The sun god Shamash

By Nurgül Çelebi Director of projects at the Institut Mesopotamie

Throughout human history, the sun has been used as an important symbol by most cultures and civilizations. From antiquity, especially with the emergence of the first agrarian societies, we see that the meaning attributed to the sun gained importance. The sun has been considered sacred since its effect of warming the soil, making plants green, and ripening crops was noticed. As a universal power that makes everything grow, it was worshipped and interpreted as a god by most early societies. The sun also symbolized enlightenment because it illuminates the earth during the daytime, makes the invisible visible, and is a source of light.

The daily cycle of the sun, rising in the morning and setting in the evening, made it be seen as a symbol of death and birth. Likewise, the repetition of this cycle also shows that it has an overlapping meaning with the concepts of resurrection and rebirth. The fact that the sun, which also symbolized vitality, youth and passion, shares duties with the moon in the universal cycle draws attention to a dual structure. At night, the sun’s handing over the task of illuminating the universe to the moon made it be interpreted as the provider of a cosmic balance and to assume the role of the provider of justice.

You can watch the associated Suroyo TV broadcast (in Turkish) with journalist Yawsef Beth Turo and Nurgül Çelebi here.

When we look at the ancient beliefs of Mesopotamia, we notice that the sun gains importance as the god Shamash. In earlier times, however, Shamash was called Utu in Sumer, current-day southern Iraq. Although we know from early cuneiform writings that the sun god Shamash dates back to Sumer, it should not be overlooked that some Semitic tribes known to have lived in Mesopotamia before the rise of Sumer, may also have had a system of belief in which the sun god had an important role.

The sun god Shamash had a very important position in almost all of Mesopotamia’s civilizations. A very crowded pantheon of gods appears in most of the myths of these ancient civilizations. Among the many larger and smaller gods, it is known that the gods we call the celestial gods – the sun god Shamash, the moon god Sin, and the Venus god Ishtar – were the greatest gods in the pantheon. The greatest god among them, without exception, was the sun god Shamash.

In our oldest written sources, thanks to archaeological findings in Sumer, we have access to detailed information about the sun god during 3500-4000 BC. As a result of Akkadian raids, we see that the sun god belief also entered their Akkadian beliefs. It is clear that the Akkadians, who did not have a unique writing style, started to use the script after they came to the Sumerian region. They also incorporated the Sumerian mythologies and synthesized them with their own Akkadian beliefs.

Figure 1: Stele from Harran of Nabonid, king of Babylon (6th c. BC). British Museum.

Today, within the borders of modern Turkey, especially in Harran and Soğmatar and environs, there are remnants of the sun god cult. In various cuneiform and Aramaic tablets, we come across depictions and symbols of Shamash. It is highly probable that an underground temple in Siverek, discovered by treasure hunters, is also a Sin or Shamash temple. In addition, remains of a temple of Shamash were found in Ed-Dur excavations in Ummul Kayveyn, in Nineveh, the center of the Assyrian Empire.

Figure 2: Inscription with the symbols of Shamash, Sin, and Ishtar. Kudurru (stele) of King Melishipak I (1186–1172 BC). Louvre, Paris.

Of course, it was inevitable that the sun cult, which was so widespread in the Mesopotamian region, would also reflect on monotheistic religions and beliefs. The sun temples, the sun disc, and the sun symbol, which are scattered over the wide geography and frequently used, have influenced other belief systems in the region in various ways.

We can see this most clearly in Judaism. The sun is also an important symbol for Judaism, which is the first monotheistic religion known in the region. The name ‘Shemesh’ is mentioned in many passages in the Torah, the holy book of the Jewish tradition. In some of these passages, we can see Shemesh, who appears as an element of the cosmic cycle, as divine energy opposite to the One God Yahweh. It goes without saying that many of these passages contain statements pointing out that Yahweh is greater than Shemesh and that it is forbidden to worship this latter god (Deut. 4:9- 17:3, 2 Kings 23:5). It is noteworthy that the scene in which Shamash, who is believed to be residing in heaven, ascends to the sky in a fiery chariot, is similarly used in the depictions of Yahweh. Furthermore, we see that the candle in the middle of the menorah, which is an important symbol in Jewish tradition, is called the Shemesh and symbolizes the eternal light of the universe. It is known that the official among the Jewish clergy assigned with an important role in the rituals, was also known as Shemesh or Shamash.

If we look at the Christian tradition, which accepts the Old Testament, the holy book of Judaism, we can see that the sun symbol is frequently used in religious texts. In the Christian tradition, there is the belief that Jesus Christ illuminated the whole universe and humanity like a sun. On this subject, we see that early Syriac theologians such as Saint Ephrem, Bardaisan, Aphrahat and Cyril used the sun symbol extensively in their works.

Figure 3: Representation of Shamash from the Tablet of Shamash (c. 888 – 855 BC).

In the modern era, the sun symbol is used in many areas, in particular the sun form that we see in a circle over the head of the sun god Shamash. It is used in pennants, seals, and in the Assyrian flag.

The depictions of Shamash, as the representation of power and justice, with the sun in the winged disk, were used by almost most Middle Eastern societies. Further to the West, the presence of the sun symbol draws attention to the emblems of the Vatican and in most religious accessories, from the headdress worn by the Catholic pope to the silk scarf fogged with papal motifs.

Figure 4: Winged sun disc.

The sun symbol contains mostly masculine energy, and also symbolizes power and capability. For this reason, the sun often appears on the pennants, emblems, and seals of many kingdoms. Such symbols are also associated with animals. We can see that the sun is usually associated with the lion. The fact that the lion is a powerful animal and is referred to as the king of the animal kingdom is compatible with this. The yellow manes surrounding his head can also be interpreted and depicted as sunlight. In ancient Mesopotamian beliefs, the sun god is sometimes depicted with a lion on both sides.

The main importance of the sun god, however, is that he is in balance with the moon god in the cosmic order and shares the task of ruling both the sky and the underworld. The sun can be considered as a light source that illuminates the darkness, as white in black. In this respect, it is seen that in various esoteric beliefs, the sun is conceived of as a cosmic power, the representation of justice, and the balancing element of the universe.

May the sun always be the light in our darkness and nourish enlightened minds. Stay in balance!

Nurgül Çelebi was born in 1985 in Istanbul. She holds a master’s degree from the Syriac Language and Culture Department at Mardin Artuklu University with her thesis on Sun and Moon Symbolism in Syriac literature. She continues her Ph.D. program in the history of religions at Ankara University with her thesis on “Sin-Shamash Duality and Its Reflection on Religions”. She is currently continuing her second Ph.D. in the Assyrian History doctorate program at ELTE University in Budapest.

Nurgül Çelebi works on Mesopotamian beliefs and mythologies and published papers on these subjects. In addition to academic studies, she has published three novels in Turkish: “Yarına Dokunmak“, “Aşka Dokunmak”, and “Tanrı Dağı”. Her stories have appeared in five anthologies: “Karanlıktaki Kadınlar”, “Hayalet Müzik”, “Eskilerin Şöleni”, “Dark Antoloji Birinci Kitap”, and “Dark Antoloji İkinci Kitap”.