Professing Faith: What Western civilization owes to Sumerian beliefs and inventions

Gregory Elder, a Redlands resident, is professor emeritus of history and humanities at Moreno Valley College and a Roman Catholic priest. (Courtesy Photo)
Gregory Elder, a Redlands resident, is professor emeritus of history and humanities at Moreno Valley College and a Roman Catholic priest. (Courtesy Photo)

On the bitter plains of modern Iraq there remain large piles of baked bricks covered with much sand. They have sat there in silent witness to a lost religion for 4,000 years. Only in the 19th century did European archeologists begin to examine them, particularly after finding a mysterious script written up on them, often on small baked tablets about the size of a deck of cards.

It would take decades for scholars to work out translations for the odd script and even now there is no definitive grammar book to work on the puzzle. The language and the people who wrote it were Sumerian, a curious people who emerged out of nowhere and were later overrun by others, but not before they invented writing, the wheel, arithmetic, the 60-minute hour, geometry, chariots, the plough, the pottery wheel, irrigation of crops and beer, and they worshipped a number of gods and goddesses who appeared in different forms over a long time.

To understand Sumerian religion a bit of historical background is in order. For many thousands of years, the human race lived as hunter gatherers, following herds of animals. But some time between 7000 and 9000 B.C. came an event known as the Neolithic Revolution, which was the discovery of agriculture, and with it animal husbandry. Humans were freed from lives of endless wandering on the edge of starvation, and came into a world of small, semi-urban villages.

Around 4500 B.C. a migration of people came into the southern part of what is now Iraq. There they found particularly fertile lands and were able to produce an abundance of crops. This sudden wealth made possible the creation of larger cities, where populations reached as high as 500 residents, and large parts of the population freed from agricultural labor were able to trade, meats, fruits, vegetables and, above all, wheat. This set of developments is considered the dawn of Western civilization. Some time around 3000 B.C. pictographic agricultural records recorded on clay slabs developed into actual writing, known as cuneiform.

These people are known to us as the ancient Sumerians, because the later Empire of Akkad called them the “sumeru.” The actual Sumerians called themselves “the Black Headed ones” and their territory was called Kengir, or the “Country of Noble Lords.” The actual origin of the Sumerian peoples is unknown, although there is some genetic evidence that they may have ties to the Indus Valley civilization of India. Even their language appears to be different and unrelated to any other contemporary culture.

Like many ancient peoples, the first Sumerians worshiped the untamed forces of nature, such as the wind, fertility, the sun and the earth. But over time these forces developed into anthropomorphic gods, who had stories told about them and their adventures. The earliest god was Nammu, who was the primal water of the earth, who gave birth to Ki, or the earth, and An, or the sky. The sky and the earth gods mated and produced Enki. It was Enki who separated the earth from the sky and created the first human beings. The gods lived in the sky, but the heavens were forever closed to men and women. When people died, their souls went underground to the dark Irkalla, a terrible place where people could only eat dirt and perform servile labor. Ruling this terrible place was Ereshkigal, whose demons captured the souls of the dying and hauled them below. One of my students once asked me how people could believe in a religion where everyone went to hell. I could only reply that this tells us something about the misery of life on earth, being projected into the afterlife.

The Sumerians did pray to their gods of course, but worship was aimed at avoiding earthly problems like storms, or gaining something like wealth or health. One’s prayers, beliefs, and actions had nothing to do with one’s fate in the afterlife. Rather, religious worship was a kind of system of bribery, where the person who offered sacrifice could earn the good favor of the god they prayed to and get their prayer answered in a favorable way.

The wise civic leaders made sure that their city had a fine temple to worship one particular god who was a patron of the city. For example, Enlil was the patron god of the city of Nippur, but was widely also worshipped as the chief of all the gods. The city of Eridu had Enki, who is mentioned above, as their patron, who was also the general god of freshwater, male fertility, and knowledge. One of the greatest of the Sumerian cities was Uruk, which had a population of 50,000. Its goddess was Inanna, the ruler of sexuality, love and prostitution. The temples raised up for these gods were shaped like square wedding cakes, with one block on top of another, growing smaller at every level. Known as ziggurats, these temples were places of sacrifice as well as libraries and schools for the training of young scribes.

The Hebrew Bible refers to this people and country as being in the land of Shinar. Genesis 10:10 informs us “that Nimrod, a mighty hunter before the Lord. The beginning of his kingdom was Babel, Erech, Accad, Calneh in the land of Shinar.” It was on the Plain of Shinar that we are told that men decided to raise a tower up to the heavens, a place where the Sumerians knew they were not allowed. We read that the Hebrew God scrambled their languages and made a babble of their tongues and so in confusion the construction broke off. The famous Tower of Babel may be a reference to the city of Babylon, which first emerged in Sumerian times. This would not be the last time in history when human pride ruined things.

The Sumerian period ended around 2400 B.C., when the city states were absorbed by the larger Akkadian Empire, whose people took their literature and gods seriously and learned from them. Today all that is left of these ancient people are ruins and the silence of the desert.