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Mesopotamian religion

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Marduk and pet

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 to 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 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, Dagan, Ninurta, Nisroch, Nergal, Tiamat, Bel and Marduk.

Some, such as the historian Jean Bottero, have made the claim that Mesopotamian religionibcs 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 artefacts 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 peoples of Mesopotamia originally consisted of two peoples, the Semitic Akkadians 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, 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 a great influence over the Semitic Akkadian peoples and their culture. 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 Akkadiand 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. Also around this time, a leader named Abraham led his people, the Hebrews, out of Mesopotamia where they appeared to have been living for many centuries. 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. The empire fell in 608 BC after a period of internal strife followed by an attack by a coalition of Babylonians, Medes, Scythians, Persians and Cimmerians. During the Neo Assyrian Empire Aramaic became the lingua franca of the empire, and also Mesopotamia proper. The last written records in Akkadian were AstrologicalTexts dating from 78 AD discovered in Assyria.

Babylon had a brief late flowering of power and influence under the Chaldean Dynasty which took over much of the empire formerly held by thier 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 the 537 BCE, Mesopotamia was invaded by the Persian empire, then ruled by Cyrus the Great. The Persians maintained and did not interfere in the native culture and religion and Assyria and Babylon continued to exist as entities. 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.[5] Assyria and Babylonia later came under Parthian, Roman and Sassanid Persian rule. Christianity began to take hold in the 1st Century AD and the independent Neo Assyrian states of Adiabene, Osroene and Hatra were largely ruled by converts to Christianity and Judaism, though native religions still existed among the populace, gods such as Ashur and Sin were still worshipped at least until the 4th century AD. Around this time another native Mesopotamian religion flourished, namely Manicheanism which incorporated elements of Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Zoroastrianism. 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 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 religon of 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 RiteChristian but retain a distinct Mesopotamian language 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 dieties in the Assyrian Calendar, ie Tammuz. The modern Assyrian calendar is dated back to the traditional founding and dedicating 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.[6] 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.[7] A document from a similar period stated that the unvierse 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.[8]


Ishtar vase Louvre AO17000-detail

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,[9] 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.[10] 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.[11] In many cases, the various deities were family relations of one another, a trait found in many other polytheistic religions.[12] 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 be obeyed and feared, as opposed to loved and adored.[13] 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.[14]

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.[15] 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 An, 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 Šamaš. One of the most notable goddesses was the Sumerian love deity Inanna, who was later equated with the Akkadian Ištar. 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.[16]


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.[17]


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.[18]

Cultic Practice

Worship and Sacrifice

"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.[19]

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.[20]

A number of written prayers have survived from ancient Mesopotamia, each of which typically exalt the god that they are describing above all others.[21] 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.[13]

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.[22]

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."[23] 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: Elba, 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.[24]

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 is wholly monotheistic, treating Anu as the one and only God.[25] 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.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Bottero (2001:Preface)
  2. 2.0 2.1 Bottero (2001:45)
  3. Bottero (2001:21–22)
  4. Bottero (2001:7–9)
  5. Bottero (2001:17–18)
  6. Bottero (2001:77–78)
  7. Bottero (2001:79)
  8. Bottero (2001:80)
  9. Bottero (2001:41)
  10. Bottero (2001:53)
  11. Bottero (2001:64–66)
  12. Bottero (2001:50)
  13. 13.0 13.1 Bottero (2001:37)
  14. Bottero (2001:39)
  15. Bottero (2001:48–49)
  16. Bottero (2001:54)
  17. Bottero (2001:95)
  18. Bottero (2001:108)
  19. Bottero (2001:30–31)
  20. Bottero (2001:65)
  21. Bottero (2001:29–30)
  22. Davies (2009:8)
  23. Bottero (2001:26)
  24. Bottero (2001:27)
  25. 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.

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