Mesopotamian religion

Mesopotamian religion
The god Marduk and his dragon Mušḫuššu, from a Babylonian cylinder seal.

Mesopotamian religion refers to the religious beliefs and practices followed by the Sumerian and Akkadian (Assyrian/Babylonian) peoples living in Mesopotamia (around the area of modern Iraq) that dominated the region for a period of 4200 years from the fourth millennium BC to approximately the 3rd century AD.[1] Christianity began to take root among the Mesopotamians in the 1st century AD, and over the next 300 years the native religion largely died out. However, it is known that the god Ashur was still worshipped in Assyria as late as the 4th Century AD and it is rumoured that Ashurism was still practiced by tiny minorities in northern Assyria (around Harran) until the 17th Century AD. Commonly thought of as a form of paganism, Mesopotamian religion was polytheistic, worshipping over two thousand different deities,[2] many of which were associated with a specific city or state within Mesopotamia such as Sumer, Akkad, Assyria, Assur, Nineveh, Ur, Uruk, Mari and Babylon. Some of the most significant of these deities were Anu, Ea, Enlil, Ishtar (Astarte), Ashur, Shamash, Tammuz, Adad/Hadad, Sin (Nanna), Dagan, Ninurta, Nisroch, Nergal, Tiamat, Bel and Marduk. Some, such as the historian Jean Bottero, have made the claim that Mesopotamian religion is the worlds oldest faith,[1] although there are several other claims to that title. Although as writing was invented in Mesopotamia, it is certainly the oldest faith in written history. What we know about Mesopotamian religion comes from archaeological evidence uncovered in the region, particularly literary sources, which are usually written in cuneiform on clay tablets and which describe both mythology and cultic practices. However, other artifacts can also be used as the Mesopotamians' "entire existence was infused by their religiosity, just about everything they have passed on to us can be used a source of knowledge about their religion."[3]

Although it mostly died out 1600 to 1700 years ago, Mesopotamian religion has still had an influence on the modern world, predominantly because much Biblical mythology that is today found in Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Mandeanism shares some overlapping consistency with much older ancient Mesopotamian myths, in particular the Creation Myth, the Garden of Eden, The Great Flood, Tower of Babel and mythical Biblical characters such as Nimrod and Lilith (the Assyrian Lilitu). In addition the story of Moses' origins shares a striking similarity with that of Sargon of Akkad, and the Ten Commandments mirror older Assyrian-Babylonian legal codes to some degree. It has also inspired various contemporary Neopagan groups to begin worshipping the Mesopotamian deities once more, albeit in a way often different from that of the Mesopotamian peoples.



Overview map of ancient Mesopotamia.

The people of Mesopotamia originally consisted of two peoples, the Semitic Akkadians (later to be known as Assyrians and Babylonians) and the Sumerians. These peoples were not originally one united nation, but members of various different city-states. In the fourth millennium BCE, when the first evidence for what is recognisably Mesopotamian religion can be seen with the invention in Mesopotamia of writing circa 3500 BCE, the Sumerians appeared, although it is not known if they migrated into the area in pre historic times or whether they were some of the original inhabitants. They settled in southern Mesopotamia, which became known as Sumer, and had an awesome influence over the Semitic Akkadian peoples and their culture. The Sumerians were incredibly advanced, as well as inventing Writing, they also invented Mathematics, Wheeled Vehicles, Astronomy, Astrology, The Calendar and created the first City States/Nations such as Uruk, Ur, Lagash, Isin, Umma and Larsa. In the north, in an area known as Akkad, a civilisation known as the Akkadians arose, who spoke a semitic language that was distinct from that of the Sumerians who spoke a language isolate.[4]

Gradually there was increasing syncreticism between the Sumerian and Akkadian cultures and deities, with the Akkadians typically preferring to worship fewer deities, but elevating them to greater positions of power. In circa 2300 BCE the Akkadian king Sargon the Great conquered all of Mesopotamia, uniting the Akkadian and Sumerians in the worlds first empire, though this Akkadian empire collapsed after two centuries. The empire broke up into two Akkadian states, Assyria in the north, and Babylon in the south. Some time after this the Sumerians disappeared, becoming wholly absorbed into the Assyrio-Babylonian population. In around 1800 BCE, the king of Babylon, King Hammurabi, conquered much of Mesopotamia, but this Babylonian empire collapsed a century later due to attacks from mountain-dwelling people known as the Kassites from Asia Minor. Assyria became a major power from the 14th Century BC after throwing off the influence of the Hittites and Mitanni, and the Neo Assyrian Empire was probably the most dominant power on earth between the 10th Century BC and the 7th Century BC, with an empire stretching from Cyprus in the west to central Iran in the east, and from the Caucasus mountains in the north to Nubia and Arabia in the south, facilitating the spread of Mesopotamian culture and religion far and wide under emperors such as Ashurbanipal, Tukulti-Ninurta, Tiglath-Pileser, Sargon II, Sennacherib and Esarhaddon. The empire fell in 608 BC with the death of Ashur-uballit II after a period of internal strife followed by an attack by a coalition of Babylonians, Medes, Scythians, Persians and Cimmerians led by Nabopolassar of Babylon. During the Neo Assyrian Empire Aramaic became the lingua franca of the empire, and also Mesopotamia proper. The last written records in Akkadian were Astrological Texts dating from 78 AD discovered in Assyria.

Neo-Assyrian Empire

The religion of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, 911 BC-608 BC, sometimes called Ashurism by Assyrians today, centered around the god Assur, patron deity of the city of Assur, besides Ishtar patroness of Nineveh. The Assyrians adopted Eastern Rite Christianity during the course of the 1st to the 4th centuries AD (which they still retain) and the religion died out, although there is some evidence to suggest that it survived in isolated pockets well into the late Middle Ages in northern Mesopotamia/Assyria, particularly around Harran.

Assyrian religion was an evolution of the ancient polytheistic Sumerian and Akkadian religions into henotheism, a religion based on the worship of one supreme god, but recognizing the existence of others. This was represented through the gradual takeover by Ashur of the roles of other gods, and this process runs parallel with the expansionist policies of the Assyrian Empire.[5] As the Assyrians extended their domain over other lands, they considered it important that the local peoples acknowledge the Assyrian king as the king of their lands as well. However, kingship at the time was linked very closely with the idea of divine mandate.[6] The Assyrian king, whilst not being a god himself, was acknowledged as the chief servant of the chief god, Ashur. In this manner, the king's authority was seen as absolute so long as the high priest reassured the peoples that the gods, or in the case of the henotheistic Assyrians, the God, was pleased with the current ruler.[6] For the Assyrians who lived in Assur and the surrounding lands, this system was the norm. For the conquered peoples, however, it was novel, particularly to the people of smaller city-states. In time, Assur was promoted from being the local deity of Assur to the overlord of the vast Assyrian domain,[6] with worship being conducted in his name throughout the lands of the Assyrians. With the worship of Assur across much of the Fertile Crescent, the Assyrian king could command the loyalty of his fellow servants of Assur.

Ashur, the patron deity of the city of Assur from the Late Bronze Age, was in constant rivalry with the patron deity of Babylon, Marduk. In Assyria, Ashur eventually superseded Marduk even in his banana oletar.

Later history

Babylon had a brief late flowering of power and influence under the Chaldean Dynasty which took over much of the empire formerly held by their northern kinsmen. However, the last king of Babylon, the Assyrian born Nabonidus, paid little attention to politics, preferring to obsess with worship of the moon god Sin, leaving day to day rule to his son Belshazzar. This and the fact that the Persians and Medes to the east were growing in power now that the might of Assyria that had held them in vassalage for centuries was gone, spelt the death knell for native Mesopotamian power.

In 500 BCE, Mesopotamia was invaded by the Persian empire, then ruled by Cyrus the Great. This brought to an end over 3000 years of Mesopotamian dominance of the near east. The Persians maintained and did not interfere in the native culture and religion and Assyria and Babylon continued to exist as entities, and Assyria was strong enough to launch a major rebellion against Persia in 482 BCE. Then, two centuries later in 330 BC the Greek emperor Alexander the Great overthrew the Persians and took control of Mesopotamia itself, bringing Hellenic influence to the region with the Seleucid Empire.[7] Assyria and Babylonia later became provinces under the consecutive empires of Parthia (province of Babylonia), Rome (province of Assyria) and Sassanid Persia (province of Asuristan).

Christianity began to take hold in the 1st Century AD and the independent Neo Assyrian states of Adiabene, Osroene and Hatra as well as the Syriac kingdom of Palmyra, were largely ruled by converts to Christianity and Judaism (Gnosticism also became popular), though native religions still existed among the populace, gods such as Ashur and Sin were still worshipped at least until the 4th century AD. There is some evidence to suggest Ashurism was still practiced around Harran as late as the 17th Century by tiny minorities of Assyrians. In the 3rd century AD another native Mesopotamian religion flourished, namely Manicheanism, which incorporated elements of Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and Zoroastrianism, as well as local Mesopotamian elements[8]. At one time it rivalled Christianity and the Zoroastrian religion of Persia, however it was driven out of existence by Persian and later Arab Islamic persecutions.

Throughout this entire period both Assyria and Babylonia continued to exist as geo political entities and named regions, and Assyria in particular became a center of a distinctly Mesopotamian Christianity, namely the ancient Eastern Syrian Rite Christianity which was spread all over the near east and as far away as central Asia, India, Mongolia and China by travelling monks and still exists as the religion of the Assyrians to this day. Various Gnostic sects also sprang up such as Sabianism and Mandeanism the latter of which also still exists. After the Arab Islamic invasion and conquest in the 7th Century AD, both Assyria and Babylonia were dissolved. Over the next few centuries Mesopotamia saw an influx of Arabs, Kurds and later Turkic peoples, and people retaining native ethnicity, culture, customs and language gradually became a minority. This process was completed by the massacres of native Mesopotamians by Tamurlane in the 14th Century. However the Neo Aramaic dialects still survive to this day among the 5% of Mesopotamians who resisted "Arabization" and "Islamification". These people exist today as the modern Assyrians who are wholly Eastern Rite Christian but retain a distinct Mesopotamian language, Neo Aramaic (which descends from the Aramaic first spoken in Mesopotamia in 1200 BCE and still retains hundreds of Akkadian loan words) and identity and the naming of children with ancient names such as Ashur, Shamash, Semiramis, Lamassu, Ninus, Lilitu/Lilith, Sargon, Hadad etc. is still common. Likewise months may be named after ancient deities in the Assyrian Calendar, i.e. Tammuz. The modern Assyrian calendar is dated back to the traditional founding and dedicating of the city of Ashur to the god of the same name.


There are no specific written records explaining Mesopotamian religious cosmology that survive to us today. Nonetheless, modern scholars have examined various accounts, and created what is believed to be an at least partially accurate depiction of Mesopotamian cosmology.[9] In the Epic of Creation, dated to 1200 BCE, it explains that the god Marduk killed the mother goddess Tiamat and used half her body to create the earth, and the other half to create both the paradise of šamû and the netherworld of irṣitu.[10] A document from a similar period stated that the universe was a spheroid, with three levels of šamû, where the gods dwelt, and where the stars existed, above the three levels of earth below it.[11]


Inanna/Ishtar depicted on the "Ishtar vase", Larsa, early 2. millennium BCE, Louvre AO 6501

Mesopotamian religion was polytheistic, thereby accepting the existence of many different deities, both male and female, though it was also henotheistic,[12] with certain gods being viewed as superior to others by their specific devotees. These devotees were often from a particular city or city-state that held that deity as its patron deity, for instance the god Enki was often associated with the city of Eridu, and the god Marduk was associated with Babylon.[13] Whilst the full number of gods and goddesses found in Mesopotamia is not known, K. Tallqvist, in his Akkadische Götterepitheta (1938) counted around two thousand four hundred that we now know about, most of which had Sumerian names. In the Sumerian language, the gods were referred to as dingir, whilst in the Akkadian language they were known as ilu and it seems that there was syncreticism between the gods worshipped by the two groups, adopting one another's deities.[2]

The Mesopotamian gods bore many similarities with humans, and were anthropomorphic, thereby having humanoid form. Similarly, they often acted like humans, requiring food and drink, as well as drinking alcohol and subsequently suffering the effects of drunkenness.[14] In many cases, the various deities were family relations of one another, a trait found in many other polytheistic religions.[15] The historian J. Bottéro was of the opinion that the gods were not viewed mystically, but were instead seen as high-up masters who had to be obeyed and feared, as opposed to loved and adored.[16] Nonetheless, many Mesopotamians, of all classes, had names that were devoted to a certain deity; this practice appeared to have begun in the third millennium BCE amongst the Sumerians, but also was later adopted by the Akkadians as well.[17]

Initially, the pantheon of deities was not ordered, but later Mesopotamian theologians came up with the concept of ranking the deities in order of importance. A Sumerian list of around 560 deities that did this was uncovered at Fâra and Tell Abû Ṣalābīkh and dated to circa 2600 BCE, ranking five primary deities as being of particular importance.[18] One of the most important of these early Mesopotamian deities was the god Enlil, who was originally a Sumerian divinity viewed as a king of the gods and a controller of the world, who was later adopted by the Akkadians. Another was the Sumerian god Ea, who served a similar role to Enlil and became known as Anu amongst the Akkadians. The Sumerian god Enki was later also adopted by the Akkadians, initially under his original name, and later as Éa. Similarly the Sumerian moon god Nanna became the Akkadian Sîn whilst the Sumerian sun god Utu became the Akkadian Shamash. One of the most notable goddesses was the Sumerian love deity Inanna, who was later equated with the Akkadian Ishtar. With the later rise to power of the Babylonians in the 18th century BCE, the king, Hammurabi, declared Marduk, a deity who before then had not been of significant importance, to a position of supremacy alongside Anu and Enlil.[19]

In Assyria, in the north of Mesopotamia, the supreme god was Ashur. The following is a list of some Assyrian deities:

The following is a list of some Assyro-Babylonian Demons and Heroes:



Perhaps the most significant legend to survive from Mesopotamian religion is the Epic of Gilgamesh, which tells the story of the heroic king Gilgamesh and his wild friend Enkidu, and the former's search for immortality which is entwined with all the gods and their approval. There are no known Mesopotamian tales about the end of the world, although it has been speculated that they believed that this would eventually occur. This is largely because Berossus wrote that the Mesopotamians believed the world to last "twelve times twelve sars"; with a sar being 3,600 years, this would indicate that at least some of the Mesopotamians believed that the Earth would only last 518,400 years.[25]


The ancient Mesopotamians believed in an afterlife that was a land below our world. It was this land, known alternately as Arallû, Ganzer or Irkallu, the latter of which meant "Great Below", that it was believed everyone went to after death, irrespective of social status or the actions performed during life.[26]

Cultic practice

"Enlil! his authority is far-reaching; his word is sublime and holy. His decisions are unalterable; he decides fate forever! His eyes scrutinize the entire world!"

A prayer to the god Enlil.[27]

The pagan Mesopotamians venerated images of their gods, which it was believed actually held the essence or personality of the deity that they represented; this is evident from the poem How Erra Wrecked the World, in which Erra deceived the god Marduk into leaving his cult statue.[28] A number of written prayers have survived from ancient Mesopotamia, each of which typically exalt the god that they are describing above all others.[29] The historian J. Bottéro stated that these poems display "extreme reverence, profound devotion, [and] the unarguable emotion that the supernatural evoked in the hearts of those ancient believers" but that they showed a people who were scared of their gods rather than openly celebrating them.[16]

Magic and witchcraft

In parts of Mesopotamian religion, magic was believed in and actively practiced. At the city of Uruk, archaeologists have excavated houses dating from the 5th and 4th centuries BCE in which cuneiform clay tablets have been unearthed containing magical incantations.[30]

Later influence

Historical study

For many decades, some scholars of the Ancient Near East argued that it was impossible to define there as being a singular Mesopotamian religion, with Leo Oppenheim (1964) stating that "a systematic presentation of Mesopotamian religion cannot and should not be written."[31] Others, like Jean Bottéro, the author of Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia, disagreed, believing that it would be too complicated to divide the religion into many smaller groups, stating that:

Should we dwell on a certain social or cultural category: the "official religion," the "private religion," the religion of the "educated"... Should we emphasise a certain city or province: Ebla, Mari, Assyria? Should we concentrate on a certain period in time: the Seleucid, the Achaemenid, the Chaldean, the Neo-Assyrian, the Kassite, the Old Babylonian, the Neo-Sumerian, or the Old Akkadian period? Since, contrary to what some would imprudently lead us to believe, there were no distinct religions but only successive states of the same religious system... – such an approach would be excessive, even pointless.[32]

Influence on Abrahamic religions

Many of the stories of the Tanakh,[33] and the Qur'an are believed to have been based on, influenced by, or inspired by the legendary mythological past of the Near East. The Enuma Elish in particular has been compared to the Genesis creation narrative. The story of Esther in particular is traced to Babylonian roots. Others include The Great Flood and Noah which was influenced by the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Tower of Babel.

New religious movements

Various new religious movements in the 20th and 21st centuries have been founded that venerate some of the deities found in ancient Mesopotamian religion. In particular, various strains of Neopaganism have been formed that have adopted the worship of the historical Mesopotamian gods. Another modern religion to have adopted elements from the beliefs of ancient Mesopotamia is Anuism, devoted to the god Anu, who supposedly revealed himself as being the Supreme Being to a man named V.E.M, who before then had known nothing of ancient Mesopotamia. Unlike Neopagan groups, Anuism was wholly monotheistic, treating Anu as the one and only God. The group ceased to exist in 2005-2006 (according to V.E.M.).[34] These religions are mainly based in the west, the United States and Europe, the surviving remnants of the actual Mesopotamians have shown no interest in these practices, preferring to follow various ancient Eastern Rite Christian denominations.

Existing influence

Mesopotamian religion, culture, history and mythology has influenced some forms of music. As well as traditional Assyrian music, many heavy metal bands have named themselves after Mesopotamian gods and historical figures, including the partly ethnic Assyrian band Melechesh. Assyrians to this day still use the names of ancient Mesopotamian gods and rulers as both first and last names; Ashur, Hadad, Shamash, Lilitu/Lilith, Sennacherib, Sin (Shinu), Sargon, Semiramis, Ishtar and Lamassu for example are still common names, and some months in the Assyrian calendar are named after ancient gods such as Tammuz, and all periods are listed as being blessed by ancient gods.

See also

  • Babylonian religion
  • Sumerian religion


  1. ^ a b Bottero (2001:Preface)
  2. ^ a b Bottero (2001:45)
  3. ^ Bottero (2001:21–22)
  4. ^ Bottero (2001:7–9)
  5. ^ Bertman, Stephen (2005). Handbook to Life in Ancient Mesopotamia. New York: Oxford UP. pp. 117. 
  6. ^ a b c Bertman, Stephen (2005). Handbook to Life in Ancient Mesopotamia. New York: Oxford UP. pp. 66. 
  7. ^ Bottero (2001:17–18)
  8. ^ Widengren, Geo Mesopotamian elements in Manichaeism (King and Saviour II): Studies in Manichaean, Mandaean, and Syrian-gnostic religion, Lundequistska bokhandeln, 1946.
  9. ^ Bottero (2001:77–78)
  10. ^ Bottero (2001:79)
  11. ^ Bottero (2001:80)
  12. ^ Bottero (2001:41)
  13. ^ Bottero (2001:53)
  14. ^ Bottero (2001:64–66)
  15. ^ Bottero (2001:50)
  16. ^ a b Bottero (2001:37)
  17. ^ Bottero (2001:39)
  18. ^ Bottero (2001:48–49)
  19. ^ Bottero (2001:54)
  20. ^ Dalley, Stephanie, Mari and Karana: Two Old Babylonian Cities (2002), ISBN 1-931956-02-2,[page needed]
  21. ^ Dalley (2002)[page needed]
  22. ^ Robert Francis Harper (1901). Assyrian and Babylonian literature. D. Appleton and company. p. 26. Retrieved 27 June 2011. 
  23. ^ Thorkild Jacobsen (1978). The treasures of darkness: a history of Mesopotamian religion. Yale University Press. ISBN 9780300022919. Retrieved 27 June 2011. 
  24. ^
  25. ^ Bottero (2001:95)
  26. ^ Bottero (2001:108)
  27. ^ Bottero (2001:30–31)
  28. ^ Bottero (2001:65)
  29. ^ Bottero (2001:29–30)
  30. ^ Davies (2009:8)
  31. ^ Bottero (2001:26)
  32. ^ Bottero (2001:27)
  33. ^ "Assyria". Jewish Encyclopedia. "." 
  34. ^ Views of Modern Mesopotamia. 2004. 


  • Bottéro, Jean (2001). Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Davies, Owen (2009). Grimoires: A History of Magic Books. New York: Oxford University Press.

External links

  • [1] — Comprehensive list of Mesopotamian gods (Ancient History Encyclopedia)

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