There were seven deities seen by the Sumerians as the most powerful in the pantheon, with the power to determine the fates of the universe, but countless others existed and were venerated at various times. This page is intended to give an outline of the most prominent.
Etymology: DAMU.ZID "Flawless Child"
Dumuzid is the shepherd god, and has associations with agriculture and fertility. Most references to him in known Sumerian texts focus on him as the consort of Inana; their courtship and consummation are written of extensively in Sumerian literature.
He shows up most notably in the Descent of Inana. Inana escapes the underworld, but must fulfill the requirement of allowing a soul to be taken in her place. She finds Dumuzid living in luxury, having not tried to find her, and permits the demons to carry him away. Later she regrets this decision, and decrees that Dumuzid will live with her for half the year and in the underworld for half the year; the Sumerians linked this to the seasons, for when Dumuzid was in the underworld, the earth was hot and unsuitable for agriculture.
Dumuzid also has a link to romance and courtship, due to his seduction of Inana. He is a passionate and charming figure and Sumerian writings about him speak extensively about this aspect of his nature.
His sister is Geštinana 𒀭𒃾𒀭𒈾 "wine of the heavens", who takes his place in the underworld six months of every year. As well as being a goddess of wine, Geštinana aids in dream interpretation, and is known for her musical and literary talents.
Etymology: EREŠ.KI.GAL "Queen of the Great Earth"
Ereškigal is known as the Queen of the Underworld. In her own realm, she is said to have power over all who enter, be they human or divine. She is the ultimate arbiter of the fate of the deceased, but she has the power to elevate others to serve as judges similarly; Utu and Nanna are both known to be judges of the deceased in this context.
She is the twin sister of Enki and the older sister of Inana. Ereškigal and Inana form a complex duality; Inana as the Queen of Heaven and Ereškigal as Queen of the Underworld are seen in direct opposition to each other.
Although she is Queen of the Underworld, Ereškigal is not a "devil" figure. She teaches us that death is part of life but also that in death there is renewal. She shows that it is sometimes necessary to destroy in order to rebuild anew.
Etymology: IM "storm, rain"
Iškur is the god of rain and storms, a fierce figure who heralds either the life-giving blessing of rainfall or the destructive tempest of a storm. He represents a powerful, volatile force of nature, but one which has the potential to be extraordinarily beneficial.
His aspect as a storm god means that he is sometimes associated with warfare. He is depicted on the back of a bull, hurling thunderbolts at his enemies.
The Sumerians saw Iškur as lower in rank than other gods with powers over water, such as Enlil, but the Babylonians - who were much more reliant on rainfall for agriculture than were the Sumerians - elevated him to a far loftier position. They knew him by the Semitic name Adad, perhaps meaning "thunder".
Etymology: AMAR.UTU.(A)K "calf of the Sun"
Marduk's origins remain shrouded in mystery. He was not widely worshipped by the Sumerians, but he was the patron deity of the city of Babylon. As Babylon began to rise in power and prestige around 2000 BC, Marduk's position in the pantheon was thereby elevated; the Babylonians regarded him as second in rank only to An; to them, Marduk was the head of the pantheon in place of Enlil.
Marduk's original domain may have been over incantations, but he later became linked to judgment and authority; indeed, the kings of Babylon were crowned in the name of Marduk.
The Babylonian creation story, known to us as Enūma Eliš, tells of Marduk slaying the primal dragon Tiamat and crushing a rebellion against the gods. After this, the gods recognise Marduk's supremacy and Enlil cedes his position and his domains to Marduk.
This story was not known to the Sumerians, appearing only after the rise of Babylon as the prime regional power.
Etymology: KIŠ.UNU "House of Kiš" (a city), originally NE2.IRI11.GAL "Chief of the Underworld"
Nergal is the King of the Underworld, the husband and consort of Ereškigal and a judge of the deceased. He was seen very particularly as a god of plague and pestilence, and may have represented certain aspects of the sun, namely the harsh sun of high noon or midsummer - in ancient Mesopotamia, these were times of brutal heat in which agricultural activity was impossible.
He has a secondary association with war, invoked by kings going off to battle in the hope that Nergal would bring plagues upon their enemies.
As with all Mesopotamian underworld deities, Nergal is not evil or malicious, but has a role to play in ensuring a certain function of the Universe. He can bring plagues but also has the power to protect against disease and pestilence, and indeed amulets were made that were intended to invoke his protection.
Etymology: NIN.GIŠ.ZID.DA "Lord of the Righteous Tree"
Ningišzida is a god of vegetation and growth. He is only known from a few extant stories, so much information about him is difficult to reconstruct, but he had a role to play in ensuring the flowering and fruiting of the Earth.
He, as with a number of other deities, was said to reside in the underworld for half of the year, this being the time for the Mesopotamians when conditions were unsuitable for plant growth.
Because he represented growth, he could also influence decay, disorder, and confusion. A prayer to Ningišzida speaks of him spreading confusion amongst the wicked and the liars.
When in the underworld, his role was that of a guardian, standing guard at the gates and carrying out the command of Ereškigal. He may also have had a warrior aspect.
Etymology: NIN.ŠUBUR "Lord/Lady of the East"
Note that the sign NIN can be glossed as either "Lord" or "Lady", because Sumerian does not distinguish male and female grammatical gender! Only a select few words are gender-specific. This is particularly meaningful when it comes to Ninšubur, because Ninšubur was, at different times, both male and female.
Ninšubur is the attendant of the gods, the messenger, relaying prayers from humans as well as messages between the gods. Ninšubur also accompanies them and attends their needs where necessary.
Ninšubur is the vizier - the chief minister - to Inana, but also serves other deities, predominantly An. In Sumerian tradition, the gender of a deity's vizier matches the gender of that deity, so Ninšubur is depicted as either male or female depending on which god they are serving.
Etymology: NIN.TIN.UG4.GA "Lady who brings life to the dead"
Nintinuga is the goddess of healing, blessed with extraordinary regenerative powers. She has particular domain over anything associated with healing and medicine. Physicians in Sumer were sacred to her, and her domain extended into the magical, for she was invoked in incantations that were intended to bring relief to the sick.
She was known to have a ferocious temper, and her wrath was invoked in curses against poisoners, practicioners of false medicine, and those who spread disease.
She is seen to be a healer to all, not just humans, but also plant and animal life - she could restore life in the bleakest and most desolate of places, making whole that which had been shattered.
Etymology: NIN.URTA "Lord of Barley"
Ninurta is the husband of Nintinuga, whose primary domain is farming and agriculture. In this role, he has the power to ensure abundance and plenty upon the Earth, and represents the victory that is won in mankind's hard work making crops grow from the Earth.
Ninurta is also a god of rocks and minerals. In an early Sumerian story, he names all of the rocks and metals of the Earth, assigning them their qualities and defining their uses. It was Ninurta who elevated lapis lazuli to its position as the most precious stone of the gods.
He also had an aspect as a god of war, although this was most prominent amongst the Babylonians and the Assyrians. He was still seen by the Sumerians as a great protector, particularly of farmers, but he would be invoked along with his wife Nintinuga for healing and protection against disease.
Etymology: NAGA "potash"
Nisaba has two primary functions: as goddess of wheat, and writing. This is a logical connection to make for the Sumerian mind, because one of the very first uses for writing was to keep account of trades of commodities, of which wheat is perhaps the most basic. Her name was written using a sign meaning potash (sometimes combined with that for barley, as in 𒀭𒊺𒉀).
Nisaba is viewed as the one who handed down cuneiform writing to humans, and her domains thusly include accounting, literature, prose and poetry, contracts and business deals, and many more besides. She is the great scribe of the gods, who writes upon a tablet of lapis lazuli and records the deeds and lives of humans, that our character may be judged by the gods.
She causes the wheat and barley to grow, and her divinity is present in each and every stalk of grain, giving her a hand in the production of bread and beer, both of which were extremely important commodities to the Sumerians.
Her worship was diminished by the Babylonians in favour of their own scribal god, Nabu - perhaps as part of a civilisational effort to marginalise female deities.
Writing in cuneiform is a sacred act to Nisaba, and many Sumerian documents accordingly conclude with the line 𒀭𒉀𒍠𒊩 Nisaba zami, "Praised be Nisaba!"