As the term is now used, Mesopotamia designates the land between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates extending from the Kurdish foothills in the north to the Persian Gulf in the south. The Greek term μεσοποτάμια, from which the English word is derived, was coined at the time of Alexander the Great to designate the part of Syria that lies between the Euphrates and the Tigris, or what would now be called northern Mesopotamia (Arrian, Anabasis 7.7.3). The Greeks, however, borrowed the term, in translated form, from the local Aramaic-speaking inhabitants, who called this region bên naharîn (between the rivers), as in the gloss on Gn 4.1 in the Genesis Apocryphon of Qumran. The Aramaic term probably goes back in turn to the Akkadian bῑrῑt nārim, literally "between the river" (in the singular), which designated the land within the western bend of the Euphrates, i.e., the far western part of the modern Jazireh of northern Iraq. That this Akkadian term referred to this very limited region seems certain from the fact that this region must be the same as the one that the Assyro-Babylonians called māt bῑrῑtim, which lay to the east of māt ebirtim (literally "the land on the other side"), i.e., the land across the river (eber nārim ) from the viewpoint of the Assryo-Babylonians, the region to the west of the Euphrates. By a similar extension of meaning the Hebrew term 'a'ram naha’raim, Aram Naharaim (Gn 24.10), which originally referred only to northern Syria on both sides of the Euphrates (called Naharin by the Egyptians), was later used in regard to the land between the Euphrates and the Tigris.
The following sections of this article will consider ancient Mesopotamia in its geography, history, and religion.
Bibliography: j. j. finkelstein, "Mesopotamia," Journal of Near Eastern Studies 21 (1962) 73–92.
[l. f. hartman]
Mesopotamia is the region that lies between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates and extends from the Kurdish foothills in the north to the Persian Gulf in the south. Beyond the rivers, the Mesopotamian plain is bordered by the steeply scarped Zagros Mountains to the east, and by the wastes of the Syro-Arabian desert to the west. Within this area, the terrain becomes progressively lower as one moves south, descending some 1,000 feet between the foothills and the steppes and swamplands of the south; to the lowering in altitude corresponds a decrease in rainfall: the uplands of the north receive orographic rain in sufficient quantity to support agriculture, but on the lower part of the plain the total annual rainfall does not exceed 6 to 8 inches, so that agriculture, throughout most of the area, is dependent on artificial irrigation. The climate varies greatly, ranging from 20 to 120 degrees with severe winter winds from the Armenian and Iranian highlands and a hot summer draught from the Persian Gulf.
The Euphrates, rising with the Tigris in the mountains of Armenia, proceeds at first in a westerly direction, but is deflected by the mountains of Taurus and Anti-Taurus toward the southeast, and is then joined by the Balikh and Khabur. The triangle of land formed by these rivers was thickly populated in antiquity, its most notable settlements being Carchemish (Charchamis) on the Euphrates and Haran on the upper Balikh. Though the Euphrates is not navigable for any great distance, its banks provided a central route of land travel to Syria, along which were situated the cities of Mari and, at a later period, dura-europos.
The Tigris flows in a generally southeastern direction, first through the Kurdish hills and then, south of Mosul, into unbroken alluvial plains and is navigable from Diyarbekir in the north. On the Tigris, between the confluences of the Upper and Lower Zab with that river, lies the ancient city of assur, the heartland of the Empire of assyria.
At present the two rivers converge to within 25 miles of one another near modern Baghdad, then flow apart, to join at Qurna and flow together, as the 68-mile-long Shatt el-Arab, to the Persian Gulf, 40 miles southeast of the city of Abadan, Iran. In ancient times, however, the two rivers reached the sea without joining, and the coastline was perhaps much farther north, probably near the ancient city of Eridu. The southern plain thus consisted of steppeland formed from alluvial soil, which, under extensive irrigation, was famed in antiquity for its agricultural productivity, though progressive soil salinization has reduced its productivity in modern times. This region was the cultural center of ancient Mesopotamia, with babylon and Sippar in its northern sector (Akkad), and nippur, ur and uruk in the south (Sumer).
See Also: nineveh.
Bibliography: m. a. beek, Atlas of Mesopotamia, tr. d. r. welsh (London 1962).
[r. i. caplice]
Until the middle of the 19th century, when the first archeological excavations were made in Mesopotamia and its ancient cuneiform inscriptions deciphered, most of the books that treated of the history of human civilization began, after perhaps a few words about ancient Egypt, with an account of the Greeks and the Romans, as if civilization began with these. Although these latecomers on the scene of world history undoubtedly made original and extremely valuable contributions to the higher culture of the West, it is now known that they really owed much more than was previously thought to the high civilization of ancient Mesopotamia, which had a long, glorious history stretching back for at least 3 millenniums before the rise of Greece and Rome. This history will be outlined here as it was determined by the march of historical events whose center of interest generally lay first in Babylonia or southern Mesopotamia and then in Assyria or northern Mesopotamia.
Prehistoric Period. The first village settlements, of which one of the earliest has been found at Qal'at Jarmo east of Kirkuk in the hills of Kurdistan, go back to the Neolithic period (c. 5000–c. 4000 b.c.). In the following Chalcolithic period (c. 4000–c. 3000 b.c.) civilization properly so called was born in ancient Mesopotamia. Copper tools replaced stone ones; villages grew into towns and cities; the isolation of the past was abandoned in the course of far-flung trading expeditions; and writing was invented. In this period also, in the first half of the 4th millennium, the cultural center of gravity shifted to the south, where the earliest-known settlement was at Abū Shahrein, ancient Eridu, a short distance from the head of the Persian Gulf. The pottery discovered here is related to the potteries of Iran, Assyria, and central Mesopotamia and therefore would seem to indicate immigrations from different areas. Somewhat later there appeared the first great Babylonian culture, the Obeidian (named from Tell el Obeid, near Ur, where it was first found), characterized by its pottery painted in black, brown, and occasionally red, and by its gradually evolving monumental temple architecture. This culture was succeeded by the Warkan (named from Warka, the site of ancient Uruk), which, in its later phase, not only produced the earliest-known written documents, but also abounded in works of high artistic achievement both in sculpture and in the glyptic art as this was applied to the newly devised cylinder seal.
It is uncertain what people achieved this high cultural stage that came as early as c. 3000 b.c. The changes revealed by the excavations do not necessarily prove different immigrations; because of the continuity between the Obeidian and Warkan cultures some scholars believe that the achievements are to be attributed to one people, the Sumerians, although the presence of some Semites and other peoples is not denied. Other scholars argue that many of the names of the oldest cities cannot be explained from Sumerian, and therefore must have been founded by non-Sumerians; it is also claimed that within the Sumerian vocabulary a non-Sumerian stratum, or even several non-Sumerian strata, can be isolated, referring primarily to farming, gardening, brewing, pottery, leather work, and building. Suggestive, however, as these arguments may be, they should be subject to great caution, for modern knowledge of the written Sumerian language is still quite imperfect, and in these circumstances it is extremely dangerous to argue about a stage of the language some 500 years earlier. It can be stated, however, that the Sumerians were certainly in Babylonia c. 2900
b.c., almost certainly in the late Warka period, very probably in the earlier part; the Obeid period remains doubtful.
Babylonia. Since northern Mesopotamia or Assyria played a predominant role in the history of ancient Mesopotamia only during the 1st millennium b.c., the whole history of southern Mesopotamia or Babylonia until its absorption into the Persian Empire will be treated here before the contemporaneous history of Assyria.
Early Dynastic Period. This period (c. 2800–2360) takes its name from the important political developments in these centuries. According to T. Jacobsen's reconstruction, the earliest political organization was a "primitive democracy." Under the rule of the city god, who was the city's lord and owner, the city was organized in a type of theocratic socialism with actual sovereignty residing in the popular assembly. The assembly was convened in times of crisis; if the crisis was one of internal administration, a "lord" (Sumerian) was chosen who was qualified by his special gifts, but if the crisis came from without, a "king" (Sumerian lu-gal, literally "big man") was made military leader. This organization seems to have been extended to the principal cities of Sumer c. 2800 b.c., when they formed a league with its center at nippur.
The crisis that led to this step was perhaps the threat of the Akkadians.
The seeds of stable monarchy lay in the temporary concession of power to the individual. The human tendency to retain power once gained was supported by the pressure of events. The large city walls of the Early Dynastic period prove that war or its threat had become chronic. The power of the individual was, therefore, perpetuated, and the dynastic principle emerged with a royal mythology, which derived the sovereign's power, not from the human assembly, but from divine choice. He was chief of a standing army recruited largely from his own servants and retainers. At home he built walls to protect the city, and temples to house the gods. He ensured the fertility of the land by building canals and overseeing the irrigation system; to the same purpose he acted as consort of the goddess of fertility in the rites of the sacred marriage. He administered justice, for which his power supplied the sanction. In the social reform of Urukagina of Lagash at the end of this period the king acted as the righter of wrongs and the protector of the weak, in whose favor he even set aside customary law. This role of the king became part of the royal ideology, reflected later in the reform decrees and legal codes of Ur-Nammu of Ur, Lipit-Ishtar of Isin, and Hammurabi and Ammi-ṣaduqa of Babylon (see law, ancient near-eastern).
For most of the Early Dynastic period the scope of this newly emerging power was regional, no one king being strong enough to extend his rule beyond rather narrow limits. One kingdom, however, that of Kish in northern Babylonia, did succeed, if only briefly, in establishing its hegemony over all of Sumer in the south and Akkad in the north of southern Mesopotamia. This became the ideal, and when from time to time some ruler achieved it, he called himself "king of Kish."
Dynasty of Akkad. The Early Dynastic period ended when Lugal-zaggesi of Umma, attempting a rule patterned on that of Kish, encountered the Semite, Sargon of Akkad (2360–2305 b.c.). The Semites were not new; earlier Sumerian texts from Lagash contain Semitic loan-words, and some earlier rulers hear Semitic names. The struggle was political, not racial, and the Semites won.
The most notable achievement of the Akkad Dynasty (2360–2180 b.c.) was the creation of the first world empire, and for this reason the Sargonids lived on in legend, not only in Sumerian and Akkadian, but also in Hurrian, Hittite, and Elamite. Sargon's rule eventually extended from the mountains of Iran across Syria to the shores of the Mediterranean. This universal sway, which lasted through the reign of his third successor, Naram-Sin (2280–2244 b.c.), was a hitherto unknown extension of political power. The achievement of the Akkad Dynasty must be considered one of the major events of history, because, as an ideal, it influenced the Neo-Assyrian rulers some 1,500 years later, and they in turn laid the foundations of the empires of the Neo-Babylonians, the Achaemenid Persians, and that of Alexander the Great, thus ultimately affecting Roman history.
The Akkadian yoke was oppressive, and rebellion was frequent, even in Sumer. When a severe famine struck and caused economic disaster, the empire crumbled, and Babylonia was invaded by the Gutians, mountaineers from the east, whose control brought a dark age to Babylonian history c. 2180–2082 b.c. This foreign domination, which was never complete, was terminated by a prince of Uruk, Utu-khegal, who drove out the Gutians.
Third Dynasty of Ur. Utu-khegal's victory paved the way for the rise of a new dynasty, the Third Dynasty of UR (c. 2060–1950). It was founded by Ur-Nammu, and introduced the conception of the bureaucratic state. Power was strongly centralized; local rulers called ensis, a title previously borne by native and independent dynasts, were appointed by the central authority. But they were completely stripped of military power, which was given to another royal appointee.
This period marked not only a resurgence of Sumerian political power but also a renaissance of Sumerian culture. Sculpture, architecture, and literature flourished, as is best known from the monuments of Gudea, a viceroy of Lagash under the last kings of the Third Dynasty of Ur. But Sumer was engulfed once more by Semites. In the 4th year of his reign, Shu-Sin, second last king of Ur, erected a wall and called it "That Which Keeps the Tidnu at a Distance." The Tidnu were western Semites or amorrites, seminomads moving along the edges of the desert, infiltrating into the cultivated areas in search of better pasture, but now massed in sufficient numbers to threaten the very existence of the state. Shu-Sin's successor, Ibi-Sin, mentions their incursions, and when the dynasty fell, partly because of the pressure of these attacks, it was these seminomads who gained control in many centers. In the city of Babylon under Sumu-abum c. 1830–1817 b.c. they founded a dynasty, the First Dynasty of Babylon, which a century later would produce the greatest and most famous of Babylonian rulers, Hammurabi. Other Amorrite dynasties were founded at Larsa, Eshnunna, and mari.
Isin-Larsa Period. At the end of Ibi-Sin's reign famine and revolt broke out across the land, the Elamites to the east attacked and devastated Ur, and the King himself was carried into captivity. When the last Sumerian dynasty disappeared, two new dynasties rose, that of Isin (c. 1958–1733) founded by Ishbi-Erra, and that of Larsa (c. 1961–1699), founded by Naplanum. During most of this period Isin held the hegemony, but toward its end Larsa gained ascendancy. In general, however, the Isin-Larsa period was one of many petty kingdoms, often no larger than a city and its immediate environs.
First Dynasty of Babylon. The Isin-Larsa period and the First Dynasty of Babylon (c. 1830–1531 b.c.) were times of profound change in almost every area of life. Private property was greatly increased, but at the expense of the gods. This was part of a progressive secularization that radically altered the structure of the state. Not the temple and its god, but the royal palace and the king, became the center of the nation's life. New marriage customs, the replacement of Sumerian by Akkadian as the literary language, new syllabaries in the writing of Akkadian, and new types of personal names are a few indications of the transformation that Babylonia underwent in these 3 centuries.
Under hammurabi (hammurapi; 1728–1686 b.c.) the First Dynasty of Babylon reached its apogee. Sumer and Akkad were reunited, and Babylonian arms gradually subdued Rim-Sin of Larsa in the south, Zimri-Lim of Mari on the middle Euphrates, and Ishme-Dagan of Assyria in the north. But already in the 9th year of Hammurabi's successor, Samsu-iluna (c. 1685–1648), the Babylonians were struggling with the Kassites or Cossaeans, a people from the mountains to the east, who were part of the vast ethnic movements of the 18th to the 16th century that would so profoundly change the entire ancient Near East. For more than a century the Kassites continued to press in, and in some areas probably achieved independence. When Mursili, the Hittite King (c. 1550–1530), raided Babylonia c. 1531 and the First Dynasty of Babylon came to an end with its last King, Samsu-ditanna (1561–1531), the Kassites had gained control over most of Babylonia.
Kassite Period. The Kassite period (c. 1531–1150) is obscure. The Kassite kings bore such strange names as Burnaburiash and Kadashman-Enlil, and they called Babylonia Karduniash. In the 14th century b.c. they corresponded with Egyptian and Hittite kings, and their country was still strong enough to play a part in the game of power politics. But it gradually receded more and more into the shadows. When Kassite rule ended in the late 12th century b.c., Babylon, for a brief period under Nabuchodonosor I of the Second Dynasty of Isin, regained something of its old power, which indirectly reached even into Assyria. But though the cultural prestige of Babylonia never waned, it was not until the late 7th century b.c. that its political power could be compared with the ancient glories of Sargon and Hammurabi.
Neo-Babylonian Period. Toward the end of the 2d millennium b.c. a new wave of Semites, this time Aramaic-speaking peoples, began to infiltrate from the north Arabian desert into all the lands of the Fertile Crescent. One group of these peoples, the Chal.deans, moved north from the western shores of the Persian Gulf and settled in southern Babylonia [see chaldeans (in the bible)]. By the 8th century b.c. they had become fully assimilated in all things except language to the Babylonians, accepting their entire spiritual, intellectual, and material culture. Although the written language of Babylonia continued to be cuneiform Akkadian until the beginning of the Christian era, the spoken language gradually became Aramaic in the second half of the 1st millennium b.c.
A Chaldean prince, Nabopolasar, gained control of Babylon in 626 b.c. and established the New Babylonian dynasty. His son and successor nebuchadrezzar ii (605–561 b.c.) extended his father's conquests until his empire included not only all of Mesopotamia, but also Syria and Palestine. But the Chaldean dynasty collapsed under his fourth successor, nabu-na’id (nabonidus; 555–539 b.c.), and Babylon fell to the Persian, Cyrus the Great. Though under the Persian, and later under the Greek rulers, the Babylonian scribes went on copying the old texts, and the priests performed the old rituals, in 539 b.c. more than 3,000 years of Babylonian history effectively came to an end.
Assyria. The Assyrians first asserted themselves as an independent power when the Third Dynasty of Ur fell. Ilushumma claims that he brought freedom to the Akkadians in cities as far south as Ur, but the interpretation of freedom is uncertain, as is the date of Ilushumma's reign, which was probably around the beginning of the 19th century b.c. Assyria, however, was clearly no longer a vassal of Babylonia. In contrast with the new kingdoms of the south, Assyrian rulers in this period bore genuine Akkadian names; one of them was even called Sargon (Sharru-kin I) and in this name we should probably see a sense of continuity with the Akkadians of the past, which the newly arrived West Semites of Babylonia could not claim. In this same period, from Ilushumma to Sargon I, Assyrian trading colonies were located in Anatolia; their rich archives from Kultepe have been preserved in what are known as the Cappadocian Tablets.
However, when Assyria grew strong once more under Shamshi-Adad I (c. 1748–1716), it too was ruled by a West Semite, who, after ascending the Assyrian throne, overthrew the West Semitic dynasty at Mari and placed his son, Yasmakh-Adad, in control. With Shamshi-Adad's death, however, Assyrian power quickly disintegrated. Mari was lost to the earlier dynasty, and Ishme-Dagan, Shamshi-Adad's son and successor on the Assyrian throne, did not long resist the advances of Hammurabi, though the exact course of events is obscure.
Middle Assyrian Period. For more than three centuries Assyria lay prostrate, and her kings were vassals, first of Babylon, then of the new Mitanni kingdom to the northwest, which was largely Hurrian under Indo-Aryan rulers. But in the early 14th century b.c., while Mitanni grew weak under Hittite pressure from the west, Assyria began its move towards independence. By the time of Asshur-uballit I (1356–1321) Assyria became a power to be reckoned with, and for a brief period controlled even Babylonia. Under a succession of strong rulers the Hittites were fought along the Upper Euphrates until they collapsed (c. 1200 b.c.). This Assyrian revival culminated in the reign of Tukulti-Ninurta I (1233–1199), who conquered Babylon and transported the statue of Babylon's chief god, Marduk, to his new capital, Kar-Tukulti-Ninurta (modern Tulul el-’Aqir), near Assur (see nimrod).
This humiliation of Babylon raised a problem that faced every strong Assyrian king and divided the political and religious forces of his nation: the policy to be adopted toward Babylon. So immense was Babylon's prestige that it could never be treated like any other vassal. To Assyria Babylon was what Greece was to Rome. A pro-Babylonian faction favored assimilation of Babylonian religion and culture; the opposition insisted on retaining specifically Assyrian traditions as an expression of Assyrian hegemony and destiny. Tukulti-Ninurta I belonged to the latter group, and his anti-Babylonian fanaticism probably led to his murder.
The next strong Assyrian ruler, Tiglath-Pileser I (1116–1078), faced a new threat, the aramaeans. It is uncertain when they made their first appearance in history, but by the late 12th century b.c. they had established independent kingdoms in Syria and along the upper Euphrates. A measure of the danger that they constituted may be seen from the fact that Tiglath-Pileser I led his troops 27 times across the Euphrates to drive them back.
Neo-Assyrian Empire. After this strong monarch, who controlled Babylonia as a vassal and marched as far as the Mediterranean, Assyrian power waned once more until late in the 10th century b.c. But with Assurdan II (935–913) there began the countless marches and battles of the Assyrian army, commemorated in annals and on reliefs, with their unspeakable cruelty ad gloriam dei Assur. The Aramaeans between the Tigris and the Euphrates were completely subjugated. Assurnasirpal II (884–860) introduced the division of the kingdom into provinces, whose peoples were subjected to forced labor and heavy tribute. His successor, Shalmaneser III (859–825), extended Assyrian rule across the Euphrates despite the desperate opposition of various coalitions. It was to such a coalition of 12 kings that Ahab, King of Israel, belonged when the Assyrian forces were fought to a standstill at Qarqar in 853. But Shalmaneser returned in 848 and again in 845. Jehu, Ahab's murderer and successor, paid him tribute in 841, and on the Black Obelisk, now in the British Museum, he is depicted as paying homage to his Assyrian master. North Syria had now become part of the Assyrian kingdom.
After a period of inner conflicts, Tiglath-Pileser (Theglath-Phalasar) III (745–728) inaugurated a century of unequalled power. He was perhaps the greatest of Assyrian kings. Boldness and originality stamped his every action. He assumed direct power over Babylonia in an effort to resolve in his own person the ancient tension. He smashed the Urartu kingdom in the Armenian mountains and then drove southward. Menahem, King of Israel paid him tribute, an event recorded both in the Assyrian annals and in the Bible (2 Kings 15.19), where Tiglath-Pileser is called Phul, the name he took as king of Babylon. Galilee was annexed as a district of an Assyrian province. The revolt of Pekah, King of Israel, and Rezin, King of Damascus, provoked a large deportation of Israelites (2 Kgs 15.29); hosea was installed as King of Israel, and tribute was paid the Assyrian King by Ahab, King of Judah (2 Kings 16.7–10).
Tiglath-Pileser's successors strove to continue his policy, of which a major instrument was wholesale deportations to break down national loyalties. Samaria fell to Shalmaneser V (727–723), and Israel ceased as an independent kingdom in 722. Sargon II (722–706), after consolidating his precarious position at home—he was a usurper, who attempted to legitimize his position by assuming a proud and ancient name and by accusing his two predecessors of having neglected the interests of the national god—crushed a revolt in 720 and deported more than 27,000 Israelites. With his authority established in Syria and Palestine, Sargon directed his energies to the Babylonian rebellion led by Marduk-apal-iddina (Biblical Merodach-Baladan), who had seized the Babylonian throne with the help of the Elamites. In 709 Sargon entered Babylon as king and restored Babylonia to the Assyrian rule.
Sennacherib (705–682) is best known for his failure to conquer Jerusalem under Hezekiah in 701 (2 Kings 18.13–19.36). Probably he returned again after 689; the OT seems to combine two campaigns of Sennacherib, for it mentions Theraca (Tirhaka), King of Egypt (1 Kgs 19.9), who did not come to the Egyptian throne until 689.
Sennacherib's anti-Babylonian fanaticism was so ardent that he razed Babylon to the ground and, like Tukulti-Ninurta before him, carried off the statue of Marduk to Assur. His son, Esarhaddon (680–699), who succeeded his murdered father, atoned for this sacrilege by restoring Babylon, and Assurbanipal (668–627) returned the statue.
Under these two kings Assyrian power reached into Egypt. But Assurbanipal had to fight desperately for 4 years against a new Babylonian rebellion led by his brother with the support of Aramaean and Chaldean states in the south, of the Elamites to the east, and of Gyges of Lydia to the west. His victory was costly, even fatal, for in destroying the Elamites he removed the last effective barrier against a new and formidable power, the medes. It was to be the Medes who, when Assurbanipal died and revolt swept across the Assyrian empire (see 2 Kgs 23.19–23), would contribute most to Assyria's downfall. The city of Asshur was destroyed in 614 and nineveh in 612; the last Assyrian king, Assur-uballit II, fled to Harran, where a few years later he disappeared, and with him Assyria, from the pages of history.
Science. The Babylonians were the first grammarians and gave to language its first systematic, if rudimentary, analysis. They compared their own Akkadian language with Sumerian and arranged their results in lists comparable to our grammatical paradigms. And in the lexical lists of Sumerian and Akkadian, ordered according to the nature of the object (houses, trees, plants, etc.), there is a simple but scientific system of classification.
Babylonian medicine, which seems inextricably bound to magic, is a field of study never adequately investigated, but it can be said that the medical texts contain some amazingly acute observations.
In the sciences of mathematics and astronomy, a relatively high level was certainly attained. From the period of 1800 to 1600 there are both "table texts" and "problem texts," and among the former there are multiplication tables, tables of reciprocals, of squares and square roots, etc. The "Pythagorean" theorem was known to the Babylonians more than 1,000 years before Pythagoras. An eminent authority, O. Neugebauer, compares the level of Babylonian mathematics with that of the early Renaissance, although admitting that it never achieved a truly scientific level.
The earliest astronomy, from 1800 to 1600, was crude, but in the Seleucid period it became a mathematical astronomy, which was equal to that of Greek contemporaries. One of the major reasons of astronomical study was the collection of material for astrological omens, which was organized in series that reached their canonical form c. 1000 b.c. Texts from c. 700 b.c., which contain older material, show the first discussion of elementary astronomical concepts on a purely rational basis, and probably around 500 b.c. systematic observational reports developed into a systematic mathematical theory. In this period the zodiac seems to have been invented, appearing for the first time in a text of 419 b.c.
Bibliography: h. schmÖkel, Geschichte des alten Vorderasien (Handbuch der Orientalistik Abt. 1, v. 2.3; Leiden 1957). a. scharff and a. moortgat, Aegypten und Vorderasien im Altertum (Munich 1950). a. t. e. olmstead, History of Assyria (New York 1923). r. w. rogers, A History of Babylonia and Assyria, 2v. (6th ed. rev. New York 1915). l. w. king, A History of Babylon (London 1915). s. smith, Early History of Assyria: To 1000 b.c. (New York 1928). t. jacobsen, "Early Political Development in Mesopotamia," Zeitschrift für Assyriologie 52 (1957) 91–140. a. falkenstein, "La Cité-temple sumérienne," Journal of World History 1 (1953–54) 784–814. d. d. luckenbill, ed., Ancient Records of Assyria and Babylonia, 2 v. (Chicago 1926–27). j. b. pritchard Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament 265–317. w. f. albright, Encyclopedia Americana (New York 1961) 2:426–432; 3:7–9. h. g. gÜterbock, Encyclopaedia Britannica (1961) 2:845–855. e. cavaignac, Dictionnaire de la Bible (Paris 1928–) 5:1103–26.
[w. l. moran]
Mesopotamian religion was a quest for salvation; like all men, Mesopotamian man experienced the "numinous," which arrested him in awe and drew him with desire. But this quest and this experience had a specific character; they took form within specific and determining conditions of time and place. They were components of a distinctive culture that was not only Oriental, but within the ancient Near East, however many the similarities, a thing apart, neither Iranian, Syrian, nor Egyptian. A description, therefore, of this religion must strive primarily to grasp those decisive periods when it was shaped and found its distinctively Mesopotamian expression. With such a scope in view, this article, after considering the sources and their use, will first treat the gods of ancient Mesopotamia and then the relationship between the gods and man.
Sources. In general there is no lack of material, which in written or unwritten form extends over three millenia. Myths, prayers, hymns, rituals, the omen and wisdom literatures, the frequent statements on or allusions to religious conceptions and practices in royal annals, in legal texts, in letters and even in economic documents, and the religious views implied in personal names—these in general constitute the written sources. The unwritten are the archeological data: temple plans, statues, divine emblems, altars, the religious scenes on cylinder seals, etc.
Limitations. The use of this material, however, has its limitations and difficulties. The sources reveal mainly the official religion of the temple and palace; little is known, however, of popular religion. Furthermore, in the interpretation of the sources there is the problem of language. The language of the Sumerians is still imperfectly understood, and even Akkadian is not without its obscurities. There is also the problem of grasping the complexity of social, political, and economic institutions that were so intimately connected with religious life. There is finally the problem of time. No religion that extends over three millenniums and is alive remains static. Behind the traditional forms that religion adheres to there are shifts, at times subtle, of emphasis and value.
The great difficulty, however, is to understand the mentality of the ancient Mesopotamian man with which, in the religious situation of deepest personal concern and involvement, he viewed the universe. For to him the world was a "Thou," animate, personal, revealing a will and a presence. He felt himself part of nature; he could not stand away from it and judge it, as it were, from above. Its events revealed no laws, which are the result of abstraction. They were individual instances of a will immanent in the phenomena. The expression, therefore, of this confrontation of an "I" with a "Thou" was neither scientific nor systematic; it was, of an inner necessity, bound to the concrete and individual, and none of its multiple forms was capable of giving more than a partial, though valid, expression of the infinitely rich experience in which it was born.
The Gods. To have some understanding of the gods of ancient Mesopotamia, it is necessary to consider man's primal experience, the influence of social and political development, particularly at the time of the Dynasty of Akkad and the First Dynasty of Babylon, and the nature of mythopoeic thought in this part of the ancient world.
Primal Experience. A certain fluidity in the conception of the divine marks Mesopotamian religion in all periods. To the doorleaf of a temple, for example, is attributed personality, and as Ig-galla, "Great Doorleaf," he is the doorkeeper of the high god An; or as Ig-alima, "Doorleaf of the Bison," he is a member of Nin-girsu's household at Lagash, charged with specific duties and the object of cult. Similarly, Utu, the sun-god and god of justice, has as his viziers Nig-gina, "Justice," and Nigsisa, "Equity." But such deities are in a sense secondary; they derive from their relationship to the forces of nature.
It was in these forces that Mesopotamian man had his fundamental encounter with the divine. To illustrate from a few of the principal gods: Enki, "Lord of the Earth," the god of the fresh waters beneath the earth that appeared in marshes, lakes and lagoons, fructifying the earth; the goddess Nissaba, in the reeds and grasses and cereals; the goddess Inanna, the power in the cluster of the date palm; the moon-god Nanna, lighting up the darkness of the night; the sun-god Utu, the power in the brilliant white light of the day; Ishkur, god of the rainstorm, bringing grass to the pastures and swelling the rivers and canals with his waters.
Different Pantheons. Referring to the earliest times, however, as T. Jacobsen has shown, one should speak, not of a single pantheon, but of several pantheons, according to the dominant economic activities of the various regions of ancient Sumer. In the south where marshes and lakes separated the Persian Gulf from Sumer proper was the pantheon of the hunter and fisherman: Enki, also known as Abzu, "Fresh Water," Nudimmud, "Man Creator," Dara-abzu, "Ibex of the Abzu," etc.; Nazi (the current name Nanshe being probably due to a misreading), Enki's daughter, the fish-goddess; Asal-luḫhe, Enki's son, explained by Jacobsen as "Asal, the Man Drencher," that is, god of the thunder shower. In the south along the banks of the Euphrates where the date palm grew, the pantheon included: Inanna, "Mistress of the Date-Palm Cluster," especially as this power had reference to the storehouse for dates; Dumuzi-ama-ushum-gal-anna, the power for life in the date palm; several chthonic deities like Nin-gish-zida, "Lord Effective Tree," throne bearer in the Underworld, Nin-a-zu, "Lord Water-Knower (?)," son in one tradition of Eresh-ki-gal, "Mistress of the Great-Place (the Underworld)"; Dumu, "The Child," a vegetation god. The pantheon of the cowherds of the south included: Nanna, the moon-god; Utu, the sun-god; Nin-sun, "Lady Wild Cow"; Nin-ḥar, god of rainstorms, and his spouse, Nin-i-gara, "Mistress of Ghee and Cream"; Shakan, Utu's son, god of the steppe's wild life; and An, god of the sky. In the central grassy region was the pantheon of the shepherds: Inanna, brought from the southern pantheon into this one; Dumuzi, the shepherd, the divine power manifested in the lambs of spring and the ewes' udders heavy with milk; and Ishkur, god of rainstorms. For the assherd the gods were: Nin-ḥursag, "Mistress of the Piedmont," who manifested herself especially in the wild asses of the western desert, but who was also more generally goddess of the wild life in desert and foothills and was likewise known as Dingirmaḥ "The Exalted Goddess," and Nin-tu, "Mistress Giving Birth"; and her husband, Shul-pae, "Youth Appearing," who remains ill defined. In the farmlands of the north and east, which in the history of Babylonia were politically and economically the most important region and home of some of the most important gods in Mesopotamian religion, the pantheon included: Enlil, "Lord Wind," who brought the rains of spring and was credited with the creation of the pickax, in ancient times the most important agricultural instrument; Ninlil, "Mistress Wind," Enlil's wife and originally a grain-goddess; Nissaba of the cereals, mentioned above, and her husband, Haya, god of stores; Ninurta (at Lagash called Nin-girsu), Enlil's and Ninlil's son, the farmer's god of thunder and rain; and Ninurta's wife, Bau, a goddess especially associated with dogs and healing. From these pantheons we see how closely bound to nature the early religion was and what man was seeking therein: sustenance, plenitude of material well-being, and integration of his own life with these life-giving powers of nature.
In this earliest phase of Mesopotamian religion the intimate association of the natural phenomenon and the inherent divine force must be noted. This is evident not only in the divine names—Utu is both the sun and the sun-god, Nissaba is the grain and the grain-goddess, divine cow, divine tree, etc.—but also in representations of the divine. Thus, Ninurta was Im-dugud, "Giant Cloud," perhaps his earliest name, and he was represented as a giant bird with wings outstretched and with a lion's head. In this form he was worshiped in historic times. Inanna's image was that of the reed bundles and the rolled-up screen of the storehouse gate.
The Evil God. Two other types of god should be mentioned, though it is difficult to determine whether they belong to the earliest conceptions of the divine. The first was the evil god. He was the god who by definition received no cult. He could inspire dread when evil struck mysteriously or massively, but he could not attract. He was therefore avoided as much as possible. Magic was used to ward him off, or, if one fell within his power, to remove him.
The Personal God. If the "evil god" was on the periphery of the Mesopotamian religious world, at its center (at least on the level of personal religion) was the personal god. Originally he was perhaps noted only in connection with those individuals who might be said to have been born under a lucky star, for there was something uncanny about their success, in which one sensed the presence of another invisible power. By Old Babylonian times he was the individual god of every man, his protector, his sponsor before the high gods. In general he remained nameless; the main exceptions were the personal gods of rulers, for example, Nin-gishzida and Nazi, the personal god and goddess of Gudea of Lagash.
Influence of Social and Political Development. As village grew into city, and the economy developed along with increasing specialization of crafts, society was altered, and there emerged a new type of power, beyond anything in the experience of the old village community. These individual powers, moreover, under the pressure of events were pooled in a league uniting the major cities of Sumer. Mesopotamian religion had a new basis for its expression of the experience of divine power, and it was in this period, c. 3000–2800, that it achieved its classical form.
Gods as Lords. Locally, the principal god now became the owner of a vast estate, and the temple was the center of economic as well as religious life. There the cult statue of the god resided, there he was fed daily with the other gods that made up the divine household. Each of these gods had his assigned task in the maintenance of the palace temple and in the administration of the estate.
With this profoundly anthropomorphic development the role of both god and man was changed. Because they were rulers, lofty and remote, the gods withdrew to a distance; yet, in a sense, they drew closer in that they took on human form. Henceforth the gods were visualized as men, though frequently survivals of the earlier image are evident: cereals sprout from the shoulders of Nissaba, sun rays come from the body of Utu, etc. The interests, too, of the god became wider; as ruler he provided for the political and social, as well as the economic, welfare of his subjects. He must fight to defend his city; it was Ningirsu who waged war for Lagash. He had to see to it that the dangerous elements of discord within the city were quieted; he concerned himself with law and its reform so that equity would prevail in the affairs of men.
Man became a serf of the gods. He worked his lord's estate within which, with the growth of specialization, he had his assigned task. Men produced the raw material; women worked it into the finished product. Even when the theocratic socialism of Sumerian times yielded to a progressive secularization of life, the classic statement of man's purpose was and remained that he was made for the service of the gods.
Kings as Gods. In this period royal power began to develop, and the king gradually became the principal human intermediary between gods and men. Ruling by divine choice, he mediated to men the divine blessings by scrupulous attention to and observance of the will of the gods. Because of this special function, he acted as the personal god of the community, and this found expression in the Akkad period when, for the first time, a ruler's name was preceded by the determinative for divinity. It was only in this very limited sense that the king was divine, but even this was hardly reconcilable with the Mesopotamian conception of divinity and was completely abandoned after the Kassite period.
Divine Assembly. On the national level the central shrine was at Nippur, where the gods convened in assembly, presided over by An and Enlil. The cosmos was conceived as a state with power ultimately residing in the assembly. Supremacy was achieved by election, and the high gods of the various cities had their assigned or traditional offices. After An of Uruk and Enlil of Nippur came Enki of Eridu, the god of wisdom and magic (since water cannily runs its course and finds its goal), who organized and administrated the economy. Utu, from whom nothing was secret, was the supreme judge. Ishkur, whose rain swelled the rivers and canals, was in charge of the irrigation system. All the gods decreed the destinies of Sumer and assigned political power, now to this king, now to that. History was born in the assembly of the gods.
The offices of the gods touched upon a very distinctive feature of early Mesopotamian thought. These offices were called me, which is probably the noun of the verb "to be." It is being, but being specified and normative that imparted to nature and society its essential structure. In one piece of speculation me was at the very beginning of cosmic origins, antecedent to divinity itself. In the actual order, however, the gods controlled and disposed of me; this was the highest prerogative of divinity.
Akkad Period. The political dominance of the Semites wrought no profound changes in Mesopotamian religion. In general, the Akkadians assimilated their gods with those of the Sumerians: Ea was Enki, Sin was Nanna, Adad was Ishkur, Shamash was Utu, Ishtar was Inanna. Many Sumerian gods were simply adopted; for example, An (who was Akkadianized as Anum), Enlil, Ninurta, Nergal, etc. The principal god of the Akkadians, Il, seems to have been gradually abandoned, or perhaps absorbed in one or more figures of the Sumerian pantheon (see el [god].)
A few new goddesses appeared and gained general popularity. Most of these, like Anunitum of Sippar, originally a goddess of war, were absorbed by Ishtar, whose domination among the goddesses of the Mesopotamian pantheon eventually reached the point when ishtar meant goddess itself. This increasingly complex figure represented, above all, the passions of battle and sexual love. While the other goddesses were for the most part reduced to intercessors with the gods, she remained an independent force (see astarte).
However, two peoples speaking two languages so profoundly different as Sumerian and Akkadian must have had equally profound differences of mentality. Even while adopting, the Akkadians must have transformed. Evidence of such a transformation is found in Akkadian art, which, in its treatment of religious themes, shows a grimness and a sense of man's being involved in a conflict of forces, the issue of which, never certain, lies beyond his control. Perhaps, therefore, the religion changed more than is generally suspected. This is an area for further investigation.
First Dynasty of Babylon. This was a period of secularization. The palace dissociated itself from the temple, and at the capital of Babylon the traditional pantheon was revised to the glory of the new center of political power. It was done through the exaltation of marduk, originally the city god of Babylon. His name probably meant "Bull Calf of the Storm," indicating that he was, like Ishkur and similar figures, a god of thunder and rain. This would explain his being identified with Asal-luh e, whence his parentage, Enki (Ea) and Damgalnunna (Damkina).
Marduk and Nabu. The boldest expression of Marduk's supremacy was found in the myth enumaelish,"When on high …". Within the framework of the old pattern, this supremacy was attributed to the choice of the gods met in assembly. When the older gods, represented by Enki, proved helpless against the forces of chaos, Marduk was chosen as champion; he demanded, however, that his leadership be made permanent. This was granted to him when he gave proof of his magical powers. With chaos overcome, man was fashioned from the blood of the rebel god Kingu, to dispense the gods from providing for their own needs. The gods rewarded Marduk with a house of his own, the heavenly counterpart of his temple in Babylon, E-sang-il, "House Raising High [its] Summit."
In effect, Marduk took the place of Enlil, but with the great difference that he became a truly national god, an expression of Babylon's political power. The other gods tended to diminish in importance; they became mere functionaries of Marduk or aspects of his power. One text records that Marduk as ruler and counselor was Enlil; as lighting up the sky he was Sin; as god of justice he was Shamash, etc. However, since elsewhere the parts of Ninurta's body were identified with the various high gods, we are not justified in interpreting the text on Marduk simply in terms of his role as national god. Both texts reveal a tendency to henotheism in later speculation.
With the rise of his father, Marduk's son, the god Nabu of Borsippa and the patron of accounting, assumed an important place in Babylonian religion. His cult spread to Assyria, and in the 1st millennium he was extremely popular, even more so than his father [see nebo (nabu)].
Assur. When Assyria gained the hegemony that was once Babylon's, the city god of Assur (Asshur), who was also called Assur (Asshur), became the Assyrian counterpart of Marduk as national god. He was assimilated largely with Enlil; his wife was Ninlil, his temple complex at Assur was, like that of Enlil at Nippur, called E-sharra, and Nippur deities, like Ninurta, became part of his court. The pro-Assyrian faction strove to demonstrate Assur's superiority over the hated Marduk of the opposing pro-Babylonian faction. Sennacherib, perhaps the most fanatical partisan of the Assyrian god, substituted Assur for Marduk in the Enuma elish and equated Assur with the god An-shar, the father of Anum. At the same time he attempted to transplant the celebration of the traditional Babylonian New Year's festival, with its recitation of the Enuma elish, to Assyria.
In fact, however, Assur remained little more than the apotheosis of Assyrian power and political ambition. In his honor the Assyrian king wrought all the destruction and carnage that fill the Assyrian royal annals. The god Assur's distinction in Mesopotamian religion was that he alone was predominantly a god of blood.
Myth. Myth is the response to the "why" of things, and because all nature was a "Thou," myth must speak of who rather than of what and must be a story of personal forces and their possible conflicts. Mythopoeic thought is not discursive; it does not argue, it asserts. Its explicative value is that of symbol rather than clear concept, and it is therefore unsystematic, allowing for other symbols, other explanations, without inner logical coherence. And myth is essentially religious. It is religious experience given form and structure; in its transposition of the inner meaning of things beyond the familiar categories of time and space to the primeval order of divine activity, it gives expression to the transcendent which is inherent in the object of religious experience.
Only a few of the Sumero-Akkadian myths can be mentioned here. Enuma elish, already referred to, explains both Marduk's position in the pantheon and the organization of the universe with man's place in it. Another myth tells how the moon (-god) came into being: the young maiden Ninlil, against her mother's advice, went bathing in the canal Nun-birdu in Nippur; there she was seen and raped by Enlil, and the child born of the union was the moon (-god). Why is Sumer organized economically the way it is? Because Enki visited Sumer, appointed to each region its special function and gave it an overseer. Why at the end of spring each year does nature wilt and die, the milk disappear from the udders, etc.? Because, according to one myth, Dumuzi was attacked and killed by raiders from the Nether World. Why each year does the statue of Inanna journey by boat from Uruk to Eridu, there to be purified and Inanna reappointed to her divine office? Because Inanna once succeeded in getting Enki intoxicated, and in his state of euphoria he gave Inanna the me —here perhaps consisting concretely in emblems of sacred offices. She betook herself to Uruk, and, although Enki, who now viewed things in a more sober light, tried seven times to prevent her, she successfully returned to Uruk with all the me. In brief, the explanation of nature, of cult, of Sumerian culture is basically religious; its expression is the myth.
Gods and Man. The basic relations between the gods and man in ancient Mesopotamia can be described under such headings as sacred places, sacred times, divination and magic, and the loss and recovery of salvation.
Sacred Space. The temple was the earthly dwelling of the gods; here the cult statue was housed, here divine power was intensely concentrated, and from here it emanated into the land. The temple belonged to the very structure of the cosmos; it was "coeval with heaven and earth" (said of the E-ninnu at Lagash), "the bond of heaven and earth" (the meaning of the name of the E-dur-an-ki at Nippur). It flashed with specifically divine effulgence (me-lam ); and it was endued with divine terror (ni ); it was awful (khush ) and at the same time a place of joy (as in the name of the E-khush-kiri-zal). It had a holy purity (kug, sikil ); its rites (me ) were pure and perfect (šu-du ). It gave abundance (nam-ḫe ); in it prayers were heard (the meaning of E-arazu-giš-tuk and E-šudde-giš-tuk); sins were remitted (the E-nam-tagga-duḥu). According to the character of the god it housed, the temple could be considered a cattle pen, a sheepfold, a place of wisdom, etc. It possessed a measure of divinity itself. In a large number of hymns to the major temples of Sumer and Akkad, which are attributed to Enh eduanna (the daughter of Sargon of Akkad), the temples are addressed as independent agents of power; and the presence of temple names as theophorous elements in personal names testifies to the popular belief in the divine power of the temple. Each of the temple hymns just mentioned closes with the essential observations: "Temple X, in your precinct[?] he [the god] has established his house, on your dais he has taken his seat."
The temple therefore must be maintained. One of the major duties of the Mesopotamian king was to provide for the repair of temples. If a temple were in ruins, the original foundations must, if possible, be found; it was the exact place of earlier temples that was the truly holy place. On the king fell the duty to lay the first foundation, anoint it with oil, wine, and honey, and to indicate by inscription the place where he had built. The greatest calamity a city could suffer was the destruction of its temple. This meant that the god had departed, hope had ended. The most moving of all Mesopotamian religious compositions are the lamentations over their destroyed temples.
In religious architecture the Mesopotamian creation of the ziggurat, the temple tower, was an attempt to unite the human and divine. Its origin may have been utilitarian; in the earliest phases of Eridu the shrine was constructed on a raised platform, perhaps to protect it from inundation. By the Warka period, however, it was more than 40 feet high at Ur, and a utilitarian interpretation is no longer adequate. The ziggurat was now the sacred mountain, on the summit of which man met god. According to Herodotus the ziggurat of Babylon, the E-temenan-ki, "Foundation Platform of Heaven and Earth," rose in seven stages, each a different color, and on the top was the shrine. At Khorsabad, ancient Dur-sharru-kin, founded by Sargon II as his capital, there were probably seven stages, with the height equal to the width of the base (143 feet). The number 7 and the symmetry show cosmic speculations (see tower of babel).
Sacred Time. Each day the cult statue was clothed and fed by the staff of priests attached to the temple, and these activities were accompanied by prayers. There were also monthly feasts: the 1st (new moon), the 15th (full moon), and the 28th or 29th (disappearance of moon) days being honored by special rites. Different gods were specially honored in different months, as at Lagash where each of the gods Nin-girsu, Nazi, and Bau had their special feasts at different times.
New Year Feast. The most important festival was observed at the New Year. Most available information concerns its performance at Babylon; although the sources are late, they certainly reflect older practices. In Babylon it was celebrated in March and April, when nature revived. Its significance was cosmic: by word and deed the renewal of nature as a victory over the powers of chaos was reasserted, reenacted, and reactualized in its essential reality.
The festival began with four days of preparation; the mood was solemn and somber. To Marduk a prayer was raised, asking for mercy and freedom for the Babylonians. On the evening of the 4th day the Enuma elish was recited in its entirety before Marduk's statue. With this reading the deepest meaning of the feast was revealed. On the 5th day the king was stripped of his royal insignia, smitten on the cheek by the priest, after which he knelt before Marduk to declare his innocence. The god replied through the priest, "Do not fear…." The priest thenreturned the insignia and smote the king once more. If tears welled in his eyes, it was a favorable omen. On the 8th day Marduk took his place in the chamber of destinies, the Duku (The Pure Mound). This was probably a reenactment—in the presence of the cult statues of the various gods who had arrived earlier from their centers (Nabu from Borsippa, etc.)—of the meeting of the divine assembly in which Marduk was granted supreme powers. The 9th and 10th days were occupied with a procession to a special sanctuary, the bît akîti, with the king leading Marduk (a procession against the powers of chaos?) and with rites (a divine banquet?) at the bît akîti. On the 11th day the destinies of the following year were determined after the assembled gods paid their homage to Marduk as their supreme lord. On the 12th the gods returned to their usual sanctuaries.
Sacred Marriage. In this festival we note how small was the role of the king, though without his presence it could not be celebrated. In Assyria the king was much more prominent in the native ritual of the takultu, a banquet for the gods. This contrast in the exercise of priestly powers between Babylonian and Assyrian kings in general prevails, but there was one rite in Babylonia, the sacred marriage (the ἱερὸς γάμος), in which the Babylonian king played no less a part than that of a god. The sacred marriage was represented in art from as early as the Warka period, and it was a common practice in the Isin-Larsa period. Then for unknown reasons, one of which may have been the secularization of kingship in Babylonia, it disappeared.
In the Isin-Larsa period, Ishme-Dagan described himself as the husband of Inanna; Enlil-bani was said to have been approached by her on the sacred couch; and Lipit-Ishtar became the god Urash before being united with the goddess. Earlier, in the inscriptions of Gudea, it is clear also that at Lagash the union of Nin-girsu with his consort Bau was celebrated, and we may assume that the king stood for Nin-girsu and a priestess for Bau. The best-known and most detailed text refers to Idin-Dagan as Dumuzi, Inanna's husband. The union of king and goddess is described, and then, after coming from the bridal chamber, they banquet together from the abundance that their union in the spring had, according to mythopoeic thought, achieved.
Divination and Magic. All the phenomena of nature were fraught with meaning, and therefore, not only extraordinary events, such as eclipses, earthquakes, or monstrous births, were viewed as portentous, but within the rhythm of everyday life, in dreams, in the courses of the stars and planets, in the flight of birds and the entrails of sheep, the skilled heirs of a long tradition could descry the future course of events. The life of the king, especially in Assyria, was virtually controlled by the results of the investigation of omens. He could grumble at the fast that the nonappearance of the moon at the beginning of the month imposed on him, but the astrologers remained adamant (see divination).
magic was integrated with Mesopotamian religion rather than opposed to it. It was practiced together with prayer to the gods, especially Ea and Asal-luḥe, from whom it derived its real efficacy. Magic was necessary because all the invisible forces were not beneficent; there were demons who brought all sorts of ills to the man whom they could get into their power. The function of magic was to ward them off or to exorcise them, and for this there were potent words and actions, powers of plants and stones known to the specialist, amulets, talismans, etc.
Loss and Recovery of Salvation. There was one loss shared by all, which, being that of nature itself, did not really destroy the pattern of salvation, but only imposed on man the necessity of participating in nature's course. Above all, this was the withering of life in the blasts of summer heat. Mythically, it was the disappearance of Inanna's spouse or of the Great Mother's child, and the people shared the grief of bereaved spouse or mother in lamentations for "the one who is far away."
Divine Caprice. This loss, however, was made good in the revival of nature. Another and more serious loss was that which might strike the individual, community, or nation outside the course of nature. Whence did it come? What was its remedy? One answer was simply to throw responsibility on the gods. King Urukagina was convinced of his innocence, yet he was conquered by King Lugalzaggesi of Umma. He dared to pray that the crime be on the head of Nissaba, Lugalzagessi's personal goddess. Divine power was at work, and its operations were not necessarily just. The inscrutability of divine ways is frequently referred to in the religious literature, and it is not always that of simple transcendence; at times it is that of caprice subject to no higher law.
Sin. Another answer was sin. Man must bow down, confess his guilt, atone by the prescribed ritual, and hope he would again find divine favor. Most often he thought of his personal god; his misfortunes must mean that this god, his protector, had been offended and had abandoned him. The high gods were then appealed to and asked to appease the personal god. The penitent freely admitted his guilt, even if he could not recall his offense. Abjectly he made his confession, but one looks in vain for a sign of the "contrite spirit." Its basis, love, was lacking.
Eventually the innate human conviction that the innocent should not suffer demanded a real searching of the ways of the gods with men. The problem was touched on in earlier Sumerian and Akkadian literature; in the Kassite period it became a theme. The bold solution of the Book of job, the experience of Yahweh, which defied rational expression, was far beyond the highest Mesopotamian thought. It remained a problem with no solution.
Death. One loss was final. Ultimately man could never integrate his existence with the life-giving powers of nature, which, when dead, rose again. Man must die. He survived in a dim world of dust and thirst, in "the land of no return." In the late period, some distinction in the lot of the good and evil was made, but it was not elaborated, and it is doubtful that it had much influence. "Gilgamesh, whither rovest thou? The life thou pursuest thou shalt not find. When the gods created mankind, death for mankind they set aside, life in their own hands retaining" (see gilgamesh epic).
Conclusion. At the sacrifice of many facts about ancient Mesopotamian religion, an attempt has here been made, mainly along lines indicated by Jacobsen, to interpret this religion in terms of religious experience and to determine the principal influences on its formation and expression. All scholars may not accept this interpretation, and the reader should consult the bibliography for other points of view. In the striving to return to so distant and alien a world, errors and encounters with differences of opinions are inevitable; one can hope only for an approximation to what was the reality. That Mesopotamian religion, with all its deficiencies, was something deep and serious should be evident. This it had to be in order to sustain a people for three millenniums and to influence the entire ancient world, the Bible not excepted. It played its part, a larger one than that of most religions in history, in preparing for the "fulness of time."
Bibliography: e. p. dhorme, Les Religions de Babylonie et d'Assyrie (Paris 1945). h. frankfort, Kingship and the Gods (Chicago 1948). c. j. gadd, Ideas of Divine Rule in the Ancient East (New York 1948). t. jacobsen, "Mesopotamia," in h. frank-dfort et al., Before Philosophy (pa. Baltimore 1959), previously pub. as The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man (Chicago 1946); "Formative Tendencies in Sumerian Religion," The Bible and the Ancient Near East, ed. g. e. wright (Garden City, N.Y. 1961) 267–278; Journal of Near Eastern Studies 5 (1946) 128–152, a review of s. n. kramer's Sumerian Mythology, (Philadelphia 1944). s. n. kramer, "Sumerian Religion," Forgotten Religions, ed. v. ferm (New York 1950) 47–62; Sumerian Mythology, op. cit. a. l. oppenheim, "Assyro-Babylonian Religion," ibid. 65–79; Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization (Chicago 1964). For translations of selected Sumerian and Akkadian religious texts, see J. B. Prichard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (2d, rev. ed. Princeton, NJ 1955).
[w. l. moran]
"Mesopotamia, Ancient." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 17, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/mesopotamia-ancient
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American Psychological Association
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