Utu / Šamaš / Shamash

Utu (Sumerian) or Šamaš (Akkadian) – usually written as Shamash in English – was the Mesopotamian sun god, source of the sun’s light and also its warmth, causing vegetation to flourish.

The Sumerians held that Utu was the son of the moon deity, Nanna, and twin brother to Inana. Akkadian traditions vary in regarding him either as the son of Anu (An) or of Enlil. The consort of the sun god was Šerida – in Akkadian, Aya – whilst his assistant, charioteer and (according to some traditions) his son was Bunene, a minor god worshipped at Sippar and Uruk from the Old Babylonian period onwards, and later still at Aššur.

The two main Sumerian temples of Utu were located at Larsa in Sumeria and at Sippar in Akkad – both were called E-Babbar (the “White House”). Later, in the Assyrian period, a joint temple of Šamaš and Sin (Nanna-Suen) existed at Aššur.

The worship of the sun deity is in evidence from the earliest records. In his primary aspect of sun god, Utu was depicted as emerging from the portals of heaven at dawn before making his daily journey across the skies to re-enter the “interior of heaven” again at dusk by means of parallel gates in the western horizon, guarded by twin gods who acted as gatekeepers (a motif to be seen in cylinder seal depictions).

Iconographically, Utu is described as bearded and “long-armed”; his emblem was an curved pruning-saw with jagged teeth.

Select Bibliography

Castellino, G.R.

“Incantation to Utu”, OA 8 (1969), pp.1-57.

Heimpel, W.

“The Sun at Night and the Doors of Heaven in Babylonian Texts”, JCS 38 (1986), pp.127-51.

Steinkeller, P.

“Of Stars and Men: The Conceptual and Mythological Setup of Babylonian Extispicy”, in press.

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