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Transcendant Radiance of the Gods

“Although the gods were visualized in anthropomorphic form, with human emotions and physical needs and desires, important distinctions set the gods apart from humanity.

First, they had transcendent divine powers in the universe, over other gods, and over human lives and institutions. Second was the gods’ sublime position in an ordered universe, in which divinity could be expressed in terms of rank and precedence. Sublime power and position inspired fear, trembling and speechlessness in the presence of a god (Jacobsen 1976: 3–5; Bottéro 1992: 210).

Divinity was furthermore revealed by a radiant brightness, not as of heat but as of a gem-like sheen, blinding, pure and holy. This was sometimes seen as separate from the divine being, worn like a brilliant garment or headgear, or set about the features as glories. In art, this property could be represented by brightly coloured inlays on the surface of figures, or rosettes or stars sewn on textiles. In poetry, this concept was expressed by words meaning awe-inspiring radiance and sublime purity.

A distinctive aspect of Sumerian religious thought was the concept called ‘me’, literally ‘is’. This was an individual, differentiated, abstract power that defined and controlled both divine attributes and attributes of human civilization (van Dijk 1971: 440–2).

Thus there was a ‘me’ of individual gods, temples and lands, and of human institutions, states and accomplishments such as kingship, wisdom, music, old age or carpentry. According to the Sumerian myth of Inanna and Enki, Enki controlled these but Inanna got them away from him by getting him drunk then taking them as gifts proffered in his intoxicated state, which he regretted when sober (Farber, in Hallo 1997: 522–6).

The concept of ‘me’ did not carry over into post-Sumerian times, though there was an Akkadian concept called ‘parsu’ which referred to the dynamic existence of gods and temples.”

Benjamin R. Foster, “Properties of Divinity,” John R. Hinnells, ed., A Handbook of Ancient Religions, 2007, pp. 179-80.

Immortality and Mortality of Mesopotamian Gods

“A further property of divinity was immortality. In narratives about divine deeds, gods were understood to be born of the intercourse of male and female parents. There is reference to their being nursed as infants but no further indication of a sense of their education, training or personal development.

Rather, as in the case of Marduk in the Babylonian Epic of Creation, the gods were born with full powers, knowing how to use weapons, understand magic words and so forth. As with Ninurta, a hero god, younger gods were expected to honour, obey and avenge slights to their parents. Having achieved a certain maturity, the gods stayed that way and did not age, though one and the same god could be portrayed as a youthful hero or as a sublime sage with magical, in preference to physical, prowess.

Gods could die, but only at the hands of other gods. Some died in battle or were executed for offences against higher gods. For example, the rebel god, Aw-ila, in the Story of the Flood (Foster 1996: 160–203 and below, pp. 184–5, 187) was executed to punish the uprising of the lesser gods against the great gods, but his spirit lingered on in the newly created human race, palpable as the human pulse. His flesh and blood were used to make the first human and his will may have given the human race its rebellious or wayward spirit.

The execution of Kingu, leader of the attacking army of gods and monsters in the Babylonian Epic of Creation, was modelled on this episode, but Kingu was there (falsely) accused of suborning Tiamat, mother of the gods, to kill her children (Foster 1996: 350–401).”

Benjamin R. Foster, “Birth and Death,” John R. Hinnells, ed., A Handbook of Ancient Religions, 2007, pp. 180-1.

Worship of Idols and Graven Images

“Just as a great king might exercise wide dominion in the world but needed to sleep and eat, so too the Mesopotamian gods were ascribed universal dominion but had physical, social and aesthetic needs that their human subjects were created to serve (Oppenheim 1977: 183–98).

Thus temples of the gods were at first houses then palatial structures where the god ruled as a householder and dignitary (Oppenheim 1961: 158–69). The god’s house was provided with sleeping quarters, audience chambers, storerooms and dining halls in which choice foods were served and music performed. There were gardens for the god’s enjoyment and dalliance. Their homes were appointed in luxurious style with works of art, commemorative inscriptions and treasuries of offerings, gifts and valuables.

The gods travelled to visit other gods and entertained each other with feasts accompanied by speeches and heavy drinking. Like any good householder, the gods were concerned with the stewardship of their domains. The Sumerian goddess Nanshe, for example, is described in a hymn as searching out fraud and embezzlement in her household accounts ( Jacobsen 1987a: 131; Heimpel in Hallo 1997: 526–31).

The gods were understood to be physically present at will in an image (Hallo 1983) that was dressed and adorned with special clothing, jewelry and headdresses. Destruction of the image or its removal by an enemy was a disaster for the community, demanding a theological explanation: the deity was angry with his city or her people, even if no cause for this anger could be established, and had forsaken both the image and the community.

Return of an abducted image was a moment of jubilation and renewal of patriotic feeling, as when the lost statue of Marduk was returned from its captivity in Elam by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar I (twelfth century BCE).

Some Mesopotamian authors speculated on the relationship between an object produced by human craftsmanship and a universal cosmic power, asserting, as in the Epic of Erra, that the image was primeval and the craftsmen uncanny, with later human counterparts permitted by the gods to make repairs (Foster 1996: 765). However, reports of theft of divine apparel or jewelry suggest that not all Mesopotamians were awed by images of the gods.”

Benjamin R. Foster, “Gods in Their Dwellings,” John R. Hinnells, ed., A Handbook of Ancient Religions, 2007, pp. 181-2.

Mesopotamian Cosmology

“In literature and magic spells, Mesopotamians referred to the beginnings of the world. The various accounts were quite different, so there was no one story that should be considered standard or universally accepted.

The most comprehensive and ambitious of the accounts of creation, contained in the Babylonian Epic of Creation, refers to a time before the present generation of gods in which there were two waters, male and female, commingling with no distinct separation. Rather than the ‘chaos’ which it is often considered, this combination was dynamic and productive, yielding several pairs of older gods, male and female, and ultimately a much larger number of younger gods, on whom the narrative focuses.

The successive generations of gods were progressively stronger and greater than the preceding ones, suggesting that the Mesopotamians visualized a dynamic past development of their universe, culminating in a present order that was stable and unchanging (Foster 1996: 350):

When on high no name was given to heaven,

Nor below was the netherworld called by name,

Primeval Apsu was their progenitor,

And matrix-Tiamat was she who bore them all,

They were mingling their waters together,

No canebrake was intertwined nor thicket matted close.

When no gods at all had been brought forth,

None called by names, none destinies ordained,

Then were the gods formed within these two.

The Babylonian Epic of Creation ascribed to Marduk, god of Babylon, the reorganization of the cosmos into the form the Babylonians knew it, including the motions of the stars, a firmament above the earth, rivers and mountains of the earth, the phases of the moon, and so forth. Since this account dates only to the second half of the second millennium BCE and presupposes a cosmos centred on Babylon, there is no reason to assign it universal validity in Mesopotamia. The poem appears to contain a variety of earlier materials worked into a coherent narrative.

The universe was visualized as circular, with a firmament below heaven and a corresponding surface above the netherworld. Some speculative texts proposed several layers in the cosmos (Lambert 1975). In any case, heaven was so remote from earth that the land was not visible to a human observer who had risen so high, such as the mythologized king Etana, who flew up to heaven on an eagle, or the sage Adapa, who was summoned to heaven after interfering with the wind.

In later periods, heaven and netherworld were thought to be organized like urban earth, with gates, defences, and large residences for the gods containing reception areas, sleeping quarters, baths and other amenities.”

Benjamin R. Foster, “Cosmology,” John R. Hinnells, ed., A Handbook of Ancient Religions, 2007, pp. 183-4.

Mesopotamian End Times

“Mesopotamia offers little evidence for a belief in a future end of the world. The only clear reference to this occurs in a third-century BCE work in Greek by Berossus, reputedly a Babylonian priest. He stated that the earth was in danger of ending in fire or flood when the planets were gathered in a straight line in the constellations Cancer or Capricorn.

No earlier Mesopotamian reference to this belief has been identified, so its authenticity as a native Mesopotamian tradition is disputed. Although there are references to good and bad times and to the impermanence of political power in any one city or dynasty, these changes were described not as cyclical but as the result of divine favour or disfavour to individual rulers or their cities.

The Mesopotamians viewed the world in which they lived as different from that of very ancient times, which were separated from the more recent past by the flood. The Mesopotamians believed that the flood would not recur; therefore, in effect the end of the world had already taken place.

They expected the world to endure in the form they knew it, despite individual triumphs and destructions of cities and states. Since the flood had shown that the human race was essential to maintain the living standards of the gods, the gods might reduce the human population through plague or famine, but would never again attempt to eliminate it entirely.”

Benjamin R. Foster, “End of the World,” John R. Hinnells, ed., A Handbook of Ancient Religions, 2007, pp. 184-5.

Creation of Man

“According to the Babylonian Flood Story, the gods created the human race in order for it to maintain them in a comfortable and luxurious living standard. In this account, the first human was made in collaboration by the birth-goddess, Mami or Nintu, and Enki, god of wisdom. They took a piece of clay, kneaded it with divine spittle, then mixed in the spirit, flesh and blood of a slain rebellious god (Foster 1996: 168):

“They slaughtered Aw-ilu, who had the inspiration [for the revolt against the gods], in their assembly.

The [birth-goddess] Nintu mixed clay with his flesh and blood.

That same god and man were thoroughly mixed in the clay.

For the rest of time they would hear the drum,

From the flesh of the god the spirit remained.

It would make the living know its sign,

Lest he be allowed to be forgotten, the spirit remained.”

To sustain the human race, birth, maturity, marriage and procreation were instituted. Later, when the population had grown too great, celibacy, infertility, still birth and social restrictions against childbirth for certain groups of people were imposed on the human race.

This was not the only Mesopotamian story of how human beings were created. In a Sumerian account, the god of wisdom produced various experimental but defective human beings until a satisfactory human was brought forth (Kramer 1961: 68–70). In another Sumerian creation story, human beings grew from the earth after Enlil struck it with a pickaxe. Then he handed them the pickaxe and they set to work (Farber in Hallo 1997: 511–13). In the Babylonian Epic of Creation, Enki/Ea’s role in creating the human race is subordinated to Marduk, who is said to have had the original idea for it (Foster 1996: 383):

“I shall compact blood, I shall cause bones to be.

I shall make stand a human being, let ‘Man’ be its name.

I shall create human kind.

They shall bear the gods’ burden that those may rest.”

Humans in Mesopotamian thought were differentiated from animals in that they ate prepared foods, such as bread and beer, in preference to uncooked wild plants and water. Humans, unlike animals, wore clothes and treated and adorned their bodies with alien substances, such as oils and cosmetics, and cut their hair, rather than letting it grow to a natural length.

Humans were different from gods in that they had inferior mental and physical powers and had limited lifespans. What some later peoples deemed human characteristics, such as an immortal soul, language, social organization and use of implements, seemed to the Mesopotamians to be developments of human potential rather than distinguishing features of the race.”

Benjamin R. Foster, “Gods and the Human Race,” John R. Hinnells, ed., A Handbook of Ancient Religions, 2007, pp. 185-6.

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