“The God Enki in Sumerian Royal Ideology and Mythology” by Peeter Espak

EnkiPeter Espak. The God Enki in Sumerian Royal Ideology and Mythology. Contributions to the Study of Ancient World Culture 87. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2015, pp. xviii + 235, $71.00 (paperback).

Originating from his 2010 doctoral dissertation (University of Tartu, Faculty of Theology; Tartu University Press, 2010), Peeter Espak’s book, now updated and adjusted, opens up his nuanced and meticulous analysis of Enki’s role in Sumerian ideology and mythology to more readers and researchers. To quote his stated goal and purpose of study, “the main objective is to understand how the god Enki was described by ancient priests and scribes, and how that description and mythology evolved during the different periods of Sumero-Akkian history” (3). Although his updated edition was not able to take more recent studies into account, such as Wilfred G. Lambert’s Babylonian Creation Myths (Eisenbrauns, 2013), Jan Lisman’s Cosmogony, Theogony and Anthropogeny in Sumerian Texts (Ugarit-Verlag, 2013), and Karin Sonik’s “Gender Matters in Enuma eli┼í” (In the Wake of Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Gorgias Press, 2009) , his work is nonetheless extremely valuable for the study of ancient Mesopotamian civilization and mythology.

The book may be divided into three parts. Chapters 1-7 examines the role of Enki from the Early Dynastic period (c. 2900-2350 BCE) up to the first dynasty of Babylon (c. 16th century BCE). For each period, Espak breaks it into further division by the specifying rulers within the period. For each period and ruler, he offers a snapshot of the role of Enki. Chapter 8 examines the role of Enki in the mythology of creation and draws several conclusions regarding several elements of Enki’s role within creation mythology with regard to things like Enki as the creator of man, originator of human mortality, and the nature of Abzu. Chapter 9 discusses Enki’s role in archaic Sumerian religion, emphasizing how Enki and Enlil should not be considered in opposition to each other.

One of the major trajectories in his work is the role of the mother-goddess in the Sumerian pantheon, a major issue taken up by Tivka Frymer-Kensky’s quintessential analysis of the disappearance of female deities in Mesopotamian mythology (In the Wake of the Goddesses, 1992). Espak’s detailed study clearly demonstrates how the role of the mother-goddess diminished in the Sumerian pantheon over time. This is extremely important because it grounds the theory of the diminishing of mother-goddesses within the socio-political context of Sumerian rulers and religious life. In this regard, it augments valuable and integral information to how we understanding the diminishing of mother-goddesses in Mesopotamian history.

Another major contribution of Epsak’s volume is that he puts to rest, at least for the time being, conjectural assumptions that Enki and Enlil are opposed to each other. In short, Espak concludes that Enki managed the earth and Enlil was the political war-lord. Establishing such a basis is important because it permits future studies to examine Sumerian, and even later Mesopotamian, mythology and move beyond the opposition of Enki and Enlil. Within this topic, Espak also suggests a theoretical societal shift for the distinction between the two gods: increasingly complex society, political unions, and wars (206). For the sake of well-grounded historical re-construction, Espak should have explored this shift more thoroughly in order to provide a more detailed understanding of life in ancient Sumeria.

The primary critique of his work is minor, yet valuable with regard to scholarship about the Hebrew Bible and ancient Israelite religion. While only mentioned in brevity, Espak’s use of the Genesis creation account for comparative illustration makes no use of the the theoretical sources, even suggesting there is no need to do so. He basis this on a Kikawada and Quinn’s 1985 book titled Before Abraham Was. Regardless of the quality or impact of their work, Espak should have referenced a more recent analysis or critique of the documentary hypothesis, such as a Joel Baden’s J, E, and the Redaction of the Pentateuch (Mohr Siebeck, 2009).

Even in light of such a minor critique, Espak’s work is commendable. To this point in time, he provides the most detailed and thorough coverage of Enki in the royal ideology of Sumeria. His contribution to our understanding the diminishing of mother-goddesses and the lack of conflict between Enki and Enlil are two major contributions to the field of Assyriology, Sumerology, and even Biblical Studies. I highly recommend Espak’s work for those researching Sumeria and/or the development of gods through mythology and history.

*I’d like to express my gratitude to Harrassowitz Verlag for providing a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion.