10 Shocking and Surprising Facts About the Sumerians
One of the most controversial and enigmatic civilizations that mystifies us to this day is that of ancient Sumerians. Seemingly appearing out of nowhere during the Stone Age, their civilization displayed advanced knowledge in the organization as well as the economic and social stability of its citizens. Some of the amazing inventions attributed to them include the oldest written language, the separation of time into minutes and seconds, the establishment of large cities, the invention of the wheel, and the actual establishment of trade—oh, and don’t forget… beer!
In fact, the Sumerian civilization was so successful that over ten city-states had already been established by the fourth millennium BC. Their customs, beliefs, and religious practices became the blueprint for subsequent cultures and can be found weaved throughout time into many of our customs to this day, some of which might surprise you. So let’s take a look at ten of the strangest facts about the ancient Sumerians.
Related: 10 Glimpses Into Life In Man’s First Civilization
10 Firm Belief in Vampires
Everyone loves a good vampire story, but who knew that theirs was literally a tale as old as time? The ancient Sumerians believed in two classes of demons that loved the taste of blood or human life force: the Ekimmu and the Utukku.
The Ekimmu were the enraged spirits of the dead who remained unburied, hunting the earth and sleeping only beneath the ground—a favorite characteristic when it comes to today’s traditional vampire lore. The Utukku, on the other hand, were the spirits of the dead who had been laid to rest without offerings at their tombs, those who had been overlooked and forgotten by their friends and families.
As a consequence, the Utukku would come right back from the afterlife to afflict everyone and everything they encountered, always seeking nourishment from their victims. Just like the Eastern European vampires, the Utukku is a constant predator that is near impossible to annihilate. While they were evil and psychopathic, one of the Sumerian legends tells of an Utukku called Ea-Bani who befriended Gilgamesh and ended up being his ally.
9 Legends & Tales of Werewolves
In one of the first stories ever to be written in the world (dating back to 2100 BC), researchers found the earliest surviving narrative of humans being transformed into wolves in cuneiform script on 12 clay tablets at Nineveh (modern Kuyunjik) in 1853. Known as the Epic of Gilgamesh, the story centers around Gilgamesh, the King of Uruk, who finds himself pursued by the goddess Ishtar. However, he refuses to accept her advances, reminding her of the terrible fate of her former lovers, whom she changed into wolves.
Several experts have acknowledged that belief in werewolves was part of the ancient Sumerian worldview. In fact, the widely held belief in werewolves may well have contributed a great deal to the eventual demise of King Nebuchadnezzar II, who ruled from around 605 to 562 BC. He demolished the First Temple of Jerusalem and established one of the world’s original seven wonders—the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. In the biblical book of Daniel, we learn that Nebuchadnezzar had endured a severe type of depression, which regressed over seven years to a total psychosis. During this time, he believed he had turned into a wolf, a disorder better known today as lycanthropy.
8 Sumerians Were “Flat-Earthers”
The ancient Sumerians viewed the heavens as a sequence of three domes that covered a flat earth. Every dome was crafted from different types of rare and valuable stones. The lowest or first dome was believed to be the home of the stars and made of jasper. The second dome was the home of the Igigi or the “gods of the heavens” and was made of saggilmut stone. The third and greatest dome was made of luludānītu stone and was the personification of the “god of the sky”—An.
The heavenly bodies were also similarly associated with specific deities. They believed the planet Venus to be Inanna, the goddess of war, love, and sex. The sun was the god of justice, her brother Utu, and the moon was Nanna—their father. Normal humans would never go to heaven as the skies only played host to the gods. Rather than going to heaven, a human’s soul would go to Kur (later known as Irkalla), the underworld that can be found deep beneath the surface of the earth.
7 Sumerian Tablets Mirror the Bible’s Creation Story
Stories of the world’s creation can be found in just about every culture in the world. In fact, many scholars consider the Bible to be a simplified and condensed version of the creation story discovered on the remaining fragments of Sumerian cuneiform tablets. Sumerians believed that the gods had always existed—even before the world as we know it was created. Sadly, only a small amount of Sumerian literature still remains from the third millennium BC, but they do make reference to a period prior to the time of the gods when only An (Heaven) and Ki (Earth) existed. During this time, everything was dark, and no light existed—there was no sun and no moon. The earth was green and had copious amounts of water, but it was devoid of life and vegetation.
The characters that are found on the Sumerian cuneiform tablets are also strikingly similar to those of the Egyptian hieroglyphics, and it seems that the contents of the ancient cuneiform tablets overlap with some of the Egyptian doctrines on the beginnings of life on earth. To date, over five hundred thousand cuneiform tablets have been excavated, yet only about 60,000 have been deciphered and their contents released to the general public. 
6 Built the First Pyramids
The Sumerians were the only civilization close to Egypt with step pyramids that played a fundamental role in their religious and social life. Ziggurats first appeared around 2200 BC. These remarkable pyramid-like temples were either rectangular or square, featured no internal chambers, and were more or less 52 meters (170 feet) high. Ziggurats almost always displayed sloping sides as well as garden walkways. One of these was the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Although ziggurats may not be as famous or well-known as the pyramids of Giza, they were the very first step-pyramids throughout the world.
Although the Sumerian civilization invented almost everything that underpins civilization as we know it today, the very first ziggurat step pyramid was constructed more than 400 years before the first step pyramid in Egypt. Tepe Sialk can be found in the center of Iran, close to the Caspian Sea and Turkmenistan. There are several other ziggurats in Iran, but Tepe Sialk is the oldest. Though controversial, many scholars believe that the step pyramids and pyramids were built by the same people, arguing that an invention that not only required the revolutionary engineering skills of the era but also represented the unique belief systems would have been refined and repeated over time.
5 Bloodthirsty Warriors
Sumer’s city-states continually fought bloody wars against each other for territory, natural resources, and water. Alliances came and went; however, all states had their own independent rulers until the ascension of Eannatum of Lagash, who successfully managed to bring all of Sumer’s city-states under his rule. The first Sumerian empire was maintained until the arrival of Sargon the Great in about 2234 BC. Sargon of Akkad (whom we’ll see again later) was a military genius and made use of both chariots and infantry. While the infantry troops were equipped with deadly combinations of swords, spears, clubs, maces, and slings, his chariot soldiers would make use of both bows and arrows and spears.
The near-constant frequency of war among Sumer’s city-states spurred the development of military techniques and technologies that were without equal. The invention of the chariot was veritably one of the most significant military advancements in antiquity. The Sumerian chariot typically had four wheels and had to be drawn by at least four onagers. A significant characteristic was that the Sumerians handled the onagers via rings through their nostrils, while their reins were pulled through rein rings secured to the chariot itself, giving almost perfect control.
4 Their First Female Ruler Became a Deity
Around 2500 BC, the only queen ever to rule the Sumerians, Kubaba (also Kug-Baba or Kubau), took the throne. It is said that her reign lasted for a century—and it was characterized by growth and harmony. Her name can be observed on the Sumerian King List, which acknowledges all the Sumerian rulers as well as their accomplishments. Her son, Puzur-Suen, ruled after her. Kubaba’s rule over ancient Sumerian citizens was said to have been approved by the Annunaki gods, which was significant on its own without going into too much detail. After her death, she was deified and became revered by the Anatolian and Hurrian cultures.
Significantly, there seems to be an interesting twist to Kubaba’s history before she became queen. According to scholars, Kubaba may have very well been a tavern keeper, as the position was considered extremely respectable (and one few women actually held) in ancient times. Today, only one statue of her survives.
3 Was Moses a Famous Sumerian?
The Akkadian, Sargon the Great, who came to rule all the city-states of Sumer after crushing their armies around 2334 BC, has a past shrouded in mystery. According to one, he was the hidden child of a high priestess who put him in a basket and deposited him in a river—a story almost directly in line with the story of Moses in the Old Testament. Sumerian legends tell us he was a gardener’s son who eventually became the cupbearer of the king.
The cuneiform tablets, however, seem to have given us the best insight into his life and cover both of the other claims. One inscription, known as “The Legend of Sargon,” states that he was the illegitimate child of a changeling—which could refer to both a high-priestess or the goddess Inanna. His mother had to hide her pregnancy and could not expose herself by raising the child, so he was placed in a basket and released into the Euphrates River. To keep him safe, his mother insulated the basket with tar, and he was carried down the river to where he was eventually discovered by a man named Akki, the gardener for Ur-Zababa, King of the City of Kish.
2 And Also Noah?
Legends of the Great Flood can be found all over the world, in different religions and cultures. Although we learn about Noah and his Ark in the Bible, the origins of the story certainly have pre-biblical roots in ancient Mesopotamian cultures and civilizations. The Epic of Gilgamesh dates back nearly five thousand years and is regarded as one of the world’s oldest written stories. In it, we learn of Utnapishtim, a man warned of an impending flood about to be released by angry gods. He immediately sets about building a massive boat, strengthens it with pitch and tar, and loads his family, animals, and a variety of seeds into it just in time. After numerous days of storms and rain, Utnapishtim, just like Noah, sends a bird into the wild to look for dry land.
In the 19th century, the legend of the Mesopotamian Flood was confirmed to be the oldest in the world after the translation of several ancient cuneiform tablets. The similarities between the Hebrew and Mesopotamian stories are so obvious that the accepted view today is that the legend originated in Mesopotamia. In fact, the Mesopotamian version provides us with specifics that could not reasonably have been derived from the original Hebrew legend.
1 Was Gilgamesh’s Father a Demon?
The legends, stories, and myths of Gilgamesh were based on a real king. It is suspected that Gilgamesh ruled the city of Uruk around 2500 BC. He is also mentioned on the Sumerian King List. Over the course of several centuries, numerous myths and legends were formed around his achievements and adventures, leading to the writing of the Epic of Gilgamesh.
But he may have been much more than a mere man. According to a manuscript dating from 2400 BC, Gilgamesh’s father was, in fact, a Lillu-demon. This Lillu was among four demons that fell in the vampire category—the others were known as Lilitus—the female vampire demon (which later became Lilith in the Hebrew tradition); Ardat Lilli (female)—who preyed on men during the night; and Irdu Lilli (male)—who preyed on women during the night. Lilitu was considered a sexually deviant yet magnificent vampire, comparable to certain literary versions published over the last few decades. The various versions of these legends were eventually adopted by the Babylonians and Hebrews, and similar legends eventually found their way all over the world.