Religious Practice

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Religious Practice


Purpose of Life. In the Mesopotamian worldview, the gods were so distant from man that, even one who lived a proper righteous life could never count on the gods to ensure prosperity or happiness. All people had to fend for themselves, provide for their families, and seek their own pleasures. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the hero arrives at a tavern located at the ends of the earth. There the mysterious female tavern keeper Siduri advises him to abandon his search for immortality and enjoy what life and families have to offer:

Gilgamesh, where are you wandering?

You will not find the life for which you are searching.

When the gods created man,

They allotted death for mankind,

Keeping life for themselves.

Gilgamesh, let your belly be full,

Make merry by day and by night.

Make a feast of rejoicing every day.

By day and by night dance and play.

Let your clothing be clean and fresh.

Your head be washed, your body bathed in water.

Look to the child who clutches your hand,

Let your wife enjoy herself in your lap.

This is the fulfillment of man! (Foster)

The Cult. According to the theology preserved in myth, man had both to attend to his own needs and to give service to the cult. Humans were created to be servants to the gods and were expected to provide them and their families with a lifestyle of luxury and ease. To maintain, treat, clothe, feed, and honor the gods in accordance with their exalted rank, temples were created as homes for the deity. Called in Sumerian e-gal, “Great House,” the temple was a center of worship, a seat of judicial assembly, and a place of ceremony and ritual. It was also a part of a complex that could include workshops and a temple tower or ziggurat, whose rites and purpose remain largely unknown. A cult statue of the god, accompanied by images of his family and companions, was placed in the cult room, a room in the temple “which knows no light.” Statuettes presented by worshipers to intercede on the supplicant’s behalf stood on benches or offering tables before the divine presence.

Temple Personnel. The care and feeding of the gods required an extensive retinue of cooks, millers, bakers, carpenters, metalworkers, butchers, weavers, laundry workers, and cleaners, among others. Many of these workers probably lived on temple grounds; others came to the temple from their nearby homes. Most priests lived within the temple compound. The highest-ranking priest was the shangu, who had both administrative and religious duties. The kalu were cantors who chanted laments; the naru and zammeru were singers; the pashishu poured liquids as part of anointing ceremonies; the ramku sprinkled purification waters; and the erib-biti, “One who Enters the Temple,” had access to restricted areas. There were many other kinds of specialized priests and priestesses. The high priestess, the entu, was chaste—as was the naditu, who lived and worked in a sort of cloister. These women were highly educated; some wrote beautiful poetry that has been preserved on clay tablets. Scribes kept accounts of temple income and expenditures.

Sacrifice. An important element for the comfort of the gods and their families was a house in good repair. Good meals, clothing, and ritual entertainment had to be provided to ease the gods’ work burden and keep them in good cheer. The cult image of the god was presented with breakfast in the morning and a large sumptuous meal in the evening. According to a ritual text, the table (that is, the altar) was set with gold vessels filled with various kinds of beer, wine, and food. An alabaster vase was filled with milk. Emmer wheat and barley were used to make loaves of bread for the gods. Dates were served, and cakes were prepared. Sacrificial meat dishes were made from sheep, oxen, rams, and calves. Ducks and various varieties of birds, as well as ostrich and duck eggs were also served. Cult statues were bathed, groomed, perfumed, dressed in cloths, and bedecked with jewelry. Texts from later periods indicate that the king was served whatever foods the god did not finish.

Journeys. In modern times, heads of state travel to meet with other political leaders. Their journeys may be social or diplomatic. Leaders may seek approval for political activities or attempt to cement alliances. In ancient Mesopotamia the statues of the gods also made state visits, transported either in chariots or in barges from their temples to the residences of other gods. During the third millennium b.c.e., the moon god Nanna-Suen’s journey from his home in Ur to the temple of his father, Enlil, in Nippur, one hundred and fifty kilometers away, was recorded in the Myth of Nanna-Suen’s Journey to Nippur. After a short introduction, the text describes Nanna-Suen’s preparation of a special barge worthy of a state visit. The boat is built of reeds, pitch, rushes, and cypress, cedar, and fir woods. It is then loaded with gift offerings of animals, birds, and fish. During the course of its journey, the barge stops at six towns before finally docking at Nippur. Nanna-Suen disembarks and, aware of proper etiquette, asks the door-keeper to admit him to the temple. Once in the presence of his father, Nanna-Suen presents gifts, and the great god reciprocates with sweet cakes, fine bread, fine beer, and syrup. On Nanna-Suen’s departure, Enlil grants his son’s request that there be prosperity in his home city of Ur. Nanna-Suen then returns to Ur. This myth shows that gods, like kings, had both ceremonial and political responsibilities. The tale may have its roots in either a political or a religious alliance between Ur and the holy city of Nippur.

Ceremonial Acts. In Mesopotamian thought the entire universe was filled with awesome divine powers that controlled both humankind and nature. Royalty and the elite sought to shield themselves from harm by cultic performance. The proper performance of cultic acts and rituals was believed to placate the gods and ensure that they supported one’s endeavors. To secure well-being, various rituals and accompanying formulas were performed in the temple on a daily, monthly, seasonal, and annual basis. Typical cultic activities included the performance of cultic songs, incantations, and spells. Rituals involved priests, royalty, and occasionally members of the elite. Entrance into the temple was restricted. As the residence of the god, the temple was not considered a place of public assembly or a center of popular devotion. The populace participated only during major seasonal festivals.

The New Year Festival. The Babylonian festival honoring the New Year, known as the akitu festival, was celebrated from the first day to the twelfth day of the New Year. During the course of a ritual ceremony held in the city of Babylon, the statue of the god Marduk was brought in a great procession into a ceremonial house (the akitu) located outside the city wall. During the ceremony, the king, as the representative of the people, participated in a purification ritual. He received a strong slap to the face; if it brought tears, it acted to expiate sin. The Babylonian myth of creation, Enuma elish, was recited during the ritual in honor of the god Marduk. Other rites celebrated during the festival include those marking the spring barley harvest and the enthronement of the monarch. New Year’s ceremonies with differing rites are attested from the end of the third millennium b.c.e. and were celebrated in other Sumerian and Babylonian cities.

The Rite of the Substitute King. Cuneiform texts refer to the rite of a substitute king, who was installed when portents predicted a crisis or the violent death of the monarch. The replacement king, like the scapegoat in the Bible and Babylonian incantation documents, was supposed to attract evil and its consequences onto his body. This rite was first recorded in the Old Babylonian period (circa 1894 - circa

1595 b.c.e.), when the ruler of Isin had a substitute installed as king. At the end of his term, the replacement king was killed, taking the evil omen with him to the “Land of No Return” and theoretically freeing the real king and his realm from potential harm. The most important source of information about the ritual dates to the reign of the Assyrian king Esarhaddon (680–669 b.c.e.), who feared the consequences that might befall him because of ominous predictions in omens. When his specialist priest determined that the ruler’s life was in danger, the real king was hidden away and the substitute placed on the throne. No one, including the king, could avoid the destiny determined by the gods, but if necessary steps were taken, rituals could temporarily avert fate.

Sacred Marriage Ceremony. A ritual performance in Mesopotamian temples was enacted between two lovers, the goddess Inana and the god Dumuzi. It was believed that the sexual union between the pair, referred to in love poems and hymns dating to the Ur III and Old Babylonian periods, would produce new life and prosperity. During the course of the ritual, it is thought that the king represented Dumuzi. The identity of the female partner in the rite is unknown, but it has been assumed that she was a priestess. However, she may have been represented by a statue, in which case the ceremony was performed only symbolically. As part of the ceremony, the goddess bathed and a bed was set up for her and her lover. The king and goddess united, and after the sacred union people brought food and offerings to the temple. The ceremony concluded with a banquet, hymns, and sacred music sung in honor of the goddess. Some of the songs celebrated the erotic nature of the couple’s union:

As I set my eyes upon that place,

My beloved man met me,

Took his please of me, rejoiced alone in me;

The brother (i.e., Dumuzi) brought me into his house,

And laid me down upon a bed dripping with honey.

My precious sweet, when lying next to my heart,

Time after time, making tongue, time after time,

My brother of beautiful eyes, did so fifty (times),

Like a powerless person I stood there for him,

Trembling from below, I was dumb silent for him there.

With my brother, placing (my) hands upon his hips.

With my precious sweet, I spent the day there with him. (Sefati)

Lamentation Prayers. In contrast to modern prayer, which expresses an individualized outpouring of expressive feeling, most Mesopotamian prayers were associated with rituals and sound distant and emotionless to the modern ear. During the second and first millenniums b.c.e. several sorts of lamentation prayers were sung in a special dialect of Sumerian known as Emesal. The balag, named after the string instrument that accompanied the recitation of the prayer, is a lament over the destruction of the god’s temple. Many balag prayers also include long songs of praise for the gods. An ershemma, a song that was accompanied by a drum called the shem, contains litanies and prayers for “soothing the heart” of a god. The ershemma was sung by the kalu during the performance of a ritual. Balags often end with an ershemma accompanied by the playing of the shem drum. A shuilla (literally: “raising the hands”) was in the form of a long litany, which could include a petition to assuage the anger of the deity. It was often recited in rituals associated with processions of the gods. A prayer called ershahunga (literally: “lamentations to soothe the heart”) includes a lamentation describing the worshiper’s suffering and a request on behalf of the petitioner for his welfare. In general, all these prayers sung in the Emesal dialect were designed to avert a god’s anger and entice his favor through the recital of the lamentation.

Lamentation Prayers and Rituals. Balags, ershemmas, and ershahunga laments were recited to the gods on the occasion of rebuilding all or part of a damaged or destroyed temple. The prayer was designed to calm the gods’ anger at having their home damaged or destroyed. The kalu also performed Emesal songs and prayers during apotropaic rituals to avert enemy attacks or to protect troops and animals against demonic attacks that could cause disease. These special prayers were also performed in rituals to avert a calamity predicted by a sign or omen.

Personal Prayers. The few surviving examples of personal prayer are filled with feeling and emotion, in contrast to ritual prayer, which was permeated with flattery and fear. Petitioners implored their god for aid and relief from disease, depression, and other ills. They requested that their god allow them to find happiness and peace of mind. Prayers were believed to work because most gods, like good rulers, were thought to be concerned with the welfare of the people. King Esarhaddon of Assyria addressed the following prayer to his personal god:

I have done good for the gods and for men, for the living and for the dead. But then, why do illness and sadness, difficulties and prejudice continue to plague me? Discord in the land, complaining in my palace, troubles and failures of all sorts are constantly against me! Illness of the body and the heart have completely shriveled me up. I spend my time sighing and complaining. Even the day of the Great Feast I remain in despair.… O my god, reserve such a fate for the impious, and allow me to find happiness once again! How long are you going to abuse me so and to treat me as one who respects neither gods nor goddesses. (Bottéro)

Penitential Prayers. Most prayers addressed to the gods of heaven and earth were similar in tone to official requests made to one’s king or superior. As such, they include little religious sentiment. A few prayers explore the psychology of man’s fear of the gods, as well as the moral stain and physical and emotional distress that result from sin. While it is difficult to ascertain if sin was regarded simply as a misguided action or as something that profoundly affected the psyche, it is known that Mesopotamians believed the resultant guilt could be resolved through performance of prayer and ritual, rather than through clearly expressed pleas for forgiveness, a concept that was not developed in Mesopotamian religious thought. A penitent sufferer expressed his feelings in this especially poignant prayer.

Who has not been negligent, which one has committed no sin?

Who can understand a god’s behavior?

I would fain be obedient and incur no sin.

Yes, I would frequent the haunts of health!

Men are commanded by the gods to act under curse.

Divine affliction is for mankind to bear.

I am surely responsible for some neglect of you.

I have surely trespassed the limits set by the god.

Forget what I did in my youth, whatever it was.

Let your heart not well up against me,

Absolve my guilt, remit my punishment,

Clear me of confusion, free me of uncertainty …

O warrior Marduk, absolve my guilt, remit my guilt! (Foster)


Jean Bottéro, Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia, translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).

Mark E. Cohen, The Canonical Lamentations of Ancient Mesopotamia, 2 volumes (Bethesda, Md.: CDL Press, 1988).

Benjamin R. Foster, ed. and trans., The Epic of Gilgamesh (New York: Norton, 2001).

Andrew George, trans., The Epic of Gilgamesh: The Babylonian Epic Poem and Other Texts in Akkadian and Sumerian (London: Allen Lane, 1999).

A. Leo Oppenheim, Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization, revised edition, completed by Erica Reiner (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964).

Yitzhaq Sefati, Love Songs in Sumerian Literature: Critical Edition of the Dumuzi-Inanna Songs (Ramat Gan: Bar-Ilan University Press, 1998).

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