Priests and Priestesses in Babylonia

by Esteban

“AT an early period in Babylonian history the priesthood and kingship were blended in one office, and it is not until after several centuries from the beginnings of Babylonian history as we know it that the two offices were separated.

Indeed, long afterward the monarchs of Babylonia and Assyria appear to have taken especial pleasure in styling themselves the priests of such and such a deity, and in all likelihood they personally officiated at the altars of the gods on occasions of high religious sanctity.

The priesthood in general was called shangu, which may mean ‘ sacrificer,’ and there is little doubt that at first, as among other peoples, the Babylonian priest was practically a medicine-man. It was his business to secure people from the attacks of the evil demons who caused disease and the wiles of witches, and to forecast the future and discover the will and intentions of the gods.

From left, Storm God Ninurta, with bows and arrows.  Ishtar, queen of heaven and earth is elevated with wings and spears and maces on her shoulders.  The tree of life sprouts to her right, our left.  The Sun God Shamash rises from the mountain Kur in the center, with rays of light on his shoulder.  The God of Water and Wisdom, Enki/Ea battles the bird-god Imdugud/Anzu, with depictions of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and fish coursing from his shoulders.  At far right is the deified vizier Usmu, the two-faced. All gods wear conical hats with four pairs of horns.  At far left is the word Adda in Accadian cuneiform, "Scribe."  Accordingly this cylinder seal is known as the Seal of Adda, Akkadian period, 2350-2100 BCE. British Library.  http://www.ancientworlds.net/aw/Article/787375

From left, Storm God Ninurta, with bows and arrows.
Ishtar, queen of heaven and earth is elevated with wings and spears and maces on her shoulders.
The tree of life sprouts to her right, our left.
The Sun God Shamash rises from the mountain Kur in the center, with rays of light on his shoulder.
The God of Water and Wisdom, Enki/Ea battles the bird-god Imdugud/Anzu, with depictions of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and fish coursing from his shoulders.
At far right is the deified vizier Usmu, the two-faced. All gods wear conical hats with four pairs of horns.
At far left is the word Adda in Accadian cuneiform, “Scribe.”
Accordingly this cylinder seal is known as the Seal of Adda, Akkadian period, 2350-2100 BCE. British Library.
http://www.ancientworlds.net/aw/Article/787375

It is quite clear how such an official as this came to be known as the ‘sacrificer,’ for it would seem that the best way to find favour with the gods was to make offerings to them through an accredited intermediary. Indeed the early priesthood of Babylonia appears to have been as much magical as religious, and we read of the makhkhu, or soothsayer, the mushelu, or necromancer, the asipu, or sorcerer, and the mashmashu, or charmer, whose especial functions are probably outlined in their several titles.

But as civilization proceeded and theological opinion took shape, religious ceremonial began to take the place of what was little better than sorcery. It has been said that magic is an attempt to force the hands of the gods, to overawe them, whereas religion is an appeal to their protective instincts.

Now when the feeling began to obtain that there was such a quality as justice in the universe, and when the idea of just gods had an acceptance among the people through the instruction of thinking theologians, the more vulgar practices of the sorcerer-priests fell out of favour with the upper classes, if not with the populace, and a more imposing ceremonial took the place of mere incantation.

Besides, being founded on the idea of mercy as opposed to mere power, religion has invariably recommended itself, politically speaking, to the class of mind which makes for immediate and practical progress as apart from that which seeks to encourage mere speculation.

As the ritual grew the necessity for new branches of the priesthood was discovered. At the head of the priestly organization was the shangan-makhu, and each class of priests had its chief as well. The priests were a caste, — that is, it is probable that the right to enter the priesthood was vested in certain families, but many young men were educated by the priests who did not in after life exercise their functions, but who became scribes or lawyers.

As in the case of most primitive religions, the day of the priest was carefully subdivided. It was made up of three watches, and the night was divided into a similar number of watches. Three relays of priests thus officiated through the day and three through the night.

Iraq, Akkadian Period Reign of Naramsin or Sharkalishari, ca. 2254-2193 B.C. Black stone 4.2 cm H, 2.5 cm W Purchased in New York, 1947 Oriental Institute Museum A27903 This cylinder seal was dedicated to the goddess, Ninishkun, who is interceding on the owner's behalf with the great goddess Ishtar. Ishtar places her right foot upon a roaring lion, which she restrains with a leash. The scimitar in her left hand and the weapons sprouting from her winged shoulders are a reference to her martial qualities. https://oi.uchicago.edu/collections/highlights/highlights-collection-mesopotamia

Iraq, Akkadian Period
Reign of Naramsin or Sharkalishari, ca. 2254-2193 B.C.
Black stone
4.2 cm H, 2.5 cm W
Purchased in New York, 1947
Oriental Institute Museum A27903
This cylinder seal was dedicated to the goddess, Ninishkun, who is interceding on the owner’s behalf with the great goddess Ishtar. Ishtar places her right foot upon a roaring lion, which she restrains with a leash. The scimitar in her left hand and the weapons sprouting from her winged shoulders are a reference to her martial qualities.
https://oi.uchicago.edu/collections/highlights/highlights-collection-mesopotamia

Priestesses were also known in Babylonia, and many references are made in the texts to the ‘sacred women.’ Some of these were exorcisers, and others, like the Greek pythonesses, presided at oracular shrines. The cult of Ishtar in especial had many attendant priestesses, and these were of several classes.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 239-41.