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The Second Coming of Saturn Part 14: Enlil, ‘God of Gods’

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Sumerian king Ur-Nammu standing before the god Enlil

The chief god of Mesopotamia before the political rise of Babylon was the deity called the “Great Mountain,” Enlil. Scholars used to believe that the god’s name was a combination of the Sumerian words en (“lord”) and líl (“air/wind” or “storm”).[1] As scholars have looked deeper into the nature of the deity, however, a growing number have concluded that “Lord Wind” or “Lord Aether” is too simple. The stories and descriptions of Enlil don’t include any characteristics you’d expect from a wind or storm-god.[2] Based on his identification with El, Kumarbi, and others we’ll discuss before we reach the end of this series, Enlil should be understood not as lord of the air, but as “a universal god who controls different spheres and domains, different areas without any defined specialization.”[3]

In other words, Enlil was simply “the” god. That makes the etymology of Enlil’s name easier to grasp: Rather than Sumerian en + líl, his name most likely derives from a doubling of the Semitic word ilu (“god”):  il + ilû, meaning “god of gods,”[4] or “god of all the gods.”[5]

Figurine of Enlil from ancient Nippur

That fits the character of Enlil, El, and Kumarbi in their respective pantheons. All of them were considered creators of the world, described by epithets like “father of the gods,” “ancient one,” and so on. To the people of the ancient world, Enlil, like El and Kumarbi, bridged the gap between time immemorial and the present day. In each case, “the” god had assumed kingship over the pantheon by replacing a primordial deity who represented the sky or heaven. Enlil and Kumarbi supplanted Anu, while El took the place of Šamêm (“Heaven”).[6] In my view, this is Fallen Realm Fake News to diminish the true God of heaven (and earth, and all creation) by slandering the sky-god as remote, disinterested, and, in some accounts, literally neutered.

This recent reconsideration of the nature of Enlil is quite different from the way the god has traditionally been understood by scholars. Rather than emerging from Sumer in the south, as Mesopotamian civilization is assumed to have done, recent research shows that “the” god was transplanted to Sumer by migrants from the north or northwest.

When Amorites first encountered the civilizations of Akkad and Sumer in the twenty-fourth century BC, the two most popular deities among the newcomers were the moon-god, Erah (also spelled “Yarikh”; called “Sîn” in Akkad and “Nanna” in Sumer) and “the” god, under the Amorite name “El.” This is documented by the Amorite personal names logged in official Sumerian and Akkadian records:

If we then take a look at the 43 most popular Amorite names (in this case: Amorite names occurring three times or more). We can see immediately the moon-god Erah and El (‘God’) are the two most popular (and only) theophoric elements in these early Amorite personal names. This is a striking parallel with the Akkadian personal names. This parallel pleads against the “Amorites” as newcomers, because such a phenomenon is typically the result of long-term contact and/or acculturation.[7] (Emphasis added)

This is new research, just published in 2014. During the time of Abraham and Isaac, in texts dated between 1900 BC and 1791 BC,[8] the only two gods attested among the Amorites of Mesopotamia were the moon-god and “the” god. Considering the number of gods in the Mesopotamian pantheon, it’s significant that Amorites in Akkad and Sumer during the lifetime of Abraham only honored two of them.

Why these two? I discussed the moon-god in some detail in my book on the spiritual forces behind Islam, Bad Moon Rising. It appears that the moon-god was considered the “god of the Amurru-land”—in other words, the god of the Amorites:

We may reasonably conclude, therefore, that the god worshiped by the nomadic Amurru-peoples in the Balikh-Harran region by the epithets “Amurru” and “Bêl Šadê,” at the time of the Mari and Old Babylonian texts, was a lunar deity. Sometimes he is specifically named (or at least identified with) Sîn.[9]

This research identifies the Mesopotamian deity Amurru, generally considered a separate entity by most scholars, as the moon-god, and places the center of his cult in the very region that produced the family of Abraham—the area along the Balikh River and around the city of Harran, which was home to a well-known temple to Sîn.

The similarity between Bêl Šadê (“lord of the mountain”), referring to Amurru/Sîn, and Yahweh’s epithet El Shaddai (“God of the mountain”) is obvious. The Fallen Realm doesn’t hesitate to steal that which belongs to their Creator. The Balikh-Harran region is roughly a hundred miles west of Urkesh, where “the” god had been worshiped under the name Kumarbi for probably fifteen hundred years by the time of Abraham. And it’s known that Urkesh and Harran were connected by an important trade route, linking the resource-rich mountains north of Urkesh to markets in northern Syria and the Mediterranean port near Antioch. It’s not a stretch to theorize that the cult of “the” god, Kumarbi/El/Enlil, was carried to Harran by travelers along that route over the centuries.

This also establishes a link between the Hurrians and the Amorites, and suggests a path of transmission from the north to Sumer. While the Hurrians remained in the “Outer Fertile Crescent,” the Amorites moved south along the Euphrates and Tigris during the second half of the third millennium BC. They developed a pretty rough reputation, especially the Tidanu tribe (about whom more later), that contributed to the collapse of the last Sumerian kingdom to rule Mesopotamia. By the time of Abraham, around 1900 BC, Amorites controlled nearly everything from western Iran to the Mediterranean.

A trilingual god list from Ugarit, composed during the time of the judges, confirms that the Amorites, Hurrians, Akkadians, and Sumerians all worshiped “the” god with this handy linguistic equation: Enlil = Kumarbi = El.[10] Like the Amorites, the name “Kumarbi” may come from northern Syria. It probably means “he of Kumar,” a site identified with the modern village of Kīmār, about twenty-five miles northwest of Aleppo.[11] Today, it’s home to about six hundred souls in war-torn Afrin province of northwestern Syria; in the second millennium BC, it belonged to a kingdom called Mukish, which is likely why Hurrian religious texts name Kumarbi’s vizier as Mukishanu.[12]

Kīmār is roughly halfway between Aleppo and the Amuq Valley, right in the middle of an area that includes ancient Antioch, a city of some importance to the early Christian church; Mount Zaphon (modern Jebel al-Aqra), the mountain on which Baal’s palace was believed to sit; and the Amanus Mountains, the significance of which we’ll explain as we get deeper into this series. The point of this geography lesson is that it was from this general area, northwest of Sumer and Akkad, that the Amorites migrated into southern Mesopotamia, bringing with them the worship of “the” god, il-ilû (Enlil).

This may explain the best-known epithet of Enlil, “Great Mountain.” The Akkadian term is ŚA.DÚ ì-li ra-bí-um, literally, “the great mountain of the gods.”[13] This title is attested from the time of Sargon of Akkad, who reigned in the late twenty-fourth and early twenty-third centuries BC, about three or four hundred years before the time of Abraham.

The equivalent of ŚA.DÚ ì-li ra-bí-um in Sumerian is dEn-líl(É) kur-gal (kur-gal = “great mountain”).[14] However, the epithet kur-gal has not been found in any Sumerian text prior to the rise of Sargon in the late twenty-fourth century BC,[15] evidence that this particular title of “the” god was introduced to Sumer by the Akkadians, rather than a holdover from the dim Sumerian past. This is a plausible scenario, given that the Sumerian homeland in southern Iraq is noticeably devoid of mountains.

The rise of the Akkadians occurred around the same time that Amorite migrants began to arrive in southern Mesopotamia. I’m not aware of any research into whether these events and the emergence of Enlil’s new title, “Great Mountain,” are connected, but it seems unlikely that they were a coincidence. It’s true that correlation does not imply causation, but the arrival in Sumer of that epithet at about the same time as groups of Semitic-speaking Akkadians and Amorites is strong circumstantial evidence. Remember, the Amorites of that era worshiped only two gods, “the” god Ilu (El) and the moon-god called Bêl Šadê (“lord of the mountain”). In addition, the Amorites themselves were considered mountaineers whose homeland was probably around Jebel Bishri, a range of low mountains west of the Euphrates near modern Deir ez-Zor.[16]

We should also remember that the Akkadians sealed a political alliance with the Hurrians around this time by marrying off the daughter of Narām-Sîn to the endan (king) of Urkesh. And the Hurrians, too, were familiar with highland life, as Urkesh controlled trade between their cousins in the Taurus Mountains to the north and the cities of Mesopotamia to the south.

Not to follow rabbits too far off the main trail here, but that begs the question: Were the Amorites and Hurrians related? Although the Amorites spoke a Semitic language, they were usually portrayed in Egyptian art with fair skin.[17] The Hurrians (the Horites of the Bible) and Amorites were among the tribes Joshua and the Israelites had to push out of Canaan. And the deity the Hurrians and Amorites considered the father of their gods, Kumarbi/El, was at home in the mountains and connected to an underground abode—the Hurrian abi and “the springs of the two deeps” under or near Mount Hermon. This, by the way, follows the broad outlines of Enlil’s career:

A text from Nineveh recounts a myth in which divine beings break the wings of Enlil and Anu and cast them down into the Abyss (apsû). In the same text, it is said that Marduk “cast a [sp]ell against Illil in the Abyss, and consi[gned him] to the Anunnaki,” that is, the underworld gods.[18]

In any case, Enlil’s emergence as the kingmaker of Mesopotamia doesn’t extend as far back in Sumerian history as was thought. It was widely believed that a human king’s right to rule derived from the favor of Enlil; in fact, “kingship,” the attribute of royalty that conveyed the divine authority of a king, was literally called “enlilship.”[19] But until about 2450 BC, Enlil did not bestow that power to kings across all of Sumer. Before that, the androgynous goddess of sex and war, Inanna (called Ishtar in Akkadian), the patron deity of Uruk, conveyed “rulership” to leaders in southern Sumer where Enlil was apparently considered a foreign god.[20] His name was rarely used as the theophoric element in personal names before the Akkadian conquest of Southern Mesopotamia around 2300 BC.[21]

It was about this time that Enlil appears to have been elevated from the status of patron god of Nippur, a city located near the Euphrates about one hundred miles southeast of modern Baghdad, to head of the Mesopotamian pantheon. His temple also seems to have acquired the title E-kur (“House of the Mountain”) with the rise of the Akkadian Empire.[22] With the emergence of Enlil as the chief god of the land, Nippur, also transliterated as “Nibru,” became the center of Mesopotamian religion. The E-kur was the home of the divine council, the place where the gods convened to decide and decree the fates of the people under their domain.

Why Nippur was chosen is anyone’s guess. It began as a collection of reed huts in a marsh alongside the Euphrates. Over time, garbage, debris, and earth were piled up to lift the town above the surrounding marsh. You’d think the “king of heaven and earth” and “father of the gods” could find a better piece of real estate.

Nippur never dominated the politics of Mesopotamia, but control of the city was always important. Enlil was subject only to Anu, the sky-god, and he was often portrayed as the only deity who could contact Anu. So, possession of Nippur was crucial for an ambitious ruler in Sumer. Ownership of Nippur was proof that Enlil wanted him to be king.

However, Enlil’s days at the top of the virtual mountain were numbered when the Amorite dynasty of Hammurabi transformed Babylon from a third-rate village into a political force in the eighteenth century BC. Like an aging movie star who gradually finds leading roles harder to come by as younger actors arrive in Hollywood, Enlil was eventually replaced as the king of Mesopotamian deities by the city-god of Babylon, Marduk, a process that was complete by about the twelfth century BC.[23]

But Enlil’s prestige continued for centuries afterward. Even though his name isn’t mentioned even once in our English Bibles, the proof of Enlil’s power is written in the Old Testament.

Next: “Who are you, O Great Mountain?”

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[1] Lluis Feliu, “Concerning the Etymology of Enlil: The An=Anum Approach.” Aula Orientalis-Supplementa 22 (2006), p. 229.

[2] Ibid., p. 246.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Christopher B. Hays, “Enlil, Isaiah, and the Origins of the ʾĕlîlîm: A Reassessment.” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft, 132(2) (2020), p. 226.

[5] Feliu (2003), op. cit., p. 230.

[6] Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973), p. 41.

[7] Rients de Boer, “Amorites in the Early Old Babylonian Period” (Dissertation: Leiden University, 2014), p. 69.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Lloyd R. Bailey, “Israelite ‘Ēl Šadday and Amorite Bêl Šadê.” Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 87, No. 4 (Dec., 1968), p. 435.

[10] Feliu (2003), op. cit., p. 299.

[11] Michael C. Astour, “Semitic Elements in the Kumarbi Myth.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 27, No. 3 (July, 1968), p. 172.

[12] Ibid., p. 173.

[13] Wang, op. cit, p. 199.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., p. 134.

[16] Silver, op. cit., p. 244.

[17] M. G. Easton, “Amorites.” Illustrated Bible Dictionary (New York: Thomas Nelson, 1897). https://www.biblestudytools.com/dictionary/amorites/, retrieved 3/11/21.

[18] Hays (2011), op. cit., p. 219.

[19] Andreas Johandi, “Some Remarks about the Beginnings of Marduk.” In S. Fink and R. Rollinger, eds., Proceedings of the Ninth Symposium of the Melammu Project Held in Helsinki / Tartu (Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 2018), p. 566.

[20] Wang, op. cit., p. 26.

[21] Ibid., p. 136.

[22] Ibid., p. 201.

[23] W. G. Lambert,“Studies in Marduk.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 1984, Vol. 47, No. 1 (1984), p. 1.

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