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Mesopotamia

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Guide to the Mesopotamian Pantheon of Gods

Ð'© Ian Lawton 2000

The gods played a crucial role in the Sumerians' lives, both as a nation and as individuals - most Sumerians appear to have had a personal god or gods with whom they forged a special relationship. Their texts and stelae indicate that they looked to them for protection and assistance in all things, while also blaming them or looking upon it as a punishment - just or otherwise - when things went wrong. As with the endurance of their literature these gods, with some amendments, continued to be worshipped right through to the late Assyro-Babylonian period. Since they play a crucial role in the literary texts which we will consider in subsequent papers, it is appropriate that we take time out to consider the key figures.

The collective name most often given to the Sumerian pantheon is the Anunnaki, although another name, the Igigi, is also encountered. These two names appear to be interchangeable in some texts, although in others there are inconsistent and conflicting roles accorded to each as greater or lesser gods. For example, in Atra-Hasis the Anunnaki are the 'great gods' while the Igigi 'do the work'. By contrast, in the Epic of Creation, Erra and Ishum and in the Epic of Anzu the Igigi are made out to be superior, the first two referring to 'the Igigi of heaven and the Anunnaki of the Abzu' (the latter term referring to 'the deep', sometimes regarded as the 'watery underworld').

The numbers of gods in the (or each) pantheon also differ from text to text, sometimes referring to 'fifty great gods' and sometimes to as many as three hundred. It is likely that this confusion arises because of changing roles allocated to various pantheons over time as part of a 'creative editing' process underpinned by political and religious motives, a subject to which we will return in the next paper; for example, it appears that the Igigi tend to be the younger gods who appear primarily in the later Akkadian works, while the Anunnaki are the older great gods of the Sumerians.

This confusion about different pantheons and a potentially hierarchical structure permeates most of the Assyriologists' work. In his book The Chaldean Account of Genesis, published in 1876, George Smith - who succeeded Henry Rawlinson as the head of the Department of Oriental Antiquities at the British Museum - describes a pantheon of 'twelve great gods' who despite having been given somewhat different names in his day are broadly the same figures, with similar associations, that we currently regard as having been pre-eminent.1 He suggests the hierarchy then proceeded through a further fifty gods before the level of the Igigi, and then finally the Anunnaki.

Meanwhile Samuel Kramer describes the 'seven gods who decree the fates'.2 He suggests these are probably made up of four 'creative gods': An who rules heaven, Enlil the air or atmosphere, Enki water, and Ninhursag earth; and of three 'astral deities': Nanna associated with the Moon, Utu with the Sun, and Inanna usually with Venus. As with Smith they are followed by 'fifty great gods', but Kramer identifies these with the Anunnaki (as 'children of An'), while relegating the Igigi to a 'relatively minor role'.

What is clear is that there are a number of key players in this pluralistic pantheon of anthropomorphic gods who appear time and again in Ancient Mesopotamian literature and sculpture. In the diagram below I have attempted to piece together a 'family tree' from the texts, not because this is a strictly correct or appropriate way of looking at them but because this approach makes them come to life and puts them into some sort of context.3 Of course assembling the 'apparent relationships' is hugely complicated by a number of factors: the gods' apparently protracted lifespans which lead to significant overlap; the multiple liaisons between them to produce children, including incestuous relationships involving brothers, sisters, children and grandchildren - which is in fact a common behaviour pattern adopted by the pantheons of most polytheistic philosophies around the world; and the repeated editing of texts over the millennia. As a result what follows should not be regarded as anything more than a guide to introduce the major deities to those new to the subject. It should also be pointed out that the most likely interpretation of the texts is that as groups the Anunnaki and the latecoming Igigi were regarded as subservient to the major deities listed below.

For consistency and ease of understanding I have tried to use the original Sumerian names of gods, people and places - and also the most up-to-date renderings thereof - not only here but also throughout subsequent papers, including when commenting on the later Akkadian texts. The family tree does however indicate the most commonly found alternative names (in brackets), especially the Akkadian versions used through to the end of the Assyro-Babylonian epoch. It also attempts to show the relationships between long-term consorts, and the main associations of gods with the elements and so forth; and the notes which accompany it contain various points of detail, especially indicating the areas of greatest uncertainty.

The Sumerian Pantheon

Notes accompanying the family tree:

1. These two are sometimes recorded as direct offspring of An (Ishkur in the Epic of Anzu, Inanna in the Epic of Gilgamesh); however Ereshkigal is consistently recorded as Inanna's sister, similarly Utu as her brother - therefore if she were to shift up the generations, arguably they should do likewise. Note also that gods are often misleadingly described as the 'son or daughter of An' as a poetic metaphor, perhaps to indicate that they are part of the main pantheon. The determination of his main offspring as shown is based on more substantial statements.

2. Nergal and Ninurta are sometimes assimilated with each other; I suspect this is because, in Enlil and Ninlil, Nergal is reported as their second son whereas Ninurta is not mentioned. Furthermore, in Erra (Nergal) And Ishum, Nergal is again reported as Enlil's son. Occasionally Nergal is also assimilated with Gibil - this may be due to nothing more than the similarity in their Akkadian names of Erra and Gerra respectively.

3. Marduk is only recorded as Enki's son in the Epic of Creation; he only came to prominence in the late Assyro-Babylonian period, so the importance attached

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