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Ancient Mesopotamian Gods. Superstition, philosophy, theology - article ; n°2 ; vol.207, pg 115-130

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Revue de l'histoire des religions - Année 1990 - Volume 207 - Numéro 2 - Pages 115-130
The Sumerians organized their gods, which were deified natural forces as conceived, into a systematic pantheon for a land of city states. This continued with modifications under the succeeding Babylonian civilization, which was politically unified. The process of identifying originally distinct gods of similar attributes continued until some scholars identified all major gods with Marduk in a kind of monotheism. Relics of other systems occur in the worship of mountains and rivers, and in southern Iraq itself the concept of deity spread from the god himself to his accoutrements, abode and city.
Les dieux de l'ancienne Mésopotamie : superstition, philosophie, théologie
Les Sumériens organisaient leurs dieux, conçus comme des forces naturelles déifiées, en un panthéon systématique qui convenait à un pays composé de cités souveraines. Cette situation se maintint avec quelques modifications dans l'Empire babylonien, qui était unifié politiquement. Le processus d'identification des dieux, distincts à l'origine mais avec des attributs similaires, se poursuivit jusqu'à ce que certains érudits eussent assimilé tous les dieux importants à Marduk dans une sorte de monothéisme. On trouve dans les textes des allusions à d'autres systèmes pour ce qui est de l'adoration des montagnes et des rivières, et dans le sud de l'Irak, la notion de divinité s'est étendue du dieu lui-même à son équipement, son temple et sa ville.
16 pages
Source : Persée ; Ministère de la jeunesse, de l’éducation nationale et de la recherche, Direction de l’enseignement supérieur, Sous-direction des bibliothèques et de la documentation.
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Wilfred George Lambert
Ancient Mesopotamian Gods. Superstition, philosophy, theology
In: Revue de l'histoire des religions, tome 207 n°2, 1990. pp. 115-130.
Abstract
The Sumerians organized their gods, which were deified natural forces as conceived, into a systematic pantheon for a land of city
states. This continued with modifications under the succeeding Babylonian civilization, which was politically unified. The process
of identifying originally distinct gods of similar attributes continued until some scholars identified all major gods with Marduk in a
kind of monotheism. Relics of other systems occur in the worship of mountains and rivers, and in southern Iraq itself the concept
of deity spread from the god himself to his accoutrements, abode and city.
Résumé
Les dieux de l'ancienne Mésopotamie : superstition, philosophie, théologie
Les Sumériens organisaient leurs dieux, conçus comme des forces naturelles déifiées, en un panthéon systématique qui
convenait à un pays composé de cités souveraines. Cette situation se maintint avec quelques modifications dans l'Empire
babylonien, qui était unifié politiquement. Le processus d'identification des dieux, distincts à l'origine mais avec des attributs
similaires, se poursuivit jusqu'à ce que certains érudits eussent assimilé tous les dieux importants à Marduk dans une sorte de
monothéisme. On trouve dans les textes des allusions à d'autres systèmes pour ce qui est de l'adoration des montagnes et des
rivières, et dans le sud de l'Irak, la notion de divinité s'est étendue du dieu lui-même à son équipement, son temple et sa ville.
Citer ce document / Cite this document :
Lambert Wilfred George. Ancient Mesopotamian Gods. Superstition, philosophy, theology. In: Revue de l'histoire des religions,
tome 207 n°2, 1990. pp. 115-130.
doi : 10.3406/rhr.1990.1735
http://www.persee.fr/web/revues/home/prescript/article/rhr_0035-1423_1990_num_207_2_1735W. G. LAMBERT
The University of Birmingham
ANCIENT MESOPOTAMIAN GODS
SUPERSTITION, PHILOSOPHY, THEOLOGY*
The Sumerians organized iheir gods, which were deified
natural forces as conceived, into a systematic pantheon for
a land of city states. This continued with modifications under
the succeeding Babylonian civilization, which was politically
unified. The process of identifying originally distinct gods of
similar attributes continued until some scholars identified all
major gods with Marduk in a kind of monotheism. Relics of
other systems occur in the worship of mountains and rivers, and
in southern Iraq itself the concept of deity spread from the god
himself to his accoutrements, abode and city.
Les dieux de l'ancienne Mésopotamie : superstition, philosophie,
théologie
Les Sumériens organisaient leurs dieux, conçus comme des
forces naturelles déifiées, en un panthéon systématique qui conve
nait à un pays composé de cités souveraines. Celle situation
se maintint avec quelques modifications dans l'Empire babyl
onien, qui était unifié politiquement. Le processus d'identifi
cation des dieux, distincts à l'origine mais avec des attributs
similaires, se poursuivit jusqu'à ce que certains érudits eussent
assimilé tous les dieux importants à Marduk dans une sorte
de monothéisme. On trouve dans les textes des allusions à d'autres
systèmes pour ce qui est de iadoration des montagnes et des
rivières, el dans le sud de l'Irak, la notion de divinité s'est
étendue du dieu lui-même à son équipement, son temple el sa
ville.
* Texte initialement prévu pour le numeru t hermit iqup ils la НИН, « On'e^t-ce
qu'un dieu '? » (4/1У88).
lîcvue. <1p l'Histoire des fíeligion*, ccvii-2.'199O, p. 115 à 130 First, "Mesopotamia" a few is words wider than on the the subject-title. area I shall The deal with area
mostly, which is the terrain roughly between the modern
Baghdad and Basra. This small area was a cultural powerhouse
in the ancient world, Sumerian in the third millennium вс,
Babylonian in the second and first millennia. The terms
"philosophy" and "theology" have been delib"superstition",
erately chosen as raw, crude terms to avoid a powerful
terminology which would take over the subject by imposing
"superstition" the its own concepts on the discussion. By
"philosophy" is emotional content of religion is meant ;
used to refer to the rational element in religion (with an
implicit objection to those who might wish to assert that
abstract thought began with the Greeks) ; and "theology"
refers to the amalgam of these emotional and rational
elements.
The area concerned, the southern end of the Mesopotamian
plain, is not particularly hospitable for human habitation.
It is watered by the flooding of the Tigris and Euphrates in
the late spring and early summer, but for most of the year
is dry, lacking any useful rainfall, and naturally devoid of
trees and most plant life, apart from the marshes adjacent
to the Persian Gulf. In summer the climate becomes unbear
ably hot, while the winter is chilly. The main natural resources
were clay, since it is an alluvial plain, and reeds, which
grew especially in the marshes. There is no local source for
metals, and not much useful stone is within reach. Yet this
area sprang ahead of the surrounding regions in material
culture at about the end of the fourth millennium вс and
remained a cultural leader until the spread of Hellenism
after Alexander. The reasons can only be guessed, but the
inhospitable terrain may be one of the factors. After 3,000 вс
there was little village settlement, towns composed most of •

Л ncient Mesopotam ian gods 1 17
the places where humans lived: One factor in this development,
was- certainly the need : for the mass organization! of human
labour to irrigate the cultivable land as the flood'rose. The
digging andt maintenance- of -canals (the latter especially as
the flood rose) required central direction within each ', city or
group of cities. In turn the cities resulted in a specialization of
crafts that would have been* impossible or unlikely im a
village culture. Wealthy government of> a. village- culture
could" of ; course provide resources for craftsmen supplying
luxury items, but the' early Sumerian ; city states provided:
the bases for1 both? materials and » intellectual* developments.
Furthermore,, there- is not trace oV tribal -. organization; The
cities proved melting-pots for whoever lived there.
From; the times oft the earliest surviving: knowledge
Sumerian; city governors were involved with* religion; ex:
officio. The largest buildings in each city were ■ the temples,
builť and; maintained by the governments of' the cities. In?
each' temple there was a deity who was • its owner, and that
god in the most important temple in each city was considered*
the owner- of? the city. In practice he- or- she ownedrt land
around* the city, employed labour, (both* free andf serf) to
work the land; to look after domestic animals, and' to engage-
in alii the ■ various arts and * crafts of • which ; the • temple had
need; Thus the temples werenot simplyplaces of* worship,
but were large economic organizations, . and« in' this sense
could' be compared5 with- Medieval* manors. The • very; name
reveals the concept. The ■ Sumerian ■ word * for temple was é
"house", the same word as used for any human's house. And:
this anthropomorphic concept; extends much further. The
chief deity of any temple was not the only occupant. There -
was his or her spouse, their children and, sometimes, other
relatives, then their servants and officials, all; considered;
divine. As an extreme, inithe temple of Marduk; city god of*
Babylon, it is known that during at least the periodic. 1500
to с 300 Be. Marduk had four divine dogs named "Snatcher",
"Seizer", "He got it" and- "He howled", and his wife :
118 W. G. Lambert
Zarpânïtum had two divine hairdressers1. The Sumero-Baby-
Ionian temple was a court modelled on human courts.
According to local mythology the human race had been
created by the gods to relieve them of the hard labour of
producing their, daily bread. This practically meant that the
government had to supply meals to statues of the gods
twice daily, and had to clothe these statues, periodically
providing new garments. In addition other items of personal
possession such as seals and jewellery were supplied, and
everything had to be of the best. Hence the need for fields,
workers, skilled and specialized craftsmen, workshops, etc.
So far as practicable temples were self-supporting, though
rulers regularly made personal gifts, and booty of war often
found its way to the gods. It was the duty of the ruler to
keep watch over the temples and to take such action as might
be necessary to ensure that they prospered. The concept of
the divine court not only replicated human courts, but one
may suspect it had served another purpose in prehistoric,
times. As will be explained shortly, each city needed the
help of the whole pantheon of gods, and the divine court
provided the means of keeping alive the cults of gods within
each city which otherwise might have suffered attrition and
have died out. This system of city supported temples was
practically the concern of the rulers. The temples were not
places of communal city worship. Access to the actual temple
building housing the divine statues was highly restricted,
and only certain of the temple craftsmen e.g. were allowed
inside. So while the ordinary citizens would certainly be
well informed about the major city deities in the temples and
could share in the spirit of the major festivals, their own
religion was something separate, to which we shall return.
In fact the official city cults were -from the beginning
largely dominated and developed by. theologians. Sumer had
been a land of city states traditionally, yet culturally unified
1. CT, 24, 16, 19-22 and 15, 11-12 and duplicates. Mesopotamian gods 1 19 Ancient
in; language and religion. Thanks to the invention of writing
at the end of the 4th millennium i в citais possible to» know r
something:of the concepts held \ of the Sumero-Babylonian;
gods, .and so -to note how sytematic was the pantheon- as a
- no . duplication in the - Sumerian . pantheon. - There is virtually
city, patron^ gods, despite - the city state organization > of: the
country and the frequent intercity warfare. Since each city
could only prosper with the co-operation» of a whole - host : of -
different, gods, one is forced* to the 'conclusion that in pre
historic times there had been a kind of ecumencial, conference
in which it had / been worked out how- the major, gods could ;
each .i be head ; of one city, so that so • far. as practical • all i the
major deities would; be thus honoured. The other gods-
traditionally worshipped': int each locality were then worked ;
into the cults of the major, city gods.
The number of; different names ofsgods and -goddesses is
in: the thousands, but that does not mean so many, separate
deities.. The moon god; was called? both i Nanna and Suemor
Sin, but there was only one moons- god,, and i there- were in.
fact other, less used names by which he is on occasion called;
However, all'the better known gods and goddesses pertain to-
particular.- parts and aspects of- naturcas- known and- con-
cfivedïby the Sumerians and Babylonians. There was a god?
of heaven as a cosmic location, a goddess of the earth, both a
god and goddess conceived in various sources as ruler of the
nether wrorld.-.The sun, moon and, Venus were also considered,
deities, the first/two male,- the third; as in Classical antiquity,
female.. However, most stars, constellations and planets were
thoughtobas heavenly stations of deities with other major'
abodes elsewhere. Occasionally, mistakes were made, and
since they held that, all? rivers andt springs- drew- ош a vast
subterranean/ lake, there was a deity presiding: over- that
cosmic - area. ( 'osmic functions and • processes were • also rep
resented ? in«. the pantheon ' by deities concerned' with them.
There was a god of the storm, more than one deity- of cereals,
a god of cattle, andvarious deities concerned* with the human 120» W. G. Lambert
crafts : of dairy farming, of brewing, weaving,' etc. It, would-
seem that* there was no aspect of the universe as they knew
and;conceived itfor which there was not at least one patron
deity. That those with obviously greater cosmic importance,
such' as the ; goddess ■ oft the ' earth; are * more important than >
those concerned; with* human1 crafts, such as weaving, may
imply, both* the strength v of: a millennia-long traditiomand
common sense on the part of the ancient theologians.
Thus the official pantheon of Sumer and Babylon is easily
seen< as- the- outcome- of» reflection on the universe : those-
ancients were surrounded by forces of nature, real or imagined;
which they identified as persons of superhuman power. There
was , always some ambiguity, about the precise relationship *
of tho deity to the' aspect of nature,- whether, for example,
the sun, god was in-very fact the actual • fiery ball; moving!
across the sky, or whether he -was not of- human form, living
in: a- palace and» directing the actual-solar, body in its daily
motions from a distance. Probably they were not so conscious
of such problems as • we an1.
Certain developments in the understanding of this
pantheon- can be observed; over the cours** of history, and
these are revealing i for • the ancienť conceptions of the gods. .
The most conspicuous one; which continued all down history,
was the outcome of taking an overall'view of the gods of all
the cities. Just as the Greeks tended' to identify foreign gods
with the nearest one ins their own religion, so Sumerianand
Babylonian thinkers identified similar gods as judged by their
attributes though" they were entirely, separate in their cults
and in their names. Obviously the sun god Utu of Larsawas
the same as the sun god bSamaš of Sippar, but/ the process
went beyonď such' undeniable identities and? proceeded; to
equate gods and goddesses whichvvere only similar in certain
but not all of their- attributes. Thus Ningirsu, of Lagash.
Ninurta of Nippur, and Zababa of Kish were alike considered*
Enlil," the chief son; of and were soidentifiedj but so -far as
knowledge is available it would' seem: that;- in the earliest *
Mesopolamian gods 121 Ancient
known times they were in other aspects by no means identical;
In some cases, such as with: the god of a. big town and; the -
gods of; nearby smaller, towns, it may be suspected that
power politics resulted in- the major, god; of the big town
swallowing up the smaller gods of: the ' neighbouring smaller
towns. Marduk of Babylon-became identified with -Tutu of :
Borsippa. Thus by both? theological- thinking: and . by the •
power of priests of major temples the total number of different
gods was diminished ■ over the centuries; One practical result
of this • was аш increase in the names of the major gods; A
name was not merely an identification tag, but had 'meaning,
either the actual philological meaning of the word or combin
ation» of * words, or a meaning extracted I from i the name by
what \ we would; consider bogus ■ philology. Names were split
into • syllables and were* then interpreted! from the many
Sumerian monosyllabic roots, many of i which» were homo
phones of other Sumerian roots with totally different meanings.
The system was sufficiently flexible- that almost any desiredl
meaning ' could ; be ■ extracted from», a- name by this method:
Thus each name had one or more meanings , which enshrined
theological truth about the god . to whom the name belonged;
In: the later second and' in the first millennium Marduk had
fifty names, the total consisting of his own names and epithets,
then those of other gods whomi he; hadí absorbed : by being:
equated i with them by the theologians. The final : step in this
process • also \ involved ' Marduk, who by the f late ■ second mil
lennium had become head of the pantheon. Some theologians
took the final step of identifying all 1 the ' major * male deities
of» the- pantheon with him, so thata kind' of 'monotheism
resulted: However, his spouse Zarpanitumí and i all Í the other
goddesses (perhaps conceived as identified; with Zarpânïtum)
remained i as separate beings, and i presumably, demons also s
retained their identities.. However, belief in a devil or demons
has not been held. to invalidate claims to monotheism on the
part of major, world religions of the. Christian era.
Before Marduk- achieved 5 headship ; of * the pantheon > there W. G., Lambert' 122:
were other concepts of organization within the pantheon;
So1 far as our knowledge goes back there had; always been
more and less • important gods, so judged ' either from their
cosmic significance, or from- the prestige of their cities, or
from» a- combination off both; . From* the end ; oft the third
millennium1 to the end < of the second 'millennium there was a-
committee of ■ top í gods ; who < exercised i power,- in* a sequence
which? also > illustrates their: concept of s the- physical uni
verse. An(Sumerian) or. Anu (Babylonian) bore as name the
Sumeriansnoun<"sky",.and that was his sphere. He was a
kind of president of? a socialist state:, nominal head^but not
wielding; day-to-day/ power except*, in; emergencies. Between-
heaven and earths there was a ' gap in which human v activity
took place. The god; of this space- was Enlili He livedion
earth' im his town; Nippur andi so concerned^ himself with
human activity, being the most important god .-for. the human*
race. The earth* itself t was: considered- female, presumably
as - the , recipient of the • fertilizing * rain sent down i by -> father
heaven, and a third member of this committee was the Mother
Goddess,, known by a ; variety of names: Ninhursag, . Nintu,
Aruru, andi Bëlet-ilï. Her position < in г the top > committee is
not invariable — she : can be : lacking — but , the : reason ? for. her
position is clear. She • occurs below the space in the universe
in which humans operate. The final member of the Committee
was Enkit (Sumerian) or: Ea (Babylonian), , both* names ; of
unknown meaning. He was godf of £ the subterranean lake;
called Apsû, from which all springs and rivers draw their. water.
Thus the ■ second-millennium i committee of : three or four
was r replaced by a : single r head \ in the r first millennium. But
generally there was ? a- remarkable conservatism! about the
Mesopotamian gods. They remained in the same temples over
the millennia, since the temple sites were holy and could not be
moved. Only the total decline of a city could result in a cult dying
out;. Within any cult, however, there be major changes •
over the centuries im the * courtiers .- andř other minor,- gods.
Each deity was s present in the temple in a cult image. The -■ Mesopotamian gods 123 Ancient
majority of these were; it seems, anthropomorphic,' though
some may have been' of "composite monsters. In the second
and* first millennia? these statues were 'made of- wood, dec
orated with precious -metal» and precious stones. At least to
the intellectual^ Babylonians their religion* was ■ not- ar crude
image worship. The- statue was conceived* as a less than
permanent abode' of» the- divine essence. When a > new statue
was made or an old one repaired l it was put' through a series
of rituals which1 resulted 'in the divine1 presence- taking up
its abode- in' the statue, and* whem a; statue- was seriously
damaged or worn, it was - believed i that the divine * presence
was withdrawn. All this applied» only to- the temple statue.
Other representations of the gods were also made, some were
indeed ťmassproduced in clay figurines, but these were not
the very gods, and did not go through the rites of vivification:
The- question5 has been* raised** whether' there- was not
something less developed' behind this highly sophisticated;
scheme of gods as aspects of nature. So far as the organization
of the gods in city temples is concerned' the earliest surviving
evidence merely confirms that1 no major -changes took place
over history except in* the- organization of the s gods into a^
died' out and? pantheon, and* except- where cities completely
ceased to be inhabited. There have been suggestions, however,
that the anthropomorphic representations were preceded by
a theriomorphic stage. A. Spycket andlY .Jacobsen have beem
the main contenders for views of this kind2.' In historical times
gods had symbols by which' they were generally known, and
Jacobsen- has argued that these are survivals of a pre-anthro-
pomorphic stage of religion: In the historical eras the functions
of 'these- symbols, which* may be manufactured- objects or
natural « things im whole or ■ part, is well V known. First, the
major temple statues were so holy that they were not available
2: A; Spycket, Les statues de culte dans les textes mésopotamiens des origines ,
à la Ire dynastie de Babylone (Cahiers de laiHevue Biblique, 9), Paris, .1968 ;
T. Jacobsen, Toward the Image of Tammuz and Other Essays on Mesopotamian ;
History and Culture, Cambridge, Mass., 1970, p. 1-38. ,

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