Who were the 12 Most Famous Gods in Ancient Mesopotamia?
As the birth place of mankind’s civilization and religion, ancient Mesopotamia was largely full of thousands of gods and goddesses. The inhabitants of the region (present-day Middle East) strongly believed that supernatural forces and deities intervened in the lives of people.
It was also not uncommon for city-states in the various Mesopotamian empires (i.e. Sumeria, Assyrian, Babylonian, and Akkadian) to have their own patron gods or goddesses.
This article explores the myths, symbols and powers of the 12 most famous gods in ancient Mesopotamia.
Among the Sumerians (i.e. Sumer people), no other deity had more influence in their lives than Anu, the god of the heavens and sky. He was the supreme deity in Sumerian pantheon. The god Anu was the patron god of the populous city of Uruk, located in the environs of the Euphrates River.
Anu’s popular place of worship was at a temple in Uruk called Eanna. Other names of Anu include An and Ilu. His place of residence was believed to be in the sky. As the foremost deity, Anu is believed to have fathered all Mesopotamia deities (the Anunnaki) along with his consort the goddess Ki (earth goddess). The most prominent of Anu and Ki’s offspring was the god Enlil, the god of the air.
The supreme deity Anu was also worshiped during all periods by other ancient Mesopotamian civilizations such as the Assyrians and the Babylonians.
In some periods Nanna, the god of wisdom and the moon, was called Enzu or Zuen. Other names of this god in the Akkadian Empire included Sin, Suen and Nanna-Suen.
Nanna was sometimes seen as the son of supreme deities Enlil and Ninlil. This made him a very important Mesopotamian god. In one account of the myth, Nanna once went to the dark regions of the underworld and came back unscathed.
According to archaeological findings, Nanna’s temples were common in the Sumerian city of Ur.
Another very famous deity that was revered by the Sumerians was the goddess Inanna, the deity of love and war. Back in the ancient times, it was not uncommon for ancient Mesopotamians to attribute two contrasting element – say war and love – to a deity.
The goddess Inanna was also seen as the goddess of sexuality, lust, and prostitution. She was predominantly worshiped in Uruk, Nippur, and Ur. However, archaeological findings have revealed that the Babylonians also worshiped Inanna.
In subsequent Mesopotamian era, Inanna came to be known as the goddess Ishtar. And due to her frequent associations with a plethora of female deities, Inanna became the most powerful goddess in all of ancient Mesopotamia.
Depending on the account of the story, Inanna could be seen as the the daughter of Nanna or Enki or even Anu.
Inanna was referenced very often in many clay tablets from ancient Mesopotamia. In one story, her failed attempt to take over the underworld results in her death. However, her father Enki comes to her rescue and brings her back to the land of the living.
The Sumerian god Enlil was revered as the god of wind, earth, air and storms. At some point, Enlil was also seen as the supreme god and the father of all gods in Sumerian religion. As a result, he was often associated with Anu.
The Sumer people prayed to Enlil for sustenance and guidance. He was seen as the deity who determined the fate or destinies of the people. Such was Enlil’s reverence that it was believed no man or god could stare at him.
Enlil was often depicted wearing a crown with thorny horns. As the patron god of the city of Nippur, Enlil had several cult centers in the region. His place of worship in Sumerian tribes were called Ekur – “mountain house”.
Enlil’s Babylonian equivalent was the god Marduk. Other names of Enlil were Nunamnir and Ellil.
Marduk was the supreme god in ancient Babylonian mythology. He was truly a very powerful deity with dominion over everything in the universe. The Babylonians believed that Marduk was the god who helped form the Babylonian Empire. In the city of Babylon alone, Marduk had at least 60 titles and epithets, including the god of creation and the god of magic.
As king of the gods, Marduk married the goddess Sarpanitu (“the shining one”). And while many gods rode on chariots, Marduk rode on a dragon. In Greek mythology, Marduk’s equivalent would certainly be the Zeus, the sky god and supreme ruler of Mount Olympus.
Worshiped predominantly in the cities of Sippar and Larsa, the god Utu was one of the seven planetary gods in the region. He was revered as the god of the sun, justice and truth. The Sumerians associated him with law and order because the sun was the only constant thing in their lives. This made him the enforcer of truth and justice.
Sumerians believed that the goddess Nanna was Utu’s mother. This made Utu the brother of the god Inanna. Similar to the Eye of Horus in ancient Egyptian mythology, ancient Mesopotamians believed that Utu had the ability to see everything on earth. He was also the god people prayed to when faced with a difficult situation.
As a sun deity, Utu travels in his chariot across the world, bringing sun to the people each day.
The Assyrian city of Assur (Ashur) made the god Ashur their patron god. Such was Assur’s importance that both the city and god had the same name. Ashur was the god of war in the Assyrian pantheon. Statues of him were often taken along to battles in hopes of securing victory against the enemy. His consort was the goddess Ishtar, goddess of love and war. Primarily, his symbols were winged disc and bow and arrow. It was also believed that Assur followed king Ashurbanipal to war grounds.
As a sun deity, the god Shamash had an important role in two very powerful civilizations -Assyrian and Babylonian. Shamash had similar characteristics and back story as the god Utu. This meant that he was believed to be the enforcer of truth and justice. He also had his divine chariot that he used to fly across the world in order to bring the sun to the people.
It was believed that Shamash was also worshiped by a group of mythical race called the scorpion people – half man and half scorpion. The Babylonians believed that legendary King Hammurabi received the Hammurabi Codes from either Shamash or Marduk.
Commonly known as the patron god of scribes and literature, Nabu responsible for inspiring ancient Mesopotamia in the arts and crafts. It was also believed that Nabu’s chief consort was Tashmetu, the goddess who listened to people’s prayers. Both Nabu and Tshmetu had a large cult following in the city of Borsippa. The Babylonians revered him as the son of Marduk.
In some ancient Mesopotamian periods, Nabu was revered as the god of agriculture and wisdom.
Commonly called the god of the Southern sky, Enki was a Sumerian deity who gave shape to the world. He was also the god of wisdom, magic and intellect.
The Sumerians believed that Enki gifted them plough and other agricultural tools. Extremely knowledgeable in agriculture and freshwater, Enki decided which crops grew and which ones perished. His association with agriculture made him a very influential god across ancient Mesopotamia. The city of Eridu had quite a large cult following of Enki.
Enki’s other names across the region included Nudimmud and Ninsiku. Many accounts of the myths place him as the son of the god Anu (An). Other stories claim that he was rather the son of the goddess Nammu. His most preferred symbol was “Zu” – the storm bird.
The goddess Ishtar was an East Semitic goddess whose dominion included sexuality, love and warfare. Ishtar and the goddess Inanna were seen in almost the same light. In the beliefs of many Sumerians, Ishtar was the daughter of supreme deity Enki. The Assyrians on the other hand believed that she was the daughter of Nanna and Ningal.
The god Nergal was the god of the deep regions in the underworld. It was believed that Nergal ruled the underworld alongside his wife, Ereshkigal (goddess of the underworld).
In addition to his dominion over the underworld, Nergal was in charge of forest fires and other forms of fires in general. He was also the bringer of fevers, plagues and war. Pretty much any natural disaster was considered the handiwork of Nergal. His equivalent would be Ares in Greek mythology or Seth in ancient Egyptian mythology.
Other interesting facts about ancient Mesopotamian gods and religion
Here are some interesting facts that cast more light on ancient Mesopotamian gods and goddesses:
- Anu, Enki and Enlil were perhaps the three most important deities across different Mesopotamian civilizations.
- Ancient Mesopotamian cities often dedicated a structure called ziggurat to house their gods and goddesses. Due to the important role religion played in the region, these enormous ziggurats – which resembled the step pyramids in ancient Egypt – were carefully built and designed with the most magnificent minerals in the land.
- In ancient Mesopotamian religion, there were gods or goddesses for every human endeavor. Those gods were also anthropomorphic, a situation which saw the gods get human traits, emotions and desires.
- Enki was the god who saved humanity from the Great Flood. The Great Deluge, as it was called by some, had enormous influence on Noah story in the Bible.
- Across ancient Mesopotamia, the inhabitants often revered the number seven. Among the Sumerians, the “seven gods who decree” held extreme importance in their lives. Those seven gods were An, Enki, Enlil, Nanna, Utu, Inanna, and Ninhursag.
- According to some Sumerian accounts, Enlil was the daughter of the goddess Ki (earth goddess). Enlil created the world by separating Ki (earth) from the god Anu (sky).
- In addition to Ki and Anu, Enlil has been associated with several Mesopotamian gods and goddesses, including Ashur, Dagan (god of grain), Nanna, Marduk, etc.
- Virtually all the major gods in ancient Mesopotamia were believed have a divine mode of transportation. Many of them used boats, barges and chariots.