Nergal, Nirgal, or Nirgali (Sumerian: dKIŠ.UNU[4] or dGÌR-UNUG-GAL𒀭𒄊𒀕𒃲;[5] Hebrew: נֵרְגַל, Modern: Nergal, Tiberian: Nērḡál; Aramaic: ܢܸܪܓܲܠ;[6] Latin: Nirgal) was a deity who was worshipped throughout ancient Mesopotamia (Akkad, Assyria, and Babylonia) with the main seat of his worship at Cuthah represented by the mound of Tell-Ibrahim. He was also known as Meslamtaea, Erra and Irra.

Nergal
God of war, plague, death, and disease
Ancient Parthian relief carving of the god Nergal from Hatra.jpg
Ancient Mesopotamian relief carving of Nergal from Hatra in Iraq, dating to the first or second century AD[1]
AbodeKur or Irkalla
PlanetMars
Symbollion, lion-headed mace
Personal information
ParentsEnlil and Ninlil
SiblingsNanna, Ninurta, Ninazu, Enbilulu, Pabilsag, Ishara (daughter of Enlil in Hurrian tradition)
ConsortEreshkigal, originally Laz or Mami
Equivalents
Elamite equivalentSimut,[2] Lagamal[3]
Ugaritic equivalentResheph

Attributes and functionsEdit

 
Nergal symbol, Old-Babylonian fired clay plaque from Nippur, Southern Mesopotamian, Iraq
 
Fragments of a vessel dedicated to the temple of Nergal in Nineveh, showing Shalmaneser III kneeling before Nergal, currently held in the British Museum in London

Nergal had a multitude of functions in the religion of ancient Mesopotamia and its neighbors. God lists attest that he had one of the highest numbers of epithets out of all documented deities, with the An-Anum list alone providing around a hundred.[7] He was especially closely related to war, disease and the underworld, and according to Frans Wiggermann can be understood as "god of inflicted death." However, Nergal's warlike nature also made him a god defending the realm, whose presence was regarded as necessary for peace - in this role he was known under the title Lugal-Silimma ("The lord of peace"). He was invoked in apotropaic rituals as well, as his fearsome reputation was believed to keep houses safe from evil.[8]

A few of Nergal's titles point at occasional association with vegetation and agriculture, namely Lugal-asal, "lord (of the) poplar"; Lugal-gišimmar, "Lord (of the) date palm" (also a title of Ninurta); Lugal-šinig, "Lord (of the) tamarisk"; Lugal-zulumma, "Lord (of the) dates."[9]

The symbols most commonly associated with Nergal includes bulls, wild oxen,[10] lions, lion-headed maces and scimitars. Some depictions on cylinder seals depict him in a flat cap associated with underworld deities. War standards could serve as a symbolic depictions of Nergal too, and the Assyrians often carries such objects representing him (as well as Adad) into battle.[11]

Lord of the underworldEdit

Over time Nergal developed from a war god to a god of the underworld.[12] In the mythology, this occurred when Enlil and Ninlil gave him the underworld.[13]

Before the Ur III period Nergal was regarded as a god of the underworld (referred to with the euphemism "big city") in northern Mesopotamia, while Ereshkigal, Ninazu and a number of other similar gods associated with snakes fulfilled similar functions in the south, with Ninazu's cult center, Enegi, being particularly closely associated with this tradition. These two views gradually merged, leading to the concept of Nergal and Ereshkigal as a couple.[14]

Growing influence of Nergal in the south in later periods is visible in the changes in Ninazu's genealogy - he started to be viewed as a son of Enlil and Ninlil like Nergal. Additionally Enegi, his main cult center, was referred to as the dwelling of "Nergal of Enegi" in some texts even before Nergal became popular in the south. [15]

As a god of the afterlife, Nergal was associated with sunset in poetry (Mesopotamians believed the sun to travel through the land of the dead at night), and with judgment (one texts links him in that capacity with the judge god Ishtaran).[16] Rule over the underworld was initially described as bestowed upon him by his parents, with his function being to decide fates of the dead the same way as Enlil did for the living.[17]

Astral roleEdit

A number of scholars in the early 20th century, for example E. G. H. Kraeling, assumed that Nergal was, in part, a solar deity, sometimes identified with Shamash, but only representative of a certain phase of the sun, specifically the sun of noontime and of the summer solstice that brings destruction, high summer being the dead season in the Mesopotamian annual cycle.[18]

Frans Wiggermann considers Mars to be Nergal's sole astral domain,[19] though he mentions "day-demons" among his entourage.[20] God lists associate him with Simut,[21] an Elamite god viewed as a personification of Mars in Mesopotamia,[22] rather than Shamash.

Nergal has nonetheless also been called "the king of sunset" in ancient texts,[13] possibly due to the belief that at night the sun traveled through the underworld, his domain. Nikita Artemov refers to Nergal as a deity with "(quasi)solar" character, but relates it to the sun's journey underground, and with sunset and sunrise rather than with noon like early assyriologists.[23] Christopher Woods discusses Nergal's solar title in relation to rituals compelling ghosts to return to the underworld through the gates to sunset, and to Shamash's role as a judge during his underworld travels.[24]

SyncretismEdit

Nergal was conflated with many other similar gods, and his name was sometimes used as an ideographic way to write names of such deities.[25] Erra, originally a distinct figure, had been fully equated with Nergal after the Old Babylonian period, and subsequently his name appears only in literary and theological contexts (myths, god lists etc.), often with the same text using both names interchangeably.[26]

An equation with Resheph complete with the use of Nergal's name to refer to the local god is attested from Ebla and Ugarit.[27] A god called "Nergal of the KI.LAM" (seemingly a term for markets) and commonly identified with Resheph is also known Emar.[28]

In Hurrian sources Nergal's name might refer to the war god Aštabi.[29]

The Elamite god Simut was frequently equated with Nergal due to their shared connection to the planet Mars, and it is possible he was called "Nergal of Hubshan."[30] Another Elamite deity (though of Akkadian origin) equated with Nergal was Lagamar.[31]

Under Greek and Roman rule Nergal was equated with Heracles in cities such as Palmyra, Hatra and Tarsos.[32]

FamilyEdit

Nergal was consistently described as a son of Enlil and Ninlil. There were multiple conflicting traditions regarding Nergal's wife: the goddesses Laz, Mammi and Admu (a West Semitic goddess best known from Mari) were all referred to as his wives at different points in time.[33] Laz and Mammi were eventually conflated.[34]

In Girsu an unusual local tradition presented Ninshubur as Nergal's wife;[35] no other examples of the female form of Ninshubur being the spouse of other deities are known.[36]

At an unclear point in time, though no earlier than in the Old Babylonian period, the view of Nergal and Ereshkigal as husband and wife also developed, likely in order to reconcile the two conflicting views of the netherworld.[37]

There are no well attested traditions about Nergal's children, though a minor god named Šubula, known almost exclusively from personal names from the Ur III period, is stated to be his son in the god list An-Anum.[38] The same god list mentions a daughter named Dadmuštum.[39]

In the myth Enlil and Ninlil, Nergal's brothers are Ninazu, Nanna and Enbilulu.[40]

SukkalEdit

Originally, Nergal's sukkal was Uqur, interpreted by some researchers as a sword god or as a deified weapon.[41] After the Old Babylonian period he was replaced in this role by Ishum (Hendursanga),[42] a god associated with night watchmen and heralds. Uqur's name was sometimes used to refer to Nergal in later periods.[43]

Sporadically Namtar[44] or Ninshubur[45] were described as Nergal's sukkal.

MythsEdit

Nergal and EreshkigalEdit

Two versions of this myth are known,[46] with the differences between them being the intent of Ereshkigal. The plot and the ultimate outcome remain largely the same.

After Nergal fails to pay respect to Ereshkigal's sukkal Namtar during a feast where he acts as a proxy of his mistress, she demands to have him sent to the underworld to answer for it. One known copy states that she planned to kill Nergal, but this detail is absent from the other two copies, presenting the second version of the story.[47]

Nergal descends to the underworld, but he's able to avoid many of its dangers thanks to advice given to him by Ea. However, he ignores one of them, and has sex with Ereshkigal. After six days he decides to leave while Ereshkigal is asleep. After noticing this she dispatches Namtar, and demands the other gods to convince Nergal to return again, threatening to open the gates of the underworld if she doesn't get what she asks for. Nergal is handed over to her again.

In the Amarna version, where Ereshkigal initially planned to kill Nergal, he defeats Namtar and prepares to kill Ereshkigal. To save herself, she suggests that they can get married and share the underworld. The other two known copies give the myth a happy ending, as noted by assyriologist Alhena Gadotti, "the two deities seem to reunite and live happily ever after," and the myth concludes with the line "they impetuously entered the bedchamber.”[48]

According to assyriologists such as Stephanie Dalley the purpose of this narrative was most likely to find a way to reconcile two different views of the underworld.[49][50]

Epic of ErraEdit

Nergal (the names Nergal and Erra are both used to refer to the protagonist of the narrative) desires to wage war to counter a state of inertia he found himself in. His weapons (the Sebitti[51]) urge him to take action, while his sukkal Ishum attempts to stop him. Nergal dismisses the latter, noting that it is necessary to regain respect in the eyes of humans. His first goal is Babylon. Through trickery he manages to convince Marduk (portrayed here as a ruler past his prime, rather than as a dynamic hero) to leave his temple. However, Marduk returns too soon for Nergal to successfully start his campaign, and as a result in a long speech he promises to give other gods a reason to remember him. As a result of his declaration (or perhaps because of Marduk's temporary absence), the world seemingly finds itself in a state of cosmic chaos. Ishum once again attempts to convince Nergal to stop, but his pleading doesn't accomplish much. Nergal's acts keep escalating and soon Marduk is forced to leave his dwelling again, fully leaving the world at Nergal's mercy. A number of graphic descriptions of the horrors of war focused on nameless humans suffering because of Nergal's reign of terror follow. This is still not enough, and Nergal declares his next goal is to destroy the remaining voices of moderation, and the cosmic order as a whole. However, Ishum eventually manages to bring an end to the bloodshed, by waging a war himself on the inhabitants of Mount Sharshar, seemingly a site associated with the origin of a period of chaos in the history of 1st millennium BCE Babylonia. Ishum's war is described in very different terms to Nergal's, and with its end the period of instability comes to a close. Nergal is seemingly content with the actions of his sukkal and with hearing the other gods acknowledge the power of his rage. The narrative ends with Nergal instructing Ishum to spread the tale of his rampage, but also to make it clear that only thanks to his calming presence the world was spared.[52]

Andrew R. George notes that Ishum appears to play the role of Nergal's conscience in this myth.[53]

Fragments of tablets containing the Epic of Erra were used as apotropaic amulets.[54]

Other mythsEdit

In a myth only known from Seleucid or perhaps Parthian times Nergal was described as confronting Enmesharra, described as an enemy of the gods, and his sons, Sebitti, on behalf of Marduk.[55]

CultEdit

 
Foundation tablet. Dedication to God Nergal by Hurrian king Atalshen, king of Urkish and Nawar, Habur Bassin, circa 2000 BC. Louvre Museum AO 5678.
"Of Nergal the lord of Hawalum, Atal-shen, the caring shepherd, the king of Urkesh and Nawar, the son of Sadar-mat the king, is the builder of the temple of Nergal, the one who overcomes opposition. Let Shamash and Ishtar destroy the seeds of whoever removes this tablet. Shaum-shen is the craftsman."[56]

The main cult centre of Nergal was Kutha, and also enjoyed patronage over Mashkan-shapir. Cults are also attested for Dilbat, Isin, Larsa, Nippur, Ur and Uruk.[57]

Naram-Sin was particularly devoted to Nergal, and referred to him as his "caretaker" (rābisu) and "comrade" (rū'um).[58]

Unlike some other deities with underworld associations, for example Ereshkigal, Nergal is attested in theophoric names.[59] Theophoric names invoking Lagamar (in some god lists equated with him) are known too.[60]

The worship of Nergal does not appear to have spread as widely as that of Ninurta, but in the late Babylonian and early Persian period, syncretism seems to have fused the two divinities, which were invoked together as if they were identical. Hymns and votive and other inscriptions of Babylonian and Assyrian rulers frequently invoke him, but we do not learn of many temples to him outside of Cuthah. The Assyrian king Sennacherib speaks of one at Tarbisu to the north of the Assyrian capital of Nineveh, but significantly, although Nebuchadnezzar II (606–586 BC), the great temple-builder of the neo-Babylonian monarchy, alludes to his operations at Meslam in Cuthah, he makes no mention of a sanctuary to Nergal in Babylon. Local associations with his original seat—Kutha—and the conception formed of him as a god of the dead acted in making him feared rather than actively worshipped.[citation needed]

Time periods attestedEdit

Earliest evidence on Nergal is as the god Meslamtaea in Kutha, in god-lists from Fara and Abu Salabikh. The name Nergal first appears in the Ur III period (22nd to 21st century BC). In the second millennium, Nergal comes to co-rule the underworld with Ereškigal. In the Neo-Assyrian period, he is attested as a significant figure in official Assyrian religious veneration.[57]

In later sourcesEdit

Nergal is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible as the deity of the city of Cuth (Cuthah): "And the men of Babylon made Succoth-benoth, and the men of Cuth made Nergal" (2 Kings, 17:30). According to the Talmudists, his emblem was a cockerel[61] and Nergal means a "dunghill cock."[62] Chickens were introduced to Mesopotamia no earlier than in the 9th century BCE, and left no traces in cuneiform sources,[63] and neither the origin of Nergal's name nor his symbolic representations are connected to these animals.

See alsoEdit

ReferencesEdit

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  47. ^ A. Gadotti, Never Truly Hers: Ereškigal’s Dowry and the Rulership of the Netherworld, Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religions 20, 2020, p. 3: "Upon hearing about this, Ereškigal demands, and ultimately obtains, that the renegade god be sent to her so that she may kill him (Amarna version)"
  48. ^ A. Gadotti, Never Truly Hers: Ereškigal’s Dowry and the Rulership of the Netherworld, Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religions 20, 2020, p. 4
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  57. ^ a b "Nergal (god)". oracc.museum.upenn.edu.
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