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02 Sumerian Mythology: History


This article is from the Sumerian Mythology FAQ, by Christopher Siren cbsiren@cisunix.unh.edu with numerous contributions by others.

02 Sumerian Mythology: History

Sumer was a collection of city states around the Lower Tigris and
Euphrates rivers in what is now southern Iraq. Each of these cities had
individual rulers, although as early as the mid-fourth millennium BCE the
leader of the dominant city could have been considered the king of the
region. The history of Sumer tends to be divided into five periods. They
are the Uruk period, which saw the dominance of the city of that same
name, the Jemdat Nasr period, the Early Dynastic periods, the Agade
period, and the Ur III period - the entire span lasting from 3800 BCE to
around 2000 BCE. In addition, there is evidence of the Sumerians in the
area both prior to the Uruk period and after the Ur III Dynastic period,
but relatively little is known about the former age and the latter time
period is most heavily dominated by the Babylonians.

The Uruk period, stretched from 3800 BCE to 3200 BCE. It is to this
era that the Sumerian King Lists ascribe the reigns of Dumuzi the
shepherd, and the other antediluvian kings. After his reign Dumuzi was
worshipped as the god of the spring grains. This time saw an enormous
growth in urbanization such that Uruk probably had a population around
45,000 at the period's end. It was easily the largest city in the area,
although the older cities of Eridu to the south and Kish to the north may
have rivaled it. Irrigation improvements as well as a supply of raw
materials for craftsmen provided an impetus for this growth. In fact, the
city of An and Inanna also seems to have been at the heart of a trade network
which stretched from what is now southern Turkey to what is now eastern
Iran. In addition people were drawn to the city by the great temples

The Eanna of Uruk, a collection of temples dedicated to Inanna, was
constructed at this time and bore many mosaics and frescoes. These
buildings served civic as well as religious purposes, which was fitting as
the en, or high priest, served as both the spiritual and temporal
leader. The temples were places where craftsmen would practice their
trades and where surplus food would be stored and distributed.

The Jemdat Nasr period lasted from 3200 BCE to 2900 BCE. It was not
particularly remarkable and most adequately described as an extension and
slowing down of the Uruk period. This is the period during which the
great flood is supposed to have taken place. The Sumerians' account of
the flood may have been based on a flooding of the Tigris, Euphrates, or
both rivers onto their already marshy country.

The Early Dynastic period ran from 2900 BCE to 2370 BCE and it is this
period for which we begin to have more reliable written accounts although
some of the great kings of this era later evolved mythic tales about them
and were deified. Kingship moved about 100 miles upriver and about 50
miles south of modern Bahgdad to the city of Kish. One of the earlier
kings in Kish was Etana who "stabilized all the lands" securing the First
Dynasty of Kish and establishing rule over Sumer and some of its
neighbors. Etana was later believed by the Babylonians to have rode to
heaven on the back of a giant Eagle so that he could receive the "plant of
birth" from Ishtar (their version of Inanna) and thereby produce an heir.

Meanwhile, in the south, the Dynasty of Erech was founded by
Meskiaggasher, who, along with his successors, was termed the "son of
Utu", the sun-god. Following three other kings, including another Dumuzi,
the famous Gilgamesh took the throne of Erech around 2600 BCE and became in
volved in a power struggle for the region with the Kish Dynasts and with
Mesannepadda, the founder of the Dynasty of Ur. While Gilgamesh became a
demi-god, remembered in epic tales, it was Mesannepadda who was eventually
victorious in this three-way power struggle, taking the by then
traditional title of "King of Kish".

Although the dynasties of Kish and Erech fell by the wayside, Ur
could not retain a strong hold over all of Sumer. The entire region was
weakened by the struggle and individual city-states continued more or less
independent rule. The rulers of Lagash declared themselves "Kings of
Kish" around 2450 BCE, but failed to seriously control the region, facing
several military challenges by the nearby Umma. Lugalzagesi, _ensi_ or
priest-king of Umma from around 2360-2335 BCE, razed Lagash, and conquered
Sumer, declaring himself "king of Erech and the Land". Unfortunately for
him, all of this strife made Sumer ripe for conquest by an outsider and
Sargon of Agade seized that opportunity.

Sargon united both Sumer and the northern region of Akkad - from
which Babylon would arise about four hundred years later - not very far
from Kish. Evidence is sketchy, but he may have extended his realm from
the Medeterranian Sea to the Indus River. This unity would survive its
founder by less than 40 years. He built the city of Agade and established
an enormous court there and he had a new temple erected in Nippur. Trade
from across his new empire and beyond swelled the city, making it the
center of world culture for a brief time.

After Sargon's death, however, the empire was fraught with rebellion.
Naram-Sin, Sargon's grandson and third successor, quelled the rebellions
through a series of military successes, extending his realm. He declared
himself 'King of the Four corners of the World' and had himself deified.
His divine powers must have failed him as the Guti, a mountain people,
razed Agade and deposed Naram-Sin, ending that dynasty.

After a few decades, the Guti presence became intolerable for the
Sumerian leaders. Utuhegal of Uruk/Erech rallied a coalition army and
ousted them. One of his lieutenants, Ur-Nammu, usurped his rule and
established the third Ur dynasty around 2112 BCE. He consolidated his
control by defeating a rival dynast in Lagash and soon gained control of
all of the Sumerian city-states. He established the earliest known
recorded law-codes and had constructed the great ziggurat of Ur, a kind of
step-pyramid which stood over 60' tall and more than 200' wide. For the
next century the Sumerians were extremely prosperous, but their society
collapsed around 2000 BCE under the invading Amorites. A couple of
city-states maintained their independence for a short while, but soon they
and the rest of the Sumerians were absorbed into the rising empire of the
Babylonians. (Crawford pp. 1-28; Kramer 1963 pp. 40-72)


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