The Goddess in Sumer

The Sumerians lived in the area which is now southern Iraq and Kuwait. This region includes the extremely fertile delta between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers... an ideal place for farming, where fresh water was plentiful. They were first known to be occuping this area around 4500 BCE.

The Sumerians were responsible for the invention of many fundamental technologies... most notably the system of writing known as cuneiform , around 3000 BCE. By that time, their civilization had developed into one of the earliest known nation-states, with over a dozen cities, and a total population of approximately 500 thousand. These cities were initially ruled by a Priest-class, and later by a series of kings, allied with them.

Sumerian civilization came to an end around 2000 BCE, and their language was eventually lost to the world. Although archeologists had collected a large number of cuneiform clay tablets, it was not until the 1950's that the Sumerian language actually began to become intelligible to us. The largest repository of translated Sumerian cuneiform tablets can now be found in the University of Oxford's electronic text corpus.

One rather interesting aspect of the Sumerian language was the existence of two seperate dialects; Emegir, which was spoken by the majority of the people, and Emesal, which was used exclusively by wealthy and powerful women, Priestesses, and by various goddesses when represented in mythological stories.

Prior to the Kurgan invasion, the primary deity of the Sumerians was the Mother Goddess Namma ... however, with the arrival of the Kurgans, a frightening and destructive war-god known as Anu became dominant. After that, we see all the usual results of Kurganization... the creation of standing armies, the reduction in the status of women, and the conversion of religion from an activity of spirituality into a mechanism of support for a violent and powerful ruling elite.

Namma was soon transformed into Ninhursag , the subservient spouse of Anu. We may consider the reduction in status of the original Mother Goddess, in becoming the spouse of a Kurgan male war-god, to be a form of compromise between the conquerors and the conquered people. However, once the concept of mutliple deities became accepted, people began to fabricate all sorts of "second generation" gods and goddesses, who would often posses much more violent and Kurgan-like qualities.

For example, from the union of the Sumerian god Anu and the goddess Ninhursag came the grandchild Inanna , frequently classified as a goddess of love, sex and war. If we examine the poetry of the Sumerian High Priestess Enheduanna (2285-2250 BCE) who wrote extensively about Inanna, we see her portrayed as a rather blood-thirsty and frightening entity, far removed from the benevolent Mother Goddess archetype. Other second generation goddesses, such as the Assyrian Ishtar and the Canaanite Astarte , also have similar disturbing qualities.

Originally, we know that the Sumerians came from somewhere to the north. In addition to their worship of a Mother Goddess, many other aspects of their culture bear a strong similarity to those of the Hattian people of Turkey. At sites such as Catal Hoyuk , we have often found that the dead were buried below the floors of the houses, particularly in the shrine rooms. This custom is also found in Sumer, and was practiced without interruption until the end of their civilization around 2000 BCE.

Sumerians were known to make a distinctive hand-clasp when praying, which we see illustrated in many carvings and statues. Indeed, many of the dead were even found buried with their hands clasped in that manner. This is exactly the same clasp that has been observed with followers of the Goddess in Turkey, and later with the Roman Priestesses of Cybele.

Artist's drawing of a ritual at the Great Ziggurat of Ur, circa 2000 BCE
(note the clasp being made by the people on the left)

Yet another interesting similarity concerns the existence of transgender Priestesses within the Sumerian clergy. We find several types mentioned in very early primary sources. The Gala Priestesses apparently petitioned the gods through singing, dancing, and various incantations. The Kurgarra and the Assinnu Priestesses were associated with the goddess Inanna. Their role is not completely clear, although they sometimes acted as surrogates for the goddess during sexually-oriented religious practices.

Although born male, these types of Priestesses lived as women, adopted female names, and spoke the sacred feminine dialect of Emesal. Their existence is traceable to pre-Kurgan times, circa 5000 BCE or earlier. While modern historians struggle to explain their significance, it seems clear that they could not have attained the privileged and honored position they did, without having some genuine spiritual and metaphysical gifts.

If we consider that the Sumerians were non-Semitic , and are believed to have originally come from the north... as well as the many similarities between their culture and the Hattian culture of Turkey... we might speculate that they shared a common ancestory with them, and migrated southward from there. Their civilization prospered, due to the fertile lands which they inhabited, but their wealth also made them an obvious target for the Kurgan invaders.

Eventually, around 2000 BCE, the agricultural output of Sumerian farms began to decline substantially. Centuries of irrigation had gradually deposited enough dissolved salt into the soil to permanently destroy it's fertility. In addition, an invasion by the Elamites , from the area immediately to the east of Sumer (now a part of modern-day Iran) made furthur habitation of the lower delta of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers impossible. As a result, between about 2000-1700 BCE, the Sumerians migrated northwards, merging with the Akkadian people of central Iraq. There they would help to build another of the ancient world's great nations... the legendary city-state of Babylon.