World Religions – Ancient Mythologies – Mesopotamian Mythology
Table of Contents
Mesopotamian mythology and religious beliefs where practiced by Sumerians, Semitic Akkadians, Assyrians, Babylonians and the Chaldeans whom occupied ancient Mesopotamia. Even though the Sumerian religion is regarded as the oldest or even origin of the later developed Mesopotamian mythology, this article focuses on them congruently.
Ancient Mesopotamia and Mesopotamian mythology encompassed modern day Iraq, Northern Syrian and Eastern Turkey, it was the land between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. The belief systems of ancient Mesopotamia as well as the people are though by contemporary scholars to have dominated the area from the time span of circa 4000 b.c. until 10 a.d. (timeline according to secular historians)
Mesopotamian mythology and religious pantheon is believed to have influence many other cultures of the world, such as the ancient Greeks, Phoenician, Canaanite and Aramean. Scholars are able to trace similarities of the Mesopotamian mythologies to these other cultures, as it predates most other world belief systems of that area.
History of Mesopotamian Mythology
Some historians, such as Jean Bottero, claim that the Mesopotamian mythology is the world’s oldest religion, however there is no complete text to give us all the details of how this religion was formed or even practiced early on. Secular historians give a beginning timeframe for their works, theoretically, as early as circa 4000 b.c. We do have many cuneiform and clay tablets and archaeological fragments that piece together certain aspects from different timeframes.
The ancient Mesopotamian people where very religious and represented many of their beliefs and daily practices on their artifacts. These fragments contain clues and indications to many of their mythological and religious practices.
Archaeological evidence support that the Sumerians where incredibly technologically advanced; other then inventing the first known writings, they had mathematics, wheeled vehicles, astronomy, astrology, law, medicine, advanced agriculture, civil law, social structure and architecture as early as circa 2500-3000 b.c. (timeline according to secular historians)
Thousands of fragments have been found that describe the religious beliefs of the Mesopotamian mythology. It is by piecing these cuneiform and clay tablets that archaeologists and scholars have been able to rebuild our knowledge of this ancient people.
No document systematically describing their entire belief system, including their cosmology, has survived to today or has been found. However multiple accounts of their religion have been pieced together through various means to create and accurate depiction.
In the Epic of Creation, circa 1200 b.c., the god Marduk killed the chaos monster goddess Tiamat and used her body to create the earth, paradise (Samu) and the netherworld (Irsitu) according to meopotamian mythology.
Mesopotamian mythology was polytheistic and henotheistic, meaning certain gods where superior to others. Different cities of Mesopotamia would hold a certain god as their patron god, yet still recognize the other gods in their pantheon. They believed in well over 2000 gods and goddesses, most having Sumerian names, known as Dingir. Their gods where anthropomorphic, having human form, and typically acted very human; eating drinking, and even getting drunk. Yet, the god where still supposed to be immortal, all knowing, powerful and presented a brilliant radiance.
Early Mesopotamia had regarded the god Enlil as the supreme divinity and kings of the gods along with Anu. Later on, around 1500 b.c. the Babylonian king Hammurabi declared Marduk, as previously lesser deity to be the supreme deity along with Anu and Enlil.
|An (in Sumerian), later known as Anu (in Akkadian), was the supreme God and “prime mover in creation”, embodied by the sky
|Ashur was the national god of the Assyrians
|Bau was a prominent goddess of Lagash, and some of its kings regarded her as their divine mother
|Dumuzid, later known by the corrupted form Tammuz, is the ancient Mesopotamian god of shepherds and the primary consort of the goddess Inanna
|Enki, later known as Ea, and also occasionally referred to as Nudimmud or Ninšiku, was the god of the subterranean freshwater ocean, who was also closely associated with wisdom, magic, incantations, arts, and crafts
|Enlil, later known as Ellil, is the god of wind, air, earth, and storms and the chief of all the gods
|Ereshkigal was the queen of the Mesopotamian Underworld
|A prominent place in the Mesopotamian pantheon was occupied by healing goddesses, regarded as divine patronesses of doctors and medicine-workers
|Inanna, later known as Ishtar, is “the most important female deity of ancient Mesopotamia at all periods
|Ishkur, later known as Adad or Hadad (from the root *hdd, “to thunder”), was the Mesopotamian god of storms and rain
|Ištaran was a prominent god, who served as the tutelary deity of the Sumerian city-state of Der, which was located east of the Tigris river on the border between Mesopotamia and Elam
|Marduk is the national god of the Babylonians
|Nabu was the Mesopotamian god of scribes and writing
|Nanna, Enzu or Zuen (“Lord of Wisdom”) in Sumerian, later altered as Suen and Sin in Akkadian, is the ancient Mesopotamian god of the Moon
|Nanshe was a goddess associated with the state of Lagash, whose cult declined with the loss of political relevance of that city
|Nergal was associated with the Underworld and is usually the husband of Ereshkigal
|Ninazu was a god regarded as either the son of Ereshkigal or of Enlil and Ninil
|Ninhursag (“Mistress of the mountain ranges”), also known as Damgalnuna, Ninmah, Nintur and Aruru, was the Mesopotamian mother goddess
|Ninlil was the wife of Enlil, the ruler of the gods
|Assyriologists regard Ninshubur as the most commonly worshiped sukkal (“vizier”), a type of deity serving as another’s personal attendant
|Ninurta, also known as Ningirsu, was a Mesopotamian warrior deity who was worshipped in Sumer from the very earliest times
|Nisaba was originally a goddess of grain and agriculture, but, starting in the Early Dynastic Period, she developed into a goddess of writing, accounting, and scribal knowledge
|Utu, later known as Shamash, is the ancient Mesopotamian god of the Sun, who was also revered as the god of truth, justice, and morality
|Zababa was a war god who served as the tutelary deity of Kish
Temples & Shaman
Each city had its own primary patron deity, whom the temples and shrines of that city would be dedicated to. The temples would be built in the form of ziggurats, which rise high with steep stairs. Archaeological and scholars argue what the exact significance of these structure types indicate exactly. Some of these ziggurats had trees of groves planted in them. Temple prostitution and sexual rituals dominated the worship ceremonies in these temples. A rite known as divine kingship is also described, which seemed to be the act or symbology of the king committing sexual acts with the temple prostitutes.
Shamans and religious leaders were said to marry ‘spirit’ wives, who were thought to possess the shamans and give them supernatural powers and access to the spirit world. A few different classes of priests are identified, the observers (Baru) and askers (Sa’liu). They would divine the future as they believed their gods had already laid out and predestined their future, using various means. Another, lower class of priest was the seer (Mahhu) which was associated with using witchcraft.
Demons & Spirits
Mesopotamian mythology regarded a very strong belief in demons and evil spirits. many incantations have been found that where supposed to ward off demons and their effects. These beings where not specifically given names or a specific term, but where referred to as evil, harmful or dangerous forces and where believed to be the reasonable explanation for evil in the world.
Sumerian Deluge – World Flood
The Sumerian Gilgamesh poems is believed to date circa 3000 b.c. Discovered artifacts also has given credibility to a historical existence of Gilgamesh. One of these poems records Gilgamesh’s journey to meet the flood hero, and a short version of the world flood legend. He found Utnapishtim, who was tasked by the god Enki to abandon his worldly possession and build a giant ship called the preserver of life. He was to bring his family, relatives, grain and baby animals. The flood destroyed all the people and animals not on the ship.
After the flood, because he had preserved the seed of man and remaining loyal to the gods, Utanapishtim was rewarded by the god with immortality and a place among the heavenly gods.
Criticism & Apologetics
Correlation to Judaism
Critics have tried to correlate the belief system and mythology of ancient Mesopotamia to have been an influence on ancient Judaism. The claims that the Judean beliefs had originated from the ancient religion of the Mesopotamian make for an interesting hypothesis, but it is one that few scholars agree with and discredit once the evidence is examined.
1) The Mesopotamian mythology religion is older than Judaism
This is true, that the religious system of the people is older, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it influenced any other religion unless you can find correlation between the two.
Judean patriarch Abraham may have originally been influenced by Mesopotamian mythology beliefs, however is not directly evident. Even if he was influenced by it, it did not interfere or correlate with the Biblical facts that he passed on, written by Moses, about his monotheistic faith.
The Israelite’s where constantly tempted by the gods and religions of all surrounding nations, and even fell into idol worship but that doesn’t mean that it effected the Biblical doctrines that the traditional Jews adhered to, as directed by Moses.
Multiple ancient copies of manuscripts show that different cultures did not cause the Hebrew people to compromise their Biblical writings.
The Israelite people where to be set apart, as directed by God, and the reason for that was God didn’t want them to get caught up in the mythologies of neighboring peoples.
Overall the traditions and writings of the Hebrew people never changed, if they failed to serve God, over time the people would always return to their original belief system. These acts of failures and returns are even recorded all throughout Biblical scripture.
There is no scripture like the Old Testament. All surrounding people groups where polytheists, but the Hebrew people where monotheists. Why would they make a tradition unlike all other people groups and adhere to monotheism?
Religious leaders like Moses could have easily given in to the demands of the people for multiple gods, he was outnumbered one to thousands, but he stood by his convictions even scolding the people for worshiping false gods (Ex 32).
The Hebrew culture had multiple opportunities to divert from their Jewish faith into polytheism like the neighboring religious nations, but they always reverted back to monotheism, accredited in the Bible because God would always discipline them back to his law. Each time they became idol worshipers, something would happen to them to drive them back to their one God (Jer 3).
2) Why are certain texts, like the ‘Flood Legends’ so similar?
Similarities in legends may not mean it originated from similar fantastical stories, but rather similar actual historical events. Independent verification over various nations, from cultures separated by thousands of miles would logically indicate a specific legend was more likely an event that actually happened.
3)Why is there similarity in ‘Spiritual Explanations’ like angels and demons?
Similarities in belief of the spirit world may also be an indication of a truth passed down from an earlier time. One possible explanation is that such information was passed on from Noah after the flood to his children. Similarities in the understanding of the spiritual world maybe an indication that an earlier religion, that held the keys to understanding the supernatural, had at one time existed, of course overtime it become more and more corrupt overtime from changing translations and traditions.
As God would have revealed the truth again to Moses, the accurate details about these truths would be recorded in the Bible.
Descriptions of demons and angels exist in every culture. Many human experiences confirm specific details about the supernatural in every generation through various testimonies, and over thousands of years, the understanding of the supernatural continues to change as these personal testimonies keep the experiences alive.
References – Mesopotamian Mythology
Bertman, Stephen (2005). Handbook to Life in Ancient Mesopotamia mythology. New York: Oxford UP.
Jeremy Black and Anthony Green, Gods, Demons, and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia: An Illustrated Dictionary, 1992
Dalley, Stephanie, Myths from Mesopotamia, Oxford University Press (1989), p. 40–41
Rosenberg, Donna (1994). World Mythology: An Anthology of the Great Myths and Epics. Lincolnwood, Chicago: National Textbook Company. pp. 196–200.