The Lapis Gates of Sumer

Intro to Sumer

The Gods

The Texts

Sumerian Calendar

Ancient Rites




The Sumerians were a non-Semitic, non-Indo-European people who flourished in southern Babylonia from the beginning of the fourth to the end of the third millennium B. C. During this long stretch of time the Sumerians, whose racial and linguistic affiliations are still unclassifiable, represented the dominant cultural group of the entire Near East. This cultural dominance manifested itself in three directions:

1. It was the Sumerians who developed and probably invented the cuneiform system of writing which was adopted by nearly all the peoples of the Near East and without which the cultural progress of western Asia would have been largely impossible.

2. The Sumerians developed religious and spiritual concepts together with a remarkably well integrated pantheon which influenced profoundly all the peoples of the Near East, including the Hebrews and the Greeks. Moreover, by way of Judaism, Christianity, and Mohammedanism, not a few of these spiritual and religious concepts have permeated the modern civilized world.

3. The Sumerians produced a vast and highly developed literature, largely poetic in character, consisting of epics and myths, hymns and lamentations, proverbs and "words of wisdom." These compositions are inscribed in cuneiform script on clay tablets which date largely from approximately 1750 B. C. In the course of the past hundred years, approximately five thousand such literary pieces have been excavated in the mounds of ancient Sumer. Of this number, over two thousand, more than two-thirds of our source material, were excavated by the University of Pennsylvania in the mound covering ancient Nippur in the course of four grueling campaigns lasting from 1889 to 1900; these Nippur tablets and fragments represent, therefore, the major source for the reconstruction of the Sumerian compositions. As literary products, these Sumerian compositions rank high among the creations of civilized man. They compare not unfavorably with the ancient Greek and Hebrew masterpieces, and like them mirror the spiritual and intellectual life of an otherwise little known civilization. Their significance for a proper appraisal of the cultural and spiritual development of the Near East can hardly be overestimated. The Assyrians and Babylonians took them over almost in toto. The Hittites translated them into their own language and no doubt imitated them widely. The form and contents of the Hebrew literary creations and to a certain extent even those of the ancient Greeks were profoundly influenced by them. As practically the oldest written literature of any significant amount ever uncovered, it furnishes new, rich, and unexpected source material to the archaeologist and anthropologist, to the ethnologist and student of folklore, to the students of the history of religion and of the history of literature.

In spite of their unique and extraordinary significance, and although the large majority of the tablets on which they were inscribed were excavated almost half a century ago, the translation and interpretation of the Sumerian literary compositions have made relatively little progress to date. The translation of Sumerian is a highly complicated process. It is only in comparatively recent years that the grammar has been scientifically established, while the lexical problems are still numerous and far from resolved. By far the major obstacle to a trustworthy reconstruction and translation of the compositions, however, is the fact that the greater part of the tablets and fragments on which they are inscribed, and which are now largely located in the Museum of the Ancient Orient at Istanbul and in the University Museum at Philadelphia, have been lying about uncopied and unpublished, and thus unavailable for study. To remedy this situation, I travelled to Istanbul in 1937, and, with the aid of a Guggenheim fellowship, devoted some twenty months to the copying of 170 tablets and fragments in the Nippur collection of the Museum of the Ancient Orient. And largely with the help of a grant from the American Philosophical Society, the better part of the past three years has been devoted to the studying of the unpublished literary pieces in the Nippur collection of the University Museum; their copying has already begun.

It is the utilization of this vast quantity of unpublished Sumerian literary tablets and fragments in the University Museum, approximately 675 pieces according to my investigations, which will make possible the restoration and translation of the Sumerian literary compositions and lay the groundwork for a study of Sumerian culture, especially in its more spiritual aspects; a study which, considering the age of the culture involved, that of the third millennium B. C., will long remain unparalleled for breadth of scope and fullness of detail. As the writer visualizes it, the preparation and publication of this survey would be most effective in the form of a seven-volume series bearing the general title, Studies in Sumerian Culture. The first volume, the present Memoir, is therefore largely introductory in character; it contains a detailed description of our sources together with a brief outline of the more significant mythological concepts of the Sumerians as evident from their epics and myths.

The five subsequent volumes, as planned by the author, will consist primarily of source material, that is, they will contain the transliterated texts of the restored Sumerian compositions, together with a translation and commentary as well as the autograph copies of all the pertinent uncopied material in the University Museum utilized for the reconstruction of the texts. Each of these five volumes will be devoted to a particular class of Sumerian composition: (1) epics; (2) myths; (3) hymns; (4) lamentations; (5) "wisdom." It cannot be too strongly stressed that on the day this task is completed and Sumerian literature is restored and made available to scholar and layman, the humanities will be enriched by one of the most magnificent groups of documents ever brought to light. As the earliest creative writings, these documents hold a unique position in the history of civilization. Moreover, because of their profound and enduring influence on the spiritual and religious development of the entire Near East, they are veritable untapped mines and treasure-houses of significant source material and invaluable data ready for exploitation by all the relevant humanities.

The seventh volume, Sumerian Religion: A Comparative Study, intended as the last of the series, will sketch the religious and spiritual concepts of the Sumerians as revealed in their own literature. Moreover, it will endeavor to trace the influence of these Sumerian concepts on the spiritual and cultural development of the entire Near East. This work is left to the last for cogent if obvious reasons; it is only after the Sumerian literary compositions have been scientifically reconstructed and trustworthily translated that we shall be in a position to treat adequately and with reasonable certainty that all-important but very difficult and complicated subject. While, then, the first six volumes are to contain primarily the data and the sources, it is the seventh which will attempt to formulate the results and the conclusions for the historian and the layman. And the hope is not unjustified that, as a result of this method of preparation and publication, the final formulation will prove both significant and reliable.

I wish to express my sincerest and most heartfelt thanks to the Jayne Memorial Foundation and its board of trustees, which selected me as the annual lecturer for 1942 to speak on the subject of Sumerian mythology. I also acknowledge my gratitude to the board of managers of the University Museum; to Dr. George C. Vaillant, its director; to Mr. Horace H. F. Jayne, his predecessor; and to Professor Leon Legrain, the curator of its Babylonian section, for their scientific co-operation in making the Sumerian literary tablets available to me for study. Profound thanks are due to the Ministry of Education of the Turkish Republic and its Department of Antiquities, for permitting me to study and copy part of the Sumerian literary tablets in the Nippur collection of the Museum of the Ancient Orient at Istanbul. The Oriental Seminar of the University of Pennsylvania acted in a sense as a sounding board for the reading of the first draft of the contents of this study; the spontaneous interest and enthusiasm with which it was received by the participating students and colleagues were of considerable spiritual support in the intricate and at times almost despairing process of penetrating the meaning of the texts. In the matter of financial support I am deeply indebted to the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation for selecting me as one of its fellows for the years 1937-38 and 1938-39; it thus enabled me to travel to Istanbul and devote some twenty months to research activity in its Museum of the Ancient Orient. To the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago I am indebted for several minor financial contributions. But primarily it is the American Philosophical Society which has made the preparation of this study possible; it is the extraordinary vision and generosity of this society which is enabling me to reconstruct and translate in a scientific and trustworthy manner the extant Sumerian literary compositions; to piece together and recover for the world at large the oldest literature ever uncovered, and one of the most significant.


References and Notes to the original edition will be found on page 104. Supplementary Notes and Corrections will be found on page 120.

Title Page
Chapter I. The Scope and Significance of Sumerian Mythology
Chapter II. Myths of Origins
Chapter III. Myths of Kur
Chapter IV. Miscellaneous Myths
Chapter V. References and Notes
Supplementary Notes