Mesopotamian Gods and Goddesses

The Large and Varied Pantheon of Sumerian and Akkadian Deities

Warhorse head emerging from a column in Persepolis, Shiraz, Fars Province, Iran.
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Mesopotamian gods and goddesses are known from the literature of the Sumerian people, the oldest written language on our planet. Those stories were written down by city administrators whose jobs involved the upkeep of the religion, along with the upkeep of commerce and trade. It is likely that the stories first written about 3500 BCE reflect an older oral tradition, in fact, were written versions of ancient songs or oral recitations.

How much older is speculation.

Mesopotamia was an ancient civilization positioned between the Tigris River and the Euphrates River. Today, this area is known as Iraq. The Mesopotamian core mythology was a mixture of magic and entertainment, with words of wisdom, praise for individual heroes or kings, and magical tales. Scholars believe that the first writing of Mesopotamian myths and epics were mnemonic aids to help the reciter remember the important parts of a story. Entire myths weren't written down until the 3rd millennium BCE when they became part of the curriculum for the Sumerian scribal schools. By Old Babylonian times (about 2000 BCE), the students had inadvertently built us multiple copies of the core text of the myths.

Evolving Mythologies and Politics

The names and characters of Mesopotamian gods and goddesses evolved over the millennia of the Mesopotamian civilization, leading to thousands of different gods and goddesses, only a few of which are listed here.

That reflects the political reality of change brought about by costly battles. During the Sumerian (or Uruk and Early Dynastic periods, between 3500–2350 BCE), the Mesopotamian political structure was made up of largely independent city-states centered around Nippur or Uruk. The society shared the core myths, but each city-state had its own protecting gods or goddesses.

At the onset of the following Akkadian period (2350–2200 BCE) Sargon the Great united ancient Mesopotamia under his capital at Akkad, with the city states now subject to that leadership. The Sumerian myths, like the language, continued to be taught in the scribal schools throughout the 2nd and 1st millennium BCE, and the Akkadians borrowed a lot of its myths from the Sumerians, but by Old Babylonian (2000–1600 BCE) times, the literature developed myths and epics of its own.

The Battle of Old and Young Gods: Enuma Elish

The myth which unites Mesopotamia and best describes the structure of the pantheon and the political upheaval is the Enuma Elish (1894-1595 BCE), a Babylonian creation story that describes the battle between the old and young gods.

In the beginning, says the Enuma Elish, there was nothing but Apsu and Tiamat, mingling their waters together contentedly, a peaceful and quiet time characterized by rest and inertia. The younger gods came into being in that water, and they represented energy and activity. The younger gods gathered to dance, and doing so upset Tiamat. Her consort Apsu planned to attack and kill the younger gods to stop their noise-making.

When the youngest of the gods, Ea (Enki in Sumerian) heard about the planned attack, he put a powerful sleeping spell on Apsu and then killed him in his sleep.

In Ea's temple in Babylon, the hero-god Marduk was born. At play, Marduk made noise again, disturbing Tiamat and the other old gods, who urged her to a final battle. She created a mighty army with a spearhead of monsters to kill the younger gods.

But Marduk was awe-inspiring, and when Tiamat's army saw him and understood that all of the younger gods supported him, they ran away. Tiamat stood fight and battled Marduk alone: Marduk loosed the winds against her, piercing her heart with an arrow and killing her.

The Old Gods

There are literally thousands of names of different gods in the Mesopotamian pantheon, as city-states adopted, redefined, and invented new gods and goddesses as needed. 

  • Apsu (in Akkadian, Sumerian is Abzu)—the personification of the freshwater underworld ocean; begetter of the skies and earth, united with Tiamat at the beginning of time
  • Tiamat (Akkadian word for sea)—primeval chaos; the personification of salt water and spouse of Apsu bearer of the skies and earth, also consort of Kingu
  • Lahmu & Lahamu—twin deities born from Apsu and Tiamat
  • Anshar & Kishar—male and female principles, the twin horizons of sky and earth. Children of either Apsu and Tiamat or Lahmu and Lahamu
  • Anu (Akkadian) or An (in Sumerian meaning "above" or "heaven")—the Mesopotamian sky god, father, and king of the gods, supreme god of the Sumerian pantheon, and city god of Uruk. Father of all the other gods, evil spirits, and demons, typically depicted in a headdress with horns
  • Antu, Antum, or Ki-ist—consort of Anu in Akkadian myth
  • Ninhursag (Aruru, Ninmah, Nintu, Mami, Belet-ili, Dingirmakh, Ninmakh, Nintur)—Mother of All Children, and city goddess of Adab and Kishgoddess; she was the midwife of the gods,
  • Mammetum—maker or mother of fate
  • Nammu—associated with water.

Younger Gods

The younger, noisier gods were the ones who created humankind, originally as a slave force to take over their duties. According to the oldest surviving legend, the Myth of Atrahasis, the younger gods originally had to toil for a living. They rebelled and went on strike. Enki suggested that the leader of the rebellious gods (Kingu) should be killed and humankind created from his flesh and blood mixed with clay to perform the duties shunned by the gods.

But after Enki and Nitur (or Ninham) had created humans, they multiplied at such rate that the noise they made kept Enlil sleepless.

Enlil sent the god of death Namtarto to cause a plague to diminish their numbers, but Attrahsis had human beings concentrate all worship and offerings on Namtar and the people were saved.

  • Ellil (Enlil or Lord of the Air)—initially, leader of the pantheon, the god between heaven and earth where human activity took place, cult center in Nippur and made humanity activity his responsibility, god of the atmosphere and agriculture
  • Ea in Akkadian (Enki, Nudimmud)—god of the subterranean lake Apsu, from which all springs and rivers draw their water; said to have fixed national boundaries and assigned gods their roles; in Akkadian myth, Ea was the god of ritual purification, who is the father of Marduk
  • Sin (Suen, Nannar or Nanna)—moon god, father of Shamash and Ishtar, city god of Ur
  • Ishtar (Ishhara, Irnini, Sumerian Inanna)—goddess of sexual love, fertility, and war, Akkadian counterpart of the West Semite goddess Astarte, goddess of Venus
  • Shamash (Babbar, Utu)—sun god and part of astral triad of divinities (Shamash the sun, Sin the moon, and Ishtar the morning star)
  • Ninlil—Enlil's consort and a goddess of destiny, mother of the moon god Sin, city goddess at Nippur and Shuruppak, grain goddess
  • Ninurta (Ishkur, Asalluhe)—Sumerian god of rain and thunderstorms, city god of Bit Khakuru, chamberlain of the war god
  • Ninsun—Lady Wild Cow, city goddess of Kullab and the mother of Dumuzi
  • Marduk—supplants other Babylonian deities to become central figure, the chief city god of Babylon and national god of Babylonia, the god of thunderstorms, had four divine dogs "Snatcher," Seizer, He Got It, and He Howled; consort to Zarpanitum
  • Bel (Canaanite Baal—cleverest; sage of the gods
  • Ashur—city god of Ashur and the national god of Assyria and war, symbolized by a dragon and winged disk

Chthonic Deities

The word chthonic is a Greek word meaning "of the earth," and in Mesopotamian scholarship, chthonic is used to refer to earth and underworld gods as opposed to sky gods. Chthonic gods are often fertility deities and often associated with mystery cults.

Chthonic deities also include the demons, which first appear in Mesopotamian myths during the Old Babylonian period (2000-1600 BCE). They were restricted to the domain of incantations and were mostly depicted as outlaws, beings who attacked humans causing all kinds of diseases. A citizen could go to law courts against them and obtain judgments against them.

  • Ereshkigal (Allatu, Lady of the Great Place)—supreme goddess of underworld, and wife or mother of Ninazu, sister to Ishtar/Inanna
  • Belit-tseri—tablet-scribe of the underworld
  • Namtar(a)—the fate-cutter, herald of death
  • Sumuqan—cattle god
  • Nergal (Erragal, Erra, Engidudu)—city god of Cuthah, underworld; hunter; god of war and plague
  • Irra—plague god, god of scorched earth and war
  • Enmesharra—underworld god
  • Lamashtu—dread female demon who is also known as 'she who erases'
  • Nabu—patron god of writing and wisdom whose symbols were a stylus and a clay tablet
  • Ningizzia—guardian of the gate of heaven; a god of the underworld
  • Tammuz (Dumuzi, Dumuzi-Abzu)—both Sumerian god of vegetation, city goddess of Kinirsha, in Eridu viewed as male, the son of Enki
  • Gizzida (Gishzida)—consort of Belili, doorkeeper of Anu
  • Nissaba (Nisaba)—cereal grain harvest
  • Dagan (Dagon)—West Semitic god of crop fertility and the underworld, father of Baal
  • Geshtu-egod whose blood and intelligence are used by Mami to create man.

Sources

  • Hale V, editor. 2014. Mesopotamian Gods & Goddesses. New York: Britannica Educational Publishing.
  • Lambert WG. 1990. Ancient Mesopotamian Gods: Superstition, philosophy, theology. Revue de l'histoire des religions 207(2):115-130.
  • Lurker M. 1984. A Dictionary of Gods, Goddesses, Devils, and Demons. London: Routledge.