The idea of good and evil as being two opposing forces locked in a dichotomy, as the Abrahamic faiths have it, derives ultimately from Akkadian and Babylonian thought of the 2nd millennium BCE. Sumerians did not have the same concept - in fact, they didn’t conceive of “evil” in the same way as we understand it.
In Sumerian thought, the entirety of human experience, whether we may perceive it to be good or bad, is ultimately handed down by the gods. Everything that we experience in life is part of the nature of existence, as decreed by the gods, and everything has a reason for its existence. Sumerians did not recognise separate concepts of good and evil, only the righteous will of the gods.
Understanding the me 𒈨 is fundamentally important to understanding how the Sumerians viewed the human experience and the order of society. The me are essentially attributes which can be assigned to people, cities, and civilisations; taken as a whole, they form the sum total of the human experience in a civilised society. They are physical objects, belonging to various gods, which embody and contain the essence and even the very existence of their attributes. The me are extremely numerous and the only tablets that we have that recount them are partially destroyed, but we do know that among the me are:
Thus we see that the Sumerians considered all of these things to be an intimate and necessary part of the human experience. It is only through experiencing the gamut of extremes in life that we are able to form a greater understanding of the world around us, empathise with the suffering of others, and be thankful for the blessings that life brings us. All of these concepts are understood to be divinely inspired, and all accordingly have their place in the human experience.
The Sumerians did recognise suffering and the impact that it could have on a person. Sumerians would lament before their gods when suffering got too much to handle; the Sumerian text “A Man and His God” describes a man who is reverent and righteous, but who has endured much suffering. He pours out his grief before his god, and his lamentation is heard:
“The young man’s words of supplication were heard. His devout prayers were like a fine oil to his god. His god took away the hostile words [...] they scattered to the winds the young man’s overwhelming grief. His lament was dispersed, his grief was turned into joy.”
The intended message is that the Sumerians saw the gods to be kind and merciful, and that they are willing to intervene when a petitioner comes to them in a time of genuine need. Pain and suffering do have a genuine place in our lives, but the gods understand that humans have limits and that it is possible to be overloaded beyond those limits; there will always be compassion shown to one who opens up their heart to the gods.
The Sumerians viewed as good and righteous those things which helped to uphold the rightful order of the gods, and further saw it as a human duty to ensure that those who had been wronged had their wrongs righted. Humans have been given custodianship over the Earth and we should therefore strive to oversee the Earth in a way that fits the divine order.
Of particular concern to the Sumerians were the principles of fairness and equity, and these principles are described as sacrosanct in many Mesopotamian law codes, including perhaps the most famous - that of Hammurabi. An earlier law code, that of the revered king Ur-Nammu, stated that he “in accordance with the true word of Utu, establish[ed] equity in the land”.
A concept of sin does exist in Sumerian religion, and this is accordingly considered to constitute everything that goes against the righteous order of the gods, including that carried out by the free will of humans. The tablet of Enlil in the E-kur describes how:
“[In the holy city of Nippur] no unrighteous word may be spoken in judgement. Lies, incitement, hatred, corruption, wrongdoing, oppression, fraud, deception, slander, haughty speech, boastfulness - these things are not tolerated within the city.”
The Sumerians looked down upon the reckless accumulation of wealth, as “to be wealthy and to demand more” is described in a proverb to be a wicked act before one’s god. Just as the gods would hear the prayer of a petitioner in genuine need, and would act to remove overwhelming strain from a worshipper’s life, the Sumerians believed that kings and rulers derived their right to rule from the gods, and that therefore a ruler who allowed oppression and injustice to run rampant in their domain was acting against the will of the gods.
Severe consequences were laid out for such rulers, such as their land being cast into confusion, because they were seen to have lost the mandate of the gods. Similarly, it was believed that the gods would bring bad fortune upon a person who was given over to sinful acts and who disrupted the good order of the universe. A person's deeds in life were recorded by the goddess Nisaba on a great tablet of lapis lazuli, and this tablet referenced by the gods when determining a person's destiny, responding to prayers, and perhaps even judging a person's fate in the underworld.
The Sumerian concept of sin can therefore be understood to include any act that transgresses against the gods or other humans. Unlike the Judeo-Christian scriptures, we do not believe that humans are expected to hold fast to long lists of commandments; the Sumerians believed that humans were already endowed with a concept of what is right and what is wrong. The Sumerian gods do not seek to punish humans for violating a technicality, but they do expect us to know right from wrong, to know when we’re doing something that transgresses against the divine order or against our fellow human beings. We have a conscience and we know when we’re doing something we shouldn’t - the most important indicator of our virtue, to the Sumerian gods, is what is in our hearts.
The Sumerians saw the founding principle of human society as being that it should reflect the decrees of the gods, and therefore a perfectly structured society would be ordered such that no person would, through action or inaction, bring suffering to another. This is therefore the highest moral ideal that society should strive for - and, similarly, Sumerian Pagans in the modern day should be prepared to challenge injustice wherever it is found.