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Mesopotamian God Anu: Facts & Mythology

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Mesopotamian civilizations had many deities, but none was quite as powerful as Anu. In this lesson, we'll explore the history and mythology surrounding this figure, and see what he meant to the Mesopotamian people.

Anu of Mesopotamia

In most religions, there's a single deity that has power over all the others. In Ancient Rome it was Jupiter, in Ancient Greece it was Zeus and in Ancient Egypt it was Amun-Ra. However, before any of these cultures existed there were the people of Mesopotamia. Located between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers of what's now roughly Iraq, Mesopotamia was home to the first settled, urban societies in the world, and those people had a religion of their own.

In Mesopotamian cultures, the highest deity was known as Anu in the Akkadian language, or An in the Sumerian language. Most likely a derivative of the Sumerian word for ''sky,'' this cosmic being was a personification of the sky and heavens themselves, and the oldest of Mesopotamia's supreme rulers.

Mesopotamian deity wearing the horned crown often associated with Anu
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Anu in Mesopotamian Mythology

So, what exactly was Anu's role in Mesopotamian mythologies? Like many supreme deities, Anu was largely characterized by his role in creating and organizing the rest of the pantheon. This means that he was the father of all the gods, and also was responsible for giving them their powers and jurisdictions, as well as their ranking among the deities. In fact, whenever a Mesopotamian god was promoted or given a greater leadership role in the stories, it was said that they had received the anutu, or the power of Anu. With this distinguished role, Anu held the venerated position of being head of the Anunnaki, or the pantheon of gods.

Along with creating the other gods, Anu was sometimes also credited with the creation of the entire universe. Sometimes it was said that he did this alone, other times it was said he worked with two of the other most powerful gods, Enlil and Ea. Regardless, this gave him the ability to position himself pretty well in the cosmos. Of the three levels of heaven in Mesopotamian mythology, Anu lived in the highest one.

It's important to note that Anu's powers to create didn't always end well for humans. Yes, Anu created the universe and the gods, but also the monsters and demons of Mesopotamian mythology. Some of these monsters were created to protect the gods and their realms. Others were made to punish humans. In at least one story, Anu creates the Sebettu demons so that the war-god Erra can kill the humans. Why? Their noisiness had become irritating.

Anu & Mesopotamian Society

Anu was the supreme head of the gods, the progenitor of divine power and lived in a special palace high above the rest. Can you guess which person in Mesopotamian society he was often associated with? It was Anu's authority that granted the kings of Mesopotamia absolute power, and they sought to emulate Anu's traits of leadership.

As such an important figure, it's not surprising that Anu was worshiped across Mesopotamia. One of the biggest cults to Anu was found at the city of Uruk, which is where the most famous temple to Anu was found. The cities of Der, Lagas and Ur also had important temples, shrines or gardens dedicated to Anu. In many of these, Anu has the basic appearance of a human, but that's not necessarily how Mesopotamian people saw him. Yes, he could take human form, but really he was the embodiment of the sky itself. He was also associated with the form of a bull (sometimes he was the bull and sometimes it was his companion), and was frequently symbolized by a horned crown.

Bull figurine from Uruk
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Anu & Mesopotamian History

Like all societies, those of Mesopotamia changed over time, so it's important to understand where Anu falls in this history. The first appearances of Anu in Mesopotamian writing dates back to the third millennium BCE, which is also roughly when the temple at Uruk was built. This makes Anu one of the original Mesopotamian deities, and nearly as old as Mesopotamian civilization itself!

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