An Introduction to Ancient Mesopotamian Religion

An Introduction to Ancient Mesopotamian Religion

by Tammi J. Schneider


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In An Introduction to Mesopotamian Religion Tammi J. Schneider offers readers a basic guide to the religion of the peoples living in the region of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers from the beginning of the Bronze Age to the time of Alexander the Great and Darius III. Drawing from extant texts, artifacts, and architecture, Schneider reveals a complex, fluid, and highly ritualized polytheism and describes both its intriguing pantheon of deities and the religious experience of the people who spent their lives serving and appeasing them.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802829597
Publisher: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
Publication date: 06/01/2011
Pages: 158
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.41(d)

About the Author

Tammi J. Schneider is professor of religion at Claremont Graduate University, Claremont, California, and is codirector of excavations at Tell el-Far’ah, Israel. Her other books include Sarah: Mother of Nations.

Read an Excerpt

An Introduction to Ancient Mesopotamian Religion

By Tammi J. Schneider

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2011 Tammi J. Schneider
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8028-2959-7

Chapter One


The world of ancient Mesopotamia was filled with a number of deities whose responsibilities and powers shifted over time and place, similar to the political reality of the region. Contrasting and yet paralleling these phenomena is that, like other realms of ancient Mesopotamian civilization, many fundamental components of ancient Mesopotamian Religion continued unchanged for centuries in the region. The basic operating premise for the ancient Mesopotamians throughout all periods of their history is that humans were created and placed on earth so the gods did not have to work. Each deity controlled different elements of the world order, so no one god had full control, and which deity was in charge fluctuated over time and place.

Gaining a clear handle of what constituted ancient Mesopotamian religion is complicated by two principles governing its modern study: that a "Mesopotamian Religion" should not be written, and that there is a Mesopotamian "stream of tradition" beginning as early as the third millennium B.C.E. and continuing through to the first. Both issues determine how one writes about the religion and the boundaries of Mesopotamia geographically and temporally.

Even A. Leo Oppenheim, despite cries to the contrary, wrote about Religion in Mesopotamia. Such can be done, as long as one is careful about what the data can and cannot support. As Piotr Michalowski has noted, "the challenge that lies before us is to confront the illusion of cultural unity implied by the 'stream of tradition' with the historically documented discontinuities in Mesopotamian social and political history." As such, the title of this book, while simple, is relevant to what will and will not be covered in the following volume. I will begin by going over each element of the title because the definition of the different parts lays the groundwork for what to expect in the following text. With the ground rules established, I will review the approach to the project.

An: While this may appear an obvious inclusion to the title, the emphasis here is that the author recognizes this is not the final say on the topic but one of many approaches. It highlights that other approaches to the topic exist and there are certain to be more. This volume happens to be one particular option.

Introduction: In this context, the definition of "Introduction" meant is "a preliminary guide or text." This volume is not intended to be the final scholarly word on any issue, but rather a preliminary guide for students of the ancient world. I will attempt to introduce the student to the various concepts and provide general background information so the reader can situate the data in its context. Since ancient Mesopotamia is somewhat foreign to most students of religion and the ancient world, one goal is to introduce what issues are even relevant to its study—explaining, for example, why this volume contains a section on the history of the area.

Ancient: This term carries different chronological implications depending on where and how it is used. Thus, "ancient history" is defined as "history from the beginning of recorded events to the end of the Roman Empire in the West in 476 A.D.," but "ancient" is "of times long past; belonging to the early history of the world, esp. before the end of the Western Roman Empire." Depending on context, the impact of ancient Greece and Rome on the use and understanding of "ancient" is more significant than that of Mesopotamia. The bulk of the periods considered in this volume predate Rome completely.

A standard treatment of "ancient" with regard to Mesopotamia is to begin somewhere around the origins of writing, just before the beginning of the third millennium B.C.E. and ending with the conquest of Alexander the Great and/or the death of Darius III in 330. Another ending point for the discussion of "ancient" Mesopotamia is the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus of Persia. The reason for the conflict in end dates concerns how one defines the parameters of the study. Cyrus was welcomed by the citizens of Babylon, and, on the surface, life in Babylonia does not appear to have changed significantly, at least initially. The reason for ending at this point, however, is that from this moment, and for the next few centuries, Mesopotamian cities are ruled by the nonnative rulers whose seat of government is outside of Mesopotamia. The beginning point is separated from the Prehistoric period because of the introduction of writing. This also coincides in general with the beginning of the Bronze Age in the ancient Near East and the establishment of fully urban, relatively stable, developed societies. At the ending point, the conquest of the ancient Near East by Alexander the Great and the death of Darius III, the last Persian king, the political change or the Hellenization of the region was greater than earlier invasions. Also at issue is this volume's focus on the religion of Mesopotamia. The Persians were centered outside Mesopotamia, in what is modern Iran, and the Persians had a different religious system. Accordingly, the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus will mark the end date for this overview of Mesopotamian religion. This does not mean ancient Mesopotamian religion ended on that date, but it was no longer the state religion of a self-governing body. This point then inaugurates the beginning of something new, and thus the end of our inquiry.

Mesopotamian: This term governs the parameters of the geographical area considered. In general, Mesopotamia is considered to be the area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The territory corresponds primarily with the modern country of Iraq. The precise boundaries have varied throughout history, especially concerning the northwestern limits of the region. The eastern end of the area is the Persian Gulf, where both rivers end. The western boundary is more fluid, because technically there are areas between the rivers up to the sources of each, located in what is modern Turkey.

A major factor is that the rivers are more spread apart at their origins than at their ends, and the cultural connection of the areas west and north of Mari are less culturally tied to the rest of Mesopotamia. As with many other issues surrounding ancient Mesopotamia, which areas are central to Mesopotamia as opposed to peripheral changes over time. Thus, in the third millennium, the territory later occupied by the Assyrians is rather peripheral to Mesopotamian culture, whereas most scholars consider it to be within the region in the second and first millennia. It is likely that at the height of Assyria's power there were some, especially those living in Babylon, who also might have argued against considering Assyria as part of the Mesopotamian stream of tradition.

For the sake of this study, the western boundary of Mesopotamia will be the modern border between Iraq and Syria, and the subtleties of this border will be addressed for specific time periods and issues as is relevant. I admit that this is rather arbitrary; however, based on recent archaeological excavations conducted in Syria scholars have learned that from the third millennium B.C.E. through the first, there were cultural centers with their own character fairly distinct from that of Mesopotamia proper. Furthermore, because of the proximity of these areas to other ancient Near Eastern groups and influences, both the history and the culture of these areas differ enough from Mesopotamia to fall outside the confines of this treatment.

Religion: This element may be the most difficult to describe. The parameters of what constitutes religion have changed significantly in the last fifty years, especially since Oppenheim wrote. Western scholarship has been heavily influenced by Christianity, and the view of what "counts" as religion and what does not often was influenced more by how any set of belief systems and practices correlated to those espoused by Christianity at the time and within a particular denomination of Christianity. Christianity has a significant focus on personal belief and private devotion, elements almost completely absent from the records in Mesopotamia. Gary Beckman's title for his article on religion in the ancient Near East, "How Religion Was Done," neatly represents the shift to a newer approach to studying and treating religion, especially in the ancient world. His definition of religion, with a slight modification, will stand as a working definition for this volume:

Religion here is the totality of beliefs and practices within a particular society that structure the relationship of men and women to [each other and] to the unseen but ever-present beings and powers with whom they share their world.

Design of This Volume

Such a new working definition of religion does not alleviate all of the pitfalls Oppenheim noted, but it does allow the modern scholar of the ancient world to approach the study of religion through the remains left behind. This is the approach attempted in this volume. The book is designed to introduce students to the categories of data available and to the practices described in ancient documents and how they can be evaluated. Chapter 2 explains the extant data, with a bit of background as to how they were discovered and treated since their discovery. One premise behind this evaluation is that Mesopotamian religion changed over time — what Mesopotamian religion was differed throughout the various historical periods. For this reason, a brief overview of ancient Mesopotamian history is provided (ch. 3), focusing not as much on the concerns of a historian but on the information that would impact and act as a probable background for a change in the religious practices and/or beliefs in any given period.

Having established the general background, the investigation will turn to a study of the types of data available. One of the largest data sets concerning Mesopotamian views of the world is their myths, and these will be the starting point (ch. 4). Some of the major players in the mythological texts are the gods, so we will next survey who the gods were, how they changed, and their relationship to the Mesopotamians (ch. 5). Note that the myths are not the only source of information left behind about their deities, so other sources addressing the gods, both textual and visual, will be considered. Many of the religious structures from the ancient world center upon the gods, and an examination of those will follow (ch. 6). Priests officiated at the temples, but there were numerous other religious personnel working in and outside of the temples (ch. 7). Also, people with other titles that in the modern world are not considered "religious personnel," but must be considered so for the ancient world, will be investigated as a separate category. What happened in the temples and the actions of the priests were recorded, and those texts have been discovered (ch. 8). These provide a great deal of information concerning what, as Beckman notes, was "done" (ch. 9). Finally, the ancient Mesopotamian kings shared — or suggested that such was the case — a special relationship with their deities. Since the role of the kings was fundamental in the religious construction of the state, the relationship of the kings and the deities will be considered separately (ch. 10).

Please do note what is not in this volume. This volume is intended to be an introduction to the topic and thus does not provide a full examination, including an exhaustive bibliography of all of the scholarly literature. At the same time, it is frustrating if one reads about an interesting topic when the source is not cited at all, making it difficult to trace the author's tracks. I have tried to include enough footnotes and bibliography so that students can trace my steps and more fully investigate a topic without overwhelming others who are not interested in detailed notes. I have also assumed a primarily English-speaking audience and have included bibliography primarily in English.

It is also not the goal of this introduction to provide a full analysis of every component of ancient Mesopotamian religion, since this could not be accomplished in one volume. I have tried to provide some general conclusions and parameters about the various components of ancient Mesopotamian religion and to then offer a few specific examples to show how that manifests itself and, usually, how that concept changed over time, often with some discussion as to why.

This is also not a volume of comparative ancient religion or comparative religion in general. People have some very set ideas about religion, especially their own. I have learned in teaching that for many students, it is easier to address concepts in religion from the ancient world because the adherents to those religions no longer exist and so there is no fear that by examining certain concepts someone will be offended. It is with this in mind that I have not added comments about how various concepts were then picked up by other religious groups or how similar some of these ideas may be to other religions. I confess that often I made those connections but have decided to allow the reader of this work to draw her or his own conclusions.

My goal was to provide a fair overview of ancient Mesopotamian religion and each of the various components that I think constitute our modern study of the subject. In the process it has become clear that trying to find the middle of the road in scholarship and summarize topics upon which large research volumes are written is no small task. The fields in Mesopotamian studies in general are small in terms of the number of scholars competent in the necessary languages to do solid primary research in the field, excavate in the areas covered, and become fluent in the art of the region, and yet vast when considering the large amount of data in ancient languages excavated in only the last hundred and fifty years. Thus, I am certain that inadvertently I have simplified complex topics, and skipped texts that may suggest a slightly different angle on a problem and for that I apologize in advance.

Ancient Mesopotamia, as Oppenheim noted, is far away both temporally and geographically. Because the Mesopotamians seldom recorded what they thought, the goal of this volume is not to analyze how they felt about their gods or the universe but rather to investigate what they did based on the information they left behind to inform us of their world. This is, by definition, an incomplete picture but a fascinating one nonetheless.

Chapter Two

Tools for the Study of Ancient Mesopotamian Religion

The tools available for the study of religion in ancient Mesopotamia are based, to a large extent, on one's interpretation of what religion is. Using the older paradigm where religion focuses on people's beliefs, texts are the only serious tool available for understanding ancient religion. With the slightly broader definition used here, artifacts and architecture play a larger role. As such, knowing what tools are available to try to recover any sense of ancient Mesopotamian religion is of primary significance. In order to grasp the nature of the data available for that quest, a short history of the modern archaeological study of the region is important to understand how our knowledge base began, was originally interpreted, and has changed over the last hundred and fifty years.

Short History of the Field Ancient Mesopotamia was, to a large extent, buried and forgotten over time. Some memories of the Assyrians and Babylonians were preserved through the Hebrew Bible and ancient Greek historians. The image preserved in these texts is of a militaristic state ruled by despots controlling bloodthirsty armies with great wealth. It was not the goal of these texts to depict the Sumerians, Assyrians, or Babylonians as "religious" or concerned with larger issues of the universe, and thus few references to any religious practices of Mesopotamia are preserved in this literature. The biblical material, in some cases, even depicts both the Babylonians and the Assyrians as being used by the biblical deity to fulfill that deity's goals. It was only with the intentional excavation of Mesopotamian sites in the nineteenth century C.E. that our image of ancient Mesopotamia began to change. Suddenly there were monumental reliefs, cuneiform tablets, and ancient buildings casting a new light on who these ancient peoples were and how they lived. These texts provided scholars with new kinds of information. While this was helpful and represented a boon for scholarship, excavation methods were still in their infancy, recording techniques were not yet developed in a scientific way, and the focus and reason for excavating in any particular place often had more to do with political and/or military concerns associated with the excavator than answering scholarly questions. These first excavators viewed this material, as does any scholar, through the social, political, and cultural context of their own civilization. Thus, for example, initial scholarship on Neo-Assyrian religion was generated primarily by British authors who tended to express their vision of this material through the tone of British imperialism. As a result, the initial contact with ancient Mesopotamia, and the groundbreaking fundamental scholarship on the topic, were molded by such a mind-set.


Excerpted from An Introduction to Ancient Mesopotamian Religion by Tammi J. Schneider Copyright © 2011 by Tammi J. Schneider . Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments viii

Abbreviations ix

1 Introduction 1

2 Tools for the Study of Ancient Mesopotamian Religion 9

3 History of Mesopotamia 17

4 Myths 34

5 The Gods 51

6 The Temples 66

7 Religious Personnel 79

8 Religious Texts 91

9 Rituals 101

10 Kingship, Religion, and the Gods 117

11 Conclusions 126

Bibliography 131

Time Line for Ancient Mesopotamia 141

Index 144

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