Sumerian Mythology – Chapters 1-3

Source text: Sumerian Mythology by Simon Lopez


At the start of the text, Lopez introduces the Sumerians by characterizing them in contrast to our own society. Rather, his own society. The fact that he chooses the words ‘polite,’ ‘honest,’ and ‘of noble breeding’ is fascinating. Also fascinating is the fact that he presents the creation story of the Sumerians as truth, blurring the line between his scholarly voice and the voice of the myths themselves. This, I’m sure, is by design, as the words he uses to describe the Sumerians are the words that they used to describe themselves. In this way, perhaps Lopez is so immersed in the world of the ancient Sumerians that he views them as much in contrast to the neighboring peoples of their own age as to the societies that have emerged since.

Continuing beyond this, he offers his reasons why the study of Sumeria is valuable. I appreciate the effort, but I prefer for the author to assume from the start that the reader is invested in the context. After all, we’re already reading it, aren’t we? His pitch seems almost more suited to an interview or dust jacket.

Following that, it’s a cast of characters, which I’ve always found to be an overwhelming and unapproachable way to immerse a new reader in the world of a text. It’s the literary equivalent of being rattled off a list of fifteen names at a stranger’s office party, then sweating for the rest of the night with the pains of trying to keep them all straight. It’s much more elegant to meet these characters a few at a time, which is what the Sumerians themselves understood well enough to do with the framing of their own myths. Luckily, this laundry list of the Sumerian pantheon’s who’s-who doesn’t go on too long.

Lastly, Lopez explains that the tablets which serve as the sources for these stories have in many cases been lost or damaged. He asks, then, for us to understand that there may be abrupt starts or endings, or turns in the narrative design, which are due to improper reconstruction by scholars in the field. While this I’m sure is true, I think it also tempts us to excuse the cultural differences present in the Sumerian myths as resulting from the wear of time. If a character does something which strongly offends the Campbellian perspective, for example, it would be all too easy to think back on this warning and decide that it must have ‘made more sense’ in the original recording of the text. In this way, I’ll keep the fragmentation of the myths in mind, but try equally to discard my preconceived ideas of Western myths and enjoy the stories simply for what they are.

Chapters 1 – 3

In the beginning, there was nothing. Not darkness. Not God. Just a goddess, Nammu, the vast sea herself — unaware of her own existence and sorrowful in her solitude. In the sea, microbial life cause a spark of joy, and from that joy she births Anki, her son. This miracle of birth occurs again and again in the Sumerian origin story, and routinely shocks me with how un-Abrahamic it is. I mean, I guess I should have expected as much, but the differences in worldview which are present in this text are absolutely staggering. Everywhere, there is a feeling of growth, cooperation, and abundance. The land is not a hostile place — it is an empty canvas constantly receiving new strokes of life and bounty. In that context, no society exists in zero-sum conflict. The gods themselves, who populate the Earth for quite a while at the start, define their existence by building and multiplying their efforts through mutual cooperation.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that the society of the gods is free from inequality or conflict. Even in a cooperative environment, an unequal distribution of labor (resulting from the class delineations of the ‘lower gods’ and ‘higher gods’) breeds discontent. How is this discontent solved? Through the creation of labor-saving technology (in this case, humans) which spares the caste of the ‘lower gods’ from servitude by providing them with a yet-further-subjugated group of individuals. Even in this act of creating intelligent servants, there is joy of invention, and a sanctity of creation through cooperation which runs through all of the first chapters.

In many ways, the story of Enlil and Ninlil stands apart, and I think deserves to be discussed apart from the greater framework of the creation of the Earth and man. It stands as a prototypical heroic story, complete with the journey to the Underworld which appears so often in later Hellenic texts. Of course, the ‘heroic act’ of this story is Ninlil’s, in her moment of forgiveness where she absolves Enlil of his guilt following her rape. The nature of the rape in this story is incredibly foreign to a modern moral sensibility, a testament to the many great transformations that sexual morals have undergone during Western history. Enlil is presented almost as a child, and is shown to have violated Ninlil out of overwhelming but innocent urges which are then followed by great shame. The Sumerians take strong care in the text of the story to show Enlil’s violation of Ninlil as a despicable act, something reprehensible to the very essence of nature, and it takes a truly ‘heroic’ effort for Ninlil to find forgiveness.

Nevertheless, forgiveness is found, and the perpetrator and victim find happiness in the form of a daring-escape and nuclear family pulled straight from a Hollywood ending. In this way, the Sumerians approach rape with the same unsettling perspective found in much of the pre-contraceptive ancient world — an act to be condemned and avoided, but which can only be made right by marriage if it results in child. Of course, that’s what Ninlil wanted all along, and nobody ends up that much the worse for wear in the end. How deliberate is that, and what message was that meant to deliver to the children of Sumeria for whom this story was a foundational myth?