Enlil/Ellil (god)

Enlil was one of the supreme deities of the Mesopotamian pantheon. He decreed the fates, his command could not be altered, and he was the god who granted kingship. His temple, é-kur, the "Mountain House," was located in the city of Nippur, the religious centre of Mesopotamia up until the second millennium BCE. His temple was the most important temple in all of southern Mesopotamia.


There has been much debate concerning the writing, etymology, and hence meaning of Enlil's name. These elements are important to discuss because they also relate to an analysis of this deity's functions. The writing and reading of this deity's name is not certain (see below), and even if we do read den-líl, the translation of "líl" is contentious. The Sumerian word "líl", whose Akkadian equivalent is zaqīqu, means "ghost, phantom, haunted" (Michalowski 1989: 98; Tinney 1996: 129-30; Michalowski 1998) but a translation of Enlil's name as "Lord ghost" makes little sense in the context of his mythological attestations. The interpretation of líl as "wind" is apparently a secondary development of the first millennium BCE (Tinney 1996: 129), which has led to an interpretation of Enlil's name as "Lord Wind" or "Lord Air" (e.g., Jacobsen 1989). This interpretation has led some scholars to reconstruct a vertically ordered cosmology that consisted of the gods An (heavens), Enlil (atmosphere), and Enki (earth), but this remains very problematic. Other scholars make reference to Enlil as the "Lord of the Air", when he is seen acting in co-ordination with the storms and winds, e.g., Enlil "the roaring storm" (The Cursing of Agade, ETCSL 1.5.1: 151). There are issues, however, with both ideas, the vertical ordering of Mesopotamian pantheon is rather simplistic, and the references to Enlil as a storm are usually in the context of wider destruction, where the storm could be apposite imagery for Enlil as a powerful, devastating god rather than as a specific "storm deity", e.g., The Lament for Sumer and Urim, ETCSL 2.2.3.

Without question Enlil, with An and Enki, form the supreme Mesopotamian triad of deities (Nötscher 1938: 382-387). Moreover, Enlil's prominence and power can be seen in his titles and epithets: "The Great Mountain" (ETCSL 1.1.3: 3), "King of all the lands" (Vase Inscription of Lugalzagesi (ca. 2370 BCE) (Wang 2011: 134), "Father of the black headed people" (The Lament for Nibru, ETCSL 2.2.4: 134) "Father of the gods", (The death of Gilgameš, ETCSL 1.8.13: 12), and "Nunamnir", "The well respected" (An Adab to Enlil for Šulgi, ETCSL 2), the latter being Enlil's name that is only mentioned in literary and religious texts. Moreover, Enlil's position as a supreme deity was abstracted to the concept of ellilūtu, "Enlilship", a term applied to others, both human and heavenly, who held paramount authority.

Enlil's role in the mythology of Mesopotamia is based on his power and authority, and as such he can create and destroy. Enlil is described as the "decreer of fates" (A praise poem of Šulgi (2094-2047 BCE), ETCSL 72), and in the Akkadian Anzu myth Enlil holds the tablet of destinies, the possessor of which commands the world (Foster 2005: 555-578). It is Enlil who grants kingship to the rulers of Mespotamia, e.g., on the Vase Inscription of Lugalzagesi, Enlil gave the nam-lugal-kalam-ma "kingship of the land" to Lugalzagesi (Wang 2011: 145), "Enlil ... bestowed kingship on me (Ur-Namma (2112-2095 BCE)" (Ur-Namma the Canal digger, ETCSL 12). Enlil's command is said to be unalterable, once he had made a decision, there was no way of changing it (The Lament for Urim, ETCSL 2.2.2), although he did have to revise his decision to destroy mankind through the flood which is told in the Atra-hasīs myth (Foster 2005: 227-281) and the flood tablet of the Gilgameš epic (George 2003: 703-725). In addition, Enlil was a provider, and as such he was declared the "Lord of abundance" in a hymn for Šu-Suen (2037-2029 BCE) (ETCSL 2.4.4.a: 20-21). However, Enlil could also take such plenty away and devastate the land, e.g., in The Lament for Urim, he is said to have "brought the storm of abundance away", to have "annihilated the land, silenced the city" (ETCSL 2.2.2), and destroyed their houses and demolished their walls Enki and the World Order (ETCSL 1.1.3: 245).

Some Sumerian myths narrate how other gods visited Enlil to give him the "first-fruit offerings", e.g., Nanna (Nanna-Suen's Journey to Nibru, ETCSL 1.5.1). This should be interpreted as a gesture of deference and acknowledgement of Enlil's highest authority.

In the Akkadian literature Enlil's almighty but malevolent nature is often portrayed. In one devotional poem Enlil is described as "king of heaven and the netherworld...whose command no god can set aside...the lord of destinies ... the nominator of kings" (Foster 2005: 653), but other poems are specifically aimed to ease his anger (e.g., Foster 2005: 656), and his devastating side is clear in the myth of Atra-hasīs, where it is Enlil who sends the drought, the plague, the flood (Foster 2005: 227-281).

Divine Genealogy and Syncretisms

Enlil is considered in most traditions to be the first-born son of An (Vase Inscription of Lugalzagesi, Wang 2011: 134), and brother of the goddess Aruru (Enmerkar and En-suhgir-ana, ETCSL 395). The god list AN = Anum, however, lists him as a descendant of Enki and Ninki.

Enlil's wife is Ninlil (ETCSL 1.2.1), and his sons include Ninurta (Ninurta's return to Nibru, ETCSL 1.6.1: 1), Ningirsu (Gudea Cylinder A and B, ETCSL 2.1.7: 966), Nanna (Nanna-Suen's journey to Nibru ETCSL 1.5.1: 10) and Namtar. Other deities, however, are also described as his children, e.g., Nergal (Enlil and Ninlil, ETCSL 1.2.1: 90), Ninazu (Enlil and Ninlil, ETCSL 1.2.1: 116), Inana (Inana's descent to the Nether World, ETCSL 1.4.1: 43), Utu (A hymn to Utu, ETCSL 4.32.2: 24), and Iškur (Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta, ETCSL 542-543). In another tradition Sud, the goddess of Šuruppag (a city-state in southern Mesopotamia), is equated with Ninlil, and made the wife of Enlil, possibly as a mythological explanation for the absorption of Šuruppag into the pantheon of Nippur (Enlil and Sud, ETCSL 1.2.2; Black et al. 2004: 106-112).

Enlil's vizier and messenger was Nusku (Enlil and Ninlil, ETCSL 1.2.1).

Cult Places

The main sanctuary of Enlil was the é-kur "Mountain house" at Nippur [~/images/Nippur.jpg] , in central southern Mesopotamia, and this temple is described in the Sumerian Hymn to the Ekur (ETCSL 4.80.4). This sanctuary dates at least to the Akkadian period (George 1993: 116), and next to it stood the temple tower (ziggurat), the dur-an-ki "bond of heaven and earth", built built by Ur-Namma (Sallaberger 1999: 137). The é-kur was rebuilt/refurbished a number of times, e.g., in the second millennium by Kadašman-Enlil I/II (1374-1360 or 1263-1255 BCE) of the Kassite dynasty, and in the 1st millennium Esarhaddon of Assyria (680-669 BCE) and Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon (604-562 BCE) (George 1993: 116).

Enlil was also worshipped in other cities, e.g., a ziggurat for Enlil in Assur [~/images/Assur.jpg] built by Šamši-Adad I (1813-1781 BCE) (Lamprichs 1997: 226), an Old Babylonian temple to Enlil in Babylon [~/images/Babylon.jpg] (Klengel-Brandt 1997: 254), a ziggurat and temple quarter dedicated to Enlil at Dur-Kurigalzu [~/images/Dur-Kurigalzu.jpg] (in southern Mesopotamia, modern 'Aqar Quf), which was the capital of the Kassite dynasty (Kühne 1997: 156), and Leick suggests a temple to Enlil outside of Mesopotamia in Elam (Leick_1999: 46).

Time Periods Attested

In the 4th millennium the combination of signs later used to write the name Enlil (see below for discussion) has been suggested to act only as a toponym, and refer to the city of Nippur (Englund 1998: 72-76 and Wang 2011: 41-59), but this understanding remains highly contested. This sequence of signs appears on the Late Uruk Archaic City List, Archaic city seal impressions, and various administrative documents. Wang, who has produced the most recent study of this subject, proposes that the combination of signs used to write the toponym for Nippur came to be a writing for the deity Enlil at about the time of Late Uruk - Early Dynastic Period transition (ca. 3200-2800 BCE). Wang suggests that the deity Enlil might have come to be worshipped at Nippur at this time, and subsequently taken the writing of the toponym for the writing for his divine name (Wang 2011: 245).

From the Early Dynastic (2900-2350 BCE) through Ur III (2112-2004 BCE) periods Enlil appears among the first of the listed deities on the various God Lists (Edzard 1965: 60). There are instances of personal names composed with Enlil, offering lists mentioning him, and his own temple officials. In the Early Dynastic literature and the Zá-mí, "praise" hymns from Abu Salabikh (near Nippur in southern Mesopotamia) Enlil is already supreme among the gods, (Wang 2011: 98-100; Biggs 1974: 45-46) and on the Vase Inscription of Lugalzagesi, Enlil is titled lugal-kur-kur-ra "King of all the lands" (Wang 2011: 234-235).

It is from the Akkadian period (ca. 2300-2150 BCE) that we have the first definitive evidence for the é-kur, which was built by Šar-kali-šarri (2175-2150 BCE), and in the Ur III period, Ur-Namma builds the ziggurat for Enlil (see above). Enlil is paramount during the Ur III period, he regularly appears as the supreme and powerful deity in the Year Names of the period, and he is the major recipient of those offerings made at Nippur and administered at Puzriš-Dagan (ancient Drehem - the administrative hub of Ur III period, located south of Nippur) (Sallaberger 1999: 137). Additionally, Enlil is frequently attested in the royal inscriptions of the period (Frayne 1997), and in the literature the Ur III kings are called the sons of Enlil, e.g., Šulgi in The debate between Bird and Fish, ETCSL 5.3.5: 146.

Iddin-Dagan (1974-1954 BCE) and Išme-Dagan (1953-1935 BCE), kings of Isin, frequently exhalt Enlil as their "principal deity" (ETCSL 46), and even as their father (ETCSL 29). Moreover, his cult at Nippur receives offerings throughout the Isin-Larsa period (Sigrist 1980). Roughly contemporary with these southern Mesopotamian kings, Šamši-Adad I (ca. 1808-1776 BCE) of Assyria builds a temple for Enlil at Aššur (Lamprichs 1997: 226).

With the ascendancy of Babylon in the second millennium, Enlil begins to lose prominence to the ever more powerful and important Marduk, the city-deity of Babylon. Even prior to this, however, the Anzu myth relates the ascendancy of Ninurta at the expense of his father Enlil (and in a different tradition it is Ningirsu of Lagash, who, being conflated with Ninurta, comes to prominence). Enlil does, however, remain a significant deity throughout the second millennium. In the Old Babylonian period he continues to receive offerings at Nippur (Van de Mieroop 2005: 80), appear in personal names e.g., Enlil-ipuš (Charpin 2010: 14), and is even considered to have granted Hammurabi (1792-1750 BCE) victory over Rim-Sin I of Larsa (1822-1763 BCE) (Van de Mieroop 2005: 38). In the Lawcode of Hammurabi, the King is said to have been chosen by Enlil (Van de Mieroop 2005: 82), and even when Marduk's rise to power is described, he is said to have been given 'enlilship' over the people by Enlil and An.

The rise of Marduk at the expense of Enlil is still complicated and poorly understood (Sommerfeld 1982). It is perhaps best known from the Creation Epic, Enūma Eliš, where it is only Marduk who dares to confront and then defeat the enemy Tiamat, an act which elevates him to the head of the pantheon. This myth has been thought by some to have been composed at the time of Kassite dynasty of Mesopotamia which was based at Babylonia, and to act as a metaphor/explanation for the supremacy of Babylon, but whenever this epic was composed Enlil remained important enough to the Kassites for them to build a new temple quarter for him at Babylon, and for him to appear in royal names of the dynasty, suggesting a personal devotion of even the Kassite rulers to this great god.

In the first millennium the great gods Aššur, Marduk and Nabu were supreme, but Enlil's power was clearly remembered for even they were referred to as the "Assyrian Enlil" or the "Enlil of the gods" (Edzard 1965: 61).


Enlil is regularly represented wearing a horned helmet (Edzard 1965: 61).

Name and Spellings

As mentioned, the writing of the name of Enlil is uncertain when not written syllabically. The primary issue concerns the difficult palaeography of the 4th and 3rd millennium, because while the initial sign of the name of Enlil is agreed: EN; the final sign is problematic as it is not standardised in the ancient palaeography or in its reading by modern scholars (for a discussion of these issues see Edzard 2003, Englund 1998: 72-76; Englund 2011; Jacobsen 1989; Steinkeller 1989: 114 n.36; Steinkeller 2010; Wang 2011). The matter is even more confused as the reading of the signs is considered significant to an understanding of the etymology and function of Enlil (see above).

By the later third millennium the second sign is written with the sign which is read líl, and in the Akkadian syllabic spellings Enlil's name becomes Ellil, due to the assimilation of the /n/ and /l/ to a doubled form /ll/.

Enlil's name could also be written by the cuneiform sign for the number "50". In literary texts, Enlil also had the name Nunamnir, possibly meaning "he who is respected" (Edzard 1965: 60).

Written forms:
den-líl, d50, dnu-nam-nir
Normalized forms:
Enlil, Ellil; Nunamnir (literary texts); Illinos (Greek)

Enlil in Online Corpora


Adam Stone

Adam Stone, 'Enlil/Ellil (god)', Ancient Mesopotamian Gods and Goddesses, Oracc and the UK Higher Education Academy, 2016 [http://oracc.museum.upenn.edu/amgg/listofdeities/enlil/]

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