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date: 06 December 2023

Religion and Humanity in Mesopotamian Myth and Epicfree

Religion and Humanity in Mesopotamian Myth and Epicfree

  • Louise PrykeLouise PrykeUniversity of Sydney


Concepts of religion and humanity form an integral component of Mesopotamian narrative literature, and these ideas are evidenced in the frequent exploration of themes involving mortality and immortality, power and authority, and creation and destruction. Through the use of plot, characterization, literary themes and techniques, and also structure, Mesopotamian myths and epics transmit religious ideas and beliefs, as well as informing on cultural identity and meaning. In both oral and written transmission, storytelling is a powerful medium for exploring ancient theology.

Religious ideas are expressed in a wide array of Mesopotamian literary works, and while some features, such as the polytheistic view of the divine hierarchy, remain generally constant, different texts and “genres” show changes in focus and in the perception of the divine and the human. While deities and supernatural creatures have a prominent role in literature, Mesopotamian myth is not only concerned with theistic matters, but also with what it means to be human.

It is often observed in modern scholarly works that humans, in the Babylonian Flood narrative of Atrahasis, and the creation myth of Enuma Elish, were born to serve the gods and perform their menial tasks. This is undoubtedly an important observation for the analysis of humanity and religion, yet the presentation of human/divine relations as one of simple subjection gives a misleading and superficial impression of the interaction between the mortal and divine spheres, one that is at odds with the subject’s complexity, variety, and subtlety.

Myths and epics provide a multifaceted picture of a number of different types of relationships between gods and humans: even in the narrative of Atrahasis, individual deities interact with humans in different ways; there is no “one size fits all” divine connection in Mesopotamian literature. Despite a rigid hierarchy in favor of the divine, these relationships are frequently close, involving strong emotional bonds. The human/divine connection is not solely beneficial to either party, but reciprocal and often mutually rewarding. At the same time, the relations between humans and deities can be destructive and damaging—with the harm most often depicted to occur on the human side, possibly because of the vulnerability offered by mortality and the lack of supernatural abilities. Humanity is reflected in the anthropomorphic representations of deities and also the sociomorphism of their family-oriented community structure. For heroes of epic literature, the divine connection can be perilous, but also rewarding. The success of heroes in accessing divine support is frequently (but not exclusively) linked to the morality of their actions.

Religion and humanity in literature concern not only deities’ interactions with humans, but also how the authors of literature conceptualized and gave meaning to the human condition. It is clear from Mesopotamian literature that close, positive relationships with the divine were important for survival and success during the human lifespan (and even beyond), yet at the same time, the answer to questions of finding meaning in mortal existence is at times presented in very human terms. Love, alongside shared human achievements and experiences, is presented in several literary sources as essential for giving meaning to the human condition.


  • Ancient Religion
  • Myth and Legend

Religion was a central and dynamic aspect of ancient Mesopotamian life, culture, and identity. Religious ideas, imagery, and meaning permeated every aspect of daily life, and so it is not surprising to find that religion and religious figures are a common feature of narrative literature. While deities and supernatural creatures often have a prominent role in literature, Mesopotamian narrative is not only concerned with theistic matters, but also with what it means to be human. The human condition in Mesopotamian myths and epics is measured against the supernatural, but also against animals. Theistic and human figures in literature share many qualities, yet they are also presented as inhabiting a clearly defined hierarchy, with the deities always on the top tier of the universal societal order. Deities and humans are compared and associated with nonhuman inhabitants of the natural world, yet often in ways that enhance rather than decrease the hierarchical distance between humans and the divine. Heroes of epic literature, along with Mesopotamian kings, inhabit a kind of in-between space that touches upon the divine world while coinciding with the human sphere.

Generally, the relations between humans and the divine in literature show reciprocity. Humans and deities interact with one another, and the actions of either group can prove to be of benefit to the other—although the human/divine relationship is not always presented harmoniously in literature. The quality of the relationship between humans and deities is of critical importance for the survival of the mortals and also for the contentment and happiness of divine beings.

Mesopotamian Literature

Although considered collectively here, the term “Mesopotamian myth and epic” refers to a diverse group of texts from several different cultures and many historical periods. Mesopotamia is generally placed geographically between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers; the name “Mesopotamia” is of Greek origin, meaning “land between the rivers.”1 Mesopotamia’s exact territorial extent is a subject of debate, but its area may be considered to correspond roughly with modern-day Iraq, Kuwait, and parts of Syria, Iran, and Turkey. Mesopotamia was home to many of the world’s first great empires, including the Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrian empires. This area is known as the “cradle of civilization” because of innovations in fields including agriculture, astronomy, and writing that occurred in this region at an early stage of history.

Mesopotamian literature is written in the cuneiform script, considered to be the world’s oldest form of writing (although there is some competition from Egyptian sources). Cuneiform characters are composed of wedge-shaped strokes and were written on clay tablets; the name “cuneiform” come from Latin, meaning “wedge-shaped.” The earliest known, readable cuneiform writings are in Sumerian, long believed a linguistic orphan with no relation to any known language.2 By the middle of the third millennium, the Sumerian language was beginning to be eclipsed by Akkadian, a Semitic language which is an early cognate of Hebrew and other Semitic languages. While the Akkadian and Sumerian texts both utilize the cuneiform script, they are linguistically, and most likely chronologically, distinct, owing to the decline of spoken Sumerian as Akkadian became the common idiom. The two main dialects of Akkadian were Assyrian (from northern Mesopotamia) and Babylonian (from southern Mesopotamia), but literary texts were written in an artificial literary dialect, which differs from that found in everyday texts such as letters, and presumably from spoken dialects. This means there is virtually no possibility of dating Akkadian literature on linguistic grounds. Modern knowledge of Sumerian is insufficient for certain dating on the basis of language used, and most Sumerian literature that has survived to the present day is in the form of copies from the Old Babylonian period.3

Further, while Akkadian and Sumerian were separate languages, they exerted influence on one another. Sumerian influences are present in the style, content, format, and vocabulary of Akkadian literature, and Sumerian literature composed after the end of the third millennium bce was likely written by authors from an Akkadian-speaking background.4 The ordering of the selected literary compositions here is based on thematic content rather than following a chronological order.

In considering different “genres” of Mesopotamian literature, we must first acknowledge that the division of Mesopotamian literary works is something of an artificial process, more representative of modern literary theory and scholarship than being a reflection of any ancient ordering of texts.5 Even the two genres examined here, myth and epic, are often indistinct6 and overlap with each other in terms of narrative content; a myth, or set of myths, can provide the background for an epic.7 An example of the interrelatedness of the two groups of literature can be found in Tablet VI the Epic of Gilgamesh, where the hero of the epic recounts to the goddess Ishtar the unhappy fate of her husband, Dumuzi.8 While Gilgamesh’s account is brief, this divine relationship, with its tragic end, is featured in a number of Mesopotamian myths such as Inanna’s Descent to the Netherworld.

The term “literature” here is used to broadly delineate the more narrative-focused written works, with an emphasis on story, from legal and economic documents, historical records, omen texts, royal inscriptions, funerary dedications, magico-medical texts, and prophecy. Religious and literary texts survive in great abundance, with myth and epic comprising just a small percentage (estimates are often around 1 percent) of the extant written material from Mesopotamia. Although the evidence is plentiful, it is often fragmented, which has created difficulties for its study in the modern day.

The importance of story in the religions of the ancient world is a developing area of study.9 Through the use of plot, characterization, literary themes and techniques, and also structure, stories transmit religious ideas and beliefs, as well as informing on cultural identity, values, and meaning. The focus here on the “genres” of myth and epic is intended to provide a concentrated foundation for considering religion and humanity in Mesopotamian narrative. In both oral and written transmission, storytelling is a powerful medium for exploring ancient theology, although it is the written sources that will be considered here. This is not to say, however, that historical records, inscriptions, and other documents are of lesser value to the study of ancient religion; temple inventories and economic records, for example, can transmit much significant information about religious activities and values, and omen texts illuminate how some natural phenomena were interpreted as divine messages. While outside of the scope of this study, wisdom literature, lamentations, incantations, and divination and ritual texts, as well as funerary inscriptions, also provide abundant information about the conception of human and divine relations in ancient Mesopotamia.


Religion and humanity intersect in a variety of ways in Mesopotamian myth and epic.10 The term “religion” has been the focus of much philological discussion,11 but it remains difficult to define clearly, and providing a definition of “Mesopotamian religion” is similarly problematic.12 In Bottéro’s definition, “religion” is considered as something imprecise and instinctive, which causes us to reach beyond ourselves, involving an “undefined order of things” which are necessary for a sense of completeness.13 The wide-ranging, poetic, and intricate nature of Bottéro’s definition, particularly in terms of its focus on completeness, holds significance for the interdependent and complicated relationships between the human and divine spheres. However, defining “Mesopotamian religion” remains complex; our sources tell us what it was believed the gods did (primarily in myths and epics), what it was believed the gods were like (primarily myths, epics, and hymns), and what humans were expected to do with respect to the gods (primarily rituals). They do not go beyond this into a description of inner religious feelings, and attempts to infer feelings from the evidence risk the anachronistic imposition of modern notions. Therefore, ancient Mesopotamian religion has to be defined as a combination of what ancient Mesopotamians said about the gods, including of course the deities’ relation to humans, and what humans did in response.

The study of religion in the ancient world is a rich and rapidly developing field. Religion in literature, as in broader Mesopotamian culture, can be public or private, personal or communal. Two elements of humanity and religion will be considered here: the interconnected relationships among humans, heroes, and the divine in myth and epic, and reflections on the human condition in these works. The aim is to give an overview of a number (but by no means all) of significant literary works in the “genre” of myth and epic as they relate to religion and humanity. The broad scope of the subject means that a complete survey of the topic is beyond reach here, and there are many aspects that would benefit from consideration at greater length. Instead, a foundation is provided for considering the extremely intricate nature of the human condition, and its relationship to the divine, found in Mesopotamian narrative, so as to provide a basis for further study and cross-cultural comparison.

Humans and deities

The frequent observation in modern scholarship of the creation of humans to serve divine overlords—often contrasted negatively against biblical creation accounts—gives a sense of a one-sided and fairly exploitative relationship between humans and Mesopotamian deities.14 Yet the topic is a complicated one, with literary sources providing an intricate picture that reflects a number of different types of relationships between gods and humans. Even within the narrative of Atrahasis, individual deities interact with humans in different ways: there is no “one size fits all” divine connection in Mesopotamian literature. Despite a rigid hierarchy in favor of the divine, these relationships are frequently close, involving strong emotional bonds. The human/divine connection is not solely beneficial to either party, with a great deal at stake on both sides of the relationship. Perhaps because of the crucial nature of the divine/human connection, relations between deities and humans involve risk. Relations between the divine and human worlds can be dangerous and destructive, and capable of jeopardizing the survival of humankind, animals, and the natural world.

While there are limits to the permeability of the conceptual boundaries separating the human and divine worlds, in literature there are numerous ways for humans and deities to interact. Communication takes many forms, including sacrifice, attendance of festivals, dedicatory offerings and building works, prayer, song, direct and indirect dialogue, omens, prophecy, and divinely inspired dreams.

Animals in Mesopotamian literature provide an important mortal yet nonhuman “other” to contrast with the activities and qualities of divine and human actors. Animal imagery used in figurative language is found throughout Mesopotamian literature, and humans and deities can be ascribed positive or negative traits associated with particular animals.15 Animals can function as sacrificial offerings, companions, warriors, and dangerous opponents—indeed, the Bull of Heaven in the Epic of Gilgamesh is employed in all of these roles. In myth and epic, animals are recognized for their commercial and intrinsic values; they provide a source of food, transport, and material goods,16 but are often presented in a sensitive manner that acknowledges their capacities as sentient creatures, holding several qualities in common with humans (such as mortality and dependence on the natural environment for survival).

Like animals, hybrid creatures and monsters in literary sources also provide insight into cultural perceptions of humanity, and the complexity of human and divine relations. Figures such as the Scorpion People can be seen to span the divide between the natural and supernatural spheres in terms of both their form and function. Scorpion People are the best-attested animal/human hybrids in Babylonian literature,17 appearing most notably in Tablet IX of the Epic of Gilgamesh. These hybrid creatures, with human heads and scorpion tails, are presented as being created alongside other animal/human hybrids to function as warriors for Tiamat in Tablet I of Enuma Elish, with the differing roles of the Scorpion People in the two epics likely to be a result of different literary traditions.18 In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Scorpion People are liminal creatures. As well as inhabiting a space between human and animal, their role in the narrative is to guard the tunnel linking the sun, earth, and sky.

The liminality of the forest guardian Humbaba, from the Epic of Gilgamesh, allows for the consideration of the humanity of the heroes, Gilgamesh and Enkidu. The importance of family in the experience of humanity is explored through Humbaba’s speech following his capture in Tablet V. Humbaba uses animal imagery (significantly, a terrapin and a turtle) to contrast Enkidu’s status as an orphan with Gilgamesh’s divine parentage, and his own genesis as one created by a god but with no “parent” to provide nurturing. Humbaba adds the comment that Enkidu, like the spawn of a fish, did not know his father, and like the two reptiles, he did not suckle his mother’s milk. These comments reflect the biological reality of reptiles as egg-laying animals, contrasted with the nursing habits of mammals, including humans. With the use of the fish and reptile imagery, Humbaba is making a contrast of Enkidu with Gilgamesh—who, it is frequently noted, was suckled by his divine mother, Ninsun—while undermining Enkidu’s humanity.19 The contrast between the “monster” Humbaba and the two heroes foregrounds concerns of family, humanity, and social connectedness in the narrative.


Mesopotamian myths form a particularly nebulous category of literature. “Myth” is used here to describe a literary composition in the form of a story,20 with divine protagonists. Mythic themes and narratives are referenced in hymns, royal praise poetry, lamentations, ritual and magical texts, incantations, wisdom literature, and psalms. Drawing these diverse sources together is the focus on divine protagonists in myth. Indeed, humans occur infrequently in mythical narratives, and the divinities also interact with one another, various supernatural beings, animals, and the natural world. While humans are not often protagonists in myth, humanity and the human condition are reflected in these texts through the anthropomorphic qualities of the deities and the microcosm of their social world, as well as through explicit reflections on the nature of humanity and human life. Although mythic themes or terms occur in other forms of literature, the focus here on myth and epic is due to the presentation of themes involving religion and humanity in a coherent narrative in these “genres.”

In myth, Mesopotamian deities are presented as inhabiting human-like bodies and conducting human-like activities. They experience common human emotions such as anger, lust, sadness, envy, and joy. At the same time, deities often use their anthropomorphic bodies in ways that are beyond the scope of humanity (for example, the goddess’s ability to stretch across the sky like a rainbow in the Sumerian myth of Inanna and Shukaletuda, considered further below, and Enki’s ability to create beings from the dirt under the tips of his fingernails in Inanna’s Descent to the Netherworld). As well as having anthropomorphic forms, deities were also associated with elements of the natural world, and conceived as incorporated in some sense in astral bodies.21 The physiomorphic forms of deities (and other divine beings) contribute to their characterization in myth, where, for example, the Sumerian sun deity, Utu, is seen traveling through the heavens like the astral body he represents. Although Mesopotamian deities at times experience elements of life that would seem to define the human condition, such as birth, death, and illness, they experience these events in uniquely supernatural ways.

The mixture of humanity and divinity in myth provides the focus here, although it must be noted that the large number of literary texts that could be defined as “myth” precludes the individual discussion of each myth. We will consider how humanity and divinity combine in myth to illuminate the religious aspects of Mesopotamian life and death.

The most relevant themes of Mesopotamian myth for considering the gods’ ability to illuminate concepts of humanity and religion are creation, birth, sexuality, and death.

Atrahasis and creation

Narratives involving the deluge are critically important to the Mesopotamian view of the history of humanity,22 and the nature of human/divine connections. While several literary texts center on the divine creation of humanity, along with the natural world, the destructive potential of deities was also the subject of Mesopotamian myth. The Babylonian Flood story Atrahasis contains both creative and destructive relations between humans and deities. The Atrahasis narrative (meaning “surpassingly wise”) takes its name from the human Flood survivor, and is famous for its correspondence with the biblical Flood account from Genesis. The story of Atrahasis is available in several versions, one of which forms part of Tablet XI of the Gilgamesh Epic. The narrative of Atrahasis presents a complicated relationship between humans and deities, with an interesting contrast between the individual and the collective. Relations are shown to vary among deities and individual humans, and humanity as a whole, as well as between humanity and individual deities and groups of deities.

The myth begins with the greater deities imposing on lesser deities the menial work of food production and the building of canals. The arduous nature of the work leads to a rebellion by the lesser deities; they go on strike and challenge the primary deity, Enlil. The senior deities agree that the situation requires redress, but also that the rebellion will be punished. Ea (Sumerian Enki), the god of wisdom, suggests a solution—that the mother and birth goddess, Belet-ili (“Lady of the Gods”) create a human being to perform the menial duties of the deities. The leader of the rebellion is killed and his body and blood are mixed with clay to create a human. The spirit of the dead deity is also mixed into the new creation23; the etemmu (“spirit”) of the dead god remains within humanity. The presence of the “spirit” is signaled by the “drumbeat” of the pulse, which is a constant reminder of the divine contribution to humanity.24 The mythopoeic linking of humans and the divine in the constant rhythm of the pulse provides a microcosm of the interconnectedness of the two worlds.

Belet-ili next establishes sexuality, birth, and marriage in her human creations, so that they may reproduce themselves, and she is praised greatly for her work. Yet the spread of humanity creates problems for Enlil, who finds he cannot sleep because of human noise. He sends a variety of afflictions against humanity: first plagues, then a drought, then a famine. Each time, Ea advises the humans to stop making offerings to their favorite deities, but to devote all of their offerings to the deity who could stop the presiding affliction. The deity related to the affliction is in each case so moved by the upspring of attention that he intervenes to improve the humans’ situation.

While humanity is presented as being at the mercy of the destructive supernatural powers of the divine, their efforts to emotionally manipulate the deities into assisting them are successful, with the help of Ea’s guidance. Communicating with deities through offerings is presented as an effective means of accessing divine support; divine/human communication is foregrounded in the narrative, yet not all communication is positive. Rigmu (“clamor”) is given to humans by the gods, along with menial work, at their creation, and it is this “clamor” that causes Enlil to try to destroy humanity. Conversely, Ea encourages the people to communicate with deities to avoid Enlil’s plagues (through sacrifice, prayer, and making noise), and the success of Ea’s rescue of humanity from destruction rests on his ability to communicate with Atrahasis through dreams, prayers, and finally through the physical boundary of a wall. In Atrahasis, the continuation of divine/human relations is dependent on effective communication and the formation of connections with individual deities.

Later in the narrative, Enlil sends a great storm against humanity. Atrahasis, warned by Enki, builds a boat to escape, but the rest of humanity is destroyed. The destruction of humanity horrifies the gods, who are hungry and thirsty owing to a lack of the offerings usually made to them. The hunger of the deities shows their dependence on humans for offerings,25 a theme that is evident earlier in the composition when the humans bribe certain deities with food offerings to avert the plagues. The theme of divine hunger illustrates the more general interdependence of human and divine relations, as this theme is paralleled, somewhat ironically, with the earlier attempt to destroy humanity through a terrible famine; both humankind and the gods are shown to cause starvation for one another in Atrahasis. The hierarchy of relations is still weighted in favor of the divine (for example, the solution to both famines is indirectly provided by Ea, and both famines are indirectly caused by Enlil), but each group is presented as having significant influence on the other’s well-being. Similarly, damaging divine plans can be countermanded in Atrahasis through the intercession of individual gods and appropriate religious observance.

The deities put in place several new developments to prevent human overpopulation from causing problems again, including the establishment of mortality and a reduction in childbirth, juxtaposing divine accountability for human suffering, such as the invention of a demon to increase infant mortality, with the mutually caring and beneficial relationship between humans and deities more generally, as is seen in the reaction of the deities to the destruction of humanity. A contrast is provided between humanity as a whole, and the individual, in terms of divine connectedness. While the clamor and spread of humanity places a strain on divine/human relations, the relationship between Atrahasis and Enki is close, and their communication is essential to the survival of humankind.

Enuma Elish

Enuma Elish is a Babylonian creation narrative which tells the story of how the primary Babylonian god, Marduk, ascended to power, through his battle with the primordial ocean goddess, Tiamat. The poem gets its name from the opening words “when on high,” a method of naming commonly used by scribes to identify literary compositions.26 In Tablet VI of Enuma Elish, the first humans are created by Marduk from the blood of the dead warrior, Kingu; Marduk in this narrative is credited with the idea of creating humans, rather than Ea.27 From the body of Tiamat, Marduk creates the heavens and the earth, and he provides structure and order to the pantheon. In this way, Enuma Elish shows a focus on structure, order, and division that is a common feature of many ancient Near Eastern creation accounts. The creation of humans by a divine ruler, from the body of a dead god, demonstrates the close ties between creation, humanity, and religion in Mesopotamian literature. Foster observes the absence in Enuma Elish of the “rebellious human spirit”28 seen in Atrahasis, and the shaping role of the mother goddess in creation of humans is also lacking. In both Atrahasis and Enuma Elish, the benefits to the deities of creating humanity are presented as coming at the cost of a divine life.

Alternate accounts of the creation of humans and the world they inhabit, through the endeavors of divine beings, are also seen in narratives involving the hero Gilgamesh, considered below. The creation of individual humans by two Sumerian deities forms the basis of the myth Enki and Ninmah. Again, the motivation for creating humankind is to appease the complaints of overworked deities.29 In this myth, Enki, the god of wisdom, competes with the goddess Ninmah to create a human whose physical form is unsuitable to perform any functions or to have an improved destiny. Prior to the competition, Ninmah performed midwifing duties for Enki’s mother, Namma, in her creation of humankind. Enki advises Namma how to create humans in order to free the deities from the toil of menial tasks such as the digging of canals. During the competition, Enki is able both to improve the destiny and to find a place in human society for each of Ninmah’s creations; however, when the roles of the two deities are reversed, Ninmah cannot help the human created by Enki because of the extreme nature of its disabilities. This myth gives an etiology for the causation of the difficult physical labors of humankind, and also for the reality of human frailties and disabilities. While in Atrahasis humans and the divine are linked by the continuing “spirit” which forms a reminder of the blood spilt in human creation, and the body of Kingu is used to create humans in Enuma Elish, divine blood is absent from the creative enterprises of Enki and Ninmah. Abusch notes that the flesh and blood used in the creation of humanity is unnecessary, as it is clay (as seen in Enki and Ninmah) that is the forming element in the “original model” of divine creative acts.30 Humans are again created for the benefit of divine beings in Enki and Ninmah, but humans can also benefit from their relationship with the divine, as is seen in Enki’s efforts to decree good destinies for each of Ninmah’s creations, and to provide them with a role in society and sustenance.


The religious significance of sexuality in Mesopotamian life has been well established.31 Sexuality, with all of its creative potential and power, was a divine force, one that was primarily identified with the goddess of love and war, Inanna (Semitic Ishtar). For humans, sex fulfilled the necessary function of the continuation of life, yet sexual activity is not presented in literary texts as a purely practical experience. Both genders were entitled to sexual pleasure, a shared aspect of life linked to intimacy and happiness.32

In contrast, for deities (the protagonists of divine myth), sex was not a necessary precursor to the creation of life, yet sex involving divine figures occurs with reasonable frequency in myth. Deities are presented as capable of becoming pregnant and giving birth to other deities (for example, in the myth of Enki and Ninmah). In myths with an emphasis on narrative plots, sexuality involving deities is at times violent, nonconsensual, and destructive. The presence of violence and rape in myths should not be taken as entirely representative of Mesopotamian thoughts on divine sexuality, as other literature (which references mythic narratives) gives a different picture—for example, the tender and loving sexuality between deities (such as Inanna and her bridegroom, Dumuzi), portrayed in Sumerian hymns.

In the Sumerian myth of Inanna and Shukaletuda, the goddess is raped by the son of a gardener (who is himself a gardener). In her anger, she sends three curses against the land—a blood plague, a dust storm, and a traffic jam—with destructive consequences for the mortal community. All of the goddess’s punitive actions relate to religious pollution, and combined with the supernatural quality of her revenge, the religious nature of the crime is emphasized.33

The Sumerian myth of Enki and Ninhursaga contains sexual violence and incest involving divinities, alongside the usually human concerns of birth and illness. While several of Enki’s sexual encounters with goddesses in this myth are incestuous, it is difficult to be certain how many of them can be considered nonconsensual.34 The distress of Enki’s daughter, Uttu, following their sexual interaction is strongly suggestive of rape (see parallels with Inanna’s distress over her physical mistreatment in the myth of Inanna and Shukaletuda). It is interesting to note that the encounter with Uttu is also Enki’s only sexual act in Enki and Ninhursaga that does not result in the pregnancy of a goddess35—an outcome that also parallels the lack of pregnancy following Shukaletuda’s rape of Inanna.

Instead of the distressed goddess Uttu becoming pregnant in Enki and Ninhursaga, it is Enki himself who is impregnated, after ingesting some vegetables sown with his own semen, through a trap set for him by Ninhursaga. The scene involving Enki’s predatory consumption of the plants, which are the product of his own issue, mirrors his earlier sexual encounters with the goddesses.36 This section of the myth, where Enki is pregnant and deeply unwell because he is incapable of delivering the offspring inside him, functions as an etiology for the birth of several deities, whom Ninhursaga, pitying Enki (after initially cursing him), delivers. The myth emphasizes Ninhursaga’s competence over Enki in the creative practice of birth. Enki’s illness after his encounter with Uttu presents incestuous rape as having undesirable outcomes for the perpetrator. The use of vegetation and gardening imagery strengthens the impression of usually positive activities having a negative result because of the illicit nature of Enki’s actions. Whereas agricultural symbols in Mesopotamian literature often represent concepts of fecundity and abundance linked to positive sexual encounters, in this myth vegetation that Enki himself has unwittingly poisoned instead causes sickness and distress.

The sexual relationship between Enlil and the goddess Ninlil in Enlil and Ninlil has also been the subject of scholarly analysis regarding the consensualism of the interactions between the two deities. Although Enlil is banished following his impregnation of Ninlil owing to his “ritual impurity,” he is followed by Ninlil, who has intercourse with him another three times. Enlil’s failure to marry Ninlil after intercourse, following the loss of her virginity, has been suggested as the cause of his impurity,37 but attention has also been drawn to the difference between the initial sexual encounter between Enlil and Ninlil, where Enlil coerces Ninlil into sex, and his later use of disguise to gain access to her in this Sumerian myth.38 The exact nature of the sexual relationship of the two deities in Enlil and Ninlil is complicated, and there is a lack of scholarly consensus on its meaning.


Along with the capacity for supernatural deeds, it is the immortality of deities that most clearly distinguishes the divine and human spheres of existence; yet even in the literary presentation of death, the boundaries between the divine and mortal realms are blurred. As noted by Sasson, in some myths deities die, and at times in epic, heroes ascend to the heavens.39 Despite the imprecision of the subject, death and mortality are crucial themes for understanding the complex dynamics between human and deities in myth and epic. In comparison to the timespans inhabited by theistic figures, the brevity of mortal lives contributes to the hierarchical structure of human and divine relations.

The wide variety of sources for ancient Mesopotamian views on death and the afterlife, including ritual texts, lamentations, magic and medical texts, omens, hymns, and prayers, creates conflicting accounts of how the afterlife experience was conceived. Although outside of the focus on myth and epic, it is important to note the variability in the presentation of “life” after death in different ancient sources; for example, Barret has shown that a gloomy view of an unhappy afterlife, found in some Mesopotamian mythic narratives, is not reflected in the rich archaeological record accessed through the analysis of grave goods.40 The varied nature of the sources on the Mesopotamian afterlife may reflect diversity in its conception in ancient times. The suggestion of afterlife skepticism in some texts (as noted by Katz41) implies some variance in conceptions of death and the existence (or otherwise) that followed the perishing of the body.

The experience of the netherworld shows variability even within the course of a mythical composition. In the Sumerian narrative of Gilgamesh, Enkidu and the Netherworld, Gilgamesh and Enkidu have a discussion about the things Enkidu has seen in the netherworld. Enkidu relays to Gilgamesh the fates in the afterlife of different categories of people, in response to his friend’s questioning.42 In Enkidu’s description, the fates of people in the afterlife are closely related to their activities and status while living. The importance of family for a relatively happy and comfortable experience of the netherworld is a recurring theme of the dialogue.

The underworld and the terrestrial realm were not entirely separate spheres; some amount of penetrability was tolerated between the two territories. Behaviors in the upper world had significant consequences for those below, and ghosts and demons were thought capable of rising periodically and haunting or otherwise interfering with living mortals. For the inhabitants of both the upper and lower worlds, actions that “crossed over” could be beneficial or harmful. Good mourning practices in the upper world resulted in a happier afterlife for those below, and dead relatives and loved ones could be consulted by the living for supernatural advice. Death was perceived as a gradual weakening of the connections that bound the deceased person to the land of the living, rather than as an abrupt and complete end.43

While deities in Mesopotamian literature are generally immortal and free from human concerns such as illness and aging, the immortality of deities is not presented in absolute terms. As seen above, death is possible for deities, although their deaths tend to be violent rather than caused by illness or age, and their experience of death is not always as permanent as the death of humans.

The story of Inanna’s Descent to the Netherworld (also known from the Akkadian version of Ishtar’s Journey to the Netherworld) involves the young goddess of love taking the dangerous journey to the underworld, the domain of her sister, the goddess Ereshkigal. Possibly suspecting that Inanna intends to usurp her position as queen of the underworld, Ereshkigal, with the help of the divine Anuna judges, kills her sister and hangs up her lifeless corpse.

The goddess’s death is a catastrophic event that carries serious supernatural consequences; owing to Inanna’s special competence with love and sexuality, her death causes the cessation of the desire for intimacy in all earthly creatures. Enki responds by creating special beings to rescue the goddess, who is returned to life. The temporary nature of Inanna’s death and the death’s widespread damaging consequences present a deity experiencing a universally human event, yet in a uniquely supernatural manner. The death of the leader of the rebellion of the lesser gods against the greater ones in Atrahasis similarly results in an unusual outcome linked to creation—the genesis of humanity.

The importance of community bonds features in literature involving both divine and human deaths. As with mortals, Inanna’s experience of death is heavily influenced by the strength of her social ties; it is her close bond with Enki that leads to her revival. For the humans in the netherworld, witnessed by Enkidu, the presence or absence of descendants, the treatment of family members by the deceased during life (particularly the deceased’s mother and father), expressions of religious piety while living, and also the manner of death hold great significance in terms of the improvement or deterioration of the position of the deceased.


The epics noted here (by no means a comprehensive survey) feature the activities of legendary Mesopotamian heroes such as Gilgamesh, Enmerkar, Lugalbanda, and Etana. The word “epic” is used in the sense of “a story with a hero as a protagonist.” Heroes inhabit a special role that sits in-between the human and divine spheres. The ability to span the extremes of human experience, and also to reach toward the other world, gives heroes unique importance for the consideration of humanity and religion in Mesopotamian literature. Heroes in literature are capable of some supernatural deeds and have the ability to access divine assistance, qualities that are most in line with the capacities of deities rather than humans. Yet even quasi-divine heroes, such as Gilgamesh, remain mortal, and their mortality leads them to contend with the limits of the human condition. The mortality of heroes combined with their extraordinary abilities means that their appearance in Mesopotamian literature often involves the exploration of themes of humanity, divinity, and mortality.

The legendary heroes of epic are not the only literary protagonists to exist in between the mortal and divine spheres. Mesopotamian rulers are at times presented in literature as capable of achievements of exaggerated scale on the battlefield and other areas of expertise, or as having adventures containing a supernatural element. Like heroes, Mesopotamian kings could present themselves as having special and unusually close bonds with the divine, and even belonging to the immediate family of the primary deities. The special role of Mesopotamian kings has been described as inhabiting the position of the “vertex” of humanity—the point where the horizontal mortal world was connected to the vertical heavens.44 Human kings, like heroes, also faced the reality and limitations of mortality.

Royal epics show a hybridity of genre which makes them difficult to categorize neatly. The blending of historical writing and fiction further blurs the already indistinct line between literary styles. Royal biographies of historical kings can include mythical elements, while the stories of legendary heroes such as Gilgamesh may have developed from famous historical figures, as suggested by Gilgamesh’s appearance on the Sumerian king list as the fifth ruler of Uruk, reigning around 2700 bce.45 Indeed, some royal epics contain motifs very close to those that appear in the epics of legendary heroes. The Akkadian epics of King Sargon (c. 2334–2279), such as Sargon in the Lands beyond the Cedar Forest and Sargon and the Lord of Purushkhanda (also known as the King of Battle epic), hold several features in common with well-known episodes from Gilgamesh.46 The composition known as the “Epic of Sargon” involves the king’s ability to avoid a trap set by Ur-Zababa of Kish by reading a cuneiform document, possibly alluding to the invention of cuneiform referenced in the Sumerian epic Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta.47

The blending of history and myth in legendary and royal epic gives the “genre” a mixed quality that is well suited to exploring themes of religion and humanity. The compositions, like their heroic protagonists, contain elements of human historical reality juxtaposed with supernatural features.48

Legendary heroes

In Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta, the king Enmerkar is able to benefit from divine wisdom owing to his special relationship with the goddess Inanna. Enmerkar’s “cleverness” is crucial for his success in the poem, but it also shows the cultural superiority of Sumer, which gives literary representation to the moral, physical, intellectual, and technical benefits of civilization.49 The bond between king, deities, and the success and superiority of the city is also central to the plot of the Sumerian epic Enmerkar and Ensukheshdanna. In this story, two rival kings fight for the divine favor of the goddess Inanna. Their contest culminates in a battle of wizardry fought by two human proxies, with the wise woman Sagburu (on the side of Enmerkar) defeating the sorcerer representing the rival king.50 The battle of wizardry shows the two opponents conjuring various animals, with the sorcerer’s animals no match for those of Sagburu; the actual fighting in this epic occurs through the animal proxies. The victory of Sumer’s white magic over the black magic of Aratta shows its moral superiority, and the focus on food supply shows the critical nature of divine favor.51 The wise woman expresses her surprise at the audacity of the sorcerer, who had been using his magic against a city whose fate was determined by the gods. In both epics, the king’s rule over his people and territory is clearly dependent upon the favor of the divine.52

The heroic king Lugalbanda is the recipient of divine healing in Lugalbanda and the Mountain Cave. The prayers of Lugalbanda are shown to be effective in gaining the support of the primary deities Utu, Inanna, and Nanna (the Sumerian moon god), and Lugalbanda’s religious piety is shown in his prayers and sacrifices of thanksgiving. In the Sumerian epic Lugalbanda and the Anzud Bird, the kindness of Lugalbanda is rewarded by the bestowal of supernatural speed (he rejects offers of wealth, power, and high status). Vanstiphout views Lugalbanda’s choice of reward as a product of his desire to return to his community.53 This view is supported in the text by the hero’s immediate use of his new ability to reunite with his comrades, an action which emphasizes the importance of social connections for the hero. Lugalbanda’s supernatural ability gives him improved access to the Mesopotamian deities, and he is advised by Inanna how to manage his enemy, Aratta. Black makes the significant observation of the varied nature of Lugalbanda’s encounters with the divine in the narrative; while his meeting with the Anzud bird is fraught with uncertainty, his audience with Inanna is reassuring.54 In these epics, religious piety and good conduct are conceptually linked to the king’s success, although in different ways; there is a moral element to divine favor.

The king Etana is also the beneficiary of divine favor, owing to his kindness to animals. At the beginning of the epic The Legend of Etana, the gods build a city for humans to live in. The goddess Inanna is looking for a “shepherd” to lead the people, and it is decided the Etana will be the ruler. Later in the narrative, Etana assists a starving eagle on the advice of Shamash (Semitic Utu),55 which then helps him in his attempt to retrieve a special plant from the deities in heaven. The plant would give Etana the heir he desires, but unfortunately it is unknown whether his journey to the heavens was successful—although the presence of Etanna’s son in the historiographic tradition has encouraged the assumption that his efforts were rewarded.56

The story of Adapa and the South Wind also involves a human stretching beyond the limits of mortality. Adapa is a mortal who is given perfect wisdom by Ea. Despite his many virtues and the goodwill of several deities, Adapa ultimately falls short of attaining immortality when he visits Anu in heaven. Although usually zealously pious, Adapa becomes angry when the wind capsizes his boat while he is fishing, and he reacts by cursing the wind and fracturing its “wing.” Anu summons Adapa to heaven, and Ea gives him instructions on how to conduct himself: he must display mourning behavior to earn the good graces of the gods at the door, Tammuz and Gizzida, and refuse the food and water of death, which would kill him. Ea’s advice helps Adapa to impress Anu, who then offers him the divine food and water of life which would make him a deity and release him from Ea’s service. Adapa, however, is faithful to Ea’s instructions not to eat in heaven, and so returns to earth a mortal. There is no scholarly consensus on the purpose and meanings of this narrative, although the myth is certainly concerned with exploring the distinction between humans and deities, particularly in terms of immortality and wisdom.57 Liverani has linked the story’s events to the relationship between formality and intimacy in religious observance.58 As Liverani suggests, Adapa’s receipt of oil and clothing show his acceptance of “outer” forms of hospitality, while declining the food and drink mean he does not attain “inner” hospitality, which would have made him divine.59 In this way, Ea protects Adapa’s mortal life while preventing him from gaining immortality as an indirect result of his impious action of cursing the wind. The contrast of “outer” and “internal” hospitality is juxtaposed with Adapa’s “outer” piety, shown in his diligent preparation of food offerings, and the “internal” impiety that causes him to profanely injure the wind and upset the natural cosmic order.


Gilgamesh is the most famous and enduring of all Mesopotamian literary works.60 The adventures of the legendary king of Uruk are the subject of a number of compositions—all of which are incomplete—spanning a wide variety of genres, timeframes, and forms. Gilgamesh is two-thirds divine and one-third human, although the human third makes him entirely mortal. The mixed quality of Gilgamesh’s nature gives liminality to his character and provides a lens through which to consider themes of divinity, humanity, and animality.61 Despite his quasi-divinity and royalty, Gilgamesh is a man who must come to terms with his own humanity, and also find meaning it. Gilgamesh’s quest for meaning has very likely influenced the lasting fascination with his story in a range of cultures and periods.

Throughout the twelve tablets of the Gilgamesh Epic, the hero has many adventures involving battles with supernatural enemies—Humbaba, the guardian of the cedar forest, Ishtar, the goddess of love, the Bull of Heaven, and the Stone Ones (sailors of Ur-shanabi who are involved in ferrying across the waters of death). In his early adventures, the young king seeks to make a name for himself through great deeds, and he is accompanied by his companion, Enkidu. The hero’s desire to achieve a type of immortality through lasting fame places him at odds with his religious and royal responsibilities, as is seen through the punitive response of the primary deities after Gilgamesh’s killing of Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven.

As a result of divine punitive measures, Enkidu dies. Enkidu is an intriguing character: he is created out of clay (like all of humanity in several myths) by a mother goddess (in Gilgamesh, Aruru), with his creation inspired by the desire to provide a companion for Gilgamesh. Interestingly, it is the complaints of Gilgamesh’s human subjects that provide the motivation for the gods to create Enkidu, demonstrating the reciprocity of the divine/human connection in epic literature. Human actors in Gilgamesh bring their problems to the gods to solve, deities such as An (the god of heaven) show concern for humanity’s well-being and survival, and humans make sacrifices for the deities (at times on a daily basis). Like humanity more broadly, Enkidu is born to give a divinely conceived service, yet this does not preclude him from taking individual and rebellious actions, and he is deeply loved by the hero for whom he was generated (after some early conflict between the pair). Enkidu’s death causes Gilgamesh to descend into a period of heavy mourning and makes the hero fear his own mortality.

Gilgamesh then searches for genuine immortality, rather than the lasting fame of great deeds. He seeks out the Flood survivor, Utanapishtim (analogous to Atrahasis), the only known mortal to be gifted with immortality by the gods. Gilgamesh finds that he cannot follow Utanapishtim’s path to immortality, but he is given the amurdinnu (“heartbeat”) plant, which, in place of immortality, gives a return to youth—although Gilgamesh loses this before he is able to experience the plant’s benefits. Finally, Gilgamesh returns home to Uruk and admires the city walls, with the implication being that a type of immortality can be gained through shared human endeavors.62

Early in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the hero expresses a concern at the heart of the human condition—the brevity of life and desire to leave a legacy. He says that all man ever did is “wind,” with the implication that human life passes quickly (compared to the timespans inhabited by immortals) and leaves no trace. Gilgamesh’s attempts to supersede his mortality and to find meaning in life results in the acknowledgment of the importance of love, community, and shared achievements. He is advised by the beer deity Siduri to enjoy life’s small pleasures, such as clean clothes and his children.63 For Gilgamesh, his close relationship with Enkidu and his role as king give meaning to his adventures.

The boundary between humanity and the divine worlds in Mesopotamian literature is frequently explored through narrative, yet it remains “fuzzy” and difficult to clearly define.64 Divine beings can show human qualities, as can be seen in their anthropomorphic forms and their participation in universally human experiences such as birth, family life, and death. Human characters are presented as conceived with a “divine spark” or through divine inspiration, and they are capable of maintaining mutually beneficial relationships with deities. Legendary heroes and historical kings in the epic “genre” perhaps best illuminate the interconnected nature of human and divine relationships in literature. Religion is central to the exploration of the human condition in Mesopotamian literature. Despite the unbalanced and hierarchical nature of the human/divine connection, humanity is presented as holding a significant role in supporting the divine sphere, and positive human/divine relationships are essential for the well-being of both groups.

Although in myth humans are created to be in service to the divine, the search for meaning in Mesopotamian literary compositions is often intertwined with recognition of the importance of very human experiences such as love, the appreciation of family and community, friendships, life’s small joys, and shared human practices and achievements. These values underpin the actions and dialogues of the human protagonists of literature, but they are also reflected in the literary representation of the divine.

Review of the Literature

The study of humanity and religion in Mesopotamian literature encompasses several distinct areas of specialization in the general field of Assyriology. The study of Mesopotamian religion began in the late 19th century. The obscurity of the cuneiform sources and difficulties involved in reading Sumerian and Akkadian were serious obstacles to initial efforts to interpret Mesopotamian literature, and difficulties involving the reading and interpretation of cuneiform languages and the fragmentary (yet extensive) nature of the evidence still exist in the present day.65

The modern analysis of Mesopotamian myth and religion has been heavily influenced by two dominant historiographical traditions linking myths with ritual. These traditions are the Myth and Ritual school of theory, most famously associated with Samuel Hooke, and Mircea Eliade’s Myth of Eternal Return.66 Although both theories have fallen out of favor, the stigmatism of connecting myth with ritual has lingered to the present day and continues to present some challenges to the development of the study of Mesopotamian myth and religion.

Despite translational difficulties and the influence of historiographical traditions, much productive work has been done in the modern studies of Mesopotamian religion and literature. Important commentaries on epic texts (such as Andrew George’s 2003 Gilgamesh volume and Wilfred G. Lambert’s Enuma Elish), and the development of electronic repositories of primary sources in the past twenty-five years have considerably opened up the field to new viewpoints and the influence of other fields (see Further Reading and Primary Sources for references). Tikva Frymer-Kensky’s In the Wake of the Goddesses (1992)67 has been most influential in bringing the discussion of women and gender into the field of Assyriology.

Exploring the interplay between Mesopotamian religion and literature with the religious and literary traditions of other ancient cultures has been a feature of Assyriology since the field’s very inception. George Smith’s modern translation of the Epic of Gilgamesh in the late 19th century is often cited as the beginning of the academic discipline devoted to the study of Mesopotamian history and culture.68 Smith’s observation of the similarities between the Flood narrative in Gilgamesh and the account of the biblical Flood in the book of Genesis generated a great deal of interest in Mesopotamian religion and cultural exchange in antiquity, which has continued (to varying degrees) to the present day. Comparisons involving Mesopotamian religion and literature with biblical and classical traditions have both assisted in the growth of Assyriology as an academic discipline and influenced the course of its development, issues that are the subject of detailed analysis in The Legacy of Mesopotamia (1998), edited by Stephanie Dalley.69 Despite the long history of considering Mesopotamian culture in light of other ancient traditions, this remains a rich field of study with much still to be established; the problems in attempting to find connections between the ancient Near Eastern and classical worlds have been discussed by Scott Noegel in A Companion to Greek Religion (2007).70 The interplay between Greek religion and the ancient Near East has been the subject of recent analysis by Jan Bremmer in The Oxford Handbook of Ancient Greek Religion (2015),71 demonstrating the continuing relevance of this area of research.

The continued violence and social upheaval in the modern Middle East creates a serious obstacle to the modern appreciation of the world’s most ancient literature. The ongoing threat to the region’s cultural heritage means it is crucially important to bring the ancient literature of Mesopotamia to a broader modern audience, and to continue to explore and research the rich cultural history of the “cradle of civilization.”

Primary Sources

Since the mid-1990s, the accessibility of translations and transliterations of Mesopotamian literature has greatly improved, with the potential to greatly expand interdisciplinary analyses in this area. Access to sources is further improved by the availability of continually updated online sources containing text editions, English-language translations, and some bibliography, notably the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative (CDLI),72 the Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature (ETCSL),73 and the Melammu Project.74

Stephanie Dalley’s Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others (1989)75 is a very readable entry point to the world of Akkadian myth. Two anthologies, one by Benjamin R. Foster (Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature, 2005)76 and the other from Thorkild Jacobsen (The Harps that Once Sounded . . . Sumerian Poetry in Translation, 1987),77 present a great variety of textual evidence in translation, with some commentary. Foster’s earlier work From Distant Days: Myths, Tales and Poetry of Ancient Mesopotamia78 is also a useful source.

To begin to explore the Epic of Gilgamesh, it is helpful to start with a strong translation of the text, such as Andrew George’s The Epic of Gilgamesh: A New Translation (2001), which includes Sumerian and Hittite sources for the epic as well as critical essays from leading scholars.79 Also by George, and uniting a new (currently definitive) translation with a critical analysis of the text, is The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic: Introduction, Critical Edition and Cuneiform Texts (2003), in two volumes.80 The first comprehensive translation of Enuma Elish, written by Wilfred Lambert, was published posthumously in 2013.81 As well as containing a detailed commentary, Lambert’s edition contains several other Babylonian creation myths, and also a thorough bibliography of each ancient source.

Further Reading

Essential introductory reading
  • Black, Jeremy, Graham Cunningham, Eleanor Robson, and Gábor Zólyomi. The Literature of Ancient Sumer. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • Bottéro, Jean. Mesopotamia: Writing, Reasoning, and the Gods. Translated by Zainab Bahrani and Marc Van De Mieroop. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
  • Bottéro, Jean. Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia. Translated by Teresa L. Fagan. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.
  • Ehrlich, Carl S. From an Antique Land: An Introduction to Ancient Near Eastern Literature. Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009.
  • Foley, John Miles, ed. A Companion to Ancient Epic. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005.
  • Hrůša, Ivan. Ancient Mesopotamian Religion: A Descriptive Introduction. Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 2015.
  • Jacobsen, Thorkild. The Treasures of Darkness. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1976.
  • Jacobsen, Thorkild. “Mesopotamian Religions: An Overview (First Edition).” In Encyclopedia of Religion. Edited by Lindsay Jones, 5946–5963. 2d ed. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2005.
  • Pettinato, Giovanni. “Mesopotamian Religions: Further Considerations.” In Encyclopedia of Religion, edited by Lindsay Jones, 5963–5967. 2d ed. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2005.
Useful works
  • Alster, Bendt. Wisdom of Ancient Sumer. Bethesda, MD: CDL Press, 2005.
  • Asher-Greve, Julia M., and Joan Goodnick Westenholz. Goddesses in Context: On Divine Powers, Roles, Relationships and Gender in Mesopotamian Textual and Visual Sources. Orbis Biblicus et Orientalis 259. Fribourg and Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013.
  • Black, Jeremy. Reading Sumerian Poetry. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998.
  • Black, Jeremy, and Anthony Green. Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia. Illustrated by Tessa Rickards. London: British Museum Press, 1992.
  • Crawford, Harriet, ed. The Sumerian World. Abingdon, U.K.: Routledge, 2013.
  • Hallo, William W. The World’s Oldest Literature: Studies in Sumerian Belles-Lettres. Boston: Brill, 2010.
  • Leick, Gwendolyn, ed. The Babylonian World. New York: Routledge, 2009.
  • Sasson, Jack, ed. Civilizations of the Ancient Near East. New York: Scribner, 1995.
  • Schneider, Tammi J. An Introduction to Ancient Mesopotamian Religion. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011.
  • Snell, Daniel C. Religions of the Ancient Near East. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.


  • 1. Gwendolyn Leick, Historical Dictionary of Mesopotamia (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2010), xiii.

  • 2. Graham Cunningham, “The Sumerian Language,” in The Sumerian World, ed. Harriet Crawford (New York: Routledge, 2013), 118.

  • 3. For the complications involved in unquestioningly linking “Sumerian mythology” to an independent Sumerian culture, see Benjamin R. Foster, “Sumerian Mythology,” in The Sumerian World, ed. Harriet Crawford (New York: Routledge, 2013), 451–452.

  • 4. Benjamin R. Foster, “Akkadian Literature,” in From an Antique Land: An Introduction to Ancient Near Eastern Literature, ed. Carl Ehrlich (Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009), 137–214.

  • 5. Gonzalo Rubio, “Sumerian Literature,” in From an Antique Land: An Introduction to Ancient Near Eastern Literature, ed. Carl S. Ehrlich (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009), 22–25.

  • 6. Jack Sasson, “Comparative Observations on the Near Eastern Epic Traditions,” in A Companion to Ancient Epic, ed. John Miles Foley (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005), 220.

  • 7. Lowell Edmunds, “Epic and Myth,” in A Companion to Ancient Epic, ed. John Miles Foley (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005), 31–32.

  • 8. The Epic of Gilgamesh, Standard Babylonian Version VI.46–47.

  • 9. Julia Kindt, “The Story of Theology and the Theology of the Story,” in The Theologies of Ancient Greek Religion, ed. Julia Kindt, Esther Eidinow and Robin Osborne (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016).

  • 10. For an overview of Mesopotamian religion, as well as the roles and characters of the individual deities of the Mesopotamian pantheon, see Astrid Nunn’s article in ORE, “Ancient Near Eastern Gods (and Religion).”

  • 11. See, for example, the significance of providing a definition for “religion,” in Armin W. Geertz, “Definition as Analytical Strategy in the Study of Religion,” Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historique 25.3 (1999): 445–475.

  • 12. For a recent discussion of the problem see Michael B. Hundley, “Here a God, There a God,” Altorientalische Forschungen 40.1 (2013): 68–72.

  • 13. Jean Bottéro, Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia, trans. Teresa L. Fagan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 2–3. Note that Bottero’s definition is considerably longer, more nuanced, and more complex than has been presented here.

  • 14. See, for example, The Chronological Study Bible, New International Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2014), 5; J. H. Walton, “Creation,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, ed. T. Desmond Alexander and David W. Baker (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2003), 165; and Jack Newton Lawson, The Concept of Fate in Ancient Mesopotamia of the First Millennium: Toward an Understanding of Šīmtu (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1994).

  • 15. Benjamin R. Foster, “Animals in Mesopotamian Literature,” in A History of the Animal World in the Ancient Near East, ed. Billie Jean Collins (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2002), 272.

  • 16. Benjamin S. Arbuckle, “Animals in the Ancient World,” in A Companion to the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East, ed. D. T. Potts (Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2012), 201.

  • 17. Nadine Nys, “Scorpion People: Deadly or Protective?,” Studia Mesopotamica 1 (2014): 18.

  • 18. Wilfred G. Lambert, Babylonian Creation Myths (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2013), 472, n. I.142.

  • 19. Louise M. Pryke, Gilgamesh (London: Routledge, 2017).

  • 20. Foster, “Sumerian Mythology,” 452. Foster notes the main feature of Sumerian myth as the story form; this observation can further be applied to Mesopotamian myth more generally.

  • 21. Thorkild Jacobsen, “Mesopotamian Religions: An Overview (First Edition),” in Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. Lindsay Jones (2d ed.; Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2005), 5949–5950.

  • 22. Benjamin R. Foster, “Mesopotamia,” in A Handbook of Ancient Religions, ed. John R. Hinnells (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 187.

  • 23. Benjamin R. Foster, From Distant Days: Myths, Tales, and Poetry of Ancient Mesopotamia (Bethesda, MD: CDL Press, 1995), 58.

  • 24. This link between beating hearts and drums is poetically described by William L. Moran in his analysis of this passage in “The Creation of Man in Atrahasis I 192–248,” in The Most Magic Word: Essays on Babylonian and Biblical Literature, ed. William L. Moran (Washington. DC: Catholic Biblical Association of America, 2002), 84–86.

  • 25. Y. S. Chen, The Primeval Flood Catastrophe: Origins and Early Developments in Sumerian and Babylonian Traditions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 248.

  • 26. Rubio, “Sumerian Literature.”

  • 27. Foster, “Mesopotamia,” 185.

  • 28. Benjamin R. Foster, Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature (3d ed.; Bethesda, MD: CDL Press, 2005), 437.

  • 29. Anne Kilmer notes the narrative parallels between the beginning of Enki and Ninmah and Atrahasis, which both involve overworked and rebellious deities surrounding the house of a primary god, prior to the creation of humans by Enki. Anne D. Kilmer, “The Mesopotamian Concept of Overpopulation and Its Solution as Reflected in the Mythology,” Orientalia 41.2 (1972): 161, fn. 6.

  • 30. Tzvi Abusch, “Sacrifice in Sacrifice in Mesopotamia,” in Sacrifice in Religious Experience, ed. Albert I. Baumgarten (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2002), 44.

  • 31. Gwendolyn Leick, “Sexuality and Religion in Mesopotamia,” Religion Compass 2.2 (2008): 119–133.

  • 32. Jean Bottéro, Au commencement étaient les dieux (Paris: Tallander, 2004), 95.

  • 33. Louise M. Pryke, Ishtar (London: Routledge, 2017).

  • 34. Sexual violence in Enki and Ninhursaga has been considered in detail by Alhena Gadotti, “Why It Was Rape: The Conceptualization of Rape in Sumerian Literature,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 129.1 (2009): 73–82. Gadotti sees Enki’s first three sexual encounters as rape, but the experience with Uttu as a “failed sexual encounter,” 76.

  • 35. The complicated nature of Uttu’s parental involvement with the plants that result from her encounter with Enki is considered by Dickson, and considered to be not “really” pregnancy. Keith Dickson, “Enki and Ninhursag: The Trickster in Paradise,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 66.1 (2007): 20–21.

  • 36. Dina Katz, “Enki and Ninhursaga, Part 2: The Story of Enki and Ninhursaga,” Bibliotheca Orientalis 65 (2008): 331–332.

  • 37. JoAnn Scurlock, “But Was She Raped? A Verdict through Comparison,” NIN 4 (2003): 103.

  • 38. Gadotti, “Why it was Rape.”

  • 39. Sasson, “Comparative Observations, 220.

  • 40. Caitlin Barrett, “Was Dust Their Food and Clay Their Bread? Grave Goods, the Mesopotamian Afterlife, and the Liminal Role of Inana/Ishtar,” Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religions 7 (2007): 54.

  • 41. Dina Katz, The Image of the Netherworld in the Sumerian Sources (Bethesda, MD: CDL Press, 2003), 235.

  • 42. Gilgamesh, Enkidu and the nether world,ETCSL

  • 43. JoAnn Scurlock, “Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Mesopotamian Thought,” in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, ed. Jack M. Sasson (New York: Simon & Schuster Macmillan, 1995), vol. 1, 1892.

  • 44. Cristiano Grottanelli and Pietro Mander, “Kingship: Kingship in the Ancient Mediterranean World,” in Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. Lindsay Jones (2d ed.; Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005), 5163.

  • 45. Jeffrey H. Tigay, The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982), 13–16.

  • 46. Scott Noegel, “Mesopotamian Epic,” in A Companion to Ancient Epic, ed. John Miles Foley (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005), 242.

  • 47. Noegel, “Mesopotamian Epic,” 238.

  • 48. Sasson has noted that ancient Near Eastern myths and epics share this tendency to blend historical (or ahistorical) features with fantastical or supernatural elements. See Sasson, “Comparative Observations,” 220.

  • 49. Herman L. J. Vanstiphout, “Enmerkar’s Invention of Writing Revisited,” in DUMU-E2-DUB-BA-A: Studies in Honor of Åke W. Sjöberg, ed. Hermann Behrens, Darlene M. Loding and Martha T. Roth (Philadelphia: Samuel Noah Kramer Fund, University Museum, 1989), 522–524.

  • 50. Sagburu is noted by Gadotti as one of very few women mentioned by name in the Old Babylonian Sumerian literary corpus. Alhena Gadotti, “Portraits of the Feminine in Sumerian Literature,” Journal of American Oriental Society 131.2 (2011): 196.

  • 51. Herman L. J. Vanstiphout, Epics of the Sumerian Kings: The Matter of Aratta, ed. Jerrold S. Cooper (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003), 26.

  • 52. Sagburu’s appearance is likely the result of her having been summoned by Utu, in response to pleas from the shepherds. See Gadotti, “Portraits of the Feminine,” 201.

  • 53. Vanstiphout, Epics of the Sumerian Kings, 133.

  • 54. Jeremy Black, Reading Sumerian Poetry (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998), 110.

  • 55. Abraham Winitzer has noted the eagle’s transgression as part of a thematic concern in the narrative with boundaries and divine limits. See Abraham Winitzer, “Etana in Eden: New Light on the Mesopotamian and Biblical Tales in Their Semitic Context,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 133.3 (2013): 445.

  • 56. Winitzer, “Etana in Eden,” 445.

  • 57. Shlomo Izre’el, Adapa and the South Wind: Language has the Power of Life and Death (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2001), 123.

  • 58. Mario Liverani, Myth and Politics in Ancient Near Eastern Historiography, ed. Zainab Bahrani and Marc Van De Mieroop (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004), 3–23.

  • 59. Liverani, Myth and Politics, 6–21.

  • 60. Noegel, “Mesopotamian Epic,” 237; and Sasson, “Comparative Observations,” 231.

  • 61. Keith Dickson, “Looking at the Other in ‘Gilgamesh’,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 127.2 (2007): 176; and Sara Mandell, “Liminality, Altered States, and the Gilgamesh Epic,” in Gilgamesh: A Reader, ed. John Maier (Wauconda, IL: Bolchazy-Carducci, 1997), 122–130.

  • 62. Andrew R. George, The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic: Introduction, Critical Edition and Cuneiform Texts (2 vols.; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 527.

  • 63. The Gilgamesh Epic, OB VA + BM iii.6–7, 12–14. Andrew George, trans., The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic: Introduction, Critical Edition and Cuneiform Texts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

  • 64. I borrow the descriptive term “fuzzy” to elucidate the boundary between the divine and mortal realms from Gary M. Beckman, while noting that his use of the term is much more precise and refers to the transitional space inhabited by the king. See Gary M. Beckman, “Review: Religion and Power: Divine Kingship in the Ancient World and Beyond, ed. Nicole Brisch,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 128.2 (2008): 390.

  • 65. Thorkild Jacobsen and Giovanni Pettinato, “Mesopotamian Religions: History of Study,” in Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. Lindsay Jones (2d ed.; Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2005), 5967.

  • 66. Noel K. Weeks, “Myth and Ritual: An Empirical Approach,” Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religions 15.1 (2015): 92–111.

  • 67. Tikva S. Frymer-Kensky, In the Wake of the Goddesses: Women, Culture, and the Biblical Transformation of Pagan Myth (New York: Maxwell Macmillan International, 1992).

  • 68. John Maier, ed., Gilgamesh: A Reader (Wauconda, IL: Bolchazy-Carducci, 1997), 1–2.

  • 69. Stephanie Dalley, ed., The Legacy of Mesopotamia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).

  • 70. Scott B. Noegel, “Greek Religion and the Ancient Near East,” in A Companion to Greek Religion, ed. Daniel Ogden (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007), 21–38.

  • 71. Jan N. Bremmer, “The Ancient Near East,” in The Oxford Handbook of Ancient Greek Religion, ed. Esther Eidinow and Julia Kindt (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 605–620.

  • 72. CDLI: Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative. A joint project of the University of California, Los Angelese, The University of Oxford and the Max Plancke-Institute for the History of Science, Berlin.

  • 73. J. A. Black, G. Cunningham, J. Ebeling, E. Flückiger-Hawker, E. Robson, J. Taylor, and G. Zólyomi, The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, Oxford, 1998–2006.

  • 74. The Melammu Project, The Heritage of Mesopotamia and the Ancient Near East, University of Helsinki.

  • 75. Stephanie Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).

  • 76. Foster, Before the Muses.

  • 77. Thorkild Jacobsen, The Harps that Once Sounded: Sumerian Poetry in Translation (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987).

  • 78. Foster, From Distant Days.

  • 79. Benjamin R. Foster, Douglas Frayne and Gary M. Beckman, The Epic of Gilgamesh: A New Translation, Analogues, Criticism (New York: Norton, 2001).

  • 80. Andrew George, The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic: Introduction, Critical Edition and Cuneiform Texts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

  • 81. Lambert, Babylonian Creation Myths.