Today we will continue our journey through the myths about writing and its patron gods in Ancient Mesopotamia. This area is especially important, as it is in the Sumerian city of Uruk where we have the first attestations of writing in the form of pictographs c. 3200 BC. Later, Sumerians would develop from these pictographs what we call “cuneiform” writing (which consists of abstract wedge-shapes representing words or syllables).


Mesopotamian pictograms.

One of the Mesopotamian stories that talks about the creation of writing involves Enmerkar, one of the mythological kings of Uruk. According to the Sumerian King List he was the second king of the First Dynasty of Uruk and the builder of the city. In the epic poem that narrates the conquest of Aratta by king Enmerkar it is said that his messenger, who had the task to transmit the messages between the two kings (Enmerkar and the king of Aratta), was failing to remember these messages. Therefore, Enmerkar had the idea of writing them down on clay.


Cuneiform letter. © Trustees of the British Museum

There was also a Sumerian goddess related to writing, the goddess Nisaba. She was primarily associated with agriculture and grain. Her connection to writing came because of the written records of accounting for the grain that were made first in the pictographic system. But once Sumerian writing developed to cuneiform and scribal schools proliferated, Nisaba became the goddess of literacy and wisdom, and when they were training scribes often ended their tablets with “Praise be to Nisaba!”.



Goddess Nisaba.

This account seems closer to the reality of how writing was being used and it can be seen how new attributes are added to the goddess as writing evolves. This origin as a goddess of fertility and agriculture – common attributes of female deities – could explain why writing is attached to a female character when we normally think of scribal schools as a men’s world. But it seems that writing in Mesopotamia was not exclusive to men (at least not in the highest classes), for the first non-anonymous literary works in History are the hymns to goddess Inanna written by the priestess Enheduanna (2285-2250 BC), daughter of king Sargon of Akkad.  In the next blog post in this series, which will be about Egypt, we will see more about how literate women and scribes existed in the Ancient world.

Nevertheless, things changed in the time of Hammurabi of Babylon (1792-1750 BC), who favoured male deities. The god Nabu received Nisaba’s attributes and became the patron of writing and scribes. Nisaba was still venerated and didn’t disappear from the pantheon, but from that moment she was just Nabu’s wife. However, Nabu was very important for the Babylonians and then was adopted by the Assyrians as the son of their supreme god Ashur.


Statue of god, dedicated to Nabu. © Trustees of the British Museum


You can read more about these topics in Charpin, D. (2010) Reading and Writing in Babylon, London; also useful are the the Ancient History Encyclopedia articles on writingNisaba and Nabu.

In the next post in this series, we will explore myths and gods of writing in ancient Egypt…


~ Natalia Elvira Astoreca (CREWS project PhD student)


3 thoughts on “Writing Gods and Myths II: Mesopotamia

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