Evolution of Sumerian kingship

According to the Sumerian King List, kingship was already in the third millennium BC an ancient institution. But is this correct? Where and how did Sumerian kingship originate?

Written by Daan Nijssen on

The Sumerian King List is one of the oldest historiographical documents known to mankind. The earliest version dates back to the Neo-Sumerian Period (2112-2004 BC) and lists all the kings who had “held kingship” up to that time, along with their home city and the length of their reign.

The Sumerian King List presents kingship as a divine gift that had been bestowed upon mankind in primordial times and that was passed down from king to king and from city to city by the will of the gods. Interestingly, this kingship could only be held by one person at a time.

The highly abstract concept of kingship as espoused in the Sumerian King List has fascinated scholars for a long time. Are we to believe its claim that kingship was an age-old institution? Where and how did Sumerian kingship actually originate?

The priest king of Uruk

The earliest signs of kingship in Sumer may be traced back to Uruk. In the fourth millennium BC this city saw an enormous increase in population. At its height, it housed about 40,000 people. Since all these people had to find a way to live together in peace, the need for a common identity grew. An identity not based on the tribal unit, but on the city itself.

Early in the fourth millennium BC a temple was built for the sky god Anu and later a much larger temple complex – the EANNA – was built for the fertility goddess Inanna. These gods appear to have been the patron deities of the city. By building temples and ceding part of their harvest as a sacrifice, the people of Uruk tried to please these gods. In return, these gods would ensure a good harvest and preserve the unity of the city.

Map of Mesopotamia showing important sites. The Sumerian city states were located in the south (Ur, Uruk, Lagash, and so on). Also shown are Ashur and Nineveh, as well as the later city of Palmyra. The main shaded area shows the extent of the Akkadian Empire. The more lightly shaded regions show the areas hit by the conquests of Sargon and Naram-Sim.

In order to regulate the relation between the gods and the people of Uruk, one man was appointed “priest king”. This priest king is usually depicted as a bearded man wearing a long robe and a shepherd’s cap. Most depictions show him feeding animals or overseeing a sacrificial ceremony, as e.g. on the Uruk Vase.

Since writing was yet to be invented, there is little we can say about the position of this priest king. He may have been regarded as the mortal husband of Inanna, as the Sumerian word for “high priest” – EN – originally meant “husband” or “owner”. In later Mesopotamian literature, Inanna (or Ishtar, as she is called in Akkadian) is repeatedly described as a lover of mortal kings.

The most famous example may be found in the (much later) Epic of Gilgamesh, in which the goddess speaks to the hero as follows:

Come along, Gilgamesh, be you my husband, to me grant your lusciousness. Be you my husband, and I will be your wife. I will have harnessed for you a chariot of lapis lazuli and gold, with wheels of gold and ‘horns’ of electrum. It will be harnessed with great storming mountain mules! Come into our house, with the fragrance of cedar.

And when you come into our house the doorpost (?) and throne dais (?) will kiss your feet. Bowed down beneath you will be kings, lords, and princes. The Lullubu people will bring you the produce of the mountains and countryside as tribute. Your she-goats will bear triplets, your ewes twins, your donkey under burden will overtake the mule, your steed at the chariot will be bristling to gallop, your ax at the yoke will have no match.Show Source.

In order to maintain the temple complex and organize the sacrificial ceremonies, an institution known as “the temple” took shape. This institution could demand of the people of Uruk that they cede part of their harvest and that they provide labor in service of the goddess. Besides, the temple owned a large portion of the agricultural land around the city and had plenty of people in its service.

In order to make this complex society work, cuneiform writing was invented and the first state apparatus in history took shape. Throughout the fourth millennium BC, the temple remained the sole form of authority. Most of the common people remained more or less equal to each other in terms of wealth and power.

Aristocratic warlords

In the early third millennium BC, the position of Uruk began to wane as other Sumerian city-states gained prominence. The city of Kish, located in the north of Sumer, became especially important after the city-states further down the river had been ravaged by repeated flooding. These floods may have given rise to the Flood Legend.

Along with the increased competition between the Sumerian city-states, a new class of land-owning families arose. These families lived in larger houses and owned luxury items like jewellery and decorated pottery. Like the temple, these aristocratic households owned large tracts of agricultural land and had a large number of people in their service.

Each household was led by a “big man”, or LUGAL in Sumerian. While the word LUGAL later took on the meaning of “king”, it may originally have referred to any man with authority, including the head of a household.

Since the LUGALs could leave all the work to their servants, they could spend their time on other activities. One of these activities was fighting in wars. As a result of population growth the Sumerian city-states started claiming more agricultural land, which inevitably led to border conflicts.

These border conflicts were often resolved on the battlefield. Each LUGAL brought some men from his own household to participate in the battle. Sometimes one LUGAL was elected commander-in-chief for the entire city-state, either by an assembly of the people or by the high priest. Some LUGALs won a lot of prestige through their prowess in battle and stories about their deeds were preserved in oral tradition for generations.

The legendary king Gilgamesh of Uruk, whose original claim to fame was his defeat of LUGAL Aga of Kish, may have been one of these LUGALs.

Divinely appointed arbiter

Throughout the third millennium BC, Sumer remained divided among various city-states. The LUGALs at that time were little more than temporary commanders-in-chief and the high priest, who was known as the EN (husband) or the ENSI (owner of the fields), likely remained the official head of state.

Despite the lack of political unity, awareness of an overarching Sumerian identity grew. The patron gods of the Sumerian city-states were assigned fixed positions in the Sumerian pantheon. The storm god Enlil, who was worshipped in the politically insignificant city of Nippur, became the supreme god of the pantheon.

In a hymn to Enlil dating to the late third millennium BC the god is described as follows:

Enlil’s commands are by far the loftiest, his words are holy, his utterances are immutable! The fate he decides is everlasting, his glance makes the mountains anxious, his … reaches into the interior of the mountains. All the gods of the earth bow down to father Enlil, who sits comfortably on the holy dais, the lofty engur, to Nunamnir, whose lordship and princeship are most perfect.Show Source.

At the temple of Enlil in Nippur, votive offerings from all over Sumer have been found. One of these votive offerings was inscribed with the name of Enmebaragesi, a LUGAL of Kish and the father of Gilgamesh’s rival Aga of Kish. The LUGALs of Kish appear to have enjoyed a special status among the LUGALs.

In the 25th century BC, a certain Mesilim, a LUGAL of Kish, is described on the so-called Vulture Stele (about which Josho Brouwers has written an article) as having acted as an arbiter in a border conflict between Lagash and Umma:

Enlil, the king of the lands, father of the gods, upon his firm command drew the border between Nigirsu (patron deity of Lagash) and Shara (patron deity of Umma). Mesalim, king of Kish, at the command of (the god) Ishtaran, measured the field and place the stele.Show Cooper, J.S. (1986): Sumerian and Akkadian Royal Inscriptions – Volume 1: Pre-Sargonic Inscriptions. New Haven: American Oriental Society, pp. 54-57.

Apparently both city-states recognized Mesilim’s authority in this matter. The title šar Kiššati (king of Kish) would later become a standard title for many Mesopotamian kings to come.

Over the course of centuries the LUGALs acquired more agricultural land and their power and influence grew. Some of them started asserting their authority in peacetime as well, usually acting as a divinely appointed arbiter.

A good example is LUGAL Urukagina of Lagash, who reigned in the 24th century BC. In order to limit the power of the temple and other influential landowners, he confiscated large tracts of agricultural land and dedicated these to the god Ningirsu and the goddess Ba’u. While these lands were now officially in the possession of these gods, they were administered by Urukagina and his family.

Urukagina thus presented himself as a steward, who only took care of the lands of the gods in their absence. The idea of divine stewardship became a common theme in Mesopotamian history and as such had a profound influence on Jewish, Christian, and Islamic thought.

Patron of the civilized world

Urukagina of Lagash was one among a handful of LUGALs living in the 24th century BC whose power and influence reached beyond the walls of his home city. Other examples are Ur-Zababa of Kish and Lugal-Zagesi of Umma. Each of these LUGALs vied for the position of patron of all Sumerian city-states and each of them was supported by coalition of lesser LUGALs. Lugal-Zagesi is said to have had no less than fifty LUGALs beneath him.

In the end, an Akkadian LUGAL by the name of Sargon (r. 2334-2278 BC) gained supremacy over all the others. Sargon killed Ur-Zababa and humiliated Lugal-Zagesi by putting him on a dog leash, after which the remaining LUGALs switched allegiance to Sargon.

Imaginative illustration from 1913 by Edwin J. Prittie. It depicts the young Sargon, innocently working as a gardener and ignorant of his origin and his future, being visited by the goddess Ishtar, who is “surrounded by a cloud of doves”. Source: Wikipedia.

After Sargon’s victory the Sumerian city-states remained largely autonomous. The ENs and the ENSIs remained the official leaders of the city-states, but they were now required to sent part of the temple income to Sargon. In addition, the lesser LUGALs were required to stop fighting among themselves.

This way, Sargon created a commonwealth of Sumerian city-states with himself as its leader. As a result of this development, the role of the ENs and the ENSIs diminished. They now had little influence beyond the walls of their home city. Gradually the word ENSI took on the meaning of “governor” and the word EN came to mean simply “high priest”, while the word LUGAL took a semantic flight from “head of the household” to “patron of the civilized world”.

In his function as patron of the civilized world, Sargon had the duty to keep the “barbarians” surrounding the Sumerian city-states in check. For this reason, Sargon conducted numerous campaigns with his personal army of 5400 men. He received tribute from distant cities like Mari and possibly Ebla and he travelled to the Taurus Mountains, the Cedar Forest of Lebanon and the island of Cyprus in order to gain rare commodities like silver, cedar wood and copper.

These campaigns were meant to build his reputation as a divine hero. This militaristic aspect of kingship became a common theme in Mesopotamian history for thousands of years to come. Despite all his efforts, Sargon remained a controversial leader throughout his reign. The lesser LUGALs repeatedly rose up against him and Sargon barely managed to pass down his empire to his son.

Sargon’s grandson Naram-Sîn (r. 2254-2218 BC) was the last Akkadian king who successfully conducted campaigns far from home. He is best known for having fought the Lullubi and the Gutians from the Zagros Mountains. Naram-Sîn managed to keep these mountain peoples at bay, but soon after his death the Gutians overran his empire. The Sumerian city-states no longer answered to the LUGAL of Akkad and in some city-states Gutian warlords took over power.

In a text known as “The Curse of Akkad” the Gutian invasions are described as a divine retribution for Naram-Sîn’s looting of the temple of Enlil in Nippur:

Enlil, the roaring (?) storm that subjugates the entire land, the rising deluge that cannot be confronted, was considering what should be destroyed in return for the wrecking of his beloved E-kur. He lifted his gaze towards the Gubin mountains, and made all the inhabitants of the broad mountain ranges descend (?). Enlil brought out of the mountains those who do not resemble other people, who are not reckoned as part of the Land, the Gutians, an unbridled people, with human intelligence but canine instincts and monkeys’ features.

Like small birds they swooped on the ground in great flocks. Because of Enlil, they stretched their arms out across the plain like a net for animals. Nothing escaped their clutches, no one left their grasp. Messengers no longer travelled the highways, the courier’s boat no longer passed along the rivers. The Gutians drove the trusty (?) goats of Enlil out of their folds and compelled their herdsmen to follow them, they drove the cows out of their pens and compelled their cowherds to follow them. Prisoners manned the watch. Brigands occupied the highways.

The doors of the city gates of the Land lay dislodged in mud, and all the foreign lands uttered bitter cries from the walls of their cities. They established gardens for themselves within the cities, and not as usual on the wide plain outside. As if it had been before the time when cities were built and founded, the large arable tracts yielded no grain, the inundated tracts yielded no fish, the irrigated orchards yielded no syrup or wine, the thick clouds (?) did not rain, the macgurum plant did not grow.Show Source, 149-175.

The fact that Naram-Sîn referred to himself as a god may have been regarded as an act of defiance as well. No Mesopotamian king after him would refer to himself as a god.

Kingship as an abstraction

Under the LUGALs of Akkad the idea that there could be only one divinely protected kingship on earth took form. The concept of divinely ordained kingship gave the king a position above ordinary men.

In this position, the king had the right to decree laws and to demand tribute. Still, the king remained subject to the will of the gods. The gods could take away kingship at any time if a king misbehaved. This also meant that other people could claim kingship when the king was perceived to have lost divine favor.

After the collapse of the Akkadian Empire the land of Sumer and Akkad was again divided among numerous city-states. The ideal of one king ruling all of Sumer and Akkad, however, had already taken root in the heart and minds of Sumerians and Akkadians alike. Even Gutian warlords like Erridu-Pizir took on the title “king of the four quarters”.

Despite their attempts to accommodate to Sumerian and Akkadian traditions, the Gutians could not get rid of their reputation as barbarian invaders. Eventually the Sumerian city-states joined forces under the leadership of Utu-Hegal of Uruk (r. 2119-2112 BC) in an attempt to drive out the Gutians. After the death of Utu-Hegal his brother Ur-Nammu (r. 2112-2095 BC) claimed kingship and settled in the city of Ur, founding the Neo-Sumerian Empire.

During the Neo-Sumerian Period (2112-2004 BC) Sumerian culture flourished one more time. Although the Akkadian language and culture had come to dominate the region by this time, the Sumerian language and culture continued to be cherished by the Sumerian elite.

The Neo-Sumerian kings promoted their Sumerian heritage by writing down the oral traditions about the great LUGALs of the past, among which were the first recorded stories about Gilgamesh. This Sumerian warlord was now described as a heroic king who ruled over all of Sumer.

It seems that Gilgamesh was modelled – at least in part – after Sargon of Akkad. For instance, Sargon’s campaign to the Cedar Forest of Lebanon was now attributed to Gilgamesh. This way a Sumerian Empire preceding the Akkadian Empire was invented.

The composition of the Sumerian King List should also be seen as part of this Neo-Sumerian revival. This document presents an idealized view of kingship, that encompassed all of the civilized world and could only be held by one king at a time.

In short, the Neo-Sumerian kings projected the reality of the Neo-Sumerian Empire onto the distant past. This way they sought to legitimize their own rule. Today, however, we know that the kingship as described in the Sumerian King List was actually quite new and the result of a cultural evolution spanning over a thousand years.

Further reading

Suggestions for further reading are listed below. Some books have links to Amazon. If you buy something there, we'll collect a share of the sales. It's a convenient way to support the website.

  • J.S. Cooper, Sumerian and Akkadian Royal Inscriptions, Volume 1: Pre-Sargonic Inscriptions (1986).
  • Douglas R. Frayne, The Royal Inscriptions of Mesopotamia: Pre-Sargonic Period – Early Periods (2700-2350 BC) (2008). [Amazon]
  • Douglas R. Frayne, The Royal Inscriptions of Mesopotamia: Sargonic and Gutian Period (2334-2113 BC) (1993).
  • Douglas R. Frayne, The Royal Inscriptions of Mesopotamia: Ur III Period (2112-2004 BC) (1997). [Amazon]
  • T. Jacobsen, The Sumerian King List (1939).
  • Mario Liverani, Akkad: The First World Empire – Structure, Ideology, Traditions (1993).
  • Mario Liverani, Uruk: The First City (2006). [Amazon]
  • Marc Van De Mieroop, The Ancient Mesopotamian City (1999).
  • A. Westenholz, "The Sumerian city-state: A comparative study of six city-state cultures", Historisk-filosofiske Skrifter (2002), pp. 23-42.

Think we needed to include something else in this list? Let us know.