu did as bidden and the shade of Enkidu
appeared to Gilgamesh. Master and servant embraced and Gilgamesh questioned Enkidu about what he
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Sumerian Mythology: Chapter II. Myths of Origins

saw in the nether world. The passage from here to the end of the poem is badly broken, but the following
partly extant colloquy will serve as an illustration: k
Gilgamesh : "Him who has one son hast thou seen!"
Enkidu : "I have seen."
Gilgamesh : "How is he treated?"
Enkidu : (Answer broken)
Gilgamesh : "Him who has two sons hast thou seen?"
Enkidu : "I have seen."
Gilgamesh : "How is he treated?"
Enkidu : (Answer broken)
Gilgamesh : "Him who has three sons hast thou seen?"
Enkidu : "I have seen."
Gilgamesh : "How is he treated?"
Enkidu : ". . . much water he drinks."

________________________________________________

PLATE VIII. THE SEPARATION OF HEAVEN AND EARTH
The two pieces illustrated here are duplicates belonging to the epic tale, "Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the
Nether World." The one to the left is a tablet (14068 in the Nippur collection of the University Museum)
published by Chiera in 1934. 36 The one to the right (4429 in the Nippur collection of the Museum of the
Ancient Orient at Istanbul) is a fragment of a prism copied by the author and hitherto unpublished. The
marked passages contain the lines significant for the creation of the universe; for the translation and the
transliteration, see page 37 and note 37.

PLATE IX. ENLIL SEPARATES HEAVEN AND EARTH
The tablet (13877 in the Nippur collection of the University Museum) illustrated 38 here is one of the 20
duplicating pieces utilized to reconstruct the text of the poem, "The Creation of the Pickax" (see p. 51). Its
first five lines are significant for the Sumerian concepts of the creation of the universe; for the translation
and the transliteration, see page 40 and note 39.

Click to enlarge
PLATE VIII. THE SEPARATION OF HEAVEN AND EARTH
(For description, see opposite page)

Click to enlarge
PLATE IX
ENLIL SEPARATES HEAVEN AND EARTH

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Sumerian Mythology: Chapter II. Myths of Origins
(For description, see page 36.)
p. 37

Gilgamesh : "Him who has four sons hast thou seen!"
Enkidu : "I have seen."
Gilgamesh : "How is he treated?"
Enkidu : "Like . . . his heart rejoices."
Gilgamesh : "Him who has five sons hast thou seen!"
Enkidu : "I have seen."
Gilgamesh : "How is he treated?"
Enkidu : "Like a good scribe, his arm has been opened, He brings justice to the palace."
Gilgamesh : "Him who has six sons hast thou seen?"
Enkidu : "I have seen."
Gilgamesh : "How is he treated?"
Enkidu : "Like him who guides the plow his heart rejoices."
Gilgamesh : "Him who has seven sons hast thou seen!"
Enkidu : "I have seen."
Gilgamesh : "How is he treated?"
Enkidu : "As one close to the gods, he . . ."

Another of the questions runs thus:
Gilgamesh : "Him whose dead body lies (unburied) in the plain hast thou seen?"
Enkidu : "I have seen."
Gilgamesh : "How is he treated?"
Enkidu : "His shade finds no rest in the nether world." l

And so our poem ends. 40 It is the introduction to this composition which furnishes the most significant
material for the Sumerian concepts of the creation of the universe. The intelligible part of the introduction
reads as follows:
After heaven had been moved away from earth,
After earth had been separated from heaven,
After the name of man had been fixed;
After An had carried off heaven,
After Enlil had carried off earth,
After Ereshkigal had been carried off into Kur as its prize;
After he had set sail, after he had set sail,
After the father for Kur had set sail,
After Enki for Kur had set sail; p. 38
Against the king the small ones it (Kur) hurled,
Against Enki, the large ones it hurled;
Its small ones, stones of the hand,
Its large ones, stones of . . . reeds,
The keel of the boat of Enki,
In battle, like the attacking storm, overwhelm;
Against the king, the water at the head of the boat,
Like a wolf devours,
Against Enki, the water at the rear of the boat,
Like a lion strikes down.

If we paraphrase and analyze the contents of this passage, it may be worded as follows: Heaven and earth,
originally united, were separated and moved away from each other, and thereupon the creation of man was
ordained. An, the heaven-god, then carried off heaven, while Enlil, the air-god, carried off earth. All this
seems to be according to plan. Then, however, occurred something disruptive. For the goddess Ereshkigal,
the counterpart of the Greek Persephone, whom we know as queen of the nether world, but who originally
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Sumerian Mythology: Chapter II. Myths of Origins

was probably a sky-goddess, was carried off into the nether world, perhaps by Kur. No doubt to avenge
this deed, the water-god Enki set sail to attack Kur. The latter, evidently to be conceived as a monster or
dragon, did not stand idly by, but hurled stones, large and small, against the keel of Enki's boat, while the
primeval waters attacked Enki's boat front and rear. Our poem does not give the result of this struggle
between Enki and Kur, since the entire cosmogonic or creation introduction has nothing to do with the basic
contents of our Gilgamesh composition; it was placed at the head of the poem only because the Sumerian
scribes were accustomed to begin their stories with several introductory lines dealing with creation.
It is from the first half of this introduction that we obtain therefore the following cosmogonic concepts:
1. At one time heaven and earth were united.
2. Some of the gods existed before the separation of heaven and earth.
p. 39

3. Upon the separation of heaven and earth, it was, as might have been expected, the heaven-god An
who carried off heaven, but it was the air-god Enlil who carried off the earth.
Among the crucial points not stated or implied in this passage are the following:
1. Were heaven and earth conceived as created, and if so, by whom?
2. What was the shape of heaven and earth as conceived by the Sumerians?
3. Who separated heaven from earth?
Fortunately, the answers to these three questions can be gleaned from several other Sumerian texts dating
from our period. Thus:
1. In a tablet which gives a list of the Sumerian gods, 41 the goddess Nammu, written with the ideogram for
"sea," is described as "the mother, who gave birth to heaven and earth." Heaven and earth were therefore
conceived by the Sumerians as the created products of the primeval sea.
2. The myth "Cattle and Grain" (see p. 53), which describes the birth in heaven of the spirits of cattle and
grain, who were then sent down to earth to bring prosperity to mankind, begins with the following two
lines:
After on the mountain of heaven and earth,
An had caused the Anunnaki (his followers) to be born. . . .

It is not unreasonable to assume, therefore, that heaven and earth united were conceived as
a mountain whose base was the bottom of the earth and whose peak was the top of the heaven.

[paragraph continues]

3. The myt