- As in all polytheistic religions, a great number of deities were worshipped in Mesopotamia throughout the ages. Most people had names composed with that of a god or a goddess. This serves as a useful indication of the popularity of a particular deity at a given time. To what extent the theomorphic element of a person’s name allows conclusions about his or her ethnic affiliation is less clear.Already in the Early Dynastic period, scribes attempted to bring some order to the confusing number of known deities by compiling lists of divine names. They also introduced a ranking order by beginning the lists with the major gods, such as Anu, Ea, Enlil, and Inanna/Ishtar, and ending with more obscure ones. Many of these names are known only from such lexical liststhat preserved the most ancient entries while adding new ones.Each Mesopotamian city had its own patron deity. The deities resided in their “homes on earth,” the temples, and received daily offerings of food, drink, incense, and other gifts, such as textiles and jewelry. The deities did not live in isolation in the temple but enjoyed a family life. Divine couples shared a bed-chamber, while their children and servants were accommodated elsewhere. The statues were also taken on regular outings, touring the country and visiting each other’s shrines, especially during the time of the Third Dynasty of Ur. Larger cities also had temples of other gods; Babylonwas known to have had hundreds of temples at the time of the Neo-Babylonian period.Most of the great gods had a particular area of responsibility and expertise. Anu was the patriarchal head of the pantheon and the lord of the heavens. Ea-Enki was the god of water, also known for his wisdom and creative potential. Nannar-Suen (or Akkadian Sin) was the moon god associated with the fertility of cattle, while the sun god Shamash was the “judge” and safeguarded justice and fairness on earth. There were also mother goddesses, blessing fields and women with fertility and protecting women in childbirth; healing gods to ward off evil influences and speed up recovery; and weather gods who brought storms and rain.Mesopotamian attitudes toward the gods were often ambiguous; they were feared as much as loved, since gods were considered to be fundamentally unpredictable and even capricious. Enlil could send just the right amount of rainfall or cause devastating floods; Ishtar could enhance sex appeal but also cause impotence. Inversely, a god of pestilence and fever could also be invoked to combat such afflictions. Many rituals and incantations, especially from the late second and first millennia B.C., were devised to soothe the hearts of “angry gods” and to harness their divine powers in the constant battle against malevolent influences.During the Old Babylonian period developed the notion of a “personal god,” who, like a guardian angel, was responsible for a particular human being. He (or she, for women) would intercede with higher-ranking gods and plead the case of the patron. On the other hand, the personal deity was adversely affected by his or her charge’s ritual impurity or sinfulness.Some deities had strong connections with kingship. In the third millennium B.C., Enlil legitimized the control over the country; in the second and first millennia, this was Marduk in Babylonia and Assur in Assyria. The goddess Ishtar was also often quoted as lending invaluable support to a king of her choice (see SARGON OF AKKAD).Foreign deities could easily be integrated into the Mesopotamian pantheon; they could be equated with a similar divine figure (as happened when the Semitic Ishtar merged with the SumerianInanna) or married to an existing goddess (as in the case of the Amorite god Martu).In the Seleucid and later Parthian period, some Babylonian gods, notably Nabu and Bel (another name for Marduk), continued to be worshipped. Only the advent of Islam in the seventh century A.D. brought about the demise of the ancient Mesopotamian gods.
Historical Dictionary of Mesopotamia. EdwART. 2012.
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