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God of war and plagues, who later became closely associated with the underworld god Nergal
Erra was an especially war-like and violent god, who is often understood to be a bringer of pestilence. There is some debate, however, regarding the exact nature of his destructive functions.
One of Erra’s common epithets is ’warrior’ (Roberts 1971: 14) and another is ’lord of plague and carnage’ (CADŠ/1: 69, s.v. šaggaštu; Tallqvist 1938). This second epithet has been alternatively translated as ’lord of affray and slaughter’ by Roberts 1971, who argues that Erra’s destructive power is associated with famine rather than pestilence. He claims that textual evidence indicates that Erra should be thought of as a god of famine rather than pestilence.
To support this argument, Roberts quotes an entry in a series of household omens (Šumma ālu) that he translates as: ”there will be a devouring of Erra in the land” . This line also contains a gloss to give further explanation of its meaning. Roberts 1971 translates it as meaning ’famine’, whilst the dictionary definition is ’a disease characterized by ravenous hunger’ (CAD H: 261, s.v. hušahhu). Whilst Erra’s associations are still open to debate, his aspects of pestilence, plagues and famine may perhaps be closely related, as pestilence usually results in hunger and starvation.
Divine genealogy and syncretisms
Erra’s wife was the goddess Mami (not thought to be the mother goddess of the same name) and his father the sky god An.
Erra eventually became syncretised with the god Nergal, who was associated with the underworld. Erra’s associations with Nergal are attested as early as the Old Akkadian period (ca. 2350-2200 BCE) (Lambert 1973). A Sumerian hymn to Nergal that also features the name Erra survives (ETCSL 4.15.2) although the fragmentary nature of the text means it is unclear whether this indicates two different deities here, or alternative names for one deity. In the Standard Babylonian version of the literary text Nergal and Ereškigal (STT 1, 28) the name Erra is used instead of Nergal, indicating the close identification of the two gods at this time.
Erra was worshipped at the E-meslam (Meslam House) temple in the city of Kutha in Babylonia, as was Nergal.
Time Periods Attested
Erra first appears as a divine element in personal names in southern Mesopotamia in the Sargonic Period (c.2390-2210 BCE) (Roberts 1971: 12-13).
Erra is featured in two royal prayers from the second millennium BCE. The first is a prayer for king Hammurabi (ETCSL 18.104.22.168), which is unfortunately too fragmentary to reveal anything meaningful about this deity. The second is a hymn to the goddess Inana that contains prayers for king Ur-Ninurta (ETCSL 22.214.171.124). In this hymn Inana and other deities speak to the king, guiding him in ruling justly and powerfully over the land. The god Enlilpronounces that king Ur-Ninurta should emulate the brave deeds of war-like deities, including being ’like the warrior Erra’ – presumably invoking Erra’s destructive characteristics.
In the first millennium BCE, Erra is attested in scholarly and literary texts from the Neo-Assyrian to Seleucid periods. The most lengthy and well-known literary text featuring Erra is the narrative poem Erra and Išum (STT 1, 16; STT 1, 17 (+)). The text possibly dates from the eighth century BCE although the exact date is disputed (see Foster 2005: 880). In the Babylonian poem Erra and Išum, Erra ravages Babylonia with plague after temporarily gaining control over the world. The text is a poetic portrayal of the eruption of violence and its subsequent effects on a society. It shows, among other things, how violence leads to disruption of order – even the divine order imposed on the world by the gods – and the potential to destroy civilisation. The thirteenth to ninth centuries BCE saw bloody invasions of Babylonia by outside invaders. The myth may be a reflection on the real-life consequences of violence within contemporary society as experienced by its author (see Foster 2005: 880).
In omen texts from Seleucid Uruk (c.305-64 BCE), unfavourable omens that involved the coming of a plague often used the phrase: ’Erra will devour the land’ (e.g., TCL 6, 16. Reference to Erra’s function as a bringer of death is also given in a Neo-Assyrian incantation series for expelling evil demons from the city of Huzirina. The first part of the text (the incantation) describes various demons and their ill effects on the land and its people. Here Erra is described as ’great Erra who strikes people down in the street’, presenting a powerful image of the god bringing inescapable death and leaving no one behind. (STT 2, 192 (+)). The text then goes on to describe rituals that the incantation priest must perform in order to drive away the evil.
No imagery depicting Erra has been identified so far.
Name and Spellings
Erra’s name is usually written in later sources as dER3.RA, although several variant spellings are attested in different periods including dER9(= GIR3).RA (see Roberts 1971).
Older spellings of the name of Erra might include the spelling dKIŠ-ra (Borger 2004: 179), although this reading has been highly contested (see Steinkeller 1987; Lambert 1990a, Lambert 1990b; Steinkeller 1990; but see Krebernik 1998: 277).
Roberts 1971 gives a possible etymology for Erra’s name as deriving from the Semitic root for ”to scorch” or ”char” giving Erra the meaning of ”scorching” or ”scorched”. He therefore suggests that Erra was originally a personification of the ”scorched earth” resulting from a grass or forest fire, who in time came to personify famine more generally—especially famine arising from the burning of land, such as during war. This interpretation however is not universally accepted (e.g., Lambert 1973).
Erra in online corpora
- The Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative
- The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature
- The Corpus of Ancient Mesopotamian Scholarship
References and further reading
- Lambert 1973, ”Studies in Nergal”.
- Lambert 1990a, ”The name of Nergal again”.
- Lambert 1990b, ”Surrejoinder to P. Steinkeller”.
- Roberts 1971, ”Erra—scorched earth”.
- Steinkeller 1987, ”The name of Nergal”.
- Steinkeller 1990, ”More on the name of Nergal”.
- Tallqvist 1938, Akkadische Götterepitheta.
Ruth Horry, ’Erra (god)’, Ancient Mesopotamian Gods and Goddesses, Oracc and the UK Higher Education Academy, 2016 [http://oracc.museum.upenn.edu/amgg/listofdeities/erra/]