Utu (Shamash)

Utu is the Sumerian Sun God, whose Akkadian name is Shamash.

He represents the brilliant light of the sun, which returns every day to illuminate the life of mankind, as well as the heavenly Force that brings the warmth which causes plants to grow. Utu´s pictographic sign appears already in the earliest written cuneiform records.

Several Old Sumerian kings speak of Utu as their king, and this can be attested by the kings´ name forms, which may include the name of the god or his epithets in it. In the Sumerian tradition, Utu is the son of Nanna, the Moon Lord and his consort Ningal, and twin brother of Inanna, the Great Goddess of Love and War, showing therefore that the Light of the Day came from the Torch of the Night and the Lady of Dreams.

Nanna and Ningal had another son, the patron god of weather changes and holder of thunderbolts, Ishkur or Adad, Utu’s younger brother.

In Akkadian tradition, Utu/Shamash is sometimes the son of Anu, the Skyfather, or Enlil, the Air Lord. Utu’s consort is Sherida (Sumer) or Aya (Akkadian for dawn). The two principal temples of Utu were both called E-babbar, or White House, and were located in Sippar (in the North) and Larsa in Southern Sumer.

Utu’s main characteristic is Righteousness, for He is the power in the light that reveals all that is to be seen, and the foe of darkness and deeds of darkness. Thus, in the social plane, Utu becomes a power for justice and equity.

Utu’s social role is therefore as guardian of justice, as judge of gods and men. In such position, he presides in the morning in courts such as the one we know from the Bathhouse Ritual, where demons and other evildoers are sued by their human victims. At night, Utu/Shamash judges disputes among the dead of the Underworld. He is the last appeal of the wronged, who can obtain no justice from their fellow men, and their cry of despair to him, i-Utu, was feared as possessing supernatural power.

Basically, each morning Utu rises from the ‘interior of heaven’ with rays out of his shoulders in the through the corresponding set of gates in the west. This means the Sun god travels to the Underworld everyday, becoming one of its Luminaries of the Land of No Return during night time. Thus, Utu/Shamash is one of the Ever-Returning Deities of Mesopotamia, who travel to the Depths Below entering its Gates at Sunset and returning to brighten up the Heights Above at dawn every single day.

The West Gates where the Sun sets in the Epic of Gilgamesh are said to be guarded by the Scorpion People, beings that are half human, half scorpion, the first Otherworld challengers Gilgamesh had to meet and win over in his search for immortality. Utu/Shamash travels the skies either on foot or in a chariot, pulled by fiery mules. His domain is called in The Phoenician Letters (by Wilfrid Davies and G. Zur, Mowat Publishing, Manchester, UK, 1979) the High Country, the heavenly sphere where the stars can be found.

In terms of character, Utu/Shamash is the Light that All Sees, and thus regarded as a god of truth, justice, and right. Thus his association to law and order, as well as a provider of clarity for oracles. I guess we could very much express the law-giving powers of Utu/Shamash as being the Spirit or Soul of the Law, i.e. He rules over the facts and acts which should guide righteous living, the standards for truthful action and deeds in the world, thus being the god for omens and oracles, because His is also the Will of the Ensouled Universe. Marduk, on the other hand, can be associated with the Law in the sense of being the Letter of the Law, the power that should be applied to Perfection to ensure the prosperity of the land. What the Spirit of the Law dictates (Utu/Shamsh) is accomplished by the coding of Harmonious Living, or the Power of Marduk. Utu/Shamash together with the storm-god Adad, he was often invoked in extispicy rituals.


In Mesopotamian myths, Utu/Shamash is mentioned as follows:

a) The Brother and Best Friend – As the brother Inanna/Ishtar, the young goddess of Love and War, Utu appears as friend and initiator, the emblematic representative of the opposite Sex in the peer group, or the brother closer to the age of his younger sister, who loves her and challenges her as well so that she has to find within her own self in all worlds the guts to equal him in all levels and spheres. Utu in this context is the Best Friend and Beloved Challenger, whose otherness help us to define ourselves better in opposition to what he is. This .

Thus, in a passage called The Huluppu Tree, the first in the Cycle of Inanna, Utu refuses to help his kid sister to defeat the treacherous bird and the demoness who had searched for shelter in the Tree Inanna had planted in her garden for her people. Utu/Shamash by refusing to help his divine sister acts in her best interests, because in Mesopotamia a young goddess should be initiated by the hero, as well as young prince is initiated by goddess. He appears therefore as the Contender who wants Inanna/us to succeed by her/our own means and initiative, the brother that will not give us an easy time, but who will also stand by us, in case he feels we cannot handle the situation, but only then…

We also meet Utu again in a second lovely passage of the Cycle of Inanna called “The Bridal Sheets”. In it, Utu/Shamash comes to his sister and tells her that he will bring her a piece of linen, “which is always needed”. In actual fact, Utu is not talking about linen, but referring to his pet sister, who like the piece of cloth which was once flax and then was retted, spun, dyed, woven, etc. has become a lovely girl, ready to meet her beloved. In this myth, Utu/Shamash represents the peer group, the acknowledgement and acceptance all teenagers crave from the opposite Sex that helps to encourage confidence in the Lover Within ourselves. In this passage, we can feel in the exchanges the intimacy and closeness between brother and sister.

b) The Protector of Dumuzi – We meet Utu/Shamash still in the Cycle of Inanna in a passage when Dumuzi, Inanna´s consort, is terrified by the fact that Inanna sentenced him to the Underworld for being neglectful of her. Thus, two Underworld demons called galla are after him. In order to escape his fate, Dumuzi appeals to Utu for help to escape the demons by remembering the God of Justice that by marriage to Inanna, Utu is Dumuzi´s brother-in-law, thus kin to Dumuzi as well. Utu comes for the rescue of the selfish shepherd-king.

Why does Utu help Dumuzi, one may ask? Firstly, Dumuzi did not hurt the Spirit of any Law and did not disrupt the balance of society, i.e. Dumuzi is neither a criminal nor has committed any offense to the people of Mesopotamia. Utu as the Sun God stands for Solar or Rational Consciousness. Solar Consciousness is about absolute justice, moral force and integrity.

Thus, Dumuzi did not fail Utu/Shamash designs and the land of Mesopotamia, but he did fail Inanna, Utu’s sister, and Dumuzi’s wife. He failed Inanna by not missing Her for the three days She had descended to the Underworld, Dumuzi did not say a word expressing concern for the safety of Inanna or a best wish for Her return to the Heights Above. In this sense, Dumuzi was totally neglectful to his consort and wife. Dumuzi failed the test of empathy, trust, responsibility towards those we captivate, in other words, he failed Love and His Beloved.

Utu helps Dumuzi escape twice the gala demons by shapeshifting the young shepherd-king first into a slow, lowly snake, meaning that Dumuzi should learn to master the wisdom of the low earth and physical plane, and not to feel above it as the young king behaved in the absence of Inanna. The second transformation Utu grants Dumuzi is the one of a swift, high climbing mountain gazelle, or the gifts of speed and understanding of the world and existence from a higher standpoint. Dumuzi is thus given the opportunity to experience his earthly kingdom in two different guises and be transformed by both.

c) As the Personal God of Gilgamesh – In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Utu/Shamash is Gilgamesh’s personal god. The king of Uruk prays to Shamash when he and Enkidu decide to defeat Humbaba, the guardian of the Cedar Forest. It is to Him that Enkidu and Gilgamesh offer sacrifices in thanksgiving for the defeat of the Bull of Heaven Inanna/Ishtar sent to battle them in Tablet VI of the Epic of Gilgamesh.

d) In the myth of Etana, the eagle and the snake break an oath of friendship celebrated between them in the presence of Utu/Shamash. An oath to the God who represented The Spirit of the Law was a serious undertaking. Once broken, the guilty part should suffer strong punishment, and The eagle betrays the snake in the most fundamental way by slaughtering the snake’s offspring and destroying the snake’s nest. Thus, the eagle ihas to pay for his wrondoing by having to endure enormous suffering emprisioned in a deep pit, and then can only find redemption by having to help Etana, the king, to fly to the Heights Above and capture the Plant of Life to accomplish his dream of an heir and son. Etana in this context stands for the king and solar consciousness, the solar disc being a symbol of sacred kingship especially in Assyria.

I have interpreted the metaphor of the eagle and the snake as the understanding a monarch must have of the meaning of power and the exercise of justice between irreconcilable oppositions within a nation that is being built. In other words, eagle and the snake can be seen as the warring factions of the land a monarch should keep close watch upon. Difficult to unite, for they are different species, although a truce can be established and maintained by the application of justice. However, the greedy eagle is the one that poses the hardest trial for the king. By betraying the snake and killing its offspring it needed more healing and more attonement. Etana the king can be seen as both the snake, who had its offspring killed by the eagle, thus Etana also grieved for the offspring of his blood he wanted to father so much. The snake was the beast in the king, raw energy and grief. Etana also mean that the monarch should be the embodiment of Shamash/Utu and be the Spirit of the Law and Light that all Sees and Zeals for his domains.

Professor Simo Parpola says the following about the relationship of snake and serpent presented in this myth (extracted from his article The Assyrian Tree of Life, Journal of Near Eastern Studies, volume 52, January-October 1993)

“The eagle and the serpent are conflicting aspects of man´s soul, the one capable of carrying him to heaven, the other pulling him down to sin and death. Ignoring the voice of his conscience (the small fledgling), he becomes guilty of perfidy, greed and murder; for this, he is punished. This is an allegory for spiritual death; the same idea is expressed by the childlessness of Etana, to whom the narrative returns (Etana´s barren wife being the equivalent to his barren soul, and the desired son/fruit an allegory by which Etana will be judged).”

Etana’s realization of his condition is the beginning of his salvation; from now on, he appears as a person, referred to by his own name. Admitting his guilt and shame, he prays for a plant of birth, that is a chance for spiritual rebirth, and is guided to the path that will take him there. Solar consciousness, the prerogative of Shamash/Utu, is the crowning achievement for the monarch, who, having healed himself, returns to form his own blood family to head his kingdom for a few more generations in Mesopotamia.

e) In the myth Enki and the World Order, where civilisation is established and organised by Enki, the God of Sweet Waters, Magick, Crafts and Wisdom, Enki places Utu in charge of the entire universe, and states that:

“The valiant Utu [is] the herald of the holy Anu the judge, the decision-maker of the gods, who wears a lapis lazuli beard, who comes from the holy heaven, born of Ningal, Enki placed in charge of the entire universe” (lines374-379).


One of the most beautiful hymns that came to us from Ancient Mesopotamia is a composition called the Great Hymn to Utu, which is present in its entirely in the section of Hymns and Poems here in Gateways taken from “Babylonian Wisdom Literature” by Lambert. Amongst the many epithets the god is referred to, we have “shepherd without exception”, master of the upper and lower regions (stressing also Shamash’s as the All-Seeing Light of the Underworld), “so that all monsters of the deep behold Shamash’s light”.

The following points should be stressed about this beautiful and long hymn:

1. Shamash as the Divine Stern Judge to whom the gods and humanity bow. The universe in particular longs for Shamash’s light, which regulates what we would call Civil Legislation, or the one involving relatives, familiar and business ties, code of conduct and righteous living for all.

2. Shamash as the Power of the Highest Discernment, thus the Divine Manager of omens and oracular divination. The hymn says that Shamash makes what is perplexing plain.

3. Shamash as the Power of Truth, because He grants Revelation to the families of men as the Seer god, the foremost: “Brightener of gloom, illuminator of darkness, Dispeller of darkness, illuminator of the broad earth.”