The Sumerian omega has in fact nothing to do with the well-known Greek letter omega, but it refers to the symbol of the Mesopotamian goddess Ninhursag. Because of its peculiar form, the omega comes to mind. Ninhursag (Nin being the Sumerian word for Mistress, Har Sag for mountain) or Lady of the Sacred Mountain was one of the seven great deities of Sumer and was assigned the power over pregnancy and childbirth. These responsibilities make it possible to define her with descriptions like “mother goddess” or “fertility goddess”. The goddess was known by other names, like Ninmah or Mami, and was called Belet-Ili in the Akkadian language, the tongue spoken in the Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrian empires.
Her symbol is, as stated above, a curly, omega-like sign, said to depict an umbilical cord cutter, in connection to her function as mother goddess. This sign also represents the female genitalia, namely the vagina, cervix and uterus. Her role as mother goddess is confirmed in several mythological tales, among others the Sumerian tale of Enki and Ninhursag. In the story, Ninhursag is described as striking the god Enki with death and disease after an outburst of anger over Enki’s behavior. When none of the other gods were able to heal him, Ninhursag felt sorry and healed the sick and dying god by absorbing his pain. Each time she drew the pain into her body, she gave birth to another deity. In this way, eight of the Sumerian pantheon’s deities were born. After Enki was healed, both deities focused on the work of creation, shaping various creatures out of clay.
In the Akkadian epic Atra-Hasis, an 18th-century BC creation myth, the creation of humans is connected to Ninhursag. Enlil, god of the wind and air and ruler of the earth, assigned junior deities to do all the labor and work on the lands of his realm. Displeased with the hard work, the lesser gods rebel against Enlil and refuse to continue their work. Enki proposed to create humans to do all the work. The mother goddess Ninhursag is assigned the task of creating them by shaping clay figurines mixed with the flesh and blood of a slain god.
Ninhursag is attested from the Early Dynastic period (c. 2900–2350 BC) until well into the first millennium BC, though she loses importance throughout the second half of the second millennium. The goddess was honored with temples all throughout Mesopotamia, especially at Kish and Eridu. Her symbol appears on the second tier of many kudurru boundary stones, right below the signs of the major deities Ishtar, Sīn and Shamash. 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. Hathor is often depicted wearing an omega shaped wig, and is at times depicted on a mountain. She became one of ancient Egypt’s most important deities, and more temples were dedicated to her than to any other goddess, indicating that her worship was widespread at the time. It may very well be that the two goddesses are connected.
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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.