Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia

Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia



Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226067179
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 12/01/2001
Pages: 260
Product dimensions: 6.36(w) x 9.30(h) x 0.81(d)

About the Author

Teresa Lavender Fagan is a freelance translator living in Chicago; she has translated numerous books for the University of Chicago Press and other publishers.

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Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia

By Jean Bottero

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2001 Jean Bottero
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0226067173

CHAPTER ONE - Religion and Religions

No one can undertake a thorough study of the economy of Mesopotamia, Greece, China, or anywhere else without at least first having a clear idea of what is implied by the term "economy" itself. It would be just as frivolous, just as risky, to delve even slightly seriously into any religion whatsoever without first reflecting on the constituent elements that can be expected to make up a given religion--in other words, one must start with a rather clear vision of what the phenomenon "religion" itself actually means.

Obviously, this is not the place to initiate a philosophical or psychological discussion (have such discussions ever achieved their goals?), especially since it is not to our advantage--we others, simple historians and those who are curious about ancient artifacts--to contemplate things on that ethereal level. Before drowning in an ocean of detail, without bottom or shores, in our goal to uncover, to describe, and, insofar as possible, to put those details in order, as we attempt to understand the religion of the ancient Mesopotamians, it is advisable to establish how the structure of that religion is similar to those of other religions. Thus can we find in an order (a naturally logical order, not achronological one, at this stage of our undertaking) and within a system the essential facts that indeed make it a religion, which we will then have to classify and ponder using such a huge amount of material. Before beginning, it is always better at least to know where one wishes to go.

What is immediately obvious to anyone who hopes to understand a religious system--or religion itself--is its social nature. Religion above all affects its faithful in their lives within a group, imposing upon them a certain number of feelings, conceptions, and practices to which they would not have been led had they not been together. In studying a religion, therefore, one might focus on this collective aspect. (Such an approach is, moreover, taken almost obligatorily ever since the advent of sociology, which discovered and learned how to make use of its value. And who could deny that such a concern is useful and even indispensable?)

But to stress the collective nature of religion from the outset is to forget that the only real and primary elements of any society--the only true sources and subjects of social, religious, and other constraints, the only beings who uphold the essential explanation of such obligations and who can show their authentic and complete functioning in a clear way--are the individuals who make up that society and without whom it would not exist. Were the old Scholastics, who had much better sense than is usually attributed to them by those who do not understand them, wrong to say, using their own jargon, that "an assembly of people, disregarding the assembled individuals, is a portrait of the mind/spirit" (multitudo sine multis non est, nisi in ratione)? Thus, no religion is truly real-- identifiable and analyzable--except through and within the individuals who practice it, individuals who, alone, using the mechanism of their minds and their hearts, hold the secrets of it, even if they are unaware that they do so. And it is primarily this mechanism, conscious or not, that we must isolate, in order to understand its functioning within a given system.

Considered in this way, any religion, let us say, religion as a whole, would be incomprehensible if it did not have a specific and primary object that governs a more or less spontaneous mental attitude, one common to all its followers (the fact that, I will say it again, its individual adherents only rarely, or never, have a full or even vague awareness of it is of little importance). The same is true, moreover, with many other dispositions of our nature, which intervene just as powerfully in all of our lives.

We can understand this better if, like using indirect lighting, we take a look at another of our specific inclinations--love, for example. Innate and irrational, it irresistibly pushes each one of us toward "another," someone within our reach, in whom we obscurely sense a sort of enrichment indispensable to our lives, a necessary complement to our selves, whom we must seek out and obtain regardless of all opposition. What similarly legitimizes and justifies religion is found, not on our level, on our, shall we say, "horizontal" plane, but in a sense "vertically," above us. It is the unthinking and intimate attraction, all the stronger in that it is instinctive and imprecise, that directs us toward something inaccessible that reaches far beyond us: the vague apprehension, the obscure feeling that there exists, much higher "up," much greater than we, an undefined order of things, absolutely superior to us and to all that we know here on earth, but to which we are in a certain way impulsively inclined to submit and toward which we feel compelled to turn if we wish to be fully complete. This "order of things" (as I am calling it, since it first appears to us as ontologically indeterminate; neither personalized nor impersonal) is what, for lack of a better term, we call the supernatural, but also the sacred, the numinous, the divine--the primary object of religion, without which it would not exist, having no reason for being.

That which--still within a logical and not chronological order-- directs us toward "It" is religiosity, or a religious sentiment, the root of all religion, which alone justifies, infuses, and governs it, whether that sentiment is positive or negative, centripetal or centrifugal. For we can feel respectful, or even fearful, in the face of the supernatural, of what is completely beyond us, and whose formidable presentiment is enough to make us want to flee; but we can also feel oddly attracted to it, if it promises a prodigious richness of being and life. This dual, contradictory movement covers the field of what we call the religious sentiment, which colors, permeates, and defines a given religion--either as a "religion of fear" or as a "mystical religion."

We are spontaneously driven to clarify the supernatural, toward which the basic impulse of our hearts immediately leads us, in the dark night, to define it, to portray it more vividly than in the light and shade in which from the beginning we only sensed its existence: for "it is in our nature always to seek to know" (Aristotle). Again using the comparison with love, is not love's first characteristic curiosity, that ardent search for the image and the secrets of its object? Religion follows the same path. Depending on its fantasy and its scale of values, depending on its tastes and its revulsions, depending on its imagination and phantasms, each culture in which a religion has been born and taken root has sought to portray the divine, the sacred, which is its soul, as either one or more material realities; or as an "order of things," an imprecise "force," but one with noticeable effects; or as one, or several, personalities whose image would be more or less familiar to us. We then speak, depending on the case, of "fetishism," of "pantheism," of "anthropomorphism," of "polytheism," or of "monotheism."

Such representations, which each religion necessarily constructs for the supernatural, proliferate throughout time; curiosity and reflection are rarely lacking in this realm, one open, perhaps even more than others, to perplexity, rumination, inquiry, and imagination. Such representations arrange themselves at random, in agreement or in divergence. With the unique reinforcement of fantasy, the only possible recourse in the circumstances, they easily make up an entire mythological system that is more or less polychromatic; and when a certain logic triumphs over this imaginative foundation, we can even speak of theology.

Furthermore--and again like love, which endlessly pushes lovers to "do something" to benefit the object of their attachment, to bend as much as possible to his or her wishes, needs, assumed desires--a religious spirit also feels compelled to see the divine as one of the goals, if not the very center, of his life, the receiver of his goods, the master of his spirit. This is the realm of religious behavior (which is also commonly called worship), whose content and program vary depending on the sentimental ties that attach believers to the supernatural, as well as on the image that they have created of it.

It is clear that the result of all the purely religious activity of a representation of the divine and of one's attitude toward it, which are dependent on and animated by each other, each in its own way, through the religiosity that penetrates them (the images that we create of the divine and of that which touches it, as well as the rules we impose upon ourselves to follow it) are exclusively and completely the products only of our creative and fanciful ingenuity and activities--our imagination. By definition, none of us has ever seen or will ever see, perceive, hear, or touch, in any way, that object of our religiosity, an imperceptible and shadowy object whose existence, let us repeat, is only suggested by a powerful, but blind, feeling. Everything we propose about it and its demands is pure conjecture and the creation of our imagination and derives from that curiosity and imaginativeness alone, made up of "calculated imagination," following a certain dialectic, which, in the strict sense of the word, we call mythology. Religion is mythological, and every religion is mythological. This in no way dissuades us from strenuously pursuing its objects, as if we knew that they existed, or from "believing in it," more or less firmly or casually, and from conforming to its precepts and routines, with fervor or half-heartedly.

We must also consider a completely different aspect of religions in order to classify, characterize, and understand them: their origins.

For most religions, especially the most ancient and, as we say, "primitive," it is impossible to know anything of their beginnings: they are lost in the deep night of prehistory or in the impenetrable fog of "parahistory," of which we have no accounts or documents to orient ourselves. Every religion of this type is ultimately only a reflection of the culture out of which it developed. And every culture, all of which have a particular scale of values, a concept of social life, a type of social organization, a concern for others, a collection of tastes and aversions, of preferences and fears, necessarily includes a determinative attitude toward the divine: a religious dimension, a religion, born within that culture and developed through imperceptible stages. This is what we call a prehistoric or traditional religion, or, if we wish, a popular or primitive religion.

Like everything in a given culture, such religions were transmitted from parents to children, in the endless succession of generations, without any specific authority watching over them, without further constraints than those presiding, for example, over alimentary habits or over the laws of kinship. Every prehistoric religion was a rich body of hereditary customs, received and practiced without question, because it has always been thus and because everyone was plunged into it at birth, and it never entered anyone's mind to escape it, or to change it, any more than one would change one's way of life.

But it happens that at a historical moment, in other words, a moment identifiable by us in space and in time, there arrives a figure, equally identifiable by us, who comes to interrupt the course of a traditional religion, on his own, by himself creating and diffusing his own religion: his emotional attitude with regard to the sacred, his personal conception of the sacred and of the duties it imposes. Such religions are what we call historical religions (or revealed religions), which demand of individuals, at least when the religions have not yet been implanted and passed into the common culture, a "conversion," that is, a voluntary abandonment of the traditional system to blend into the new one. Each historical religion is in fact only a more or less radical reform of the prehistoric system in which its founder was born and first lived.

There are not many of these types of religions, but (without discussing localized phenomena such as Mormonism, launched in the United States some two centuries ago by Joseph Smith) several have been attractive enough or have had enough success, spontaneously or through force, to conquer large parts of the world: in the West, Judaism (created by Moses around 1250), Christianity (by Jesus Christ, at the beginning of our era), and Islam (six centuries later, by Muhammad); and in the East, Buddhism (by Siddhartha Gautama, around A.D. 500). The essence and structure of those religions were contemplated and developed by the great religious "inventors" who were first inspired by them and who were ardent enough to convert disciples, then by believers, and then by authors, by themselves or with their entourage and successors, whose "holy writings" aimed to establish and propagate everywhere and forever the letter, the framework, and the essential obligations of their new religious system. Because of the way they are constituted, historical religions could not in fact exist except via a strict and everlasting tie to such written documents, which reveal the thought of their founders. And they always demand a complete conformity of thought (orthodoxy) and behavior (orthopraxy) to the original doctrine set down in writing. Each such religion, in its own way, in order to ensure this monolithic cohesion, has provided itself with an official body responsible for remembering and enforcing it; each such religion tends toward intolerance of all that is outside it.

Putting the subject of the present work, Mesopotamian religion, in the context of what has just been presented, let us say that its religiosity was made up above all of a "centrifugal" feeling of fear, respect, and servility with regard to the divine; that the divine was portrayed on the human model (anthropomorphism) and was spread out over a whole society of supernatural beings, gods (polytheism), whose needs people were expected to fulfill and whose orders were to be carried out with all the devotion, submission, but also generosity and ostentation that were thought to be expected by such lofty figures. Furthermore, it was resolutely and exclusively a prehistoric religion without holy scriptures, religious authorities, dogmas, orthodoxy, orthopraxy, or fanaticism, and it evolved sporadically, depending upon the culture of which it was only the reflection and on the time and events.


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Table of Contents

Translator's Notexi
1Religion and Religions1
2Mesopotamia and Its History7
Historical Overview18
3The Sources: What We Can Expect from Them21
4Religious Sentiment29
5Religious Representations44
The Gods44
The Mythology of the Divine58
The Mythology of the World77
The Mythology of Man95
6Religious Behavior114
The Theocentric Cult114
The "Sacramental" Cult170
7Influence and Survivals203

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