Prayer and Lamentation

Prayer in the Sumerian tradition, like in many other faiths, is the act of directly communicating with a deity. We believe in the concept of a personal god (or gods); the idea that the deities that are the subject of our veneration desire a personal relationship with us, an idea that was underpinning Mesopotamian theological thought millennia before the birth of Jesus. Prayer is therefore our way of expressing our thanks and our wishes to our gods.

There is no defined form that prayer must take, and the Sumerian faith discourages praying by rote repetition. Each act of prayer should be genuinely and sincerely meant, and addressed to a deity with humble respect. It was known for a high priest to approach the altar naked (although this is not a requirement) in order to demonstrate humility and reverence before the gods.

Because of the high value placed on sincerity in Sumerian prayer, it is encouraged that prayer be spontaneous and heartfelt. Language is a divine gift, and it is appropriate and reverential to use our creative gift of language to genuinely express our true mindset in the presence of the gods. However, all are welcome to draw inspiration from the examples on this page.

Writing, further, plays a great role in Sumerian theology. Writing was new to their civilisation and they recognised it as a divine gift. A prayer does not necessarily need to be spoken; a sincerely written prayer, left on an altar or burned to send the smoke to the heavens, is often appreciated. This does not need to be in Sumerian; it could be in any language as long as the intent and mindset are appropriate.

Although prayer can be offered as part of a ritual, offering, or ceremony, this is not necessary; it is appropriate to pray, even on the spot, whenever we have something in our lives that we wish to communicate with the Divine. In the Sumerian tradition of prayer, it is crucial to remember that the gods are above mankind. If you pray to the Sumerian gods, you are asking their favour and their blessing. Prayer is not a "cosmic vending machine", as it is seen in some pagan paths. We are expected to know that the gods occupy a higher strata than mankind, and we should approach them appropriately: with due reverence and respect.

Prayers generally fall into two categories: supplicatory prayers, in which we express our thanks and reverence to our gods, and intercessory prayers, in which we petition the gods to intervene in the material world on our behalf (in the Sumerian faith, this includes lamentations). Offertory prayers, given when making a ritual offering, may also be considered separately. An individual prayer may well contain multiple elements, and a prayer consisting of a supplicatory element followed by an intercessory one was a standard formula across Mesopotamia.

Supplicatory prayer
A supplicatory prayer is one that invokes thanks, praise, or reverence to the gods, whether this be for their attributes, their gifts, their blessings, or anything they have created or caused to be. The Sumerian gods are well inclined towards prayer; a recovered Sumerian prayer tablet (labelled W 17259w) begins:

“To Nanna, the first-born child of Enlil, who loves prayers…”

We believe that the gods actively shaped the Universe and everything in it, which includes all of the things that make the fine workings of civilisation, life, and human existence possible. It is right to recognise that everything known to us is made possible by divine fiat, and to express our thanks for the gifts of life and civilisation that allow us to raise up our own human existence.

A simple statement of praise, when we wish to express our thanks for a divine gift we receive, is the name of the deity followed by zami, eg. 𒀭𒈹𒍠𒊩 Inana zami, "Inana be praised".

In the modern Sumerian Reconstructionist faith, we should note that these gifts did not cease at the destruction of Akkad, the fall of Babylon, or any other historical event; we hold that every leap forward in technology and civilisation is built upon the last one, and that this forms an unbroken chain of events going back to the creation of the Universe.

This is why the Sumerians thought that prayer should be offered in praise of the gods. Lengthy compositions exist which extol the virtues of the gods, and in which the writer thanks the gods for all that they have provided humanity with. The Sumerians recognised that they had been lifted up to a civilised state, as opposed to the non-civilised nomadic peoples living around them, and were thankful for all of the gifts that made this possible.

Intercessory prayer
An intercessory prayer is one that implores a deity to intercede in the physical world in order to answer the petition of a worshipper. However, this comes with caveats:

We recognise our deities as being far greater than we are, and acknowledge that they are not at our beck and call to address any problem we might have. Unlike the Abrahamic faiths, “knowledge” is not an inherently sinful concept - we are encouraged to use our gifts wisely, to know when we can influence a situation, and further to recognise when we are in need of divine intervention.

This is illustrated by the Akkadian-language Epic of Atraḥasis - the forerunner to the Genesis Flood narrative - telling of how Enlil, disturbed by the clamour of mankind imploring the gods to intervene in all of their trifles, sends a flood that is intended to wipe out mankind, but one man, Atraḥasis, survives when he is instructed by Enki to build an Ark.

The Atraḥasis story is not a story of divine vindictiveness. The Sumerian gods are neither cruel nor callous, and answer prayers delivered in genuine need, but look unfavourably upon humans demanding divine intervention for matters we are capable of addressing ourselves. The text known as “A Man and His God” shows this:

“The young man’s perfectly mastered words of supplication, his holy prayer, were a delight to his god, like a fine oil. [...] [His god] tore out the fate from his body [ie, changed it]. He turned his suffering to joy.”

In particular, the gods are not to be threatened, such as by threatening to stop worshipping if a prayer is not granted. A Reconstructionist view of the nature of the gods is that they are powerful forces that exist regardless of human belief in them. They will not be dictated to by humans and are likely to respond poorly to arrogance.

There is significant overlap with the concept of lamentation, which is a pouring out of the heart in the presence of a deity. Lamentation prayers are common across the cultures of the Ancient Near East, and they represent a sincere recognition that a situation is out of our hands; a lament is a heartfelt expression of grief and sorrow, a call for the gods to ease our heart and our troubles when we feel like strength is hard to come by. 

Lamenting means that you are exposing your heart to the gods; by allowing yourself to be so raw and open before them, you are showing your sincerity, your vulnerability, and your genuine emotional need. The great poet and high priestess, Enheduana, wrote:

“I, Enheduana, will say a prayer to [Inana]; my tears will flow like sweet beer.”

The Sumerians saw adversity and tribulation as an intrinsic part of the human existence, part of the full spectrum of conditions that we are intended to know in our lives in order that we can grow and learn, but also recognised that the gods are merciful and do not wish for us to undergo overwhelming suffering. The phrase “merciful and compassionate one, who listens to prayers” is attested as an appellation of several distinct deities.

Intercessory prayers and lamentations, by their nature, are deeply personal (although it is also appropriate to pray for a friend, an ancestor, a city or nation, or any other troubling situation). The form of the prayer is much less important than the sincerity and manner with which it is delivered.

Offertory prayer
An offertory prayer is a prayer dedicating an offering (which may be a ritual meal, a creative work, an altar space, a spiritual tool, or anything else the worshipper sees fit to dedicate) to a particular deity, perhaps for a particular use.

Offertory prayers are generally supplicatory in nature, offering praise and worship to the relevant deity, and often contain intercessory elements, particularly related to the thing being dedicated. The actual offertory element of such prayers need only be short, along the form of:

Holy (deity), your servant (name) presents you with this offering of... (for the purpose of...)

Depending on what is being offered, this can be followed by a phrase like: that it may please you
...may you be pleased to pour out your blessings upon it
...may its presence delight you