God and King in Sumeria

by Mark Anthony Signorelli (December 2011)


No longer did they sacrifice the court retinue upon the death of a king. That such practices occurred among the Sumerians we know as a result of the discovery of the famous Royal Tombs at Ur; several burial chambers there revealed an arrangement of human remains seated about a central figure. Poison appears to have been the means of this ritual suicide. What this hideous ceremony meant to its partakers and to its observers we are less certain of; whether these victims, in the throes of some extreme delusion, embraced their deaths as an honor done to their lord, or whether they were compelled to this self-slaughter by a new and hypocritical monarch jealous of the influence of his predecessor’s adherents, or whether in fact these remains belonged to a caste of priest-kings who eagerly offered up their lives as a propitiation of the gods,[i] is a mystery that will lie forever buried in the sands of Mesopotamia. But whatever the meaning of these barbaric rites, it appears that they had grown quiescent for at least a century prior to the time of Urukagina. And it is with this king’s reign over the city of Lagash that I begin.

In those days, the temple bureaucracies had become onerous institutions, amassing their lavish surpluses out of the goods which they expropriated from the well-earned sustenance of the common citizenry.[ii] A description of the meals offered up to the gods, four times a day, within the temple confines will serve to convey some notion of the exorbitance of these religious establishments; each meal consisted of fifty sheep, two oxen, one calf, eight lambs, and fifty-four containers of beer and wine, along with huge amounts of bread.[iii] The temples owned vast tracts of land, profiting as landlords from the rents paid to them by farmers. Additionally, the temple functionaries often served in a judicial capacity,[iv] further extending their influence over the day to day life of the Sumerian.

It was with a mind towards remedying these abuses that Urukagina instituted a series of reforms, the first known program of political reform in history. We are told that he undertook this program as an act of piety towards the god Ningirsu – an encomium of the king states that he “carried out the instructions of his divine lugal (or chief) Ningirsu” – though this emphasis on the divine source of Urukagina’s legal authority may be a consequence of his dubious claim to the throne of Lagash.[v] He transferred ownership of large portions of land from the temple bureaucracy to the people;[vi] he lowered the prices which the priests could demand for the performance of the funeral rituals;[vii] and he barred temple personnel from forcefully seizing the wood or fruit of the citizens – as the poem has it, “the priest no longer invaded the garden of a humble person.”[viii] It should be noted, however, that Urukagina’s reforms were directed in an equal fashion at the corruption of the palace, which was as oppressive to the people of Lagash as the corruption of the temple.[ix] He banned various public offices – the head boatman, the head shepherd, the head fisherman - which had served to enrich their occupants as well as to fill the king’s coffers. He even dismissed the palace official who was in charge of collecting a tax from the temple priests, and restored “the fields of the ensi (or king) to the god Ningirsu.” In the end, it was Urukagina’s great pride that as a result of his reform agenda, “the widow and the orphan were no longer at the mercy of the powerful.”

Urukagina’s reign lasted for a far shorter period than his high-minded administration merited, for he was eventually driven out of power by the unscrupulous Lugalzagessi, a king who was in turn conquered a few years later by the master of Akkad, Sargon the Great. Sargon’s extensive empire passed first to his son Rimush, and then to his grandson Naram-Sin. It was during the reign of this latter king that the land of Sumeria was overrun by the Gutians, a revoltingly savage people who descended from the Zagros mountains to the east, and asserted their power over most of the major cities of the area. Under their apparent suzerainty, the city of Lagash emerged as the central power in Sumeria, and one of the early cultivators of this renewed glory was the king Gudea, whose image, depicted in a number of surviving statues, may be the most recognizable to us among the Sumerians.

Gudea was a ruler of evident piety. He performed his own sacrifices in the temple, and cast his own omens, holding the office of a patesi, which was a sort of priestly caste.[x] The god who was the object of his especial devotion was Ningirsu, the god of battles, an unsurprising fact considering the still chaotic and violent state of Southern Mesopotamia at this time. We are informed, in a surviving poem, that Gudea built the temple of Eninnu for his favored deity, after having purified the city by enacting a series of legal and moral reforms; as the poem puts it, “the city prince gave his town instructions…the mother did not scold the child, the child said nothing to upset its mother; the master did not strike the head of the slave who had offended him…No one brought a law suit before Gudea, who was building the temple.”[xi] In the temple, the king erected various ritual weapons, as symbols of Ningirsu’s awesome power, and as a corresponding invocation of that power. The materials out of which Enninu was constructed were carried to Lagash from as far away as Syria and Arabia. This architectural propitiation of the god must have been of some effect, for Gudea ruled long and prosperously, before leaving the kingship to his piously named son, Ur-Ningirsu.

Eventually the line of Gudea was replaced by a collateral branch of the same royal family, which included the detestable Namhani, an ensi who had traitorously allied with the Gutians against his own Sumerian people. At last, Utuhegal, master of Uruk, succeeded in driving the Gutians out of Sumeria once and for all, and reestablishing native authority over the land.  But his reign lasted for only seven years, before he was eventually conquered by Ur-Nammu, who founded the famous Third Dynasty of Ur (though not before destroying the infamous Namhani).[xii]


Greenstone seal-(clay impression of the cylinder seal) of Hashhamer Governor of Ishkun-Sin,
Third Dynasty of Ur, about 2100 BC, from Babylon

Ur-Nammu is best known to us on account of the fact that his law code is the oldest such surviving document, predating the more famous code of the Babylonian Hammurabi by several centuries. Among the decrees of Ur-Nammu are certain ones which we would regard as barbarous: “if the wife of a man followed after another man and he slept with her, they shall slay that woman, but that male shall be set free;” others we would regard as ludicrous: “if a man is accused of sorcery, he must undergo ordeal by water;” and still others which most of us would consider as more or less just: “if a man commits a kidnapping, he is to be imprisoned and pay fifteen shekels of silver.” The tenor of the whole is notably more lenient than the rule of “an eye for and an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,” which defined later Mesopotamian law codes.[xiii] The prologue explicitly states that Ur-Nammu undertook the work of propounding his legal code as an act of reverence, to satisfy the will of the moon-god Nanna, by “establishing justice in the land,” a formulation repeated more than once by Sumerian kings. And we know from various sculptural remains that Ur-Nammu wished to be recognized for his piety, since he is depicted on a number of remnant stele in various customary poses of worship – praying, sacrificing, libating, and even bearing over his shoulders the tools used to construct the temples of the gods.[xiv] He built the great ziggurat at Ur, for the service of Nanna, and he worked tirelessly to improve the lot of his subjects, supervising the construction of new canals and the renovation of old ones,[xv] and regulating the standard of weights and measures.[xvi]

Throughout this period, the authority of the government and the authority of religion were intimately reliant upon one another for their mutual legitimacy. The temple and the palace were always the two highest structures in any Sumerian city,[xvii] a physical manifestation of the combined and interdependent domination of society by the institutions housed in each structure. Devoid of any regular constitutional means of establishing political legitimacy, these ancient societies resorted to divine sanction in order to justify the power of the king, and in order to win acquiescence in the exercise of that authority from the body of citizens.[xviii] Accordingly, the majority of the Sumerian king-lists emphasize the fact that kingly authority descends from heaven.[xix] The king was, in effect, the link between the gods and the people, petitioning divine favor on behalf of the worldly city, and ruling that same city in compliance with the will of the immortal gods.[xx] The temple, in turn, was exalted by the grandeur of the king, and his participation in their arcane rituals. The ziggurat served essentially as the monarch’s altar,[xxi] and the same laws that protected the dignity of the royal household were enforced to preserve the sanctity of the holy places.[xxii]

Yet if political authority was apotheositized by its association with the religious establishment, it was also rendered responsible by that same association. The basic belief is repeated over and over again in the surviving cuneiform texts: it is the king’s duty, as the minister of the gods, to ensure the just ordering of the city, to protect the widow and the orphan, to curb the abuses of the rich, to “establish justice in the land.”[xxiii] The Prologue to Ur-Nammu’s law code is quite typical in this respect. Nor is it difficult to discern the influence of such a belief in the recurrent attempts at reform, during the reigns of figures like Urukagina and Gudea. Even if the invocation of the divine will served merely as a propagandistic justification for the promotion of difficult political changes –as undoubtedly it did at times - the necessity of resorting to such propaganda, and its evident success, testifies to the way in which the religious ideals of the people created a standard of just rule. However exalted the king may have grown, he was never above this standard. Consequently, political reforms, carried out as acts of piety – real or affected – demonstrated the pervasive influence of religious principle. 

Temple rituals symbolically represented this symbiosis of prince and priest. During the Akidu, or New Year’s, festival, the director of the temple, the sheshgallu, conferred the royal insignia upon the king.[xxiv] In the course of doing so, he would hear the king’s confession, and strike the king’s face repeatedly until tears were drawn, acts of ritual humiliation which were intended to please the gods.[xxv] These would be followed by the sacred marriage ceremony, during which the monarch bedded one of the temple prostitutes chosen especially for this rite, a quite dramatic representation of the intimate union between the rulers of the heavens and the ruler of the earth, and a ceremonial duty which must have appealed to the king for other than merely state reasons. What the Akidu rites illustrate is the fact that the secular authority was regarded as in some sense derived from, and answerable to, the religious establishment.

It is only when we comprehend this fact that we can make sense of the policies of Ur-Nammu’s son, Shulgi, which were directed from the beginning of his reign towards the consolidation of the royal power. Toward this end, he nationalized the temples in his domains, placing each one under the supervision of palace officials, and subordinating their stature to the preeminence of the government. He went so far as to deify himself, adopting the title of “the god of his land,” and instituting the worship of his statue.[xxvi] Such a move was not unprecedented among Sumerian kings, though it appears to have been regarded as a theologically suspect practice. Naram-Sin, the grandson of Sargon, had similarly assumed divine status, declaring himself to be the “the god of his city” – a title clearly imitated by Shulgi’s own – and ordering his depiction in the statuary wearing a horned helmet, the customary adornment of the gods. Yet a remnant poem, the Lament for Agade, unmistakably judges these acts of Naram-Sin’s to be blasphemous innovations, an impious affront to the singular authority of the heavenly powers which brought on a terrible retribution, in the form of the Gutian invasion. That Shulgi would undertake the same dubious and audacious policy attests to the prosperity and security of his reign.

For Shulgi was undoubtedly one of the most successful Sumerian monarchs. He reigned for a remarkable span of forty-eight years, bringing wealth and stability to the lands which fell under his jurisdiction. He patronized learning and the arts, showing special solicitude for the quality of the edubbas, the schools of literacy. An extremely charismatic figure, he himself composed numerous poetic works, in which he boasts of his own intellectual attainments and his skills as a scribe.[xxvii] As a result of numerous military campaigns, he extended his control over large areas to the north and to the east which had previously remained outside the Sumerian ambit. His armies marched to war in the typical fashion of such armies, led by standards emblazoned with divine symbols.[xxviii] When peace was finally established, it was sealed with religious rites, and a mutual oath before the gods to adhere faithfully to the terms of the peace.[xxix]

I have narrated this brief, and surely inadequate, history of the relationship between these notable ancient rulers and the prevailing religious establishments of Sumerian society because it is a history which I find immensely interesting, and which I trust the reader will find immensely interesting as well. But I also think it serves to illustrate a very simple truth, though one which seems to be forgotten by large numbers of our contemporaries. As we cast our glance over this far-distant history, we are struck with the pervasiveness of religious motivation and religious justification in almost every one of the policy enactments of the ruling power – in the making of war, the distribution of property, the patronage of the arts, the repair of the canals, the sacrifice of the court retinue. Whatever was done well by the Sumerian kings, was done in the name of their gods; whatever was done violently or unjustly by the Sumerian kings, was similarly done in the name of their gods. All the deeds of the king, for good or for ill, were conceived of as acts of piety. Now suppose someone were to confront us with the question, “was religion a baneful or a beneficial influence upon the political culture of the Sumerians?” If we are being honest and sensible, we will have to say that this is a question which quite obviously cannot be answered, a question which is hardly intelligible at all.

How would one even go about formulating an answer to such a question? Should one try to tally up the apparently laudable policies which were inspired by religious devotion, and weigh them against the oppressive or corrupt policies similarly inspired? Should we place in one column the reforms of Urukagina and the architectural beauty of the ziggurats, and in the other, the greed of the temple hierarchy and the war-mongering of Shulgi, and somehow attempt to calculate which column adds up to the greater sum? Should we attempt to quantify the precise virtue or iniquity of particular acts, and conclude that one instance of human sacrifice is worth fifty finely wrought devotional statues? Clearly, these are not the tasks of a serious thinker. How, for instance, does one judge the effects of religion upon the war-making of the Sumerian kings? They bore their holy standards before them when they marched to battle, and they swore before the eyes of the gods when they concluded terms of peace. Was their religion the cause of the violence, or the cause of the cessation of the violence? Was it a cause of either, or merely a concomitant fact? Furthermore, in most cases, whether one believes that a given example of state and temple cooperation was a crime or not will already be determined by one’s attitudes towards religious establishments generally. If one is hostile to religious institutions, then the spectacle of a king processing among a troop of clerical functionaries will constitute a prima facie abuse. But then one can hardly maintain that the historical record of such spectacles supports your conviction in the malign influence of religious authority, since it is precisely the presupposition of that malignity which causes one to regard the history as the record of an evil. It is equally implausible to suppose that a Sumerian civilization without religion would have been spared the essential evils which were occasionally the consequence of the religion. The cronyism and corruption involved in the temple’s confiscatory taxation was truly deplorable, but can any person believe that cronyism and corruption per se would not have existed in ancient Mesopotamia in the total absence of temple authority, in some other disguise, but of an equally deleterious nature? 

Of course, none of this is to say that objections against particular manifestations of the Sumerians’ devotion may not be sensibly made. Who could defend the practice of human sacrifice, or the ecclesiastical appropriation of the poor’s meager sustenance? The point is that such objections do not somehow implicate the entirety of their religious practice. Abuses are endemic to the whole of human institutional life, and none but the most recklessly anarchic thinks that an abuse is, in and of itself, a fair reason against the existence of an institution. The question is, “can the abuse be reformed?” And oftentimes, the best means of reform is a reorientation towards the foundational principles of the institution. This seems to have been the case with the reforms of Urukagina; he reigned in the grotesque acquisitiveness of the temple officials because of his apparent conviction that such acquisitiveness offended the gods of the pantheon. The abuse of Lagash’s religious institutions was remedied by a more authentic application of that society’s common religious convictions. Nowhere in this history is there a warrant to be discovered for declaiming against the Sumerian religion as such.

The fact is that the Sumerians understood themselves to be, in the most fundamental way, the children of the gods, and the reflexive attitudes engendered by this theological identity permeated the world which they created – its communal organization, its modes of distribution, its forms of laws and customs, its artistic productions. When they went to war, they went to war as children of the gods; when they took more than their share of the common affluence, they took more than their share as children of the gods; when they aided the widow and the orphan, they aided the widow and the orphan as children of the gods; when they massacred, they massacred as children of the gods; when they sang, they sang as children of the gods; and when they obeyed the king, they obeyed the king as children of the gods. As such, it is quite difficult to pore over the records of Sumerian political history and tease out causes from effects in any neat fashion, such that one could confidently assert this or that discrete theological principle caused this or that discrete political decree. Their religion was far too bound up with the complexities of psychology for such simplistic analysis. Was Gudea’s devotion to the martial deity Ningirsu a cause of his military belligerence, or was his military belligerence a cause of his devotion to Ningirsu? The answer is probably both. But obviously, we cannot make any argument to the effect that the Sumerian's religion bore negative consequences for their political culture if we cannot, in the first place, even state with any real clarity how the two things interacted in a causal fashion. 

To ask whether or not Sumerian society would have been more just absent the prevalence of their religious establishment is like asking whether or not Shogunate Japan would have been more or less violent absent the samurai culture. Serious students of history simply do not entertain such questions, because they know that no answer, not perfectly speculative and capricious, could be formulated in response. Shogunate Japan just was the samurai culture, and the Sumerian society just was the fruit of their religious establishments. These institutions only limited the potential of these historical epochs to the same extent that they characterized these very epochs, in the same way that any chosen form of life constitutes an implicit rejection of other, perhaps equally admirable, forms of life. This is the wages of our finitude. One may as well complain that Mozart’s commitment to his musical genius unfortunately barred him from realizing his great potential as a military strategist.

It should be obvious, then, that no general conclusions about the good or ill effects of religion can reasonably be drawn from the facts of Sumerian political history, within the limited time-frame I have sketched. This being the case, it should be equally obvious that no general conclusions about the good or ill effects of religion can reasonably be drawn from the facts of political history as a whole. It should be evident that no serious-minded scholar would ever pretend that the historical record speaks unambiguously for or against the justness of religious institutions. And yet, as a matter of fact, many present day antagonists of religion and the belief in God do write as though such arguments could be fairly made; many very well known authors do present their readers with a long catalogue of the abuses and atrocities associated with some form of religious belief, as though such a record, in and of itself, comprised an adequate case against the propriety of such forms of belief. But such endeavors bear no resemblance to authentic scholarship. They have nothing to do with an honest and sympathetic study of our common human heritage. They are merely the malformed offspring of the narrow, interested, polemical passions, the senseless amalgam of special pleading, non sequitors, and the post hoc fallacy. They are never the objective account of political history which they purport to be, but always, necessarily, an interpretation imposed upon that history by a mind already informed by atheistical convictions. Which is not to say that such convictions are without rational defense, but rather that the merit of such a defense is not a topic of inquiry for the historian, but for the metaphysician, the cosmologist, the philosopher of first things. As he concludes, so must we judge the propriety or impropriety of religion in society, but it is mere pretense to suppose that we can examine history in some allegedly objective or disinterested fashion, and thereby derive an uncontroversial case against religion. Briefly stated, there are no serious arguments for or against religion, or for or against the belief in God, to be derived directly from the facts of political history.

The truth is that the Sumerians, in the centrality which they accorded to their modes of worship – however exotic or grotesque these may have been at times – were quite typical of the universal character of man, as it is revealed to us by the historical record. The intellectual struggle to grasp the totality of things in existence as one directed whole, the moral struggle to discipline our lives in such a way that they cohere with the overarching purposefulness of this creation, the aesthetic struggle to capture the mystery of this final significance in art and in forms of worship – this is religion, and this is simply one of the elemental practices of human society, in all times and all places. Like government, like art, religion is embedded in the nature of our communal organization. Genuine scholars, who may – indeed, must – quarrel with this or that mode of these fundamental institutions, do not quarrel with the existence of these institutions per se. Genuine scholars do not try to argue against the need for government or the need for the arts, any more than they try to argue against the need for religion; after all, the arts have been implicated in at least as much evil as religious practice, and governments infinitely more. Real students of history recognize that they cannot object to these basic principles of human life without in some unavoidable way objecting to humanity itself. There is more than a little misanthropy, therefore, wrapped up in all of this fashionable noise against religion. The only sort of history worth our attention is the kind that begins in sympathy, that recognizes something essentially common in human beings that, on account of cultural effects, appear outwardly as beings of an entirely alien nature - the kind of history that aims primarily at understanding, and not judgment. What such a history will conclude about religion as a general phenomenon of human life is simply that it reflects the character of the creatures whose practice it is, being alternately vulgar, interested, hypocritical, corrupt, fanatical, bloody, and occasionally, kind, magnanimous, or lovely.



[i] Saggs, H.W.F.  The Greatness That Was Babylon (New York: Praeger, 1962), 345.

[ii] Liverani, Mario  Uruk: The First City  (London: Equinox, 1998), 61.

[iii] Saggs, 352.

[iv] Postgate, J.N.  Early Mesopotamia  (New York: Routledge, 1992), 300.

[v] Postgate, 268; Woolley, Leonard  The Sumerians  (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1930), 69.

[vi] Saggs, 164

[vii] Contenau, Georges  Everyday Life in Babylon and Assyria  (New York: St. Martin’s, 1954), 93.

[viii] Woolley, 69.

[ix] Kramer, The Sumerians  (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1963), 79-83

[x] Woolley, 128.

[xi] Saggs, 366.

[xii] Kramer, 67-68.

[xiii] Kramer, 84.

[xiv] Woolley 134-135; Postgate, 264

[xv] Woolley, 133

[xvi] Kramer, 84.

[xvii] Liverani, 61

[xviii] Postgate, 269.

[xix] Saggs, 359.

[xx] Saggs, 361

[xxi] Woolley, 141

[xxii] Saggs, 211

[xxiii] Saggs, 216, 369-371.

[xxiv] Saggs, 347

[xxv] Saggs, 387

[xxvi] Postgate, 266-267

[xxvii] Kramer, 69.

[xxviii] Postgate, 271.

[xxix] Saggs, 222.

Mark A. Signorelli's personal website can be found here: markanthonysignorelli.com


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