From verses scattered throughout hymns and myths, one can compile a picture of the universe's (anki) creation according to the Sumerians. The primeval sea (abzu) existed before anything else and within that, the heaven (an) and the earth (ki) were formed. The boundary between heaven and earth was a solid (perhaps tin) vault, and the earth was a flat disk. Within the vault lay the gas-like 'lil', or atmosphere, the brighter portions therein formed the stars, planets, sun, and moon.

Each of the four major Sumerian deities is associated with one of these regions. An, god of heaven, may have been the main god of the pantheon prior to 2500 BC., although his importance gradually waned.

Ki is likely to be the original name of the earth goddess, whose name more often appears as Ninhursag (queen of the mountains), Ninmah (the exalted lady), or Nintu (the lady who gave birth).

It seems likely that these two were the progenitors of most of the gods.

According to "Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Netherworld", in the first days all needed things were created. Heaven and earth were separated. An took Heaven, Enlil took the earth, Ereshkigal was carried off to the netherworld as a prize, and Enki sailed off after her.


Heaven and Earth were once a mountain that rose out of the primeval Sea. The mountain's peak reached into Heaven and its base was the Earth. An was heaven, and Ki was Earth. Nammu is the Sea goddess that surrounded the Earth. She was also the original dark chaos out of which everything formed. The mountain rose up out of the blackness of the deep sea. Enlil, the Air god, seperated Heaven and Earth and gave birth to the dawn. Enlil raped Ninlil the Air Goddess, and she gave birth to the Moon god, Nanna. Nanna and Ningal, his consort, gave birth to Utu, the Sun. Thus the Moon was born out of the darkness, before the Sun. This may be an indicator of the earlier matriarchal religion. Nanna and Ningal also gave birth to Inanna, the Evening Star.


The 'Gilgamesh Epic' is generally regarded as the greatest literature prior to the O.T. Epic poem centered around the heroic tales of a great king.

Several Sumerian tales of the legendary Gilgamesh were combined together into an epic poem more than four thousand years ago. A Semitic Akkadian version was found in the archives of the Hittite capital at Boghazkoy in Anatolia. It was also translated into Hittite and Hurrian, and several Akkadian texts were found in Ashurbanipal's library at Nineveh from the seventh century BC. With the exception of the more historical account already discussed, the twelve tablets of the Gilgamesh cycle will be treated synthesized as they have been by modern translators into the earliest masterpiece of literature.

Gilgamesh is introduced as knowing all things and countries including mysteries and secrets who went on a long journey and had his story engraved on stone. He was endowed with beauty by the sun god Shamash and with strength and courage by the storm god Adad, making him two-thirds god and one-third man. The seven sages laid the foundations, and he built the walls and temples of Uruk for Eanna, the heavenly Anu, and the love goddess Ishtar.

Gilgamesh ruled Uruk so powerfully that his arrogance was resented, for he enjoyed any virgin or wife that he wanted. The gods heard the people's complaints and decide to create his equal to challenge him. So the goddess of creation produces Enkidu, who lives with wild animals. One day a trapper encounters the one who has filled in his pits and torn out his traps. The trapper's father suggests that he get Gilgamesh to give his son a woman to tame Enkidu, and he does. When she sees Enkidu in the hills, she strips herself naked and teaches him her woman's art. Enkidu lays with her for a week.

When Enkidu goes back to the animals, he is weaker; and they run away from him. The woman says that he is wise and has become like a god. Why should he live with animals? She offers to take him to the temples of Anu and Ishtar in Uruk, where he could challenge Gilgamesh. Meanwhile a dream came to Gilgamesh of a star falling from heaven leaving a meteor so heavy he could not lift it, and his mother Ninsun explains that this was a strong friend he would meet. In another dream Gilgamesh found in Uruk an ax he loved like a woman, and Ninsun interprets that this brave man would rescue him.

When Enkidu arrives in Uruk, Gilgamesh is about to exercise his privilege of being the first to sleep with a bride. But Enkidu blocks his way, and they fight like two bulls locked together. Gilgamesh throws Enkidu down, and then in mutual respect for each other's strength they become friends. They decide to confront the monster Humbaba who guards the cedars in the sacred forest. Gilgamesh prays to the sun god Shamash for protection and receives an amulet from his mother. After the counselors of Uruk ask Enkidu to bring their king back safely, they set out on the long journey.

Entering the forest gate, Gilgamesh dreams that a mountain fell on him, but he was saved by a beautiful light. Then Enkidu has an ominous dream of a rainstorm. When Gilgamesh chops down a cedar with the ax, Humbaba hears the sound. Knowing the monster, Enkidu is afraid; but Gilgamesh encourages him. Calling on Shamash, Gilgamesh fells seven cedars, and each time Humbaba roars louder. When the two heroes reach Humbaba, he pleads with Gilgamesh for mercy, offering to serve him. Gilgamesh is moved, but Enkidu convinces him to kill the monster; so they cut off his head.

Gilgamesh cleans himself up and is asked by the divine Ishtar to be her husband, but he scorns her for having been faithless to so many lovers. Enraged Ishtar retreats to heaven and asks her father Anu to create a bull of heaven to torment the earth with a famine. The bull charges Enkidu, and he seizes it by the horns so that Gilgamesh can kill it with his sword. Ishtar curses them, but Enkidu defiantly tears out the bull's right thigh and throws it in her face. Enkidu then dreams that the gods have decided that one of them must die for having killed Humbaba and the bull of heaven. Soon Enkidu gets sick and dies. Gilgamesh mourns for him for seven days until a worm appears in his nose.

In despair at the death of his friend and realizing now that he must die too, Gilgamesh decides to find Utnapishtim, who has lived in Dilmun since before the flood. Coming to a gate guarded by scorpion men, Gilgamesh is allowed to pass where no human has ever gone. Passing through darkness he enters a garden with bushes like gems. The sun-god tells him that he will never find eternal life. Gilgamesh comes to a woman of wine who asks him why he is searching for the wind. He explains that he is afraid of death, and she suggests that he eat, drink, dance, and enjoy life. He only asks the way to Utnapishtim, and she tells him that he must take the ferry of Urshanabi across the ocean. Making Gilgamesh cut six score poles so that his hands won't touch the deadly water, Urshanabi agrees to take him.

Finally arriving Gilgamesh asks his question of Utnapishtim, but he declares there is no permanence. When Gilgamesh wonders how he has lived so long, Utnapishtim reveals a secret of the gods, the story of the deluge. Perturbed by the clamor of humans, the gods decided to let loose a flood on them, but Ea warned Utnapishtim to build a large boat and load it with supplies and animals. After the boat was ready, the storm came. The boat weathered the deluge and rested on a mountain. Sending out a dove, it came back, as did a swallow, but then a crow was released and did not return.

Enlil was angry that a human had survived, but Ea suggested that he should punish sin and transgressions, but not with a flood. Utnapishtim, though a mortal, was allowed to live in the distance. Utnapishtim challenges Gilgamesh to stay awake for a week, but instead he falls asleep for that long, which is proved to him by the decaying seven loaves of bread baked each day by Utnapishtim's wife. Utnapishtim does offer Gilgamesh an herb, which eaten, will bring youth back. Gilgamesh dives underwater to get it, but on his way back to Uruk a serpent steals it from him, eats it, and sheds its skin. Gilgamesh returns to Uruk and must realize that he too is not exempt from death.

One can imagine the influence of such an archetypal story. Gilgamesh represents the achievements of mankind who now wonders about death. His arrogance is criticized, and the primordial custom of the dominant male being allowed sexual license seems to be a throwback from our pre-ethical evolution as primates. Dreams are perceived to be symbolic guides and often prophetic. A woman, his mother, seems to be most skilled at interpreting them. Another strong male is needed to challenge a strong male, but female charms are able to tame him. The shift from living in the wild is accomplished by sexual lovemaking, which leads Enkidu to civilization after he is no longer one with the animals.

The invention of the ax enabled humans to use timber for building, but once again a oneness with the spirit of the forest is lost in the process. The love goddess is not treated very sympathetically in this story, perhaps because she has become a goddess of battles in the human strife that now abounds. Enkidu's throwing of a bull's thigh into her face may be an implied criticism of the ancient rites of animal sacrifice. Of course the keeping of animals was a hedge against famine, because they could be slain and eaten in an emergency.

Enkidu is the one to die, perhaps because he was the one who insisted on killing Humbaba and the bull of heaven. The worm coming out of his corpse is a graphic symbol of the grim reality of physical death. Gilgamesh going through a scorpion-guarded gate and passing through darkness before emerging into a paradise symbolizes the spiritual side of death, as he comes out in a kind of astral world where even the plants glow. To really find out the secrets Gilgamesh must be willing to transcend hedonistic temptations.

His passage across the ocean to learn Utnapishtim's story of the flood is suggestive of Atlantis, since it was separated by an ocean from the land mass of Europe, Asia, and Africa. His account is quite similar to the Hebrew story of Noah. Unable to find immortality, a magical herb is offered as a consolation; but the serpent which seems able to rejuvenate itself by shedding its skin steals this away from humanity. Sleep and Gilgamesh's inability to stay awake is an analog of death, suggesting that life, like waking consciousness, needs a time of rest and renewal in death and rebirth.


In about 3000 BC the Sumerians in the Middle East also had this account of Creation. The god of the waters, Enki, told his mother, Nammu, to take bits of clay and mold the shapes of men and women. She made perfect people of every sort to be servants of the gods.

Then Enki and his wife, the Earth goddess, had a contest.

Each tried to invent people for whom the other could find no place or task. Thus each created various sorts of deformed and disabled individuals. This was how the Sumerians explained human imperfections.


The underworld of the Sumerians is revealed, to some extent, by a composition about the death and afterlife of the king and warlord Ur-Nammu. After having died on the battlefield, Ur- Nammu arrives below, where he offers sundry gifts and sacrifices to the "seven gods" of the nether world:

...Nergal, [the deified] Gilgamesh, Ereshkigal [the queen of the underworld, who is either given to Kur in the underworld or given dominion over the underworld in the prelude to Gilgamesh (Kramer & Maier 1989: p. 83) (Wolkstein & Kramer 1983: p. 4)] , Dumuzi [the shepherd, Inanna's husband], Namtar, Hubishag, and Ningishzida - each in his own palace; he also presented gifts to Dimpimekug and to the "scribe of the nether- world."... [After arriving at his assigned spot] ...certain of the dead were turned over to him, perhaps to be his attendants, and Gilgamesh, his beloved brother, explained to him the rules and regulations of the nether world. (Kramer 1963: p. 131)

Another tablet indicates that the sun, moon, and their respective gods, spent time in the underworld as well. The sun journeyed there after setting, and the moon rested there at the end of the month. Both Utu and Nanna '''decreed the fate' of the dead" while there. (Kramer 1963: p. 132) Dead heroes ate bread, drank, and quenched the dead's thirst with water. The gods of the nether world, the deceased, and his city, were prayed to for the benefit of the dead and his family.

The Sumerian version of Gilgamesh includes a trip to the nether world as well. In the prologue, Enki sails for the Kur, presumably to rescue Ereshkigal after she was given over to Kur. He is assailed by creatures with stones. The main body of the tale includes a trip to the nether world as well. Enkidu enters the "Great Dwelling" through a gate, in order to recover Gilgamesh's pukku and mikku, objects of an uncertain nature. He broke several taboos of the underworld, including the wearing of clean clothes and sandals, 'good' oil, carrying a weapon or staff, making a noise, or behaving normally towards ones family (Kramer 1963: pp. 132-133). For these violations he was "held fast by 'the outcry of the nether world'". Intervention by Enki, rescued the hero.

Inanna also visits Kur, which results in a myth reminiscent of the Greek seasonal story of Persephone. She sets out to witness the funeral rites of her sister-in-law Ereshkigal's husband Gugalanna, the Bull of Heaven. She takes precaution before setting out, by telling her servant Ninshubur to seek assistance from Enlil, Nanna, or Enki at their shrines, should she not return. Inanna knocks on the outer gates of Kur and the gatekeeper, Neti, questions her. He consults with queen Ereshkigal and then allows Inanna to pass through the seven gates of the underworld. After each gate, she is required to remove adornments and articles of clothing, until after the seventh gate, she is naked. The Annuna pass judgment against her and Ereshkigal slays her and hangs her on the wall (Wolkstein & Kramer 1983 p. 60)

Inanna is rescued by the intervention of Enki. He creates two sexless creatures that empathize with Ereshkigal's suffering, and thereby gain a gift - Inanna's corpse. They restore her to life with the Bread of Life and the Water of Life, but the Sumerian underworld has a conservation of death law. No one can leave without providing someone to stay in their stead. Inanna is escorted by galla/demons past Ninshubur and members of her family.

She doesn't allow them to claim anyone until she sees Dumuzi on his throne in Uruk. They then seize Dumuzi, but he escapes them twice by transforming himself, with the aid of Utu.

Eventually he is caught and slain. Inanna spies his sister, Geshtinanna, in mourning and they go to Dumuzi. She allows Dumuzi, the shepherd, to stay in the underworld only six months of the year, while Geshtinanna will stay the other six.