Sumeria is the first recorded civilization, a settlement in the fertile Tigris and Euphrates valley that evolved into a sophisticated and extraordinarily influential culture. The kingdoms of Sumeria, present-day Iraq, reach back more than 5,000 years into the mists of history. Gaps in an archaeological treasure trove of information are as intriguing as the discoveries. A people who invented cuneiform writing and a brilliant legal code religiously propitiated divine beings who were capable of wielding the life-giving rivers as weapons of devastation.
The Gods in Their Heavens
Sumerian gods and their lone goddess were creatures of the sky and the impenetrable realms. Sumerian polytheism embraced a pantheon of deities imbued with melammu, a radiant aura, and specific attributes. Utu was the sun god, whose chariot racing across the sky caused day and night; Nanna, the moon god, tended a herd of cows that appeared as stars. An was the chief sky god and Inanna, his goddess. Enki was god of the earth and of flowing waters -- as Ea, he ruled underground streams. One creation myth, probably recited or chanted as a temple ritual, says that Enki’s mother, Nammu, asked him to create humans from clay so there would be creatures to do all the work of the gods. People were powerless to accomplish things without the help of a personal deity, so all work to provide food, clothing and other necessities, was offered to the gods to secure good fortune.
Ziggurats and Temple Ritual
The temple dominated Sumerian city life. Every temple had its particular deity and the city both worshiped and suffered the whims of this god. A terrible event meant that the god had deserted the temple and could only be tempted back by complex rituals. Temples were constructed with entry gates where sacrifice and hymn singing preceded admittance. Inside, an abzu – a pool or basin for purification rituals that included bathing, anointing with oil and dressing in ceremonial temple clothing -- led to the adytum, the inner chamber where sacred meals were shared with a bejeweled, gold-leaf-covered wood representation of the temple god. Only priests and kings entered the inner sanctum to intervene for ordinary mortals. The priests served as judges for secular affairs, as everything belonged to the gods. Priests performed additional sacred rites on platforms high atop towers of baked clay, called ziggurats, built next to temples.
Ceremony and Custom
Ziggurat platforms may have been the setting for the hieros gamos, a “sacred marriage” between a human -- usually the king -- and a representative of the goddess -- usually the high priestess of Nanna. Hieros gamos was celebrated on the spring equinox as a fertility rite and to harmonize conflicting energies. The practice of substitution transferred a curse, danger or disease to a live animal or clay figure. A substitute king replaced the real king for a set period of time after an alarming omen like a solar eclipse. The “king” lived a royal life with a royal consort until both were sacrificed and the redeemed monarch resumed his throne. Ancestors were treated as gods at home -- the family’s dead were buried beneath the floors of the house, worshiped, consulted and, at times, “fed” through tubes set in the floor. A public festival marked the new year with an annual parade of statues of celestial divinities.
Spiritual practice in Sumeria left powerful traces in the religions and cultures of civilizations to follow. Abraham is believed to have been born in the Sumerian city of Ur, a bastion of moon-god Nanna worship and home to a renowned musician-king who resembled the David of the Old Testament. The "Epic of Gilgamesh, " an account based on a real Sumerian king, contains the prototype of all religious flood stories. The sacred number 60 was assigned to Anu or An, the father of the gods. Sumerians developed the concepts of the minutes in an hour and degrees in a circle based on the number sixty.
- Library of Congress: Iraq, A Country Study: Mesopotamia
- Neal A. Maxwell Institute: Sumerian Temple: The Ekishnugal at Ur
- International World History Project: Ancient Sumeria
- Metropolitan Museum of Art: Mesopotamian Deities
- University of Oxford: Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative: Mesopotamian Religion
- Discovery Channel: Sumerian Religion
- Mario Tama/Getty Images News/Getty Images