Tag Archives: sumer

Ancient Sumer and the Stars

I’m researching Sumer for my next writing project, and I just came across a fascinating and highly problematic book, The Shiny Herd: Ancient Secrets Hidden in the Sky by Charles M. Houck. Here’s my Goodreads review:

I gave this book a low rating because it shamelessly mixes religion, history, and science, which makes it impossible to tell fact from belief. But I’m going to recommend it for three audiences: 1) people who are into the concept that “Each individual point of consciousness — the self — destines itself to repeat its pilgrimage through this plane of matter until that lesson is learned” and are less concerned about provable facts; 2) people who are interested in ancient astrology and don’t mind doing their own fact-checking; 3) Sci fi authors looking for a story idea. For all that, it’s pretty interesting.

For all its problems, though, this book is totally worth a mention, because it opened my eyes to something that would be completely obvious to anybody who lived in a world without light pollution. Here’s the first part of the cover text:

Long before the Roman Empire, the Egyptians, and even the ancient Akkadians, there existed a society in southern Mesopatamia known as “The Watchers.” Perhaps the greatest legacy left to the world by the Watchers was a teaching tool that drew its lessons from the stars. The Sumerians called this gift from the ancients ‘The Shiny Herd’; in modern times, we refer to it as the Zodiac.

The way the author talks, these Watchers are apparently beings from some higher plane that brought us refinements of civilization and higher truths, etc. etc. If these Watchers existed, though (it’s hard to tell from this book), they could just have been people whose job it was to watch the stars and tell everybody what they meant. Whatever further spiritual meaning there might have been or not been, I would not be qualified to say.

Either way, here’s my realization: the ancient Mesopotamians could go to the movies every night, for free. Without light pollution, stars are much grander and more imposing. And they move, even though it’s slow. Comets and astrological events must have had quite an impact. Furthermore, because it is human nature to assign meaning to what we see, it’s likely they incorporated what they saw into their world view, which means their understanding of the gods.

So I’m off to find out more about astronomy and the zodiac.

Meanwhile, I do hope somebody will write a scifi book about space aliens who bring civilization to Mesopotamia. I would be all over it.


From the online collection African Cosmos: Steller Arts at the African Art Museum

Inanna and Nanshe

I learned about the Greek and Roman gods and goddesses as a child. But the Sumerian ones? Only recently. Here are a few tantalizing details about Inanna (goddess of writing, civilization, war, love, sex changes, and much more) and Nanshe (goddess of social justice).


She’s a major god in the Sumerian pantheon, a direct descendant of Nannu, the primeval mother of heaven and earth. She was worshipped for thousands of years and bears a strong resemblance to other lands’ goddesses, such as Ishtar, Aprhodite, and Venus. Sumerians sang many hymns and told many stories about her.

Enheduanna, the first person ever to sign her name to a work of writing, prayed to Inanna as her personal god.

Inanna is the one who first brought civilization to the people. Sumerians tell of the divine me’s — no translation is possible because they’re laws, events, and qualities; for instance: irrigation, the flood, suffering, joy. Once upon a time, Enki had all the me’s, and Inanna, his daughter, journeyed to visit him. They drank a lot, and then he gave her all the me’s. He later regretted it and sent minions after her to retrieve them, but too late!

In another story, Inanna journeys to the underworld, just because she can. Her sister, who rules the underworld, has her stripped naked and killed, but she gets out again with the help of her faithful assistant. But the underworld demanded somebody in her place, and that somebody turned out to be her faithless husband Dumuzi.

Nanshe is the goddess who looks out for widows, orphans, beggars, the debt-slave — the socially disenfranchised. She’s in charge of making sure that weights and measures are fair and accurate. And boy, does she run her temple like a tight ship. For instance, her temple hymns say:

“If the grain does not suffice for these rites and the vessels are empty and do not pour water, the person in charge of the regular offerings does not receive extra.”

I should think not!

The hymns also specify that priests can be fired or denied rations if they step out of line. People who ate and say they didn’t are also in trouble, as are mothers who deny food to their children.

She’s a powerful goddess, Nanshe, who “cares for all the countries,” who delivers the powerful to the powerless, who “sees into the heart of the Land as if it were a split reed.”

If You Had to Choose
Sumerians worshipped the entire pantheon, but they had one god in particular as their personal god. If you had to choose between these two, which would you serve? This question has special significance to me right now, because with everything going on in Libya, in Wisconsin, etc., it seems like right now is the time for some good social justice action — but what my soul craves is a long bath in the sea of story. I haven’t been writing stories in a year or more, and the lack is painful. Can I do both?

More Goddessy Goodness

For the authentic best-guess translations of Sumerian texts, check out the Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature. That’s where I snagged the quotes about Nanshe (A hymn to Nanshe: translation).

Nanshe, along with Inanna, also appears in Enheduanna’s temple hymns. There’s a lovely PDF of some of the hymns here.

I first met Enheduanna in the book Humming the Blues: Inspired by Nin-Me-Sar-Ra, Enheduanna’s Song to Inanna by Cass Dalglish.

The best place for a retelling of Inanna’s stories is the book Inanna by Kim Echlin and Linda Wofsgruber. It made me want to cry for poor Dumuzi, and for Inanna, who apparently regretted banishing him to the underworld. The somewhat stilted language of the “authentic” translation is made more accessible in this retelling, and the poetic spareness lets the beauty of the story shine through.

Previous Post: Enheduanna and Gilgamesh

Nifty links about Sumerian literature

Wikipedia: Gilgamesh, Sumerian King List

Enheduanna’s writing: http://www.gatewaystobabylon.com/myths/texts/enheduanna/enhedwriting.htm

Essay on Enheduanna: http://www.cddc.vt.edu/feminism/enheduanna.html

Betty De Shong Meador. Inanna, Lady of Largest Heart: Poems of the Sumerian High Priestess Enheduanna. 2001.

Samuel N. Kramer, Diane Wolkstein. Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth. 1983.

Research page:

PDF of hymns:

Click to access page_15.pdf

Excerpts at: