Religion of the Ancient Near East

Religious beliefs and practices

Little was known about the religions of the city-states of W Asia until stores of religious literature were uncovered by excavations in the 19th and 20th cent. The picture is still incomplete, although from the available information it appears that the various religions shared many beliefs and concepts. It was from these roots that three of the world’s major religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam developed).

The Gods

Probably the most important of the Middle Eastern religions was that which was developed by the peoples of Mesopotamia (i.e., the Sumerians, the Babylonians, and the Assyrians). These peoples, besides spreading their influence, absorbed contributions of the Hittites, the Phrygians, the Ugarites, and the Phoenicians. It was in Mesopotamia that the Sumerians implanted reverence for the sky and for high places. Later, when they came into contact with the Semites, new gods were absorbed into the pantheon. The result was a blend of religious thought, Sumerian and Semitic, in which everything (a tree, a stone, a fish, a bird, a person, or even an abstract idea) had a particular significance in the universe.

The highest authority was the triad of gods: the sky god Anu, the storm god Enlil, and the water god Ea, or Enki. Later a second triad arose: the moon god Sin, the sun god Shamash, and the goddess Ishtar (sometimes replaced by the weather god Hadad). As Babylon rose to supremacy in the 2d millennium B.C., the local god Marduk became important; a thousand years later Ashur of Assyria took his place. Thus many deities were determined by political conquest as well as by interchange.

There was a gradual development among the Middle Eastern cultures toward belief in a supreme god. One of the most widespread cults was that of the mother goddess (Inanna, Ishtar, Astarte, Cybele; see Great Mother Goddess). She was considered as more kindly disposed toward humans than the other deities but was also capable of cruelty and vengefulness.

The Role of Humans

People were, according to Middle Eastern beliefs, created for the benefit of the gods: they were to serve and obey, provide the gods with food, clothing, and shelter, and offer them reverence. There were personal gods who were protective of the individual and linked humans with the great deities, but essentially the ancient Mesopotamian peoples were at the mercy of gods whose behavior was arbitrary and often abusive. In response to this belief in negligence on the part of the gods, various city-states enacted public laws or codes of ethics (in addition to promulgating a large body of wisdom literature) that sought to promote justice and truth and to destroy wickedness. Of these law collections the most famous was probably the code of Hammurapi.

While originally the functions of priesthood were borne by the city rulers, in later times priests became a separate group and were assigned special and significant duties: some pacified the gods with hymns and liturgy; others were trained in divination and astrology (special functions in Middle Eastern religion that indirectly contributed to the growth of science); others, perhaps the most important, were concerned with protecting people from demons, who were considered actual creatures with distinct shapes and names and were to be repelled by magic, daily recitations, and exorcism.

Other Beliefs

Some beliefs (the story of creation, the perpetuation of life, the inevitable fate of humanity) have come down to us in Sumerian and Babylonian mythology, which was preserved in cuneiform writing on clay tablets. The epic of creation, the Enuma elish (2d millennium B.C.), describes the battle between the young gods (forces of order), led by Marduk, and the old gods (forces of chaos), led by Tiamat and her consort Kingu. Another well-known myth, symbolizing the death and rebirth of vegetation, is that of Ishtar’s descent to the underworld in search of her lover Tammuz and her triumphant return to earth. Here is the resurrection theme common to later religions. Perhaps the most famous of all Babylonian myths is the story of Gilgamesh. Although the people of the ancient Middle East conceived of a sort of after-existence, they generally believed that a person’s fate was decay and dust. Their beliefs foreshadowed the change from polytheism to monotheism, faith in some sort of divine benevolence, and even the idea of salvation so important in the religious mysteries and later in Christianity.