Hurrian Religion

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HURRIAN RELIGION . A Near Eastern phenomenon dating mainly from the second millennium bce, the Hurrian religion is known more from contemporary and later Hittite documents than from native Hurrian sources. The Hurrians were an apparently Armenoid people who moved into northern Syria and northwestern Mesopotamia by at least 2300 bce. The cities of Nuzi, in the eastern Tigris region, and Alalah, in northern Syria, were major centers of Hurrian culture by circa 1500 bce. Wassukkanni was the capital of the reign.

The term Hurrian is an ethnic designation, and Subartu (roughly equivalent to the Hurrian Aranzah ) is the Sumero-Akkadian name of the Hurrian-dominated area north and northeast of the Tigris. Mitanni was a Hurrian kingdom of the mid-second millennium in northern Syria and Iraq that had an Indo-Aryan aristocracy, and Urartu (whence Ararat) was a successor kingdom that flourished in southern Armenia circa 800 bce. The Hurrian language, written in Sumero-Akkadian cuneiform (and, later, in Ugaritic alphabetic cuneiform), is neither Semitic nor Indo-European in origin.

Some prominent European scholars would deny that the Horites of the Old Testament are Hurrians (in Gn. 14 the Horites are enemies of Abraham; in Dt. 2 they are dispossessed by the Edomites; in 1 Chr. 1 they are the ancestors of Esau), but most American authors favor the identification. (Similar efforts to identify the Old Testament Hivites with the Hurrians are less convincing.) While admitting the presence of biblical anachronisms, the American scholars cite the extensive evidence that the Hurrians had moved down into the coastal areas and probably into Palestine at least by the Amarna age (mid-first millennium bce). By the final quarter of the second millennium bce there was, for example, a large and flourishing Hurrian population farther north at Ugarit, on the Syrian coast. Also notable are the remarkable parallelisms of legal and social customs between Nuzi documents of the fifteenth century bce and the Genesis patriarchal narratives.

Hurrian Religious Assimilations

Because of the limited natively Hurrian resources, it is difficult to distinguish specifically Hurrian religious and cultic elements from those of their neighbors. The Hurrians borrowed heavily from Mesopotamian religion, either by assimilating Assyro-Babylonian divinities into their own pantheon outright or by identifying these divinities with indigenous Hurrian gods. In turn, some of the Hurrian gods and religious practices were adopted by the Hittites. The Hittites also absorbed into their religion pre-Hittite elements and elements from other Anatolian peoples such as the Luwians. Since it is mostly from Hittite mythic and religious texts that scholars have access to the Hurrians, the situation is complicated indeed; many authors have resorted to referring simply to an "Anatolian religion" and have made no substantial effort to separate its strands. The major Hittite sources for Hurrian religion are the archives from Boğazköy (Hattushash), the ancient Hittite capital, and the stone carvings from the shrines at Yazilikaya, about two miles east of Boğazköy.

Hurrian culture is equally notable as a vehicle of exchange of religious concepts and practices, especially from east to west, and as a source of original contributions. The flow of such ideas over almost three millennia was generally from the Mesopotamians to the Hurrians, from the latter to the Hittites and northwestern Semites (Amorites, Canaanites, and Phoenicians), and thence ultimately to Greece and Rome. Recent scholarship suggests that the Hurrians played a far larger role in this process than had previously been detected. Because of the Indic element among their aristocracy, it is also likely that the Hurrians were purveyors of some Indo-Aryan religious motifs to the west.

Hurrian Pantheon

At the head of the native Hurrian pantheon was the weather god Teshub, the "king of heaven," the later Urartean Teisheba. One of his ancient centers of worship was the yet unidentified town of Kumme (Kummiya). His genealogy varies somewhat, depending on the way in which the relevant Babylonian material was assimilated. In Hittite texts stemming from the Hurrian myth cycle of Kumarbi (the father of the gods), and in some other texts, it is told that Alalu (chthonic divinity, with Mesopotamian origin) was the first king in heaven and was dethroned by Anu (heavenly god, also with a Mesopotamian name). Kumarbi, Alalu's son, dethroned Anu and swallowed his genitals, to prevent him from having offspring. But Kumarbi became pregnant and gave birth to Teshub, among other gods.

Early Anatolian iconography uses the symbol of a bull or of lightning bolts in connection with Teshub and other weather gods. Teshub, like other gods of this kind, have storm, wind, rain, and lightning as weapons. He provides rain, and is therefore also protector of vegetation and agriculture.

Teshub's consort was Hebat, or Hepat, who was an ancient Syrian goddess who was known in Ebla and was assimilated by Hurrians and turned into the queen of heaven. Although she is not prominent in the extant mythological texts, worship of her was very widespread, and she was syncretized with other Near Eastern goddesses in later times. In Hittite iconography she is apparently identified with the sun goddess of Arinna, whose name is not known. Hebat has a rather matronly appearance in Anatolian art, and she is frequently depicted standing on the back of a lion.

The son of Teshub and Hebat was Sharruma, whom the Hittites associated with the weather gods of Nerik and Zippalanda. Sharruma was originally an Anatolian mountain god of the Anatolian and Syrian borderland. At Yazilikaya the god who is represented by a pair of human legs immediately behind Hebat is doubtless Sharruma. The iconography from Yazilikaya reflects the religious reforms of Hattushili III, who tries to assimilate the divine triad into the imperial family. Teshub is identified with the king, the Sun-goddess with the queen, and Sharruma with the heir.

Shaushka, who in Hittite myths about Kumarbi is called Teshub's sister, is prominent in the extant texts and in works of art, where she is often shown as a winged goddess standing (like Hebat) on the back of a lion. Shaushka's nature is very elusive. The Hittites identified her with the Mesopotamian Inanna-Ishtar, herself a goddess of extraordinarily complex origins and characteristics. In the Hurrian world she is the goddess of war and sex. Shaushka was said to have had two ladies-in-waiting, Ninatta and Kulitta, known also as musicians.

Kumarbi, already mentioned in a Hurrian tablet from Mari, about 1700 bce, had scarce importance in the worship but was a major figure in the myths. He had the power in primeval years and was dethroned by Teshub, but tries to recover the throne again and again. The god is identified with the Mesopotamian god of grain, Dagan, with the Sumero-Akkadian Enlil, and with the Ugaritic El.

Other Hurrian gods are Sheri ("day") and Hurri ("night"), who pull Teshub's wagon and are portrayed as bulls (the name of Hurri is replaced by Tilla in the eastern tradition); the moon god Kushuh (the same as the proto-Hattic Kashku), who is the protector of oaths, and his consort, Nikkal, corresponding to the Sumerian Ningal; a sun god, Shimigi (the Urartean Shiwini), who is linked with omens because he sees everything on earth; Shuwaliyatti and his consort, Nabarbi; Teshub's vizier, Tasmisu; and Ashtabi, the god of war. The later Urartean pantheon included Tesheba, Shiwini, and the national god, Haldi. An inscription found at Sargon II names the goddess Bagbarti as Haldi's consort.

The Hittite myths mention often a group of underworld gods, called "ancient gods," whose names come in rhyming pairs such as Nara-Napsara, Minki-Ammunki, Muntara-Mutmuntara. They were the earlier generations of gods, but they were driven into the underworld by Teshub. The "ancient gods" are a sort of opposite of the upper gods, because they are "impure" and represent the disorder.

In the treaty between the Hittite king Shuppiluliuma and Mittanian Shattiwaza, Indo-Aryan gods such as Indra, Mitra, Varua, and the Nasatya are mentioned as guarantors. This fact indicates that the Indo-Aryan aristocracy mantained its ancestral gods as protectors of the kings of Mittani.

In addition to personal gods, Hurrians had impersonal divinities such as earth and heaven or mountains and rivers, the mountains being considered as companions of the storm god or as independent deities.

Myth Cycles

Hurrian mythic narratives are known almost exclusively through their Hittite versions in which the material is considerably intermixed with other Anatolian elements. Only scarce fragments remain from the Hurrian version of some myths, although it is almost impossible to obtain some information about them. The most significant myth cycle is that of the god Kumarbi. This myth tells how Kumarbi was dethroned by Teshub and how the dethroned deity tries repeatedly to recover his power, fathering one son after another. The major texts, all in Hittite, are a myth whose title was probably Song of Kumarby (conventionally called Kingship in Heaven ), a tale of the struggle for divine kingship strikingly similar to Hesiod's Theogony, the Song of Hedammu, and the Song of Ullikummi, the best-preserved poem, although it is not complete either.

The most remarkable fact is that the poems of Kumarbi cycle, in contrast to other ancient myths, are not part of rituals or cults. They are pure literature, didactic poems that inform people about the history of the world and explain the role that human beings have in the world order, especially in their relations with the gods.

In Kingship in Heaven, Alalu (a chthonic god) is king of heaven for nine years, and Anu (the Sumerian sky god), "first among the gods," worships at his feet. Anu, however, battles with Alalu and defeats him, reigning in turn for nine years, with Kumarbi, Alalu's son, now worshiping him. Anu and Kumarbi engage in combat and Anu flees up to the sky. Kumarbi seizes him, drags him down, and bites off his genitals, laughing with glee. Anu cautions: "Do not laugh, for you have a heavy burden: I have impregnated you with the storm god [Teshub], the river Aranzah [the Tigris], and Tasmisu." Kumarbi spits and gets free of part of his burden. Later, a god called KA.ZAL came up out of Kumarbi's skull and Teshub out of the "good place." On the other hand, Tasmisu is born from Mount Kanzura, fertilized by Anu's seed, which Kumarbi had spat. Then Kumarbi tries to swallow his sons, but the god Ea gives him a stone wrapped in diapers. What ensues is not clear, but apparently Teshub captures the kingship from Kumarbi.

There are striking similarities between myths told in Song of Kumarbi and some tales from other cultures. In the Babylonian Enuma elish, Apsu and Tiamat are the primeval couple. Apsu is deprived of his tiara (a euphemism, because the tiara symbolizes male vigor that goes together with royalty). Other generations of gods follow the primeval couple: Anu, Ea, and Marduk, who, like Teshub, finally seizes the power among gods. On the other hand, Hesiod mentions only three generations of gods: Ouranos (Sky), Kronos, and Zeus, although Ge (Earth), who generates Ouranos and is relegated at a given moment, corresponds quite well to Hurrian Alalu. It is her son Kronos who, like Kumarbi, will take revenge on the celestial divinity that has her relegated when he castrates Ouranos with a sickle. At the end, Zeus defeats Kronos and seizes power. In the Orphic Theogony commentated in the Derveni Papyrus, Night begins the series of generations, followed by Ouranos, Kronos, and Zeus; Kronos castrates Ouranos, but Zeus swallows Ouranos's phallus and he becomes pregnant, as a result of which he gives birth to all the gods. However, in the Phoenician History by Sankuniaton, preserved in Philo Byblius's Greek version, the divine kings are Elioun (called in Greek Hypsistos, "the Highest")a god only mentioned by his Greek name, Epigeios, corresponding to Greek Ouranos (who is also castrated); Elin Greek Kronos; and Zeus Demaruscorresponding to Phoenician Baal Hadad.

But there are also significant differences between the quoted versions. The most remarkable one is that in Babylonian and Greek myths every god is son of the previous, while in the Hittite text, Kumarbi, the god that reigns in third place, is "Alalu's offspring," or the son of the first king. On the other hand, Anu, the second god in heaven, does not seem to have any relationship with Alalu, in spite of what is read in some studies, such as those of Kirk or Wilhelm, who believe that there is one (genealogical) line of gods in the Hittite myth. In the Hittite tale, then, according to the text, there is a conflict between two lines of gods that compete for supremacy: one of a netherworld god, Alalu, whose descendant is Kumarbi, and the other of a celestial god, Anu. The conflict is solved because Teshub is a result of Anu's seed, but Kumarbi, with his pregnancy, plays the role of the mother of the god.

In the Song of Hedammu, Kumarbi tries to regain the throne and mates with Sertapsuruhi, the huge Sea's daughter, who gives birth to a snake whose voracious appetite leads him to devour all kinds of animals and vegetables. As a result of this, human beings are starving. Since human beings cannot give sacrifices to the gods, the gods are hungry too. In a meeting of the gods, Ea reproaches Kumarbi with having harmed the gods. He fears that gods themselves must work. Then Ishtar seduces Hedammu with the sight of her naked body. The end is not preserved, but probably the monster is defeated and world order recovered.

In the Song of Ullikummi, Kumarbi plots against his upstart son, Teshub. Kumarbi mates with a stone and she bears him another son, Ullikummi, made of diorite. The name Ullikummi contains the name of Kumme, the city consecrated to Teshub, and probably means "destroyer of Kummi(ya)." Various helper gods place Ullikummi on the shoulders of Ubelluri, an Atlas figure that bears on his shoulders the earth and the sky, and the young Ullikummi grows rapidly. The sun god notices the mighty figure of Ullikummi rising from the sea and warns Teshub, who weeps bitterly. Teshub appeals to the god Ea, who eventually takes in hand the blade that had originally severed the earth from the heaven and cuts Ullikummi off at the ankles. Presumably (here the story breaks off), Kumarbi and his powerless monster-son are defeated and Teshub's rule is assured.

There are striking similarities between Hedamu and Ullikummi's myths and other Hesiodic themes. In the Theogony the Titans and Typhoeus challenge Zeus's power and they are defeated. But there are again differences between Hurrians and Greeks in their view of divinities. In Hesiod, Zeus remains as undisputed lord of gods and men. This has nothing to do with instability of Teshub's power. His whining image when he sees Ullikummi and the description of his defeat and humiliation contrast with the Hesiodic image of Zeus as a strong god with a total control of the situation.

Scarce fragments of other poems belonging to Kumarbi's cycle are preserved. In one of these poems a god called KAL becomes king of heaven. During his reign, humans enjoy excessive welfare, but they neglect worship. Because of that, Ea orders the mutilation of the king. This theme has similarities with the Prometheus's myth. According to the Hurrian conception, the proper relationship between gods and human beings requires that the latter not be excessively pressed (as in Hedammu ) nor enjoy excessive welfare (as in the poem of KAL). A balance between both extremes is the ideal.

Another poem of the cycle deals with Silver, a character whose Hurrian name Ushu is mentioned in a very fragmentary Hurrian text: "Hail, Silver, the lord that has become king!" Although it is very difficult to reconstruct the plot of the poem from its scarce remains, Silver is another of Kumarbi's sons, who overthows Teshub and is later defeated by the storm god.

The Myth of Kessi, only a few fragments of which are preserved, is the story of a stalwart hunter, and the Song of Release is a poem composed of several parables and nonmythological narratives. The parables deal with mountains, animals, cups, or other objects that behave in a bad manner and receive punishment, and later they are compared with the actions of human beings. Many authors who have written on Hurrian myths with religious motifs include the folktale of Appu of Lulluwa and his wife, prosperous folk who go to bed fully clothed and wonder why they cannot conceive. The gods set them right and they bear two sons, Good and Evil. Later both sons fight for the inheritance. The plot has similarities with the story of Hesiod and his brother Perses in Works and Days. Others, however, believe that this tale does not have a Hurrian origin.

Hurrian Worship

Little is known of the actual cultic practices and worship of the Hurrians. From syncretic Hittite texts, mostly from Boğazköy, there is evidence for sympathetic magic, bird sacrifices (also attested in texts from Ugarit), and various forms of divination. The interpretation as omens of abnormal natural phenomena, such as eclipses or streaks of lightning, was also a common practice among the Hurrites. Frequently they resorted to the interpretation of birds' flight or to analysis of bird entrails in order to explain such phenomena. The translation into Hurrian of Babylonian collections of omens shows Hurrian interest in these practices. The Hittites in their turn translated their texts about this topic.

The cult included offers of food and drink. In addition to this the gods' images were anointed with scented oil. Instrumental or choral musical accompaniments were also frequent. Rites could be performed in temples, sacred groves, or shrines in the rocky cliffs.

As with the Hurrian pantheon, there was clearly much Babylonian influence on the Hurrian cult, and in turn, the Hurrian cult apparently was partially assimilated into that of the Hittites.

See Also

Hittite Religion; Teshub.


Primary Works

García Trabazo, José Virgilio. Textos religiosos hititas. Madrid, 2002. Includes the texts of Kingship in Heaven and The Song of the Ullkummi, with Spanish translation and notes.

Güterbock, Hans G. The Song of Ullikummi. New Haven, Conn., 1952.

Hoffner, Harry A., Jr. Hittite Myths. Edited by Gary M. Beckmann. 2d ed. Atlanta, 1998. English translations of Hittite myths with introduction and notes.

Laroche, Emmanuel. Textes mythologiques hittites en transcription. Paris, 1969. Includes Hittite text of Kingship in Heaven and Hedammu, as well as fragments about KAL and SILVER.

Neu, Erich. Das Hurritische Epos der Freilassung. Weisbaden, 1996. German translation of Song of Release, with commentary.

Salvino, Mirjo. "Sui Testi Mitologici in Lingua Hurrica." Studi Micenei ed Egeo Anatolici 18 (1977): 7379. An edition of the scarce fragments that remain from the Hurrian version of some Hittite myths.

Siegelová, Jana. Appu-Märchen und Hedammu-Mythos. Wiesbaden, 1971. Hittite text, with translation into German, and commentaries.

Secondary Sources

Bernabé, Alberto. Textos Literarios Hetitas. 2d ed. Madrid, 1987.

Bernabé, Alberto. "Hittites and Greeks. Mythical Influences and Methodological Considerations." In Das Archaische Griechenland: Interne EntwicklungenExterne Impulse, edited by Robert Rollinger and Christoph Ulf, pp. 287306. Berlin, 2003. Compares Kumarby cycle and Hesiod's Theogony.

Güterbock, Hans G. "Hittite Mythology." In Mythologies of the Ancient World, edited by Samuel Noah Kramer, pp. 141179. New York, 1961.

Haas, Volkert. Geschichte der hethitischen Religion. Leiden and New York, 1994. Exhaustive manual of Hittite (and Hurrian) religion.

Imparati, Fiorella. I Hurriti. Florence, 1964. Includes a chapter on religion, pp. 99127.

Lebrun, René. "From Hittite Mythology: The Kumarbi Cycle." In Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, edited by Jack M. Sasson. Vol. 3, pp. 19711980. New York, 1995.

Littleton, Covington Scott. "The 'Kingship in Heaven' Theme." In Myth and Law among the Indo-Europeans, edited by Jaan Puhvel, pp. 83121. Berkeley, 1970.

Mondi, Robert. "Greek Mythic Thought in the Light of the Near East." In Approaches to Greek Myth, edited by Lowell Edmunds, pp. 142198. Baltimore and London, 1990.

Pecchioli Daddi, Franca, and Anna Maria Polvani. La mitologia ittita. Brescia, 1990.

Popko, Maciej. Religions of Asia Minor. Translated by Iwona Zych. Warsaw, 1995. Concise and well-structured introduction.

Puhvel, Jaan. "Creation Myth in the Ancient Near East." In his Comparative Mythology, pp. 2132. Baltimore and London, 1987.

Walcot, P. Hesiod and the Near East. Cardiff, 1966.

West, Martin L. Hesiod, Theogony. Oxford, U.K., 1966. A commentary with many references to Oriental parallels.

Wilhelm, Gernot. "Gods, Myths, Cults, and Magic." In The Hurrians, translated by Jennifer Barnes, pp. 4976. Warminster, U.K., 1989. German ed., Darmstadt, Germany, 1982. Concise and complete presentation.

William J. Fulco (1987)

Alberto BernabÉ (2005)