Mesopotamian Theology and Religious Rituals

Paper for Culture and History of Ancient Mesopotamia by Darci Clark

The Mesopotamians did not study or analyze their religious views. They believed in the existence of gods, ghosts, demons, and monsters without question. The Mesopotamians practiced rituals designed to keep the gods fed and comfortable, by making offerings in a temple dedicated to each particular god. It was their belief that mankind had only been created in order to serve the ruling gods. If the gods were not pleased with their service, humankind would suffer evils such as plagues and earthquakes. If the gods were content, humankind would thrive and be protected.

Male Mesopotamian Worshipper 2750-2600 BCE

Rituals were an important part of Mesopotamian religion. Many texts have been discovered describing religious as well as “magical” rituals. Some were performed on a regular basis, daily or yearly, while others were performed only when required. Mesopotamians believed humans were created to work in place of the gods and were also required to serve the gods. Maintaining the gods by providing daily feeding and offerings was considered a fundamental duty. The mis pî, a purification ritual, was performed whenever a person or object came into contact with a deity, and was performed when a new temple statue was created. The Sacred Marriage ritual symbolized the union of a human being, usually the king, and a goddess. Magical incantations and amulets were used to protect against the wrath of the gods, demons, witchcraft and evil omens. All these rituals were common aspects of Mesopotamian religion.

Our understanding of the Mesopotamian world view has been derived from the study of their ancient texts, including mythology, prayers, incantations, literary works, and even royal inscriptions, as well as artwork, and archaeological evidence. The Mesopotamian myth of Atrahasis explains the creation of man. Atrahasis tells of a rebellion of the lesser gods against Enlil (Akkadian Ellil) because their workload was too great. “For 3,600 years they bore the excess, hard work, night and day.” The lesser gods declared war, “Every single one of us gods declared war! We have put [a stop] to the digging. The load is excessive, it is killing us!” Ellil demanded the sacrifice of one rebel to ease his displeasure. “Call up one god and let them cast him for destruction!” Enki (Akkadian Ea) sympathized with the rebels and suggested a worker be created to toil in the gods’ place. “Let her (Nintu) create primeval man so that he may bear the yoke…Let man bear the load of the gods!” It was agreed that the rebel god Ilawela would be sacrificed and the goddess Nintu would create mankind from clay. “Ilawela who had intelligence, they slaughtered in their assembly. Nintu mixed clay with his flesh and blood. They heard the drumbeat forever after.”

Because mankind was created with the blood of the god Ilawela, he was given a “soul” that would exist after death as a ghost. Mankind was fated to suffer death as a means to control population. The gods also decreed there would be a king to organize mankind. The king was responsible for providing the gods with whatever they needed as well as ruling his subjects. A kind of mutual dependency existed between the gods and mankind. The gods needed humans to provide them with a comfortable existence, while the humans needed to serve the gods properly or they would have to face the consequences of the deities’ anger.

The king was required to provide and maintain the god’s house, or temple. There were many temples in each city, but there was one main temple which was the seat of the city’s patron god. Each temple had kitchens where food was prepared for the god. Later temples were designed to accommodate every activity of the god by including reception areas, sleeping areas, and even stables. A large staff was required to maintain these elaborate temples. The king and other wealthy citizens would help pay for temple expenses and the temple could also trade items grown and produced on its land.

Each temple had a wooden statue of the main god. This human-like statue was dressed elaborately and was decorated with gold and precious stones. The statue was kept in a sanctuary chamber in the temple, in a wall-niche behind an altar made of brick. There were also additional brick offering tables and benches which held votive statues in the sanctuary. These statues were also ritually washed for purification before the feeding ceremony. Texts have been found that inventory the ornate clothing and jewelry worn by the god. These statues would be taken out of the temple during processions and the occasional trip to visit a god in another city.

The mis pî, translated as the “opening of the mouth” ceremony, was used to infuse the spirit of the god with a new statue. The ritual would occur over two days which would begin with the transportation of the statue from the workshop where it was created to a specially built reed hut in an orchard on the riverbank. In this hut the statue would be ritually purified and become a living god. One incantation that has been discovered mentions Ea, called here Niššiku, giving birth to the divine statue, “Niššiku, creator of everything, begat images of their great divinities, and they took up their daises.” After the ritual was complete, the god would be transported and installed in its temple sanctuary. The mis pî ritual was also used to purify humans, animals and sacred objects before coming into contact with the god. If a statue was irreparably damaged, the god could be considered “dead” and mourning would begin. If the statue could be repaired a renewal ceremony would take place. The desecration or removal of a divine statue was a devastating event for the city since it was believed the city was left unprotected.

A high-ranking member of the priesthood would be charged with feeding, dressing and washing the god. The priesthood was considered a profession and was open to men and women. High-ranking positions could be passed down from father to son. Marriage was allowed except for some high-ranking priestesses who were saved for the gods. Each priest was assigned to one god in a specific temple. There was a connection between the priest and his god, where the priest functioned as kind of an alter-ego for the god.

Mesopotamian Worshipper

One of most important duties of any priest was the feeding of the god. Prayers were said during the food preparation. Two meals, each consisting of two courses, were served each morning and evening. The extravagant cooked meals consisted of beer, wine, milk, meat, grain products, and fruits. Many tablets from the late third millennium have been discovered at the site of Puzuris-Dagan, near Nippur, listing the large amounts of provisions stored for the gods, including livestock, grains, fruits and vegetables. Most likely the priest served the meals to the statue of the god on silver or gold dishes. Unfortunately no records of the actual feeding ceremony have been recovered. It is known, however, that the god would be protected from view by a curtain while eating, possibly due to the secret process by which the god absorbed the meal. All meals included the ritual burning of incense and musical accompaniment for the god’s enjoyment.

Besides the daily rituals of serving the temple deity, there were rituals during the yearly festivals. These festivals were the only time the common Mesopotamian citizen would be able to see or communicate with the god. One text says “The people of the land will light fires in their homes and will offer banquets to all the gods. They will speak the recitations.” The oldest and most important festivals were the Ak?tu festivals held twice yearly. The Ak?tu festivals were held in the first and seventh months of the year, corresponding with the vernal and autumnal equinoxes. Celebrations in the first month lasted for five days, while the festival in the seventh month, known as the New Year festival, continued for eleven days.

An early ritual practiced during the New Year festival, which originated in Ur, included a reenactment of the patron city god assuming control of the city. As time progressed, new political changes influenced modifications to the New Year rituals. In later Babylonian accounts, the king would be brought before the god Marduk and tested by the god to determine if he had sinned. These later New Year’s festivals would also include the reading of the Enuma Elish, the Babylonian Epic of Creation, to the god Marduk, a ritual slaughter of sheep, and temple blessings and prayers.

Marriage of Inanna and Dumuzi

One of the most mysterious of the New Year’s rituals was the Sacred Marriage. It was a reenactment of the marriage of the goddess Inanna and her lover Dumuzi, by the king and a representation of the goddess, possibly a high-priestess or a statue. There are some texts that describe the Sacred Marriage as an actual physical union rather than a symbolic union, but there is little evidence to understand the meaning of the ritual. It is possible the Sacred Marriage was a fertility or coronation ritual. Other theories include the deification of the king or possibly the production of a royal heir to the throne. This may have taken place in either the temple or the king’s palace. The spouses would take part in a large banquet the next day to celebrate the event, which was customary for all marriage ceremonies.

Magic was considered a normal part of Mesopotamian religion. Since the people were subject to the changeable moods of the gods, incantations and amulets were necessary for protection and cures. A person could unknowingly offend a god and be forced to suffer the god’s wrath; normally in the form of some type of sickness. People could also be threatened by demons. There were different classes of demons but usually they were not individually named. Each class of demon was responsible for a different area of human experience, such as disease or domestic misfortune. It was believed demons were always waiting to take control of a person’s body and mind. Groups of seven demons were common, as in this spell which says, “They are seven, seven are they, in the depth of the primeval waters they are seven, the seven are its adornment. Neither female are they, nor are they male.” One rare individually named demon, Lamashtu, preyed on pregnant women and babies. Amulets depicting Lamashtu’s image were used for protection against her. This protection incantation describes her, “She comes up from the swamp, is fierce, terrible, forceful, destructive, powerful: [and still,] she is a goddess, is awe-inspiring. Her feet are those of an eagle, her hands mean decay. Her fingernails are long, her armpits unshaven. She is dishonest, a devil, the daughter of Anu.” Besides the incantations, ritual texts describe various techniques where Lamashtu’s effigy is destroyed or buried to deter her from attacking the innocent.

Human sorcerers could also cast malevolent spells on others. There was no difference between black and white magic in Mesopotamian magic. The same spells were used for good and evil purposes, except malevolent spells secretly invoked the gods, and defensive spells openly invoked the gods. This meant the victim of an evil spell had to inform the gods of the illegitimate secret invocation to remove the spell. This incantation against witchcraft complains to Enki, “On account of him, O Enki who made me—he has brought hunger, thirst upon me, he has cast chills and misery upon me—if it please you, then tell him your wish, that, by [command(?)]of Enki, who dwells in Eridu. …, I may establish the greatness of Enki. On account of him, lest he harm me.”

A series of texts called the Maqlû, or “Burning” contain a ritual which describes a witch’s trial followed by an effigy burning to destroy her power. The text says, “I will scatter your sorceries, will stuff your words back into your mouth! May the witchcraft you performed be aimed at yourself, may the figurines you made represent yourself, may the water you drew be that of your own body! May your spell not close in on me, may your words not overcome me.” Even though there were Babylonian laws against witchcraft, there is no evidence of actual criminal persecution. This may be because it was dangerous for a victim to come forth and accuse another of sorcery. It was difficult to prove guilt and a false or erroneous accusation could result in the accuser’s own death.

For those who incurred the wrath of the gods, there was another compendium of rituals similar to the Maqlû, called the Surpu, which was used to purify the victim. Surpu also means “Burning” but in this case objects were burned that were considered “carriers of the sufferer’s misdeeds.” One spell from the Surpu requires the offender to hold a flock of wool and ask, “May invocation, oath, retaliation, questioning, the illness which is due to my suffering, sin, crime, injustice, and shortcomings, the sickness that is in my body, flesh, and veins, be plucked apart like this flock of wool, and may the Firegod on this very day consume it altogether. May the ban go away, and may I (again) see light!”

Other magical rituals included the transfer of evil from a person who had received a negative omen. The gods communicated their will or intentions through these divine signs. The gods could be contacted for advice on a certain matter through extispicy, the reading of animal entrails. The gods could also send omens in the forms of solar eclipses and other unexpected events. It was important to determine which god had sent the negative omen so offerings could be made to regain his approval and protection. The ritual would include an incantation such as, “Because of this dog who urinated on me, I am in fear, worried, terrified. If only you make the evil (portended by) this dog pass by me, I will readily sing your praise!” The ritual was designed to send the portended evil to a disposable object and then the subject could be purified.

An official magician, called an ašipu, performed all but the most simplistic rituals. The ašipu may have also been a member of the priesthood or in direct service of the king. It is not clear if payment was required for his services as no such evidence has been found. Amulets have been discovered in all areas indicating that magical rituals were important to the rich and poor citizens of Mesopotamia.

The Mesopotamian world view that humans were made to serve the gods can be shown in all aspects of their religious rituals. The daily service to the gods, which included washing, dressing, and feeding, was an important responsibility of temple priests and priestesses. Special rituals such as the mis pî were performed as needed, either to install a new god statue in a temple or to purify someone who came in contact with the god statue. The Ak?tu festivals were celebrated twice yearly, including the New Year’s festival on the autumnal equinox. The Sacred Marriage ritual was included as part of the New Year’s festival and represented the physical or symbolic union of the king and the goddess, Inanna. A variety of rituals were used for cures and protection against curses sent by the gods, demons, sorcerers, and evil omens. The magical compendiums, the Maqlû, which included rituals for protection against witchcraft, and the Surpu, which purified offenders of the gods, were common tools of the professional magician, called the ašipu. Rituals were a daily part of life for all Mesopotamians, which ensured the favor of the gods and the belief all was right in their world.

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