The Sumerians had four leading deities, known as creating gods. These gods were An, the god of heaven; Ki, the goddess of earth; Enlil, the god of air; and Enki, the god of water. Heaven, earth, air, and water were regarded as the four major components of the universe. The act of creation, it was held, was accomplished through utterance of the divine word; the creating deity had merely to make plans and pronounce the name of the thing to be created. To keep the cosmos in continuous and harmonious operation and to avoid confusion and conflict, the gods devised the me, a set of universal and unchangeable rules and laws that all beings were obliged to obey.
Next in importance to the creating deities were the three sky deities, Nanna, the god of the moon; Utu, the sun god; and Inanna, the queen of heaven. Inanna was also the goddess of love, procreation, and war. Nanna was the father of Utu and Inanna. Sumerian poets composed numerous myths about the exploits of Inanna. Another god of great importance was Ninurta, the deity in charge of the violent and destructive south wind. One of the most beloved deities was the shepherd god Dumuzi, the biblical Tammuz. Dumuzi was originally a mortal ruler whose marriage to Inanna ensured the fertility of the land and the fecundity of the womb. This marriage, however, according to a myth whose denouement has only recently come to light, ended in stark tragedy when the goddess, offended by her husband’s unfeeling behavior toward her, decreed that he be carried off to the netherworld for six months of each year—hence the barren, sterile months of the hot summer. At the autumnal equinox, which marked the beginning of the Sumerian new year, Dumuzi returned to the earth. His reunion with his wife caused all animal and plant life to be revitalized and made fertile once again. Each new year the Sumerians celebrated the marriage between Dumuzi and Inanna. The high point of the celebration was a ritual wherein the king impersonated Dumuzi; Inanna was impersonated by one of her leading priestesses.
Other Sumerian gods included those in charge of rivers, mountains, and plains; of the cities, fields, and farms; and of tools such as pickaxes, brick molds, and plows.
Each of the important deities was the patron of one or more Sumerian cities. Large temples were erected in the name of the deity, who was worshiped as the divine ruler and protector of the city. Temple rites were conducted by many priests, priestesses, singers, musicians, sacred prostitutes, and eunuchs. Sacrifices were offered daily.
The Sumerians believed that human beings were fashioned of clay and were created for the purpose of supplying the gods with food, drink, and shelter, so that the gods might have full leisure for their divine activities. Life was considered humanity’s most precious possession, even though it is beset with uncertainty and haunted by insecurity; for when human beings die, it was believed, their spirits descend to the netherworld, where life is more wretched than on earth.
Samuel Noah Kramer