The god Nergal is a secondary deity in the ancient Mesopotamian pantheon. Originally known to the Sumerians as Maslamtea or Irra, the proper name Nergal actually first appears during the so-called Neo-Sumerian Empire in the Ur III period (22nd to 21st century BC). He was considered to be the patron god of Cuthah modern Tall Ibrāhīm, the chief center of his cult, located a bit to the north of Nippur, which is indicated by the Biblical verse: “And the men of Babylon made Succoth Benoth, and the men of Cuth(ah) made Nergal” [2 Kings, 17:30]
Nergal was initially considered a god of war, terror and destruction. Despite not figuring prominently in epics and myths, his cult was widespread beyond the borders of Sumer and Akkad, like Mari and Elam, but also as far as Athens or Hattusa. According to Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible (1999), Nergal evolved during the Kassite period into a dreadful king of the Underworld by the second millennium BC, co-ruling it with Ereškigal. As a result of that additional alternate existence, Nergal gained importance and became an important figure of veneration in the Neo-Assyrian period.
In visual representations, Nergal is most often connected to the ferocious lion, either by means of specific characteristics and attributes, or by complete embodiment of a (winged) lion. Especially on so-called Mesopotamian kudurru boundary stones, in which he appears in the second or third tier below the primary deities of the Mesopotamian pantheon, he incidentally appears as a winged lion. One fixed attribute is, however, a recurring certitude: his two-headed mace. A mace or scepter flanked by two lion heads accompanying the bearded deity, or even properly symbolizing him, the ferocity, power and might of the lion inherently associated with Nergal. It is very visible on an 18th-17th century BC Old-Babylonian baked clay plaque fragment with a high-relief figure of Nergal wearing a cap, with long curly hair and beard, a pair of lion ears, holding his mace decorated by a double lion’s head and having two daggers secured at his belt.
Omer Sayadi (*1993) is a former student of the Catholic University of Leuven with a special love for the Middle East, North Africa and the Muslim World. After receiving his Master’s degree in Arabic Language and Islamic Studies, his professional work included translation, development and research regarding the region. He occasionally writes on historical and contemporary issues such as Islam in Europe and migration, and started MENA Symbolism as a means of combining everything history, politics, symbolism and society in one place. If you’re interested, feel free to visit his personal Twitter page.