- Our understanding of Mesopotamian religious practices and beliefs rests primarily on cuneiform data. At the beginning stand lexical lists compiled of hundreds of names of gods and goddesses, which date back to the Uruk period and were subsequently copied and edited throughout Mesopotamian history. They begin with the most prominent deities, the gods of heaven, the sun, the moon, and the planet Venus; gods associated with storms and floods, as well as creation and magic; and those who are tutelary deities of specific places, crafts, or institutions, as well as chthonic deities and many more whose functions and character are not discernible (see ADAD; ANU; ASSUR; BABA; DAGAN; DUMUZI; EA; ENLIL; ERESHKIGAL; GULA; INANNA; ISHKUR; ISHTAR; LUGALBANDA; MARDUK; NABU; NANNA(R); NERGAL; NINGAL; NINHURSANGA; NINURTA; SIN, SHAMASH).The first royal inscriptionsmake reference to powerful deities who are said to have given their support to kings and rulers who thus present themselves as acting under divine command. Very important are the numerous ritual tablets that preserve the part of Mesopotamian liturgical practice. These sometimes include narratives featuring divine beings (myths), which portray the relationship between deities and tell of their benevolent or malevolent actions toward human beings. The spoken or chanted word was an intrinsic part of Mesopotamian worship, whether this was carried out in specially designated spaces (temples) or within households. Archaeological evidence provides some information on epochs before writing was invented, although the interpretation of statues and of visual symbolism on various surfaces, such as on pottery and architectural ensembles, is by necessity tentative. Excavations allow insights into the layout and successive rebuilding of temples and have shown the existence of small shrines and chapels within the fabric of cities. Relatively few cult images have survived, not least because, having been fashioned from precious materials and adorned with jewels, they were a target for looters from antiquity onward. Characteristic of Mesopotamian religion, as far as we can reconstruct it on the basis of the literary evidence, is the notion that although the gods are ontologically different from human beings and live eternally in a divine realm, they share some of their substance with mortals. Having created the universe and life, they have an interest in the maintenance of this ordered cosmos and are committed to the survival of humankind as a species. They also consent to be present on earth, among the “black headed people,” as the inhabitants of Mesopotamia were called, and to dwell in the “houses” we call temples, where their presence is made manifest by cult images and statues which, though made from inert materials such as wood, metal, and stone, were endowed with divine power through specific rituals and incantations. Cult statues were subject to daily ritual cares that echoed those of mortal kings and were performed by a person entrusted with such priestly offices (see PRIESTS). The relationship between the gods and their human subjects was made explicit through the regime of offerings and sacrifices. Food and drink in the form of libation was presented to the gods and thereafter distributed among the staff of the temples. The burning of aromatics and the presentation of valuables, especially by royalty, were also common practice. The gods were also transported on journeys, from one city to another, and carried in processions at festivals, allowing the citizens a glimpse of their splendor.Some Old Babylonian texts reveal a belief in a “personal god” who was intimately linked to an individual and whose continuing protection was sought by prayer and sacrifice but also by ethical conduct to avoid causing divine anger, which would bring suffering or even death.The notion that the universe was ordered and maintained by divine will and that the gods are in some measure dependent on human beings for their sustenance, a thought that informs the various stories of the flood, did not remove anxieties about the basic unpredictability of existence and the willful exercise of divine command. Agreat number of rituals were concerned with the “decree of (good) fate,” and a huge effort was made over many centuries to develop methods of ascertaining the will of the gods. The basic premise that the gods communicate their intentions in a coded manner led to the development of divinatory systems (seeOMENS) that made these covert messages intelligible and made it possible to respond, with sacrifices and rituals, as appropriate.
Historical Dictionary of Mesopotamia. EdwART. 2012.