Ancient Middle Eastern Religions, religions of ancient Mesopotamia (now Iraq), Asia Minor (now Turkey), and Syria-Palestine (now Syria, Israel, Lebanon, and Jordan; see Palestine). The ancient Middle East also included Persia (now Iran) and Egypt. However, these countries were separated from other parts of the Middle East by natural barriers and had cultures and religions that were fundamentally different from those of the rest of the ancient Middle East (see Zoroastrianism; Egyptian mythology).
Ancient Middle Eastern religions were the product of a long historical development among many different peoples, and as a consequence the relationships among these religions are often complex. For example, the cultures of southern Asia Minor and northern Syria and Mesopotamia in many cases shared a common way of life and religious tradition as a result of the Euphrates river, which rises in Asia Minor, flows through northern Syria and to Mesopotamia. An important commercial route, the Euphrates also served as a channel for ideas. The culture and religion of Sumer, in southern Mesopotamia, were different from those of northern Mesopotamia, but were eventually adopted with modifications in the north. Peoples from northern Mesopotamia in turn emigrated to Sumer after the third millennium bc, causing transformations in the population and culture of the south.
Certain aspects of Middle Eastern religion can be associated with prehistoric environments and subsistence strategies. Among farmers of the ancient Middle East, the gods were invoked for fertility of the soil, availability of water, and favorable weather. Religious festivals were associated with seeding, spring growth, harvest, and the transformation of grain in food preparation. The gods of shepherds and herders were concerned with the fertility and safety of sheep, goats, and cattle. Many herders were nomads who venerated the sun, moon, stars, and the planet Venus. In the marshlands of southern Babylonia, people saw their gods as fish and other creatures of the fertile and mysterious depths of the rivers. Among keepers of orchards, gods were identified with the productivity of the date palm and its clusters of life-giving fruit. Some gods were associated with striking features of the landscape: Ashur, the national god of the Assyrians, had his origins in a promontory beside the Tigris river.
With the growth of complex and stratified societies, beliefs derived from local environments and ways of life were brought together in each region to form unified pantheons, or hierarchies, of all the gods worshiped in that land. These pantheons could include thousands of gods, some of whom were seen as local forms of gods worshiped elsewhere. With the growth of cities, some gods became the patrons of particular communities and were worshiped in large temples. Over time, some gods became conquering warriors and kings, even as they maintained their age-old concern with water, weather, and fertility. By the end of the 4th millennium bc, ancient Middle Eastern gods were generally thought of as having human form but superhuman powers (see Anthropomorphism). Each deity governed a certain part of the universe, such as the sky or earth; an aspect of nature, such as reproduction or rainfall; or a facet of human society, such as warfare or metalworking.
Throughout the ancient Middle East, human beings turned to their gods in prayer, either addressing a god directly or turning to a lesser god who acted as intermediary. The gods were honored with rites carried out by professional priests and priestesses and with public festivals in which the entire population could participate. Since the phenomena of nature were attributed to divine will, the gods were believed to speak to their subjects through natural events. Gods could communicate more directly to people through dreams, which were considered messages from the gods, or through prophets—people whose speech, often uttered in a trancelike state, was considered speech of a god (see Prophecy). People also could read the intentions of the gods through divination, the practice of using supernatural means to acquire hidden knowledge of events.
Mesopotamian religion includes the beliefs and practices of the peoples of Babylonia and Assyria from the earliest times to the late fourth century bc. The earliest Mesopotamian religious practices must be reconstructed from remains such as temples, burials, and artistic imagery, examples of which date from as far back as the 7th millennium bc. Written sources appeared in Sumerian beginning at the end of the 4th millennium bc that indicate religious practices, and there are sources in Akkadian and other Semitic languages beginning about 2500 bc.
Mesopotamian religion represents a continuous development from the religion of the Sumerians (see Sumerian Religion). Various Semitic peoples (for example, Akkadians, Amorites, Assyrians, and Arameans) who were influenced by Sumerian culture or who settled in southern Mesopotamia adapted the structures of Sumerian religion to their own beliefs and practices. Later immigrant populations tended to adopt the Mesopotamian culture they found on their arrival. Mesopotamian civilization eventually spread throughout the ancient Middle East, diffusing its religious ideas to Syria-Palestine, Asia Minor, and the Mediterranean world.
In addition to the elaborate rituals of official state cult common to all ancient Middle Eastern religions, personal religion affected many aspects of daily life in ancient Mesopotamia. The great gods, like mortal kings and queens, seemed increasingly remote, powerful, and inaccessible to the individual, who therefore turned to a personal deity. Usually known simply as “my god” or “my goddess,” the personal deity was supposed to protect a person from harm and ensure good fortune. People employed rituals for promoting good fortune and for protecting themselves from witchcraft and from the harm signified by such events as eclipses or strange behavior of animals. Demons could be exorcised by specialists or warded off by spells, rituals, and a vigilant personal deity. Divination was the most prestigious Babylonian science, and was used especially for predicting the future. One particular form of divination was astrology, for which the Babylonians became famous among the Greeks and Romans.
|A||Religion Before Written Sources|
Toward the end of the 4th millennium bc, when urban civilization first developed on the Mesopotamian flood plain, monumental temple complexes dominated the cities (see Mesopotamian Art and Architecture). These complexes were raised on huge platforms so as to be visible at a great distance, and they were decorated with architectural ornament, paintings, clay mosaics, and statuary. Planted with gardens, the sanctuaries towered like mountains on the flat plain.
Rulers are depicted in the art of this period, sometimes in a ritual function—for example, presenting gifts of fruit and animals to a goddess—sometimes killing enemies in warfare. This suggests that religious leadership and political and economic control may have been in the hands of a priest-king. Later burials in Ur (now Tall al Muqayyar, Iraq) show that hundreds of servants, soldiers, and entertainers were sacrificed to accompany a dead ruler in his tomb, although this custom disappeared soon after in favor of simple burials without sacrifices. Religion appears to have been an important factor in the creation, expansion, and control of this beginning phase of Mesopotamian civilization.
|B||Gods and Temples|
From written sources that gradually became more frequent during the 3rd millennium bc, it is evident that the Mesopotamian flood plain was densely populated with a network of cities, towns, and villages grouped into political, religious, and military alliances. Each city was home to a major deity, visualized in human form and residing in a cult image, or statue, that stood in a house or temple. The relationships among the different city deities were defined by a pantheon in which both kinship and status were important: The moon god was frequently viewed as the father of the planet Venus, for example, and the gods of large cities were usually more important than the gods of small villages. Although often identified with a specific city or cult place, the major deities were honored everywhere, sometimes in local forms with local names. After the Sumerian civilization was absorbed by speakers of Semitic languages, many Sumerian deities were called interchangeably by Sumerian and Semitic names.
The gods had specific areas of responsibility; for example, the sun god oversaw justice, honesty, and fairness. Major Babylonian deities included the sky god, An (Semitic Anu, whose wife is Antu), with his major sanctuary at Erech (Uruk); Enlil, wife Ninlil or Mulliltu and son of Anu, god of the wind, major sanctuary at Nippur; Utu (Semitic Shamash), the sun-god, with sanctuaries at Sippar and later Larsa; Nanna (Semitic Suen or Sin), the moon god, with sanctuaries at Ur in Sumer and Harran in Asia Minor; and hundreds of others. A late Mesopotamian list of gods contains more than 1800 names.
With the growth of nation-states and empires in the second half of the 2nd millennium bc, certain city gods became national gods, especially Ashur in Assyria and Marduk in Babylonia. Marduk, for example, was portrayed in the Babylonian creation epic, called Enuma Elish (When on High), as assuming supremacy over the other gods in return for protecting them from attack by Tiamat, the ocean. Marduk then reorganized the universe, placing Babylon and his own temple at the center, thereby supplanting Nippur, the city of the god Enlil, who had previously been the chief god of the land. In this way religion expressed Babylonian nationalism. Marduk was thought of as the son of Ea and father of Nabu (Nebo), god of scribes; his wife was Sarpanitum.
The temples of the gods were considered their manors or households. The deity, in the form of a statue, was clothed, entertained with music, and taken on ritualized journeys. A divine staff of servants, including couriers, stewards, cooks, gardeners, and herders, all had human counterparts. The humans who lived in the temple estates were headed by a high priest (for a female deity) or high priestess (for a male deity). In later times high priests or priestesses would often be sons or daughters of ruling kings, and would be appointed for life. They were sustained by temple income, offerings, and plots of land assigned to provide them with food. The temples controlled a great deal of farmland, especially in Sumer. They also had vast flocks and herds, wealth in the form of luxury goods and surplus, and large labor forces. The temples provided social services, such as employment of the poor, blind, and orphaned. They could serve as banks, making loans with or without interest; as the place for oaths taken in law cases; and as repositories for documents, such as treaties and land grants, that called on the gods as witnesses. They were also centers of learning and artistic production.
During the 3rd millennium bc, temples were often the center of their communities, even though political and military rule was in the hands of city rulers or kings who were not priests. There is no evidence that religious services in temples allowed for the participation of the community as a whole. Rather, individuals could make gifts to the temple for their well-being, leave written petitions for the gods to consider, participate in the city festival, and view the image of the deity when it was carried in public procession. The annual festival of the new year, called akitu, took place in a special chapel outside of the city walls. Temples were increasingly controlled and maintained by kings, who kept them in good repair, rebuilt and refurbished them, and took charge of their lands and wealth. Toward the end of the 3rd millennium bc, some kings proclaimed themselves gods and had temples built in their own honor. During the 2nd millennium bc, the temple seems gradually to have yielded its central position in the Mesopotamian community to the palace, or king’s household. An important ritual of the early 2nd millennium was the sacred marriage, in which the king had intercourse with a priestess, representing a goddess, in a ceremony to ensure fertility of the land.
In Assyria, temples were fully subordinate to the king, who also held from earliest times the title of high priest of the god Ashur. In Babylonia, temples maintained a separate identity, although under royal supervision, until the Persian conquest (612 bc). After this the great Mesopotamian temples were damaged during civil strife, they were looted and taxed by the Persian rulers, and their rites and scholarship were accessible only to a select few. Despite occasional renewals and local prosperity, they gradually faded from existence after the conquest of Mesopotamia by Alexander the Great (331 bc).
Various Mesopotamian myths tell how the cosmos, or universe, was organized (see Creation). Others explain the cycles of the natural world, clarify the place of human beings in the scheme of things, and relate the deeds of ancient heroes.
One early Sumerian myth, called “Enki and the World Order,” portrays Enki organizing the universe in a form rather like the great temple estates described above. In another, called “Lugale,” a victorious young god, Ninurta, reorganizes the universe after a great victory. In the Anzu myth, Ninurta defeats Anzu, a monstrous bird, and gets control of the tablet that assigns responsibilities to all the gods. The Babylonian creation epic was modeled on the Anzu story. In the creation epic, Marduk seized the so-called tablet of destinies after defeating Tiamat (the ocean) in battle. Inanna (Ishtar) is the subject of many myths and stories. In some she is a warrior, triumphing in battle. In others, she is a young girl falling in love with Dumuzi (Tammuz), god of shepherds and spring vegetation. She later turns on him in a jealous rage, leaving him to die. In other myths she descends to the underworld, where she is killed by her sister, Ereshkigal, queen of the underworld, but is restored to life by a trick of Ea (alternate name for Enki, god of wisdom, skill, magic, and knowledge). Other Babylonian myths include theogonies (stories of how the gods were born) or recount the origins of human institutions, such as kingship, or of such harms as disease and death. There are various versions of a flood story, in which the gods send a deluge but a man escapes by building an ark. Heaven and the underworld were visualized with gates, palaces, and sanctuaries just like those on earth.
According to one Mesopotamian tradition, the human race was created by Enki and the Mother Goddess, Ninhursag (also called Ninmah), to relieve the gods of the necessity of providing for themselves. The first human was made from clay mixed with the blood of a god killed because he rebelled against the other gods. In order to keep the human race within controllable limits, the gods ordained that all humans must die, whereas the gods could live forever. According to this tradition, a flood was sent by Enlil to eliminate the human race when it had become too numerous and noisy, but the gods soon repented of their action when they found themselves hungry and thirsty with no one to provide for them.
The gods jealously withheld from human beings any hope for achieving immortality. When humans died, they crossed a river to the kingdom of the dead, there to live in darkness and dust, perpetually hungry and thirsty unless a living person remembered to offer them food and drink. One of the most popular of Babylonian stories tells of Gilgamesh, a king of the ancient past, who, shocked by the death of his best friend, sought a way to live forever. After many adventures, he meets the only human being who survived the flood, Utnapishtim (the Babylonian Noah), who tells him his quest is impossible, so he should enjoy his life while he has it (see Gilgamesh Epic). There was little sense that the gods were fair in their treatment of people: Good people suffered and bad people could live long, happy lives without being punished for the evils they did. Some Mesopotamians had a sense of personal guilt, a sense that people are imperfect and often sin without meaning to. Others were atheists or made jokes about the gods.
Asia Minor, also known as Anatolia, had many different populations, languages, and religions for most of its history. The earliest written sources of the origins of the region date from the 2nd millennium bc. These sources indicate that the Hattians were the original population in the central part of Asia Minor, within the region formed by the big bend of the Halys River. Their language and culture were absorbed and replaced by the Hittites.
The Hittites were an Indo-European people—that is, they spoke a language distantly related to ancient Greek and Sanskrit (see Hittite Language). Most of what is known about religion in Asia Minor in the period of Hittite dominance (about 1740 bc to about 1190 bc) comes from Hittite writings. Their capital was at Hattusas, about 150 km (93 mi) east of present-day Ankara, Turkey. Many other peoples lived in Asia Minor, including the Hurrians in the Euphrates region. The Hurrians were important in transmitting Mesopotamian culture and religion to the Hittites. These and other peoples conquered by the Hittites in the 2nd millennium bc contributed aspects of their religion and way of life to Hittite civilization.
Hittite religious documents speak of a “thousand gods” in their land. Among the most important were the weather and storm god known by Teshub, among many names. The sun goddess of Arinna, a place near Hattusas, was particularly venerated by the Hittite kings. There were also numerous infernal gods and demons. The gods were visualized in human form, often in association with such animals as bulls or lions, and bearing symbolic objects such as clubs or staffs in their hands.
Like the Mesopotamian gods, the gods of the Hittites were thought to live in temples that were organized as great households. There the gods were cared for, placated, and entertained by a resident temple staff. The temples, their priests, and their workers were maintained by the king, who issued detailed instructions for their right conduct and visited many of the temples for festivals throughout the year. Like the Assyrian king, the Hittite king was considered high priest for his people.
Hittite mythology centered on different gods from those known in rituals and important sanctuaries. In one set of stories, a god named Telepinus disappears or goes into hiding and must be found or coaxed back to his temple. This is often understood as symbolic of the disappearance of spring vegetation in the summer or winter and its reappearance the following spring. Another myth records the slaying of a dragon, Iluyankas. Some scholars see in this a myth of defeat of chaos and disorder, in preparation for the start of a new year. Another myth tells of a formidable stone monster that was at last defeated with the great knife once used to separate heaven from earth. A myth recounts the story of several generations of gods, in which the founder is displaced by his son, then he in turn is displaced by his own son, who castrates him and then rules as chief god. In the 7th century bc, Greek poet Hesiod recounted a similar story of the gods Cronus and Zeus.
The Hittite burial practice was different from the Mesopotamian in that the dead were cremated in ceremonies sometimes compared to the cremation of Hector and Achilles in the Iliad. The afterlife was grim and cheerless. Some spirits of the dead, especially of evildoers or those denied a proper funeral, were doomed to wander the earth, and so had to be placated by rituals and prayers.
After the disappearance of the Hittite empire in the 13th century bc, the Phrygians settled in the part of Asia Minor where the Hittite state had been (see Phrygia). They may have immigrated from somewhere in the Balkans or northern Greece. By the middle of the 8th century bc, the Phrygians had established a kingdom that included much of central and western Asia Minor. The best-known ruler of the Phrygians was Midas, who the Greeks said could turn whatever he touched into gold.
According to Greek and Roman authors, the principal Phrygian deity was Cybele, known as the Great Mother of the Gods. She took for her lover a young and handsome god named Attis. When he proved unfaithful to her, the angry goddess had him castrated. He died of his injuries but later returned to life. The priests of Cybele were castrated, so as to play the role of Attis, and adherents of this religion worked themselves into frenzies with drums and cymbals, slashing themselves with knives and rubbing the blood over their bodies. Initiates could gain strength or be born again through a rite called the taurobolium. In this rite, the believer lay in a pit and a bull was slaughtered on a grate above him so that the blood gushed over the worshiper. Many Greeks and Romans regarded this religion with horror, but it spread throughout the Roman empire as a mystery religion (mysteries are secret rites). Some Phrygian practices were carried on in open-air holy places rather than closed shrines. Little else is known of the beliefs and practices of the Phrygians.
In ancient times Syria-Palestine was not united geographically. It was divided into a rainy coastal zone, with maritime cities, such as Tyre, Sidon, or Byblos near Beirut, that tended to share the common culture of the Mediterranean; and a sparsely populated interior region, cut off from the sea and from rainfall by chains of mountains. Rivers, such as the Jordan and the Orontes, and lakes, such as the Sea of Galilee, attracted settlement. In the interior, oases such as Damascus and Palmyra dominated the caravan route between Syria and Babylonia. To the east and south lay desert. Some cities, such as Jerusalem, were located on hilltops and high places. Mesopotamian and Anatolian influence were more important in the north of Syria-Palestine than along the coast or in the south. For much of its history, Syria-Palestine was divided into fortified city-states of about equal power, among them such cities as Halab, Damascus, Tyre, and Jerusalem, each with its own local gods. Religious belief was likewise diverse, subject to many local and foreign influences. In Syria, as in Mesopotamia, much religion and mythology was centered on the weather and rainfall, on which the life of the land depended.
Syrian religion in the 3rd millennium bc is best known from clay tablets found at Ebla, a city near Halab. These show a division of the gods between heaven and underworld. Lists of offerings and rituals mention gods and goddesses known from later times. No myths of this early period have been discovered. Syrian religion of the late 2nd millennium bc is known primarily from clay tablets discovered at Ugarit (now Ra’s Shamrah), dating to the 13th century bc (see Biblical Archaeology). From these and other sources it appears that Syrians venerated a male creator god called El, and his wife Asherah, known as the Mother of the Gods. El, a sky god, lost importance or was displaced by Baal, a weather god symbolized by a bull and lightning bolt. The life and death of Baal were identified with prosperity and drought. Important goddesses included Anath, Baal’s wife and sister. She was fierce and violent, wearing a necklace of severed human heads. Like Baal, she lived on a mountaintop. She was gradually displaced by the Phoenician goddess Astarte, a goddess of reproduction and fertility, sometimes portrayed as a naked woman on horseback. In the Hellenistic Age (4th century bc to 1st century bc) she in turn gave place to the Syrian goddess Atargatis. Atargatis united characteristics of the older goddesses, including their role in love and warfare. Other gods included Mot, god of death; Reshef, a god of the underworld; Dagan, a god of the Euphrates area, perhaps an underworld deity; and Kawthar, god of craftsmanship and skill. The Greeks and Romans freely equated Syrian gods with their own—for example Jupiter was identified with El or Baal, Aphrodite with Astarte, and Hercules with Melqart, the city god of Tyre.
Syria-Palestine generally did not have the great temple complexes common in Egypt or Mesopotamia. A variety of modest shrines have been discovered, but much worship may have been carried out in the open air, at altars on hilltops or in holy places marked by stone pillars. Rituals involved sacrifice to the gods of agricultural products, animals, or occasionally human beings, such as prisoners or children. There was a special class of priests; rulers were not high priests as elsewhere in the ancient Middle East. Evidence suggests priestesses and religious prostitution existed in some periods.
Syrian mythology is best known from a group of narrative poems found at the site of Ugarit. These poems shed light on the cultural environment within which the religion of ancient Israel developed, and their poetry resembles in form and subject some of the poetry of the Hebrew Bible. In one group of myths, the god Baal builds a palace and wins a great battle with Yamm, the sea. In another group, Baal competes with Mot (death) but loses and dies. Rain and productivity disappear with him, but he is eventually brought back to life. Although some scholars suggest that this myth refers to the cycle of the seasons, there is no evidence that Baal’s death and return was seen as an annual event, as in the story of Adonis in classical mythology. The worship of Baal is frequently mentioned in the Hebrew Bible and was condemned by the prophets of ancient Israel. Philo of Byblos, a scholar of the Hellenistic Age (4th century bc to 1st century bc), wrote an important book in Greek about the religion of Syria-Palestine in his time.
Chronologically, the religions of the ancient Middle East represent more than half the recorded religious belief of the human race. Each of them shows ways ancient peoples responded to the sense of the supernatural powers they believed controlled the universe (see Religion). Some divinities, such as the sky and stars, seemed remote from human concerns, making people feel small and insignificant. Others, such as the powers to grow food or produce children, seemed close, vital, even intimate to human beings. In the ancient Middle East, religion pervaded all aspects of human life, not just part of it; therefore, religion included activities that modern peoples might classify as science, scholarship, psychology, medicine, or politics.
The widespread acceptance of polytheism, or belief in many gods, allowed the ancient world to be more tolerant of pluralism than the Judeo-Christian monotheism that succeeded it. The Middle Eastern religions of their time seemed familiar and acceptable to some Greeks and Romans: They too had a god of the sky, of thunder, a goddess of love; and they too honored the planets and the stars. To others, Middle Eastern religions seemed violent and sensuous, promoting barbarous and immoral practices. Likewise, to some Israelites, the religions of Syria-Palestine, or Canaan, with their emphasis on nature and fertility, seemed natural and attractive. To others, the religions of Canaan were false superstitions to be driven from the community by violence. Monotheism, with its principles of revelation and conversion, ultimately brought new identities to peoples of the ancient world and left the old religions to die out.
Since Judaism, Christianity, and Islam developed in the Middle East, they inevitably drew on existing Middle Eastern religions both for content and forms of expression. At the same time, these religions changed and reinterpreted what they had taken from others. For example, beliefs such as an original paradise, a universal deluge, prophecy, divine grace, purification, and holiness are known in ancient Middle Eastern religions. Morality and ethics, like that found in the biblical commandments, were taught by many ancient Middle Eastern religions. Hopes for the future, such as resurrection and afterlife, are found as well. Study of ancient Middle Eastern religions can therefore shed light on the origins of modern religions and on the world in which they developed.
Benjamin R. Foster