Sumerians and Their Relationships to Personal Gods

written by Jennifer Anderson

The Sumerians of Mesopotamia originally settled in the Fertile Crescent around 4500 to 4000 BCE.  They conquered the Semitic peoples already populating the area.  They stayed in power in the Southern half of Mesopotamia until they were conquered by the Akkadians in 2270 BCE.  They influenced everyone around them, starting with writing, which developed around the third millenium BCE.  More than ten different variations on the cuneiform they invented were in use until about 74 CE, when the last of the scribes fluent in Cuneiform finally died.  Their religious practices and mythology also influenced later civilizations.  The story of Inanna and Dumuzi for instance, how they explained Summer and Winter, went on to influence the Greek stories of Persephone, Hades and Demeter.  The personal god in Sumerian religious doctrine helped them to better relate to their far more powerful celestial deities.

Man’s relationships to the Greater Gods were considered distant.  They were the creators of the universe and untouchable.  This is explained in the Babylonian version of the Myth of Atrahasis.  There were lesser gods, termed Igigi, whom served the Greater Gods in an endless cycle of hard labor (3, 229).  The Igigi did not like this arrangement and sought to alleviate their endless abuse at the hands of their rulers (3, 230).  They laid siege to the house of Enlil, the almighty King of the Gods.  At first, he was angry with such cheek (3, 234).  But, as he heard their complaints and grievances, he slowly was filled with compassion, but also anger.  Enki, his vizier, spoke to him from a different perspective, telling him why the Igigi were so angry.  This moved Enlil, and he created Man to serve the Gods, including the Igigi (3, 235).  The beginning of this myth illustrates the distance between the Celestial and the mundane.  The personal god helped bridge this gap (4, 161).

A Sumerian’s relationship to the personal god was one of mutual respect and benefit, according to prevailing wisdom at the time (4, 161).  There were admonitions to give the personal god daily worship, which included proper rituals, libations and song (4, 160).  In exchange for such worship, the personal god would bestow favors and luck upon the worshipper (4, 155).   When one was blessed by their god, by the Sumerian paradigm anyway, there was a poem entitled “A Dialogue between a Man and his God” that advised one to always remember where the good fortune came from (3, 149).

 In contrast, one who sinned against the gods was cursed.  Sins included such things as lying, blasphemy, impiety, greed and extreme lust (5, 123).  If one was cursed, they would pray to their personal god to intercede with the Greater gods for alleviation of the curses (3, 148).  In “God of my family”, the god is referred to as “Guardian of my life, producer of my progeny” (3, 721).  This particular piece is rife with the feeling of propitiation.  The supplicant spends time asking why he has been having such woes.  He goes on in the piece to beg his personal god for long life and happiness, saying the god could grant it easily (3, 721).  He also reminds the god that he has not been impious and he is desirous of a greater destiny (3, 721).  In the piece “Furious God” (3, 722), we are introduced to a worshipper who questions his personal god as to why the god is angered.  The supplicant begs the personal god and goddess to relieve him of his curses and even discusses his transgressions (3, 722).  He even promises, in lines 17 and 18, that he will sing their praises to everyone (3, 722).  How I interpret this piece is that the supplicant’s life is in shambles and he entreats his gods to intercede on his behalf, which is another way that the Sumerians would ask for their gods to help them.

Jean Bottero believed that while the worship of personal gods was more or less universal in Ancient Mesopotamia, exactly how they did this was not strictly noted for posterity (2, 91). Though some prayers to the personal gods have been found, the ones I have seen seem mostly to propitiate the deities in question, asking for favors and begging forgiveness for human foibles.  There are scholars who interpret this as paving the way for later versions of monotheism, but that is not supported in the available evidence as left behind by the Mesopotamians.  It seems more that they needed a way to interpret the world in a way that made sense for them, and the personal god gave them a way to do that, as well as something to fault for when their lives got out of control.

1.  Bottero, Jean, Trans. Zainab Bahrani and Marc Van de Mieroop.  Mesopotamia:  Writing, Reasoning, and the Gods.  Chicago and London.  University of Chicago Press.  © 1992.  Print.

2.  Bottero, Jean, Trans. Tess Lavender Fagan.  Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia.  Chicago and London.  University of Chicago Press.  © 2001.  Print.

3.  Foster, Benjamin R.  Before the Muses:  An Anthology of Akkadian Literature.  Bethesda.  CDL Press.  © 2005.  “Dialogue between a Man and his God”  148 – 150.  “Atrahasis”  227-267.  “God of My Family”  721.  “Furious God”  722.  “The Piteous Sufferer”  723 – 724.  “Who Has Not Sinned?”  724 – 725.  Print.

4.  Jacobsen, Thorkild.  The Treasures of Darkness:  A History of Mesopotamian Religion.  New Haven and London.  Yale University Press.  © 1976.  Print.

5.  Kramer, Samuel N.  The Sumerians:  Their History, Culture, and Character.  Chicago and London.  University of Chicago Press.  © 1963.  Print.