bašmu/ušum, muš huššu, nirah by us4-he2-gal2

Editor’s note: This is a great article retrieved from Abrahadabra Forums. No, we’re not bringing the forums back, but this little gem written by Bill over at was too precious to keep hidden away in the Abrahadabra archives.  – Izi Ningishzidda

Hey Abrahadabra: Well, it seems I’m always presenting complicated and touchy explanations here, I suppose it may give the impression that everything about Sumer is laborious.. I would agree many things are, but I guess as I’ve remarked before, your particular focuses here may exaggerate this impression as the netherworld gods and the snake gods are elusive (and so a stressful subject to discuss.)

So I’m putting something together to delineate between the Ušumgal and the Mus hussu. The iconography and mythology of both of these creatures is more often vague and more often in some process of change than in stable and concise condition; the nomenclature associated with both, as we witness it in this or that article, is in a steady state of flux between Sumerian, Akkadian and differing modern conventions for rendering ancient text; the associations of both creatures revolve around the same deities, but for different reasons which may at points have more to do with the shifting social-political climate of Mesopotamia than with appreciable religious sentiment. For reasons such as these it can be difficult to explain concrete distinctions between the two. To begin with, I am intending to quote a large section from the enenuru Ningishzida thread, (reply #47) – in that post I had referred to a discussion given by Anthony Green who understands the snakes at Ningishzida’s back as the Bašmu snakes, possibly to be identified with today’s species cerastes cerastes. I will then update this material with some new insights from F.A.M. Wiggermann from his book “Mesopotamian Protective Spirits” (MPS) (the book I should mention, is extremely technical and focused on a very narrow range of ritual texts). Hopefully below my modified look at Bašmu should also add explanations for Ušum and Ušumgal which I hadn’t worked in before, and the dissections with Mus Hussu will stand out.

On the Identity of the Ušumgal

From Enenuru:

“In regards to the snakes at Ningishzida’s back, we can turn again to A. Greens article found in CANE vol. 3, specifically pg. 1844. Near the bottom Green states:

“Another underworld god was Ningishzida. As he was the personal deity of Gudea, ruler of Lagash, he is depicted in the art of that time- for example, on Gudea’s own cylinder seal, where the god introduces the ruler to the water-god Enki. Ningishzida is represented with horned Bašmu snakes (the horned viper Cerastes cerastes) rising from his shoulders (see fig.5 no. 4).”

When we refer to “fig.5 no.4” , which is on pg. 1848, we see that no.4 is a little drawing of a horned snake. The accompanying information tells us, that this image is attested from the Akkadian (?) period, down to the Kassite period. It’s proposed identity, its names in semitic language, are 1. bašmu and 2. ušumgallu and the proposed translation for both is “poisonous snake.”

Wiggermann adds important information on the topic of the identity and nomenclature of the Horned viper – in his more concise discussion from MPS, he explains that the Sumerians had two terms, ušum and muš-ša3-tur3 – the first a horned snake with front feet, the second a horned snake without front feet.

For these two terms, the Akkadians had only one term: bašmu. (We see that above, Green states bašmu and ušumgal are the semitic terms, proving that Assyriologists contradict each other all the time – more on the ušumgul later.) So what this means is that, yes, ušum is another word for the snakes at Ningishzida’s shoulder, footed sort or no.

The Character of the Ušum, Bašhmu

The earliest texts from which we may get a sense of this creature are the Early Dynastic incantations (2600), these are a favorite reference source of mine despite that they are currently only published in German and often are somewhat inexplicable in any case.

In these earliest examples of Mesopotamian incantation text, the principal causes of problem illnesses are the Udug demon, Enki, and snakes. Snakes are an understandably object of fear for the ancients, and the mysterious and deadly power of venom was a subject of fear and awe – the image of the fierce venom spitting serpent is one often applied often the gods (who were much feared and at the same time revered). These earliest texts indicate a period in which period where Enki was especially associated with illness bringing snakes, a fact which comes to some surprise to readers of later Mesopotamian literature – later literature stresses this deities position as a lord of benevolent incantations .. however, the ancient world offers numerous examples of deities specially associated with both the power to cause and to cure illness i.e Apollo.. the logic may have run that the one with lordship over the weapon is the same who may heal, even if that is to do so little as to refrain from unleashing it. This ambiguity of nature, neither definitively good nor evil, is characteristic of Mesopotamian religion at large, and we see many “daimons”, entities who may act as agents of illness yet at the same time be employed protectively in other contexts. In any case, G. Cunningham writes a brief note about Enki’s association with snakes in the early incantation texts, to include the Ušum:

“Text 26 refers to ‘the snake of Enki’ (muš d.en-ki) while text 27 refers to ‘the place of the black snake in the middle of the abzu’ (ki muš-gi6 SU.AB sha) as well as mentioning the black dog, a horned snake, a serpent (the ušum) and Enki himself.”

As Wiggermann notes the ušum/bašhmu “is perhaps nothing more than “Venomous Snake”; a natural enemy of man mythologized.” The snake itself is therefore harmful, but it may nevertheless represent or be associated with deities who, while having the ability to inflict suffering, are essentially worshiped as protective deities (as in the case of Enki).

The Ušumgal

Now that we have defined the ušum/bašhmu, what then is the ušumgal? As I mentioned above, the word ušumgal is a combination of ušum (= snake or noble snake) and gal (great).

Ušumgal is often translation “dragon”. Wiggermann relates that the Sumerian ušumgal is written in Akkadian either by “bašmu” or by “ušumgallu” .. “it is a derivative from “ušum” and literally means “Prime Venomous Snake”… the foremost quality of an ušumgal (and probably of an ušum) is being a determined killer,killing probably with its venom, and frightening even the gods.. it is this quality that makes ušum(gal) a suitable epithet for certain gods and kings.”

The differences between ušumgal and the more general ušum seem very indistinct – while the latter is perhaps more representative of the mundane venomous snake, the former may be better understood as a more mythologized version, a chaos monster (this distinction is hard to assert for reasons that
will become apparent below).

Chaos and Chaos Monsters

Beginning in the Ur III period, incantations began to be directed not only against daimons and snakes (as in earlier periods) but also against chaos monsters. The beings were often a composite of different animal forms, and unlike daimons (but like snakes), they only caused harm – they embody disorder as well as cause it. ” Therefore the muš-ḫuš associated with Ninazu is a chaos-monster, which in some periods is treated like a daimon, is a bringer of sickness and disorder, and is targeted in incantations. (Ninazu here is similar to Enki, sometimes referred to as “king of Snakes” in some incantations, he is capable of releasing and restraining the serpents, again showing a dual nature).

Chaos Monsters are generally, but not always, composite creatures – they get their name as they are creatures that appear on lists of defeated opponents of the gods Ninurta or Marduk. These are deities who battled chaos and enemies of the divine order during the forming of the cosmos, enemies such as the seven-headed dog (ur-sag-imin), six-headed wild ram (šeg-sag-aš) or the ušumgal. Once defeated, they generally became sub-servant to divine will, but divine will was also interpreted as instrumental in bringing about human suffering (for in Mesopotamia, nothing could be acknowledged to escape the control of the triumphing gods of order, contradictory as this often ends up being.)

For persons attempting to distinguish between the ušumgul and the ušum, it is confusing to note that both forms of the horned snake appear in the lists of defeated chaos enemies, but G. Cunningham explains this in part:

“Snakes can also be regarded as similar to chaos-monsters, given that in Mesopotamian terms they are classified with the same conceptual continuum as chaos-monsters of the serpent-type such as the ušumgal.”

Conclusions from this post: While it’s possible to call either the ušumgal or the ušum a “dragon”, and this is not necessarily incorrect, the word is more of a convenient English term which may carry with it connotations which are inapplicable. The ušum in form is simply a horned serpent which may or may not possess forelegs (varying), and it’s mythologized big brother, the ušumgal, is the same if not larger. Now that I’ve clearly recognized the equivalence of the Sumerian ušum and Akkadian bašmu, the snakes which occupy Ningishzida’s shoulders and which are thought to possibly be his pre-anthropomorphic form, this suggests a new explanation to me about how he got his later role in exorcism.. When we recognize that in earliest incantations Enki, the principal lord of magic, was capable sending and restraining snakes, and again Ninazu’s similar capacity (he is called “king of snakes” while at the same time his importance as a healing god is apparent), Ningishzida’s association with the ušum/bašmu and its subservience to him may in the same way recommend this deity to exorcists always anxious for effective defenses against the fearsome venomous snakes. This suggestion would be an alternative to the possibility that his legitimation as an exorcist stems from his late appointment as Throne bearer in the Netherworld.

Wiggermann also hints of a snake that may have been even earlier associated with Ningishzida and the Muš huššu: Niraḫ.

The Transtigiridian influx

I’m fairly certain that I have detailed the Muš Huššu and the Transtigiridian influx before, but I will give a version of that information here again for the sake of being through and for delineating between this creature and the ušum.

In discussing Ophidian traits in Mesopotamia, which the Muš huššu and the gods this creature is associated with posses, it is important to recognize the influence of the lands lying to the east of the Mesopotamian plateau, across the Tigris (hence the term “transtigiridian”). Elamite culture, which occupied the Iranian highlands and held sway over cities along the current Iran/Iraq border, is known to have had special religious emphasis on snake deities, and this trickled into Mesopotamia proper. Recognizing this influence allows one to better understand how seemingly disparate deities from the North Eastern Mesopotamian city of Der seem to share things in common with snake gods from the Southern Mesopotamian plains such as Ningishzida – Der was on the border to Iran and thus acted as a transfer point.. as Wiggermann comments:

“It can of course not be denied that Ninazu and Ningišzida are Sumerian gods, but the evidence suggests that their Ophidian traits were developed under the influence of transtigridian religious ideas. In fact, as has been repeatedly shown, a religious interest in snakes in these regions goes back deep into prehistory and through the ages remains quite visible in the iconography of Elam and the Iranian mountains.”

More influential than Der on the Sumerian cults was likely Ninazu’s own city which also was close to the Iranian border – Ešhnunna. While the god also had a smaller cult center in the south of Sumer called Enegi, Wiggermann relates that the Ophidian lore that is attestable from the site of Enegi “is written mostly in foreign languages and appears to have been imported”, meaning that the snake god ideology at Enegi is again part of the greater influx from Der, Ešhnunna, and ultimately from the east.

The Muš huššu

The mušhuššu was the dragon of Ninazu, city god of Enegi and Ešnunna, and of his son Ningišzida. From Old Akkadian times onwards (2400 BC), Ninazu was succeeded in Ešnunna by Tišpak, whose traits mainly derive from Ninazu, including the association with muš huššu. It is from Tišpak that the muš huššu was taken, and given to Marduk, after the defeat of Ešnunna by Hammurabi (1900 BC). Muš huššu translates to “furious snake” or “aweful snake”, the creature had in earlier times lion parts and dragon parts, but over time “the lion parts are progressively replaced by snake parts” and the creature is called a “snake-dragon” by modern scholars.

Wiggermann characterizes the Muš huššu as “perhaps an angel of death, killing with his venom” which is entirely consistent with an the behavior of snake creatures such as the ušum/bašhmu, the enemy of the exorcist in early incantation, or the ušumgal who like the Muš huššu is also a serpentine chaos monster, defeated by the warrior god (defeated opponents often enter the service of the gods.) It is worth emphasizing that nothing seems quite black or white with Mesopotamian religion, and that which was feared was also respected and so in some situations it was counted on as a protective force – the Muš huššu was used in some periods as an Apotropaic figure, on plaques or palace walls, to ward off evil doers. It’s not that it was incapable of evil doing itself – but if properly respected and revered would possibly unleash its venom on an uncontained enemy. The dragon is also mentioned in a hymn to the building of Ningirsu’s temple, a temple built in Lagash by Gudea (whose personal god was Ningishzida.) Below I have quoted part of that hymn, and I have pointed out the names of the snakes mentioned in [square brackets]:

722-729. The cedar doors installed in the house are Iškur roaring above. The locks of the E-ninnu are bisons, its door-pivots are lions, from its bolts horned vipers [ušum/bašmu] and fierce snakes [muš huššu] are hissing at wild bulls. Its jambs, against which the door leaves close, are young lions and panthers lying on their paws.

730-737. The shining roof-beam nails hammered into the house are dragons [ušum/bašmu] gripping a victim. The shining ropes attached to the doors are holy Niraḫ [Niraḫ] parting the abzu. Its …… is pure like Keš and Aratta, its …… is a fierce lion keeping an eye on the Land; nobody going alone can pass in front of it.

Wiggermann writes that after the defeat of Ešhnunna by Marduk, and that god’s assumption of the Muš huššu, Ninazu and Tišpak became associated with other snakes and dragons (ušum/bašmu, ušumgallu). The similarity between these creatures is attested again by this exchange, while at the same time it emphasizes that they are separate entities. When a god loses one, he has the other instead.

Wiggermann does not state that Ningishzida lost association with the Muš huššu as a result of the Babylonian campaign in Ešhnunna or that he became associated with the Ušum as a result (as the case with Ninazu).. In fact, I believe Ningishzida was associated with both creature at the same time, if we look to the Gudea era where the god is symbolized by 2 Mus huššu which flank coiled snakes (the Gudea cup) , or when the god is in anthropomorphic form
presenting Gudea to another god, the horned snakes (ušum) are at his shoulders – thus both creatures relate equally to the deity at that time. What is curious, is a statement of the authors that reads: “Ningishzida, the son of Ninazu, is associated with the [Muš huššu]; his proper animal, however, is the snake (d)Niraḫ.”

The snake Niraḫ, as we see in the above hymn, is connected with the Abzu and that environ, the semi-mythical underground fresh waters of the god Enki. It is distinct, or at least somewhat distinct, from the Ušum. This information, that Niraḫ should be Ningishzida’s animal, is for me somewhat unexpected – the ušum/bašmu is solidly placed as the snake at the god’s shoulders (see last post). I suspect the association with Niraḫ may be somewhat earlier.. while I am able to detail Niraḫ to some extent currently, I’m not at this time able to explain Wiggermann’s statement or how he connects the snake with Ningishzida.

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Magister Ouroboros 777 at The Abrahadabra Institute LLC
Succeeding m1thr0s 729 (Magister Ouroboros 729) izi is current guardian of the 418 current in this world. She upholds the young Nu Aeon tradition of Mutational Alchemy, a hybrid branch of Hermetic Alchemy developed by m1thr0s 729. Her current work to date includes the art and written analysis of The Mutational Alchemy Tarot, the development of Pentagrammaton (the 32 5-line binary structures unknown in the East) and the ongoing analysis of The Hidden Diamond Sutra.

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Succeeding m1thr0s 729 (Magister Ouroboros 729) izi is current guardian of the 418 current in this world. She upholds the young Nu Aeon tradition of Mutational Alchemy, a hybrid branch of Hermetic Alchemy developed by m1thr0s 729. Her current work to date includes the art and written analysis of The Mutational Alchemy Tarot, the development of Pentagrammaton (the 32 5-line binary structures unknown in the East) and the ongoing analysis of The Hidden Diamond Sutra.

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