Mesopotamian Religions and Beliefs (First part)

Mesopotamian religions are those religions born between two great rivers, Tigris and Euphrates. We will follow the text of Mircea EliadeHistory of Religious Ideas, volume I. 

It is probable that Sumerians penetrated from the north, then settling in the lower Mesopotamia, i.e. the present Iraq, submitting the indigenous populations. However groups of nomads from the Syrian desert, who spoke a Semitic language, the Akkadian, began to penetrate the areas where the Sumerians had settled. In the middle of 3000 BC, the legendary king Sargon imposed the Akkadian supremacy on all the upper cities. Although there was a certain fusion of the two religions, the Akkadian genius and the Sumerian genius must be described separately.

In Sumer God was conceived as a transcendent being, represented by the stormy sky, but on the other God was conceived also as a strong being. One element in common between two aspects was the thunder that was assimilated to the power of the bulls. The bull was an image of God in Sumer.

As in other ancient religious traditions, it was the priestly class that classified and systematized the categories of religious experience. There was above all the triad of the great gods (An, En-lil, En-ki) followed by the triad of planetary gods. An was the celestial god, far and alien from the life of the people and, therefore, becoming soon a deus otiosus, i.e. ineffective and not operative. For this reason, much more popular – because more present in the life of the people – were En-lil the god of the atmosphere and En-ki the Lord of the earth, also called God of the waters, because for the Sumerians the earth rested on the water.

Among the Sumerians is also present the widespread theme of the primordial waters that were the original Mother who generated, by parthenogenesis, the first couple: the sky An and the earth ki. This first couple was indivisible and united through a sacred bond. From this union En-lil was born. En-lil will divide his parents, bringing An up and Kdown. This theme of the separation of the sky from the earth is equally well attested in the other traditions and in the Bible. In Genesis the upper waters were separated from the lower ones where the dry appeared (see Gen 1).

Even among the Sumerians – well before the Genesis – there is the theme of the golden age which then degraded. Among the Sumerians, paradise is called Dilmun, a place where there is neither sickness nor death. Some ancient texts report that there no lion massacre, no wolf that catches the lamb … (see also Isaiah 65:25) In this situation of perfect harmony and peace, the Lord of Dilmun, En-ki – who for a time slept with her virgin wife – joined the goddess Nin-gur-sag. We must not morally judge this description, because it instead represents a real theogony, that is, the birth of gods that could only be accomplished in paradise. It is not this the evil occurred in Dilmun.

One day, En-ki eats freshly created plants, because in this way he would have determined their use and function. However, Nin-gur-sag was disappointed, saying to his lover that she will no longer look at En-ki with the eyes of life, since he wanted to make him die. En-ki became ill but he was healed by the bride. Also in Genesis transgression was conceived as to eat something, i.e. to experience something and not simply the sexual act. (To be continued)

Simone Venturini


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