The Sumerian myths enable us to understand better how the creation of the world was imagined at the time in the Ancient Near East. Mesopotamian literature gives us insight into the basic principles used to illustrate and understand the phenomenon of creation, particularly through the concept of sacred marriage and intercourse between the gods.
The Sumerians were the first astronomers to perceive 24 hours a day and 60 minutes an hour, which had evolved from their calculations of degrees in the circle. The primary pantheon of gods thus coordinated with specific planets.
In regards to the creation of the world, the myths tell us that An was identified with all the stars of the equatorial sky, Enlil was the air god identified with all the stars of the northern sky; together they begat the moon god Nanna/Sin with his wife Ninlil. The earth god Enki who was identified with all the stars of the southern sky and Ninhursaga the Queen of the Mountains begat a series of eight deities. Nanna's wife, according to Sumerian myth, was Ningal, and their children were the sun Utu and the goddess Inanna/Ishtar, thought to be the planet, Venus. According to a late Babylonian myth, the bitter water goddess Tiamat and her consort Apsu, the freshwater god, embodied the land seas. Tiamat's body, torn apart by the Babylonian god Marduk, created the heavens and the earth after battling with the gods; her breasts, for example, gave rise to the two rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates (Bottero, 1989) (1). The Sumerians were convinced that man was formed of clay and created for a single purpose: to serve the gods by providing them with food, drinks, and shelter so that they might have leisure for their divine activities. Life was characterized by its uncertainty and it was under a constant threat caused by insecurity that is born out of the uncertainty. No one could predict the fate that the unpredictable gods had destined for them. When a man died, his spirit descended into the dark, a desolate underworld, where "life" was but a gloomy reflection of earthly existence (Kramer, 1983) (2).
"The power of creation of the four leading deities, according to the Sumerian theologians, consisted primarily of the divine word. All the creator had to do was to make his or her plans, utter the word, and pronounce the name. Moreover, to keep the cosmic entities and cultural phenomena operating continuously and harmoniously without conflict and confusion, they devised the "me" — that set of universal and immutable rules and limits which had to be observed by god and man alike."
Kramer, 1983. (2)
These myths of the creation of the world are central to numerous Mesopotamian texts, such as the Hymns of Enheduanna, daughter of King Sargon. Deities are a central part of the daily life and rituals of people in Mesopotamian societies, as we can read in Enheduanna's work, which focuses on the goddess Inanna/Ishtar, who became a symbol of love and sexuality (René Labat et al., 1970) and occupied an important place in the continuation of the society's life and creation. (3)
"Sargon king of Akkad, (...) king of Kish, the anointed of Anum, the king of the land, the vicegerent of Enlil, defeated the city of Uruk, and destroyed its fortress. [He defeated Uruk in battle [and] captured Lugal-zage-si, the king of Uruk, in battle; he brought him in a straitjacket to the gate of Enlil."
Jean-Robert Kupper, 1971. (4)
The quotation above that is from a text of King Sargon of Akkad, translated by Jean-Robert Kupper in 1971 enables us to understand the context of the narratives from Uruk, Mesopotamia, c. 2300-2200 BC (4).
Sargon marched on Uruk, which he conquered and whose fortress walls he demolished, and then turned his attention to the king Lugal-zagesi whom he conquered and put in a straitjacket, exposing him bound at the door of the E-kur (literally, "mountain house"), the temple of Enlil at Nippur. Then Sargon conquered Ur, Lagash, and Ummah. The reign of Sargon marks the end of the period of the archaic dynasties and the beginning of the period of the capital he founded, Akkad or Agadê.
From the inscriptions found on Sargon's victories (Castor, 2006) (5), we know that he placed himself under the protection of the Sumerian god Enlil to legitimize his power. These texts also reveal that he appointed Akkadian citizens as governors of conquered cities and members of his family to key political positions. Thus he appointed two of his daughters as priestesses (entu) in the temples of the land of Sumer. One of his daughters was Enheduanna. As high priestess of the moon god Sin at Ur, she controlled all the lucrative temple lands and properties. Enheduanna's influential role lent religious legitimacy to Sargon's rule. She may also have been responsible for priestly duties in Uruk, which would have helped solidify Sargon's power base there as well. This princess, priestess, and also poet, whom we now refer to as "the first female writer in history," provided us with stories that allow us to better understand the desires and feelings not only of the princesses of Mesopotamian culture at the time, but also of other people who confided in these intimate subjects.
Archaeological Evidence of Enheduanna's Existence
Thanks to archaeology, we have been able to discover representations of Enheduanna in the midst of three other characters on an alabaster disc 26 centimetres in diameter. Found in 1927 during the excavations of the gipar (or giparu meaning the presbytery) of the sanctuary of Nanna at Ur, in a layer dating from the 20th century BC. AD, the moon shaped disc is now on display at the University of Pennsylvania Archaeological Museum in Philadelphia. The inscription on the back of the disc states: "Wife of Nanna (the moon god of the city of Ur) and daughter of Sargon. In addition to this, two seals bearing his name dating back to the time of Sargon have been found in the royal cemetery at Ur.
Enheduanna lived in southern Mesopotamia, in the heart of the land of Sumer, between 2300 and 2200 B.C. Since she had written 1700 years before Sappho, she is the first verifiable person from the ancient Near East to have written a literary work. Her name and a significant portion of her work have come all the way to our time, possibly making her the oldest writer known to us. However, this status is regularly challenged (Meagan Courtney Blyth, 2019). (6)
While some authors such as Walther Sallaberger and Aage Westenholz (1999) state that she is "indeed the first real author in the modern sense of that word known to world history"(7), Roberta Binkley (2004) states that "she wrote near the dawn of literacy,"(8). Louise Pryke (2019) states that "Enheduanna's status as a named poet is significant given the anonymity surrounding the works of even earlier authors."(9) Other authors are more skeptical that she authored her own works. Michalowski (1995) (10) and Black (2002) (11) suggest that she merely compiled earlier works. Lambert (2001) thinks it is more likely that Enheduanna hired a ghostwriter or courtier to compose the works rather than the possibility of herself actually writing them. (12)
Despite these conflicts, she signed her name to thousands of verses including poems dedicated to the goddess Ishtar or Inanna, the protector of the Akkad dynasty, the goddess of war and physical love. These poems resemble erotic love hymns from one woman to another. She is also credited with a series of 42 poems found on 37 tablets in Ur and Nippur, mainly from the Third Dynasty of Ur, copies of older tablets (Kramer, 1958)(13). These poems were written by Enheduanna for each of the great cities of her father's empire, as dedications to the patron god of the city and the temple which belonged to this particular god. To Enheduanna these temple hymns seem to represent a novelty, for immediately after his signature she adds: "My king, something has been created that has never been created before."
Enheduanna's poems played an important role in legitimizing Sargon's power by giving him religious legitimacy and helping him benefit from the wealth and prestige of the temple, which was a strategic example for future rulers of Ur. Secondly, with regard to the goddess Inanna, it may have helped to solidify the syncretism between Inanna and the Akkadian goddess Ishtar. Finally, she has become the pioneer of using the first person point of view in literature in certain religious hymns.
I am Enheduanna High Priestess of Nanna with single heart I am devoted to Nanna
(20 lines missing before she continues.)
I plead with you I say STOP the bitter hating heart and sorrow
my Lady what day will you have mercy how long will I cry a moaning prayer I am yours why do you slay me may your heart be cooled toward me I cry I plead for your attentive thoughts
may I stand before you may your eyes shine upon me take my measure
I who spread over the land the splendid brilliance of your divinity you allow my flesh to know your scourging
my sorrow and bitter trial strike my eye as treachery tear me down from heaven mercy compassion attention returning your heart to someone folded‐hand prayer are yours Inanna
your storm‐shot torrents drench the bare earth moisten to life
moisture‐bearing light floods the dark
O my Lady my Queen I unfold your splendor in all lands I extol your glory I will praise your course your sweeping grandeur
forever return your heart to me
Lady of Largest Heart, Enheduanna, Betty De Shong Meador and Judy Grahn, 2001. (14)
This poem, written in the first person and dedicated to the goddess Inanna, gives us the opportunity to perceive another aspects of the meaning of Enheduanna's poems that are the emotions, feelings and reality of a princess of the time. Before her, priestesses seem to have been subordinate to priests, but since Enheduanna is also a princess, she submits only to the king and to the goddess. Enheduanna's poems describe the emotions, the nature of a princess of the time; and this allows us to see that there is only a thin veil between the "superhuman" nature that gives her royal position and the vulnerability she shows in relating to the Goddess, in some way like any other human.
The Goddess Inanna
Since the goddess Inanna was the goddess of love and fertility, she represented the vital forces that provided for the procreation of life, thus its continuance and propagation through the multiplication of wealth. The continuance and welfare of the people depended upon her. She had been worshipped in Sumerian culture starting from the Uruk period (c. 4000 BC - c. 3100 BC), scientiests predict. Her cult developed with the conquest by Sargon of Akkad. In the post-Sargon era, she became one of the most revered deities in the Sumerian pantheon among the temples throughout Mesopotamia. The cult of Inanna/Ishtar, which may have included a number of sexual rites, was continued by the East Semitic peoples (Akkadians, Assyrians, and Babylonians) who replaced and absorbed the culture and traditions of the Sumerians in the region.
Inanna/Ishtar is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible and she had a great influence on the Phoenician goddess Astoreth who later influenced the development of the Greek goddess Astarte. Her cult gradually decline between the first and sixth centuries AD as a result of Christianity, but survived in parts of Upper Mesopotamia among Assyrian communities until the end of the eighteenth century.
As a feminine figure, there was no tradition for Inana or Ishtar to have a steady spouse. In art, she is represented directly in several aspects, as on a Neo-Assyrian cylinder seal. The goddess appears as a skeleton without a winged robe. Her second aspect is a winged warrior goddess armed with daggers and a sword. She rests her naked leg on a lion, ready to kill it. Her third aspect shows her in an astral worship scene before a favourite king who worships her surrounded by a wreath of stars. Her dress and nudity reflect her role as goddess of sex, prostitution, and holy matrimony.
All of Inanna's hymns are written from her point of view indicating her desires, sexual gratification, descriptions of sexual arousal as well as her explicit instructions on how to give her pleasure. None of the songs mentions childbearing or motherhood. In the epic poem "The Descent of Inanna", we learn that she created a third gender, "neither male nor female," who became Inanna's servants. (Selz, 2000) (15)
Sacred prostitutes of both genders were employed in her many temples to ensure the fertility of the earth as well as the continuing prosperity of communities. Male transgenders, known as kurgarra, castrated themselves; women who identified as men were called galatur. Furthermore, it seems that not only Inanna but also all the other gods blessed same-sex relationships according to the document "The Almanack of Incantations" which contains prayers for both opposite-sex and same-sex couples. (Mark, 2021) (16)
Without your consent, no destiny is determined, the most ingenious solution finds no favour.
To run fast, to slip away, to calm, to pacify are yours, Inanna,
To dart aimlessly, to go too fast, to fall, to get up, to sustain a comrade are yours, Inanna.
To open high road and byroad, safe lodging on the way, helping the worn-out along are yours, Inanna.
To make footpath and trail go in the right direction, to make the going good are yours, Inanna.
To destroy, to create, to tear out, to establish are yours, Inanna.
To turn a man into a woman and a woman into a man are yours, Inanna.
Enheduanna, "Passionate Inanna", 23rd Century BCE
The Sacred Marriage
Sacred marriage is a term from Greek religious history (hierons gamos), which in fact describes two different types of ritual in Iraq and Syria. The idea of marriage between two deities was used as a means of explaining creation. In Sumer, the ritual called "hashadu" was translated into reality by carrying statues of the cults together in a ceremonial bed. (Kramer, 1969) (17) The second idea of sacred marriage involves a ritualistic sexual act between a deified king and the goddess of love and fertility, the goddess Inana, usually personified by a priestess of the temple, which can be interpreted as "sacred prostitution". Beginning in the Neo-Sumerian era at the end of the third millennium, it symbolises the mythical sexual union between the fertility god Dumuzi and Inanna. The Sumerian poems and songs that were dedicated to the worship of Inanna and Dumuzi suggest that the fertility of plants, animals, and humans depended on the union of this divine pair. However, since there is no surviving step-by-step description of this ritual, it is difficult to know whether it was a sexual act or a pantomime (Fayssal, Abdallah, 2016).(18) Nonetheless, in the texts illustrating this ritual, we can see not only the role the sacred marriage played in the preservation of creation in Sumer but also, as we have seen with a gender-fluid Goddexx, a performance that was less binary than we might think.
Bottéro, Jean. "La glorification de Marduk" in Bottéro, Jean. and Kramer, Samuel. Noah. Lorsque les dieux faisaient l’homme. Mythologie mésopotamienne. Paris 1989, p. 602-679
Wolkstein, Diane., Kramer, Samuel Noah. Inanna, queen of heaven and earth. Harper & Row, New York, 1983.
Labat, René., Caquota, André., Sznycer, Maurice., Vieura, Maurice. Les religions du Proche-Orient asiatique. Paris. 1970
Kupper, Jean-Robert and Sollberger, Edmond. Inscriptions sumériennes et akkadiennes. Paris: Littérature Ancienne du Proche Orient, Editions du Cerf, 1971, p.97
Castor, Alexis Q. “Lecture Fourteen: The Akkadians.” Between the Rivers: The History of Ancient Mesopotamia Course Guidebook, 77-81. The Teaching Company, 2006.
Blyth, Meagan Courtney. Unveiling the Ancient Past: Reimagining The Exaltation of Inanna as a Historical Novella. Thesis, University of Canberra, 2019.
Sallaberger, Walther., & Westenholz, Aage. "Mespotamien: Akkade-Zeit und Ur III-Zeit". Orbis Biblicus et Orientalis, 160. Freiburg, Switzerland & Gottingen, Germany: University of Freiburg & Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht. Retrieved from University of Zurich Open Repository, 1999. https://doi.org/10.5167/uzh-151632
Binkley, Roberta. and Lipson, Carol S. (Eds.). Rhetoric Before and Beyond the Greeks (in R. Binkley & C. S. Lipson Eds.). Albany, NY, USA: State University of New York Press, 2004.
Pryke, Louise.M. Gilgamesh (1st ed.). Routledge. 2019 https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315716343
Michalowski, P. Sumerian Literature: An Overview. In J. M. Sasson (Ed.), Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, Vol. 4, 1995, pg. 2279-2292. New York, NY: USA: Charles Scribner's Sons.
Black, J. A. "En-hedu-ana not the composer of The Temple Hymns", Nouvelles Assyriologiques Breves et Utilitaires (NABU), 4(1), 2002, pg. 2 - 4.
Lambert, W. G."Ghost-Writers?" Nouvelles Assyriologiques Breves et Utilitaires (NABU), 83(3), pg. 77. 2001
Kramer, Samuel Noah. History Begins at Sumer. London. Thames & Hudson, 1958.
De Shong Meador, Betty and Grahn, Judy. Inanna, Lady of Largest Heart: Poems of the Sumerian High Priestess Enheduanna. University of Texas Press, 2001
Selz, Gerbhard J. "Five Divine Ladies." In: Nin - Journal of Gender Studies in Antiquity - Thematic issue on the Goddess Inanna. Styx Publications for Women´s Association of Ancient Near Eastern Studies (WANES), Groningen, The Netherlands, 2000. Volume 1. 29-62pp.
Mark, Joshua J.. "LGBTQ+ in the Ancient World." World History Encyclopedia. World History Encyclopedia, 25 Jun 2021. Web. 14 Oct 2021.
Kramer, Samuel Noah.The sacred marriage rite; aspects of faith, myth, and ritual in ancient Sumer. Bloomington, Indiana University Press,1969.
Abdallah, Fayssal. L’homme, le divin et la sexualité dans la civilisation ancienne de l’Iraq et de la Syrie. Topique, vol. 134, no. 1, 2016, pp. 7-20.