Mesopotamian cosmology organized gods into a pantheon that reflected contemporary social and political organization. The roles in the pantheon were fixed, but the gods who held them changed in time. In the late fourth to early third millennium BC, the god Anu was considered the supreme deity; but, that role was subsequently filled by Enlil, then Marduk, and later Ashur. The characteristics of deities were often merged with those from neighboring cultures. Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of fertility, became equated with Ishtar, an Akkadian goddess with warlike traits, and eventually, Ishtar displayed both qualities.
Most deities had a main temple in a particular city -- in Sumerian and Akkadian, one word meant both "temple" and "house" -- and each city had its patron deity. In certain periods, people emphasized personal gods to whom they set up shrines. The most powerful deities were represented in art with distinguishing symbols and postures.
The heavens were populated with hundreds of supremely powerful, man-like beings, and each of these gods was assigned to a particular task or a particular sphere of activity. One god for instance might have charge of the sky, another of the air, a third of the sweet waters [abzu], and so forth, down to humbler deities responsible for the plough, the brick, the flint or the pickaxe.George Roux
In addition to a common pantheon shared throughout Mesopotamia, each city had its own patron deity and legends Lloyd, p 57. There were thus hundreds of gods, if not more, because at an absolute minimum there were at least as many cities as there were gods. And furthermore, each god usually had a consort and offspring. Some cities had multiple families of gods. To give comparison, the Hittites claimed to worhsip a thousand gods.
However, not all gods were equal. The most powerful gods had multiple temples across the land, while others were more specific to a particular place, and not all gods had equal numbers of followers. There were primary gods, worshiped throughout Mesopotamia; city gods who protected a particular city; and hundreds of other gods overseeing every aspect of human life. A city's political power could translate into supremacy for its patron deity. From Mesopotamia's earlier written history, the three male gods Anu, Enlil and Enki emerge as supreme.
The position of supreme deity changed over time. Anu, with his temple at Uruk was originally the universe's highest power; but he was replaced by Enlil, patron god of Nippur; and he was replaced by Marduk, patron of Babylon; who was in turn temporarily usurped by Ashur, patron of Assur, during the Neo-Assyrian era. Enki was in his own class as god of wisdom and learning.
Semitic-speaking people had been present in Mesopotamia well before the Fara period, and they brought with them their own gods, such as the various manifestations of weather gods generally associated with the Fertile Crescent and mountainous regions. Some divine personalities, well known from literary sources of the late third millennium, were the result of hybridization, or an amalgam of originally separate deities. This appears to be the case with Inanna, the goddess of Uruk, who merged with the Semitic Eshtar in a novel deity combining martial prowess with the powers of procreation and libido. Enlil is listed in the Fara god-lists, but he came relatively late to Nippur, where he may have replaced Enki. Leick 2001, p 152
The gods had the physical appearance as well as the qualities and defects of human beings. "In brief, they represented the best and the worst of human nature on a superhuman scale" (Roux).
Mesopotamia's fatalistic, pessimistic and gloomy zeitgeist was nurtured by a terrifyingly unstable environment which eventually led to the downfall of the entire civilization.
The gods were removed from people, who were basically the slaves of the gods: the most humans could hope for was that the gods would ignore them. There was a slave-master relationship between humanity and the Gods. Mesopotamia was hostile and provided only the bare necessities for civilization. It lacked enough rainfall to support even primite dry farming, and temperatures often exceeded 110°F. The soil was arid and unuseable unless heavily irrigated.
Although the Tigris and Euphrates rivers provided water, they also flooded unpredictably and resulted in violent and destructive rampages which wiped out the flat land. After such a rampage, the Tigris river oftentimes settled into a different course, leaving entire cities miles away from their sole water source.
In addition, Mesopotamia was unprotected; lacking no natural boundaries, it was easily accessible for raids due to the Tigris-Euphrates rivers and a nearby mountain range. This mountain range, inhabited by pre-civilized Gutians, would for 60 years plunge Mesopotamia into a murderous and draining chaos. The soil itself worked against the Mesopotamians: it lacked nutrients and easily became overcultivated and just a few hundred feet below were tremendous salt beds which would eventually leech and cause famine.
However, there were several positive aspects of Mesopotamia. The soil was laden with tremendous amounts of clay, and this allowed architecture, tools, and art to fluourish. Also, the rivers provided fish and the plains provided gazelle and horses.
Religious art and architecture
The word for temple translates as house of ... for its patron god, but it had many dimensions of sacred significance. It was not just where the god lived, but was also a manifestation of the god on earth. It was an aspect of the deity in a way that made it a living version of the deity. Furthermore, it was made up of parts which could have individual names and associations – the door could have a name, the lock could have a name, and so forth. It tended to be one of the largest – if not the largest – building in a city and was positioned centrally or in the center. The temple was very much the nucleus of the community, were worshippers could gather together inside to worship the god.
The characteristic Mesopotamian temple was a ziggurat, a stepped platform made out of mud-bricks, with a temple at the summit. Some have suggested that the ziggurat was constructed as a means to reconstruct the mountain "peak sanctuaries" that had been used when people lived in the mountains and hills around the valleys -- notice that this is the creation of an artificial urban landscape. The ziggurat was not only a religious center but also an economic redistribution center--the temple base was a huge warehouse where grain and other valuable substances were stored.
Very early votive statues were very crude and depicted with huge, staring and narrowed eyes. Indeed, this is an extension of the morose outlook that is distinctively Mesopotamian. It also represents awe and respect, though, as these votive statues were placed in temples as part of religious rituals. Even the entity meant to ward off evil, Pazuzu, was a demon from the underworld. Mesopotamia's polytheistic belief system was an elemental religion involving the belief that the natural forces such as storms and winds have spirit forces animating them (a vitalistic interpretation of the universe and experience). The (non-Semitic) Sumerians changed the elemental deities into astral deities). This meant that if anything bad happened it was either because the population displeased the Gods or did not worship them enough.
Rituals and festivals
Day-to-day worship meant providing for the gods. The temple was the house of the deity, so the deity should be drawn to the temple by experiencing the care provided by the worshippers there. The god was luminous, abstract – but worshippers wanted as much as possible to bring the god to the temple. Worship, in essence, thus focused on reenacting the deity's normal life (mostly with a statue). This meant making sure the god was washed, dressed, fed, given wine, sung to, put to bed, and so forth as a sort of play where worshippers ensured all the god's needs were met and the god was thus happy staying in his or her home.
In ancient Mesopotamia, the difference between priests and worshippers was not so clear as in some modern religions. It was not at all like a Catholic mass where a priest – an exclusive role – guides the community through prayer and preaching. Lots of people would give offerings, thus fulfilling priestly functions. When defining a priest based on actions, then to varying degrees lots of people had the potential to become priests. Worship could mean cooking particular dishes, brewing beer, pouring wine, dressing the statue – all this could be worship. Traditions developed. Some tribes, clans, or families became known for doing certain tasks and this responsibility would follow multiple generations.
Worship particularly focused on meals: people helped make sure the god wanted to be present by contributing toward wonderful meals that were thought to be consumed by the deity by smell. This was handy because after the deity consumed the food, it was still there to be shared by the community. If there was a small town then it was not required that dozens of sheep were sacrificed every day. But in larger towns with thousands of residents, there was a massive daily feast. All who contributed could have access, but not all people could realistically contribute every day. Following traditions of certain tasks fulfilled by certain families, it is likely that people saw their obligations fulfilled on the family, clan, or tribal level.
Women were generally excluded from day-to-day rituals. In ancient Assyria, this exclusion was so complete that in sung rituals, the parts of women were sung by a man who would carry on in a woman's voice.
While daily rituals took place in the temple behind closed doors, religious festivals were decidedly public occasions. Religious festivals typically incorporate processions whereby gods – usually represented by statues – leave the temple and come outside. The point is for the community to see the god and encounter the god. At the very least they go around the city, but sometimes they exit their city and visit other temples and other deities. Some of these festivals include elements, such as god races – what were god races, and did they involve people carrying the gods and racing each other? There were also outings of the god and their consort: the divine couple would sometimes visit a garden where they would feast and sleep. Was this done with the statues, or with human stand-ins?
Festivals were not spontaneous, but rather part of an important ritual calendar and required intense preparation. (Although when a city was conquered, the god could be shown off outside a normal festival day in a procession at the conqueror's capital.) Religious festivals thus had an important role in structuring time for people. It was static, with certain events happening at certain times, and the most important festival usually being the new year. (Which often was held in spring.)
Conflict and absorption
The role of the temple, rituals, festivals, and calendar was very important in the community of a city or region. So when a regional power incorporated new territory, then what became of the conquered's own temples, rituals, festivals, and calendars? When an empire was rapidly expanding, how did it face the situation of an important shrine being brought under its control? There were two options: the conquering power could ignore the temple and people continued their worship uninterrupted as a regional practice; or alternatively, the conquering power could give it official recognition.
Official state recognition of the temple meant also recognizing the deity, as well as perhaps its rituals and/or festivals. This meant the conquering king became part of the community of worshippers, whether the original community liked this or not. On the surface, having a new governing body adopt a temple is beneficial: there will inevitably be building works and renovations. In the case of a wealthy empire like Assyria, this meant even a whole new building with multi-colored glazed bricks, gigantic doorways with brass decorations, and monumental lamassu at the gate. However, renovations would also mean the king inscribing his own inscriptions into the temple and becoming part of the fabric of the material of the house of the god. The king would contribute to the sacrifices, and the deity would get a better feast with more and nicer food (which was shared with the elites involved). The festivals of the temple might get incorporated into the state calendar, although perhaps adjustments were made to such ancient cultic calendars to avoid schedule conflicts with other events. Thus, the community was losing independence and local control over their temple, at the benefit of more robust resources which, perhaps, would then attract more local worshippers.
If a temple did not get recognized by a new suzerain, this meant far less reason to fear or to expect (depending on circumstances or perspective) state involvement. A temple not part of the state cult might be economically less well-off, so Some communities might deliberately seek to attract the attention of the state. However, having the king become the most prominent worshipper could diminish the power of a local ruler.
When a city came under a new governing body, then we can distinguish between temples and gods that were of interest to the new state and those that were not of interest to the new state. Both recognized and unrecognized temples and gods could flourish under a new territorial state or empire, but we should ask: what were the reasons for making such a decision?
Extispicy and astrology were the main (but not only) means of divination – foreseeing the future – in ancient Mesopotamia. Extispicy provided answers to yes or no questions. Astrology, on the other hand, meant reading the constellations and was much more open-ended. Ancient Assyrians called the constellations heavenly writing and by reading the heavenly writing they could get a sense of what the gods wished to communicate to mankind. It required watching the stars every night and trying to extrapolate opinions based on observations. The information on this was extremely well-developed, and all the star signs used in modern culture are derived from the star signs identified in ancient Mesopotamia. Some constellations and star signs were strongly associated with certain kings and kingdoms, and observations about these heavenly writings were thought to intimately concern the affairs of the king and of the state, with decisionmaking adjusted accordingly.
According to Enuma Elish, Mesopotamia's creation story, the world began as a void. From this void came Apsu (fresh water)and Tiamat (salt water). Apsu and Tiamat are a primordial chaos from which arises the great gods. Some earlier sources relay that Apsu and Tiamat in fact gave birth to Muumu, an all-female fertile matrix that conceives Lahma and Lahamu, who in turn give rise to the great gods. In time, the younger, great gods cause a ruckus that disrupts Apsu from his sleep, who in turn sets out to destroy them. A generational conflict ensues, with Enki as the representative of the young great gods and Apsu, Tiamat and Mummu representing the old primordial gods.
Enki casts a spell on Apsu that keeps him asleep, inert and forever underground: henceforth, Apsu is a mere place. Enki resides in its depth, taking on Apsu's characteristics and functions, enhanced by Enki's superior intellect. During the late bronze age, Enki's roles were assumed by Marduk, who rose to the fore.
Tiamat is not as easily subdued as Apsu, and unleashes a horde of monsters to devour the younger gods. With the aid of the four winds and a magic net, Enki's son Marduk fights and defeats Tiamat. Marduk creates the world from Tiamat's body
Enki cleaved Tiamit in half like an oyster to form heaven and earth, with the Tigris and Euphrates flowing from her eye sockets. Tiamat's second consort, Kingu, is killed and from his blood, riddled with the contempt and blame of the Gods, come humans. In another story, later generations of gods are dealt tasks. When they grow tired, they call upon Enki and he calls upon Nammu to fashion mankind out of Apsu clay.
In both narratives, humans are lower, innate slaves in the universe. The excessive toil that came from flooding, over-cultivation and attack was simply as a feature of the cosmos. After such a gloomy lifetime, it was believed that souls simply entered purgatory where they faded into nonexistence.
There is another, older tradition in which the primeval and creative matter was conceived of as female and personified as the Sumerian goddess called Nammu. In divine genealogies and some myths she is the mother of Enki and the mother-goddess who was said to have 'given birth to the great gods'. Nammu and the primeval waters are self-generative, bringing forth life by themselves, without a male partner. ... The female principle as a watery creative force, with equally strong connections to the underworld, may well predate that of Ea-Enki. With Enki is an interesting change in gender symbolism ... in a Sumerian hymn Enki stands at the empty river beds and fills them with his 'water' [the Sumerian a, water, also refers to semen] Leick 2001, p 20-21
Apsu and Tiamat
Apsu and Tiamat mingle together as the primordial chaos and beget three offspring.
Fresh water; male
Salty water; female
First-born of Apsu and Tiamat. In some accounts, mates with its sibling Earth to give rise to the great gods.
A sort of fertile, all-female substance that in some accounts begets the great gods.
During the first half of the third millennium, in the so-called Early Dynastic period, local deities became organized in a hierarchically structured pantheon of separate divine lineages. ... Relationships between the various Mesopotamian gods and goddesses were a matter of political as well as theological importance. Lists of deities, arranged along kinship lines, were already established in the later fourth millennium, and the religious literature, hymns and cult songs further elaborate such interrelations. Leick 2001, p 21
Enki, aka Ea or Nudimmud
God of sweet abzu waters, and city god of Eridu.
Known as Enki in Sumerian and Ea in Akkadian (and aka Nudimmud). He was also the god of wisdom, magic and the arts. Ea is represented with streams of water emerging from his shoulders or from a vase held in his hands. He is often associated with creatures having characteristics of both goats and fish.
With Enki the fertilizing agent is water, Sumerian a, which also means 'semen'. In one evocative passage in a Sumerian hymn Enki stands at the empty river beds and fills them with his 'water'. In other narratives he impregnates and irrigates at the same time. Leick 2001, p 21
God of sky, and city god of Uruk.
Anu was the patron god of Uruk, where his ziggurat towered over the city. While he represented patriarchal authority, Inanna was the patron goddess of Uruk and came to embody the carefree delight of libido.
God of Assyria and Ashur: the Assyrian national god.
Marduk, aka Asarluhhi
God of Babylonia: the Babylonian national God.
Enlil, aka Illil
Sumerian god of Nippur, justice, and weather. Head of Sumerian Pantheon.
It is widely believed that Enlil's cult expanded at the expense of Enki's.
Sin, aka Nanna-Su'en or Nanna
Sumerian god of the moon and city god of Ur.
God of the moon, known as Nanna-Su'en in Sumerian and as Sin in Akkadian. Represented symbolically by a crescent moon. He was associated with bulls and with lion-dragons, and was the city-god of Ur. His son was the sun-god Shamash/Utu, and the fertility and war goddess Inanna (associated with Venus). Interestingly, this is distinctly not heliocentric: the moon is senior, and sires the sun and other deities. This reflects the lunar-centrism of Mesopotamia, which used a lunar calendar. Sin was the head and all knowledge came through him, reflecting that much Mesopotamian science came from studying the moon phases and the stars. He had a lapis lazuli beard and rode a winged bull across the sky. His numerology association was the number 30, the average days in a lunar month. His worship continued in some Mesopotamian in the 5th - 6th centuries CE, and Byzantine and Islamic sources attest that his stronghold in Harran celebrated one of his festivals up until the 9th century CE (likely from cultural legacy, not religious fervor).
Sumerian god of love and city god of Uruk.
Astrologically was Venus, the morning and evening star. Represented with her two reed posts. The Sumerian fertility goddess Inanna became equated with the Akkadian goddess Ishtar, who had warlike traits. Wife of Dumuzi/Tammuz. Inanna is the Great Mother, worshipped throughout Sumer, to whom the Eanna precinct at Uruk was dedicated; she was a female principle of creative, expressing godhead through fecundity Lloyd, p 57.
City god of Uruk and Nippur, revered by Akkadians, Assyrians, and Babylonians. Cognate of the Sumerian deity Inanna.
The goddess of fertility, as well as of sexuality and violence, Ishtar was assimilated with the Sumerian goddess Inanna. Ishtar encompassed a number of local goddesses possibly represented by some nude female figures. She was symbolized in different periods by reed bundles, rosettes and stars but was also depicted as a warrior goddess standing or riding on a lion or lion-griffin. Alternatively spelled Issar.
God of storms and city god of Halab (Aleppo).
Weather gods were worshipped in most Near Eastern cultures: Ba'al in Canaan, Dagan in Syria and Teshub in Hurrian areas of northern Mesopotamia. Associated with lightning, they were often represented in a smiting posture either mounted on or in a chariot pulled by a lion-dragon or bull Adad was the god in storms and the city god of Halab (present-day Aleppo).
Shamash, aka Utu
Sumerian of the sun and city god of Sippar and Lagash.
Shamash is often depicted with flames emanating from his shoulders. He is frequently attended by human-headed bulls. In his role as dispenser of justice, Shamash may hold a saw to "cut" just decisions. Shamash, more than any other Mesopotamian deity, oversaw social justice, protecting the weak and vulnerable and guarding fairness in business and law.
Lesser and foreign gods
"Lord," an appellative of Marduk.
Lady of Kidmuri: Istar of Calah.
Dagon, Philistine god.
Husband of Inanna, associated in the Sumerian mind with productivity in the vegetable and animal world, such that his union with Inanna must symbolize fertility.
Temple of Illil in Nippur.
Represented as a lion head on an eagle body.
The first-born of Enlil, though Nanna may have been his first child. Ninurta began as an agrarian and a rain god, very contradictory roles, then later became Assyrian war god.
God of Writing. Originally a Babylonian God. Extraordinarily revered by Assyrians.
Mother and wife of Enlil.
Vampiric mythical creatures
There are three basic vampyres that I have found in Sumerian myths - the Ekimmu, the Uruku (Utukku), and the Seven Demons.
The Ekimmu: This creature was said to be created when death happened violently or the burial was not handled properly. Author Konstantinos believes that these creatures were intentional psychic vampyres. These creature were astral in nature, they hunted for a victim they could “seize and torment.” The person could only be released by an exorcism performed by a priest or priestess.
The Uruku (Utukku): This creature is referred to as a “vampyre which attacks man” in a cuneiform inscription. I am attempting to locate more information on this reference which also came from Konstantinos.
The Seven Demons: These demons are mentioned in many texts and incantations of the Mesopotamian cultures. One Sumerian banishing rite describes them as immortal blood drinkers.
The god in the underground sweet waters known as the abzu, as well as the city god of Eridu, Ea was known as Enki in Sumerian. He was also the god of wisdom, magic, and the arts. Ea is represented with streams of water emerging from his shoulders or from a vase held in his hands. He is often associated with creatures having characteristics of both goats and fish.
Fascinating information on the lunar god Sin.
Starr, Ivan. 1990. Queries to the Sungod: Divination and Politics in Sargonid Assyria. Helsinki: Helsinki University Press. pp 366-367.
Lloyd. Archaeology of Mesopotamia.