Surveying Ancient Mesopotamian Religion and Its Syncretic Influence
By: Arab America Contributing Writer / Drew Jackson
The region between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in modern-day Iraq is anciently and popularly known by its Greek name ‘Mesopotamia’ meaning the land between the rivers. Mesopotamian culture and history are important, not just to the Arab world, but to all of modern-day civilization.
Mesopotamia is one of the earliest cradles of human civilization with settlements dating back to 5000 BCE. The first reported settlement was in the northern region of modern-day Iraq, known as the Akkadian civilization, whilst the second known settlement to the south, was the site of the ancient Sumerian civilization.
Akkadia is often attributed to being one of the earliest true empires, and Sumer is credited with the creation of writing, a tool that pushed humanity and further developed modern civilization. These powerhouses of the region were not distinct nations, but more so a loose collection of city-states all connected by one thing, religion. The religion adhered to by Mesopotamian peoples is one of the most complex religious structures on the planet, housing a Pantheon of several deities, who often worked in cooperation but also succeeded each other as superiors and subordinates. This religious system served as a tool for political peace between city-states and later empires, but also served as a blue-print for other religions due to the practice of syncretism.
Before digging into what syncretism is and which religions pull influence from the ancient scripture, we must first start with an overview of the Pantheon of deities and the multiple stories surrounding the Earth’s creation.
The different gods of the Pantheon were attributed to being the patron gods of different city-states such as the ancient cities of Uruk and Eridu.
We start with Anu, the ancient sky god and father of the gods, believed to be the first ruling being over the Earth and patron of Uruk. Anu is not regarded as the first god, but rather the descendent of a long line of deities who ruled over nothing but primordial chaos.
What’s unique about this religion and its story of creation, is that the primordial chaos is assumed to have been an eternal state where Nammu (Lady of the gods) birthed the universe, which was really just Tiamat (sea/saltwater) and Apsu (freshwater). The ancestors of Anu were birthed out of this water, and eventually, these waters were split in half, separating the heavens and the earth. Likely this interpretation of Nammu, Tiamat, and Apsu is inconsistent because of the oral nature with which this religion was passed down.
After Tiamat and Apsu were split, Anu mated with the Earth goddess Ki, giving birth to all vegetation and life on Earth, including their deity offspring known as the Anunnaki.
Interestingly this is only the base story of creation. Deities during this time changed hierarchies due to the political influence of city-states. We can likely attribute Anu as being integral in the story of creation because he was the patron god of the Sumerian powerhouse of Uruk. Uruk is likely the site where the written record of the religion first started in the middle 4th millennium to the early 3rd millennium.
Evidence of this contrast is found in the famous Epic of Creation which comes out of the 7th century BCE powerhouse of Babylon where the god Marduk was the patron of the city. By the time of its writing, Marduk was now seen as the king god and is credited with the creation of Heaven and Earth as the one who split Tiamat and Apsu.
Additionally, there are myths between Uruk and Babylon surrounding the son of Anu and patron of the Nippur, Enlil god of wind.
When Nippur flourished for the first time around 2100 BCE, Enlil is thought to have succeeded Anu as Father of the Gods, and the main driver of creation. Enlil’s story is different than the two before as it is believed the Earth was born after Enlil split Tiamat and Apsu with his seed.
HUMANITY’S CREATION AND FLOOD MYTH
Moving on from creation to the creation of humans, it is said that humans were created out of a need of service to the gods. Once Heaven and Earth were separated the divine offspring of Anu and Ki, the Annunaki, were forced to farm and hunt for their own food, and build their divine houses on the Earth. In an effort to avoid this labor, the Anunnaki forced the lesser gods, known as the Igigi into their service.
This status quo held up for a while until the Igigi, who was also immortal, rebelled against the Anunnaki and stopped serving them. Enki, son of Anu and Ki and brother of Enlil, was a god of water and wisdom and compromised with the Igigi by creating humans to take their place.
The humans were created by mixing clay and Igigi life force so that the subordinate humans would be able to work the land in service. Unfortunately, the first humans were not the most perfect creation. Due to their shared traits with the Igigi, the first humans lived for thousands of years and had no boundaries on reproduction. It didn’t take long for the humans to overpopulate the Earth with a large society, angering the king god Enlil.
The large human population was so noisy and disruptive, Enlil and other gods were unable to rest so Enlil sent a massive flood to kill off humanity. Enki however, went against his brother and ruler’s wishes and found one man with a family who he gave a boat and filled it with all of the fauna of the Earth. Upon exiting the boat the man’s descendants were given smaller lifetimes, as well as things like disease to limit population.
MESOPOTAMIAN INFLUENCE AND SYNCRETISM
The two tales above are the most important aspects of the ancient Mesopotamian religion and show the way that power changed from god to god as regional powerhouses emerged. As the first official literary religion and its location along major trade routes between the East and West, Mesopotamian religion influenced gods in ancient religions as well as the origins of the Abrahamic religions of today via syncretism.
Syncretism is the practice of taking aspects from other religions or religious practices and merging them into one’s own religion. The greatest example of syncretism is Ancient Rome through their adoption of the Greek Pantheon (which was also influenced by Mesopotamia) and later their pagan traditions that carried into Christian holidays like Christmas. Syncretism was an incredibly common practice in the ancient world as cultures interacted via trade of materials and ideals.
The stories of creation and flood myth largely shaped many principles within Abrahamic religions, even though the Abrahamic religions are monotheistic.
For instance, Genesis states that man was created in the image of God by raising humans from dust and breathing life into the nostrils, similar to Enki creating humans from clay and the life source of the divine Igigi.
The flood myth is also very similar to the Judeo and Christian flood story of Noah’s ark, even down to the detail that human lifespans were shortened afterward.
What is most crucial to the syncretic influence does not seem to be the actual content of creation, but the location of Mesopotamia and the fact that it is the first literary language. With an ability to be communicated via interpretable writing across different cultures, and sent via trade routes throughout the world, it makes sense why Mesopotamian religion played such a huge role in shaping modern-day religions.
Sources for this article came from: Lets Talk Religion – Youtube, Mesopotamian Religious Syncretism, and Mesopotamian Religion – Wiley
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