Utu (later known as Shamash) is a Mesopotamian/Sumerian god of Justice, kindness and generosity, and the Sun. He is one of the most important deities in the Mesopotamian pantheon and shows up in some of the earliest writings. He was seen as a gracious god who would help out humankind and the heroes, such as when he helps Gilgamesh.
The famous law code of Hammurabi (1792-1750 BCE) addresses Shamash by name and claims it was Shamash who provided humanity with law.
In the Sumerian King List, one of the early kings of Uruk is described as "the son of Utu" and Utu seems to have served as a special protector to several of that city's later kings.
Myths & Legends
The Sumerians believed that, as he rode through heaven, Utu saw everything that happened in the world. The light of the sun was thought to be able to penetrate and pierce every level of the earth, even to the underworld, and illuminate the human heart. There was nothing, therefore, which Utu/Shamash did not see, or that he could not reach. At night, Utu was believed to travel through the Underworld as he journeyed to the east in preparation for the sunrise. One Sumerian literary work refers to Utu illuminating the Underworld and dispensing judgement there. On his way through the Underworld, Utu was believed to pass through a garden which contained trees that bore precious gems as fruit.
Originally he strode over the heavens on foot, but later was depicted as doing so in a fiery chariot drawn by animals and driven by his son, Bunene.
Utu was believed to take an active role in human affairs, and was thought to aid those in distress. Many of his myths emphasize his compassion and generosity. In one of his earliest appearances in literature, in the Myth of Etana, the hero Etana invokes Utu to help his wife conceive a child.
In the Sumerian poem, The Dream of Dumuzid, Utu intervenes to rescue Inanna's husband Dumuzid from the galla demons who are hunting him.
In the Sumerian flood myth, Utu emerges after the flood waters begin to subside, causing Ziusudra, the hero of the story, to throw open a window on his boat and fall down prostrate before him. Ziusudra sacrifices a sheep and an ox to Utu for delivering him to salvation.
He is the son of the moon god Nanna and the fertility goddess Ningal. In Sumeria, Anu or Enlil is his father, and he is the twin brother of Inanna (goddess of war, love, and sexuality) and brother of Ereshkigal (Queen of the Dead), and Iškur (also known as Adad, god of storms).
His wife was Serida (later known as Aya), the goddess of the dawn, and he had a son named Bunene.
He is usually depicted as an old man with a long beard and arms. He emanates rays of light, sometimes represented as a solar disk.
The Epic of Gilgamesh
In the Sumerian poem of Gilgamesh and Huwawa, the hero Gilgamesh asks Utu to assist him in his journey to the Cedar Mountain. In this version, Gilgamesh asks Utu's help because Utu is associated with the Cedar Mountain, which is implied to be located in the far east, the land where the sun rises. Utu is initially reluctant to help, but, after Gilgamesh explains that he is doing this because he intends to establish his name, because he knows he will eventually die, Utu agrees. Once Gilgamesh reaches the Cedar Mountain, Utu helps him defeat the ogre Huwawa, who lives there.
In the standard Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh's plan to visit the Cedar Mountain is still his own idea and he goes to Shamash for aid. Shamash helps Gilgamesh defeat Humbaba (the East Semitic name for Huwawa). In the Sumerian version, Gilgamesh's initial quest is to visit the Cedar Mountain and Humbaba is merely an obstacle that Gilgamesh and Enkidu encounter once they have already arrived there, but, in the Babylonian version, defeating Humbaba is the initial quest on which the heroes embark. In a late version of the Gilgamesh story, Shamash becomes the instigator of the quest, the one who instructs Gilgamesh to go slay Humbaba to begin with.