The Sumerian “omega” has in fact nothing to do with the well-known Greek letter of the same name. It rather refers to a symbol representing the Mesopotamian goddess Ninhursag. Because of its peculiar form, the Greek omega comes to mind. However, outside the shared form, the two concepts bear no resemblances at all. Ninhursag or Lady of the Sacred Mountain (literally Nin Ḫar Sag in ancient Sumerian) was one of the seven great deities of Sumer, being assigned the power over pregnancy, fertility and childbirth. These responsibilities make it possible to define her with descriptions like “mother goddess” or “fertility goddess”. Ninhursag was one of the six major deities of the ancient Sumerian religion and she continued to be worshiped as Belet-Ili, her name in the Akkadian language, the tongue spoken in the Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrian empires.
Her symbol is a curly, omega-like sign. According to Jeremy Black and Anthony Green in their Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia (2003) the symbol might be interpreted as being a stylized womb. Its resemblance to the female genitalia, namely the vagina, cervix and uterus, is striking. This is supported by a clay plaque showing Ninhursag with a Sumerian omega on either side of her and, under the symbols, “human forms resembling newborn babies.” Indeed, her role as a mother goddess is confirmed in several mythological tales, among others the Sumerian tale of Enki and Ninhursag.
Patricia Monaghan describes in her Encyclopedia of Goddesses and Heroines (2014) how Enki, the god of wisdom, water and mischief, impregnated his great-granddaughter Uttu. From their affair sprang eight varieties of plants, but Enki ate his offspring as quickly as they appeared. The furious Ninhursag was filled with anger at the sight of this transgression against creation, and leveled a terrible curse at Enki, which made him weak and struck him in eight parts of his body with eight diseases. When he was little more than a dying corpse, the gods begged Ninhursag to heal him. When the goddess’s anger cooled eventually, she cured Enki by placing him in her vagina, whence he could be reborn, together with the plants that had sickened him.
In the Akkadian epic Atra-Hasis, an 18th-century BC creation myth, the creation of humans is connected to Ninhursag as well. Enlil, god of air, storm and wind and chief deity of the Sumerian pantheon, assigned junior deities to do all the labor and work on the lands of his realm. Displeased with the hard work, the lesser gods rebelled against Enlil and refused to continue their work. Enki, the god of wisdom mention before, proposed to create humans to instead do all the work. The mother goddess Ninhursag was assigned the task of creating humans by shaping clay figurines mixed with the flesh and blood of the slain god Geshtu, a minor god sacrificed by the major gods in order to complete the creation of the human race. All the gods in turn spit upon the clay. After 10 months, a specially-made womb breaks open and humans are born.
Ninhursag was honored with temples all throughout lower Mesopotamia, especially at Kish and Eridu. Her symbol appears commonly all throughout the second millennium BC well into the first millennium BC, especially on the second tier of many kudurru boundary stones, right below the signs of the major deities Ishtar, Sīn and Shamash (Utu). This signifies her importance and position in the belief of the kudurru’s makers.
Ninhursag has been compared to the ancient Egyptian goddess Hathor, associated with motherhood, sexuality, love and beauty. According to Diva Matrix (1953) by A. A. Barb, the Sumerian womb symbol might be the origin of the familiar so-called Hathor-head, a headdress or wig historically associated with Hathor herself and a popular hair style among upper-class Egyptian women of the Middle Kingdom. Hathor was one of ancient Egypt’s most important deities, more temples being dedicated to her than to any other goddess. Because of the similarities, there might be a close connection between the two. The importance of Hathor’s and Ninhursag’s worship in respectively west and east of the Levantine coast, the land known as Canaan, had its influence on the local Canaanite pantheon. The latter’s proximity to Egypt realm gave rise to reciprocal cultural influences between both. The Canaanite nude goddess Qdeshet, for example, was in fact inspired by attributes of the Egyptian goddess Hathor, including the curled omega-shaped headdress.
Omer Sayadi (*1993) is a former student of the Catholic University of Leuven with a special love for the Middle East and North Africa. After receiving his Master’s degree in Arabic Language and Islamic Studies, he’s working with both refugees from the region as well as foreigners seeking to learn the Dutch language. He wrote columns on Islam in Europe and migration, and started MENA Symbolism as a means of combining everything history, politics, symbolism and society in one place.