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Enki in Ancient Literature

Enki is a god of Sumerian mythology and, later in time, known as Ea in Babylonian mythology. He was the deity of sweet water, crafts, creation, intelligence, the god of wisdom and of all magic, and was the patron god of the city of Eridu before his cult spread throughout Mesopotamia. He is the son of Nammu and father of Inanna and is the third of the trinity (Anu-Enlil-Enki) heading the Sumerian pantheon. The main temple to Enki is called E-abzu, meaning “house of the subterranean waters”, a ziggurat temple near the ancient Persian Gulf coastline at Eridu. He was the keeper of the divine powers called me-s (Tablets of Destiny), gave the gifts of civilization, and was sometimes depicted as a man covered with the skin of a fish. He is also significant in Akkadian mythology as the father of Marduk, the national god of Babylon. In this article we will examine the portrayal of Enki in various literary sources.

Name & Literature

Enki is the creator and protector of humanity and is undoubtedly the most important and most often treated hero of Sumerian mythology. The earliest evidence concerning Enki can be traced to the archaeological finds in his ancient temple in Eridu. A common translation of his name is “Lord of the Earth” but scholarly debate continues. In his Master’s Thesis “Ancient Near Eastern Gods Enki and Ea” Peeter Espak writes:

S. N. Kramer or Th. Jacobsen interpreted the name “Lord of the Earth.” They both concluded that the name en-ki was not an original name of the deity but an epithet given to the god by later theological speculation. The main reason for such a conclusion was the consideration that the name “Lord of the Earth” does not correspond directly to the functions of Enki. Th. Jacobsen found a solution to the problem by claiming that Enki is the power in water giving shapes to the clay (i.e. Earth). S. N. Kramer, in turn, believed that Eridu oriented theologians and priests gave the name “Lord of the Earth” to the god in their attempt to secure Enki’s position as the leading deity alongside Enlil.

Enki has been mentioned, amongst others, in the following epics or texts, although a serious chronological problem arises because it is not possible to give an exact dating for a piece of literature based on the approximate date of composition of a tablet:

  • Enki and the World Order

  • Enki and Ninhursag

  • Atrahasis

  • Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta

  • Enki and Inanna

  • Enuma Elish

  • The Death of Gilgamesh


Enki & the World Order

The well-preserved Sumerian mythological composition Enki and the World Order (Tablet AO 6020, acquired by the Louvre in 1912 CE, ca. 472 lines) provides a detailed account of Enki’s activities in instituting civilization and culture, which leads Peeter Espak to note in his dissertation "The God Enki in Sumerian Royal Ideology and Mythology" that: 'He is the care-taker of the settled people and the organizer of a civilized world. For achieving his task of being the cultural hero of mankind and of the gods, he receives the me-s from the Anunna-gods, An and Enlil .' (12).

The date of composition of Enki and the World Order is not clear, possibly at the end of the 3rd Millennium BCE and it was probably re-worked and inscribed as we know it now at the time of the Third Dynasty of Ur (c. 2000 BCE), as demonstrated by Professor Jean Bottéro (1992).

Enki and the World Order is composed of four sections and starts with a third-person praise to Enki:

Grandiloquent lord of heaven and earth, self-reliant, Father Enki, engendered by a bull, begotten by a wild bull, cherished by Enlil, the Great Mountain, beloved by holy An, king, meš tree planted in the Abzu, rising over all lands; great dragon who stands in Eridug, whose shadow covers heaven and earth, a grove of vines extending over the Land, Enki, lord of plenty of the Anuna gods, Nudimmud, mighty one of the E-kur, strong one of heaven and earth! Your great house is founded in the Abzu, the great mooring-post of heaven and earth. Enki, from whom a single glance is enough to unsettle the heart of the mountains; wherever bison are born, where stags are born, where ibex are born, where wild goats are born, in meadows ……, in hollows in the heart of the hills, in green …… unvisited by man, you have fixed your gaze on the heart of the Land as on split reeds.

Enki then praises himself twice in the first person and tells how Enlil instructed him and gave him the gift of the me-s. He intends to take a journey through Sumer in order to fulfill his commission to arrange proper order and affluence in Sumer. In the third part, Enki proclaims the destiny of Sumer during his journey through the land. He visits Ur in central Sumer but also Magan, Meluhha, and Dilmun in the surrounding regions. When he comes back to the Sumerian homeland, he assigned selected deities to take charge of the functions of various regions of the Sumerian world order. Inanna complains in the last part that Enki did not assign any powers in the proclamation of destinies to her.

Enki answers (excerpt):

Inana, you heap up human heads like piles of dust, you sow heads like seed. Inana, you destroy what should not be destroyed; you create what should not be created. You remove the cover from the šem drum of lamentations, Maiden Inana, while shutting up the tigi and adab instruments in their homes. You never grow weary with admirers looking at you. Maiden Inana, you know nothing of tying the ropes on deep wells.

Enki & Ninhursag

The Sumerian Paradise Myth Enki and Ninhursag, also known as the “Myth of Dilmun”, was written at the end of the 3rd millennium BCE and has a similar story to the myth of paradise in the Biblical book of Genesis with strong sexual overtones because of Enki's behavior. In this fertility and creation story, Dilmun, the setting of the story, is a place of purity, where no disease, pain, or suffering exists. Dilmun was looked upon by the Sumerians as a blessed paradise and land of immortality. In the first part of the story, Ninhursag complains to Enki about the absence of water:

You have given a city. What does your giving avail me? A city that has no fields, glebe or furrow.

Enki commands the sun-god Utu to bring forth water from the earth. From line 40-43 Enki answered Ninhursag:

When Utu steps up into heaven, fresh waters shall run out of the ground for you from the standing vessels on Ezen's shore, from Nanna's radiant high temple, from the mouth of the waters running underground.

In the second part, Enki is described as a lustful god. He has sexual intercourse with several goddesses and impregnates first Ninhursag, then her daughter Ninmu and then even Ninkurra, who is the daughter of Ninmu. After Ninkurra gives birth to Uttu, Ninhursag advised her: "from in the marsh Enki is able to see up here." However, Uttu opened her door for a gardener (Enki) who came with cucumbers, apples, and grapes and "made love to the youngster and kissed her. Enki poured semen into Uttu's womb and she conceived the semen in the womb, the semen of Enki."

Ninhursag then curses the name Enki and he receives eight diseases from this curse and is in danger of dying. All the other gods are mourning Enki but after a fox has dealt with Enlil she heals him, starting with the words:

My brother, what part of you hurts you?

The last line of the myth is “Praise be to Father Enki” and emphasizes the glorification of Enki.

'I did it, in defiance of you! I made sure life was preserved!' - Enki


In the legend of Atrahasis (written c. mid-17th century BCE) Enki arises as the preserver of life on earth. Young divinities had to maintain rivers and canals, but after several years these gods complained about the hard work and finally rebelled. Instead of punishing the rebels, Enki, who is also the wise counselor of the immortals, suggested creating human beings to do the work. At the end of the epic Enlil decided to destroy humankind with a flood but Enki warns the hero Atrahasis to rescue him. At last Enki spoke to the great gods: 'I did it, in defiance of you! I made sure life was preserved!' It is remarkable that the part of the flood story has been almost literally adapted into the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Enmerkar & the Lord of Aratta

The Sumerian epic entitled Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta, composed c. 21st century BCE is deemed to be the longest Sumerian epic yet discovered and is often compared with the Tower of Babel narrative in the Book of Genesis. In a speech of Enmerkar (King of Uruk), Enki is called upon to be a confuser of languages. Moreover, this epic is about the rivalry between the cities of Uruk and Aratta. With the help of Inanna, Enmerkar will get precious metals and stones out of Aratta. From line 38:

My sister, let Aratta fashion gold and silver skilfully on my behalf for Unug.

Kramer's translation of Enki's part in that epic is as follows:

Enki, the lord of abundance whose commands are trustworthy. The lord of wisdom, who understands the land, the leader of the gods, endowed with wisdom, the lord of Eridu changed the speech in their mouths, brought contention into it, into the speech of man that until then had been one.

Enki & Inanna

The myth of “Enki and Inanna” tells the story of Inanna's journey from Uruk to visit Enki at Eridu. Enki attempts to seduce her during a feast but Inanna, the young goddess blindsided him to get drunk and take all the gifts of his me-s (Tablets of destiny). In his lordliness, he noticed only the next morning, that he has given them to Inanna. So he sends his demons to recover his me-s. Inanna escapes and arrives safely back at Uruk. Enki realizes that he has been blindsided and accepts a permanent peace treaty with Uruk. The dating of this composition is unclear but possibly not before the UR-III-Period (Adam Falkenstein, CRRA II 15).

Enuma Elish

In the epic Enuma Elish, the Babylonian creation myth, Enki played a major role in one of the different versions. The epic has been recorded in Old Babylonian on seven clay tablets in Sumero-Akkadian cuneiform script, dated c. 1100 BCE. It is about the birth of the gods and the creation of the universe and human beings. Tiamat is warning Enki that Apsu will kill the younger gods (advised by his Vizier, Mummu) because they are too noisy. Enki is killing Apsu and creating his home from Apsu's remains. With the help of Quingu, Tiamat is then fighting against Enki and the younger gods because they have killed her mate Apsu.

The Death of Gilgamesh

Enki’s intimate role in relation to Gilgamesh, the semi-mythic King of Uruk seems to be most important in the composition titled The Death of Gilgamesh (written c. 2150-1400 BCE). He is the god who decides the fate of Gilgamesh. This composition is about the dying process and burial rituals of Gilgamesh and describes in the first part two dreams of the king where his future death is predicted. The dreams are possibly sent by Enki titled Nudimmud. In his dreams, Gilgamesh saw the gods holding a meeting to decide his fate. An and Enlil want to save the life of Gilgamesh because of his heroic exploits in Sumer but Enki answers that when the gods had decided to send a flood, only Ziusudra was meant to be saved. Enki has to swear that no man beside Ziusudra will ever gain eternal life and therefore Enki himself makes a decision that Gilgamesh has to die.

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