Utu - Shamash: Mesopotamian God of the Sun, Justice and the Underworld
Utu was a solar deity and god of justice in the ancient Mesopotamian pantheon, and also served as a judge in the Underworld. Whilst Utu was the god’s name in Sumerian, he was known in Akkadian as Shamash (Šamaš). This god was regarded to be part of a divine trio and was worshiped alongside the moon god Nanna (Sin in Akkadian) and Inanna (Ishtar in Akkadian), the goddess of the planet Venus.
The Sumerians believed that Utu was the son of the moon god Nanna, and the twin brother of Inanna. The Akkadians, on the other hand, believed that this god was the son of either Anu or Enlil. Utu’s consort was Sherida (Aya in Akkadian), a goddess associated with the rising sun.
God of the Sun and Justice
Utu, or Shamash as he was later known, was worshiped by the ancient Mesopotamians as a solar deity. As the god of the sun, Utu was responsible for ensuring that the Sun took its daily path across the heavens. As the Sun is the source of all life on earth, this was an important task. Nevertheless, Utu’s job was much more than just giving life to the world.
The Mesopotamians believed that in his capacity as a sun god, Utu had the power to see all that was going on in the world during the day. This also meant that he was able to see through deception and deceit. Thus, Utu was also worshiped as the god of truth and justice. In this role, Utu served as the judge of both men and gods.
At night, Utu became the judge of the Underworld. Utu’s association with justice is also evident in the claim made by the Babylonian king Hammurabi that his law code was given to him from the god, and was implemented at his command.
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The god Utu from the Tablet of Shamash (CC by SA 1.0)
Heroic and Ethical
Interestingly, Utu’s behaviour is quite different from many other Mesopotamian gods, who are normally portrayed as being whimsical, and acting based on their desires, very much like mortals. Utu, on the other hand, is depicted as a heroic character whose actions are completely dictated by ethical considerations. It is due to this that Utu seldom appears in Mesopotamian myths!
Nevertheless, the god does make an appearance in certain myths. Arguably the most famous of these is the Epic of Gilgamesh, in which the god aids the Gilgamesh and his partner, Enkidu, in their quest to slay the monster Humbaba. In one version of the myth, Utu helped the heroes by sending them dreams to guide them, as well as a series of winds against Humbaba during the final battle. Additionally, Utu is claimed to have instigated Gilgamesh to undertake this quest, as Humbaba was the opposite of everything that the god stood for.
Utu and Inanna
Utu also appears in the myth known as Inanna’s Descent into the Underworld. Once again, he plays the role of a protective deity. In the myth, the goddess Inanna goes to the Underworld to challenge her sister, Ereshkigal. The goddess was, however, defeated, and was trapped in her sister’s domain.
Eventually, she was freed, but had to provide a substitute to take her place in the Underworld. It was her husband, Dumuzid, whom Inanna decided should take her place. When the demons came to drag Dumuzid down into the Underworld, he prayed to Utu, who intervened, and turned him into a snake so that he may escape from them.
Utu and Inanna are shown as very close, in both texts and art. In fact, their relationship borders on the incestuous and it is believed they were much more than just siblings.
Goddess Ishtar (Inanna) stands on the back of an animal (probably a lion). She holds a bow with her left hand while the right hand grasps what appears to be a crook or a sickle-like object. The symbol of the god Shamash (Utu) can be seen at the upper right corner (CC by SA 4.0).
Utu was depicted in artistic works in a number of ways. In some cases, Utu is represented by his symbol, a solar disc. This is seen, for example, on a stone stele of Ashurbanipal II, on which the Assyrian ruler is shown worshipping several deities, including Utu, in their symbolic forms.
In other representations, the god is depicted as a ruler with a long beard seated on a throne, as seen on Hammurabi’s law code stele, or on Nabu-apla-iddina’s ‘Sun God Tablet’. His weapon was a pruning-saw, a double-edged saw with jagged teeth, which represented his role as the god of justice.
Top image: Mesopotamian god (KateD / Adobe Stock)
By Wu Mingren
Horry, R., 2013. Utu/Šamaš (god). [Online]
Available at: http://oracc.museum.upenn.edu/amgg/listofdeities/utu/index.html
New World Encyclopedia, 2015. Shamash. [Online]
Available at: http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Shamash
The British Museum, 2019. The Sun God Tablet. [Online]
Available at: https://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=282224&partId=1
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2016. Shamash. [Online]
Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Shamash
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Available at: http://www.ancientneareast.net/mesopotamian-religion/utu-samas-shamash/