Contents of this page
- The Seven
- The Syriac Book of Medicines
- Syriac names according to al-Bīrūnī
- Incantation bowls
- Mandaic literature
- Mesopotamian gods in Islamicate sources
- Mesopotamian gods in Mandaic sources
- Mesopotamian gods in Aramaic, Greek and Latin sources
- A god list of Seleucid Uruk
- Anu 𒀭𒐕
- Antu (Ki) 𒀭𒌈
- Ellil (Enlil) 𒀭𒂗𒆤
- Ea (Enki) 𒀭𒂍𒀀
- Sîn (Nanna) 𒀭𒋀𒆠
- Šamaš (Utu) 𒀭𒌓
- Adad (Iškur) 𒀭𒅎
- Marduk 𒀭𒀫𒌓
- Papsukkal (=Ninšubur) 𒀭𒉽𒈛
- Amasagnudi 𒀭𒂼𒉺𒃶𒉡𒁲
- Ištar (Innin) 𒀭𒈹
- Bēlet-ṣēri 𒀭𒃽𒂔
- Nanaya 𒀭𒈾𒈾𒀀
- Šarrāhītu 𒀭𒃽𒐼(𒂍)𒊕
This page is intended to give an introduction to how the cuneiform-based and related literary traditions of antiquity approached the gods and their names. Since SARTRIX is concerned with polytheism in the Greater Ancient Mediterranean as an interconnected region, this will not consist in treating every language separately and attempting to assign its respective “original” gods to each. Rather, I will take evidence from specific contexts – all reflecting multicultural configurations rather than ethnically segregated “pantheons” – and trace divine names and their spellings through history (usually backwards, since I start with the latest evidence).
Perhaps this is absurd, but I will not actually begin with texts written in cuneiform (for these skip to […]), but rather sources from long after the loss of cuneiform literacy (which occurred in the early centuries CE), from the region where the script originated and remained in use for longer than elsewhere, namely Mesopotamia (modern Iraq and southeast Turkey). They show us what Mesopotamian polytheism, rooted in Sumerian and Akkadian cuneiform literacy for over two and a half millennia, looked like after these languages had been entirely supplanted by Aramaic, and how it engaged with Greek and Islamicate influences, and with non-polytheistic religions. This serves as an important counterpoint to the conventional narrative, which has ancient Mesopotamian history end where the Hellenistic period begins, with the death of Alexander (“the Great”) of Macedon in 323 BCE, and is largely concerned with unidirectional influence or the “transfer” of knowledge from Mesopotamia to Greece. In reality, the Babylonians and Assyrians of Mesopotamia were not an earlier culture than the Greeks, but their contemporaries.
It is from post-cuneiform Mesopotamia through the last bastions of Sumero-Akkadian learning during the Hellenistic period – the cities of Babylon and Uruk –, that I will make my way to the earlier periods, when the Cuneiform Cosmopolis (a term borrowed from Sheldon Pollock’s ‘Sanskrit Cosmopolis’) spanned from Anatolia and Armenia in the North to Iran in the East and Egypt in the Southwest. I do not mean, however, to suggest that Mesopotamia is the center of the cuneiform-literate world in some essential way, but only as a matter of historical contingency. Places outside of Mesopotamia did original things with cuneiform writing, and had a profound influence on ancient Mesopotamian literature and broader culture, yet as it happened, Sumero-Akkadian cuneiform was the longest-lived sub-tradition, and remained a foundation or substrate for all others. The reason I am being Mesopotamia-centric here is therefore pragmatic rather than ideological.
2 The Seven
One area where a focus on late Mesopotamia is especially enlightening is in astrology. All the available evidence agrees that the Seven, as they are called in Mandaic literature, that is to say the planets, were the focus of worship among Mesopotamian polytheists in the first millennium CE. This is a form of piety that appears considerably streamlined from the elaborate apparatus of astral lore in cuneiform texts, and which resembles more closely the focus on the planets themselves as gods that is also in evidence in Greek and Latin sources of the Roman imperial period (cf. Cosmocrators). It is difficult and perhaps unnecessary to decide whether this is primarily due to a shared development, a Mesopotamian tradition less directly evident in the cuneiform sources, or influence from Greek astrology on Mesopotamians. What is clear, in any case, is that the few pagans that remained in the so-called Islamic Golden Age, more specifically in the 9th–10th centuries CE, had an outsized role in shaping later Islamicate (and subsequently Latinate or “Western”) traditions of astrology and astral magic.
(Note: names cited in this section are mostly from abjads, i.e. scripts that do not write vowels fully or unambiguously, so that I generally include the consonantal spelling along with the vocalized names, for the sake of transparency and clarity.)
The Syriac Book of Medicines
An especially rich source is the Syriac Book of Medicines, whose Syriac text and English translation are available as PDFs from archive.org. It was compiled by Christians in the Islamic period and is heavily indebted to Greek medical literature, but also contains a considerable astrological compilation in which Mesopotamian, Greek and to a lesser extent Islamicate traditions concerning the planets merge, and even a few overtly pagan notions are recorded. What is perhaps most striking of all about this part of the Book of Medicines is the variety of names it uses for the planets, not just in different sub-sections, but even in one and the same passage. This convention of using Greek, Mesopotamian and Arabic names of the planets alongside each other while having a unitary conception of each planet (informed by all three traditions), in addition to its intrinsic interest, also recalls the manner in which divine names from different traditions coexisted in cuneiform, while often being understood as referring to the same gods.
But before I go into more detail, a clarification of terms is in order. The Sumerian language which I mentioned above was native to Southern Mesopotamia, and was slowly supplanted as a spoken language by Akkadian, the shared language of the Assyrians (in Northern Mesopotamia) and Babylonians (in Southern Mesopotamia). Sometime in the 1st millennium BCE, Akkadian in turn gave way to Aramaic, a related language previously spoken to the West of Mesopotamia. But notably, Mesopotamian Aramaic largely retained the indigenous Akkadian names of the gods. Even where closely equivalent names already existed in Aramaic, they were not adopted, or only used alongside the Akkadian-derived ones.
There are many varieties of written Aramaic, often associated with a specific script. Syriac is one of these, used mostly by Christians and primarily reflecting the usage of the Assyrian city of Edessa (although it came to be used beyond just Assyria). Another that will be discussed here is Mandaic, used by the Mandaeans of Babylonia. As late antique and early Islamicate Assyria was in closer contact with Greek-speakers – more precisely, harbored a significant population that spoke both Aramaic and Greek –, Syriac was naturally more influenced by the Greek language and the culture of the Roman empire than was Mandaic in the South. It also had a closer relationship to the Western varieties of Aramaic, while Mandaic was in more sustained contact with speakers of Persian and Jewish Babylonian Aramaic. In the ‘Islamic Golden Age’, both regions also saw the ascent of Arabic as a language of prestige and learning.
The Book of Medicines, as already noted, is in Syriac, and its habits of denominating the planets reflects this:
- Unlike in Mandaic, the Sun and Moon are almost always called by their common Aramaic names, Šemšā and Sahrā, respectively.
- The other planets are most often called by their Greek names:
- Saturn = Qrōnōs (qrwnws), from Greek Kronos.
- Jupiter = Zōs (zws), from Greek Zeus.
- Mars = ˀArīs (ʔrys), from Greek Arēs.
- Venus = P(h)r– or ˀAp(h)rōdīṭī or –īṭā ([ʔ]prwdyṭy/ʔ), from Greek Aphrodītē.
- Mercury = Harmīs (hrmys) or ˀArmīs (ʔrmys), from Greek Hermēs.
- The are also sometimes called by Akkadian-derived names, mixed or glossed with the Greek, especially often in the case of Venus:
- Saturn = Kēwān (kʔwn), from Akkadian Kayyamānu (Late Akkadian pronunciation Kaywān).
- Jupiter = Bīl or Bēl (byl), from Akkadian Bēl, ‘Lord’, a title of Marduk.
- Mars = Narīgh (nryg), from Akkadian Nerigal.
- (Venus = Baltī (blty), from Akkadian Bēlti, ‘My Lady’ (i.e., ‘My Ruler’), a title of Ištar.
- Mercury = Nâbhō (nbw), from Akkadian Nabû.
- In one passage, so is the Moon:
- Moon = Sīnā (synʔ), from Akkadian Sîn.
- The Arabic names appear both independently and as glosses on Greek or Akkadian names:
- Saturn = Zūḥâl (zwḥl), from Arabic Zuḥal.
- Jupiter = Zūhrah (zwhrh), from Arabic Zuharah.
- Mars = Mūštarī (mwštry), from Arabic Muštarī
- Venus = Marīk(h) (mryk), from Arabic Mirrīkh.
- Mercury = ˤŪṭrd (ʕwṭrd, vocalization unclear), ˤUṭārid.
(Note that ph, bh, kh represent fricatives, /f/, /v/, /x/.)
For those not already familiar with all these names, this enumeration will seem quite dry, so let me complement it with some excerpts from the Book of Medicines, which shows the
[Syriac Book of Medicine
p. 549: Baltî (!)
p. 551(-f?): eight kings, incl. ˀāṯallyā (eclipse dragon)
p. 552f: Zeus Bêl / Aris Marik / Sun / Hermes Nabo Utradh / Kewan Kronos / Baltî / etc.
p. 570: colors
p. 571ff: Arabic
p. 573f: properties
p. 604f: again eight!
p. 606: many names, their relationships
p. 615ff: weekdays
p. 619f: parts of man]
(address gender, also for Šemšā)
Syriac names according to al-Bīrūnī
Al-Bīrūnī, who gives the seven Syriac names in Arabic transliteration (unvocalized), attests to the same convention of using the ordinary Aramaic terms for Sun and Moon, while employing Akkadian names for the other five. They are the same as in the Book of Medicines, except for a variant form in the case of Mars (nrgʔl rather than nryg); Venus is given two names.
- Saturn: kʔwn, read Kēwān.
- Jupiter: byl, read Bīl or Bēl.
- Mars: nrġʔl = syr. nrgʔl, read Nergāl, from Akkadian Nerigal.
- Sun: šmšʔ, read Šemšā.
- ʔstrʔ, read ˀEstrā, from Akkadian Ištar.
- blty, read Baltī (or Beltī?).
- Mercury nfw = syr. nbw, read Nabhū.
- Moon: shrʔ, read Sehrā.
(Sachau, Chronologie, p. 192; see below.)
While Bīrūnī’s list shows an awareness of the Akkadian-derived names belonging together, the Book of Medicines compels us to also believe the Arabic writer Ibn al-Nadīm when he tells us (quoting from an earlier Christian writer) that the pagans of Ḥarrān in Assyria, who maintained their traditional religion until the 10th century CE, named their weekdays after both Greek- and Akkadian-derived names. But notably, these also replace the common Aramaic names for Sun and Moon:
- Sunday, day of Sun = ˀĪliyūs (ʔlys), from Greek Hēlios.
- Monday, day of Moon = Sīn (syn), from Akkadian Sîn.
- Tuesday, day of Mars = ˀArīs (ʔrys), from Greek Arēs.
- Wednesday, day of Mercury = Nabū (nbw), perhabs Nabhū in Syriac, from Akkadian Nabû.
- Thursday, day of Jupiter = ar. Bāl (bʔl) = syr. Bēl (byl), from Akkadian Bēl.
- Friday, day of Venus = Balthī (ar. blṯy = syr. blty), perhaps Belthī in Syriac, in any case from Akkadian Beltī.
- Saturday, day of Saturn = qrns (Arabic vocalization uncertain), from Greek Kronos.
(Chwolsohn, Ssabier, p. 22; see below.)
This lines up well with the other Arabic accounts of Ḥarrānian worship. Gods with Greek-derived names were worshipped alongside with Akkadian ones (perhaps not just under different names but also with different iconographies?), as well as some with still other origins. Names deriving from these different languages were not not treated as separate but analogous system, nor as fully complementary, but could sometimes be referred to the same deities (especially the planets), sometimes not.
Across different Arabic sources, we find the following appellations for the Seven (including both names and titles) attested for Ḥarrān:
- Identified as Saturn (ar. Zuḥal):
- Venerable Old Man (Biruni p. 316)
- Identified as Jupiter (ar. Muštarī):
- (Chw. p. 86)
- Identified as Mars (ar. Mirrīkh):
- Lord of the Blind (Chwolsohn p. 71)
- Blind (ibid.)
- (Chw. p. 86)
- Identified as Sun (ar. Šams):
- Identified as Venus (ar. Zuharah):
- Barqaya, Shahmiyah (Chw. p. 80)
- (Biruni p. 316)
- (Biruni p. 317)
- (Biruni p. 318)
- Identified as Mercury (ar. ˤUṭārid):
- Harmīs (ar. hrms).
- Identified as Moon (ar. Qamar):
- (Biruni p. 317)
The Teaching of Addai, an Edessan text, also refers to the Sun and Moon as Šemšā and Sehrā, but while it is indubitable that these words were known and used in Ḥarrān, they may not have been enshrined in worship.
second, details of worship
calendar Biruni, calendar Ibn al-Nadim, list of gods Ibn al-Nadim
Sachau + tl.; Chwolsohn (Tammuz?); Green
The Mandaic language is a form of Babylonian Aramaic used to this day for liturgical purposes and to some extent as a spoken language by the Mandaeans, an ethno-religious group indigenous to southern Iraq and neighboring parts of Iran (although now largely displaced from Iraq as a result of the US invasion).
In classical Mandaic religious literature, the Seven, like gods in general, are usually described in negative terms, as the religion formed and maintained itself by setting itself apart from other religions in Babylonia, including indigenous polytheism, Judaism, Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, as well as other indigenous Mesopotamian religions that have since disappeared. But the modern Mandaean community are also the inheritors of cultural strands not represented or even opposed in classical scripture, and the Seven are still venerated under their Akkadian names to this day (although in the case of Venus, a technical Akkadian astronomical term has replaced the divine proper name).
The names of the Seven are as follows (in letter-for-letter transliteration, since Mandaic is fully vocalized, with modern pronunciation in parenthesis where I could ascertain it):
- Saturn: kiuan (Kiwan) from Akkadian Kaiwānu (older Kayyamānu).
- Jupiter: bil (Bil), from Akkadian Bēl.
- Mars: nirig or nerig (Nirigh), from Akkadian Nerigal.
- Sun: šamiš (Šamiš), from Akkadian Šamaš.
(The word common Aramaic form, spelled šamša = Syriac Šemša, is only used to name the sun as a celestial body, not as a deity.)
- Venus: libat (Liwet), a reanalysis of dilbat (which also occurs), from Akkadian Dilibat, ‘planet Venus’.
- Mercury: nbu or enbu (Enwo), from Akkadian Nabû.
- Moon: sin (Sin), from Akkadian Sîn.
- sira (Serra), from common Aramaic Sehrā.
Throughout 1st-millennium CE Mesopotamia, the planets were recognized as a group of seven powerful beings with widely known distinct characteristics, worshipped as gods by the slowly shrinking number of pagans.
3 Mesopotamian gods in Islamicate sources
[Ssabier, Biruni, Tamara Green, etc., Harran … all of Chwolsohn.]
4 Mesopotamian gods in Mandaic sources
[old blog articles …]
5 Mesopotamian gods in Aramaic, Greek and Latin sources
[Hesychius: aidws, molobobar, delefat, etc. mulitta
Zeus Belos; Selene / Lunus; Macrobius…
Theodore bar Konay, etc.
Aramaic: incantation bowls
Tar’atha: Doctrina Addai, Harran, De dea Syria + Tamara Green p. 57
Teaching of Addai, Jacob of Serugh, Moses of Chorene, Acts of Sharbel
Tammuz: Oration of Meliton, on Balthi (etc).]
6 A god list of Seleucid Uruk
From a very late period of cuneiform literacy, when there were (so far as we know) less than a handful of cities where it was still cultivated, we possess multiple attestations to a list of gods worshipped in the city of Uruk, arranged in a fixed and (more or less) hierarchical order. See Paul-Alain Beaulieu, “Antiquarian Theology in Seleucid Uruk” (off-site link), pp. 55–56, who claims the list reflects a reorganization of local worship in the 5th century BCE.
One important feature of the list is that it follows a convention of assigning numbers to certain gods, such that their names can actually be spelled with numerals, and places them at the head of the list, from highest to lowest (with one interruption). Since cuneiform numerals use base 60, the highest is 60, followed by 50, etc., down to 10. After this, another eight gods without associated number follow, and among them Ištar (who is assigned the number 15, in theory placing her between Adad and Šamaš, but this is disregarded in the Uruk list).
Here, I will go through the fifteen gods – Anu, Antu, Ellil, Ea, Sîn, Šamaš, Adad, Marduk, Papsukkal, Amasagnudi, Ištar, Bēlit-ṣēri, Nanaya, Bēlit-ša-Reš and Šarrahītu –, but I do not necessarily focus on the spellings used in the Uruk sources,* nor confine myself to discussing their role in Uruk. Instead, I am using the Uruk list as a kind of gateway to the history of cuneiform spellings of some of the major gods, as well as a few minor ones. The heading of each sub-section is composed as follows: (1) a Sumerographic spelling, (2) an Akkadian spelling if there is not a Sumerian one, and (3) the numeric spelling, for those that have them. Further spellings may be discussed in the body text, but not exhaustively.
*These spellings being:
- Anu: 𒀭𒐕 (ᵈ60)
- Antu: 𒀭𒌈 (an-tu₄)
- Ellil: 𒀭𒂗𒆤 (ᵈEN.LIL₂)
- Ea: 𒀭𒂍𒀀 (ᵈe₂-a) / 𒀭𒁁 (ᵈIDIM)
- Sîn: 𒀭𒌍 (ᵈ30/ᵈsin)
- Šamaš: 𒀭𒌓 (ᵈUTU)
- Adad: 𒀭𒅎 (ᵈIŠKUR)
- Marduk: 𒀭𒀫𒌓 (ᵈAMAR.UD)
- Papsukkal: 𒀭𒉽𒈛 (ᵈPAP.SUKKAL)
- Amasagnudi: 𒀭𒂼𒉺𒃶𒉡𒌌 (ᵈama-sag₂-nu-du₇[ul?])
apparently pronounced Amasaqqanud(?): 𒀭𒂼𒊕𒋡𒉡𒉡 (ᵈama-saq-qa-nu-NU[=ul?])
- Ištar: 𒀭𒈹 (ᵈINNIN) / 𒀭𒅖𒋻 (ᵈiš-tar)
- Bēlet-ṣēri: 𒀭𒃽𒂔 (ᵈGAŠAN-EDIN)
- Nanaya: 𒀭𒈾𒈾𒀀 (ᵈna-na-a)
- Bēltu-ša-Rēš: 𒀭𒃽𒐼(𒂍)𒊕/𒂍𒊑𒂠 (ᵈGAŠAN-ša₂-[ᵉ²]SAG/-ᵉ²re-eš)
- Šarrāhītu: 𒊬𒊏𒀀𒄭(𒄿)𒌈 (ᵈšar-ra-a-ḫi-[i]-tu₄)
or Šarriahītu: 𒊬𒊑𒀀𒄭(𒄿)𒌈 (ᵈšar-ri-a-ḫi-[i]-tu₄)
(1) 𒀭𒀭 (ᵈAN) / 𒀭𒐕 (ᵈ60)
In Sumerian, heaven (the sky/the heavens) was called an, spelled 𒀭. When the god Heaven is meant, the sign 𒀭 is used twice, once to signify godhood, once to represent the word’s pronunciation, An.
In Akkadian, heaven is called šamû (also often in the plural, šamê), likewise spelled 𒀭. For the god, the Sumerian name with an Akkadian ending is used, i.e. Anu(m), naturally again spelled 𒀭𒀭.
(2) 𒀭𒌈 (an-tum = an-tu₄)
In Akkadian, Anu(m) is paired with a feminine form of the same name, Antu(m), but she is not a goddess Heaven, as we might expect, but the spouse of the god Heaven, namely the goddess Earth.
In Sumerian, the earth is called ki 𒆠, but she only rarely appears as a goddess, and the combination of signs 𒀭𒆠 does not mean ‘(goddess) Ki’, but anki ‘heaven and earth, universe’. In Akkadian, it can be read as Anu(m) u Antu(m), ‘Anu and Antu’, i.e., ‘god Heaven and goddess Earth’, but also more prosaically as šamê u erṣetu, ‘heaven and earth, universe’.
In Akkadian, the name Antu(m) is spelled phonetically, as 𒀭𒌈 (an–tum / an-tu₄), sometimes with repetition of the 𒀭.
(3) 𒀭𒂗𒆤 (ᵈEN.LIL₂) / 𒀭𒐐 (ᵈ50)
Enlil is a Sumerian theonym, perhaps meaning en lil, ‘lord Wind’ (but perhaps not). The name was also borrowed into Akkadian, of course retaining the same spelling, although its translation
Enlil. sacred number 50. Kronos?
(4) 𒀭𒂗𒆠 (ᵈEN.KI) / 𒀭𒂍𒀀 (ᵈe₂-a) / 𒀭𒐏 (ᵈ40)
Include Ea spelling?
(5) 𒀭𒋀𒆠 (ᵈŠEŠ.KI) / 𒀭𒌍 (ᵈ30)
Sîn: include ZU.EN spelling … Selene Men / Lunus
(6) 𒀭𒌓 (ᵈUTU) / 𒀭𒎙 = 𒀭𒌋𒌋 (ᵈ20)
(7) 𒀭𒅎 (ᵈIŠKUR) / 𒀭𒌋 (ᵈ10)
For another example, we can consider the Sumerogram 𒀭𒅎 (ᵈIŠKUR or ᵈIM), conventionally translated as “Storm God”, although “the god Storm” might be equally adequate. In Sumerian, he is called Iškur (while the reading im means ‘wind’). In Akkadian, the name is read as Adad or Addu / addu, ‘storm’, which are related to each other just as closely as Šamaš is to šamšu, ‘sun’. Naturally, the same spelling 𒀭𒅎 (ᵈIŠKUR) is also used for West Semitic forms analogous to the East Semitic name Adad/Addu, such as Hadda and Haddu. (Hadad [or Hadat], which eventually replaces the other West Semitic forms, and is attested in Aramaic as hdd and in Greek as [Zeus] Hadados or Hadatos, is thought to be influenced by the Akkadian Adad.) This is the god who is often simply called Baˤlu or ‘Lord’, familiar today as Baal. The Hurrians, living in constant contact with both Assyrians, who spoke the East Semitic language Akkadian, and speakers of West Semitic, used 𒀭𒅎 (ᵈIŠKUR) to write the name Teššob or Teššub (also spelled Teshub in English), which they considered to refer to the same god. The mutual influence went so far that texts in the West Semitic language Ugaritic occasionally use the name Teṯṯub (with ṯ representing a th sound) in place of Baˤlu. This was the linguistic situation that written Hittite emerged from and into. By adopting the spelling 𒀭𒅎 (ᵈIŠKUR) for a local god, his identification with Teššob = Baˤlu = Adad = Iškur was presupposed, and became permanently embedded in the (written) language for its subsequent history. Hurrian Teshub, Hattic Taru, Luwian Tarkhunz, Hittite pronunciation? Aleppo – cf. Ugarit. 𒀭𒌋 (ᵈU)
(8) 𒀭𒀫𒌓 (ᵈAMAR.UD)
(9) 𒀭𒉽𒈛 (ᵈPAP.SUKKAL)
(10) 𒀭𒂼𒉺𒃶𒉡𒁲 (ᵈama-sag₂-nu-di)
(11) 𒀭𒈹 (ᵈINANA) / 𒀭𒌋𒐊 (ᵈ15)
Ištar … Aphrodite
(12) 𒀭𒃽𒂔 (ᵈGAŠAN-EDIN)
(13) 𒀭𒈾𒈾𒀀 (ᵈna-na-a)
(14) 𒀭𒃽𒐼(𒂍)𒊕 (ᵈGAŠAN-ša₂-SAG)
(15) 𒀭𒊬𒊏𒀀𒄭𒄿𒌈 (ᵈšar-ra-a-ḫi-i-tu₄)
[later publications on Seleucid Uruk? What year is the article above from?]
7 Etc. (Arabia/Nabonides; Ugarit?)