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Tag: Kramer

Mesopotamian Religion is Undefinable

“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.

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.

On the Mesopotamian Gods and Mankind

“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, “Mesopotamia,” in John R. Hinnels, ed., A Handbook of Ancient Religions, Cambridge, 2007, pp. 185-6.

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