Mesopotamian Religion is Undefinable

by Esteban

“Mesopotamian religion includes certain beliefs and practices of the Sumerians, Akkadians, Assyrians, Babylonians and other peoples who lived at various times in different parts of ancient Mesopotamia, the region corresponding roughly to modern Iraq, from the fourth through the first millennia BCE.

The history and cultures of these peoples were mostly forgotten during the early Christian era, save for brief historical narratives of famous kings and cities in the Hebrew Bible, in classical authors such as Herodotus, Diodorus and Josephus, and in scattered excerpts from a lost book by Berossus, a Babylonian writing in Greek in the third century BCE.

Beginning in the nineteenth century CE, with the discovery and excavation of ancient Mesopotamian sites and decipherment of Mesopotamian languages such as Sumerian and Akkadian, European and American scholars identified texts, objects and architecture as religious in nature. They used these to reconstruct ancient Mesopotamian religious beliefs and practices in the absence of any continuous or living tradition from ancient times to the present.

Inevitably the intellectual concerns of successive generations of scholars, their personal religious commitments and their individual stances, such as piety, scepticism or anticlericalism, had their effect on agendas of research and modes of presentation of Mesopotamian religion in modern studies. Many scholars of an earlier generation took for granted, for example, a higher degree of religious preoccupation and expression among ‘ancient Oriental’ or ‘Semitic peoples’ than among other ancient peoples such as the Greeks and Romans, but generalizations on this order are no longer the basis for serious research.

Some scholars imagined, for example, that the priesthood was primarily responsible for preserving culture, while others claimed that priests resisted change and development, suppressed writings unacceptable to them, and generally stood in the way of progress.

Pioneering studies of Mesopotamian religion tended to be comprehensive, such as that by M. Jastrow (1898, partially revised German edition 1912, with a volume of illustrations, 1912). Its fundamental thesis was that ancient Mesopotamian religion derived from local animistic cults that grew and merged into a larger, more complex interlocking set of religious practices and beliefs.

Similar views were set forth by R. W. Rogers (1908) in a volume that treated Mesopotamian religion as a sort of prelude to Judaism, itself a prelude to Christianity. E. Dhorme (1945, not available in English) wrote a concise and well-documented descriptive study.

The most influential writer in English on Mesopotamian religion was Thorkild Jacobsen. He developed a view that ancient Mesopotamian religion derived from a person’s sense of the ‘other’ in the natural world around him, leading to feelings of fear and awe. People perceived active will in natural events, processes and phenomena. This sense of the other was expressed, using metaphorical terms, in myth and theology and was acted upon in cult and ritual.

We have a comprehensive presentation of his views (Jacobsen 1976) and a later summary statement of his work (Jacobsen 1987). Bottéro (2001) stressed spiritual values and a phenomenological rather than a schematic, theoretical approach; for a summary of its main theses see Bottéro (1992: 201–31).

Economic and ritual aspects of Mesopotamian religion are presented by Oppenheim (1977), professing disdain for a historical approach to the subject. He contributed a brief but suggestive essay to a collection edited by Ferm (1950: 65–79). A more detailed, primarily bibliographical survey was offered by Römer (1969). There are numerous technical studies of aspects of Mesopotamian religion in the scientific literature of Assyriology, but few of them are in English.

Many presentations of Mesopotamian religion rely on retellings of ancient literary works that modern scholars classify as mythology. Authoritative presentations of Mesopotamian and other ancient Near Eastern mythologies were made in Kramer (1961 and 1969), as well as in a major treatment of Mesopotamian mythological texts jointly with Bottéro (1989, not available in English). Recent English translations of Akkadian mythology are found in Dalley (1989) and Foster (1996). Important Sumerian myths and other religious texts are translated in Jacobsen (1987).

No ancient Mesopotamian term corresponds to the modern concept of ‘religion,’ nor is there any ancient scripture, systematic treatise or general description of religious belief or activity from any period of Mesopotamian history. This means that definition of Mesopotamian religion can at best be only a modern mode of selecting and interpreting ancient writings and material culture using modern humanistic categories for which there may not have been ancient counterparts. Although the Mesopotamians recognized certain matters as ‘pertaining to the gods’, a distinction between religious and secular matters may not have been always fully comprehensible in the context of Mesopotamian culture.”

Benjamin R. Foster, “Sources,” John R. Hinnells, ed., A Handbook of Ancient Religions, 2007, pp. 161-5.