Sumerian Mythology

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Sumerian Mythology

By Samuel Noah Kramer

[1944, 1961]


The American Philosophical Society

Volume XXI,1944


Jacob R Schramm, Chairman

Luther P. Eisenhart Earnest M. Patterson
William K. Gregory Conyers Read
Luther P. EisenhartEarnest M. Patterson
William K. GregoryConyers Read
Henry C. LancasterAdolph H. Schultz
William F. LingelbachRobert L. Schuyler
Forest R. MoultonT. Leslie Shear
Author D. NockHarold C. Urey

Editor and Director of Publications, William E. Lingelbach

Man's Golden Age Tablet


This tablet (29.16.422 in the Nippur collection of the University Museum) is one of the unpublished pieces belonging to the Sumerian epic poem[1] whose hero Enmerkar ruled in the city of Erech sometime during the fourth millennium B. C. The passage enclosed by the black line describes the blissful and unrivaled state of man in an era of universal peace before he had learned to know fear and before the "confusion of tongues"; its contents,[2] which are very reminiscent of Genesis 11:1, read as follows:

In those days there was no snake, there was no scorpion, there was no hyena,
There was no lion, there was no wild dog, no wolf,
There was no fear, no terror,
Man had no rival.
In those days the land Shubur (East), the place of plenty, of righteous decrees,
Harmony-tongued Sumer (South), the great land of the "decrees of princeship,"
Uri (North), the land having all that is needful,
The land Martu (West), resting in security,
The whole universe, the people in unison,
To Enlil in one tongue gave praise.

Man's Golden Age Tablet

  1. The extant text of this poem, which we may entitle "The Epic of Enmerkar," is reconstructed from the following tablets and fragments: CBS 29.13.194, 29.16.422; PBS V 8; PBS XIII 8; SEM 14, 16; SRT 34. The following pieces may also belong to this composition: BE XXXI 44 (cf. Kramer, JAOS 60.250); CBS 2291, 7859; HAV 9. "The Epic of Enmerkar" is to be kept distinct from another epic tale concerned with the same Enmerkar, which we may entitle "Enmerkar and Enmushkeshdanna." The extant text of the latter poem is reconstructed from the following tablets and fragments: Ni 2283; PBS V 9, 10; SEM 13, 18, 19. The following pieces also probably belong to it: CBS 29.16.450; HAV 17; SEM 17. In SL 320 I assumed that we had but one epic composition
  2. The transliteration and translation of this passage are as follows:
    1. u4-ba muš-nu-gál-la-àm gír nu-gál-la-àm[ka nu-gál-la-àm]
    2. ur-maḫ nu-gál-la-àm ur-zir(?) ur-bar-ra nu-gál-la-am
    3. ní-te-gá su-zi-zi-i nu-gál-la-àm
    4. lú-lu6 gaba-šu-gar nu-um-tuku-àm
    5. u4-ba kur-šubur ki-ḫé-me-zi
    6. eme-ḫa-mun ki-en-gi kur-gal-me-nam-nun-na-kam
    7. ki-uri kur-me-te-gál-la
    8. kur-mar-tu-ú-sal-la-ná-a
    9. an-ki-nigin-na uku-sag-sì-ga
    10. den-líl-ra eme-aš-àm, he-en-na-da-[si(?)-el(?)]
    In those days there was no snake, there was no scorpion, there was no hyena,
    There was no lion, there was no wild dog, no wolf,
    There was no fear, no terror,
    Man had no rival.
    In those days the land Shubur (East), the place of plenty, of righteous decrees,
    Harmony-tongued Sumer (South), the great land of the "decrees of princeship,"
    Uri (North), the land having all that is needful,
    The land Martu (West), resting in security,
    The whole universe, the people in unison,
    To Enlil in one tongue gave praise.


A Study of Spiritual and Literary Achievement in the Third Millennium B.C.

S. N. KRAMER Associate Curator, University Museum
University of Pennsylvania




To My Wife


The Sumerians were a non-Semitic, non-Indo-European people who flourished in southern Babylonia from the beginning of the fourth to the end of the third millennium B. C. During this long stretch of time the Sumerians, whose racial and linguistic affiliations are still unclassifiable, represented the dominant cultural group of the entire Near East. This cultural dominance manifested itself in three directions:

1. It was the Sumerians who developed and probably invented the cuneiform system of writing which was adopted by nearly all the peoples of the Near East and without which the cultural progress of western Asia would have been largely impossible.

2. The Sumerians developed religious and spiritual concepts together with a remarkably well integrated pantheon which influenced profoundly all the peoples of the Near East, including the Hebrews and the Greeks. Moreover, by way of Judaism, Christianity, and Mohammedanism, not a few of these spiritual and religious concepts have permeated the modern civilized world.

3. The Sumerians produced a vast and highly developed literature, largely poetic in character, consisting of epics and myths, hymns and lamentations, proverbs and "words of wisdom." These compositions are inscribed in cuneiform script on clay tablets which date largely from approximately 2000 B. C.[1] In the course of the past hundred years, approximately three[2] thousand such literary pieces have been excavated in the mounds of ancient Sumer. Of this number, over two thousand, more than two-thirds of our source material, were excavated by the University of Pennsylvania in the mound covering ancient Nippur in the course of four grueling campaigns lasting from 1889 to 1900; these Nippur tablets and fragments represent, therefore, the major

p. viii

source for the reconstruction of the Sumerian compositions. As literary products, these Sumerian compositions rank high among the creations of civilized man. They compare not unfavorably with the ancient Greek and Hebrew masterpieces, and like them mirror the spiritual and intellectual life of an otherwise little known civilization. Their significance for a proper appraisal of the cultural and spiritual development of the Near East can hardly be overestimated. The Assyrians and Babylonians took them over almost in toto. The Hittites translated them into their own language and no doubt imitated them widely. The form and contents of the Hebrew literary creations and to a certain extent even those of the ancient Greeks were profoundly influenced by them. As practically the oldest written literature of any significant amount ever uncovered, it furnishes new, rich, and unexpected source material to the archaeologist and anthropologist, to the ethnologist and student of folklore, to the students of the history of religion and of the history of literature.

In spite of their unique and extraordinary significance, and although the large majority of the tablets on which they were inscribed were excavated almost half a century ago, the translation and interpretation of the Sumerian literary compositions have made relatively little progress to date. The translation of Sumerian is a highly complicated process. It is only in comparatively recent years that the grammar has been scientifically established, while the lexical problems are still numerous and far from resolved. By far the major obstacle to a trustworthy reconstruction and translation of the compositions, however, is the fact that the greater part of the tablets and fragments on which they are inscribed, and which are now largely located in the Museum of the Ancient Orient at Istanbul and in the University Museum at Philadelphia, have been lying about un-copied and unpublished, and thus unavailable for study. To remedy this situation, I traveled to Istanbul in 1937, and, with the aid of a Guggenheim fellowship, devoted some twenty months to the copying of 170 tablets and fragments in the

p. ix

[paragraph continues] Nippur collection of the Museum of the Ancient Orient. And largely with the help of a grant from the American Philosophical Society, the better part of the past three years has been devoted to the studying of the unpublished literary pieces in the Nippur collection of the University Museum; their copying has already begun.[3]

It is the utilization of this vast quantity of unpublished Sumerian literary tablets and fragments in the University Museum, approximately 675 pieces according to my investigations, which will make possible the restoration and translation of the Sumerian literary compositions and lay the groundwork for a study of Sumerian culture, especially in its more spiritual aspects; a study which, considering the age of the culture involved, that of the third millennium B. C., will long remain unparalleled for breadth of scope and fullness of detail. As the writer visualizes it, the preparation and publication of this survey would be most effective in the form of a seven-volume series bearing the general title, Studies in Sumerian Culture. The first volume, the present Memoir, is therefore largely introductory in character; it contains a detailed description of our sources together with a brief outline of the more significant mythological concepts of the Sumerians as evident from their epics and myths.

The five subsequent volumes, as planned by the author, will consist primarily of source material, that is, they will contain the transliterated texts of the restored Sumerian compositions, together with a translation and commentary as well as the autograph copies of all the pertinent uncopied material in the University Museum utilized for the reconstruction of the texts. Each of these five volumes will be devoted to a particular class of Sumerian composition: (1) epics; (2) myths; (3) hymns; (4) lamentations; (5) "wisdom." It cannot be too strongly stressed that on the day this task is completed and Sumerian literature is restored and made available to scholar and layman, the humanities will be enriched by one of the most magnificent groups of documents ever brought to light. As the earliest

p. x

creative writings, these documents hold a unique position in the history of civilization. Moreover, because of their profound and enduring influence on the spiritual and religious development of the entire Near East, they are veritable untapped mines and treasure-houses of significant source material and invaluable data ready for exploitation by all the relevant humanities.

The seventh volume, Sumerian Religion: A Comparative Study, intended as the last of the series, will sketch the religious and spiritual concepts of the Sumerians as revealed in their own literature. Moreover, it will endeavor to trace the influence of these Sumerian concepts on the spiritual and cultural development of the entire Near East. This work is left to the last for cogent if obvious reasons; it is only after the Sumerian literary compositions have been scientifically reconstructed and trustworthily translated that we shall be in a position to treat adequately and with reasonable certainty that all-important but very difficult and complicated subject. While, then, the first six volumes are to contain primarily the data and the sources, it is the seventh which will attempt to formulate the results and the conclusions for the historian and the layman. And the hope is not unjustified that, as a result of this method of preparation and publication, the final formulation will prove both significant and reliable.

I wish to express my sincerest and most heartfelt thanks to the Jayne Memorial Foundation and its board of trustees, which selected me as the annual lecturer for 1942 to speak on the subject of Sumerian mythology. I also acknowledge my gratitude to the board of managers of the University Museum; to Dr. George C. Vaillant, its director; to Mr. Horace H. F. Jayne, his predecessor; and to Professor Leon Legrain, the curator of its Babylonian section, for their scientific co-operation in making the Sumerian literary tablets available to me for study. Profound thanks are due to the Ministry of Education of the Turkish Republic and its Department of Antiquities, for permitting me to study and copy part of the Sumerian

p. xi

literary tablets in the Nippur collection of the Museum of the Ancient Orient at Istanbul. The Oriental Seminar of the University of Pennsylvania acted in a sense as a sounding board for the reading of the first draft of the contents of this study; the spontaneous interest and enthusiasm with which it was received by the participating students and colleagues were of considerable spiritual support in the intricate and at times almost despairing process of penetrating the meaning of the texts. In the matter of financial support I am deeply indebted to the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation for selecting me as one of its fellows for the years 1937-38 and 1938-39; it thus enabled me to travel to Istanbul and devote some twenty months to research activity in its Museum of the Ancient Orient. To the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago I am indebted for several minor financial contributions. But primarily it is the American Philosophical Society which has made the preparation of this study possible; it is the extraordinary vision and generosity of this society which is enabling me to reconstruct and translate in a scientific and trustworthy manner the extant Sumerian literary compositions; to piece together and recover for the world at large the oldest literature ever uncovered, and one of the most significant.

To the Macmillan Company and the University of Chicago Press I am indebted for permission to reproduce several illustrations; specific acknowledgment of this courtesy is made in the captions of plates V, VII, X, XII, XIV, and XIX.

Preface Notes

  1. The date 2000 B. C. assigned to the clay tablets on which the Sumerian compositions are inscribed should be reduced by about 250 years as a result of recent studies which point to a date as low as about 1750 B. C. for Hammurabi, a key figure in Mesopotamian chronology.
  2. The number of Sumerian literary tablets and fragments are now known to be approximately five thousand, rather than three thousand. Close to four thousand come from Nippur, if we include the tablets found in the recent joint University Museum-Oriental Institute Expedition (19481952). The Sumerian literary tablets in the Hilprecht Collection of the Friedrich-Schiller University (Jena) have been studied by me in the fall of 1955 and again in 1957; for full details see the study "Sumerische literarische Texte in der Hilprecht-Sammlung" (Wissenschaftliche Zeitschrift der Friedrich-Schiller Universität Jena, 1955/6, pages 753-763), and History Begins at Sumer (see following note) pages 226-236. A first volume of the Hilprecht Collection, consisting of fifty-seven of the more important tablets and fragments will be published in the near future by the Friedrich-Schiller University and the German Academy of Science. The tablets from Ur, as I learned during a stay in London, are over four hundred in number. Most of these have been copied over the years by C. J. Gadd, and will be published in the course of the next few years.
  3. The publication of the Sumerian literary works has taken a different form than that projected at the time of the publication of Sumerian Mythology (1944). I have since realized that the definitive edition of each of the Sumerian myths, epic tales, hymns, lamentations, essays, and proverb collections, consisting of copies or photographs of the tablets together with transliterations, translations, and commentaries, could not possibly be produced by one man, no matter how concentrated his scholarly efforts, especially since the text of many of the compositions must be pieced together from dozens of individual tablets and fragments scattered throughout the museums the world over. As of today, I have published detailed studies of (1) "Enki and Ninhursag: a Sumerian 'Paradise' Myth"; (2) "Inanna's Descent to the Nether World"; (3) "Inanna and Bilulu" (coauthor Thorkild Jacobsen); (4) "Dumuzi and Enkimdu: The Wooing of Inanna"; (5) "Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta"; (6) "Gilgamesh and the Land of the Living"; (7) "Lamentation Over the Destruction of Ur"; (8) "Schooldays," as well as a number of smaller pieces; for full bibliographical details, see my "Sumerian Literature: A General Survey"

p. xii


References and Notes to the original edition will be found on page 104??. Supplementary Notes and Corrections will be found on page 120??.


p. xx



The Sources: the Sumerian Literary Tablets Dating from Approximately 2000 B. C.






The Scope and Significance of Sumerian Mythology



Myths of Origins



The Creation of the Universe



    The Organization of the Universe



    Enlil and Ninlil: the Begetting of Nanna



    The Journey of Nanna to Nippur



    Emesh and Enten: Enlil Chooses the Farmer god



    The Creation of the Pickax



    Cattle and Grain



    Enki and Ninhursag: the Affairs of the Water god



    Enki and Sumer: the Organization of the Earth and Its Cultural Processes



    Enki and Eridu: the Journey of the Water-god to Nippur



    Inanna and Enki: the Transfer of the Arts of Civilization from Eridu to Erech



    The Creation of Man



Myths of Kur



    The Destruction of Kur: the Slaying of the Dragon



    Inanna's Descent to the Nether World



Miscellaneous Myths



    The Deluge



    The Marriage of Martu



    Inanna Prefers the Farmer



References and Notes



Supplementary Notes





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List of Illustrations





Man's Golden Age

Man's Golden Age Tablet





A Scene from the Nippur Excavations: Rooms of the Temple "Tablet House"



Oldest Literary Catalog



Nippur Archaic Cylinder



Gudea Cylinder



"Chicago" Syllabary



Nippur Grammatical Text



Gods and the Nether World



The Separation of Heaven and Earth



Enlil Separates Heaven and Earth



Miscellaneous Mythological Scenes



Enlil and Ninlil: the Begetting of Nanna



Gods of Vegetation



Enki and Ninhursag: the Affairs of the Water-god



Enki, the Water-god


XV and XVI.

Inanna and Enki: the Transfer of the Arts of Civilization from Eridu to Erech

64 and 65


The Creation of Man

70 and 71


Gods and Dragons



Inanna's Descent to the Nether World









The Origin and Development of the Sumerian System of Writing



The Deluge






Sumer in the First Half of the Third Millennium B.C.



Go To Main Page
Go to Sumerian Mythology
Go to Introduction
Go to Chapter I - The Scope and Significance of Sumerian Mythology
Go to Chapter II - Myths of Origins
Go to Chapter III - Myths of Kur
Go to Chapter IV - Miscellaneous Myths
Go to Chapter V - References and Notes
Go to Supplementary Notes

Source Sumerian Mythology <keywords content="Mythology Sumer Sumerian Iraq Mesopotamia Nipur Erech Eridu Enlil Innana Ishtar Goddess Gilgamesh" />