Sunday, 6 July 2014

An introduction to ancient Sumerian religious literature

Readers of this blog will know that I have posted various essays in which I made reference to the ancient Sumerians and their influence on the Biblical tradition. In this essay, Johan Coetser discusses the ancient Sumerian religious thinking in more detail. He gives special attention to one of the first literary documents ever produced, namely the Kesh Temple Hymn. The oldest copies of this poem, which belongs to the genre of songs glorifying temples, date back more than four thousand years to 2600 BC. This gives us some insight into the ancient world where Abraham's family lived more than a thousand years before the time of Moses.
‘‘[T]he efforts to achieve and ensure divine presence took the form of building temples’’ - Thorkild Jacobsen
About 5500 years ago the Sumerians settled in southern Iraq on the alluvial plain between the two rivers, the Euphrates and Tigris. There they established the world's first urban civilization centred on the great city of Uruk. The Sumerians are remembered, among other things, as the people who were the first to write. The first traces of writing appear in about 3500 BC and took the form of pictographs on clay tablets. Gradually these developed into the well-known cuneiform script that produced the first know literature by 2600 BC.
At first, the script was mostly used for administration and business purposes. Soon afterwards, however, the earliest wisdom sayings, like The Instructions of Shurrupak, as well as religious literature, like The Kesh Temple Hymn, were produced. Unlike today, these documents were not meant to be read by the wider population since very few people could read and write. Instead, this was the privilege of a small literate elite who spoke the Sumerian language and used that script. As part of the curriculum for trainee scribes they studied and copied these early documents.
The documents that the Sumerians produced more than four thousand years ago provides us with a unique opportunity to peek into the minds of those ancient people. One of the genres produced by the scribes was temple hymns, of which the Kesh Temple Hymn is an example. Four fragments of the hymn were found at Tel Abū Salābīkh in Iraq dating to about 2600 BC [1]. Over the next 800 years this document was continuously copied and by the time of the Old Babylonian period (c.1800 BC) we have a hymn that shows little difference from the archaic copies.
The Kesh Temple Hymn describes the temple dedicated to a goddess called Ninḫursag or Nintu. Ninḫursag was one of the four great gods/goddesses worshipped in ancient Sumeria, together with Enlil, An and Enki. The name Nintu refers to her role as goddess of birth-giving. In the hymn, her temple is described with various metaphors which capture its glory and glamour. It tells how the head of the Sumerian pantheon, Enlil, originally gave permission to build the temple. The hymn describes the various parts of the temple, the gods living there and the personnel who served them.
Ancient temples were more than a place of worship; they were part of the economy of the city where they were situated. Temples held vast tracts of land worked by slaves and freedmen, producing surplus grain. They gave loans in silver, employed women as weavers and sold the products. The kings gave offerings to the temples and many other worshippers gave dedications. The priests administered oaths between parties and kept business records for merchants. They themselves also participated in trade. Temples were central to the Sumerian civilization and had a variety of functions. The most important, however, was that temples served as places of human-god interaction. We will now discuss this in more detail.
The use of metaphor in the Kesh Temple Hymn
One of the important aspects of Sumerian poetry is the extensive use of metaphor. The Kesh hymn is no exception. Various metaphors and similes are used to describe both the temple and the goddess [2]. Naomi Miller said it well: "Metaphors were basic to Sumerian poetic expression" [3]. Hirchman, following in the Jungian tradition, suggests that metaphors were born from the deepest human psyche: "Humans were now able to think metaphorically: archetypes became cognitively available to us [4]. And Moser suggests "Analyzing metaphors thus not only gives us tactic knowledge and mental models which shape the individual understanding of the self, but also the cultural models provided by language to express individuality, self-concept and the 'inner world'" [5].
Although the Sumerian metaphors include a far wider domain than we can reconstruct, the language of the Kesh Temple Hymn gives us a glimpse into the thoughts of those ancient people. It allows us to see something of their world. We can explore one of these metaphors used in this hymn to depict the temple, namely that of the boat. We read that the temple is
"Like the princely Mag-ur boat floating in the sky
Like the pure Mag-ur boat provided with a ...gate
Like the boat of heaven, foundation of all the lands
Cabin of the banda-boat which shines from the beaches..." [6].

The image of a sickle-shaped boat floating in the sky brings the moon to mind. The reason is that the so-called Ma-gur boat belonged to the moon god Nanna (also called Suen/Sin). This boat was used to take the yearly produce from the city of Ur to the temple of Enlil, which was situated in Nippur [7]. The waxing and waning of the moon depict fruitfulness. This corresponds with the temple as a place of fruitfulness and production, linked to the changing seasons.
The mythical theme of the voyages of the gods is depicted on many cylinder seals [8]. The image of the moon god's boat would have meant a lot more to those ancient people than to us. The partial glimpse of the meaning of the metaphor allows us to see that the idea of fertility was important to the Sumerians; in fact, it was crucial for their survival. Droughts and floods were a real threat that could lead to famine. They needed the goodwill of the gods to ensure a bountiful harvest. As such, the image of the Mag-ur boat moving on the canals that crossed the land, spreading the bounty of the harvest in its wake, depicted the temple as a source of fertility.
These are some of the ideas behind the complex metaphors and similes of the Sumerians of which the full meaning is still inaccessible to us today. We can, however, see that the idea that the gods were the source of fertility, was crucial in the mind of these ancient people. The temple was the place where god and human could meet to negotiate the god's favour and blessing on society.
Music in the Kesh Temple Hymn
Music played a very important role in worship all over the ancient world. The Kesh Temple Hymn was therefore also meant to be sung [9]. We learned a lot about this aspect of their worship from the Cylinders of the priest Gudea, who lived in the city of Girsu in the south of Sumer during the end of the third millennium BC. He even had a director of music. Needless to say, music features prominently in a temple hymn that he wrote for the temple of the god Ningirsu [10]. We read in the hymn
"With his divine duties,
namely to soothe the heart,
to soothe the spirits
To dry weeping eyes:
To banish mourning from the heart...
Gudea introduced his drum, Lugal-igi-uš,
to lord Ningirsu" [11].

The purpose of the recitation of the hymn was to invoke the presence of the gods. The great Sumerologist Thorkild Jacobsen writes: "Poetry was another means of invoking the presence of the powers, for word pictures, too, created the corresponding reality" [12].
The Kesh hymn mentions music made both by singing and the use of instruments
  • They recited the e-šub and uru-šub (verses)...
  • The pašeš beat on the (drum)skin...
  • The bull’s horn is made to growl;
  • The drumsticks are made to thud.
  • The singer cries out to the ‘ala’ drum;
  • The grand sweet ‘tigi’ drum is played for him.
  • The house is built; its nobility is good [13].
Singing hymns of praise comes naturally to us. This was also true in ancient times. Music was part of the pageantry of the rituals that involved offerings to the gods. One can say that the music in itself was an offering to the gods. It allowed humans to conduct ritual actions vital to the well-being of the country.
Various instruments were used, especially various kind of drum. Other instruments included the harp, lyre and various kinds of the flute. Sir Leonard Woolley found a beautiful lyre decorated with a bull’s head in excavations at Ur in 1923. It is currently to be seen in the British Museum. Instruments were important enough to merit their own names as we can see from the quotation from the Cylinders of Gudea where the drum is called Lugal-igi-uš. All this was done with the worship of the gods in mind and to secure human prosperity. To have the gods on your side meant no famine or foreign invasions.
The temple was a place where the gods were invoked to help humans prosper. Daily offerings were made to keep the gods happy. The Kesh Temple Hymn also mentions this
"The temple consumes many oxen.
The temple consumes many sheep" [14].

The offerings were administrated by a plethora of priests. The Kesh hymn mentions a remarkable number of different types of priests working in the temple. Even the man playing the drum was considered to be a priest.
  • Whose nu-eš priest are the sacrifices to the E-anna (E = house; anna = of heaven)
  • The lugalbura priest...stepped up to the temple
  • The good en-priest..held the lead-rope suspended
  • The atu priest held the staff
  • The ...brought the gathered waters [name missing in text]
  • The... took his seat in the holy place [name missing in text]
  • The enkum bowed down in prayer.
  • The pašeš beat the (drum) skin.
  • They recited the e-šub and uru-šub verses [15].
After invoking the presence of the gods, it was time to placate them to do their duty toward humans. The reason why the gods created humans was that they can provide the gods with food and drink. Elaborate meals were offered at least twice a day before the cult statue of the god. This included drink-offerings. The god's image was enclosed by a curtain, allowing it to eat and drink without being observed by humans. When the god was finished eating, the meal was taken to the royal table for the king to eat [16]. This act of worship was not available to ordinary citizens.
Wealthy persons had small statues of themselves made, inscribed with a prayer, which they placed before the cult statue. This allowed them to offer continuous prayer before the god and ask for blessings. The offerings maintained the relationship between man and god and kept the blessings flowing. Failure to do this could be catastrophic, causing the god to abandon the city - with horrifying consequences. The offerings and rituals had to be maintained at all times in order to keep the gods happy.
One of the most important types of priests was the En priest/priestess. The most famous among these was the princess Enḫeduanna, who became the En-priestess of the moon god Nanna at Ur during the early years of the Akkadian period (c.2300 BC). This post was so important that it was held only by members of the royal family, who in this case was a daughter or sister of the reigning king.
The name Enḫeduanna means "lady gift of heaven". She is the first known poet in history and became famous for her poetry [17]. The En priestess lived in the so-called giparu (holy precinct) at Ur and was the human mate of the god [18]. Her primary duty was to pray and intercede for the life of the king. On a secular level, she also administrated the large estates of the giparu. Some of these priestesses, like Enannatumma and Enmegalanna, were later worshipped in their own right [19].
Ninḫursag of Kesh
We can now meet the lady (goddess) of the Kesh temple, Ninḫursag. Her name is usually interpreted as "lady head mountain". It has also been proposed that the name could be translated as "lady of the mountain of the gods" [20]. In the Kesh Temple Hymn, she is also called Nintu. As such, she represents the goddess of birth. In the hymn, she is depicted as sitting curled up in the cela, the holiest part of the temple:
"Ninḫursag, like a great dragon, sits (in its) interior
Nintu, the great mother, has brought about its birth
Ninḫursag, its lady has taken a seat in its..." [21]

The goddess is here depicted as a snake or dragon. The Sumerian word for dragon is ušumgal and means literally "great snake". Much later, in Greek times, the word drakon was still used to describe a great snake [22]. The temples of goddesses were also sometimes described as great snakes, as we can see in the collection of Sumerian temple hymns by Enḫeduanna:

"Keši, valiant (city)...of heaven and earth,
Like a great poisonous serpent, installing fear,
house of Ninḫursanga, built on an awe-inspiring place" [23].

The snake was associated with the underworld and the earth. Even in Greek times, the snake remained a symbol of the underworld. It was especially goddesses who were linked with snakes [24]. The snake was a powerful symbol for regeneration because it sheds its skin from time to time. As a symbol, it was used as a metaphor for the fruitfulness of the earth and was especially apt for the goddess of birth-giving. The use of the snake as a symbol for regeneration goes back to the Neolithic age (the new stone age c.8000–4000 BC) and continued as a metaphor for regeneration until Greek and Roman times.
In our hymn, however, the goddess is not only described as a snake, but also as a lion. As Nintu, the ‘great mother’ she was responsible for the ‘birth’ of the temple
"Keš tempel borne by a lion,
whose interior the hero has embellished,
Nintu, the great mother has brought about its birth" [25].

Inside the temple, in the cela (most holy), was the cult statue made of wood and plated with gold and/or other precious metals. The idea of being born was also applied to the cult statue, which was given life through a ceremony called mis pi or "mouth washing". On this occasion, the equipment of the artisan who made the statue was ceremonially thrown into the river - while he proclaimed that his hand did not make the statue [26].
After receiving the spirit of the god, the cult statue became the living embodiment of the god, who, at the same time, remained present in heaven. Great care was taken of the statue because of the fear that the god could leave it if it was damaged. The statue was dressed in costly robes. People visited it to present their petitions, in the same manner, that they petitioned the living king. On certain occasions, the statue would travel by barge or chariot to visit the cult centres of other gods.
The cult statue was the supreme focus of the temple and stood centrally in the worship of that god. It was hidden from profane sight in the cool depths of the cela, adored in secret, away from the bustle of the wider public. If the city lost a war, the cult statue was carried away into captivity to the victor’s land. When this happened, it was necessary to restore the cult statue to secure blessings for the city again.
The heavenly dimensions of the temple
The Sumerian temple had a cosmic function, bringing heaven and earth together. While the top of the temple was in heaven, the bottom was anchored in the abyss [27]. The Sumerians called the abyss ‘abzu’, envisioned as an underground sweet water lake. It was the realm over which the god Enki ruled. It has been suggested that the temple was pictured as a boat adrift on the waters of the abzu [20]. The Sumerians also used the metaphor of a mountain to express the temple's cosmic dimensions: the temple was rooted deep in the earth with its top reaching like a large mountain high up into heaven. We read (about the Kesh temple?)
"Growing up like a mountain, embracing the sky...
Temple, great shrine reaching the sky
Great, true temple, reaching the sky
Temple, great crown, reaching the sky
Temple, rainbow, reaching the sky
Temple, whose platform is suspended from heaven’s midst
Whose foundation fills the Abzu..." [28]

At the end of the hymn, it is reaffirmed that the temple was the place where man and god interacted. Although ordinary citizens could not enter the temple, they benefited from its presence in their midst. The temple was the source of abundance and divine blessing, bringing heaven close to the realm of man:
"To the city, to the city, man, approach!
To the city Keš, man, approach.
Its hero Aššir, man, approach!
Its lady Nintu, man, approach!
(well) constructed Keš, Aššir, praise!
...Keš, Nintu, praise!" [29]

The duty of the priests was to ensure that the gods were happy; that the lines between heaven and earth were kept open. In this regard, they functioned similarly to the retainers at the king’s court. The cult statue was treated as a very real and important person. The god in the statue was the source of all blessings to the larger community. Although ordinary citizens were not allowed to enter the temple and there was a huge distance between cult and citizen, they still benefited from the god's presence in their community. They worshipped from afar and only saw the god at special festivals and when it was brought forth to visit other gods.
The Sumerians, however, also worshipped their gods in a more personal manner, namely as the personal gods who were worshipped by particular families. These gods spoke for the individual in the council of the gods. They trusted in their personal gods for their daily spiritual needs. Being discarded by your personal god meant great suffering. You had to do everything in your power to live in peace with your god.
It is clear from this short journey through the Kesh Temple Hymn that those ancient people did not share our religious mindset. The gods were awesome personages who had to be carefully handled to prevent them from becoming angry and withholding their blessings on which the city depended.
Music and ritual were part of their lives; they kept the gods happy with offerings. Cult statues were revered like a king or queen and treated with great respect. The metaphors that were used to describe temples and gods had meanings for the ancient Sumerians which we can only partially access - as we can see from the metaphor of the boat. Since ancient times worship of the gods were very important for the well-being of the state. Disasters that befell the city were the consequences of botched relationships with the gods. A whole genre of lamentation was developed in response to this, namely to soothe the angry deity’s heart and to lure him/her back to his/her place in the temple.
The ancient Mesopotamians did a lot to maintain good relationships with their gods and feared the consequences if such relationships broke down. The fall of a city like Ur (the city of Abraham), which was sacked by the Elamites (c.2004 BC), was ascribed to the goddess abandoning the city. She did that because a decision was taken by the council of the gods to destroy the city.
The Kesh Temple Hymn gives us some insight into ancient Sumerian religious thought and how different it was from modern conceptions [30]. This should serve as a warning that we should be careful not to read ancient texts like the Bible as if they were written from a modern perspective. Although this is the world that Abraham left behind when he moved to Canaan, the Biblical worldview still has more in common with the ancient world of the Sumerians than with our own.
[1] Alster, B.1976. On the earliest Sumerian literary tradition. Journal of Cuneiform studies 28 (2):112.
[2] Ehrlich, C.S. 2009. From an Antique land: An introduction to Ancient Near Eastern Literature. p22.
[3] Miller, N. 2013. Symbols of Fertility and Abundance in the Royal Cemetary at Ur. American Journal of Archaeology 117 (1):128.
[4] Hirchman, E.C. 2002. Metaphors, archetypes, and the biological origins of semiotics. Semiotica 142 (1):316, 317.
[5] Moser, K. 2000. Metaphor Analysis in Psychology - Method, theory and fields of application. Forum Qualitative Soziafforschung/ Forum Qualitative Social Research 1(2).
[6] Gragg, G.B. 1969. The Kesh Temple Hymn, in A. L. Oppenheim (ed). Texts from Cuneiform Sources. p168.
[7] Ferarra, A. J. 1973. Nanna-Suen's journey to Nippur. p203-5.
[8] Jacobsen, T. 1976. The Treasure of Darkness: A history of Sumerian Religion. p7.
[9] Galpin, F. 1937. The music of the Sumerians and their immediate successors the Babylonians and Assyrians. p51.
[10] Polin, C. 1954. Music of the Ancient Near East. p160.
[11] Black, J.A., Cunningham, G., Fluckiger-Hawker, E., Robson, E., & Zólyomi, G. 1998. The building of Ningirsu’s temple (Gudea cylinders A and B). The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature ( lines 1048-1057.
The Cylinders of Gudea contains the longest Sumerian temple hymn. It tells about the building of the Eninnu temple for the god Ningirsu and is dated to c. 2100 BC.
[12] Jacobsen, T. 1976. The Treasure of Darkness: A history of Sumerian Religion. p15.
[13] Gragg, G.B. 1969. The Kesh Temple Hymn, in A.L. Oppenheim (ed). Texts from Cuneiform Sources. p239.
[14] Gragg, G.B. 1969. The Kesh Temple Hymn, in A.L. Oppenheim (ed). Texts from Cuneiform Sources. p171.
[15] Gragg, G.B. 1969. The Kesh Temple Hymn, in A.L. Oppenheim (ed). Texts from Cuneiform Sources. p174.
[16] Schneider, T.J. 2011. Introduction to Ancient Mesopotamian religion. p104.
[17] De Shong Medeaor, B. 2009. The Sumerian Temple hymns of Enheduanna: Princess, Priestess, Poet. p19.
There is a debate about the authorship of the works attributed to Enheduanna. I believe she wrote the poems herself.
[18] Black et al. 2006. The Literature of Ancient Sumer. p316.
[19] Weadcock, P.N.1975. The Giparu at Ur, in Iraq 37 (2):101-104.
[20] Personal conversation with Willie Mc Loud.
[21] Gragg, G.B. 1969. The Kesh Temple Hymn, in A.L. Oppenheim (ed). Texts from Cuneiform Sources. p173,175.
[22] Ogden, D. 2013. Drakon: Dragon myth and Serpent cult in Greek and Roman worlds. p2.
[23] Sjǿberg, W. 1969. The Collection of the Sumerian Temple Hymns, in A.L. Oppenheim (ed) Texts from Cuneiform Sources. p22.
[24] Ogden, D. 2013. Drakon: Dragon myth and Serpent cult in Greek and Roman worlds. p6.
[25] Gragg, G.B. 1969. The Kesh Temple Hymn, in A.L. Oppenheim (ed). Texts from Cuneiform Sources. p172.
[26] Walls, N.H. 2005. Cult image and divine representation in the Ancient Near East. p57,63.
There is some debate as to whether temple buildings should be understood in terms of birth-giving or not.
[27] Edzard, D.O. 1987. Deep-rooted skyscrapers and Bricks: Ancient Mesopotamian Architecture and its Imagery in, M. Mindlin, Geller & Wansbrough (eds). Figurative language in the Ancient Near East. p13.
[28] Gragg, G.B. 1969. The Kesh Temple Hymn, in A.L. Oppenheim (ed). Texts from Cuneiform Sources. p167,169.
[29] Gragg, G.B. 1969. The Kesh Temple Hymn, in A.L. Oppenheim (ed). Texts from Cuneiform Sources. P175.
[30] Readers who are interested in reading the full text of the Kesh Temple Hymn can google The Electronic Text Corpus of The Sumerian Language.

Author: Johan Coetser

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For essays in which the Sumerian influence in the Bible is discussed, click on
Adam and Eve: were they the first humans?

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