- Almost all ancient Mesopotamians were devoutly religious, and in one form or another various aspects of religion permeated their lives. From very early times, long before the introduction of writing and the building of large temples in the late fourth millennium B.C., people in the region envisioned that the world was alive with invisible spirits of various kinds. Good or evil spirits inhabited all aspects of nature, including the sky and the Sun, the Moon, and the planets; the mountains and forests; farmer's fields; and the waters of streams, rivers, and seas. In addition, it was thought that spirits were inherent within or guided human activities such as making fire, raising crops, writing literature, and healing the sick. Over time these spirits increasingly took on human form and exhibited humanlike characteristics, probably because this made it easier for people to relate to and worship them. But whether one saw the gods in abstract or in human form, the core belief was that the will and powers of these divinities guided the workings of both nature and humanity. Such guidance took the form of what might be called underlying rules of order that must be followed. The Sumerians referred to these rules collectively as me, and theBabylonians and Assyrians called them parsu. in mythology, an important tangible artifact of this divine order was the so-called Tablet of Destiny, on which the fates of both gods and humans were recorded. Because of its great intrinsic powers, it was highly coveted, and several myths described attempts to steal it.Personal and Temple Gods For the average person, the principal connection to the divine order was a personal god to whom the person could pray at any time and in any place. it is unknown how someone went about choosing a personal god, but certain gods were seen as protectors of groups, so that a farmer might pray to the patron of farmers and a soldier to a deity known to befriend soldiers. A personal god might also be the local patron deity of a town or a city. People thought that the patron deity took a special interest in that city and its people. Whoever the personal god was, when necessary the worshipper asked it to gain the assistance of a more powerful deity, one who transcended merely local affairs.In fact, some local gods eventually gained national prominence. Sometimes this occurred through conquest, as when an invading people introduced its god to the inhabitants of the regions it captured. But even more often it was the result of cultural assimilation. It was very common for Sumerian deities to be passed on to, or adopted by, later Mesopotamian peoples, for instance. In the process, an older god's functions, duties, and physical image would be absorbed by the younger god, though the latter usually displayed some new attributes given to it by the later people. An obvious example is the way the Sumerian god Enlil gradually took on many of the attributes of the patriarchal, universal governor An. Later, the Babylonian divinity Marduk took on most of Enlil's powers and duties, as did the Assyrian god Ashur.Although people continued to worship such gods on a private, informal level throughout Mesopotamian history, these deities were also worshipped on a more formal, organized, national level. The main focus of city, national, and imperial worship was the temple, of which a typical city had several. However, public worship did not take place inside the temple, as happens inside modern churches, synagogues, and mosques. In ancient times most people thought that a god or goddess actually dwelled inside the temple, so to respect his or her privacy, the congregation gathered outside. The ceremonies might take place in a special courtyard on the temple grounds, in a city square, or somewhere else. The temple housed the god's cult image, or statue, which it was thought he actually inhabited. And it was common for priests to carry the statue out of the temple to the place where the main worship was taking place.Festivals and Rituals Removing a god's cult image from its temple occurred only during religious festivals, special times of the year similar to modern religious holidays. The largest and most elaborate of these festivals was an agricultural celebration that the Sumerians called Akiti and the Babylonians and Assyrians Akitu. In some places it was held once a year, at harvest time (usually in March). This coincided with the New Year's celebration, making it doubly festive. In other places in Mesopotamia, the Akiti took place twice - during both harvest and planting times. In Babylonia from the second millennium B.c.on, the festival lasted twelve days and involved rituals including prayer and the sacrifice of animals; reciting the Epic of Creation, which describes how the chief god, Mar-duk, acquired universal power; formal processions in which people marched, sang, and carried the divine images; and large-scale as well as private feasts.In addition to these more or less universal rituals, each Mesopotamian people or region had its peculiar local rituals during a given religious festival. A noteworthy example was a Babylonian ceremony that took place on the fifth day of the New Year's festival, dedicated to Marduk and his son, Nabu. Nabu's shrine was ritually cleansed and then covered with a golden embroidered canopy. Amid great pomp and solemnity, the king of Babylonia entered and the high priest removed his crown and other royal trappings. Then the priest slapped the king across the face, after which the monarch had to kneel before Nabu's image and swear that he had not abused the great powers and authority entrusted to him by the gods. These acts symbolized and emphasized the ultimate power of the divine order over humanity, including human kings. Later in the day, the priest returned the crown to the king and the two men prayed together to the planet Mercury, which was associated with Marduk.Such prayers, sacrifices, festivals, and other physical acts of worship were performed to appease and show respect to the gods. But most Mesopotamians did not do these things simply out of fear, necessity, or as lip service to the divine. Following deep-seated traditions passed from generation to generation, religion was ingrained into society in such a way that most people had a strong sense of morality. They both understood basic concepts of right and wrong and felt obligated to strive toward what was right. The great Assyriologist Samuel N. Kramer perfectly sums it up this way:The Sumerians . . . cherished goodness and truth, law and order, justice and freedom . . . [and] mercy and compassion. And they abhorred evil and falsehood [and] lawlessness and disorder. . . . Kings and rulers constantly boasted . . . that they had established law and order in the land. . . . And practically all the major deities . . . are extolled in Sumerian hymns as lovers of the good and just, of truth and righteousness. (History Begins at Sumer, p. 101)This does not mean that all Mesopotami-ans were just, always told the truth, and never committed crimes. However, society had strict ethical norms that many people at least tried to fulfill, and usually they were not driven to do so simply to ensure they would be rewarded later with a comfortable residence in the afterlife. There was a strong sense of social conscience or humanity, which the Sumerians called namlulu, which in practical terms translated into such widespread acts as comforting the ill and protecting the weak and widows and orphans. These and other similar ethical acts were frequently expressed in and encouraged by the law codes issued by rulers such as Babylonia's Hammurabi. Thus, partly through religious devotion and rituals passed from one generation to another, the various peoples of Mesopotamia regulated themselves and strove to maintain a civil, just, and compassionate society. For more details about various aspects of religion and religious beliefs and customs, see also afterlife; burial customs; divination; magic; priests and priestesses; temples. For the religion of ancient Persia, see also Zoroastrianism.See also: the names of individual gods and goddesses
Ancient Mesopotamia dictioary. Don Nardo Robert B. Kebric. 2015.