Mesopotamian Naru Literature

Mesopotamian Naru Literature was a literary genre, first appearing around the 2nd millennium BCE, which featured a famous person (usually a king) from history as the main character in a story that most often concerned humanity's relationship with the gods. These stories became very popular and, in time, seem to have replaced the actual historical events in the minds of the people.

Two examples of naru literature - The Legend of Sargon, which came to be accepted as the king's authentic autobiography, and The Curse of Agade, dealing with Sargon's grandson Naram-Sin - were so completely accepted as authentic history that even the great scholar L.W. King wrote of them as such in his 1910 CE work, A History of Sumer and Akkad. The stories that comprised naru literature were highly entertaining and, because they centered on well-known figures from the past, were instantly engaging and encouraged belief in their historical authenticity.

The most famous example of Naru Literature, although it departs significantly from the form in many respects, is The Epic of Gilgamesh (written c. 2150-1400 BCE from pre-existing tales). In this work, the historical king of Uruk, Gilgamesh, is given a transcendent, mythical role as the central character searching for meaning in life.

Development of the Genre

The names of the great Akkadian kings were well known throughout Mesopotamia all the way down from Sargon's reign (2334-2279 BCE) to the fall of the Assyrian Empire in 612 BCE. The copies of such stories found at sites such as Nineveh and Mari attest to their popularity in ancient Mesopotamia, and it is highly unlikely that the ancient people who heard them gave a thought as to whether they were historically true accounts; they were simply good stories with an important message.

Naru literature did not relate what actually happened but created a tale of what could happen if one did not recognize one's proper place in the universe and behave accordingly.

The scholar O.R. Gurney defines naru literature in his work The Cuthaean Legend of Naram-Sin:

A naru was an engraved stele, on which a king would record the events of his reign; the characteristic features of such an inscription are a formal self-introduction of the writer by his name and titles, a narrative in the first person, and an epilogue usually consisting of curses upon any person who might in the future deface the monument and blessings upon those who should honour it. The so-called "naru literature" consists of a small group of apocryphal naru-inscriptions, composed probably in the early second millennium B.C., but in the name of famous kings of a bygone age. A well-known example is the Legend of Sargon of Akkad. In these works the form of the naru is retained, but the matter is legendary or even fictitious. (93)

Scholars disagree whether such stories should rightly be called "naru literature" or "fictitious autobiography". Whichever term one uses, the works purposefully represent themselves as first-person accounts of an event of significance from which an audience is supposed to learn some important information, whether the "truth" of historical events, a religious moral, or simply some lesson which was thought useful to those hearing the tales. The term "naru literature" comes from "naru" which is explained by scholar Gerdien Jonker:

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The word naru is used as a name for various objects, originally boundary stones, memorial stones and monuments. Two sorts of inscribed objects received the designation naru at the dawn of the second millennium: tablets accompanying presents and tablets used for building inscriptions. At the end of the third millennium the naru chiefly played a part in religious transactions; at the beginning of the second millennium it was to become not only actually but also symbolically the bearer of memory. (90)

Inscriptions on stele and buildings was long a practice of the Mesopotamian kings by the time naru literature developed. The earliest form of writing in Mesopotamia (c. 3500-3000 BCE) was pictograms – symbols that represented objects – which served as memory aids. They helped in remembering such things as how much grain had gone to which destination or how many sheep were needed for events like sacrifices in the temples. These pictographs were impressed onto wet clay which was then dried, and these became official records of commerce.

When writing moved from pictograms to phonograms, literature became possible. The kings could now record the glory of their reigns for posterity and, of course, did so. The king's inscriptions always focused on the gods and the monarch's own great deeds and addressed either a deity or a distant future audience. Naru literature took the form of the earlier naru inscriptions and changed them into stories that concerned the king's relationship with the gods and his people and were addressed to a contemporary audience. Regarding this, Gerdien Jonker writes:

There are a few differences to be mentioned between the naru monuments and the literary genre deriving from them: a. The intention of the objects was chiefly communication between god and man; in the literary genre the speaker exclusively addresses other people. b. In the first case the text was written on an object (statue, stele, building, building tablet, etc); in the second, the writer only pretends that the text is written on an object. (95)

Naru Literature and Memory

The best example of this is the 2nd millennium BCE tale, The Legend of Cutha, featuring Naram-Sin (which is naru literature) as contrasted with an actual naru inscription. The story of Naram-Sin (r. 2261-2224 BCE) is told in the style of an inscription but deviates significantly. The following are the opening lines of a naru inscription by King Lugalzagesi (r. c. 2350 BCE) who was Sargon of Akkad's predecessor:

Lugalzagesi, king of Uruk,
king of the nation,
incantation-priest of An,
lumah-priest of Nisaba,
son of U-U, the ruler of Umma
and lumah-priest of Nisaba,
looked upon truly
by An as the king of all the lands.

The opening of The Legend of Cutha, on the other hand, begins thusly:

Open the tablet box and read the stele

that I, Naram-Sin, descendant of Sargon

inscribed and left behind for posterity.

The king of Uruk disappeared.

Enmerkar disappeared.

Enmerkar, king of Uruk, ruler of the land

[Some period of time] passed.

[Some period of time] went by.

The naru inscriptions relate the story of the king's reign and triumphs; the naru literature often tells the story of the king's struggles and failure, even if the events never happened. In The Legend of Cutha, for example, Naram-Sin is faced with an invading hoard of seemingly super-human creatures. When he asks the gods for advice in opposing them, he is told that he should do nothing. He ignores the will of the gods, however, and decides to rely on his own judgment. He sends out a massive military force that is slaughtered by the invaders and does so two more times before he realizes he is doing something wrong in the eyes of the gods since, clearly, they are not favoring his cause. He humbles himself, seeks their guidance, and learns that the gods had plans to destroy the invaders themselves and did not need, nor want, Naram-Sin's interference. He comes to understand that one should trust the will of the gods instead of following the counsel of one's own heart.

The poem ends with Naram-Sin directly addressing future rulers, telling them to trust the gods, heed the message of his story, and not make the same mistakes that he did. This is quite a different kind of story than those of kings like Lugalzagesi (and Naram-Sin's actual inscriptions) that told only of the great accomplishments of their reigns, their military campaigns, and temples and cities built by their decree. The naru literature was not interested in relating what actually did happen but in creating a tale of what could have happened - and what could happen again in the present - if one did not recognize one's proper place in the universe and behave accordingly. Gerdien Jonker writes:

What mattered in the naru literature was the retaining of memory, condensed into the enduring name of the "sender". It was also a matter of preserving one's own memory, of making oneself live on in the form of one's own name, which was bound up with the memory of one's own deeds. Names had to resound because people wished for them to be invoked after death. (96)

This same theme runs throughout The Epic of Gilgamesh in which the central character is so traumatized by the loss of his friend, Enkidu, that he must find some ultimate meaning for the human condition which he finds characterized by too brief a stay on earth, the certainty of death, and the mystery of what comes afterwards. The Epic of Gilgamesh departs from the form of Naru Literature in that it is told in the third person and the characters are far more fully developed than they are in other Naru works. Even so, it does fit the basic pattern in that it features a king attested to historically whose life is reimagined in order to relate an important message to an audience.


Since the naru literature is largely anonymous, the writers must have staked their immortality on the popularity of their tales without needing to attach their names to their work (although it is entirely possible they did so and the original tablets have simply been lost). The author of the later version of Gilgamesh is known by name (Shin-Leqi-Unninni, who wrote c. 1300-1000 BCE in or around Babylon) but this is the exception, not the rule.

All the authors seem to have had the same focus, however, of preserving the past and relating vital cultural values through the creation of entertaining and memorable tales. When Jonker writes above about "the retaining of memory", it should be recognized that it was not necessarily the memory of what had happened in the past that was important to the writers of the naru literature but that there had been a past worth remembering.

Jonker states, "It should be made clear that the ancient writers were not aiming to deceive with their literary creations" (95). They were instead trying to preserve their past in a form they felt could help people in the present. An inscription of the great deeds of a king who conquered many cities and slaughtered many people was fine for that particular king but not much use to the people who lived under him. Naru literature, on the other hand, provided the people with entertaining stories they could learn from, remember, and make use of in their daily lives.

Mesopotamian literature

Assorted References

Above all, the literature of Mesopotamia is one of its finest cultural achievements. Though there are many modern anthologies and chrestomathies (compilations of useful learning), with translations and paraphrases of Mesopotamian literature, as well as attempts to write its history, it cannot truly be said that “cuneiform literature”…

The picture offered by the literary tradition of Mesopotamia is clearer but not necessarily historically relevant. The Sumerian king list has long been the greatest focus of interest. This is a literary composition, dating from Old Babylonian times, that describes…

Literature in local languages is nonexistent, except for copies of ancient religious texts in cuneiform writing and fragments of Aramaic writing. There were authors who wrote in Greek, but little of their work has survived and that only as excerpts in later works. The most…

…for possession of this fertile Mesopotamian land. Among the extant literature of this highly gifted people are fragments of narrative poems recounting the heroic deeds of their early kings: Enmerkar, Lugalbanda, and Gilgamesh. By far the most important in the development of Mesopotamian literature are the five poems of the…

Contribution by

…first systematically collected and cataloged library in the ancient Middle East (of which approximately 20,720 Assyrian tablets and fragments have been preserved in the British Museum). At royal command, scribes searched out and collected or copied texts of every genre from temple libraries. These were added to the basic collection…

With few exceptions, ancient Mesopotamian rulers have left no documents from which to write an actual biography. No personal documents have survived from Sargon’s reign, but it seems fair to assume that phraseologies uncommon in the inscriptions of other Assyrian kings, found in his texts, must have met with…

Cultural areas

…scribes to collect and copy ancient texts throughout the country. The “K” collection included more than 20,000 tablets or fragments of tablets and incorporated the ancient lore of Mesopotamia. The subjects are literary, religious, and administrative, and a great many tablets are in the form of letters. Branches of learning…

The rich Sumerian literature is represented by texts of varied nature, such as myths and epics, hymns and lamentations, rituals and incantations, and proverbs and the so-called wisdom compositions. For many centuries after the Old Babylonian period, the study of Sumerian continued in the Babylonian schools. As…


…the primary source of the literary writing of Sumer. Excavation in 1990 uncovered an Akkadian tomb and a large temple to Bau (Gula), the Mesopotamian goddess of healing.

…source of more directly cultic texts, such as descriptions of rituals, which come under such headings as “Temple Program for the New Year’s Festivals at Babylon,” “Ritual to be Followed by the Kalū (priest) when Covering the Temple Kettle-Drum,” “Ritual for the Repair of a Temple,” and “Program of the…


The term "Ubaid period" was coined at a conference in Baghdad in 1930, where at the same time the Jemdet Nasr and Uruk periods were defined. [5]

The Ubaid period is divided into four principal phases:

  • Ubaid 0, sometimes called Oueili, (6500–5400 BC), an early Ubaid phase first excavated at Tell el-'Oueili
  • Ubaid 1, sometimes called Eridu [6] corresponding to the city Eridu, (5400–4700 BC), a phase limited to the extreme south of Iraq, on what was then the shores of the Persian Gulf. This phase, showing clear connection to the Samarra culture to the north, saw the establishment of the first permanent settlement south of the 5 inch rainfall isohyet. These people pioneered the growing of grains in the extreme conditions of aridity, thanks to the high water tables of Southern Iraq. [7]
  • Ubaid 2 [6] (4800–4500 BC). At that time, Hadji Muhammed style ceramics was produced. This period also saw the development of extensive canal networks near major settlements. Irrigation agriculture, which seems to have developed first at Choga Mami (4700–4600 BC) and rapidly spread elsewhere, form the first required collective effort and centralised coordination of labour in Mesopotamia. [8]
  • Ubaid 3: Tell al‐Ubaid style ceramics. Traditionally, this ceramic period was dated c. 5300–4700 BC. The appearance of these ceramics received different dates depending on the particular sites, which have a wide geographical distribution. In recent studies, there's a tendency to narrow this period somewhat.
  • Ubaid 4: Late Ubaid style ceramics, c.4700–4200 BC. [9][10][11]

Ubaid III pottery jar, 5300–4700 BC Louvre Museum AO 29611. [12]

Ubaid III pottery, 5300–4700 BC Louvre Museum AO 29598. [12]

Ubaid III campaniform pottery 5300–4700 BC Louvre Museum

Ubaid III pottery 5300–4700 BC. Louvre Museum AO 29616. [13]

Ubaid IV pottery gobelet, 4700–4200 BC Tello, ancient Girsu. Louvre Museum. [14]

Ubaid IV pottery jars 4700–4200 BC Tello, ancient Girsu, Louvre Museum. [14]

Ubaid IV pottery 4700–4200 BC Tello, ancient Girsu, Louvre Museum AO 15338. [15]

Female figurines Ubaid IV, Tello, ancient Girsu, 4700–4200 BC. Louvre Museum AO15327. [16]

Around 5000 BC, the Ubaid culture spread into northern Mesopotamia and was adopted by the Halaf culture. [17] [18] This is known as the Halaf-Ubaid Transitional period of northern Mesopotamia.

During the late Ubaid period around 4500–4000 BC, there was some increase in social polarization, with central houses in the settlements becoming bigger. But there were no real cities until the later Uruk period.

During the Ubaid 2 and 3 periods (5500–5000 BC), southern Mesopotamian Ubaid influence is felt further to the south as far as the Persian Gulf. Ubaid artifacts spread also all along the Arabian littoral, showing the growth of a trading system that stretched from the Mediterranean coast through to Oman. [19] [20]

Spreading from Eridu, the Ubaid culture extended from the Middle of the Tigris and Euphrates to the shores of the Persian Gulf, and then spread down past Bahrain to the copper deposits at Oman.

Obsidian trade Edit

Starting around 5500 BC, Ubaid pottery of periods 2 and 3 has been documented at Sabiyah in Kuwait and in Dosariyah in eastern Saudi Arabia.

In Dosariyah, nine samples of Ubaid-associated obsidian were analyzed. They came from eastern and northeastern Anatolia, such as from Pasinler, Erzurum, as well as from Armenia. The obsidian was in the form of finished blade fragments. [21]

Decline of influence Edit

The archaeological record shows that Arabian Bifacial/Ubaid period came to an abrupt end in eastern Arabia and the Oman peninsula at 3800 BC, just after the phase of lake lowering and onset of dune reactivation. [22] At this time, increased aridity led to an end in semi-desert nomadism, and there is no evidence of human presence in the area for approximately 1,000 years, the so-called "Dark Millennium". [23] That might be due to the 5.9 kiloyear event at the end of the Older Peron. [ citation needed ]

Numerous examples of Ubaid pottery have been found along the Persian Gulf, as far as Dilmun, where Indus Valley Civilization pottery has also been found. [24]

Ubaid culture is characterized by large unwalled village settlements, multi-roomed rectangular mud-brick houses and the appearance of the first temples of public architecture in Mesopotamia, with a growth of a two tier settlement hierarchy of centralized large sites of more than 10 hectares surrounded by smaller village sites of less than 1 hectare. [25] Domestic equipment included a distinctive fine quality buff or greenish colored pottery decorated with geometric designs in brown or black paint. Tools such as sickles were often made of hard fired clay in the south, while in the north stone and sometimes metal were used. Villages thus contained specialised craftspeople, potters, weavers and metalworkers, although the bulk of the population were agricultural labourers, farmers and seasonal pastoralists.

During the Ubaid Period (5000–4000 BC), the movement towards urbanization began. "Agriculture and animal husbandry [domestication] were widely practiced in sedentary communities". [ citation needed ] There were also tribes that practiced domesticating animals as far north as Turkey, and as far south as the Zagros Mountains. [26] The Ubaid period in the south was associated with intensive irrigated hydraulic agriculture, and the use of the plough, both introduced from the north, possibly through the earlier Choga Mami, Hadji Muhammed and Samarra cultures.

Early Ubaid pottery, 5100–4500 BC, Tepe Gawra. Louvre Museum DAO 3

Bowl mid 6th–5th millennium BC cermaic 5.08 cm from the Ubaid period

Ubaid period pottery, Susa I, 4th millennium BC.

The Ubaid period as a whole, based upon the analysis of grave goods, was one of increasingly polarised social stratification and decreasing egalitarianism. Bogucki describes this as a phase of "Trans-egalitarian" competitive households, in which some fall behind as a result of downward social mobility. Morton Fried and Elman Service have hypothesised that Ubaid culture saw the rise of an elite class of hereditary chieftains, perhaps heads of kin groups linked in some way to the administration of the temple shrines and their granaries, responsible for mediating intra-group conflict and maintaining social order. It would seem that various collective methods, perhaps instances of what Thorkild Jacobsen called primitive democracy, in which disputes were previously resolved through a council of one's peers, were no longer sufficient for the needs of the local community.

Ubaid culture originated in the south, but still has clear connections to earlier cultures in the region of middle Iraq. The appearance of the Ubaid folk has sometimes been linked to the so-called Sumerian problem, related to the origins of Sumerian civilisation. Whatever the ethnic origins of this group, this culture saw for the first time a clear tripartite social division between intensive subsistence peasant farmers, with crops and animals coming from the north, tent-dwelling nomadic pastoralists dependent upon their herds, and hunter-fisher folk of the Arabian littoral, living in reed huts.

Stein and Özbal describe the Near East oecumene that resulted from Ubaid expansion, contrasting it to the colonial expansionism of the later Uruk period. "A contextual analysis comparing different regions shows that the Ubaid expansion took place largely through the peaceful spread of an ideology, leading to the formation of numerous new indigenous identities that appropriated and transformed superficial elements of Ubaid material culture into locally distinct expressions." [27]

The earliest evidence for sailing has been found in Kuwait indicating that sailing was known by the Ubaid 3 period. [28]

Terracotta stamp seal with Master of Animals motif, Tello, ancient Girsu, End of Ubaid period, Louvre Museum AO14165. Circa 4000 BC. [29] [30] [31]

Drop-shaped (tanged) pendant seal and modern impression. Quadrupeds, not entirely reduced to geometric shapes, ca. 4500–3500 BC. Late Ubaid - Middle Gawra periods. Northern Mesopotamia

Stamp seal and modern impression: horned animal and bird. 6th–5th millennium BC. Northern Syria or southeastern Anatolia. Ubaid period. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Home of the Fertile Crescent

The Fertile Crescent is the quarter-moon-shaped region of ancient Mesopotamia corresponding to modern-day southern Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and northern Egypt. It is the locale commonly referred to as “the Cradle of Civilization” because of the cultural and technological advancements made there which include but are not limited to:

  • agricultural techniques
  • domestication of animals
  • astrology and the development of the zodiac
  • the concept of time
  • science and technology
  • the wheel
  • writing and literature
  • religion
  • mathematics and astronomy
  • long-distance trade
  • medical practices (including dentistry).

The designation “Fertile Crescent” is frequently supposed to have originated in antiquity but, actually, was coined in 1916 CE by the Egyptologist James Henry Breasted in his popular book Ancient Times: A History of the Early World. The book’s popularity encouraged widespread use of the phrase until it entered cultural consciousness as the name for the region.

Invented Writing, the Wheel, and the City

This is a cylinder seal with an image of its impression. It was found at Kish city, Mesopotamia, Iraq. 3200-2900 BCE. (The Sulaimaniya Museum, Iraq). / Photo by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin, AHE, Creative Commons

Writing developed independently in many different areas of the world from China to Mesoamerica, but Mesopotamia is considered the first to do so, having created a writing system prior to c. 3000 BCE, known as cuneiform. The wheel also originated in the region (c. 3500 BCE) contrary to claims that it was invented in Central Asia. The oldest wheel in the world, dated to c. 3200 BCE (known as the Ljubljana Marshes Wheel) was discovered in Slovenia in 2002 CE, giving rise to the claim that the people of Central Asia invented the wheel. The Mesopotamian wheel came first, however, as evidenced by its appearance in Mesopotamian art pre-dating c. 3200 BCE.

The invention of the city is among the Mesopotamians’ most significant innovations – for better or worse – in that the concept, so common today, never existed before. Cities developed during the Uruk Period when small, agricultural communities, which were thriving, attracted the people of nearby regions who were, perhaps, not doing as well. Mesopotamian cities provided the people with protection from the elements, natural predators, and raiders while also opening up new opportunities for making a living. In this regard, they were at first a great benefit to the people. Eventually, however, the dense population of the cities, and their expansion, depleted the resources around them. Many Mesopotamian cities which were originally thought by archaeologists to have been destroyed in wars were actually abandoned when the resources were used up.


There are many different accounts of the creation of the earth from the Mesopotamian region. This is because of the many different cultures in the area and the shifts in narratives that are common in ancient cultures due to their reliance on word of mouth to transmit stories. These myths can share related themes, but the chronology of events vary based on when or where the story was written down.

Atra-Hasis Edit

Atra-Hasis refers both to one of the Mesopotamian myths focusing on the earth’s creation, and also the main character of that myth. [2] The myth possibly has Assyrian roots, as a fragmented version may have been found in the library of Ashusbanipal, though translations remain unsure. Its most complete surviving version was recorded in Akkadian. The myth begins with humans being created by the mother goddess Mami to lighten the gods' workload. She made them out of a mixture of clay, flesh, and blood from a slain god. Later in the story though, the god Enlil attempts to control overpopulation of humans through various methods, including famine, drought, and finally, a great flood. Humankind is saved by Atrahasis, who was warned of the flood by the god Enki and built a boat to escape the waters, eventually placating the gods with sacrifices. [2]

Eridu Genesis Edit

Eridu Genesis has a similar plot to that of the Akkadian myth, Atra-Hasis, though it is harder to tell what happens exactly in Eridu Genesis because the tablet upon which it was recorded is badly damaged. The two stories share the flood as the major event however, although the hero who survives in Eridu Genesis is called Zi-ud-sura instead of Artahasis. Eridu Genesis was recorded around the same time as Atra-Hasis, however the fragmented tablet that held it was found in Nippur, located in modern-day east Iraq, while the version of Atra-hasis that came from the same time was found in the library of Ashurbanipal, in modern-day north Iraq. [1]

Enuma Elish Edit

Enuma Elis (also spelled Enuma Elish) is a Babylonian creation myth with an unclear composition, though it possibly dates back to the Bronze Age. This piece was thought to be recited in a ritual celebration of the Babylonian new year. It chronicles the birth of the gods, the world, and man, whose purpose was to serve the gods and lighten their work load. [2] The focus of the narrative is on praising Marduk, the patron god of Babylon, who creates the world, the calendar, and humanity.

These stories tended to focus on a great hero, following their journey through trials or simply important events in their life. Stories like these can be found in many different cultures around the world, and often give insight into the values of those societies. For example, in a culture that celebrated a hero that was devout to the gods or respecting their father, it can be inferred that the society valued those traits.

Epic of Gilgamesh Edit

The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the most well known Mesopotamian myths, and is often regarded as the oldest known piece of literature in the world. It was initially a number of individual short stories, and was not combined into one cohesive epic until the 18th century. [1] The story follows the Sumerian king Gilgamesh, typically regarded as a historical figure, and his good friend, Enkidu through various adventures and quests that eventually lead to Enkidu's death. The second half of the epic deal with Gilgamesh, distressed about the death of his friend and his own impending mortality, as he searches for immortality. In the end he fails, but he comes to terms with the fact that he is eventually going to die and returns to his city of Uruk a wiser king. [3]

The Myth of Adapa Edit

The earliest record of myth of Adapa is from the 14th century BC. Adapa was a Sumerian citizen who was blessed by the god Enki with immeasurable intelligence. However, one day Adapa was knocked into the sea by the south wind, and in a rage he broke the south wind’s wings so that it could no longer blow. Adapa was summoned to be judged by An, and before he left Enki warned him not to eat or drink anything offered to him. However, An had a change of heart when he realized just how smart Adapa was, and offered him the food of immortality, which Adapa, dutiful to Enki, turned down. This story is used as an explanation for humankind’s mortality, it is associated with the fall of man narrative that is also present in Christianity. [4]

Immortality is a constant goal of the characters in Mesopotamian epics. No matter the version of the story, the man who survives the flood, whether Atrahasis, Zi-ud-sura, or Utnapishtim, is granted immortality by the gods. This character then makes a reappearance in the Epic of Gilgamesh, when Gilgamesh is searching for immortality after coming to fear death and the underworld after hearing stories from his friend, Enkidu, about what awaits humanity after death. Enkidu says:

On entering the House of Dust,
everywhere I looked there were royal crowns gathered in heaps,
everywhere I listened, it was the bearers of crowns,
who, in the past, had ruled the land,
but who now served Anu and Enlil cooked meats,
served confections, and poured cool water from waterskins. [5]

Upon hearing that his position in life did not matter in the underworld, Gilgamesh is terrified and seeks out Utnapishtim, who has achieved immortality after surviving the flood sent by the gods to wipe out humanity. Immortality is also touched on in the myth of Adapa. Adapa’s accidental refusal to eat the food of immortality offered to him by the gods is used as an explanation for the fact that humans die.

Also common in Mesopotamian myths is the reoccurring concept that humanity’s purpose is to serve the gods. [6] In all of the creation myths, humans are only made by the gods in order to help in the fields or offer sacrifices. When they get too be too numerous, loud, or otherwise bothersome, the gods attempt to control the population through plagues, droughts, and most famously, the great flood. This disregard for human life emphasizes the hierarchy that existed in the Mesopotamian consciousness, with humans existing as subjects to the will of the gods.

Modern understanding of Mesopotamian mythology has been provided through archeological excavations of West Asia and the recovery of many stone and clay tablets, some of which contained the records of many myths. There have been different versions of each myth found in various locations across the region, with inconsistencies between each but maintaining overall common themes and narratives. These versions were written in different languages, including Akkadian, Sumerian, and Old Babylonian, and were often translated from one to another, leading to further inconsistencies due to the inherently imperfect nature of these translations. [4]

Mesopotamian Omens

Akkadian was the language of Ancient Mesopotamia, and although cuneiform was used over several millennia by a number of different ancient cultures, it is estimated that 30% of the surviving Akkadian cuneiform inscriptions are about witchcraft and the supernatural. A lot of these are not witchcraft in the way we may think of it today in the form of magic spells and rituals, but things surrounding the unknown.

Cuneiform tablet: fragment of a liver omen. ( Metropolitan Museum of Art )

Although Mesopotamia was remarkably advanced in many respects, things such as celestial bodies and unpredictable natural phenomena were not fully understood. These things were often looked to as a way of trying to predict and avoid negative events and a lot of the surviving inscriptions are very detailed attempts to list omens and help evade disaster.

One notable mystical text was the Enuma Anu Enlil, which is details around 7000 celestial omens relating specifically to the king and state. The king was sent regular updates and reports from the predictions by his personal scholars, who were tasked with deciphering the premonitions.

Ceramic incantation bowl from the Sasanian Period, 6-7th century AD. ( Signposts to Eden )

Another set of omens is the Šumma ālu ina mēlê šakin, which consists of 120 clay tablets and over ten thousand ill omens linked to there being too many of one kind of person at any given time. Perhaps today these particular omens would be seen as common sense more than esoteric.

One of the more unusual set of omens is the Šumma izbu. These are omens which are connected to deformed human births and bizarre animal births such as conjoined animals. They were not always negative and they were often linked to the side of the body the deformity related to – a deformity on the right hand side was bad, but on the left it may have been seen as lucky.


In the fourth millennium BC, the first evidence for what is recognisably Mesopotamian religion can be seen with the invention in Mesopotamia of writing circa 3500 BC.

The people of Mesopotamia originally consisted of two groups, East Semitic Akkadian speakers (later divided into the Assyrians and Babylonians) and the people of Sumer, who spoke Sumerian, a language isolate. These peoples were members of various city-states and small kingdoms. The Sumerians left the first records, and are believed to have been the founders of the civilization of the Ubaid period (6500 BC to 3800 BC) in Upper Mesopotamia. By historical times they resided in southern Mesopotamia, which was known as Sumer (and much later, Babylonia), and had considerable influence on the Akkadian speakers and their culture. The Akkadian-speaking Semites are believed to have entered the region at some point between 3500 BC and 3000 BC, with Akkadian names first appearing in the regnal lists of these states c. 29th century BC.

The Sumerians were advanced: as well as inventing writing, early forms of mathematics, early wheeled vehicles/chariots, astronomy, astrology, written code of law, organised medicine, advanced agriculture and architecture, and the calendar. They created the first city-states such as Uruk, Ur, Lagash, Isin, Kish, Umma, Eridu, Adab, Akshak, Sippar, Nippur and Larsa, each of them ruled by an ensí. The Sumerians remained largely dominant in this synthesised culture, however, until the rise of the Akkadian Empire under Sargon of Akkad circa 2335 BC, which united all of Mesopotamia under one ruler. [2]

There was increasing syncretism 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. Circa 2335 BC, Sargon of Akkad conquered all of Mesopotamia, uniting its inhabitants into the world's first empire and spreading its domination into ancient Iran, the Levant, Anatolia, Canaan and the Arabian Peninsula. The Akkadian Empire endured for two centuries before collapsing due to economic decline, internal strife and attacks from the north east by the Gutian people.

Following a brief Sumerian revival with the Third Dynasty of Ur or Neo-Sumerian Empire, Mesopotamia broke up into a number of Akkadian states. Assyria had evolved during the 25th century BC, and asserted itself in the north circa 2100 BC in the Old Assyrian Empire and southern Mesopotamia fragmented into a number of kingdoms, the largest being Isin, Larsa and Eshnunna.

In 1894 BC the initially minor city-state of Babylon was founded in the south by invading West Semitic-speaking Amorites. It was rarely ruled by native dynasties throughout its history.

Some time after this period, the Sumerians disappeared, becoming wholly absorbed into the Akkadian-speaking population.

Assyrian kings are attested from the late 25th century BC and dominated northern Mesopotamia and parts of eastern Anatolia and northeast Syria.

Circa 1750 BC, the Amorite ruler of Babylon, King Hammurabi, conquered much of Mesopotamia, but this empire collapsed after his death, and Babylonia was reduced to the small state it had been upon its founding. The Amorite dynasty was deposed in 1595 BC after attacks from mountain-dwelling people known as the Kassites from the Zagros Mountains, who went on to rule Babylon for over 500 years.

Assyria, having been the dominant power in the region with the Old Assyrian Empire between the 20th and 18th centuries BC before the rise of Hammurabi, once more became a major power with the Middle Assyrian Empire (1391–1050 BC). Assyria defeated the Hittites and Mitanni, and its growing power forced the New Kingdom of Egypt to withdraw from the Near East. The Middle Assyrian Empire at its height stretched from the Caucasus to modern Bahrain and from Cyprus to western Iran.

The Neo-Assyrian Empire (911–605 BC) was the most dominant power on earth and the largest empire the world had yet seen between the 10th century BC and the late 7th century BC, with an empire stretching from Cyprus in the west to central Iran in the east, and from the Caucasus in the north to Nubia, Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula in the south, facilitating the spread of Mesopotamian culture and religion far and wide under emperors such as Ashurbanipal, Tukulti-Ninurta II, Tiglath-Pileser III, Shalmaneser IV, Sargon II, Sennacherib and Esarhaddon. During the Neo-Assyrian Empire, Mesopotamian Aramaic became the lingua franca of the empire, and also Mesopotamia proper. The last written records in Akkadian were astrological texts dating from 78 CE discovered in Assyria.

The empire fell between 612 BC and 599 BC after a period of severe internal civil war in Assyria which soon spread to Babylonia, leaving Mesopotamia in a state of chaos. A weakened Assyria was then subject to combined attacks by a coalition of hitherto vassals, in the form of the Babylonians, Chaldeans, Medes, Scythians, Persians, Sagartians and Cimmerians beginning in 616 BC. These were led by Nabopolassar of Babylon and Cyaxares of Media and Persia. Nineveh was sacked in 612 BC, Harran fell in 608 BC, Carchemish in 605 BC, and final traces of Assyrian imperial administration disappeared from Dūr-Katlimmu by 599 BC.

Babylon had a brief late flowering of power and influence, initially under the Chaldean dynasty, which took over much of the empire formerly held by their northern kinsmen. However, the last king of Babylonia, Nabonidus, an Assyrian, paid little attention to politics, preferring to worship the lunar deity 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. The Achaemenid Empire conquered the Neo-Babylonian Empire in 539 BC, after which the Chaldeans disappeared from history, although Mesopotamian people, culture and religion continued to endure after this.

Effect of Assyrian religious beliefs on its political structure Edit

Like many nations in Mesopotamian history, Assyria was originally, to a great extent, an oligarchy rather than a monarchy. Authority was considered to lie with "the city", and the polity had three main centres of power—an assembly of elders, a hereditary ruler, and an eponym. The ruler presided over the assembly and carried out its decisions. He was not referred to with the usual Akkadian term for "king", šarrum that was instead reserved for the city's patron deity Ashur, of whom the ruler was the high priest. The ruler himself was only designated as "steward of Assur" (iššiak Assur), where the term for steward is a borrowing from Sumerian ensí. The third centre of power was the eponym (limmum), who gave the year his name, similarly to the eponymous archon and Roman consuls of classical antiquity. He was annually elected by lot and was responsible for the economic administration of the city, which included the power to detain people and confiscate property. The institution of the eponym as well as the formula iššiak Assur lingered on as ceremonial vestiges of this early system throughout the history of the Assyrian monarchy. [3]

Religion in the Neo-Assyrian Empire Edit

The religion of the Neo-Assyrian Empire centered around 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. [4] The Assyrian king, while 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. [4] 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, Ashur was promoted from being the local deity of Assur to the overlord of the vast Assyrian domain, which spread from the Caucasus and Armenia in the north to Egypt, Nubia and the Arabian Peninsula in the south, and from Cyprus and the eastern Mediterranean Sea in the west to central Iran in the east. [4] Assur, the patron deity of the city of Assur from the late Bronze Age, was in constant rivalry with the patron deity of Babylon, Marduk. Worship was conducted in his name throughout the lands dominated by 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.

Later Mesopotamian history Edit

In 539 BC, Mesopotamia was conquered by the Achaemenid Empire (539–332 BC), then ruled by Cyrus the Great. This brought to an end over 3,000 years of Semitic 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 (although Chaldea and the Chaldeans disappeared), and Assyria was strong enough to launch major rebellions against Persia in 522 and 482 BC. During this period the Syriac language and Syriac script evolved in Assyria, and were centuries later to be the vehicle for the spread of Syriac Christianity throughout the near east.

Then, two centuries later in 330 BC the Macedonian Greek emperor Alexander the Great overthrew the Persians and took control of Mesopotamia itself. After Alexander's death increased Hellenistic influence was brought to the region by the Seleucid Empire. [5] Assyria and Babylonia later became provinces under the Parthian Empire (Athura and province of Babylonia), Rome (province of Assyria) and Sassanid Empire (province of Asuristan). Babylonia was dissolved as an entity during the Parthian Empire, though Assyria endured as a geo-political entity until the 7th century AD Arab Islamic conquest.

During the Parthian Empire there was a major revival in Assyria (known as Athura and Assuristan) between the 2nd century BC and 4th century CE, [6] with temples once more being dedicated to gods such as Ashur, Sin, Shamash, Hadad and Ishtar in independent Neo-Assyrian states such as Assur, Adiabene, Osroene, Beth Garmai, Hatra and Beth Nuhadra. [7] [8]

With the Christianization of Mesopotamia beginning in the 1st century CE the independent Assyrian states of Adiabene, Osroene, Assur, Hatra, Beth Nuhadra and Beth Garmai were largely ruled by converts to home grown forms of still extant Eastern Rite Christianity in the form of the Church of the East and Syriac Orthodox Church, as well as Judaism. Gnostic sects such as Sabianism and the still extant Mandeanism also became popular, though native religions still coexisted alongside these new monotheistic religions among the native populace gods such as Ashur and Sin were still worshiped until the 4th century CE in Assyria. In the 3rd century CE another native Mesopotamian religion flourished, Manicheanism, which incorporated elements of Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and Zoroastrianism, as well as local Mesopotamian elements. [9]

There are no specific written records explaining Mesopotamian religious cosmology that survive today. Nonetheless, modern scholars have examined various accounts, and created what is believed to be an at least partially accurate depiction of Mesopotamian cosmology. [10] In the Epic of Creation, dated to 1200 BC, 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. [11] 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. [12]

Deities Edit

Mesopotamian religion was polytheistic, thereby accepting the existence of many different deities, both male and female, though it was also henotheistic, [14] 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 in Sumer, the god Ashur with Assur and Assyria, Enlil with the Sumerian city of Nippur, Ishtar with the Assyrian city of Arbela, and the god Marduk was associated with Babylon. [15] Though 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, while 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. [16]

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, [17] but were thought to have a higher degree of perfection than common men. They were thought to be more powerful, all-seeing and all-knowing, unfathomable, and, above all, immortal. One of their prominent features was a terrifying brightness (melammu) which surrounded them, producing an immediate reaction of awe and reverence among men. [18] In many cases, the various deities were family relations of one another, a trait found in many other polytheistic religions. [19] 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. [20] Nonetheless, many Mesopotamians, of all classes, often had names that were devoted to a certain deity this practice appeared to have begun in the third millennium BC among the Sumerians, but also was later adopted by the Akkadians, Assyrians and Babylonians as well. [21]

Initially, the pantheon 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 Farm and Tell Abû Ṣalābīkh and dated to circa 2600 BC, ranking five primary deities as being of particular importance. [22]

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 among 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 while the Sumerian sun god Utu became the Akkadian Shamash. One of the most notable goddesses was the Sumerian sex and war deity Inanna. With the later rise to power of the Babylonians in the 18th century BC, 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 in southern Mesopotamia. [23]

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. It also contains the earliest reference to The Great Flood.

Recent discoveries Edit

In March 2020, archaeologists announced the discovery of a 5,000-year-old cultic area filled with more than 300 broken ceremonial ceramic cups, bowls, jars, animal bones and ritual processions dedicated to Ningirsu at the site of Girsu. One of the remains was a duck-shaped bronze figurine with eyes made from bark which is thought to be dedicated to Nanshe. [24] [25]

A prayer to the god Enlil. [26]

Public devotions Edit

Each Mesopotamian city was home to a deity, and each of the prominent deities was the patron of a city, and all known temples were located in cities, though there may have been shrines in the suburbs. [27] The temple itself was constructed of mud brick in the form of a ziggurat, which rose to the sky in a series of stairstep stages. Its significance and symbolism have been the subject of much discussion, but most regard the tower as a kind of staircase or ladder for the god to descend from and ascend to the heavens, though there are signs which point towards an actual cult having been practiced in the upper temple, so the entire temple may have been regarded as a giant altar. Other theories treat the tower as an image of the cosmic mountain where a dying and rising god "lay buried." Some temples, such as the temple of Enki in Eridu contained a holy tree (kiskanu) in a holy grove, which was the central point of various rites performed by the king, who functioned as a "master gardener." [28]

Mesopotamian temples were originally built to serve as dwelling places for the god, who was thought to reside and hold court on earth for the good of the city and kingdom. [29] His presence was symbolized by an image of the god in a separate room. The god's presence within the image seems to have been thought of in a very concrete way, as instruments for the presence of the deity." [30] This is evident from the poem How Erra Wrecked the World, in which Erra deceived the god Marduk into leaving his cult statue. [31] Once constructed, idols were consecrated through special nocturnal rituals where they were given "life", and their mouth "was opened" (pet pî) and washed (mes pî) so they could see and eat. [28] If the deity approved, it would accept the image and agree to "inhabit" it. These images were also entertained, and sometime escorted on hunting expeditions. In order to service the gods, the temple was equipped with a household with kitchens and kitchenware, sleeping rooms with beds and side rooms for the deity's family, as well as a courtyard with a basin and water for cleansing visitors, as well as a stable for the god's chariot and draft animals. [32]

Generally, the god's well-being was maintained through service, or work (dullu). The image was dressed and served banquets twice a day. It is not known how the god was thought to consume the food, but a curtain was drawn before the table while he or she "ate", just as the king himself was not allowed to be seen by the masses while he ate. Occasionally, the king shared in these meals, and the priests may have had some share in the offerings as well. Incense was also burned before the image, because it was thought that the gods enjoyed the smell. Sacrificial meals were also set out regularly, with a sacrificial animal seen as a replacement (pūhu) or substitute (dinānu) for a man, and it was considered that the anger of the gods or demons was then directed towards the sacrificial animal. Additionally, certain days required extra sacrifices and ceremonies for certain gods, and every day was sacred to a particular god. [33]

The king was thought, in theory, to be the religious leader (enu or šangū) of the cult and exercised a large number of duties within the temple, with a large number of specialists whose task was to mediate between men and gods: [34] a supervising or "watchman" priest (šešgallu), priests for individual purification against demons and magicians (āšipu), priests for the purification of the temple (mašmašu), priests to appease the wrath of the gods with song and music (kalū), as well as female singers (nāru), male singers (zammeru), craftsmen (mārē ummāni), swordbearers (nāš paṭri), masters of divination (bārû), penitents (šā'ilu), and others. [35]

Private devotions Edit

Besides the worship of the gods at public rituals, individuals also paid homage to a personal deity. As with other deities, the personal gods changed over time and little is known about early practice as they are rarely named or described. In the mid-third millennium BC, some rulers regarded a particular god or gods as being their personal protector. In the second millennium BC, personal gods began to function more on behalf of the common man, [36] with whom he had a close, personal relationship, maintained through prayer and maintenance of his god's statue. [37] A number of written prayers have survived from ancient Mesopotamia, each of which typically exalt the god that they are describing above all others. [38] 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. [20] They were thought to offer good luck, success, and protection from disease and demons, [36] and one's place and success in society was thought to depend on his personal deity, including the development of his certain talents and even his personality. This was even taken to the point that everything he experienced was considered a reflection of what was happening to his personal god. [37] When a man neglected his god, it was assumed that the demons were free to inflict him, and when he revered his god, that god was like a shepherd who seeks food for him. [39]

There was a strong belief in demons in Mesopotamia, and private individuals, like the temple priests, also participated in incantations (šiptu) to ward them off. [40] Although there was no collective term for these beings either in Sumerian or Akkadian, they were merely described as harmful or dangerous beings or forces, and they were used as a logical way to explain the existence of evil in the world. [41] They were thought to be countless in number, and were thought to even attack the gods as well. Besides demons, there were also spirits of the dead, (etimmu) who could also cause mischief. Amulets were occasionally used, and sometimes a special priest or exorcist (āšipu or mašmašu) was required. Incantations and ceremonies were also used to cure diseases which were also thought to be associated with demonic activity, sometimes making use of sympathetic magic. [42] Sometimes an attempt was made to capture a demon by making an image of it, placing it above the head of a sick person, then destroying the image, which the demon was somehow likely to inhabit. Images of protecting spirits were also made and placed at gates to ward off disaster. [43]

Divination was also employed by private individuals, with the assumption that the gods have already determined the destinies of men and these destinies could be ascertained through observing omens and through rituals (e.g., casting lots). [43] It was believed that the gods expressed their will through "words" (amatu) and "commandments" (qibitu) which were not necessarily spoken, but were thought to manifest in the unfolding routine of events and things. [44] There were countless ways to divine the future, such as observing oil dropped into a cup of water (lecanomancy), observing the entrails of sacrificial animals (extispicy), observation of the behavior of birds (augury) and observing celestial and meteorological phenomena (astrology), as well as through interpretation of dreams. Often interpretation of these phenomena required the need for two classes of priests: askers (sa'ilu) and observer (baru), and also sometimes a lower class of ecstatic seer (mahhu) that was also associated with witchcraft. [45]

Incantation from the Šurpu series. [46]

Although ancient paganism tended to focus more on duty and ritual than morality, a number of general moral virtues can be gleaned from surviving prayers and myths. It was believed that man originated as a divine act of creation, and the gods were believed to be the source of life, and held power over sickness and health, as well as the destinies of men. Personal names show that each child was considered a gift from divinity. [47] Man was believed to have been created to serve the gods, or perhaps wait on them: the god is lord (belu) and man is servant or slave (ardu), and was to fear (puluhtu) the gods and have the appropriate attitude towards them. Duties seem to have been primarily of a cultic and ritual nature, [48] although some prayers express a positive psychological relationship, or a sort of conversion experience in regard to a god. [49] Generally the reward to mankind is described as success and long life. [47]

Every man also had duties to his fellow man which had some religious character, particularly the king's duties to his subjects. It was thought that one of the reasons the gods gave power to the king was to exercise justice and righteousness, [50] described as mēšaru and kettu, literally "straightness, rightness, firmness, truth". [51] Examples of this include not alienating and causing dissension between friends and relatives, setting innocent prisoners free, being truthful, being honest in trade, respecting boundary lines and property rights, and not putting on airs with subordinates. Some of these guidelines are found in the second tablet of the Šurpu incantation series. [46]

Sin, on the other hand, was expressed by the words hitu (mistake, false step), annu or arnu (rebellion), and qillatu (sin or curse), [46] with strong emphasis on the idea of rebellion, sometimes with the idea that sin is man's wishing to "live on his own terms" (ina ramanisu). Sin also was described as anything which incited the wrath of the gods. Punishment came through sickness or misfortune, [49] which inevitably lead to the common reference to unknown sins, or the idea that one can transgress a divine prohibition without knowing it—psalms of lamentation rarely mention concrete sins. This idea of retribution was also applied to the nation and history as a whole. A number of examples of Mesopotamian literature show how war and natural disasters were treated as punishment from the gods, and how kings were used as a tool for deliverance. [52]

Sumerian myths suggest a prohibition against premarital sex. [53] Marriages were often arranged by the parents of the bride and groom engagements were usually completed through the approval of contracts recorded on clay tablets. These marriages became legal as soon as the groom delivered a bridal gift to his bride's father. Nonetheless, evidence suggests that premarital sex was a common, but surreptitious, occurrence. [54] : 78 The worship of Inanna/Ishtar, which was prevalent in Mesopotamia could involve wild, frenzied dancing and bloody ritual celebrations of social and physical abnormality. It was believed that "nothing is prohibited to Inanna", and that by depicting transgressions of normal human social and physical limitations, including traditional gender definition, one could cross over from the "conscious everyday world into the trance world of spiritual ecstasy." [55]

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. [56] Unlike Christian Hell, the Mesopotamians considered the underworld neither a punishment nor a reward. [57] Nevertheless, the condition of the dead was hardly considered the same as the life previously enjoyed on earth: they were considered merely weak and powerless ghosts. The myth of Ishtar's descent into the underworld relates that "dust is their food and clay their nourishment, they see no light, where they dwell in darkness." Stories such as the Adapa myth resignedly relate that, due to a blunder, all men must die and that true everlasting life is the sole property of the gods. [18]

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. Berossus does not report what was thought to follow this event, however. [58]

Challenges Edit

The modern study of Mesopotamia (Assyriology) is still a fairly young science, beginning only in the middle of the Nineteenth century, [59] and the study of Mesopotamian religion can be a complex and difficult subject because, by nature, their religion was governed only by usage, not by any official decision, [60] and by nature it was neither dogmatic nor systematic. Deities, characters, and their actions within myths changed in character and importance over time, and occasionally depicted different, sometimes even contrasting images or concepts. This is further complicated by the fact that scholars are not entirely certain what role religious texts played in the Mesopotamian world. [61]

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. " [62] 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. [63]

Panbabylonism Edit

According to Panbabylonism, a school of thought founded by Hugo Winckler and held in the early 20th century among primarily German Assyriologists, there was a common cultural system extending over the ancient Near East which was overwhelmingly influenced by the Babylonians. According to this theory the religions of the Near East were rooted in Babylonian astral science- including the Hebrew Bible and Judaism. This theory of a Babylonian-derived Bible originated from the discovery of a stele in the acropolis of Susa bearing a Babylonian flood myth with many similarities to the flood of Genesis, the Epic of Gilgamesh. However, flood myths appear in almost every culture around the world, including cultures that never had contact with Mesopotamia. The fundamental tenets of Panbabylonism were eventually dismissed as pseudoscientific, [64] however Assyriologists and biblical scholars recognize the influence of Babylonian mythology on Jewish mythology and other Near Eastern mythologies, albeit indirect. Indeed, similarities between both religious traditions may draw from even older sources. [65]

Biblical eschatology Edit

In the New Testament Book of Revelation, Babylonian religion is associated with religious apostasy of the lowest order, the archetype of a political/religious system heavily tied to global commerce, and it is depicted as a system which, according to the author, continued to hold sway in the first century CE, eventually to be utterly annihilated. According to some interpretations, this is believed to refer to the Roman Empire, [66] but according to other interpretations, this system remains extant in the world until the Second Coming. [67] [68] [69]

  • Revelation 17:5: "And upon her forehead was a name written, mystery, Babylon the great, the mother of harlots and abominations of the earth,"
  • Revelation 18:9: "The kings of the earth who committed fornication and lived luxuriously with her will weep and lament for her, when they see the smoke of her burning, standing at a distance for fear of her torment, saying, 'Alas, alas that great city Babylon, that mighty city! For in one hour your judgment has come.' And the merchants of the earth shall weep and mourn over her for no man buyeth their merchandise any more. "

Popular culture Edit

Mesopotamian religion, culture, history and mythology has influenced some forms of music. As well as traditional Syriac folk music, many heavy metal bands have named themselves after Mesopotamian gods and historical figures, including the partly Assyrian band Melechesh.

New religious movements Edit

Various new religious movements in the 20th and 21st centuries have been founded that venerate some of the deities found in ancient Mesopotamian religion, including various strains of neopaganism that have adopted the worship of the historical Mesopotamian gods.

As with most dead religions, many aspects of the common practices and intricacies of the doctrine have been lost and forgotten over time. However, much of the information and knowledge has survived, and great work has been done by historians and scientists, with the help of religious scholars and translators, to re-construct a working knowledge of the religious history, customs, and the role these beliefs played in everyday life in Sumer, Akkad, Assyria, Babylonia, Ebla and Chaldea during this time. Mesopotamian religion is thought to have been an influence on subsequent religions throughout the world, including Canaanite, Aramean, and ancient Greek.

Mesopotamian religion was polytheistic, worshipping over 2,100 different deities, [16] many of which were associated with a specific state within Mesopotamia, such as Sumer, Akkad, Assyria or Babylonia, or a specific Mesopotamian city, such as (Ashur), Nineveh, Ur, Nippur, Arbela, Harran, Uruk, Ebla, Kish, Eridu, Isin, Larsa, Sippar, Gasur, Ekallatum, Til Barsip, Mari, Adab, Eshnunna and Babylon.

Mesopotamian religion has historically the oldest body of recorded literature of any religious tradition. What is known about Mesopotamian religion comes from archaeological evidence uncovered in the region, particularly numerous literary sources, which are usually written in Sumerian, Akkadian (Assyro-Babylonian) or Aramaic using cuneiform script on clay tablets and which describe both mythology and cultic practices. Other artifacts can also be useful when reconstructing Mesopotamian religion. As is common with most ancient civilizations, the objects made of the most durable and precious materials, and thus more likely to survive, were associated with religious beliefs and practices. This has prompted one scholar to make the claim that the Mesopotamian's "entire existence was infused by their religiosity, just about everything they have passed on to us can be used as a source of knowledge about their religion." [70] While Mesopotamian religion had almost completely died out by approximately 400–500 CE after its indigenous adherents had largely become Assyrian Christians, it has still had an influence on the modern world, predominantly because many biblical stories that are today found in Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Mandaeism were possibly based upon earlier Mesopotamian myths, in particular that of the creation myth, the Garden of Eden, the flood myth, the Tower of Babel, figures such as Nimrod and Lilith and the Book of Esther. It has also inspired various contemporary neo-pagan groups.

Geology and the Tigris

The Tigris is the second largest river in Western Asia, next to the Euphrates, and it originates near Lake Hazar in eastern Turkey at an elevation of 1,150 meters (3,770 feet). The Tigris is fed from snow which falls annually over the uplands of northern and eastern Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. Today the river forms the Turkish-Syrian border for a length of 32 kilometers (20 miles) before it crosses into Iraq. Only about 44 km (27 mi) of its length flows through Syria. It is fed by several tributaries, and the major ones are the Zab, Diyalah, and Kharun rivers.

The Tigris joins the Euphrates near the modern town of Qurna, where the two rivers and the river Kharkah create a massive delta and the river known as Shatt-al-Arab. This conjoined river flows into the Persian Gulf 190 km (118 mi) south of Qurna. The Tigris is 1,180 miles (1,900 km) in length. Irrigation through seven millennia has changed the course of the river.

Mesopotamian Naru Literature - History

The Sumerians developed the first form of writing. As Sumerian towns grew into cities, the people needed a way to keep track of business transactions, ownership rights, and government records. Around 3300 BC the Sumerians began to use picture symbols marked into clay tablets to keep their records.

Sumerian Writing by Unknown
Symbols were made with wedge shaped marks on clay tablets

Writing was inscribed on clay tablets. Scribes would take a stylus (a stick made from a reed) and press the lines and symbols into soft, moist clay. Once they were done, they would let the clay harden and they had a permanent record.

The initial writing of the Sumerians utilized simple pictures or pictograms. For example, a drawing of a person's head, meant the word "head". Over time, however, the writing of the Sumerians further developed to include sounds and meanings. Scribes would use the stylus to make wedge shaped marks in the clay. This type of writing is called cuneiform writing, which means "wedge-shaped".

Translating Mesopotamian writing is difficult for archeologists today. This is because there were over 700 different symbols and the symbols' meaning and shapes could change between different cities and regions. The symbols often changed over time as well. However, many Sumerian tablets have been deciphered. This is how we know so much about Mesopotamian culture, government, and history.

While most of the tablets discovered have been government and financial records, some of the writings are literature. This literature includes mythology of the Mesopotamian gods, tales of their heroes, poetry, and songs. Some of the writings include sayings of wisdom. The most famous and epic of all the Mesopotamian literature is the story Gilgamesh. Go here to learn more about the Epic Tale of Gilgamesh.

  • People signed items with personal seals made of stone, metal, or wood.
  • Later Mesopotamian civilizations such as the Assyrians and the Babylonians used Sumerian writing.
  • Cuneiform writing was around for thousands of years until it was replaced by the Phoenician alphabet near the end of the neo-Assyrian Empire. was invented in Ancient Egypt about the same time as cuneiform in Mesopotamia, but scientists believe that cuneiform came first.
  • As far as archeologists can tell, the Sumerian language is not related to any other language on Earth.
  • Cuneiform refers to the way a language is written, not necessarily a particular language. It was initially used in Mesopotamia to write Sumerian, but later was used for Akkadian which the Sumerians, the Akkadians, the Babylonians, and the Assyrians all spoke.

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Farming and Food in Ancient Mesopotamia

Farming in most of Mesopotamia was a challenge. After all, away from the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, the region was mostly desert. The exception was the region in southern Mesopotamia where the Tigris and Euphrates deltas were. The delta region was covered with marshes and unbelievably rich soil. There, farming villages began to spring up and eventually gave rise to the first civilization - Sumer.

Irrigation in Mesopotamia

Even though the farmland of Sumer was so fertile, crops planted there still needed water, and rainfall in the area, even during ancient times, would have been very scarce. As a result, Mesopotamians developed a system of irrigation. In fact, the Mesopotamians became masters at controlling water. They had to drain marshy land to expose the rich soil, and they had to get water from the only source - the river(s) - to the crops.

Controlling water in Mesopotamia was no easy task. The land was flat, so Mesopotamian engineers had no real natural help from gravity in moving water without altering the terrain. Most water moving was done by canals. The canals then carried water from the river or the marsh to a reservoir where it could be stored until needed. More canals connected the reservoir to the farmland where it could be directed further to water the crops. Of course these networks of canals, channels, and reservoirs had to be maintained, and much of it had to be rebuilt each year after the destructive floods ended.

Likely, the water from the marshes was not very good for growing crops because it was stagnate and salty. Some evidence suggests that the river water was slightly hard or salty also, and the buildup of that salt in the soil over centuries and millennia may have helped bring down the civilizations of Mesopotamia.

The Mesopotamians farmed all kinds of things, but the most valuable food sources were the grains they grew. Barley was probably the most common of these. Barley could be ground into flour for bread, made into soups, or fermented and turned into beer. They also grew common vegetables and gathered wild growing (and later domesticated) fruits such as figs and dates. The Mesopotamians had herds of livestock (cattle, goats, sheep) that could used for their meat, milk, and wool or hides.

Even though they were accomplished farmers and herders, the Mesopotamians also hunted wild game and caught fish from the river and sea. Grains, however, were the staple food of the Mesopotamians. Grain could be grown in abundance and packed the most punch in terms of nutrition and calories.

Watch the video: Foresight in ancient Mesopotamia, by Francesca Rochberg (January 2022).