In Mesopotamian religion, the god of the sun, who, with his father, Sin, and the goddess Ishtar, was part of an astral triad of divinities. As the solar god, Shamash was the heroic conqueror of night and death, and he became known as the god of justice and equity. He was said to have presented the Code of Hammurabi to the Babylonian king. At night he served as judge of the underworld. The chief centres of his cult were at Larsa and Sippar.
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The attribute most commonly associated with Shamash is justice. Just as the sun disperses darkness, so Shamash brings wrong and injustice to light. Hammurabi attributes to Shamash the inspiration that led him to gather the existing laws and legal procedures into a code, and in the design accompanying the code the king represents himself in an attitude of adoration before Shamash as the embodiment of the idea of justice. Several centuries before Hammurabi, Ur-Engur of the Ur dynasty (c. 2600 BC) declared that he rendered decisions "according to the just laws of Shamash."
It was a logical consequence of this conception of the sun-god that he was regarded also as the one who released the sufferer from the grasp of the demons. The sick man, therefore, appeals to Shamash as the god who can be depended upon to help those who are suffering unjustly. This aspect of the sun-god is vividly brought out in the hymns addressed to him, which are, therefore, among the finest productions in the entire realm of Babylonian literature. It is evident from the material at our disposal that the Shamash cults at Sippar and Larsa so overshadowed local sun-deities elsewhere as to lead to an absorption of the minor deities by the predominating one. In the systematized pantheon these minor sun-gods become attendants that do his service. Such are Bunene, spoken of as his chariot driver and whose consort is Atgi-makh, Kettu ("justice") and Mesharu ("right"), who were then introduced as attendants of Shamash. Other sun-deities such as Ninurta and Nergal, the patron deities of other important centers, retained their independent existences as certain phases of the sun, with Ninurta becoming the sun-god of the morning and spring time and Nergal the sun-god of the noon and the summer solstice. In the wake of such syncretism Shamash was usually viewed as the sun-god in general.
Together with Nannar-Sin and Ishtar, Shamash completes another triad by the side of Anu, Enlil and Ea. The three powers Sin, Shamash and Ishtar symbolized three great forces of nature: the sun, the moon, and the life-giving force of the earth. At times instead of Ishtar we find Adad, the storm-god, associated with Sin and Shamash, and it may be that these two sets of triads represent the doctrines of two different schools of theological thought in Babylonia which were subsequently harmonized by the recognition of a group consisting of all four deities.
The consort of Shamash was known as Aya. She is, however, rarely mentioned in the inscriptions except in combination with Shamash.
This entry contains data which was originally featured in the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica.
In Yiddish, a shammesh or shammess is an attendant, caretaker, custodian, or synagogue janitor. The slang term "shamus" for a private detective derives from this usage.
The Hebrew words which express the concept of "servant" are entirely unrelated to the Akkadian theophoric name "Shamash" but are loanwords from the ancient Egyptian "sh-m-s" which originally meant "follower" in either a religious or a military sense.
This is the glyph used to represent the Egyptian word for follower - shemes (Gardiner Signlist code T18).