Exegesis of the Kettledrum Ritual (O 175)


1 Introduction

“Let the initiate instruct the initiate. Let the uninitiated not see. Taboo to Enlil, the Igīgū, the Anunnaki, and the Angubba of Ekur.” So ends the present esoteric text, an exegesis of a ritual for covering a ceremonial kettledrum. However, as there are no initiates to teach us, we students must take the risk of learning from the text itself, guided only by our other reading.

This will not, indeed, suffice to teach us how to perform the ritual, no complete set of instructions for which survives. (Nor would I want to perform it, personally, since it involves the slaughter of several animals.) But the text can teach us something about the esoteric interpretation of secretive rituals – which, as we will see, actually involves relating their obscure elements inherited from ancient Sumerian tradition to ideas about the gods that prevailed at the time of composition (in the 1st millennium BCE). In other words, the method of interpretation is esoteric, but the result is to make sense of the obscure by reference to the popular.

The basic purpose of the ritual is to slay a bull whose hide is to be used to cover the kettledrum. Both the bull – who is interpreted as the Bull of Heaven (constellation Taurus) by our text – and the (finished) kettledrum are seen as divine, so that this can be considered a consecration ritual. But the ceremony does not involve only the drum and the bull, but also a sizable number of gods who are set up next to them and given offerings in their own right. As temporary representations of the gods rather than cult statues to be formally installed, these do not require consecration in their own right. They do, however, require interpretation, because their connection to each other, and in many cases even their names, were quite unclear even to the practitioners in 1st-millennium BCE Mesopotamia.

That said, esoteric interpretation is not used purely pragmatically in this exegetical work, but is pushed beyond what would be required, even to the point of introducing new problems and obscurities. In other words, the method of interpretation is also being practiced for its own sake, and not only to make the ritual at hand more comprehensible.

Let me give one especially clear example. In many ways the three most prominent gods of ancient Mesopotamia are Anu, Enlil and Ea. Anu is represented in the ritual by a triangle-shaped clay brick (or rather a bronze figure placed upon it?), quite straightforwardly. Ea, by contrast, at least in this version of the ritual, is not so represented. Rather, his presence is indicated by the apsû, a ritual container of fresh water. Hence, the commentary explains, “Ea is present as the apsû.” This makes sense, as Ea is the ruler of the Apsû, the subterrestrial reservoir of freshwater which the container represents.

Yet the commentary does not end there. It adds: “Apsû is Tâmtu”, i.e., “the subterrestrial water is the same as the Sea”, a claim which alludes to but goes beyond the Babylonian epic Enūma Eliš, in which Apsû and Tâmtu (=Tiˀāmat) are husband and wife, the parents of all the gods. And further, the goddess Sea (who was not or barely worshipped) is equated with a deity who did receive cult: “Tâmtu is Ereškigal”. (Compare the Mystical Miscellanea, where the Sea is identified as an even mroe prominent goddess, Ištar of Nineveh.) This is all very interesting speculative theology, although it does not necessarily add to our understanding of Ea’s presence in the ritual.

Apart from Anu, Enlil and Ea, there are three groups of gods in play: the Divine Twins (Lugalgirra and Meslamtaˀea) of the underworld, seven dead or “defeated gods” who reside in the underworld (Dumuzi, Qingu, Mummu, Alla, Asakku, Ubna, Alala), and the seven sons of Enmešarra – also dead gods. There is a recognizable theme here, to be sure, but these gods and their ancient Sumerian names were sufficiently far removed from ordinary worship that they generated several layers of exegesis over time to make them recognizable to the practitioners.

Firstly, as far as the sons of Enmešarra and their Sumerian names (Zisumma, Bi-/Ibgirḫuš, Šenbargimgimme, Urbadda, Urbadḫumḫum, Gubbararae, Abarralaḫ) are concerned, Lambert observes that “[n]othing in particular can be said about [them]. We can only accept them as those of the sons of Enmešarra” (W.G. Lambert, Babylonian Creation Myths, p. 213; more on Enmešarra in a moment).

But the Akkadian translations that are offered for them (Ninimma, Šuziˀanna, Ennugi, Kusu, Ninšar, Ninkasi, Nusku) are all found in the god list An = Anum I as members of the household of Enlil, as scribe-and-wetnurse(!), wetnurse, chamberlain, chief priest, butcher, brewer and minister, respectively, as Lambert again points out (ibid.). These gods are also called “the seven conquered Enlils” (ibid., p. 215), presumably due to this connection (not because they are Enlil himself, as far as we can see).

At a later date, this explanation was no longer felt to be very explanatory, and a new set of identifications with Akkadian gods was made, this time not minor attendants of Enlil, but the major gods of 1st-millennium BCE worship: Gula, Antu, Sîn, Marduk (here called Tutu), Nerigal and Ninurta. The older layers of interpretation were not discarded, but grounded in the newer explanations, which were no doubt felt to be more fundamental and definitive.

The other group of seven defeated gods is less unitary, but gathers deities who have died or been conquered in various contexts. Dumuzi, better known as Tammuz, was annually mourned by the peoples of Mesopotamia; Qingu and Mummu, by contrast, were servants of the primordial pair Tiˀāmat and Apsû, who had been defeated by Marduk; Alla is an obscure underworld god, or a group of deities slain by the gods to create humanity (Lambert, p. 355); Asakku (sum. Asag) a demon defeated by Ninurta (or a group of defeated gods); on Ubna I can find no information; finally, Alala is a defeated ancestor of the gods.

Their interpretations are variously motivated. The equation Dumuzi = Anu is surprising, as is Asakku = Antu. Qingu = Enmešarra relies on their both being primordial, as probably does Ubna = Lugaldukuga, and certainly Alla = Anšar and Alala = Enki (a primordial deity who is usually distinct Enki=Ea, but may not be so here). Mummu = Papsukkal, on the other hand, is based on each being a sukkal, a minister of the gods.

Now, strangely, in the present text, the group names “seven Enlils” and “seven sons of Enmešarra” are not applied to the group beginning with Ninimma/Zisumma (who are the sons of Enmešarra according to other sources), but to this other seven; or rather, perhaps, both groups of seven have become conflated, which would explain why other versions of the ritual refer to twelve rather than nineteen gods.

That would also imply that Enmešarra (as Qingu) is one of his own sons; moreover, according to a different passage of the exegesis, Lugalduguka = Enmešarra = Anu, so the same god is actually present thrice in this list (as Dumuzi, Qingu, and Ubna). This, however, is no contradiction, as the text goes on identify objects placed in the kettle drum both with the seven sons of Enmešarra by their Sumerian names and with Lugalduguka (who as we saw is identified with Enmešarra) himself.

I realize that this is rather confusing. On the one hand, seven obscure gods are made less obscure by means of identification with prominent ones; on the other, these seven are vaguely equated with seven others who somehow seem to all be identical to each other, as well as their father. We might again appeal to the esoteric method of interpretation as something practiced for its own sake: the scholar can trace various lines of identification between different dead and defeated gods and create a web of associations rather than a rigid table of correspondences. It is equally possible, of course, that there is something we are missing, perhaps due to obscurities of the text, perhaps because it was attended by oral instructions.

In any case, I think that this web of vague connections, taken together with some other pieces of information in the exegesis, facilitates a fairly straightforward narrative interpretation of the ritual: Enmešarra is Anu; for some reason, he is going to die; but his seven sons – who are also primordial deities otherwise understood as Anu’s ancestors – die to preserve his life. The Divine Twins, underworld gods as we mentioned, guard him at the behest of the god Dagān, who consigns the sons to the underworld. Somehow, this life through death serves as an analogy for the death of the bull which enlivens the divine kettle drum; and the dead gods themselves are great deities, albeit now in the underworld, so that offerings to them are still efficacious in bringing about this divinization.

Some of this is only implicit in the exegesis, and I may be making the wrong extrapolations from what is said explicitly; perhaps I am even creating the problems of interpretation that I am wresting with. So, please do not take me at my word but treat only the text itself as a source. Nevertheless, I hope what I have said does more to illuminate than to obscure a text that, if presented without preamble and commentary, is simply impenetrable to the layperson.

2 Note on the text

The colophon of the tablet reads: “Copy of Nippur. Written and checked according to its original. Tablet of Enlilkāṣir, the lamentation priest of Enlil, the son of Enlilšumimbi, the lamentation priest. He wrote it for his perusal.”


[…] p. 145

3 Translation of parallel text AO 6497 iii 1–14 in relation to the labels of the diagram

Anu, Enlil and Ea, the great gods.
[Referring to the top left triangle, labelled ‘Anu’, and the top center triangle, labelled ‘Enlil’.]

Lugalgirra and Meslamtaˀea.
[Referring to the rectangle beside Anu, labelled ‘Lugalgirra: complete altar’, and top right, labelled ‘Meslamtaˀea: half of it is broken’.]

[First (top) circle on the left: ‘Zisummu’.]
(Sumerian:) Zisummu, who is in Nippur.
(Akkadian:) Ninimma, who is in Nippur.

[First (top) circle on the right: ‘Bigirḫuš’.]
(Sumerian:) Bigirḫuš of the Engur (‘subterrestrial water’).
(Akkadian:) Šuziˀanna of the Apsû (ditto).

[Second circle on the left: ‘Šenbargimgimme’.]
(Sumerian:) Šenbargimgimme, who looks after the fields.
(Akkadian:) Ennugi, who looks after the fields.

[First circle on the right: ‘Urbadda’.]
(Sumerian:) Urbadda, the exalted lord.
(Akkadian:) Kusu, the exalted lord.

[Second circle on the right: ‘Urbadḫumḫum’.]
(Sumerian:) Urbadḫumḫum, the son of Ešaba.
(Akkadian:) Ninšar, the son of Ešaba.

[Third circle on the right: ‘Gubbagararae’.]
(Sumerian:) Gubbagararae, the son of the new city.
(Akkadian:) Ninkasi, the son of the new city.

[Bisected triangle in the center: ‘Abarralaḫ’.]
(Sumerian:) Abarralaḫ, the son of the thirtieth, day of the moon’s disappearance.
(Akkadian:) Nusku, the son of the thirtieth, day of the moon’s disappearance.


4 The seven names on the bottom right, with parallel texts.

Bottom right of the diagram
Dumuzi = Anu.
Qingu = Enmešarra.
Mummu = Papsukkal.
Alla = Anšar.
Asakku = Antu.
Nunu = Lugalduku(ga).
Alala = Enki.
All the seven Enlils whose eyes are directed toward the bronze kettledrum. Nusku’s face is directed toward the West.

AO 17626 Rv.
Dumuzi = Anu.
Qingu = Enmešarra.
Mummu = Illabrat.
Alla = Anšar.
Asakku = Antu.
Nunu = Lugaldukuga.
Alala = Enki.
7 gods total, the defeated gods, whose eyes are put in the bronze kettledrum.

K 4806 5–8
The seven gods, sons of Enmešarra, are heaps of flour.
You place the 12 bronze gods inside the bronze kettledrum, and you cover the bronze kettledrum.

[… twelve gods everyone but the sons?]

5 Text around the diagram

“Anu, Enlil, Ea [some text lost] new break.”

“The face of Lugalgirra, Ninimma, Ennugi, [=the rectangle and three circles on the left] are directed towards the East.”

“The face of Meslamtaˀea, Šuziˀanna, Kusu [=the broken rectangle and circles on the right] are directed toward the West.”

6 Bottom left and center of the diagram

Over the kettle drum
“Kettle drum.” (Written with the determinative DINGIR indicating a deity.)

Left of the kettle drum
“The face of the kettle drum is set toward the West.”

Right of the bull
“The bull’s head is set toward Enlil.”

Left of the bull
“Bull of Heaven.”

7 Translation of the commentary

<Anu, Enlil, Ea>

Anu is present as himself.¹
Enlil is present as Lugaldukuga = Enmešarra. Enmešarra is Anu.²
Ea is present as the apsû. Apsû = Tâmtu. Tâmtu = Ereškigal.³”

1: Anu, Enlil and Ea are often named together as three of the most important gods. In this rite, there are two objects represented as triangles in the diagram, the first of which represents Anu (as himself).
2: The second represents Enlil – apparently as Lugaldukuga, who like Enmešarra is one of Enlil’s forebears in mythology. Enmešarra comes up repeatedly in the text, and the equation of Enmešarra with Anu made here seems to be central to the entire exegesis (insofar as it can be made sense of).
3: Ea is being represented by the apsû, a ritual freshwater (not depicted in the diagram), which shares the name of the Apsû, the subterrestrial freshwater abyss which is ruled by Ea. This Apsû, which can also be understood as a god, is here identified with Tâmtu (Tiˀāmat), the Sea (in the Enūma Eliš, Apsû and Tiˀāmat are husband and wife, and the first of the gods). The latter in turn is here identified with the more prominent underworld goddess Ereškigal.

<Sons of Enmešarra>

“Anšar, Anu, Lugaldukuga, Alala, Enmešarra, Dumuzi, Ea, Alla, Tâmtu, Asakku, Asakku, [lost text], East wind, humankind, Dumuzi, Enmešarra, Anu – who to save his life handed over his sons –, Ereškigal, Belili, [incomprehensible], East wind, Nerigal.¹ Dagān consigned the assembly to Allatu. He himself […] their lordship. […] over them, he consigned it to Irkalla.²”

1: This section contains names given to the seven Enlils / heaps of flour (Dumuzi = Anu, Enmešarra, Alla = Anšar, Asakku, Lugaldukuga, Alala), but other gods are also named: Ea, Tâmtu, the East wind, Ereškigal, Belili, East wind, Nerigal. The mention of Ereškigal (probably identified with Belili) and Nerigal, both rulers of the underworld, probably relates to the statement that Anu “handed over his sons” – i.e., gave them over to the underworld to retain his own life? But the format of this section is deeply unclear. Probably a number of theological equations are being made, but it is impossible to tell where sequences begin and end (the beginning might run Anšar = Anu, Lugaldukuga = Alala, Enmešarra = Dumuzi, Ea = Alla, Tâmtu = Asakku, Asakku = [lost]).
2: It would seem that the assembly consigned to Allatu / Irkalla (i.e., Ereškigal, the ruler of the underworld) are the sons of Anu, i.e., the seven Enlils or sons of Enmešarra. Dagān then apparently assumed their lordship.

<Lugalgirra and Meslamtaˀea>

Lugalgirra = Sîn, the eldest son of Enlil.
Meslamtaˀea = Gilgameš. Gilgameš = Nerigal, who dwells in the underworld.”

Lugalgirra and Meslamtaˀea are underworld deities who often appear together. Here they are identified with more important deities; Meslamtaˀea = Nerigal is a very ancient equation.

<sons of Enmešarra; Sîn and Nabû>

“Zisumma (DINGIR.zi-sum-ma) = Gula, the Lady of Nippur, who gives (sum) life (zi) to Anu (=DINGIR).
Ibgirḫuš = Šuziˀanna = Antu who saves (šu-) the life (zi) of Anu (=anna).
Šenbargimgimme = Ennugi = Sîn, who looks after the field.
Urbadda = Kusu = Tutu who knows (zu) the pure (ku) waters.
Urbadḫumḫum = Ninšar = Nerigal, bearer of the bronze dagger.
Gubbararae = Nusku = Ninurta.

“Sîn and Nabû the steward = the Angubba who, at the command of Dagān, have guarded(?) Enmešarra since distant times.”

This section interprets the obscure gods represented by the circles as more prominent deities, partly through creative interpretation of their names or their spelling. What motivates the mention of the Angubba is not clear to me, but they are also referred to in the colophon, and as guardians of Enmešarra=Anu at the command of Dāgan, they somehow relate to the giving and saving of Anu’s life, and Dāgan’s intervention to consign the sons of Enmešarra to the underworld to save him (if that is how the pieces of narrative are to be understood).




8 The ritual procedure

[…Washing the Mouth of a Kettledrum; The Cults of Uruk and Babylon]