The Gods. In Mesopotamian thought the gods were represented in terms of human stereotypes. Their personalities, instincts, needs, minds, morality, feelings, weaknesses, and powers were as diverse as those of humankind. Unlike humans, however, they possessed eternal life and superhuman powers. While not coterminous with astral phenomena—the stars, sun, and moon are not themselves gods—the gods were conceived as animators and controllers of the heavens and the forces of nature. They brought heat and light through command of the sun, and they established the seasons through power over the moon. In addition, hidden divine forces with no perceptible image were assumed to make the grain grow and multiply and to cause animals to mate and reproduce. A Sumerian hymn to the god Enlil describes the great powers that the god possessed.
Without the Great Mountain Enlil… the carp would not … come straight up(?) from the sea, they would not dart about. The sea would not produce all its heavy treasure, no freshwater fish would lay eggs in the reedbeds, no bird of the sky would build nests in the spacious land; in the sky the thick clouds would not open their mouths; on the fields, dappled grain would not fill the arable lands, vegetation would not grow lushly on the plain; in the gardens, the spreading trees of the mountain would not yield fruits. (Black et al.)
Attributes of the Gods. The great gods were described as possessing an awe-inspiring radiance (Akkadian: melammu), a sort of supernatural luminosity that glowed on their heads and bodies as a magnificent and terrifying sheen. Their beings were filled with power that evoked terror in mankind. There was no way to describe them clearly without recourse to associations with the forces of nature. Gods were, therefore, likened to real or imaginary fear-inspiring animals— such as the fierce bull, lion or lioness, wild ox, and dragon— or to natural phenomena such as the flood, storm, thunder, or mighty mountain. Most of the principal gods were masculine and had one or more consorts; some goddesses were thought to possess great powers and were important in the cult. Gods also had divine families.
Representations of the Gods. In the art of the Early Dynastic period (circa 2900 - circa 2340 b.c.e.), Mesopotamian deities were pictured with human forms for the first time. They could also be represented by animals that to the ancients conveyed one of a god’s qualities, such as the dog for the goddess Gula, or by symbolic objects, including a plow for Ninurta, the god of agriculture. The personality of a god was thought to reside in its cult statue, which underwent a series of rituals, such as the “Opening of the Mouth” and “Washing of the Mouth,” enabling the statue to be imbued with the divine presence. Statues were typically made of wood. Their hands and faces were covered with precious metals; their eyes and beards were inlaid with precious
stones. Texts provide details of gods’ appearances down to the last details of hair, eyes, and sexual parts.
The Gods’ Behavior.. The gods behaved like humans and had the same wants and needs. Like people, the gods desired large houses, luxurious clothing, sex, and good food and drink. In the Sumerian myth Inana and Enki, the god Enki becomes drunk and carelessly relinquishes control over the me, the gods’ power to regulate the cultural artifacts of urban civilization. Some gods are rational; others act based on whim, selfishness, and emotion. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the goddess Inana, attracted by the semi-divine but mortal hero’s good looks, proposes a sexual liaison. After Gilgamesh rejects her advances, the goddess pouts and fumes, demanding that Anu, her father, release the Bull of Heaven to punish Gilgamesh’s insolence. Myths also deride the gods’ weaknesses, including their fickle decisions. How else, it was thought, could one account for man’s hardships?
Fear of the Gods. The gods were supreme figures: transcendent, awesome, and distant—not close to man as in modern religions. Admired, revered, and feared, they were masters and lords. They might show kindness, but they were not loved. Their presence did not inspire happiness; it caused anxiety and fright. When Gilgamesh awakens from a nightmare, he asks his friend Enkidu, “Why am I so disturbed? Did a god not pass by? Why does my flesh tingle? My friend, I had a dream, And the dream I had was very disturbing.” One did not seek a god in order to be in its presence; instead one directed a prayer to a god to express admiration, offer praise, and obtain protection from undesirable forces.
The Divine Plan. Mesopotamian philosophy asserted that the gods possessed a divine design for mankind, which resides in the gods’ inaccessible minds, incomprehensible to humans. In contrast to biblical religion, the gods of the Mesopotamians never reveal their plan to man. They act capriciously, their ways are impenetrable. A Babylonian poet cogently expressed these thoughts in a composition called The Babylonian Theodicy:
The plans of the gods are as far from us as the center of heaven:
To understand them properly is impossible; no one can understand them. (Lambert)
Mankind and the Gods. In Ludlul bel nemeqi, “Let me Praise the Lord of Wisdom (that is, Marduk),” a Babylonian theologian explored the reasons for the suffering of the righteous. The poet expressed his frustration and despair, knowing that man was merely mortal, unable to decipher the will of the gods:
I wish I knew that these things were pleasing to one’s god!
What is proper to oneself is an offense to one’s god,
What in one’s own heart seems despicable is proper to one’s god!
Who knows the will of the gods in heaven?
Who understands the plans of the underworld gods?
Where have mortals learnt the way of a god? (Lambert)
Immortality. Only the gods, including the demons, were thought to be immortal. Mankind was doomed to live a short life, cursed by disease, illness, accident, and old age. In mythology only a few gods were ever said to have died. They were slain in battle, and in each instance their beings became a part of another entity. The rebellious god Qingu in the creation epic Enuma elish and the minor god We in the Epic of Atra-hasis were both killed, only to be incorporated into newly created humans as different parts of human nature. Never-ending life was granted to only a few select humans. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the survivors of the flood, Uta-napishti and his wife, were made immortal and sent to live on an island at the end of the world. The hero Gilgamesh sought everlasting life, but even though he was partly divine he was not able to escape death.
Gods and History. According to Mesopotamian theology, the gods managed the world and predetermined historical events. Defeat in war, for example, could be explained as divine retribution for the king’s crimes. According to the Sumerian composition The Cursing of Agade, when Naram-Sin (circa 2254 - circa 2218 b.c.e.), king of the city of Agade (or Akkad), desecrated the E-kur, the holy shrine of the god Enlil, the deity responded by causing the uncivilized Gutian tribes from the nearby Zagros Mountains to attack the land. Swarming like locusts, they destroyed cities, desolated fields, and ravaged the land:
Enlil, the roaring(?) storm that subjugates the entire land, the rising deluge that cannot be confronted, was considering what should be destroyed in return for the wrecking of his beloved E-kur. He lifted his gaze toward the Gubin mountains, and made all the inhabitants of the broad mountain ranges descend(?). Enlil brought out of the mountains those who do not resemble other people, who are not reckoned as part of the Land, the features. Like small birds they swooped on the ground in great flocks. Because of Enlil they stretched their arms out across the plain like a net for animals. Nothing escaped their clutches, no one left their grasp. Messengers no longer traveled the highways, the courier’s boat no longer passed along the rivers. The Gutians drove the trusty(?) Goats of Enlil out of their pens and compelled their cowherds to follow them. Prisoners manned the watch. Brigands occupied the highways. The doors of the city gates of the Land were covered with mud, and all the foreign lands uttered bitter cries from the walls of their cities … As it had been before the time when cities were built and founded, the large fields and
arable tracts yielded no grain, the inundated fields yielded no fish, the irrigated orchards yielded no syrup or wine, the thick clouds(?) did not rain, the mashgurum plant did not grow. (Black et al.)
Polytheism. Mesopotamian religious thinkers never developed a concept of exclusive monotheism, the existence of one and only one god. The official religion included a bewildering number of local, city, state, and heavenly deities, all of whom had supernatural and transcendent qualities. This polytheistic system tolerated and even encouraged the existence of a diversity of gods. By the end of the third millennium b.c.e. the Sumerians claimed there were 3,600 deities. Wars of religion, characteristic of peoples with monotheistic belief systems, were unknown in the ancient Near East. The condemnation of false faiths and insistence on dogmatic belief was unknown in a world of religious pluralism.
City Gods. The cosmological deities who ruled earth, sea, and sky were considered the greatest of the gods. By the second quarter of the third millennium b.c.e., each polity was thought to have its own patron deity who could install and depose rulers. Among the Sumerian cities in southern Mesopotamia, the city of Ur was home to the moon god Nanna; the city of Eridu was associated with Enki; Larsa and Sippar shared the sun god Utu; Uruk was the center for worshiping the sky god An as well as Inana, ’The Lady of Heaven.” Nippur, considered a holy city, was home to Enlil, the god who ruled the heavens. Some deities were worshiped in several local cults. Each god had his or her own temple in his or her capital city.
Syncretism. At the end of the third millennium b.c.e., religious traditions began to merge. Sumerian divinities became identified first with the gods of the Semitic-speaking Akkadians and then—following the fall of the Third Dynasty of Ur, circa 2004 b.c.e.—with those of the West Semitic Amorites. Some of the older gods of the Sumerians became known by the Akkadian forms of their names. For example, An, the sky god, was called Anu, and in the Semitic mythology he became a distant deity. Other deities were merged with Semitic counterparts. Enki retained his role as a god of wisdom and had a close relationship with humanity, he was referred to as Ea. Nanna (also called Suen), the moon god, was referred to as Sin; Utu, the god of justice, was venerated by the Babylonians, who called him Shamash; and the goddess Inana became Ishtar. The Semites found no local god who could be equated with the supreme god Enlil, so his name remained unchanged. Many of the older subordinate Sumerian gods lost their significance, while Marduk, who was a city god associated with the then minor city of Babylon, was elevated in importance as Babylon rose in prominence.
Assyrian Gods. In Assyria the god Ashur, who was at first the god of the city of Ashur, became a national god. As the power and extent of Assyrian domination grew in the later part of the second millennium b.c.e., Ashur became an imperial god of state and empire, depicted as supporting the Assyrian army and the ever-growing Assyrian territory. During the height of Assyrian conquests in the first part of the first millennium b.c.e., Ashur was equated in mythology and ritual with the Babylonian national god, Marduk. Even such symbols of the Babylonian deity as Marduk’s snake-dragon were transferred to Ashur. Assyrian kings incorporated the god’s name into their own: Ashur-nasir-apli (Ashurnasirpal), “Ashur-who-protects-the-heir”; Ashur-bani-apli (Ashurban-ipal), “Ashur-is-the-creator-of-the-heir”; and Ashur-ahhe-iddina (Esarhaddon), “Ashur-gave-me-sons.” However, the peoples of the conquered provinces of the Assyrian Empire were not required to worship Ashur.
The Hierarchy of the Pantheon. Babylonian theologians of the second millennium b.c.e. devised a method of expressing the supremacy of certain gods within the pantheon. In accordance with the Mesopotamian concept of classifying phenomena, each of the major Babylonian deities was assigned a number in the writing system. Anu, the chief deity, was represented by the number 60; Enlil, the god of the earth, was number 50; Ea, the god of wisdom, was 40; Sin, the god of the moon, was 30; Shamash, the sun god, was 20; 15 was associated with Ishtar and 6 with Adad, the god of the storms.
Genealogy. In mythology the great gods were conceived of as having descended from each other. Various parallel and often contradictory traditions associated with different cities or priesthoods existed at the same time. Thus, according to one tradition, Enlil, one of the most important gods in the pantheon, was the offspring of An, while in another tradition he was a descendant of the gods Enki (Lord Earth) and Ninki (Lady Earth).
Monotheistic Tendencies. As the Babylonians assumed political supremacy over large parts of Mesopotamia, they began to reduce the number of gods. Many of the large number of deities that existed during the period of Sumerian dominance fell from prominence, were amalgamated into one deity, or they were equated with Semitic gods. Instead of the thousands of Sumerian deities, the Babylonians worshiped a pantheon of twelve or thirteen major gods. In hymns, some gods are represented as aspects of one of the major deities. An example of this new theology is found in the concluding section of the Babylonian creation epic Enuma elish, which refers to the chief deity Marduk and praises him with fifty different names that represent characteristics of particular gods. This syncretistic theology made it possible for many prayers to be largely interchangeable. Babylonian texts of the first millennium b.c.e. elevated certain deities with exaltations such as “Trust in Nabu, trust in no other god but Nabu.” Other documents refer to “the god” or “the goddess” while never denying the existence of the pantheon.
Personal Gods. In addition to the great pantheon of gods, who had little daily contact with most ordinary people, individuals also worshiped a personal god. These deities were on a more intimate basis with the individual. Personal gods were viewed as divine parents who guarded and watched over their children. Personal gods sought to prevent wickedness but could not control man’s actions and acted as advocates who could intercede with the great gods on behalf of the worshiper. In a prayer to the personal god of his family a worshiper sought his deity and requested protection from evil and help in thriving and living to old age.
… O my god, where are you?
You who have been angry with me,
turn towards me, Turn your face to the pure godly meal of fat and oil,
That your lips receive goodness.
Command that I thrive, Command (long) life with your pure utterance.
Bring me away from evil, that through you, I be saved.
Ordain for me a destiny of (long) life,
Prolong my days, grant me (long) life! (Foster)
Death. Death was the inevitable fate of mankind, and the gods did not “make known the days of death.” Immortality was reserved only for gods. According to the theology embedded in the Epic of Gilgamesh, any attempt by man to achieve eternal life would be in vain. In contrast to the Egyptian concept of a bountiful afterlife for the righteous, the Mesopotamian view was that the deceased faced a horrid, gloomy existence in the Netherworld.
The Netherworld. In some religions there exists life after death in heaven or in a region where justice prevails, and the righteous fare better than the wicked. In ancient Mesopotamia all the dead—except for the unburied, who became angry spirits that caused torment and terror among the living—were believed to reside in a “Land of No Return.” This Netherworld, behind locked gates and beneath the freshwater ocean under the earth,
was a dreary place where the dead existed in a residual form as a spirit or ghost. With light available only when the sun god visited, and without water, the dead resided in the dark and had only dust to eat. They had no hope of liberation or resurrection of the body. All were naked and, with only a few exceptions, suffered the same miserable existence. There was no separation or elevation of the just. Only proper burial could ameliorate the harsh treatment one received in the Netherworld. Existence among the dead could become more tolerable only if one’s surviving relatives provided offerings of food, drink, and oil. Libations were poured to the dead through clay pipes located at funerary sites. This belief that the dead needed support contributed to the idea that one should have a large family to provide sustenance for one’s spirit after death. Cremation was never practiced because of the belief that those who die in fire suffer the worst fate: no longer possessing a spirit left to be buried.
Bendt Alster, ed., Death in Mesopotamia: Papers Read at the XXVIe Rencontre assyriologique Internationale, Mesopotamia, volume 8 (Copenhagen: Akademisk Forlag, 1980).
Jeremy Black, Graham Cunningham, Jarle Ebeling, Esther Flückiger-Hawker, Eleanor Robson, Jon Taylor, and Gábor Zólyomi, The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, The Oriental Institute, University of Oxford, 1998- <http://www-etcsl.orient.ox.ac.uk/>.
Jean Bottéro, Mesopotamia: Writing, Reasoning and the Gods, translated by Zainab Bahrani and Marc Van de Mieroop (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).
Bottéro, Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia, translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).
Jerrold S. Cooper, The Curse of Agade (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983).
Benjamin R. Foster, Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature, 2 volumes (Bethesda, Md.: CDL Press, 1993).
W. G. Lambert, Babylonian Wisdom Literature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960).
A. Leo Oppenheim, Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization, revised edition, completed by Erica Reiner (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964).