The Mesopotamian mother goddess is known under many names, the most prominent of which is the Sumerian name Nintud/Nintur. Other frequent names are Ninmah and Belet-ili. She was in charge of pregnancy and birth and, especially in earlier periods, appears as the creator of humankind.
A recent and comprehensive study of the mother goddess(es) in ancient Mesopotamia is still lacking. Black and Green (1998: 132) already pointed out that the terms 'mother goddess' and 'fertility goddess' are problematic since many goddesses could at times include these aspects. Because the functions of the three goddesses mentioned here overlap significantly, the three goddesses Nintur, Ninmah, and Belet-ili are treated in one article. For other names of the 'mother goddess' see Krebernik (1993-98a: 503-7). The term 'mother goddess' is retained here as a matter of convenience.
In the third and second millennium BCE, the mother goddess was in high standing within the divine hierarchy of gods, as for example in the Lamentation over the Destruction of Sumer and Ur (ETCSL 2.3.3, line 55; Michalowski 1989: 39) or in the Lament over Nibru (ETCSL 2.3.4, line 237; Tinney 1996: 115), where she is mentioned together with the highest gods of the Mesopotamian pantheon, An, Enlil, and Enki. In the course of the second millennium BCE this situation changes and the goddess loses some of her high standing in favour of the healing goddess Gula and the goddess of love and war, Ištar (Krebernik 1993-98a: 512).
One of her main functions was associated with pregnancy and childbirth. She guides children when they are still in the womb and feeds them after they have been born (Stol 2000: 80).
The mother goddess also appears as the creator of humankind. In the Akkadian myth of Atrahasis, the Mesopotamian flood story, Nintur created humankind by mixing clay with blood of a slain god (Lambert and Millard 1969: 57-61), and in the Sumerian tale of Enki and Ninmah (ETCSL 1.1.2) the two deities compete by creating various creatures out of clay, resulting ultimately in the creation of humans. The clay is said to come from the top of the abzu, the cosmic underground waters. In her role as the creator of humankind she is eventually replaced by the god Enki/Ea, as visible in Enūma eliš (tablet VI, lines 32-36). Frymer-Kensky (1992: 70-80) referred to the diminishing importance of goddesses even in primarily female functions, such as creation, as the "marginalization of goddesses".
Nothing is known about the mother goddess's divine parentage. The gods An, Enlil, Enki, and Šulpae are at times considered to be her husbands (Krebernik 1993-98a: 507-8). Her offspring were so numerous that they cannot all be mentioned here (see Krebernik 1993-98a: 508-10 for further information). The beginning of the second tablet of the god list An-Anum (Litke 1998: 66ff.) lists several names of the mother goddess.
The main city where the mother goddess was worshipped is the city of Keš (not Kiš), which has not been located yet (for possible locations and further literature see Edzard 1976-80b: 573). It has been suggested that Keš was the sacred district of the city of Urusagrig (Irisagrig), close to Adab (Wilcke 1972: 55). An inscription of the Neo-Babylonian king Nabonidus indicates that Keš was still in existence in the first millennium (Foster 1983). Other major cities where her cult is attested are: Adab, Assur, Babylon, Lagaš, Larsa, Malgium, Mari, Nippur, Sippar-Aruru, Susa, Umma, and Ur (Krebernik 1993-98a: 511-2). For evidence of worship of Ninhursaŋa see Heimpel 1998-2001b.
Because the mother goddess appears under so many different names, she is attested from the Early Dynastic period until well into the first millennium BCE, though, as mentioned above, she loses importance throughout the second half of the second millennium.
In Mesopotamian iconography, the mother goddess is represented by the Ω sign, which is thought to represent a uterus (Seidl 1993-98). Sometimes the Ω sign is accompanied by a knife, which is interpreted as the tool that is used to cut the umbilical cord after birth. Specific anthropomorphic representations of the mother goddess are difficult to distinguish from depictions of other goddesses (Seidl ibid.). The so-called Göttertypentext (Stol 2000: 80) contains a passage describing the looks of the mother goddess.
Not all the names of the mother goddess can be enumerated here. The most important ones are mentioned in the title to this entry. Other important names that also occur frequently in the written record are Aruru, Dingirmah, and Ninhursaŋa (Heimpel 1998-2001b; Stol 2000: 74-9). However, her most frequently attested name is Nintur.
The Sumerian names of the mother goddess discussed here have the following meanings:
Nicole Brisch, 'Mother Goddess (Ninmah, Nintud/r, Belet-ili)', Ancient Mesopotamian Gods and Goddesses, Oracc and the UK Higher Education Academy, 2013 [http://oracc.museum.upenn.edu/amgg/listofdeities/mothergoddess/]