Located in the fabled ancient city of Babylon, adjacent to the Processional Way and the iconic Ishtar Gate, the Ninmakh Temple was rebuilt several times during the reigns of Esarhaddon, Assurbanipal, and Nebuchadnezzar in the sixth century BCE.

Ninmakh was the mother goddess in ancient Mesopotamia. Ninmakh means exalted lady. Her dedicated temple was first excavated by archaeologists of the Koldewey Expedition (1899–1914) and later re-excavated and reconstructed by Iraqi archaeologists. The excavation revealed that each rebuild was several meters higher than the previous. Raising the walls in this way had resulted in the preservation of earlier walls and of white lime plaster.

The central courtyard of the temple

The central courtyard of the temple, characterised with the presence of the holy well. The inner sanctum of the temple of Ninmakh was restricted for women only, who would gather in the sacred precinct of the temple and pray for good marriages and married women would pray for offspring among other worship rituals. The women also used the water from this well for ritual bathing and for purification. It was one of the several sacred wells located in the sacred precincts around the city.

Study shows that the temple structure and the attached fortification wall encompassed several rebuilding phases, which cannot be dated solely to the Neo-Babylonian era (626–539 BCE). The ground plan of the temple changed more than once and was used at least till the Parthian era (247 BCE-224 CE). The pavement (flooring) of the temple previously thought to date back to the Neo-Babylonian time actually belongs to the Parthian era.

The temple is in poor condition because of a combination of material incompatibilities, wind, rain, and the changing course of the Euphrates over two millennia, combined with improper water drainage, rising groundwater, and water-borne mineral salts. These priceless heritage structures are begging for restoration.

I felt that I hardly knew about the goddess Ninmakh, whose temple we visited in Babylon.  I have read about Inanna and Ishtar. I started googling on Ninmakh.

Goddess Ninmakh

Ninmakh is the Sumerian Mother Goddess and one of the oldest and most important in the Mesopotamian Pantheon. She is principally a fertility goddess. According to legend, her name was changed from Ninmakh to ‘Ninhursag’ means ‘Lady of the Mountain’ by her son Ninurta in order to commemorate his creation of the mountains. It comes from the Sumerian poem Lugale (Ninurta’s Exploits) in which Ninurta, god of war and hunting, defeats the monstrous demon Asag and his stone army and builds a mountain of their corpses. Ninurta gives the glory of his victory to his mother Ninmah (‘Magnificent Queen’) and renames her Ninhursag. Her other names include Dingirmakh, Makh, Ninmakh, Mamma, Mama, and Aruru.

Temple hymn sources identify her as the “true and great lady of heaven” (possibly in relation to her standing on the mountain) and kings of Sumer were “nourished by Ninhursag’s milk” (possibly referring to the waters of river Euphrates and Tigris flowing down from mountains).

Ninmakh subsumed the characteristics of similar deities like Ki (earth) and others, and was later herself subsumed by the fertility goddess Inanna/Ishtar. The depictions and form of Goddess Ishtar, worshipped in Mesopotamia, hold a striking resemblance to those of goddess Durga in Hindu religious texts. She rides a lion, which is similar to Goddess Durga represented in Hindu Vedic texts.

Ninmakh is known as the Mother of the Gods and Mother of Men for her part in creating both divine and mortal entities, having replaced the earlier Mother Goddess, Nammu (also known as Namma) whose worship is attested as early as Dynastic III (2600-2334 BCE) of the Early Dynastic Period (2900-2334 BCE).

In the legend of Atrahasis (18th-century BCE) is an Akkadian epic, Ninmakh appears as Nintu/Mami, the womb-goddess. She shapes clay figurines mixed with the flesh and blood of a slain minor deity, and ten months later, humans are born. Atrahasis recorded in various versions on clay tablets, named for its protagonist, Atrahasis (exceedingly wise). The Atra-Hasis tablets include both a creation myth and one of three surviving Babylonian flood myths. The story of Atrahasis also exists in a later Assyrian version, first rediscovered in the Library of Ashurbanipal, though its translations have been uncertain due to the artifact being in fragmentary condition and containing ambiguous words.

Babylonian limestone kudurru depicting a turtle, which was a symbol of Enki; 1125BC-1100 BCE (BM 102485). (Source: The Trustees of the British Museum)

Cosmogonic Myths

Creation was seen by the Sumerians as an act of skilled craftmanship. According to the myth, Enki, the patron of all arts and crafts, the god of the sweet fertilising waters of the deep, wisdom and magic, is challenged to a creature-making contest by Ninmakh, the Great Mother goddess and Enki´s feisty beloved. Everything starts in the old days, when the gods were forced to work hard excavating irrigation canals. The senior gods did the digging while the younger carried the baskets of earth, a heavy task indeed. Then, to relieve the gods of their workload, urged by the primeval Mother Nammu the Sea, Enki, the creator of forms, aided by Nammu and Ninmah created the first humans. The moment humankind was created, a bond between humans and the gods was sealed, to last forever after.

There is another legend. Together with the sky god Anu, Ninmakh was conceived in Nammu’s oceanic womb. Anu and Ninmakh/Ki came to life embracing each other within the primeval sea.

The creation of man from clay is a theme that recurs throughout numerous world religions and mythologies. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Enkidu is created by the goddess Aruru out of clay. In Greek mythology, Prometheus molded men out of water and earth. Per the Hebrew Bible, (Genesis) “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul”. In Hindu mythology the mother of Ganesh, Parvati, made Ganesh from clay and turned the clay into flesh and blood. In Chinese mythology, Nuwa moulded figures from the yellow earth, giving them life and the ability to bear children. As per the Santhals of India, Thakur-Jiu made two humans out of earth and breathed life into them.

In the myth of Enki and Ninmah, Ninmakh begins on equal footing with the god, but by the end, loses her status. It is known that the female deities in Mesopotamia were overshadowed by the males during the reign of Hammurabi of Babylon (1792-1750 BCE). If it could be authoritatively determined that the story of Enki and Ninmakh dated from this time, then the myth would correspond to the overall decline in stature and equality goddesses (and women) were then experiencing.

12 comments

  1. Very informative, interesting and intriguing. It is eminently possible the characters (read god) across the globe that we dismiss as mythology actually existed. And if so, then a sinister conspiracy was hatched to burry the golden past without explaining how those massive structures were erected that lived to tell us something about those times.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Aro. You may be right. Clay tablet 1 of the Atrahasis (18th century BCE) begins after the creation of the world but before the appearance of human beings: “When the gods, instead of man did the work, bore the loads. The god’s load was too great, the work too hard, the trouble too much.” The elder gods made the younger gods do all the work on the earth and, after digging the beds for the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the young gods finally rebel. Enki suggests the immortals create something new, human beings, who will do the work instead of the gods. One of the gods, We-Ilu (also known as Ilawela) known as “a god who has sense” offers himself as a sacrifice to this endeavour and is killed. The mother Goddess, Ninmakh adds his flesh, blood and intelligence to clay and creates seven male and seven female human beings. You may read about the Atrahasis Epic and may find similarities with the Hindu mythologies, as well as the Genesis and mythologies of other tribes.

      Liked by 1 person

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