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Theology and Cosmology in Ancient Shumer - Vol 2.



The ancients saw the universe as a huge and hollow sphere; the upper part was referred to as Asamu - 'on high' and constituted heaven, the abode of the gods and was luminous. The lower part, was Kirsitu - 'the below’ and was forever dark. All who died whether good or bad resided below with the Lady of the Dark. The centre of the sphere was filled with a giant salt-water sea and in the centre of this sea was a smaller freshwater sea. Finally, the heavenly vault was supported on giant mountains in the east and the west. The sun rose from behind the eastern mountains and set behind those in the west and beyond the mountains of the west was the dark river, which was crossed to reach the home of the dead. The sphere was created by Nammu the mother goddess out of the flesh of Tiamut, the salt-water sea out of Tiamut's body and the freshwater sea from the body of Apsu. When all this was complete she created the first gods who after hundreds of thousands of years begat Anu and the creation of the world could begin. Enlil created the world (Nir) and gifted it to his children Enkir and Ninhursag (Ninmah in Arata) who became respectively Lord of Earth and the Mother of all living things. Between them they created the creatures of the world and the peoples of the world to both tend the creatures and serve the gods. In Aratian mythology they achieved this act of creation alone but in Kholinor they were assisted by other gods who created those things appropriate to the role, including such intangibles as months and years. For reasons that are lost to history Enkir is often associated with the bull and his sister with a deer.



There are a number of tales, often contradictory, associated with the creation of the world, which can be found in Arentur's excellent - Men and Gods. Only one is current in the Kohlinor of the modern era; this is also the more interesting because it serves to fix the matriarchal element into the theology.



It is said that Ninhursag, after the world had been created, made for herself a garden of great beauty filled with all the fruits of the earth. Enkir was specifically banned from entering this garden and eating of any of the fruits from the trees; not surprisingly this was too much of a temptation for Enkir to resist and he did indeed enter the Garden and eat the fruit. When Ninhursag discovered what her brother had done she cursed him with a disease that would waste away his bones and cause him great pain. Enkir, in great pain, looked for sympathy amongst the other gods including his father but none would undo what Ninhursag had done. As time went by Enkir perceived that his sister was more likely to be sympathetic and he went to her, complained that his ribs were really painful and asked her to lift the curse. She finally relented and created a goddess – Nunti to cure him. As an interesting aside, Nunti means both lady of healing and lady of the rib; consequently this may well be the first recorded pun.



For reasons that are unclear from the surviving texts Apsu and Tiamut were unhappy with the world as it had been formed by the other Gods and plotted to overthrow them. Enkir heard about Apsu's plans to thwart the gods and cast him into the nether world, Tiamut was angry at this and caused mayhem calling forth tempests and other such malaises into the world. Eventually the son of Enkir Meradoch (Marduk in Arata) was sent to battle her which after much endeavour he managed to do. After this Marduk in Arata became the most powerful of Gods who himself had saved the gods. Whereas in Kholinor, Meradoch achieved no such eminence over his grandfather and father, Enlil and Enkir. Some sources indicate it was this theological difference - attributed to the beginning of the 3rd Millenium bw – that led to the long enmity between the two provinces of Shumer.



The Gods of Shumer were indeed a particularly sensitive breed of the divine, because it soon came to pass that Enlil became bored with the world and complained of the fearful noise that came from the inhabitants. To rid himself of this noisome nuisance he thought to bring a deluge upon those inhabitants. Fortunately Enkir heard of what his father planned and was able to instruct his favourite – the king of Shurrippak – to build a boat to save his family and their property from the deluge.



The creation story and the subsequent story of the deluge are the earliest know myths in the Shumerian canon and emerged from the earliest times during the foremost part of the 1st Dynasty. There is no indication from this period that the priests of Shumer had pondered sufficiently to write down, the nature of death and the afterlife. Although it is inconceivable that Shumerians did not have a view on this during the earliest period; this view does not appear to have found form until the later part of the 2nd Dynasty; whence it was formally stated that on death the body returns to the clay and the etemmu (shadow) descends to a huge cave sometimes referred to as the Black Cave of the Below. As is common in other religions there was no concept of separation between the good and bad, every person was considered equal in death. This view seems to have been adjusted late in the 2nd Dynasty to make the King – who was considered the gods representative in the land of mortals – rather more equal than all the other dead. There also seems to have been an assumption that he played some role in the administration of the underworld; this is never formalised in the literature, presumably to avoid the difficulty of defining a role for an ever increasing number of dead kings.



The religion as it stands today will be explored in more detail in my next volume, however in summary; Enlil, Ninlil and Enkir are often referred to as the Old Gods and are scarcely worshipped outside Kholinor, the images that grace the houses in present times and have still tended shrines are Anu, Nana, Marduk and Innana.

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