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Mesopotamian Religions: History of Study


The study of ancient Mesopotamian religions, like the study of ancient Mesopotamia in general, was severely hampered in its early phases by an imperfect understanding of Sumerian and Akkadian, the languages of its source materials, and by the relatively limited and fragmentary nature of the materials then available. To some extent, similar difficulties still exist, and new finds as well as new insights may challenge even seemingly assured results.

General Presentations

The earliest attempt at a comprehensive presentation of ancient Mesopotamian religions is François Lenormant's La magie chez les Chaldéens et les origines accadiennes (1874). Lenormant posited an early Sumerian (then called Akkadian) animistic stage of belief in spirits that were controlled by magicians. Contrasting with this was the religion of the Semitic inhabitants (now called Akkadians), a debased form of monotheism in which hypostases of the supreme god, called Ilu, had become separate powers in natural phenomena, especially astral phenomena. These two competing kinds of beliefs were eventually unified into a single system under Sargon of Akkad, whom Lenormant dated at about 2000 bce. Part of this systematization included the ordering of local deities into the later pantheon.

The next major contribution to the study of Mesopotamian religions, and one of a wider scope, was A. H. Sayce's Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religions as Illustrated by the Religion of the Ancient Babylonians (1887). Sayce's book deals with various Babylonian deities, such as Bel-Merodakh (Marduk), Tammuz, and Istar (Ishtar), among others. He also discusses what he called "the sacred books of Chaldea," as well as cosmogonies and astro-theology. Sayce saw evidence of totemism in the animal forms that many of the gods could assume. Because Prometheus brought fire to man, Sayce saw him as a parallel to the deity Lugalbanda ("fierce king"). In his overall view of religious development, Sayce essentially followed Lenormant.

The Sumerian beliefs in spirits that were controlled by a body of medicine men was termed by Sayce "organized animism." The Sumerian word for spirit was thought to be zi, and "the zi was simply that which manifested life, and the test of the manifestation of life was movement" (p. 327). The spirits in those major cosmic elements that were considered good gradually developed into gods. The level of power of motion possessed by an object, or in a force of nature, was the test of its supernaturalism (that is, of the existence of a spirit within it). Sayce writes:

The spirit of the moon, for example, developed into a god, but the god was abstracted from the visible moon itself, and identified with the creative force of the lunar orb which manifested itself in motion. The new god might in turn be abstracted from the creative force, more especially if he was assimilated to the sacred steer; in this case the creative force would become his spirit, in no way differing, it will be seen, from the spirit that was believed to reside in man. (p. 334)

Sayce attributed to the Semitic-speaking Akkadians a change from the gods as creators to the gods as fathers, a change encouraged by anthropomorphism and the creation of a family-based pantheon.

In his later Religions of Ancient Egypt and Babylonia (1902), Sayce modified his position and rejected the idea that the gods might have developed out of older spirits. He assumed instead that the idea was brought in by immigrants from the south, who founded a tradition centered on the god Ea of the ancient city of Eridu.

Much more comprehensive than any previous treatment was Morris Jastrow's The Religion of Babylonia and Assyria (1898). Jastrow discusses the land and peoples of Babylon and Syria, the general traits of the Old Babylonian pantheon, the gods and their consorts prior to the days of Hammurabi, the pantheon of Hammurabi, Gudea's pantheon, and the minor gods in the period of Hammurabi. The book also deals with the gods appearing in temple lists and in legal and commercial documents of the area. Other topics that Jastrow investigates rather extensively are the animism that survived in Babylonian religions, the Assyrian pantheon, the triad and the combined invocation of the deities, the Neo-Babylonian period, and the Babylonian cosmology. Jastrow's work also examines the religious literaturemagical texts, prayers and hymns, penitential psalms, oracles, omens, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and other myths and legends. There is also a discussion of the Babylonian view of life after death, and of the temple and cult in Babylonia and Syria.

Because Jastrow avoided theorizing as much as possible, his treatment is sober and descriptive. He also deliberately avoided distinguishing Sumerian from Akkadian contributions. Jastrow argued that animism was still basic to the religion of Babylonia and Assyria, and he observed that the gods had evolved from their role as spirits of the settlement plots. As these settlements grew into cities, the spirits grew correspondingly in stature and importance. The detailed bibliography of the field up to 1898 that Jastrow included in his book is particularly valuable. A later work by Jastrow, Die Religion Babyloniens und Assyriens (19051912), although never completed, is essentially a lengthy study of divination texts.

To the third edition of Die Keilinschriften und das Alte Testament (1903), which was edited by Eberhard Schrader, the German Assyriologist Heinrich Zimmern contributed his study Religion und Sprache, discussing the religious system of the Babylonians; the formation of the pantheon; local cults; the Semitic and Sumerian elements still evident in Babylonian religion; the Babylonians' reliance on the heavens in the formation of beliefs, practices, and myths; and the Babylonian view of life. Zimmern's presentation was strongly influenced by the school of Astralmythologie that flourished in Germany at the time, so an overabundance of gods were seen as solar in character. For example, Marduk was said to represent the sun of morning and spring; Ninurta (whose name was then read as Ninib) represented the eastern or western sun; the destructive glowing south, noon, and summer sun were represented by Nergal; and so on. The purview of the book called for comparisons with biblical materials (twenty-one pages were devoted to a comparison of Marduk and Christ), but the methods used have since been dis-counted.

In 1910 Édouard Dhorme's La religion assyro-babylonienne was published; the materials are organized with such clarity and relevance that the book remains one of the most notable early treatments of Mesopotamian religions. Dhorme's work focused on the sources of the Assyrian and Babylonian religions and their conception of the divine, including the gods, gods of the cities and of kings, gods and men, moral laws, prayers, sacrifice, and the priesthood. A new, enlarged edition was published in 1945 under the title Les religions de Babylonie et d'Assyrie. Although it achieved a far greater coverage of detail, it lost the enlightening clarity that characterizes the earlier work.

A most useful, purely factual, and well-documented presentation was given by Bruno Meissner in the second volume of his Babylonien und Assyrien (1925). For ready access to the main data of pantheons, cults, divination, and magic, it remains unrivaled.

Jean Bottéro, in his La religion babylonienne (1952), sought to present the development of Babylonian religion among the Semitic-speaking inhabitants of Mesopotamia during the last two millennia before the Common Era. The work is marked by a great sensitivity and respect for the ancient achievement. A few of the subjects Bottéro discusses are deserving of special mention: religious sentiment, the theology of the divine, and cults of adoration and sacrament. His method of treatment is reminiscent of what is known as the phenomenology of religion.

A different approach, one that belongs to the Myth and Ritual school, is represented by S. H. Hooke's Babylonian and Assyrian Religion (1953), a well-written and very readable account of the essentials of its subject that is free of any extreme positions. Other general presentations include L. W. King's Babylonian Religion and Mythology (1899), Giuseppe Furlani's La religione babilonese e assira (19281929), Charles F. Jean's La religion sumérienne (1931), Hans Hirsch's Untersuchungen zur altassyrischen Religion (1961), and W. H. P. Römer's article "Religion of Ancient Mesopotamia" in Historia Religionum, volume 1, Religions of the Past, edited by C. Jouco Bleeker and Geo Widengren (1969). Also important are J. van Dijk's "Sumerische Religion" and Jørgen Laessøe's "Babylonische und assyrische Religion," in volume 1 of Handbuch der Religionsgeschichte, edited by Jes P. Asmussen, Jørgen Laessøe, and Carsten Colpe (1976). In this, as well as in other works, van Dijk refers to Eliade's phenomenological approach.

Thorkild Jacobsen's The Treasures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion (1976) is a pivotal study of Mesopotamian religion. Jacobsen based this work on Rudolf Otto's theory on numinous experience, but when he set that theoretical approach in the history of Mesopotamia, he gave the book an evolutionist structure, a structure that is, however, absent in his entry "Mesopotamian Religion" in the first edition of this encyclopedia. Jacobsen provides an overall reconstruction of the poems describing the love and death of Dumuzi and Inanna, and he discusses a pre-urban historical phase, a period when the village communities were struggling to survive and the gods were conceived as providers (as stated in the title of Chapter 2 in Treasures of Darkness.). With the development of urban life, the gods became rulers in a society living in a state of endemic war. The book also includes important insight into personal religion, the epic of Gilgamesh, and the apotheosis of Marduk.

General presentations that appeared after Jacobsen's work include Helmut Freydank's "Religion Mesopotamiens" in Kulturgeschichte des alten Vorderasien, edited by Horst Klengel (1989); Joachín Sanmartin's "Mitología y Religíon" in Mitología y Religíon del Oriente Antiguo, edited by Gregorio del Olmo Lete (1993); and Jean Bottéro's Plus vieille religion en Mésopotamie (1998), translated into English by Teresa L. Fagan as Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia (2001).

Special Studies

As important as the general presentations on ancient Mesopotamian religions are, a wealth of special studies are in many cases even more essential for understanding these religions' major aspects. Unfortunately, considerations of space do not allow any comprehensive and systematic treatment; it is only possible to comment on a somewhat random and necessarily subjective selection.

The nature of the concept of divinity in Mesopotamia is treated in Johannes Hehn's Die biblische und die babylonische Gottesidee (1913) and in Elena Cassin's La splendeur divine: Introduction à l'étude de la mentalité mesopotamienne (1968). Rich in materials is Knut Tallquist's Akkadische Götterepitheta (1938). For discussion of the pantheon, Anton Deimel's Pantheon Babylonicum (1914) and part one of his Sumerisches Lexikon, volume 4, Pantheon Babylonicum (1950), are still standard references.

The origins and development of the pantheon were dealt with by Tharsicius Paffrath in his book Zur Götterlehre in den altbabylonischen Königsinschriften (1913) and by W. G. Lambert in his article "The Historical Development of the Mesopotamian Pantheon: A Study in Sophisticated Polytheism" in Unity and Diversity, edited by Hans Goedicke and J. J. M. Roberts (1975).

A representative collection of myths and epics in translation may be found in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (3d ed., 1969), edited by J. B. Pritchard. Thorkild Jacobsen's The Harps That OnceSumerian Poetry in Translation (1987) translates a selection of significant religious poems from the Sumerian, and Stephanie Dalley's Myths from Mesopotamia (1989) does the same for Akkadian. Jean Bottéro and Samual Noah Kramer's Lorsque les dieux faisaient l'homme (1989) includes translations of almost all the Sumerian and Akkadian mythological poems.

Treatments of mythology include Samuel Noah Kramer's Sumerian Mythology (1944; rev. ed., 1972); D. O. Edzard's article "Mesopotamien," in the first volume of Wörterbuch der Mythologie, edited by H. W. Haussig (1965); Giorgio R. Castellino's Mitologia Sumerico-Accadica (1967); and Alexander Heidel's The Babylonian Genesis (1942; 2d ed., 1963) and The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels (1949; 2d ed., 1963).

Aspects of the daily cult are the focus of Agnès Spycket's book Les statues de culte dans les textes mesopotamiens (1968). Other books of interest include Friedrich Blome's Die Opfermaterie in Babylonien und Israel (1934) and Yvonne Rosengarten's Le concept sumérien de consommation (1960). For the times of the annual festivals, there is Benno Landsberger's magisterial (and still standard) work, Der kultische Kalender der Babylonier und Assyrer (1915). The raison d'être of the festivals was first clarified by Svend Aage Pallis in his book The Babylonian Akitu Festival (1926). Of crucial importance because it dismissed once and for all some serious misunderstandings of the Akitu is Wolfram von Soden's article "Gibt es ein Zeugnis dafür das die Babylonier an die Wiederauferstehung Marduks geglaubt haben?" (Is there any proof that the Babylonians believed in the resurrection of Marduk?), which appeared in Zeitschrift für Assyriologie 51 (1955). Beate Pongratz-Leisten's Ina Šulmi Īrub (1994) examines textual material on the Akitu festival. Ritual and Sacrifice in the Ancient Near East, edited by J. Quaegebeur (1993), offers additional insights into this topic. Thorkild Jacobsen's "Religious Drama in Ancient Mesopotamia" in Unity and Diversity, edited by Hans Goedicke and J. J. M. Roberts (1975), gives a general treatment of festival rites.

Rites of divine journeys are treated in Nanna-Suen's Journey to Nippur, edited by A. J. Ferrara (1973), and in Daniel David Reisman's Ph. D. dissertation, "Two Neo-Sumerian Royal Hymns" (University of Pennsylvania, 1969). Royal inauguration rituals are discussed in Karl Friedrich Müller's Texte zum assyrischen Königsritual (1937), which is the first volume of his Das assyrische Ritual. Ritual meals are treated in Rintje Frankena's Takultu: De sacrale maaltijd in het Assyrische ritueel (1954).

The religious aspects of kingship are the subject of René Labat's Le caractère religieux de la royauté assyro-babylonienne (1939) and of Henri Frankfort's Kingship and the Gods (1948). An interesting strand in the fabric of kingship is treated in Ilse Siebert's Hirt, Herde, König (1969). To this research must be added the important articles by Å. Sjöberg, "Die göttliche Abstammung der sumerisch-babylonischen Herrscher," Orientalia Suecana 21 (1972); Piotr Michalowski, "History as Charter: Some Observations on the Sumerian King List," Journal of the American Oriental Society 103 (1983); and Claus Wilcke, "Genealogical and Geographical Thought in the Sumerian King List," in Studies in Honor of Å. Sjöberg, edited by Erle Leichty (1989).

Communal laments are covered in Raphael Kutscher's book Oh Angry Sea (a-ab-ba-hu-luh-ha): The History of a Sumerian Congregational Lament (1975). Penitential psalms are the focus of Julian Morgenstern's The Doctrine of Sin in the Babylonian Religion (1905), Walter Schrank's Babylonische Sühnrites (1908), Walter G. Kunstmann's Die babylonische Gebetsbeschwörung (1932), and Geo Widengren's The Accadian and Hebrew Psalms of Lamentation as Religious Documents (1936) and Hymnes et prières aux dieux de Babylonie et d'Assyrie (1976). Excellent translations may be found in Adam Falkenstein's Die Haupptypen der Sumerischen Beschwörung literarisch untersucht (1931). An updated study of the rich material on this topic has been accomplished by Werner Meier, Untersuchunen zur Formensprache der babylonischen "Gebetsbeschwörungen" (1976).

Divination is treated in Georges Conteneau's La divination chez les Assyriens et les Babyloniens (1940) and C. J. Gadd's Ideas of Divine Rule in the Ancient Near East (1948). Important studies include Ivan Starr's The Rituals of the Diviner (1983), Ulla Jeyes's Old Babylonian Extispicy (1989), and Barabara Böck's Die babylonisch-assyrische Morphoskopie (2000). An overview of celestial divination can be found in Ulla Koch-Westenholz's exhaustive Mesopotamian Astrology: An Introduction to Babylonian and Assyrian Celestial Divination (1995).

On magic, L. W. King's Babylonian Magic and Sorcery (1896) and B. A. van Proosdij's L. W. King's Babylonian Magic and Sorcery (1952) are joined by the pivotal study by Erica Reiner, Astral Magic in Babylonia (1995). Studies of exorcistic traditions include Markham J. Geller's "Freud and Mesopotamian Magic," in Mesopotamian Magic, edited by Tzvi Abusch and Karel van der Toorn (1999), and Tzvi Abusch's Mesopotamian Witchcraft: Toward a History and Understanding of Babylonian Witchcraft Beliefs and Literature (2002). The subject of wisdom has been comprehensively treated in W. G. Lambert's Babylonian Wisdom Literature (1960).

In Mesopotamian thought, the cosmos were conceived of as a unity in which the gods, the impersonal powers, and all the realities of the tangible world were a part. Aspects of this cosmology are investigated in the seminal study by Jean Bottéro, "Le noms de Marduk, l'écriture et la 'logique' en Mesopotamie ancienne," in Ancient Near Eastern Studies in Memory of J. J. Finkelstein, edited by Maria de Jong Ellis (1977), and developed in his Mésopotamie: L'écriture, la raison, et les dieux (1987), translated into English by Zainab Bahrani and Marc Van De Mieroop as Mesopotamia: Writing, Reasoning, and the Gods (1992).

Connections between writing and speculative thought have been investigated by Alasdair Livingstone, Mystical and Mythological Explanatory Works of Assyrian and Babylonian Scholars (1986); Antoine Cavigneaux, "Aux sources du Midrash: l'herméneutique babylonienne," in Aula Orientalis 5 (1987); Paul-Alain Beaulieu, "New Light on Secret Knowledge in Late Babylonian Culture," in Zeitschrift für Assyriologie 82 (1992), and "Theological and Philological Speculations on the Names of the Goddess Antu," in Orientalia 64 (1995); Morgen Trolle Larsen, "The Mesopotamian Lukewarm Mind: Reflections on Science, Divination, and Literacy," in Language, Literature, and History: Philological and Historical Studies Presented to Erica Reiner, edited by Francesca Rochberg-Halton (1987); Dietrich Otto Edzard, "La vision du passé et l'avenir en Mésopotamie," in Histoire et consience historique dans les civilisations du Proche-Orient Ancien (1989); Piotr Michalowski, "Mental Maps and Ideology: Reflections on Subartu," in The Origin of Cities in Dry-Farming Syria and Mesopotamia in the Third Millennium b.c., edited by H. Weiss (1986); Bent Alster, "Dilmun, Bahrain, and the Alleged Paradise in Sumerian Myth and Literature," in Dilmun: New Studies in the Archaeology and Early History of Bahrain, edited by Daniel I. Potts (1983); Jean-Jaques Glassner, "La philosophie mésopotamienne," in L'univers philosophique I, edited by A. Jacob (1989), and his more detailed "V. Religion sumérienne," in Supplément au dictionnaire de la Bible, edited by H. Cazelles, J. Briend, and M. Quesnel (2002); P. Michalowski, "Presence at the Creation," in Lingering over Words, edited by T. Abusch et al. (1990); Pietro Mander, "General Considerations on Main Concerns in the Religion of Ancient Mesopotamia," Studi in Memoria di P. L. G. Cagni, vol. 2, edited by S. Graziani (2000).

The study by Simo Parpola, "The Assyrian Tree of Life: Tracing the Origin of Jewish Monotheism and Greek Philosophy," in Journal of Near Eastern Studies 52 (1993) deserves attention despite its problematic methodology. Thorkild Jacobsen's last work, "The Historian and the Sumerian Gods," in Journal of the American Oriental Society 114 (1994), is devoted to methodological approaches in which Jacobsen employs the concept of epoché, derived from Husserl's phenomenology.

For attempts to reconstruct the historical development of Mesopotamian religion, see Wilfred George Lambert, "Ninurta Mythology in the Babylonian Epic of Creation," in Keilschriftliche Literaturen: Ausgewählte Vorträge der XXXII Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale, edited by K. Hecker and W. Sommerfeld (1986); Claus Wilcke, "Politik im Spiegel der Literatur, Literatur als Mittel der Politik im älteren Babylonien," in Anfänge politischen Denkens in der Antike, edited by K. Raaflaub et al. (1993); and William W. Hallo, "Sumerian Religion," in Kinattûtu sha darâti, edited by A. F. Rainey et al. (1994).

Studies dedicated to the interpretation of anthropogonic mythology and concepts about the human condition and the universe include W. G. Lambert and A. R. Millard, Atra-hasis: The Babylonian Story of the Flood (1969); W. L. Moran, "Some Considerations of Form and Interpretation in Atra-hasis," in Language, Literature, and History: Philological and Historical Studies Presented to Erica Reiner, edited by F. Rochberg-Halton (1987); Anne Draffkorn Kilmer, "Speculations on Umul, the First Baby," in Sumerological Studies in Honour of Samuel Noah Kramer, edited by B. L. Eichler (1976), and "The Symbolism of the Flies in the Mesopotamian Flood Myth," in Language, Literature, and History: Philological and Historical Studies Presented to Erica Reiner, edited by F. Rochberg-Halton (1987); W. G. Lambert, "The Theology of Death," in Death in Mesopotamia: Papers Read at the XXVIe Rencontre assyriologique internationale, edited by B. Alster (1980); Isaac M. Kikawada, "The Double Creation of Mankind in Enki and Ninmah, Atrahasis I 1351, and Genesis 12," in Iraq 45 (1983); W. G. Lambert, "The Pair Lahmu-Lahamu in Cosmology," in Orientalia 54 (1985), and "The Cosmology of Sumer and Babylon," in Ancient Cosmologies, edited by C. Blacker and M. Loewe (1975); Marten Stol, Birth in Babylonia and the Bible: Its Mediterranean Setting (2000); and Karel van der Toorn, Family Religion in Babylonia, Syria, and Israel: Continuity and Change in the Forms of Religious Life (1996).

On the topic of the so-called personal god, see Jacob Klein, "'Personal God' and Individual Prayer in Sumerian Religion," in Archiv für Orientforschungen-Beiheft 19 (1982), and Brigitte Groneberg, "Eine Einführungsszenze in der altbabylonischen Literatur: Bemerkungen zum persönlichen Gott," in Keilschriftlichen Literaturen, edited by K. Hecker and W. Sommerfeld (1985).

For information on specific topics in Mesopotamian religion see the entries in Reallexicon der Assyriologie (19321957) and Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, 2nd ed. (1999), edited by K. van den Toorn, B. Becking, and P. W. van der Horst. The published volumes of the proceedings of the Melammu Symposia deserve a particular mention: Mythology and Mithologies, edited by R. M. Whiting (2001) and Ideologies as Intercultural Phenomena, edited by A. Panaino and G. Pettinato (2003). Jeremy Black, Anthony Green, and Tessa Rickards's Gods, Demons, and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia: An Illustrated Dictionary (1992) is both accessible and accurate.


The script and languages of ancient Mesopotamia continue to present great difficulties to the modern student. These are so serious that almost no translations of Akkadian texts made prior to the twentieth century can safely be taken at face value; they need to be checked by a competent Assyriologist. As for Sumerian, at present no consensus about basic features of writing and grammar exists, and translations of one and the same text may differ radically. Extreme caution is thus indicated.

Since the late 1970s, however, in spite of the many difficulties, many important religious texts in Sumerian and in Akkadian have been published. While not aimed at the nonspecialist, this great mass of philological work does provide the essential basis for further knowledge.

Last but not least, important work has been published by scholars looking for patterns that show the influence on the Greek religious world. Outstanding studies include Geoffrey S. Kirk's Myth: Its Meaning and Functions in Ancient and Other Cultures (1970), and The Nature of Greek Myths (1974), Martin L. West's Early Greek Philosophy and the Orient (1971), and The East Face of Helicon (1997), and Walter Burkert's Griechische Religion der archaischen und klassischen Epoche (1977), and The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in Early Archaic Age (1992).

See Also

An; Ashur; Dagan; Dumuzi; Enlil; Inanna; Marduk; Nabu; Nanna; Nergal; Utu.

Thorkild Jacobsen (1987)

Pietro Mander (2005)

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