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6-08-2015, 00:14

Death and the Gods

In Sumerian religion, as in Sumerian politics, Eridu
was the beginning of all things. The Sumerian
creation story tells how Eridu was founded by the gods
when humanity was created. It also tells how Eridu’s
patron god, Enki, later saved humanity from a global
flood. The primacy of Eridu and Enki would not last
forever. The gradual transition toward an emphasis on
Babylon and the god Marduk in religious stories mirrored the political shift
toward Babylon in the region as a whole.
When cities achieved political dominance, their gods took on new
powers. When cities vanished, their gods often diminished as well. It is no
coincidence, for example, that Ashur, the patron god of the city of the same
name, was worshiped as the supreme god of the region when Ashur became
the seat of the emerging Assyrian Empire. For similar reasons, Marduk,
associated historically with the leadership of Babylon, achieved primary
status in the Mesopotamian pantheon when the Babylonian Empire rose
to power.
What this amounted to was a kind of political religion, in which power
among the gods clearly and openly reflected power on Earth. It was common
to interpret worldly success as evidence of a god’s intervention. If a city
became more powerful, its residents would logically credit the patron god
or goddess and insist he or she be appropriately represented in religious
texts. Mesopotamian traditions also had a tendency to absorb neighboring
deities into their religions rather than competing with them, which probably
contributed to peace in the region.
As a result of these phenomena, contemporary historians looking back on
ancient Mesopotamian religious texts will find a wide range of contradictory
stories in three languages with multiple overlapping pantheons. This
characteristic makes the study of ancient Mesopotamian religion both
difficult and fascinating. In addition, new texts are always being discovered,
and new translations shed fresh light on stories scholars thought they
already understood. Nobody today completely understands Mesopotamian
religion, and that is one of the most exciting things about it.


Ancient Mesopotamian religious traditions were highly visual, literary,
complex, and evocative, and many characteristics of later religions were
at one time associated with Mesopotamia. The political process that
continuously pushed one god or another to a supreme position hinted at the
monotheistic religions that would later dominate the region. The buildings
and public charity works by Mesopotamia’s priestly class in service of the
gods impressed on the local community the power of their religion.
Surviving texts and architecture, ranging from the first religious icons of
Eridu in 5400 BCE to a statue of Marduk, to whom the Babylonians looked
for protection in 539 BCE, suggest the primary concerns of the people of
Mesopotamia were religious ones. They had religious fears and obligations,
but they also felt gratitude for the good lives so many felt themselves
fortunate to lead. The temple inscription of Mari, a Sumerian city located
in what is now Syria, reads, “Shamash [is] the shepherd of all the blackheaded,
the famous god, judge of everything endowed with life, agreeable to
supplication, ready to listen to vows, to accept prayers, who gives to those
who worship him a long-lasting life of happiness.”2


Women in ancient Mesopotamia had several paths to social power that
did not center on marriage. One was through trade. Brewers, in particular,
were usually women and had considerable wealth,
autonomy, and influence. One brewer, Kubaba, even
became ruler of Sumer—the only woman recorded
to have such power. But the majority of powerful
women mentioned in ancient texts were priestesses,
and they frequently ruled city-states as ensí whose
social and economic power exceeded that of all but
the most powerful men.
The priesthood also offered sanctuary for lesbian,
gay, bisexual, and transgender Mesopotamians.
Homosexuality in general was not socially
unacceptable in ancient Mesopotamia. No Sumerian,
Akkadian, or Babylonian legal code condemns it, and
even Gilgamesh and Hammurabi were said to have
had sexual relationships with other men. Still, the
householder’s life presumed marriage and a family.
The priesthood was an alternative in which lesbian
and gay Mesopotamians could spend the rest of their lives in the company of
same-sex partners.
And for transgender Mesopotamians, the priesthood offered
opportunities to escape assigned gender roles. Particularly notable for this
was the priesthood of Inanna, which featured several orders specifically
intended for transgender priests.


The world’s first civilization did not have access to telescopes, large sailing
ships, or any of the technologies that brought subsequent generations
to a scientifically based understanding of the universe. Yet the Sumerian
worldview of 5,000 years ago is based on a fundamentally accurate
premise—that the world on which humans live is floating in a hospitable
bubble in a massive and inhospitable cosmos. Their more specific views were
less accurate. They saw the Earth as flat and covered by a dome, rather than
round and covered by an atmosphere. They saw the inhospitable cosmos
as a sea rather than a vacuum. Still, it is remarkable how much the ancient
Mesopotamians got right by today’s standards.
The Mesopotamian creation narratives changed with time. In the oldest
recorded Sumerian account, a pantheon of gods created humans for labor,
giving them Eridu to live in. The gods grew displeased with the humans,
killing most of them with a global flood but allowing others to live. In the
later Babylonian tradition, the universe was created when Tiamat—the
mother of the gods, and the embodiment of primal chaos—attempted to
slay her children before she was torn apart by Marduk. Her body formed the
heavens and earth. Both accounts represent early attempts to grapple with a
complex universe that was largely beyond ancient comprehension.