Nergal (Erra)

Nergal is the name of the Mesopotamian deity most closely associated with the Underworld, commonly regarded as the husband of Ereškigal, queen of the Underworld, as related in the tale of Nergal and Ereškigal, the Sumerian myth that relates the story of their love. As well as his underworld associations, Nergal was also linked by the ancients with illness and with forest fires. He also frequently exhibits a warlike bent.

In this last, military aspect, Nergal depended especially on the close syncretism that developed between himself and another, originally separate god, Erra, that led eventually to the two deities being so closely identified that they lost their individual natures and were equated one with the other. Erra, originally, was a particularly violent, warlike god, with a special responsibility for plague and fever. His father was said to be the god of the heavens, An/Anu.

Both deities were worshipped at the one primary cult centre – the temple known as E.MESLAM at Kutû in Babylonia – a situation that no doubt aided their eventual syncretism. At that location, Erra was venerated alongside his wife Mami, who is most probably to be identified with Nergal’s localised consort Mamitu. The name of the temple reveals the origins of the alternative title for Nergal, namely Meslamta-ea, or “he who comes forth from the MESLAM”. The Kutû shrine was not the exclusive cult centre for Nergal: another place of worship was located at Maškan-šapir (Tell Abu Dhawari).

Iconographically, Babylonian art depicts the god Nergal as a figure dressed in a long robe with an open front, one leg frequently bared through the opening and placed forward, the foot of the god often placed on a plinth or trampling on the figure of a man. Nergal normally bears a scimitar and a single- or double- lion-headed sceptre. These attributes also served as independent motifs which could symbolise the god. The depiction of a “dead god” at rest in his coffin, common in baked clay plaques of the Isin-Larsa and Old Babylonian periods, probably also represents Nergal, god of the underworld, according to the opinion of several scholars. In later periods, such as under the Parthian Empire, Nergal was identified with the Greek demi-god Herakles. An earlier, common identification of Nergal was with the god Lugal-irra.

In addition to his central role in the Sumerian tale of Nergal and Ereškigal, Nergal-Erra also features prominently in the Babylonian poem Išum and Erra, in which the god gains control of the world temporarily, laying waste to Babylonia as a simple expression of his destructive nature (rather than as any specific punishment for mankind’s wrongdoing). It is thought that this myth may reflect the the repeated invasion of Babylonia in the twelfth to the ninth centuries BCE by such marginal tribal groups as the Arameans or Suteans.

Select Bibliography

Dandamayev, M.A.

“Documentary Evidence on Nergal’s Cult in Sippar and Babylon in the Sixth Century B.C.”, in Renger AV, [AOAT 267], Münster, 1999, pp.109-116.

Green, A.

“The Iconography of Meslamtaea”, RA 82 (1988), pp.173-175.

Lambert, W.G.

“Studies in Nergal”, BiOr 30 (1973), pp.355-363.

Weiher, E. von

1971 Der babylonische Gott Nergal, [AOAT 11], Neukirchen-Vluyn, 1971.


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