The Sumerians were a group of people who are believed to have migrated to the area known as Sumer in southern Mesopotamia before 4000 B.C. They formed multiple city-states, which were independent cities ruled by a king. The Sumerians thrived during much of the same time period as the Egyptian civilization, but they did not share the Egyptian focus on life after death. Unlike Egypt, which was ruled by one king, the Sumerians also had a theocratic society: they believed that the ultimate rulers of their society were the deities they worshipped, and each city-state had a local god. The major elements of Sumerian mythology include their story of the world's creation and other stories about various Sumerian gods.
In Sumerian mythology, the local god represented the people and was expected to speak on their behalf to other gods who controlled nature. The Sumerian temple was the political and religious center of each city-state. These temples are called ziggurats, and some were as tall as the Egyptian pyramids. Houses, workshops and storehouses surrounded the ziggurats. The most famous ziggurat was the biblical Tower of Babel.
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Sumer’s ziggurats looked like mountains, and their appearance relates to Sumerian mythology about the creation of the world. The Sumerians believed in a primeval sea that gave birth to a cosmic mountain containing both heaven and Earth. An, the god of heaven, was male, and ki, the goddess of the Earth, was female. Enlil, the air god, was their son, and one story says that Enlil separated heaven and earth. Other important deities in Sumerian mythology include Ninlil, an air goddess and wife of Enlil; Enki, the god of freshwater and male fertility; Inanna, the goddess of love and female fertility; and Ninurta, the god of war and agriculture.
Sumerian language is unlike any other language. Sumerians developed the first writing system, called cuneiform, around 3000 B.C. They produced a large body of poetic literature that records much of the narrative of their religion. The Epic of Gilgamesh probably is the best-known Sumerian legend. Prior to the development of cuneiform, religious stories existed as folklore that was communicated orally.
The remains of Sumerian culture are scarce compared with those of Egyptian culture, but thousands of clay literary tablets were excavated prior to 1900. Translation of these tablets is a difficult process, but these writings have contributed a great deal to the understanding of Sumerian mythology. The Sumerians also produced a rich quantity of visual art, including statues that represented the various gods. They believed that the gods were present in those statues.
The Sumerians had contact with other major civilizations, including the Egyptians, Hebrews and Greeks. They strongly influenced these civilizations, as well as others in the Near East. Most cultures in the Near East adopted the cuneiform system of writing, and some ideas from Sumerian mythology found their way into other religions.