Mesopotamian Religion: The First Organized Religion in History

Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia
Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia
Source: Wikimedia Common

The religion of Mesopotamia Civilization is the first organized religion in history. It was first developed by the Sumerians around 3500 BC and was modified by the Akkadians. Gradually every city of this civilization started adopting the religion but with some changes made by themselves.

The primary thing that influenced everything from the behaviour of people to the political situation, culture, and decision making in this civilization was religion. Numerous poetry, myths, hymns, stories were maintained based on religion.

Religion played a vital role in Mesopotamia as it linked religion with government. The centre of government was the temple, whereas God was the leader. Fundamental rights were given to the officials of the temple. The priests were the only one allowed to write or record religious rituals.

Every person of this civilization had a massive belief in religion and religious myths. They believed every action was monitored by God and had consequences, respectively. If they behaved and obeyed, God would bless them with feasible climate, sunshine, and also get them rid of hardship.

Whereas, if they acted against God, they would be cursed with natural disasters like flood, famine, and drought.

People of this civilization worshipped many gods instead of one. Every city had its own major and minor gods. They had temples built for every God with their statues placed inside. 

Seven major Planetary gods were associated with each planet. The God Utu was associated with the Sun, Nanna with the Moon, Nergal with Mars, Nabu with Mercury, Marduk with Jupiter, Inanna with Venus, and Ninurta with Saturn. 

Enlil, Anu, and Enki were the three main Gods. Nanna – the God of the Moon and wisdom was the oldest God in the Mesopotamian pantheon. He was mentioned in numerous hymns, poetry, and stories between 2047 and 1750 BC.

Besides God, people also had a belief in demons and negative powers. They believed the demons were also created by God to show the existence of good and evil.

Every city had its God:

Gods of Mesopotamia
Gods of Mesopotamia
Source: Wikimedia Common

Mesopotamia civilization had numerous significant cities, including Uruk, Assur, Babylon, and Nineveh. Every city had adopted the religion developed by the Sumerians but with some modification. They had their city and national gods. 

The city of Sumer, where the religion was first developed, had seven major gods. Namely, Anu,  Enlil, Enki, Nanna, Utu, Inanna, and Ninhursag. 

Every God was associated with some power. Anu was the God of Kings and the yearly calendar. Whereas, Nanna was the God of the Moon, Utu – god of Sun, Inanna – goddess of love, Enki- god of wisdom, Enlil- god of storms, and Ninhursag- mother goddess of mountains.

The city of Akkadians had faith in three major gods, namely Anu, Enlil and Enki. They believed in the same gods as Sumerians but had renamed them as Anu, Bel, and Ea respectively. 

Anu was the only God that was worshipped by the King and was known as the King of Gods.

The city of Babylon has one major God namely Marduk. He was the chief God and also the national God of Babylon. Another name for Marduk was Bel or Lord and was the God of thunderstorms. 

The Assyrian Empire worshipped Ashur as their major God. He was worshipped mainly in the northern part of Mesopotamia, north-east of Syria, and south-east Asia. 

Ashur was the city god of Ashur and also the national God of Assyria. 

The Elamite Empire worshipped Inshushinak or Ninsusinak as their national God. They also worshipped goddess Pinikir as mother god of Elamite.

People believed that the city was the property of God, and they are to follow God and also place some sacrifices whenever necessary. They had a leader who acted as the mediator between God and the people of the city.

Every city had its Temple:

Temple of Mesopotamia
Temple of Mesopotamia
Source: Wikimedia Common

Every city of this civilization had its Gods. Likewise, every city had its major temple, which was the most important and most central building.

All the temples built were devoted to one individual deity based on the major one. The temple had the statue of the particular god placed at the centre, and a priest guarded the temple.

Ziggurats were the most massive structures and were built in every city of Mesopotamia. They were the base to build a temple. They were made in the format of an artificial mountain which showed a link between heaven and the Earth.

Temples were built having many storeys to assign each storey to a particular purpose. The storeys were assigned to temple, the apartment of the priest, workplace for officials like accountants or musicians, and finally, as a storeroom to store grains and weapons.

Ordinary people were allowed to view the inside of the temple from outside. The most visited were the temples honouring Enlil in Nippur and Anau in Uruk.

A temple honouring Mudruk in Babylon was the largest temple in Mesopotamia Civilization. It has a giant golden statue of god Mudruk weighing about 5000 pounds.

Mesopotamian Creation Myths and influence of these Myths:

Myths of Mesopotamia

People of this civilization had equal faith in Gods and the myths related to them. They believed that humans were made by Gods to serve them or to offer sacrifices.

They felt the significance of God in every act done by them. From building a house to deciding their future.

People called on the God of bricks before they laid down the foundation of a house. They considered the message sent by God via numerous mediators be it a leader or a bird. 

There is a belief that the beginning of life was after a fight between elder and younger God. The Earth and the sky were created by using the dead body of the mother goddess Tiamat.

She was killed by Mudruk, King of Babylon and who then proclaimed himself as the King of Gods. 

Also, the Earth was believed to be filled with water of two types. One was Apsu – the freshwater which went along the male principle and Tiamat- the saltwater which went along the female principle.

Another myth was that a wise man was saved from the flood with the help of the gods. He was warned by the gods to build a ship to save him before the occurrence of a flood.

With this story, people started to believe that Gods could foretell all events. They could send the message through any means and have to be interpreted well.

Mesopotamian Underworld:

Mesopotamian Underworld Kur

Mesopotamian Underworld was a dark cave located deep under the ground. It was also known as Arali and Kur in Sumerian language and Ersetu in Akkadian. Persephone was the goddess of the underworld. She lived there since she was abducted by Hades to become his bride.

People believed that no one ever returned from the underworld except the ones whose burial is not done correctly. They also believed in the existence of inhabitants even after death. 

The dead bodies were buried under the ground in burials. The burials were different depending on the social status of people.

Burials of royalty or high-class people were made luxuriously with extravagant tomb burials whereas the graves of ordinary people were regular with necessary burials.

Mesopotamian belief in divination:

Mesopotamian Astrology

Divination in Mesopotamia was taken as an essential aspect of religion. It was the scientific way of interpreting the message which was believed to be sent by the gods.

People had faith in the forecasting done with the help of supernatural powers. They believed to have a specific message in the behaviour of every creature which could be perceived by interpretation.

Many diviners performed divination. They used a clay model of a lever of a sheep to carry out the process. Every individual diviner had his interpretation depending on the message found in that particular organ of the sheep.

Diviners played a significant role in that period as they could also cure the disease found in a person. There were different methods to cure the condition found in male and female.

Royalty and high-class people had their diviner, whereas the ordinary people had to seek help from any local diviner.

Conclusion:

Though there were no specific records which could prove the religious cosmology and mythology of Mesopotamia Civilization, people still take the religion developed in this civilization as the first organized religion in history.  

Despite their myths and belief, the Mesopotamian religion is proven to be the base of any religion that came along. The temples and placement of the statue in the temple are still carried out until today.

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Cite this article as: Richard Marrison, "Mesopotamian Religion: The First Organized Religion in History," in HistoryTen, October 1, 2020, https://historyten.com/mesopotamia/mesopotamian-religion/.
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