Religion in Mesopotamia and Primary Gods

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Religion played very important role in Mesopotamia during all periods and greatly influenced all aspects of life including state organization and government, art, literature and even science. Religion in Mesopotamia, like in other ancient religions was characterized by:

Priests had highly important positions in all early civilizations but their leading role was even more emphasized in Mesopotamia. Priests in Sumer were both spiritual and secular leaders and were considered representatives of patron gods of a particular city-state. For that reason the Sumerian city-states are often referred as temple-states, while their rulers are commonly called priest-kings. Some religious beliefs were in common to all Sumerian city-states but there were certain variations and each city-state had its own patron god. The cult of patron gods was also adopted by Akkadians, Babylonians and Assyrians:

Besides chief gods there were also a series of other gods and goddesses and minor deities. Temples and later ziggurats were built for patron gods for their public worship, religious ceremonies and rituals which usually featured an offer of sacrificial food to achieve their benevolence. Patron gods were worshiped in all periods of the Mesopotamian history but there were certain regional and local variations as well as some changes which occurred through time. King’s power during the Akkadian Period arose to the point that Naram-Sin (c. 2254-c. 2218 BC) proclaimed himself divine. However, the cult of the divine kingship or imperial cult which is characterized by worship of kings like gods or demigods more an exception than the rule in Mesopotamia.

Eight-pointed star, symbol of the goddess Ishtar
Symbol of Goddess Ishtar

Many festivals and holidays which were accompanied with various rituals and ceremonies also played an important role in Mesopotamian religious life. Each city had its own calendar which determined the nature of the festivals which were commonly closely connected with cycle of agricultural activities as well as with the phase of the Moon. Monthly festivals always started at the new Moon which was a symbol of growth and abundance, while waning Moon was associated with decline and death. One of the most important festival in Mesopotamia was the New Year or Akitu in Babylon that was originally an agricultural spring festival of sowing and harvest but in Babylon it came to be dedicated to the victory of god Marduk over Tiamat, goddess of the watery deep and primordial chaos. Common festival in Mesopotamia was also the sacred marriage between Dumuzi (Babylonian Tammuz), the Shepherd and Innana (Babylonian Ishtar) goddess of love and fertility. The celebration of sacred marriage was sometimes celebrated with a sexual intercourse between the king and a high priestess who took the identity of, respectively, Dumuzi and Innana.

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