Skip to content

ENLIL: a Shape-Shifter

Today I would like to show you an odd connection, or possible connection that I came across in my researches – in which ENLIL, the Supreme God of the ancient Sumerians is defined as being a “shape-shifter” and “jester” or “Chaos” god.

It’s interesting in that it could be the source for the later Norse and North American oral history concerning shape-shifting gods and Lords of Chaos.

Enlil was at one time considered to be supreme among all of the Mesopotamian deities. It was he that decreed the fates of both the sky gods and men, and he who installed kingship. Men feared him, and for good reason.  The Sumerian people were aware of the fact that his commands could not be altered, and that his all-powerful nature extended from the Earth to the Sky.  His original temple was located in the e-kur, or “Mountain House”, which I believe to have been located in Anatolia (modern Turkey), and was later moved into Sumeria proper.  I have reasons and evidence for this location, which is contrary to the traditional scholarly impression, but I will save that long topic for another post.  Today I would like to discuss the meaning behind his name, since it is able to reveal much about his attributes.

If ever you wish to learn more about a specific aspect of Sumerian civilization, you really can’t go wrong with the University of Pennsylvania website. The scholars there are among the best in the world, and their answers, in my opinion, ring much closer to the truth than any other website dedicated to that time period or those people.

Examining their offer on Enlil, they mention that there has been a great deal of debate, which continues, concerning the meaning of Enlil’s name.  They believe that there is a consensus on the first portion of  “En”, which is translated as “Lord, master, ruler”, but the “lil” part  (which is actually “lil2” or the second recognized variation of that symbol), that seems to cause some scholarly argument.

Am I here to come down on one side or another of this argument, to place my bets on one school of thought over the others?  No, I simply can not do that.   My own study arises in yet another possibility, and one that I find to be the most probable one of all.

Our scholars point out that lil means “ghost, phantom, haunted” (according to Michalowski 1989:98, and Tinney 1996: 129-30) but by providing a translation of Enlil’s name as “Lord ghost” they are left with a meaning that does not comfortably fit in with the context of his mythological attestations.

What are the attributes that are attributed in the ancient texts to Lord Enlil?  He’s described as the one who decreed the fates, and the destinies of both mankind and the sky gods are under his control.  The texts tell us that it is Enlil that holds the tablet of destinies, a record of the fate that has been decreed for everyone on Earth and in the sky as well, and that the one who possesses these commands the world.    In other tablets we find that he has a destructive side, and it was he that was said to have sent the droughts, plagues and even the great flood that nearly wiped out mankind.

In order to better understand the controversy over his name, let’s examine what some of the scholars have put forth for the etymology of his name.

One interpretation of Enlil’s name is “Lord Wind” or “Lord Air” (e.g., Jacobsen 1989).
Enlil is described as the “decreer of fates”, and in the Akkadian Anzu myth Enlil holds the tablet of destinies, the possessor of which commands the world (2005: 555-578).
Piotr Steinkeller has written that the meaning of LÍL may not actually be a clue to a specific divine domain of Enlil’s, whether storms, spirits, or otherwise, since Enlil may have been “a typical universal god […] without any specific domain.”
In literary texts, Enlil also had the name Nunamnir, possibly meaning “he who is respected” (Edzard 1965: 60).

When we try to shape the most correct answer to the riddle of his name, caution is advised. Because the natural tendency of researchers is to take that as a base and construct his kingdom around and about it.   And thus this analysis of his name is important because it relates to the assignment of the deity’s functions.  Was he a storm and thunder god, a Lord of ghosts, or the powerful and authoritative decreer of fates?

In order to select the most appropriate meaning from the possibilities offered by his name, we need to know the approximate period of time in which it was first used.  Since he arrived very early in the pantheon of Sumerian sky gods, we can safely place it in a very early period.  Scholar X. Wang, who has done some of the most recent studies on this topic proposes that the deity Enlil might have come to be worshipped at Nippur during the Early Dynastic Period of about 3200 BC [Wang, X. 2011. The Metamorphosis of Enlil in Early Mesopotamia. Alter Orient und Altes Testament, 385. Münster: Ugarit-Verlag], and I agree with this finding.

This gives us a starting period, and it also tells us that, given two equally possible meanings, the one that was employed from this period of time would be much more fitting in regards to the origin of his name than one from the much later Old Babylonian period (that began about 2004 BC).   Yes, more recent mentions that provide meaning to his name will possibly add to or even modify his attributes, as he began to be accepted by other cultures other than the Sumerian, but the earliest mentions will certainly tell us more about the origins of his name.

D.O. Edzard, in his 1965 work “Mesopotamien. Die Mythologie der Sumerer und Akkader,” informs us that in the literary texts Enlil also had the name Nunamnir, with the possible meaning of “he who is respected”.  Let’s start with this idea and then finish up with the EnLil proper name.

I normally begin my search with the Univ. of Penn. website:, which I find to be the most informative.   But first it was necessary for me to visit the Oxford site in order to see how the name was transliterated in the texts, in order to obtain the components.  We learn that it was written as d nu-nam-nir.  The “d”  prefix in this phrase stands for Dingir, which means deity, and in most cases sky god.  We also see that his name was written using three groups of letters, which we will look at next.

I have selected the meaning choices that correspond to the Early Dynastic period or earlier, since we learned that the research finds mention of him in that early period.  There are two meanings to choose from, one from that period, and the other from that period and also from the Archaic or earliest period.  Both seem to be acceptable, according to the timeline we have established.

Nu = “to be not, without, not, or un- ”
Nu = “to spin (as in spinning thread)”  from the Archaic period.

Next we find a suggestion with the compound word choice of “nam-nir”, meaning supremacy.  This is possibly what some scholars use as the basis for their “he who is respected” idea.  But here we have a problem. The only interval in which we can safely attest the textual use of that definition is in the Old Babylonian period, which as I mentioned above is too late in our timeline for the origin of his name. Having no other compounds ready at hand that suggest themselves, we will proceed with the word split as it was written.

Nam = “determined order; will, testament; fate, destiny”
Nir = “authority, trust; sign”.

One option that presents itself is in using “to spin” with “fate, destiny” and “authority” and arrive at a theme of Enlil as the one who would spin the threads of fate with authority. And we can suppose that the addition of authority meant that when he arrived at that spun fate, it was fixed and could not be changed, since it was done as a command of the Supreme sky god Enlil. This fits in well with the definition offered by Foster, as mentioned above.   But should we stop there?  Have we reached the end of our possibilities and arrived at a safe conclusion?  Not if we take into account the optional definition of “not, to be without”.   And if you have followed my other writings you will know that I am never content to “stop there”, unless “there” includes the revelation of the truth and the answers to our “why” questions.

Arranging that option, we might have a theme of  “without” and “destiny” or “trust”.  A sky god without a determined destiny, and who simply can not be trusted.   And yes, there is a reason that I chose the meaning of trust over that of authority.   Consider someone, some being or sky god perhaps, who is said to be without destiny, and without trust or untrustworthy.  Don’t we begin to see the theme of Chaos emerging?

Chaos is commonly defined as “behavior so unpredictable” (without a destiny) “as to appear random” (randomness can not be trusted or counted upon to repeat) , and  “the formless matter supposed to have existed before the creation of the universe”.

And historically there is much agreement with this idea of a Chaos god; Chaos gods are found in many of the ancient cultures.    The namesake is Khaos, the first of the primeval gods of Greece, but we also find Yam of the Canaanites, the Egyptian Isfet, god of chaos and disorder, the Arabians had Falak, a giant serpent mentioned in the One Thousand and One Nights, the Norse had their Midgard Serpent, the Aztecs Cipactli, the Lakota of North America had Unhcegila, also a serpent creature, and many other examples, worldwide.

We thus find that we can easily assign Enlil to the list of Chaos Gods, and certainly in a time period earlier than the other examples listed above.  However, most of those who made temples to Chaos gods also share the worship of another type of god, one whose lack of determined fate, untrustworthy nature and chaotic lifestyle indicate a type of “wild card” personality.  All of which fits into the classical definition of a “Trickster” god.

In mythology and the study of folklore and religion, a trickster is a character in a story who exhibits a great degree of intellect or secret knowledge and uses it to play tricks or otherwise disobey normal rules and defy conventional behavior.   They say no to order and authority.  Trickster deities can be a god, goddess, spirit, human, or anthropomorphisation, and so it is their properties that define them and not their station or status.

Tricksters appear in the myths of many different cultures. Lewis Hyde describes the trickster as a “boundary-crosser”.  The trickster crosses and often breaks both physical and societal rules: Tricksters “violate principles of social and natural order, playfully disrupting normal life and then re-establishing it on a new basis.”  In these examples, order seems to decline into Chaos as a result of the influences of these tricksters..

Often, this bending or breaking of the rules takes the form of tricks or thievery, and while tricksters often play the role of a fool or buffoon, they are underneath very cunning creatures.  The trickster openly questions, disrupts or mocks authority. They are often male characters, and are fond of breaking rules, boasting, and playing tricks on both humans and gods.

Perhaps one of the more familiar tricksters in modern times is Loki.   In Norse mythology Loki is the mischief-maker, who is also a shape shifter. Loki also exhibits gender variability, in one case even becoming pregnant. He becomes a mare who later gives birth to Odin’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir.    Scholars have debated Loki’s origins and role in Norse mythology, which some have described as that of a trickster god.    In various poems from the Poetic Edda and sections of the Prose Edda, Loki is alternatively referred to as Loptr, which is generally considered derived from Old Norse lopt meaning “air”, and therefore points to an association with the air. So here we have a Norse trickster god and an association with air, much like the “Lord Wind” and “Lord Air” that was assigned as the origin of Enlil’s name by some scholars.

The trickster in most native traditions is essential to creation, to birth.  And we see this same idea in Enlil, who was in some texts attributed with creation.  While the trickster crosses various cultural traditions, there are significant differences between tricksters in the traditions of different parts of the world.

Native American tricksters should not be confused with the European fictional rogue.   In some stories the Native American trickster is foolish and other times wise. He can be a hero in one tale and a villain in the next.  His fate in life is not fixed, just as we see with Enlil.   In many Native American and First Nations mythologies, the Coyote spirit (Southwestern United States) or Raven spirit (Pacific Northwest) stole fire from the gods (stars, moon, and/or sun). Both are usually seen as jokesters and pranksters. In Native American creation stories, when Coyote teaches humans how to catch salmon, he makes the first fish weir out of logs and branches.   Many of these Native American trickster gods were known to be shape shifters as well.   They employ the ability to change shapes in order to perpetuate their thievery or perform mischievous tricks on both gods and men.

In mythology and the study of folklore and religion, a trickster is a character in a story (god, goddess, spirit, human, or anthropomorphisation) who exhibits a great degree of intellect or secret knowledge and uses it to play tricks or otherwise disobey normal rules and defy conventional behavior.

The trickster is a common stock character in folklore and popular culture. A clever, mischievous person or creature, the trickster achieves their ends through the use of trickery. A trickster may trick others simply for their amusement, they could be a physically weak character trying to survive in a dangerous world, or they could even be a personification of the chaos that the world needs to function.

Hynes and Doty, in Mythical Trickster Figures (1997, The University of Alabama Press),  state that every trickster has several of the following six traits:

fundamentally ambiguous and anomalous
deceiver and trick-player
shape-shifter or master of disguise
messenger and imitator of the gods
sacred and lewd bricoleur

So Enlil’s attributes of shape-shifting and as a chaotic deceiver are certainly indicative of the trickster character.  And based upon his emergence on the sacred scene in the 2900 BC period, perhaps Enlil was the original mould that the later trickster examples, worldwide,  found worthy of copying.

But of course that would assume some form of contact, either directly or through mutually known sources,  between the early Sumerians and the Europeans and North Americans, and that, my friends, goes strictly against the traditional theories held by our scholars.  But doesn’t it sound like a delicious possibility?   Unlike our traditional scholars, I don’t discount this possibility at all.

Translations related to En-Lil:

en [CVNE] N (383x) Early Dynastic IIIa, Old Akkadian, Lagash II, Ur III, Old Babylonian, Middle Babylonian, Neo-Assyrian, Neo-Babylonian, Hellenistic wr. en3; en8; NE; en3en; en; en6; en4 “(compound verb nominal element)”

en [INCANTATION] N (218x) Old Akkadian, Ur III, Old Babylonian, Middle Assyrian, Middle Babylonian, Neo-Assyrian, Neo-Babylonian, Uncertain, unknown wr. en2; U.AN; en?(AN.U); den-ni3-nu-ri-im “incantation, spell”

en [LORD] N (1678x) Early Dynastic IIIa, Early Dynastic IIIb, Ebla, Old Akkadian, Lagash II, Ur III, Old Babylonian, Middle Assyrian, Middle Babylonian, Neo-Assyrian, Neo-Babylonian, Hellenistic, Uncertain, unknown wr. en; en-en; i-ni; den; en?(GAL); u3-mu-un “lord; master; ruler”

en [PRIEST] N (10272x) Archaic, Early Dynastic IIIa, Early Dynastic IIIb, Ebla, Old Akkadian, Lagash II, Ur III, Old Babylonian, Middle Assyrian, Middle Babylonian, Neo-Assyrian, Hellenistic, Uncertain wr. en; en-en “a priest, priestess”

lil [FOOL] wr. lil; lu2lil2; lil3; lil5; lil8 “fool” Akk. lillu    Jester fits as well.
lil [GHOST] wr. lil2 “wind, breeze; ghost” Akk. ziqiqu

Master of the Jesters
Lord of the Ghosts
Master of Chaos
Master of Phantasms

If these types of reports are of interest to you, or you have another area that you would like for me to explore and report on, please use the Contact Me link on the menu at the top or bottom of the page, and let me know. Thanks.