BookMusings: (Re)Discovering Pagan Literature

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Interview: Temple of Sumer





[Today, we sit down for a quick interview with Sam Jackson and Steffy Vonscott of the Temple of Sumer. The organization, dedicated to reviving the polytheistic traditions of ancient Mesopotamia, is in the process of putting together a guide for the curious and new practitioners. Here, they discuss their devotion to their tradition and Gods, common misconceptions about Sumer, and what they are looking for in terms of submissions.]


BookMusings: How did you personally come to Sumerian polytheism?


Sam Jackson: I was raised in a Christian household and identified as a Christian for a number of years (eventually going into Christian youth and men’s ministry in my mid-twenties). 


Despite this, I was still very much a polytheist -- Old Testament scripture exposed me to a completely different world of people who worshipped other gods and as a young child, I insisted upon knowing why they were vilified. As time went by, my interest in polytheism continued. All of my biblical studies pointed me back to polytheism and ancient near eastern spirituality that is still relevant in our modern world.


Steffy Vonscott: People first come to the Sumerian religion through a variety of different paths. I, like Sam, was a devoted Christian, went to Bible Study, taught young hearts and minds. Yet I still had my doubts. I kept asking questions people couldn’t answer.


“Who was God before the Bible? If the Bible was first written around 600BC, who did they worship before that? If God made man, who made God? If God is the God of Abraham, but Abraham was born before Judaism, who did Abraham worship?”


I knew the Biblical Abraham was born in Sumer, so it made sense for me to start looking there. When I did I found the polytheistic version of flood story, a version where all the people are saved too, the Garden of Eden in which the Goddess of the rib was created, the creation of mankind from clay with the great God of Magic Enki and Mother Goddess Ninhursag, the tree that bore the fruit of eternal life, and so much more.


The Sumerian religion had answers to all my questions, and more. Even right down to the mother of the first God: The Great Goddess Nammu-Apsu, The great cosmic ocean whose waters birthed the Heavens and the Earth, in whose womb all life was created. It made more sense to me that the first deity was a woman, before all that Patriarchal nonsense we have today. For the first time in my spiritual life, I knew I was home.


BookMusings: If you could correct one common misconception about Sumer and Sumerian polytheism, what would it be?


Sam Jackson: The biggest point of contention for me personally is that Lilith is not a Sumerian mother goddess. While her aspects are identical to the lili/lilitu demons mentioned in Sumerian texts, she is solely exclusive to Judaic lore (specifically the parody textAlphabet of Sirach). The “liberated woman” motif ascribed to Lilith belongs to Inanna. 


Steffy Vonscott: I had the immense privilege of leading a Goddess evocation in Sumerian language at the National Pagan Conference here in Scotland around half a decade ago. The ritual went down incredibly well, everyone said it was very powerful. Afterwards I had a Wiccan come up to me, and said they felt traumatized by it, and that I shouldn't be “messing around with that sort of stuff.” They were obviously troubled by my use of Sumerian words in the ritual, and felt it was very dark. I just thought “And the Norse Gods are all sweetness and light?? Seriously??!”


I think many have the wrong idea of what the Sumerian religion is. The Sumerian religion is very positively focused, with community empowerment, hospitality, civilization building, creativity, and innovation at its heart. The Sumerians were the first civilization. They gave us the wheel, the water clock, the plough, gave us the first writing system, and invented the first printing press. They gave us the twelve month calendar based on lunar cycles. They split time into 60 minutes an hour and 60 seconds in a minute.  They invented the arch, high rise buildings, designed the first sewage systems. They gave us mathematics, invented the sail boat, built reservoirs and dams. They gave birth of a highly complex society that is in many ways comparable with our own. In many ways the Sumerian Pagan community reflect that, as they, too, are focused on innovation. While many other Pagan paths shy away from technology, we actively embrace it, just as we imagine our Sumerian forebears would if they were with us today.


BookMusings: Inanna gets a lot of press, and is usually the most recognizable Deity. Who are some of the other Gods and Goddesses that people should know about? To whom are you particularly devoted?


Sam Jackson: I would consider myself a devotee of Inanna, however, devotion to her family is also part of my devotional practice.


Some notable deities also worth recognizing include Ninhursag, the earth mother/mother goddess. Nammu-Apsu, the primordial mother goddess of the Anunna gods. Another is Utu, the god of the sun who also presides over legal matters and divination (to name but a few of his responsibilities). Iškur is another (sometimes) overlooked deity who presides over life-giving rain, thunderstorms, as well as the destructive aspects of the elements. 


Steffy Vonscott: Most of my pantheon is based very much around Enheduanna's spiritual family. Enheduanna was the first non-anonymous author, and a massive role model for me. She made the top five list for the most influential women in history. Enheduanna occupied the En Priestess role of the human form of Enki's daughter Ningal here on earth, and the human wife of the Moon God Nanna; she also devoted much of her literature to her / their children: the great Goddess Inanna, the Sun God Shamash, and the God of storms and fertile rain, Ishkur. I've felt drawn to Enheduanna for some time. My personal pantheon, from Enki to Ningal to Nanna to Inanna and Shamash, reflect that.


BookMusings: Temple of Sumer is currently open to submissions for a guide for modern practitioners. Who can contribute to this guide, and what exactly are you looking for?


Sam Jackson: At this time, submissions will be accepted solely from those members of the Temple of Sumer. Submissions may include written hymns, rituals, devotional works, scholarly articles, art, etc. 


Steffy Vonscott: As Sam said, we are only taking contributions from the Temple of Sumer. However if there are any Inanna or Ishtar devotees, or Enki worshippers out there who feel they have something to contribute, they are welcome to join us. They can contact us either through the website, through many of our discussion forums, through our Facebook Page, directly on Facebook, or by joining our Facebook Group.


As for submissions, I know Sam is submitting in-depth rituals he’s run at Conferences, Ed is submitting artwork and a preview of his forthcoming Cartomancy deck, I’ve submitted several devotional prayers, one to the Goddess Ningal, and I’m working on several other things including a complete reconstructed Sumerian Calendar system that can be used by modern practitioners. We’re had submissions from the Gnostic Temple of Inanna, I think the Temple of Inanna and Dumuzid are planning to submit something, and we are expecting a submission from a prominent LGBTQIA+ activist on Inanna the Goddess of gender diversity, she who turns “men into women and women into men”. Really excited to read it! It’s going to be awesome!


BookMusings: What do you not want to see in terms of submissions?


Sam Jackson: Unwanted content would consist of work derived from the ancient alien theories of Zechariah Sitchin; work derived from H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos; work derived from Simon’s Necronomicon, as well as related texts which attempt to syncretize Sumerian spiritual practices with those of the Egyptians, Zoroastrians, Mandeans, and Yezidi.


Steffy Vonscott: For me I wouldn’t like to see anything focused on Lilith. Many Sumerians feel that Lilith gets a lot of the attention that should be directed to Inanna, who has all the attributes they wish Lilith had, and many more. While many people think Inanna gets a lot of press, I don’t feel she gets enough given how prominent a Goddess she was in antiquity. Her worship can be dated back before the early Uruk period c. 4000 BC, and her cult still existed in Mardin, Southeastern Turkey, as late as the eighteenth century, which is really only a few hundred years ago, not that far back in the scheme of things. Not to mention Lilith's focus in Neopaganism takes much of the spotlight and prestige away from other Near Eastern Goddesses who in their time were second to no man, just as they still are today.


BookMusings: What are the best resources for those interested in Sumerian polytheism?


Sam Jackson: There are numerous resources available that can be found on the dusty shelves dedicated to history in your local bookstore and library (I kid).


Sadly, Sumerian spirituality isn’t as popular as spiritual practices derived from European, Mediterranean, and Kemetic cultures. 


A great resource that many start with is The Treasures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion by Thorkild Jacobsen. Additional resources include: Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia: An Illustrated Dictionary by Jeremy Black and Andrew Green, and perhaps my personal favorite, Princess, Priestess, Poet: The Sumerian Temple Hymns of Enheduanna by Betty De Shong Meador.


Steffy VonScott: I've prepared a recommended reading list for all newcomers to Sumerian Paganism. Temple of Sumer provides guidance, however off the top of my head I would recommend Before the Muses by Benjamin Foster, Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia by Jean Bottero, and for Inanna devotees I’d recommend The Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth by Diane Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer and Inanna, Lady of the Largest Heart by Betty De Shong Meador.


The Temple of Sumer are also working on several books along with [Walking the Sumerian Path]. Ed [Vanderjagt] has already published two books, Descent of Inanna: Annotated and Illustrated and his graphic novel Dingir: Adventures of the Gods, as well as contributed to Anointed: A Devotional Anthology for the Deities of the Near and Middle East, and has another four or five books in various stages of completion, including two on Gilgamesh, and a book on the Netherworld. Sam, Ed, Mariana [Vital] are working on co-writing others, including a book on Mesopotamian Magic in the works. I have two books I'm working on myself, as well as a course I'm writing for newcomers to the Sumerian religion. Sam and Ed are working on a Sumerian graphic novel follow up to Dingir: Adventures of the Gods, and Ed has a Cartomancy deck in the works. We are a very busy community.

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Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine Eternal Haunted Summer. She is also the editor-in-chief of Bibliotheca Alexandrina. She thinks it is incredibly unfair that she must work for a living rather than being able to read all day. In her next life, she would like to be a library cat.


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