Nabu (god)

Patron deity of Borsippa, god of wisdom and writing. In the first millennium BCE, Nabu is one of the most important Mesopotamian deities. First a minister of Marduk, he later becomes his co-regent at the head of the pantheon. Nabu's influence on Mesopotamian culture is significant well into the later periods. Nabu appears in the Bible as Nebo.


Late Babylonian stamp seal depicting symbols of Nabu and Marduk on a protective dragon. British Museum BM 108849.

Nabu is the patron deity of Borsippa as well as the minister and scribe of Marduk. Nabu's most important scribal duty was effected annually on the 11th day of Nisannu (the first month of the year), marking the end of the akītu TT -festival: having settled the fate of the land with Marduk whom he saved, Nabu inscribed it on the Tablet of Destinies, in accordance with the creation myth Enūma eliš TT .

Probably as a consequence of his scribal role, Nabu soon became god of writing, progressively taking over from the goddess Nidaba in that function. As god of writing, Nabu was also the patron of scribes, commonly invoked in the colophons of texts. From god of writing Nabu became lord of wisdom, thus inheriting a characteristic of his divine ancestor Enki/Ea who was traditionally accepted as the father of Marduk.

In the Neo-Babylonian period Nabu was on a par with Bel/Marduk as joint heads of the pantheon and co-rulers of the universe (Pomponio 1978: 100).

Divine Genealogy and Syncretisms

Nabu was originally a West Semitic deity, mentioned in Eblaitic sources along other gods from Ebla. He was absorbed into the cult of Marduk as Marduk's minister, and from the Kassite period onward became accepted as Marduk's firstborn son to his spouse Ṣarpanitum/Erua. A Neo-Babylonian letter identifies Nabu as the brother of the god Nergal/Lugal-Marada (Pomponio 1998-2001: 21).

Two goddesses are associated with Nabu as consorts, Tašmetu and Nanaya. Tašmetu is the earliest attested consort. First mentioned as spouse of Nabu in an Old Babylonian god-list, her relationship with Nabu is still thriving in the Neo-Assyrian period (see for example SAA 3, 14).

Nanaya was originally the consort of the god Muati, which suggests her new role came as a result of Muati's syncretism with Nabu.

Nidaba is occasionally associated with Nabu as co-resident of the bīt mummu of Assur, but she is presented more as an homologous deity than as a spouse.

Nabu is syncretised with Ninurta, his relationship with Marduk mirroring that of Ninurta with Enlil (Pomponio 1978: 194-5). He is also associated with Šamašand Sin through his cosmological symbolism of light and darkness (Pomponio 1978: 200). Astronomicaly he can be identified with the planet Mercury (Pomponio 1978: 202-5).

Nabu is so closely associated with Marduk that he sometimes shares his attributes (see for example hymn III.45.e in Foster 2005: 702-3).

Cult Places

Nabu's main cult centre was the Ezida temple in Borsippa [~/images/Borsippa.jpg]. His cult was also strongly linked to Babylon [~/images/Babylon.jpg] since his cult statue was paraded between Borsippa and Babylon during the akītu TT -festival. The formula for king Samsu-ditana's 17th regnal year mentions a shrine dedicated to the cult of Nabu in Esagil and records that a statue of Nabu was brought into the temple of Marduk (cf. Pomponio 1998-2001: 17), so this date can be taken as terminus ante quem for the earliest cultic manifestation of Nabu in Babylon. In the Neo-Assyrian period, temples of Nabu are attested at Assur [~/images/Assur.jpg], Nineveh [~/images/Nineveh.jpg], Kalhu [~/images/Kalhu.jpg], Dur-Šarrukin [~/images/Dur-Sharrukin.jpg], Kurba'il and Guzana. Outside Mesopotamia, eastwards, a temple was built for Nabu at Dur-Untash in Elam. There is archaeological evidence that the cult of Nabu spread as far north as Nuzi [~/images/Nuzi.jpg] and as far west as Ugarit [~/images/Ugarit.jpg].

Time Periods Attested

The first accurately datable attestation of Nabu is the year formula for Hammurabi 16: "The year he (the king) built a throne for Nabu". From then on, Nabu is attested continuously throughout Mesopotamian history.

In the Middle Babylonian period Nabu's name is typically invoked on kudurru inscriptions (cf. Pomponio 1998-2001: 19) and it becomes a popular theophoric element TT  in personal names. The cult of Nabu is introduced in Assyria during the Middle Assyrian period, presumably by Shalmaneser I who is mentioned as first builder of the Nabu temple in Assur by a cylinder from the later Assyrian king Sin-šar-iškun (cf. Pomponio 1998-2001: 19). In the Middle Assyrian period Nabu is established as one of the three most important deities along with Marduk and Nergal (cf. Pomponio 1998-2001: 19).

In the Neo-Assyrian period Sennacherib, desirous to proclaim the supremacy of Assyria, neglected Babylonian deities in favour of the god Aššur, resulting in the cult of Nabu losing some of its royal prestige. However, the situation changed under Esarhaddon, who was keen to regain Babylonian support and therefore restored the primacy of Babylonian gods. Ashurbanipal, a keen collector of knowledge, was especially fond of Nabu as god of writing and wisdom (see for example SAA 3, 13).

In the Neo-Babylonian period the popularity of Nabu is particularly evident since royal inscriptions give him precedence over Marduk. Noteworthy is a hymn to the Ezida of Borsippa in Neo-Babylonian script (cf. Köcher 1959): the magnificent imagery conveyed suggests the appeal of Nabu had not waned. Nabu continued to be venerated in Late Babylonian times. Interestingly, the last inscription by a king of Babylonia concerns Nabu (cf. Pomponio 1998-2001: 20). It was found in the Ezida of Borsippa and consists of a report by Antiochus I Soter (r. 276-261 BCE) regarding his restoration work on Esagila and Ezida.

Nabu's cult was widespread and long lived, developing through expatriate Aramaic communities beyond Mesopotamia into Egypt and Anatolia, and lasting up to the second half of the first millennium CE.


The main symbol of Nabu is a single wedge, vertical or horizontal, sometimes resting on a clay tablet or a dais. This wedge represents the writing stylus and probably by its shape is also meant to suggest cuneiform writing. Nabu and the writing stylus are occasionally shown on top of a protective mušhuššu dragon (Seidl 1998-2001).

Nabu is typically depicted wearing a long fringed robe under a slit skirt.

Name and Spellings

The name Nabu is derived from the Semitic root nb' meaning "to name/designate". It can be interpreted as a participle, "announcer/herald", or as a verbal adjective, "the one who is named/designated" (cf. Pomponio 1998-2001: 17). Archaising post-Old Babylonian logographic spellings are attested, namely dAK/dNÀ, dNÀ.KÁM, dMUATI, dTU.TU and dŠÀ.TÚ.

Written forms:
earliest spelling: dna-bi-um
logographic spellings: dAK / dNÀ, dNÀ.KÁM, dMUATI, dTU.TU, dŠÀ.TU
Normalized forms:
Nabium, Nabu, Nabianu, Nebo (Biblical spelling)

Nabu in Online Corpora

Further Reading

Johanna Tudeau

Johanna Tudeau, 'Nabu (god)', Ancient Mesopotamian Gods and Goddesses, Oracc and the UK Higher Education Academy, 2019 []

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