Transcendant Radiance of the Gods

by Esteban

“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.