Religion in ancient Mesopotamia, the region between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers in modern-day Iraq, initially involved the worship of nature gods. In the 3rd millennium BCE, against the backdrop of urbanization and a growing population, the rulers of city-states began to claim personal connection to the gods. This, in turn, led to the creation of Mesopotamian patron gods.
Statue of Gudea, Neo-Sumerian, ca. 2090 BCE, via Met Museum
The ancient Mesopotamians created statues of their deities for the purpose of invoking them into stone. This was done through a ritual called “mouth washing”. It involved opening and washing the mouth of the statue so that it would be able to eat and drink. After completion, the people believed the god to have passed from the spiritual realm to the physical realm.
Each major city had a patron deity, which the ancient Mesopotamians believed resided in the main temple. Citizens offered food and drinks as well as clothing and jewels to their god statues. Deities owned multiple outfits, and dressing ceremonies were performed involving the statues. Priests awakened the statue in the morning with songs and breakfast. Throughout the day, they prepared meals for the Mesopotamian patron gods so that he or she was content and would be favorably inclined to the wellbeing of the city’s inhabitants.
God statues were occasionally taken to other cities, accompanied by retinues of priests and other caregivers. The statues were transported by wagons and boats. This way, the gods could partake in rituals and festivities outside their city. A statue could also be moved to visit the temples of other deities, which would sometimes be family members of the god.
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All of this was done because serving the gods was a core tenet of religious life. This belief can be traced back to the creation myths of ancient Mesopotamian religions. For example, the creation story of the ancient Babylonians known as the Enuma Elish tells of the gods not wanting to labor anymore. They therefore created humankind to work and care for them. People expected faithful servitude to be rewarded while negligence was believed to result in punishment.
Facsimile replica of a copper head of a statue representing a Mesopotamian king, possibly Naram-Sin, via British Museum
A city’s ruler held the main responsibility for keeping the gods pleased and therefore by extension his kingdom’s wellbeing. He commissioned temple constructions and renovations and played a leading role in ceremonies. The ancient Babylonian New Year festival illustrates the ruler’s subservience to the gods. As part of the festivities, the high priest dragged the king before the statue of Marduk, the patron deity of the city of Babylon. He then slapped the sovereign across the face. The humbled king, facing Marduk, then swore he had not sinned and that he had fulfilled his obligations to the gods.
Aurouchs from the Ishtar gate, via The American Society of Overseas Research
The ancient Mesopotamians considered a temple to be a deity’s house. In Babylonian, the term for temple literally meant the “house” of a god. Cities would often have multiple temples, each belonging to a different god, with the main temple being where the city’s patron deity resided.
Temples were important administrative and authoritative centers. Their precincts could include land and herds of animals. Priests hired large numbers of workers to keep everything running. For example, a temple in the city of Lagash had a workshop that employed 6,000 people.
The main temple was often the largest in the city and included living quarters, kitchens, and storerooms. It served as a large-scale household consisting of caregivers. Access to some parts of the building was limited to priests and officials, with other rooms available for the public to pay their respects. The god statue stood on a podium located in the shrine, an area that was generally not open to the public.
People were sometimes allowed to place small-scale statues of themselves in the temple. These are known as votive statues and often represented figures in worshipping positions. When physical access to the god was restricted or not possible for personal reasons, having a statue of yourself in the temple was a way to be present with the divine.
Relief of the Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II, Neo-Assyrian, 883-859 BCE, via Met Museum
The ancient Mesopotamians worshipped many gods. One discovered record names 560 deities, while another includes around two thousand names. Besides the more commonly worshipped deities, people had personal gods who they believed offered protection and good fortune. As such, many thousands of gods were worshipped.
Whereas initially gods with an animal form were more common, by the 3rd millennium BCE most gods were depicted as having a human form. They were described as being moved by emotion and reason, and would eat, drink, procreate, and give birth like humans. The most prominent gods were attributed clear family trees.
In spite of their human qualities ancient Mesopotamian patron gods were believed to be infinitely more powerful than their subjects. Among the gods some were more powerful than others. The divine hierarchy changed over time as priests, kings, and empires acquired power or faded. For example, Enlil, the chief deity of the Sumerian Pantheon, was supplanted by his nephew Marduk when the Babylonian empire rose to prominence.
Tablet of the Enuma Elish, Neo-Assyrian, via British Museum
A deity’s importance was also based on his or her role in religious stories, and cosmology in particular. For example, Marduk owed much of his status as the chief deity of Babylon to his prominent role in the Babylonian creation story of the Enuma Elish.
The story begins with the primordial gods Abzu and Tiamat. They parent the first generation of deities, whose descendants also procreate, resulting in the birth of hundreds of gods. Abzu is disturbed by the loudness of the many gods and he plans to kill them. When Tiamat learns of Abzu’s intentions, she warns her eldest son Enki. Not planning to be murdered by his father, Enki puts Abzu to sleep with his powers and then kills him. When Tiamat hears of the death of her mate, she is furious and wages war on the other gods.
The goddess enlists the help of powerful monsters and seems destined to win the conflict. In their hour of need, Marduk proposes to the other gods to slay Tiamat on the condition that he is appointed their leader if successful. The other gods, facing imminent defeat, agree. Marduk steps forward from among their ranks and uses wind to trap Tiamat. He takes aim with his bow and shoots an arrow; it hits its mark and splits the goddess in two.
From the halves of Tiamat’s dead body, Marduk creates the earth and the sky. From the blood of one of Tiamat’s accomplices, he makes the first humans. He then orders the gods to build the city of Babylon as a seat for him to rule over the universe.
Hammurabi receives the laws from Shamash, 1792-1750 BCE, via Louvre
Events from the personal to national level were explained as having their origin in acts of the gods. The wellbeing of a household was considered to be directly linked to the religious actions of its members. On a larger scale, laws were believed to have been divinely ordained. The oldest known written set of laws, originating in the 18th century BCE, were given to Hammurabi, the king of Babylon, by Shamash, the god of the sun, justice, and equality.
Religious observance in Mesopotamian cities revolved around appeasing the patron deity. This was done because the people believed that the city’s fate depended on the god being satisfied. The city would prosper if the patron deity was well cared for, but would fall to ruin if he or she was not properly worshipped and provided for. An Assyrian text mentions an event that saw the citizens of Babylon enslaved and states that the reason behind the tragedy was Marduk being angry with the city and leaving it.
The Monuments of Nineveh by Austen Henry Layard , 1853, via British Museum
Sometimes a god statue was taken following the conquering of its city. This was a traumatic experience for the inhabitants as the event was interpreted as an indication that the god had not been satisfied. He or she, therefore, orchestrated reality in a way that saw the city fall and the statue taken from its place of worship.
Statues would seldom be damaged or destroyed. This can be attributed to the superstitious nature of the religion that saw the gods as truly residing within the statues. Also, the curses that were inscribed in the stone, promised to harm anyone who would dare damage the statue.
Rulers sometimes returned a statue to a conquered city as a reward for the citizens’ good behavior. This way, god statues were a political tool that could be taken away and returned to punish and reward.
The Fall of Babylon by Philip Galle, 1569, via The Met Museum
Besides incidents such as the conquest of a city or the destruction of a statue, the will and wellbeing of the gods was also interpreted through natural phenomena and rituals. This was done by diviners, a priestly class that specialized in reading and interpreting omens. The activities of diviners included reading animal entrails, observing patterns of oil within water, and interpreting ripples on water through meditation.
Astrological practice, too, was a way for diviners to interpret the will and wellbeing of the gods. The most prominent deities were associated with celestial bodies. Marduk, for example, was recognized in Babylonian astrology as the planet Jupiter. Diviners studied the movement of heavenly bodies and used their findings to forecast events.
The ancient Assyrians considered lunar eclipses in particular to be omens of catastrophes. When one occurred, precautionary measures were taken. The king would step down for up to 100 days and a substitute king ruled. After his term ended, the replacement was sacrificed and the real king resumed his rule. By performing this ritual, the Assyrians believed to have averted a crisis.