Nabu: Ancient Mesopotamian God of Scribes and Wisdom
Nestled in the fertile region around the River Tigris and Euphrates, the historical region of ancient Mesopotamia has long been regarded as one of the earliest cradles of civilization. Home to ancient cultures of Assyria, Babylon, and Sumer, it was also the home of diverse gods and goddesses. Sumer, one of the oldest civilizations in this region, influenced the developing pantheons of both Assyrians and Babylonians. And the God Nabu, one of the most important deities in Mesopotamia, was established very early in history.
Close up of the giant statue to the god Nabu stood at the entrance of the Temple of Nabu which is now housed in the Iraq Museum in Iraq. (Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Where are the Earliest Origins of Nabu?
Nabu is a major deity that was worshipped by both the Assyrians and Babylonians, and formed a crucial part of their pantheon. He was considered as the patron god of scribes, and a god of writing, learning, prophecies, and of wisdom. Nabu was often also viewed as the god of fertility and prosperity, and dictated the yield of a harvest.
Nabu’s name is originally derived from a Semitic root: nb’. This can be translated as: “to designate.” Nabu’s name is considered to mean “the announcer” or “the herald”. This name can refer to his powers as a prophet, and can also be related to scribes, reflecting his powers to call forth words and events. Another proposed interpretation puts his name into a verbal adjective, translating into “the one who is named.” One of the earliest spellings of his name as attested from surviving writings is dna-bi-um, which was later normalized as Nabium and Nabu.
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Nabu is cognate to the Sumerian deity called Nisaba. The latter was an earlier, Sumerian goddess of writing, learning, and the harvest. She was also the patroness of scribes. Gradually, her cult spread amongst the Assyrians and Babylonians, where it grew into the God Nabu. By the first millennium BC, his worship was widespread and he began to be regarded as the son of the god Marduk.
This was a clear sign of his importance and high esteem. His name was later used as a part of the names of the most powerful rulers, such as Nebuchadnezzar and Nabonidus. His name even appears in the Bible! A passage in the book of Isaiah mentions the god Nebo in reference to the humbling of the idols of Babylon. This gives us an insight that his cult survived a very long time, throughout the history of Mesopotamia. Nabu was also the patron god of the city of Borsippa. This was one of the most important Sumerian cities, located some 17 kilometers (11 miles) from Babylon and known as its sister city.
Originally, Nabu had a consort of his own. This was the goddess Tashmetum ( Tashmit), known as “the Lady who listens.” She was called upon to grant requests and listen to the prayers of the devoted. However, in later periods his consort becomes the goddess Nanaya, a deity of warfare, sex, and voluptuousness. Nanaya was originally the consort of an obscure and minor god of the Sumerian pantheon known as Muati. However, as Muati gradually became worshipped and cognate with Nabu, so did Nanaya become his wife.
A giant statue to the god Nabu stood at the entrance of the Temple of Nabu in Nimrud, Iraq. It can be seen today at the Iraq Museum in Baghdad in Iraq. (Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Becoming the Divine Son of Marduk
Every new year, the people would begin a ceremony in which a statue of Nabu would be carried all the way from Borsippa to Babylon “so Nabu could pay respects to his divine father Marduk” the patron god of Babylon. What is more, Borsippa was the location of a magnificent temple dedicated to Nabu. This temple was adorned with a grandiose ziggurat, which is today one of the most identifiable surviving ones.
In the ancient times it was this ziggurat that was identified as the Tower of Babel from the Biblical stories. For the Babylonians, this lavish temple of Nabu was known as the “temple of the seven spheres” and was restored by the famed King Nebuchadnezzar II . Rising from the flat plains all around, the tower above the temple of Nabu is a magnificent site. When the restoration by Nebuchadnezzar II was completed, the tower was roughly 70 meters (230 feet) tall and had seven terraces.
Today it survives as a partial ruin, and even so it is still an unforgettable site with its height of 52 meters (170 ft). Such magnificence, and even the fact that Nebuchadnezzar bore the name of Nabu, signify that this was a very important deity. Alas, the majestic temple of Nabu in Borsippa was destroyed in 448 BC when a revolt against the Achaemenid King Xerxes was violently quelled.
Nabu rose to particular prominence during the period known as the Old Babylonian Period, which lasted from 2000 to 1600 BC. This was especially prominent during the reign of the legendary King Hammurabi (1792 to 1750 BC), during whose rule the male gods in Mesopotamia became the focal point of religious worship, largely replacing old goddesses. Before this period and during it, many Babylonian literary works would always finish with the phrase “ Praise be to Nabu!” .
This custom was taken from early Sumerian literary works such as hymns and similar compositions, which sported a similar phrase in praise to goddess Nisaba. Early on in the rise of prominence of Nabu, some confusion existed in his connection to Nisaba. At first he was seen as her husband and assistant, rather than a Babylonian male version of the same deity. During this period, he is seen as Nisaba’s assistant who helps her keep the records and preserve the library of the gods.
All that is left of the ancient temple of the god Nabu in Borsippa are these ruins that can be visited today in Iraq. (Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
The Patron God of Scribes and the Written Word
Nevertheless, as his cult grew steadily and he became a major deity, his connection to Marduk also grew. Marduk, as we know, was one of the central deities in Mesopotamia, whose cult was highly important in Babylon. Originally, Nabu was seen as a scribe and a vizier of Marduk, essentially serving under him. Step by step, however, he morphed into his divine son. This was especially prominent during and after the Kassite Period. Kassites were the peoples who came to control Babylonia after the fall of the Old Babylonian Empire around 1595 BC up until roughly 1155 BC.
Following this period, Nabu begins to be depicted as Marduk’s son, and almost equal to him in power and reverence. Likewise, his divine role also developed gradually. Originally a scribe to major deities, his role from there naturally progressed to that of a god of writing. As this came to be, he quickly replaced the goddess Nisaba in that role, most likely during the period when male gods became popular. As a god of writing he became the protector and patron of all scribes. From his role as a god of writing, he progressed into becoming the god of wisdom, literacy, and of science.
When it came to his appearance, Nabu wore a pointed horned cap, as did most of the Sumerian deities, and like his father Marduk he rode on his dragon-like creature known as Mušḫuššu (Mushkhushshu). Most depictions show Nabu with his hands clasped in a gesture of prayer, which was associated with priesthood in ancient times.
The symbol of Nabu was usually a stylus (used for writing) resting upon a writing tablet, and sometimes also a cuneiform mark in the shape of a wedge. Both symbols associate him with scribes and writing. One iconic example of this depiction is the stone carving of the 13th century BC Assyrian King Tukulti-Ninurta I. Found at Assur, this elaborate carving shows the king as he worships at the altar of Nabu. He first stands, then kneels in front of a small altar with a stylus and a tablet. This is one of the cases where Nabu is not depicted in his human form, but simply as an object.
Likewise, one of the most common symbols of Nabu was a single wedge symbol in cuneiform. Either vertical or horizontal, this wedge (the essential feature of cuneiform writing) would represent the stylus used for writing it. Also, some depictions of Nabu simply show the dragon creature Mushkhushshu with a wedge symbol on his back.
Image shows a detail from a stone monument of Ashurbanipal II from the temple of Nabu at Borsippa in Iraq. (Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
A Favorite of the Assyrian King
Sir Ernest Wallis Budge, one of world’s foremost scholars specializing in the history of ancient Near East, left a remarkable summary of Nabu in one of his works pertaining to Mesopotamia. In it, he includes the following description:
“He [Nabu] was endowed with great wisdom, like his father; and he acted as scribe to the gods; he had charge of the Tablet of Fate of the gods and had the power of prolonging the days of men. Like the Egyptian Thoth, his eyes travelled over the circuit of the heavens and over all the earth. He was the personification of knowledge and, as a god of vegetation, he caused the earth to produce abundant crops.”
However, at one moment in time, the powerful cult of Nabu was immensely weakened. This occurred during the time of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, and the second ruler of the Sargonid Dynasty known as Sennacherib. This famous ruler sought to reassert the dominance of Assyria and Assyrian Gods, over those of Babylon. Thus he greatly downplayed the Babylonian pantheon and instead promoted the worship of Aššur (Ashur), the head of the Assyrian pantheon.
However, this situation was remedied during the reign of his son, Ashurhaddon, who sought to regain the political support of the Babyonians, and thus reinstated the primacy of their gods. During the reign of Ashurhaddon’s son, Ashurbanipal, the situation got even better: this famed king was a great patron of knowledge and literacy, and Nabu became the foremost god he worshipped.
Just how important Nabu was to Ashurbanipal is shown in a unique archeological discovery: a clay tablet with a lengthy cuneiform text commonly titled as Dialogue Between Ashurbanipal and Nabu. It showcases how this Assyrian ruler saw to emphasize his godlike grandeur, but also how Nabu’s cult didn’t wane over time:
“Ashurbanipal: I constantly speak in praise of you, Nabû, in the assembly of the great gods; may the host of those who wish me ill not take possession of my life! In the temple of the Queen of Nineveh I approach you, hero among the gods, his brothers; you are the trust of Assurbanipal for ever and ever! Ever since I was a small child I have lain at the feet of Nabû; do not abandon me to the assembly of my ill-wishers, O Nabû!
Nabu: Pay attention, Assurbanipal! I am Nabû. Until the end of time your feet shall not grow slack, your hands not tremble; your lips shall not become weary in praying to me; your tongue shall not falter on your lips; Because I will endow you with pleasant speech. I will lift your head and straighten your body in the House of Emašmaš.”
The Forgotten Deities of Ancient Near East
It is interesting to note that the cult of Nabu spread far beyond the borders of the Mesopotamian region. Brought overseas by Aramaic migrants, the cult of Nabu developed in these expatriate communities. This deity was thus worshipped in Anatolia and Egypt, where he was identified with the God known as Thoth.
Nabu also reached Rome and ancient Greece, where he was identified with Mercury amongst the Romans, and as Apollo or Hermes amongst the Greeks. His cult was strong and widespread until roughly the 2nd century AD. As the art of writing in cuneiform became gradually lost and forgotten, so did the power of the patron god of scribes wane.
Alas, even for the most powerful of Gods, the wheel of time shows no mercy. History is turbulent, and powerful: mighty civilizations crumble, empires and kingdoms fall, and thousands of years of culture and ancient languages can disappear in a mere century. The same fate befell those once glorious civilizations of Sumer, Babylonia, and Assyria, as the many millennia of their existence fell, were forgotten, and then became the stuff of hazy legends. The fate of Nabu and other major Mesopotamian gods is shared with these civilizations.
Top image: Assyrian god (Source: Spiroview Inc. / Adobe Stock)
By Aleksa Vučković
Bertman, S. 2005. Handbook to Life in Ancient Mesopotamia. OUP USA.
Mark, J. 2017. Nabu. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Available at: https://www.ancient.eu/Nabu/
Trudeau, J. 2011. “Nabu (god)” in Ancient Mesopotamian Gods and Goddesses . Available at: http://oracc.museum.upenn.edu/amgg/listofdeities/nabu/