In his classic Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization (1964), the eminent American Assyriologist A. Leo Oppenheim devoted a brilliant chapter to religion, in which he explained “Why a ‘Mesopotamian Religion’ Should Not Be Written.” Oppenheim deeply lamented the meager and disjointed archaeological, iconographic and literary remains, and he concluded that the conceptual chasm separating us from the ancients would never allow for a coherent, meaningful understanding of Mesopotamian religious beliefs.
Fortunately, Oppenheim’s pessimism has not deterred other major scholars, who are hardly fools rushing in where he feared to tread. Two particularly important works are Thorkild Jacobsen’s The Treasures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion (1976) and H.W.F. Saggs’s The Encounter With the Divine in Mesopotamia and Israel (1978). Both of these books circumvent some of Oppenheim’s objections by concentrating on specific topics about which more is known. Jacobsen, focusing on images and metaphors for the divine found in prayers and myths, traces the development of religious symbolism from the third through the first millennium B.C.E., but he avoids discussion of such troubling issues as cultic worship and the role of religion in society. Saggs, on the other hand, compares Mesopotamian writings with biblical texts, and he uses the Bible as a cultural bridge to discuss Mesopotamian attitudes toward creation, history, good and evil, communication with the divine, and universal religion.
Another welcome attempt at writing a religion of ancient Mesopotamia is provided by Jean Bottéro, France’s most distinguished living Assyriologist. In Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia—a translation of his 1998 book La plus vielle religion: En Mésopotamie, which is a revised version of the earlier Le religion babylonienne (1952), Bottéro seems to realize implicitly that a sweeping study of Mesopotamian religion is impossible—because of the vastness of the subject, the complexities such a work would entail, and the diverse kinds of expertise it would demand.
After all, Mesopotamian religion had reached an age of 3,000 years—and cast its influence from Persia to Egypt—before it faded into oblivion during late antiquity. Any attempt to provide a comprehensive treatment might well vindicate Oppenheim’s pessimism by revealing how partial our knowledge of Mesopotamian life really is. Bottéro’s solution is to stand back from his subject, trying to view only its major lines. Rather than attempting to produce a detailed history of Mesopotamian religion, he seeks to capture impressionistically “the spirit and the broad outlines of Mesopotamian religion as it was.” He draws on his impressive knowledge of things Mesopotamian and also, equally importantly, on his sense of “sympathy” to reduce “the vast distance that separates us from those very old deceased members of our family.”
Bottéro begins by defining “religion” and “religions.” “Religion” is a spontaneous, immediate, often flexible response to the supernatural. Revealed or institutionalized “religions,” on the other hand, are pre-designed, having been shaped largely at specific times in history; 051modern Jews, Christians and Muslims, for example, inherit what already are formidable and demanding faith-systems. In Bottéro’s view, Mesopotamian religion falls into the first category. Lacking any prophetic innovators or authoritative foundation documents, it flowed freely and continuously from the minds and souls of its practitioners.
The focus of Mesopotamian religion was the gods—those frequently anthropomorphized powers or forces of nature capable of overwhelming human beings with their greatness and might. Accordingly, the main religious sentiment of Mesopotamian religion was a mixture of fear and wonderment. Bottéro presents translations of hymns that convey the awe and dread with which worshipers confronted the tremendous, all-powerful objects of their devotion. Curiously, a comparison of hymns suggests the paradoxical idea that each god is somehow greater than all others: For example, the god Anu is “prince of the gods,” Enlil “dominates heaven and earth,” and Enki is “sublime lord of heaven and earth.” This suggests, as Bottéro notes, that the Mesopotamians tempered their polytheism with henotheism, meaning that they could worship the deity of their choice, either as the head of the pantheon or as a personal god.
Mesopotamian gods had various guises. They looked and behaved like humans, were represented by abstract symbols, and could be seen in natural phenomena like stars, the sun and moon, storms, mountains and animals. From literary sources, we know of several thousand gods, though this number was made more manageable by interrelating and ranking them, and then grouping them into families and courts. Over the millennia, some gods rose to greater prominence while others became less and less important, to the point of nonexistence. The gods created and ordered the world, and they took an active role in governing it and determining destinies. They benevolently cared for their creatures and provided them with numerous pleasures and the ability to succeed and enjoy life.
What the gods demanded of man was service. According to the myths, the gods created man to spare themselves the pain of physical labor, so the fate of man was to provide for the needs of the gods.
Mesopotamians sheltered their gods in opulent, massively built houses (temples) with bombastic Sumerian names expressing their cosmic significance (for example, one sacred “house” was known as É.sag.íl, or Temple of the Eminent Pinnacle, and its tower, or ziggurat, was named É.temen.an.ki, or Temple Support of the Universe). These temples were populated by families of gods, who were embodied in cult statues tended by resident priests and priestesses. The main cultic functions of the clergy included feeding the gods sumptuous meals (sometimes as often as four times a day), entertaining them, dressing them and adorning them with fashionable and seasonable garments and regalia. Accompanied by musical instruments, priests would sing hymns to the gods in the Sumerian and Akkadian languages. The gods were even taken on inter-city cruises along the rivers and canals.
Although the gods were fed daily, some ritual ceremonies and festivals were performed sporadically as needed (such as covering the kettle-drum used by the lamentation priest) and others were performed cyclically, on fixed days in the liturgical year. Cultic calendars varied from city to city, but certain rites were very widespread.
Bottéro discusses in some detail the Hieros Gamos ritual, a sacred marital union between the king and a priestess representing a goddess, which was celebrated in various forms in both southern and northern Mesopotamia for thousands of years. Another festival was the New Year celebration, which took place in the spring during the first 15 days of the month of Nisannu. Although the version of the festival Bottéro examines 053is from Babylon, this holiday was celebrated in other cities as well.
According to Bottéro, Mesopotamian private religion was essentially hedonistic, with worshipers viewing the gods as potentially beneficial. Religion placed no moral demands on practitioners. Good conduct did not stem from piety or religious obligation but from prudence, “to ensure a healthy balance sheet for one’s own existence.” Man was created to provide for the gods, and once that was done he was free to pursue his own interests. It was Moses who replaced the mere obligation to maintain the gods with a religious obligation to obey a moral law.
On the periphery of Mesopotamian religion were two well-developed disciplines: divination, which helped to clarify the gods’ plans for mankind, and exorcism, which helped rid the world of troubles caused by demons. Both skills contained elements that originated as essentially secular activities, but they eventually came to be viewed as having been provided to man by the gods, who then supervised their use to ensure that they were done properly.
Bottéro has written major scholarly works on many of the topics addressed in this volume, which represents a synthesis aimed at a broad audience. Although Assyriologists will be familiar with the “facts” presented in the book, it is always stimulating and enlightening to view a familiar landscape freshly with an expert guide. To assist the nonspecialist, technical terms in Akkadian or Sumerian are translated and explained. Discussions are accompanied by numerous and at times lengthy translations of illustrative texts. Most important of all, the book is written with charm, elegance, enthusiasm and infectious love for the subject—making it extremely engaging and a pleasure to read. If A. Leo Oppenheim concluded that a religion of ancient Mesopotamia should not be written, Jean Bottéro’s book is an eloquent argument why it should.
In his classic Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization (1964), the eminent American Assyriologist A. Leo Oppenheim devoted a brilliant chapter to religion, in which he explained “Why a ‘Mesopotamian Religion’ Should Not Be Written.” Oppenheim deeply lamented the meager and disjointed archaeological, iconographic and literary remains, and he concluded that the conceptual chasm separating us from the ancients would never allow for a coherent, meaningful understanding of Mesopotamian religious beliefs. Fortunately, Oppenheim’s pessimism has not deterred other major scholars, who are hardly fools rushing in where he feared to tread. Two particularly important works are Thorkild Jacobsen’s […]