Axis mundi

Mountains in Sumerian Creation Myths

4 August 2021

Sumerian Tablets Historical Images
Ekur and a Clay Tablet

Archaeologists at the University of Pennsylvania excavated the ancient Sumerian city Nippur, in present-day Iraq, between 1889 and 1900. Near Nippur’s most important temple, Ekur (lit. “mountain house”), they unearthed a cache of clay tablets.1 Archaeologists estimate that these cuneiform tablets date as far back as the 3rd millennium BCE. They are humanity’s earliest extant written records.

One of the tablets contains a creation myth, the so-called Debate between Sheep and Grain. It begins with a mountain: “On the mountain of heaven and earth, Anu spawned the Annunaki gods.”2 In fact, “mountain” (ḫur-saĝ) is the very first word on the tablet and could be the oldest written word.

Early in the story, heaven and earth are fused together in a site described as the mountain (ḫur-saĝ) of the supreme sky god Anu. On the slopes of the primordial mountain, primitive man existed, naked and feeding on grasses like cattle. Little else existed, so Anu created the other, lesser gods and goddesses — the Annunaki —, who in turn created sheep and grain for food. Unsatisfied, the gods “sent down” sheep and grain “from the Holy Mound” to “mankind as sustenance.”3

There is more to the story than this. But the opening lines of the clay tablet are important because they are the earliest extant textual references linking mountains with gods and fertility. And there are more from the same period.

In another Sumerian creation story, Enki and Ninhursag, a certain Mount Dilmun (kur dilmun) is described as a paradise.4 Indeed, the fertility goddess Ninhursag’s name literally means “lady of the sacred mountain.” It should be noted here that the god Enki, with whom Ninhursag bears children, is the god of water.5

In yet another Sumerian story, Debate Between Winter and Summer, the god Enlil copulates with a mountain (hur-saj) and impregnates it “with Summer and Winter, the plenitude and life of the Land.”6

Mountains also figure prominently in The Epic of Gilgamesh, especially when the eponymous hero seeks Utnapishtim — the Noah-like figure who has learned the secret of eternal life. To get to Utnapishtim, Gilgamesh passes through the terrible Mount Mashu, where he encounters a series of tests, before coming upon a lush, bejeweled garden paradise.7 The mountains are, thus, also safe harbor.

Whether the Sumerian creation myths directly influenced Abrahamic traditions or share a common source with them is moot. But in the world’s oldest textual sources, ones that predate all other extant writing, mountains are the abodes of the gods and associated with abundance, life, sustenance, fertility, and paradise.

  1. Translation at the ETCSL: ↩︎

  2. Ibid., including my edits for clarity. ↩︎

  3. Ibid. You may be asking, “How can the gods ‘send down’ food to man if they live on the same mountain?” Perhaps humans grazed on the lower slopes while the gods inhabited the summit. In any case, the logic of this story, as with other creation myths and fables, shouldn’t be examined too closely. ↩︎

  4. Transliteration at ETCSL: ↩︎

  5. In myths, we often see water associated with mountains, for the sources of rivers often begin in mountains and the clouds (rain) seem to gather at their peaks. ↩︎

  6. Translation at ETCSL: ↩︎

  7. The Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet IX. When Gilgamesh meets Utnapishtim, the immortal tells him how he achieved everlasting life in a story that closely resembles the biblical flood myth with animals and a boat coming to rest on top of a mountain. The Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet XI. ↩︎