Learning about Ancient Mesopotamian Religion and Culture

 

Located in the Tigris-Euphrates valley was the land of Mesopotamia. It was here that the world’s first cities were founded between 4000 – 3500 BC by the Sumerian people. They developed their own belief system, with a variety of gods and goddesses. They developed religious practices and rituals for worshiping these powerful deities. Their daily lives were also much different than those of the previous hunter-gatherer groups that wandered the world in a constant search for resources.

Mesopotamian Religion

The cultures of Mesopotamia had a polytheistic belief system, which means that the people believed in multiple gods instead of just one. They also believed in demons created by the gods, which could be good or evil. The people of Mesopotamia worshiped these other worldly beings to keep the beings happy, because if one of these powerful beings was angered then the people of Mesopotamia would, in some way, be punished for that unhappiness. They believed that when something bad happened, whether a natural disaster or not, it was because the correlating god was angry at them, so they did their best to keep the gods happy.

Each city had its own patron deity, some of which were connected to specialized occupations. There were also gods and goddess, the rulers of the sky, air, and more, which received more attention from worshipers. To worship the gods and goddesses, the people of Mesopotamia built large structures, called Ziggurats that served as temples. Inside the worshiping area of the Ziggurat people would place carved stone human figures with wide eyes and clasped hands, praying on behalf of the people of Mesopotamia. This area was also where people could make offerings to please the deities or regain their favor.

Some of the most important deities of ancient Mesopotamia were:

An (Anu) – Sky god, as well as father of the gods, An was the king of all the gods. There was no art depicting him, all information about this god was translated from ancient texts.

Enki (Ea) - God of fresh water, known for his wisdom. He was depicted as a bearded man with water flowing around him.

Inanna (Ishtar) – Goddess of love, fertility, and war. She was the most important of the female deities.

Nanna (Sin) – God of the moon and the son of Enlil and Ninlil. He travels across the sky in his small boat of woven twigs, surrounded by the planets and stars.

Utu (Shamash) - God of the sun and of justice. Between the time when the sun sets in the west and rises in the east he is in the underworld, where he decrees the fate of the dead.

Mesopotamian Culture

As the Mesopotamian civilization developed so did their culture. They developed a variety of festivals, ceremonies, traditions, and much more, which became an important part in the lives of many. Many of the rituals and ceremonies were based around certain rites of passage, such as birth and marriage, and these events were usually celebrated with a banquet that sometimes included music, dancing and food, though the food available was determined by the social status of the family. For music, though instruments have been found, it is unknown what kind of music they played.

In their daily lives, the men would go out and work, usually a specialized job, examples being a builder or musician, while the women stayed at home and took care of the house and raised children. The average number of children in each household was usually around 3 or 4 children, though these are only those who survived to be a certain age. Infant mortality was high, as was miscarriage. To protect an unborn child the mother would usually wear protective amulets, with the symbol of the demon Pazuzu to chase away deities who would wish to cause harm to the unborn child, as well as perform rituals after the child's birth so certain deities or demons would not steal their child.

Children were raised according to their gender roles. Boys were raised learning skills they could use to work and girls were raised to be wives and mothers. Once a child was of marrying age, families would arrange a marriage. At the marriage ceremony it is believed that the husband would pour perfume onto the head of his new bride. After becoming a wife, a woman's role was to cook, clean, and raise children. If a woman had a job it was usually related to one of her household tasks. They could become midwives, or sell any surplus of beer or goods that they made for their families.

Burial customs in ancient Mesopotamia varied. One method was placing the body in a ceramic jar then covering the top with more ceramic. Since the jars usually found in excavations are small, possibly household ceramics, it is believed this was a burial custom for infants or small children, though larger vessels have been found that were used for adult burials. Other means of burial included using carpets and mats to wrap the body.