Sumerian Polytheism, Sin and a Great Flood
Like people before the rise of farming, the Sumerians saw movement around them as the magic of spirits, magic being the only explanation they had for how things worked. These spirits were their gods, and with many spirits around, the Sumerians believed in many gods – gods that had humanlike emotions. The Sumerians believed that the sun, moon and stars were gods. They believed in a goddess of the reeds that grew around them and in a goddess of the beer that they distilled.
The Sumerians believed that crops grew because of a male god mating with his goddess wife. They saw the hot and dry months of summer when their meadows and fields turned brown as a time of death of these gods. When their fields bloomed again in the autumn, they believed their gods were resurrected. They marked this as the beginning of their year, which they celebrated at their temples with music and singing.
The Sumerians could dig into the earth and within a few feet find water, and they believed that the earth was a great disk floating on the sea. They called the sea Nammu, and believed that Nammu was a god. They believe that Nammu had created the fish they saw and the birds, wild pigs and other creatures that appeared on the marshy wetlands – a story of creation around two millennia before the Hebrews would put their own story of the creation into writing.
The god Utu rising to shed light on heaven and earth
The Sumerians believed that Nammu had created heaven and earth, heaven splitting from earth as the male god An, and the earth was the goddess they called Ki. They believed that Ki and An had produced a son called Enlil, who was atmosphere, wind and storm. The Sumerians believed that Enlil separated the day from night and that he had opened an invisible shell and let waters fall from the sky. They believed that with his mother, Ki, Enlil set the stage for the creation of plants, humans and other creatures. They believed that Enlil made seeds grow, that he shaped humanity from clay and imbued it, as it states in Genesis 2:7, with “the breath of life.”
Serving the Gods
Among the Sumerians were gods that differed from the gods of hunter-gathers. Gods had become not just a helper, hinderer or an agent of change, they had become lords – the owners and authorities over land. Priests claimed their status on their association with these lords of land.
The Sumerians believed they had been created to serve their gods, and they served their gods with sacrificial offerings and supplications. They believed that the gods controlled the past and the future, that the gods had revealed to them the skills that they possessed, including writing, and that the gods had provided them with all they needed to know. They had no vision of their civilization having developed by their own efforts. They had no vision of technological or social progress.
They did not believe in social change, but Sumerian priests altered the stories that they told, creating a new twist to old tales – without acknowledging this as a human-induced change or wondering why they had failed to get it right the first time. New ideas were simply revelations from the gods.
The Sumerians did not recognize interpretation. They saw no need for rules of reason. No evidence remains in their writings of their respecting doubt or seeing any benefit from suspended judgment. They worked their stories about their gods into axioms. Sometime around 2500 BCE, Enlil became the greatest of the gods, the god who punished people and watched over their safety and well-being. Like the gods of other ancient peoples, Enlil was a god who dwelled somewhere. He was a god of place, and that place was Nippur, a sacred city believed to have been inhabited at first only by divine beings.
By around 2500 BCE, the Sumerians had become individualistic enough to believe in personal gods – gods with whom individuals had a covenant. Individuals no longer prayed just for the community. With Sumerian society dominated by males, the male head of every family had his personal god. Men hoped that their god would intercede for them in the assembly of gods and provide them with a long life and good health. In exchange, they glorified their god with prayers, supplications and sacrifices while continuing to worship the other gods in the Sumerian pantheon of gods.
Believing that the gods had given them all they had, the Sumerians saw the intentions of their gods as good. Believing that their gods had great powers and controlled their world, they needed an explanation for their hardships and misfortunes. They concluded that these were the result of human deeds that displeased the gods – in a word, sin. They believed that when someone displeased their gods, these gods let demons punish the offender with sickness, disease or environmental disasters.
The Sumerians experienced infrequent rains that sometimes created disastrous floods, and they believed that these floods were punishments created by a demon god that lived in the depths of the Gulf of Persia. And to explain the misfortunes and suffering of infants, the Sumerians believed that sin was inborn, that never was a child born without sin. Therefore, wrote a Sumerian, when one suffered it was best not to curse the gods but to glorify them, to appeal to them, and to wait patiently for their deliverance.
Conflicts similar to the Hebrew story of Cain and Abel
In giving their gods human characteristics, the Sumerians projected onto their gods the conflicts they found among themselves. Sumerian priests wrote of a dispute between the god of cattle, Lahar, and his sister Ashnan, the goddess of grain. Like some other gods, these gods were vain and wished to be praised. Each of the two sibling gods extolled his and her own achievements and belittled the achievements of the other.
The Sumerians saw another dispute between the minor gods Emesh (summer) and his brother Enten (winter). Each of these brothers had specific duties in creation – like Cain the farmer and Abel the herdsmen. The god Enlil put Emesh in charge of producing trees, building houses, temples, cities and other tasks. Enlil put Enten in charge of causing ewes to give birth to lambs, goats to give birth to kids, birds to build nests, fish to lay their eggs and trees to bear fruit. And the brothers quarreled violently as Emesh challenged Enten’s claim to be the farmer god.
Lady of the Rib
A dispute existed also between the god Enki and a mother goddess, Ninhursag – perhaps originally the earth goddess Ki. Ninhursag made eight plants sprout in a divine garden, plants created from three generations of goddesses fathered by Enki. These goddesses were described as having been born “without pain or travail.” Then trouble came as Enki ate the plants that Ninhursag had grown. Ninhursag responded with rage. She pronounced a curse of death on Enki, and Enki’s health began to fail. Eight parts of Enki’s body – one for each of the eight plants that he ate – became diseased, one of which was his rib. The goddess Ninhursag then disappeared so as not to let sympathy for Enki change her mind about her sentence of death upon him. But she finally relented and returned to heal Enki. She created eight healing deities – eight more goddesses – one for each of Enki’s ailing body parts. And the goddess who healed Enki’s rib was Nin-ti, a name that in Sumerian meant “lady of the rib,” which describes a character who was to appear in a different role in Hebrew writings centuries later, a character to be called Eve.
Paradise and a Great Flood
Clinging to their belief in the goodness and power of their gods and wondering about their sin, toil and strife the Sumerians imagined a past in which people lived in a god-created paradise. This was expressed in the same poetic tale that described the conflict between the king of Uruk and the distant town of Arrata – the earliest known description in writing of a paradise and fall of humankind. The poem describes a period when there were no creatures that threatened people – no snakes, scorpions, hyenas, or lions – a period in which humans knew no terror. There was no confusion among various peoples speaking different languages, with everyone praising the god Enlil in one language. Then, according to the poem, something happened that enraged the god Enki (the god of wisdom and water who had organized the earth in accordance with a general plan laid down by Enlil). The clay tablet on which the poem was written is damaged at this point, but the tablet indicates that Enki found some sort of inappropriate behavior among humans. Enki decided to put an end to the golden age, and in the place of the golden age came conflict, wars and a confusion of languages.
On another clay tablet, surviving fragments of a poem describe the gods as having decided that humans were evil and the gods as having created a flood “to destroy the seed of humanity,” a flood that raged for seven days and seven nights. The tablet describes a huge boat commanded by a king named Ziusudra, who was preserving vegetation and the seed of humankind. His boat was “tossed about by the windstorms on the great waters.” When the storm subsided, the god Utu – the sun – came forward and shed light on heaven and earth. The good king Ziusudra opened a window on the boat and let in light from Utu. Then Ziusudra prostrated himself before Utu and sacrificed an ox and a sheep for the god.