The Nurturing Goddess Ninsun: Worshipped by Ancient Mesopotamians and the Mother of Gilgamesh
Ninsun is a female figure found in Sumerian mythology. She is a goddess whose parents are the deities Anu (the sky god) and Uras (a goddess of the earth). As a goddess, Ninsun was worshipped by the ancient Mesopotamians, and had several cult centers in that civilization.
Today, however, Ninsun is perhaps best known as the mother of the hero Gilgamesh, the principal hero of the Epic of Gilgamesh , a piece of work commonly regarded as the earliest surviving great work of literature.
Connection with Cows
The name Ninsun is said to mean ‘Lady Wild Cow’. Additionally, she is referred to by a number of other (often bovine related) names, including ‘the flawless cow’, ‘the wild cow of the enclosure’, ‘august cow’, and ‘the mother of good offspring that loves the offspring’.
Due to this connection with cows, Ninsun was also attributed with the maternal qualities of this creature. Thus, Ninsun was regarded by the ancient Mesopotamians as a motherly goddess who possessed a tender, loving, nurturing and caring nature. This is perhaps best seen in the Epic of Gilgamesh , where she is not just a mother in symbolic terms, but also an actual mother, i.e. the mother of Gilgamesh.
Ninsun in the Epic of Gilgamesh
In the Epic of Gilgamesh , the eponymous hero Gilgamesh is described as such, “Two-thirds of him was divine, and one-third mortal”. In the epic, it is written that Gilgamesh’s father was a king of Uruk by the name of Lugalbanda, whilst, as mentioned before, his mother was the goddess Ninsun, “Son of Lugalbanda, Gilgamesh, perfect in strength, / Son of the lofty cow, the wild cow Ninsun.” It was from his father that Gilgamesh inherited his mortal nature, whilst from his mother, he gained his divine nature.
Statue of Gilgamesh. (CC BY 2.0 )
Ninsun does not really play a major role in the Epic of Gilgamesh . The main character of this piece of literature, after all, is her son, Gilgamesh. Yet, when she does appear in the text, she is depicted as a loving mother who does what she cans to assist her son. This can be seen in the interpretation of Gilgamesh’s dreams, in which Ninsun plays an important part. In the text, Gilgamesh tells his mother of a dream he had,
“Mother, I saw a dream in the night.
There were stars in the sky for me.
And (something) like a sky-bolt of Anu kept falling upon me!
I tried to lift it up, but it was too heavy for me.
I tried to turn it over, but I couldn’t budge it.
The country (men) of Uruk were standing over [it].
[The countrymen had gathered (?)] Over it,
The men crowded over it,
The young men massed over it,
They kissed its feet like very young children.
I loved it as a wife, doted on it,
[I carried it], and laid it at your feet,
You treated it as equal to me.”
Tablet V of the Epic of Gilgamesh. ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Ninsun interpreted her son’s dream, which is as follows,
“(It means) a strong partner shall come to you, one who can save the life of a friend,
He will be the most powerful in strength of arms in the land.
His strength will be as great as that of the sky-bolt of Anu.
You will love him as a wife, you will dote upon him.
[And he will always] keep you safe (?).
[That is the meaning] of your dream.”
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Gilgamesh had a second dream, which involved an axe being thrown into the street of Uruk. The interpretation of this dream by Ninsun is the same as Gilgamesh’s first dream. Gilgamesh’s dream to be fulfilled in the form of Enkidu, the Wildman created by the gods to challenge Gilgamesh, but later becomes his close friend and companion. Enkidu would also be treated like her own son by Ninsun, just as indicated by Gilgamesh’s dream.
Relief on the front of the Inanna temple of Karaindash from Uruk. Pergamon Museum. (CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Ninsun’s main cult center was in the city-state of Lagash. Nevertheless, she was also worshipped in other ancient Mesopotamians cities, including Nippur, Ur, and Umma. During the Third Dynasty of Ur, for example, its founder, Ur-Nammu, built a temple called Emah (meaning ‘Magnificent Temple’) in Ur for this goddess.