Enmerkar was the second king of the First Dynasty of Uruk, according to the Sumerian kings list, the ancient text that lists the kings of Sumer. He was said to have reigned for 420 years after the ﬂood, in the early part of the third millennium B.C.E.
The two stories that follow were part of a series of four about the “matter of Aratta.” They were probably composed in the city of Ur during the last century of the third millennium B.C.E.
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Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratt
Several stories deal with the conﬂict between Enmerkar and the lord of the legendary eastern mountain territory known as the land of Aratta. In the epic tale Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta, Enmerkar is described as the king of Uruk and the son of the sun god, Utu. Enmerkar was united in a sacred marriage with Inanna, the goddess of Uruk. Inanna chose Enmerkar to be closest to her heart, yet the lord of Aratta also claimed to be her spouse.
The tale is set in ancient days, before the E-ana temple of Inanna was founded or commerce between Sumer and the peoples of the mountains had commenced.
Enmerkar ordered a messenger to go to Aratta and tell the inhabitants and their lord to submit to the yoke of Uruk. The messenger traveled over seven mountains, reached the lord of Aratta, and delivered the message. After the messenger had spoken, the lord of Aratta insisted that it was he who had been chosen by Inanna. The lord refused to acquiesce to Enmerkar’s outrageous demands and challenged Enmerkar to a contest of wits. The victor would be the ruler of Utuk and Aratta.
The lord of Aratta sent Enmerkar’s messenger back with instructions to tell Enmerkar that he would have to relieve the famine that had gripped Aratta by providing grain. The barley, according to the challenge, was not to be poured into sacks in the normal manner and then delivered in carts. Instead, it was to be poured into nets and loaded onto pack asses. Upon reaching the lord’s courtyard, the grain was to be heaped up in a great pile.
Enmerkar accepted the challenge. He ordered the nets to be ﬁlled with green malt. The malt germinated and ﬁlled in the mesh ofthe nets. Grain from the storehouse was loaded into the nets with an extra measure added to account for loss by locusts. The grain was dispatched with a message for the lord of Aratta that he must submit and accept Enmerkar’s scepter. He was then to snap off a splinter from the scepter and hold it in his hand as symbol of his vassalage.
But the lord of Aratta held ﬁrm. He would surrender only if Enmerkar’s scepter was made from something other than wood, gold, copper, silver, or precious stone. “Then let Enmerkar bring it to me,” said the lord of Aratta.
With advice from the wise god Enki, Enmerkar solved this riddle as well. He grew a special reed, nurtured it for ten years, then split it with an axe and sent it to Aratta.
The lord of Aratta was taken aback by Enmerkar’s cleverness, but he proposed one last challenge—a duel between two champions, one from Aratta and one from Uruk. His only condition was that the man from Uruk should be one who wore a garment of no known color. Enmerkar provided his ﬁghter with an undyed garment that had no color.
Enmerkar prepared to send a messenger demanding once and for all that the lord of Aratta submit. But his message was too long, and the messenger tired as he attempted to learn it. So Enmerkar inscribed the message on a tablet and sent it to Aratta.
The message was written in cuneiform signs that the lord of Aratta was unable to read. The lord became angry but realized he had been defeated by a superior intellect.
Suddenly, Inanna’s brother, the storm god Ishkur, brought rain to Aratta. The famine was over. Barley began to sprout on the mountainsides, and chickpeas and wheat began to grow. The lord of Aratta’s self-assurance returned. He was overjoyed that the goddess had not abandoned him and his people but remained by their side.
At this point in the story, the lord of Aratta allowed that Enmerkar had triumphed. Unfortunately, the ending is fragmentary and the purpose for which the story was created remains debatable.
Enmerkar and Ensuhgirana
The composition Enmerkar and Ensuhgirana relates another episode in the continuing conﬂict and contest of wills between Enmerkar, the lord of Uruk, and his rival, the lord of Aratta. In this tale, the lord of Aratta is named Ensuhgirana.
The lord of Aratta sent a message to Enmerkar, demanding that he submit and bear the yoke of vassalage. Ensuhgirana further taunted Enmerkar, claiming that only he was the true bridegroom of the goddess Inanna.
Enmerkar rejected Ensuhgirana ’s claims and maintained that he was the true lover of the goddess Inanna as well as the true king, ruling with the authority granted to him by the gods.
When Enmerkar’s response reached the ears of his rival, Ensuhgirana was perplexed, unable to make an immediate reply. He called together a council of his priests and attendants to advise him. They urged him to back off from his aggressive position, calm down, and seek compromise. But Ensuhgirana rejected this advice and deﬁantly stated that he would continue to oppose Enmerkar even if his city was destroyed. He would never submit to the lord of Uruk.
The Sorcerer and the Wise Woman
A sorcerer volunteered to help Ensuhgirana, claiming that he had the power to make Uruk submit to Aratta. Happy to hear the sorcerer’s boast, Ensuhgirana rewarded him with silver and promised further payment when the men of Uruk were taken captive.
The sorcerer arrived in Uruk and dried up the milk of the cows and goats. The milk, butter, and cheese of the livestock provided for the cult of the goddess Nisaba. Despondent, Nisaba’s shepherds and cowherds called for help.
A wise old woman named Sagburu from the city of Eresh challenged the sorcerer to a battle to decide whose magic was stronger. Both threw ﬁsh spawn into the river. The sorcerer turned the ﬁsh spawn into a large carp, a ewe, a lamb, a cow, an ibex, a wild sheep, and a gazelle kid. The wise woman turned the ﬁsh into predators able to capture and kill the sorcerer’s creations.
Defeated, the sorcerer begged the old woman for mercy, but she refused; his offense was too great. The sorcerer was thrown from the bank of the Euphrates River to his death. The news of the defeat and death of the sorcerer broke Ensuhgirana’s spirit. He admitted defeat and acknowledged the superiority of the king of Uruk.
The stories of Enmerkar incorporate several ancient story elements and therefore are of great interest to folklorists and storytellers. In the ﬁrst tale, for example, the messenger traveled the magical seven mountains, as occurs in many folktales of heroic journeys. The riddle contest and magicians’ duel are tale types that are featured in world folklore.