The seven deities who decree fate (Sumerian: iminbi 𒀭𒅓𒁉) are the most important deities of the Sumerian pantheon. References to these deities in Sumerian literature make it clear that they are in control of the destiny of animals, people, and cities alike. They decreed the rules of order in the primal cosmos, brought the gifts of civilisation to mankind, and rose up the land of Sumer. This list is particular to an interpretation of the divine hierarchy that passed through Nippur; other cities recognised the primacy of other gods at various positions in the hierarchy.
Etymology: AN "The Most High" (cf. Canaanite El)
An is the primordial god of the cosmos. The Sumerians understood him to be the personification of the heavens, and is frequently stated to have been involved in the creation of the Universe. He is described as the Father of the Gods, and the other deities are generally understood to be his descendants. His consort was the goddess Ki 𒀭𒆠, by whom he fathered numerous offspring, most prominently Enlil. (Ki is generally identified with Ninhursaĝ; see below.)
In the earliest Sumerian texts, An is spoken of as the king of the pantheon. He is the ancient force from whom all the other deities acquire their power. The kings of Sumer similarly saw their right to rule as deriving from An, but this was a right that also brought with it the responsibility to maintain the good order of the Universe as written into place by the gods. A king who failed to maintain this order would have his lands cast into chaos by the gods.
He is the highest authority in the cosmos, and he distributes functions and authority to the other gods under him. He shares similarities with many other gods associated with the bright daylight and the heavens, such as the Canaanite El and the Indo-European *Dyeus-pater.
In later Sumerian thought, many of An's powers and functions were ceded to Enlil. (This transferring of powers between deities is a common theme in the Sumerian faith, and indeed forms an important part of many narratives.) It is then told how An took up residence in the highest heaven, maintaining oversight over the Universe while not taking direct involvement in its processes. Other gods may, however, intercede with him on behalf of their worshippers.
Nevertheless, he remains as the primal cosmos, the progenitor who is the source of all power. The sign used to represent his name also means "heavens" as well as "divinity", and these forces were understood to remain within his purview.
Etymology: EN.LIL2 "Lord Wind"
The translation of the sign 𒆤 must be rendered inexactly in English. It is attested as "air, wind", and also as "spirit", suggesting an earlier meaning analogous to "breath of life".
Enlil is the son of An and Ki, the god of the winds and the fates, who assumed command over the functions of kingship and authority when his father An took up a position in the highest heavens. Amongst the gods, Enlil is seen as the ultimate arbiter of authority, and writings tell of how he acts to resolve disputes of power between different gods. Indeed, other gods are sometimes shown to make offerings to Enlil.
His realm consists of that which is neither above the skies nor below the earth. He is the right hand of An and is seen to act with the same power and authority. He writes the fates and takes a much more active role in the cosmos than An. While An, through Ki, birthed life, including humans, into the cosmos, it is Enlil who established civilisation and gifted it to mankind. Enlil showed humans how to make agricultural tools, how to write in cuneiform, and how to build the apparatus of civilisation. In this way, he provided for the people in a way that went beyond their previous nomadic lifestyle. Enlil therefore gathered together all of the divine powers, all of the things that allow civilisation to thrive, and gave them to Enki to distribute amongst the cities and gods of Sumer.
As authority and power derive from An, they are conferred by Enlil. The ancient kings of Mesopotamia were proclaimed in the city of Nippur, at Enlil's sacred temple, and it was to Enlil that they understood themselves to be directly accountable. Enlil, like An, has the power to elevate other gods to greater powers; the Babylonians said that gods elevated in this way had been granted ellilitu, Enlil-ship.
Enlil is sometimes seen as a god of storms, chaos, or destruction, but this is a misunderstanding. Enlil is described in Sumerian texts as levelling cities and bringing devastation, but also as being of kind heart, providing abundance for mankind. Enlil is therefore not to be seen as malevolent, but as mighty and powerful. Whereas An oversees the cosmos from the highest heavens, Enlil's involvement is direct and his power, whether used for creation or destruction, is immense.
Enlil's consort is the goddess Ninlil, and they had a number of children, including the moon god Nanna. Their relationship, and the nature of Ninlil, is something that deserves special consideration; a further article exploring this in more detail will be posted in due course.
Etymology: EN.KI "Lord Earth", or possibly EN.KI-AĜ2 "Lord of Love/Benevolence"
In Akkadian, he is known as Ea, which derives from the Sumerian for "Lord Water", or possibly "Temple of Water". The sign 𒆠 KI refers to "earth" in the context of "all that is beneath the heavens", although in some of the earliest attested mentions, Enki's name is rendered Enkig, raising the possibility of an etymology derived from ki-aĝ, "love".
Enki is the wisest of the gods, which is why Enlil entrusted him with the divine powers, to distribute amongst the cities and gods of Sumer. These divine powers include the arts, which the Sumerians saw as one of the defining features of civilisation; Enki is therefore a creative force. This holds true in more ways than one, for Enki is seen to have played a key role in the creation of life.
Enki's primary domain is that of water, and by extension, he is seen as the one who nourishes all life on Earth. The Sumerian word a 𒀀, which appears in his Akkadian name, refers to semen as well as water. The implications, besides the obvious, were also metaphorical, as Enki is the one who fertilises the land and causes people, animals, and plant life to be abundant. Enlil gave agricultural tools to mankind, but it is through Enki's nourishment that the crops grow. Similarly, civilisation was established by Enlil, but it is Enki who causes it to be fruitful through music, literature, and the arts.
His wisdom also makes him the god of magic and diviners. Enki is the connection between the human and the divine, and one of the great gifts that he passed to humanity is that of ritual knowledge. Due to his connection to water, he is also connected with ritual purity and cleansing, and his name would often be invoked by Sumerian magicians and sages in order to ward against demons and other sources of evil.
Enki is not a trickster god, although some modern academic portrayals show him this way. He is sharp, mischievous, and witty, but he does not play malevolent pranks on people. Just like the other gods, he wishes to uphold the good order of the structure that they created. He is compassionate and altruistic, and will offer aid to all those who come to him with sincere hearts. He further encourages resourcefulness and quick thinking, and desires that humans make the most of our (individual and collective) creative gifts.
In modern society, we don't often think to be thankful for the gifts that make civilisation possible. These gifts may be as abstract as "ideas", "creativity", and "ingenuity". The Sumerians did, because they recognised these as the blessings of Enki.
His compassion is illustrated in the tale "Enki and Ninmah", in which Enki finds a purpose in society for all of the disabled humans who were created by the earth goddess Ninmah (= Ninhursaĝ). However, Ninmah could not find a purpose for a creation devoid of Enki's essence.
The intended message of the story is that all humans have a role to play in a just society, and a society that thus excludes people can hardly be said to be just, but it is also meant to illustrate the necessity of Enki's civilising gifts in order to establish human well-being. The final lines of the story, often omitted, tell of how Enki comforted Ninmah and found a purpose for his own creation in building the home of the gods.
Etymology: NIN.HAR.SAG "Lady of the Sacred Mountain"
In earlier times known as Ninmah 𒀭𒊩𒌆𒈤 "Most Exalted Lady"; the names are interchangeable. It is also likely that she is the same as An's original consort Ki.
Ninhursaĝ is the original mother goddess of the Sumerian pantheon. She is the Mother Earth to An's Father Sky, and indeed the combination of their primal names forms anki 𒀭𒆠, the Sumerian word for "universe". In this way, Ninhursaĝ is the All-Mother of the Sumerian pantheon, and the one who is the divine ancestor of all other gods, as well as all life in the Universe.
In the Sumerian creation story, Ki and An are both spawned from the primordial sea Nammu, identified with the Babylonian Tiamat. From their union the entire cosmos is ultimately formed. Due to this, she is seen as the spiritual mother of all humankind.
As a mother goddess, she is viewed as the patron deity of pregnancy, protecting children while they are still in the womb, and guiding and nourishing them after they are born. She also protects and nurtures those who are pregnant.
It is unfortunate that over time, the stories of the Sumerians were altered and distanced from the original meaning. The Ur III period, from which we get many surviving tablets written in Sumerian, is distanced from the Neo-Assyrian period, a source of many of our Akkadian texts, by 1500 years, enough time for the original Sumerian tales to be altered significantly.
Over time, the newer texts diminished the role of Ninhursaĝ as the Earth Mother, but the Sumerians saw her as a co-equal counterpart to the divine father An. They worshipped her as a goddess of the feminine spirit; she was not seen as a savage goddess of the wilderness, for part of her role was to uphold the divine order, just like the rest of the pantheon. She is nevertheless depicted as a goddess of nature, and in her mother goddess aspect, can be found anywhere life may exist.
After An passed his responsibilities over to Enki, Ninhursaĝ is often portrayed as the consort of Enki, and their union reflects a cosmic balance of the energies of the heavens and the Earth, the masculine and the feminine, in balance with one another. She and Enki create the human race together, with Ninhursaĝ bestowing upon them life and Enki, in his wisdom, bestowing the gifts with which to craft civilisation.
Etymology: ŠEŠ.KI "Earth's Brother"(?)
The etymology is uncertain here. Nanna is a god of the moon, lending some credence to the literal reading of the signs; the name Nanna is however of uncertain origin. In Akkadian he is Su'en, and is referred to with the epithet Enzu 𒂗𒍪, which is Sumerian for "Lord of Wisdom".
Nanna, the moon god, is the son of Enlil and Ninlil. The moon was key to the Sumerian understanding of time; the first calendar, invented by the Sumerians, was designed around the phases of the moon, and Nanna was also revered as the god of time, the god who grants the wisdom to look upon the past and learn from it. His marking the passage of time is one of the things that contributes to the divine order of the universe.
Nanna also has an association with light, deriving from his aspect as the moon, in which his role is to bring light into the darkness. He is seen to shine wisdom upon us when we need it most, and is therefore also god of scholarship and research. He is said to illuminate the path for those who go in search of the mysteries of life.
He has an association with cattle, and one of his aspects is that of a cowherd. The horned shape of the crescent moon reflects that of a bull's horns, and one tablet refers by analogy to the stars as his "sparkling-eyed cows", wandering the night sky.
Because the length of the lunar month (~29.5 days) approximates the length of the menstrual cycle, menstruation was also a domain of Nanna.
The phases of the moon brought forth different aspects of Nanna. The full moon was celebrated on the 15th day of the lunar month, a day that was seen as sacred to Nanna. The time around the new moon is when Nanna descends to the underworld to judge the fate of the dead, although his judgment was a benevolent one; he is spoken of as shining his light into the depths of the underworld.
His consort is Ningal 𒀭𒊩𒌆𒃲 "Great Lady", the goddess of the reeds. She is an ancient goddess who was worshipped prominently in times when reeds were a common building material. Their children include Utu and Inana. Nanna's seduction and courtship of Ningal are spoken of at great length on ancient tablets, and illustrates another of Nanna's domains; that of love, courtship, and romance.
Etymology: UD "Sun"
The sign representing Utu's name derives from an ancient pictograph of the sun rising above a mountain valley. His Akkadian name is Šamaš, which also literally means "sun".
He stands for the light of the sun that allows life to exist on Earth, the radiant warmth of the daytime, and by association, it is by his decree that the land may bring forth plants and crops in abundance. His warmth nourishes humans and animals alike, as well as the Earth itself. When Enki was distributing the divine powers amongst the gods, he assigned Utu as the herald who proclaimed An's decisions.
Filling the entire sky with light, Utu is the all-seeing one, for his light illuminates the darkest of places, exposing falsehoods and deceit. Utu is the god of truth and justice, and he sees to it that contracts are fulfilled and obligations upheld. Sumerians would make contracts in the name of Utu. Utu governs agreements in all strata of society, from business agreements to treaties between nations. Because his light shone through everything, Utu could not be deceived.
Because his light represents truth and justice, he is the Lawgiver in the Sumerian pantheon, the one who passed to mankind the laws that enable a just society to function smoothly. The law code of the Sumerian king Ur-Nammu was issued "in the just name of Utu". Utu decreed equity in the land of Sumer, and the kings thus strove to appear as paragons of justice and order, but also of fairness; to allow inequality in the land would incur the wrath of Utu.
Another of his domains was divination. While crafty Enki gave magic to humans, divination was Utu's gift, for he could reveal the truth even about the future; the sages of ancient Sumer would appeal to him to provide a correct answer when they performed a reading.
Utu will also take a direct role in human affairs, intervening to make sure that fairness is applied. He also took part in the affairs of the underworld; when the sun set in the West, he would descend into the underworld, where he decrees the fates of the dead, judges their disputes, and illuminates their realm - just as Nanna does when it is daylight in the world of the living.
His consort is Šerida 𒀭𒂠𒉪𒁕, the youthful warrior goddess of the dawn.
Etymology: NIN.AN.A(K) "Lady of Heaven"
Her name is often, and incorrectly, spelled Inanna, which stems from a misunderstanding of Sumerian.
Inana, known to the Babylonians as Ištar (Ishtar), has encroached the most of any of the Sumerian deities onto the edge of the public consciousness. She is venerated in some modern, dianic, Wiccan circles as a manifestation of the mother goddess, or the divine feminine. This is a misrepresentation. The representative of the divine feminine in the Sumerian pantheon is Ninhursaĝ-Ki. As her writings make clear, Inana holds among her domains the sacred androgyne. People who exhibited both the masculine and the feminine in Sumer were considered sacred to Inana.
Perhaps the most important aspect of Inana's personality is her ambition, combined with her youthful ferocity. Inana is a complex and multi-faceted deity; some of this is because she has so many aspects (me) that she, in part, conquered or won from other deities. A prayer of exaltation to her addresses her with the epithet "lady of a myriad me", or ninmešara. As such, understanding Inana requires a careful examination of her aspects.
Inana is noted for her passion. She is a goddess of love, but the love that she embodies is not of a romantic sort, which is the realm of Nanna. The love that Inana portrays is a fiery, passionate, and unapologetically sexual one, for Inana stands for sexuality and sexual liberation in all its forms. She is a protector of sex workers, and of anyone marginalised by society because of their sexuality.
The other key aspect of Inana is of her as a young warrior. Her passion extends to the heat of battle, for she fights just as fiercely as she loves. Her anger is frightful to behold, and she sweeps all before her in battle, as attested by numerous lengthy praise hymns; she is spoken of as conquering the E-anna temple from An, and in a different composition, sieges and destroys Mount Ebih even against An's wishes. Sumerians would pray to her for success in battle.
She is famously hot-headed and ambitious, winning victories for herself and her worshippers. She is able to "destroy that which cannot be destroyed, create that which cannot be created," according to the story of Enki and the World Order. She is described as intimately involved with the lives of her worshippers, bestowing blessings on them in life and even in the afterlife.
Her feminine aspect is her passion and lust; her masculine aspect is that of a conquering warrior. She embodies the divine androgyne that ties both of her syncretic aspects as Venus, the masculine Morning Star and the feminine Evening Star. The divine androgyne is key to understanding Inana; she certainly has varying gender presentation, referring to herself in one tale as "a woman, and a joyful young man". Androgyny, and those who exhibit it, were understood by the Sumerians to be Inana's sacred gift. The Inana C composition declares that Inana has the power to turn a man into a woman, and a woman into a man; in it, she also performs a rite of transformation on a worshipper, changing their bodily form to match that of their true gender.
Indeed, Inana had a number of classes of priests whose functions are not perfectly understood, but whose appearance and mannerisms were generally androgynous. (These priests were not typically eunuchs, or any of the myriad of terms they are sometimes translated as; in fact, many took spouses and had many children.)
Like Venus in the sky, Inana traveled to, and returned from, the underworld. The story of Inana's Descent is one of the best known tales of Sumerian mythology, telling of how Inana sought to conquer the divine powers of the underworld from her sister Ereškigal. She is trapped in the underworld, but Enki creates two androgynous beings (in the Sumerian; there is only one in the Akkadian, and they are named Asušunamir) to retrieve the water of life from Ereškigal and rescue Inana.
Her primary consort was Dumuzid, the ancient shepherd god. In the Sumerian version of Inana's Descent, Inana allows Dumuzid to be taken to the underworld in her stead, because he failed to mourn her or even attempt her rescue. Later, she relents, and decrees that Dumuzid will spend half the year with her, and the other half in the underworld. Sumerians understood the cycle of rebirth of Dumuzid to bring about the changing of the seasons.