Even after Sumerian had become a dead language, it was long used for certain legal, religious, and royal documents. Sumerian literature was thought to be the only one worth learning and writing. Nevertheless, during the first third of the second millennium BC Sumerian was steadily abandoned as texts were written in Akkadian, the common language of the day. Students, however, continued to study many Sumerian works in which Gilgamesh was the hero.

Among the Akkadian poetry that has survived, many poems concern the gods in one way or another—religious texts or adventure tales of the gods recounting their love affairs, internal conflicts, and relationships with humankind. The longest and richest mythological text is the “Myth of Atrahasis” (the “All-Wise”), which tells the tale of the creation of humans: the gods had originally been obliged to toil, but they went on strike, and humans were created to replace them as workers at their service. But the noise of humans bothered the great god Enlil, who sent the Flood to eliminate them (this part of the tale also is found on the eleventh tablet of the epic of Gilgamesh and serves as the source of the account in Genesis).

Struggles between the gods were typified, for example, by the myth of Anzu, a legendary bird who stole the tablets of fate from Enlil and whom Ningirsu (Ninurta) defeated after difficult combat, calling on the help of the wise Ea. The outlines of this story anticipate the Babylon creation poem, Enuma Elish, in which Marduk created the ordered universe, receiving cosmic powers from the assembly of gods and thereby personally assuming the powers of more ancient deities.

“Ishtar’s Descent to the Netherworld” was a follow-up to a Sumerian myth, combining two stories into one: Ishtar’s attempt to wrest the abode of the dead from her sister Ereshkigal, and the fate of Dumuzi, whom Ishtar sent to remain a prisoner in the netherworld in her stead. Dumuzi’s fate was eased only by the love of his sister Geshtinana, who agreed to spend half the year in the world of shadows (which is how she came to assume the role of secretary of the netherworld).

Among Babylonian literary output that now strikes us as most remarkable, there was a mythological poem devoted to Ishtar, the “Hymn of Agushaya.” The god Ea created, from scratch, a rival to the unpredictable Ishtar, named Saltu (“Strife”), who would be finally vanquished—but the struggle calmed Ishtar’s impetuousness.

Sumerian poetry recounted the loves of Ishtar and Dumuzi lyrically, a poetic vein that was pursued in Akkadian for a while, as witnessed by a few examples of court poetry celebrating the love of a goddess (usually Ishtar) for the king.