Sites associated with ancient Mesopotamian history. beliefs and practices of the Sumerians and Akkadians, and their successors, the Babylonians and Assyrians, who inhabited ancient Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) in the millennia before the Christian era. These religious beliefs and practices form a single stream of tradition. Sumerian in origin, Mesopotamian religion was added to and subtly modified by the Akkadians (Semites who emigrated into Mesopotamia from the west at the end of the 4th millennium BC), whose own beliefs were in large measure assimilated to, and integrated with, those of their new environment. For historical background, see Mesopotamia, history of. As the only available intellectual framework that could provide a comprehensive understanding of the forces governing existence and also guidance for right conduct in life, religion ineluctably conditioned all aspects of ancient Mesopotamian civilization. It yielded the forms in which that civilization's social, economic, legal, political, and military institutions were, and are, to be understood, and it provided the significant symbols for poetry and art. In many ways it even influenced peoples and cultures outside Mesopotamia, such as the Elamites to the east, the Hurrians and Hittites to the north, and the Aramaeans and Israelites to the west. the religious beliefs and practices of the Sumerians and Akkadians, and later their successors, the Babylonians and Assyrians, who inhabited ancient Mesopotamia. The deities of the earlier Sumerians tended to be localized, centring around the subsistence of the community. A primary concern in this and later periods was the fertility of the fields, waters, and flocks. During this period, the external manifestation of the deity took the form of the phenomenon which the deity represented. For example, the deity associated with the rain cloud was pictured as a dark, lion-headed bird hovering in the sky. The Assyrian and Babylonian gods did not displace those of the Sumerians but were gradually assimilated into the older system. The gods were seen to be active in the history of the area and within the changing relationships of the various city-states in the TigrisEuphrates Valley. With the development of the extensive empires of Babylon and Assur, the model of the king was used to express the transcendence of the deity. In this later period, the deities were conceived in anthropomorphic terms. The image of the deity, in which the presence of the deity resided, was fed and clothed and waited upon in a manner analogous to that of the king and his court. Just as for the king, the primary responsibilities of the deity were fertility and security. National religion was organized around the care and feeding of the deity in his temple. In addition to its function as a religious centre, the temple also functioned as a food redistribution centre under royal control. While many of these temples may have been fairly modest, some, such as the temple of Marduk in Babylon named Esagila, achieved worldwide fame. The religion practiced in these temples was not generally public. Only on special days was the image of the deity brought out of the temple and paraded through the streets before the citizens. On a daily basis, worship was carried out by the priests within the temple which was conceived of as the house of the deity. Possibly the most notable of the religious buildings of Mesopotamia is the ziggurat. Unfortunately, its function in the religion of the area is not known. Surrounding the deity in his temple were a number of officials connected with the cult. The first among these was the king himself, who functioned as the chief priest of the nation's deity. The king's role was particularly important at the new year festival held in the spring of the year in which the kingship was renewed and the triumph of the deity over the powers of chaos was celebrated. In these rituals it appears that the role of the deity was played by the king. Among the rituals was the sacred marriage which ensured fertility for the following year. Over 30 types of other cultic personnel are mentioned, including priests, priestesses, and personnel in charge of incantations and divination. An elaborate system of determining the will of the gods through the observation of omens was developed, a major element of which was haruspicy, the reading of the entrails of sacrificial animals. Although the number of deities represented in the Mesopotamian pantheon numbered in the hundreds, a relatively small number of deities played a prominent role in the texts. Especially important among the older gods were Anu, the god of heaven, who was the oldest of the gods; Enki, later identified with the Akkadian god Ea, who was the god associated with water; and Enlil, the earth god who apparently presided over the divine assembly. As was common in the ancient Middle East, these deities were associated with particular cities: Anu with the city of Uruk, Enki with Eridu, and Enlil with Nippur. In addition to these old, well-established deities, the pantheon also contained newer deities. As the political fortunes of a city increased, so did the stature of the associated deity. Marduk, the deity of Babylon, appears to have received many of the characteristics of an older god as the city of Babylon became predominant in the political affairs of Mesopotamia. A similar pattern can be observed for Ashur as Assyria gained political domination. It may be noted that while Mesopotamian religion remained polytheistic throughout, there were tendencies toward henotheism in which a deity such as Marduk was ascribed all the characteristics associated with the lesser gods. A number of lesser deities were active in the Mesopotamian pantheon. Most prominent among the astral deities were Shamash, the sun deity worshipped in Larsa and Sippar, and Sin, the moon god associated with Ur and Harran. Because of their careful observation of the heavenly bodies, the Mesopotamians were famous in their day as astrologers. Other deities included Adad, the storm god worshipped under a variety of names, especially in Assyria and to the west; Nergal, who was regarded as the ruler of the underworld along with his consort Ereshkigal; and Tammuz (Dumuzi), who was a fertility god. Particular mountains, trees, rivers, and even certain man-made items such as the plow were also considered sacred. Additional reading douard Dhorme, Les Religions de Babylonie et d'Assyrie, 2nd ed. (1949), is the standard survey of data on ancient Mesopotamian religions. Other overviews include S.H. Hooke, Babylonian and Assyrian Religion (1953, reissued 1975); A. Leo Oppenheim, Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization, rev. ed. completed by Erica Reiner (1977), ch. 4; Thorkild Jacobsen, The Treasures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion (1976); and Jean Bottro, La plus vieille religion (1998). Nicholas Postgate, Early Mesopotamia: Society and Economy at the Dawn of History (1992) includes two informative chapters on the religion of Mesopotamia from earliest times to 1500 BC. Henri Frankfort, Kingship and the Gods (1948, reissued 1978), discusses the theme of the king as intermediator between humanity and the gods. H.W.F. Saggs, The Encounter with the Divine in Mesopotamia and Israel (1978) presents a study of divinity in relation to creation, history, and the problem of evil and suffering. Thorkild Jacobsen, Toward the Image of Tammuz and Other Essays on Mesopotamian History and Culture, ed. by William L. Moran (1970), is a more detailed attempt at synthesizing, ordering, and interpreting data. C.J. Gadd, Ideas of Divine Rule in the Ancient Near East (1948, reissued 1980), explores the problems of divination and the communication between men and gods. Svend Aage Pallis, The Babylonian Aktu Festival (1926), is the first and only attempt to understand the meaning and function of the ritual drama. Jean Bottro and Samuel Noel Kramer, Lorsque les dieux faisaient l'homme (1989), is a very full and clear presentation of Mesopotamian mythology. Thorkild Jacobsen The Editors of the Encyclopdia Britannica

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