Middle Eastern religions

Middle Eastern religions,

religious beliefs and practices of the ancient inhabitants of the Middle East. 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 AnuAnu
, ancient sky god of Sumerian origin, worshiped in Babylonian religion. The son of Apsu (the underworld ocean) and Tiamat (primeval chaos), Anu was king of the great triad of gods, which included the earth god Enlil and the water god Ea.
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, the storm god EnlilEnlil
, ancient earth god of Sumerian origin, worshiped in Babylonian religion. With the sky god Anu and the water god Ea, he formed the great divine triad. Enlil, also referred to as Bel, could be hostile or beneficent.
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, and the water god EaEa
or Enki
, ancient water god of Sumerian origin, worshiped in Babylonian religion. The great benefactor of mankind, Ea was called the lord of wisdom, of magic, and of the arts and sciences.
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, or Enki. Later a second triad arose: the moon god SinSin
, moon god of Semitic origin, worshiped in ancient Middle Eastern religions. One of the principal deities in the Babylonian and Assyrian pantheons, he was lord of the calendar and of wisdom. The chief centers of his worship were at Harran and at Ur, where he was known as Nanna.
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, the sun god ShamashShamash
, sun god of Semitic origin, worshiped in Babylonia and Assyria. He was one of the great deities of ancient Middle Eastern religions, god of law, order, and justice. The chief center of his cult was Sippar. In Sumerian civilization he was called Utu.
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, and the goddess IshtarIshtar
, ancient fertility deity, the most widely worshiped goddess in Babylonian and Assyrian religion. She was worshiped under various names and forms. Most important as a mother goddess and as a goddess of love, Ishtar was the source of all the generative powers in nature and
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 (sometimes replaced by the weather god HadadHadad
or Adad
, ancient weather god of Semitic origin, worshiped in Babylonia and Assyria. Important throughout the Middle East, he was worshiped under many names.
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). As Babylon rose to supremacy in the 2d millennium B.C., the local god MardukMarduk
, ancient god of Babylonia and chief god of the city of Babylon. His cult rose to prominence in the reign of Hammurabi, and Marduk became the omniscient king of the pantheon—the creator of mankind and the god of light and life.
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 became important; a thousand years later AshurAshur
, chief god of Assyria. Important as a god of war, he became the omniscient king of the pantheon, replacing the Babylonian Marduk. His name appears variously as Asur, Assur, Ashshur, Asshur, and Ashir.
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 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 GoddessGreat Mother Goddess,
in ancient Middle Eastern religions, mother goddess, the great symbol of the earth's fertility. She was worshiped under many names and attributes. Similar figures have been known in every part of the world.
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). 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 HammurabiHammurabi
, fl. 1792–1750 B.C., king of Babylonia. He founded an empire that was eventually destroyed by raids from Asia Minor. Hammurabi may have begun building the tower of Babel (Gen. 11.4), which can now be identified with the temple-tower in Babylon called Etemenanki.
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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 TammuzTammuz
, ancient nature deity worshiped in Babylonia. A god of agriculture and flocks, he personified the creative powers of spring. He was loved by the fertility goddess Ishtar, who, according to one legend, was so grief-stricken at his death that she contrived to enter the
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 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 GilgameshGilgamesh
, in Babylonian legend, king of Uruk. He is the hero of the Gilgamesh epic, written on 12 tablets c.2000 B.C. and discovered among the ruins at Nineveh. The epic was lost when the library of the Assyrian king Assurbanipal was destroyed in 612 B.C.
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. 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 mysteriesmysteries,
in Greek and Roman religion, some important secret cults. The conventional religions of both Greeks and Romans were alike in consisting principally of propitiation and prayers for the good of the city-state, the tribe, or the family, and only secondarily of the person.
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 and later in Christianity.


See T. Jacobsen's essay in The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man (ed. by H. Frankfort, 1946, repr. 1957); S. H. Hooke, Babylonian and Assyrian Religion (1953, repr. 1963); I. Mendelsohn, ed., Religions of the Ancient Near East (1955; tr. of texts); S. N. Kramer, Sumerian Mythology (rev. ed. 1972); L. R. Farnwell, Greece and Babylon (1977).

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