Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Masks of God: the Changing Concept of Divinity in the Ancient Near East

Sumerian deities, the oldest in recorded history

Enki rising from the dead

The renegade pharoah Iknaton, who imposed monotheism on an unwilling Egypt


It shouldn’t come as any surprise to us. The gods that a civilization worships reflect that civilization. The Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Egyptians. Hebrews, and Persians—they all revealed much about themselves through their national gods.

The Mesopotamians—the Sumerians, Babylonians, and Assyrians—had no monotheism as we understand it; they worshipped no omnipotent, transcendent Creator that ruled the universe. Instead, their deities were anthropomorphic elementals with human personalities, fallible gods that often squabbled among themselves. In the Mesopotamian Flood epic, they cower in fear from the Deluge they started, but can no longer control. As far as the Mesopotamians were concerned, the gods had created the world for man to tenant like a sharecropper for them, and they had created man to worship them, because they were lonely.

In the Beginning, There Were the Sumerians

A Sumerian deity: gods and monsters

Of Sumerian civilization, the first in recorded history, noted scholar Georges Roux wrote, "In no other antique society did religion occupy such a prominent position, because in no other antique society did man feel himself so utterly dependent upon the will of the gods." (1) Because it was the oldest, the cult of An, whose main temple was in Uruk, was the most respected god in the Sumerian pantheon. The father and king of the gods, this sky god had created the universe, which he now ruled; and like the sky, he physically constituted most of the universe, while he stayed aloof from the world and the affairs of mankind. He ranked first in the lists of Sumerian gods ever since Gudea, the ensi (city-state king) of Lagesh, established An's cult during his reign, from approximately 2060 to 2042 B.C. In the story of Adapa, the Sumerian Adam, An is the god who holds the bread and water of eternal life.

A Sumerian pyramid

But sometime after Enmebaragesi, the king of Kish, built a temple to Enlil in Nippur at the beginning of the Early Dynastic Period, the cult of An gave way to that of Enlil, the storm and rain god son of An. This shift in the pantheon is noted in the Enuma Elish, the Mesopotamian creation epic, where, in the Sumerian version, An and the rest of the gods elect Enlil to slay Tiamat, because they could not. (Tiamat is a monster that embodies primordial chaos; in other words, she’s the sea, personified as a goddess.) Enlil succeeds and goes on to form the universe and mankind from Tiamat's body. After that, he maintains order in the universe.

The temple of Enlil

A seemingly primitive (or simplistic) statuette of Enlil

As the storm god, Enlil was the mightiest of the gods, and like the storm, he is of ambivalent character, alternately helping with rain and wreaking havoc with storms; the Flood story tells how he tried to drown mankind. But his talent as the rain god, causing the crops to grow and supplying water to man, endeared him to the Sumerians (agriculture was known as "the way of Enlil"), and they enshrined him as their national god. Such was their awe of him that when the Elamite hordes destroyed Ur III, the Neo-Sumerians interpreted it as the punishment of Enlil.

An Enlil bas-relief

Enlil's trident

Enlil commanded the strongest following in Sumeria, because the Sumerians appreciated his gift of rain and feared the violent wrath he expressed in desert storms. They expected their national god to turn on them every now and then; it was what they had come to expect from their environment.

A large bas-relief of Enlil

The town of Eridu on the Persian Gulf enshrined the sea god Enki, the Ea of the Semites, the Lord of the Deep and the Earth. The lengthy narrative poem "Enki and the World Order" dubs him "the big brother of the gods," but every cult claimed their god was the king of the gods.


The seal of Enki

Definitely he is the most benevolent of the Sumerian pantheon. Although An had molded man out of clay, Enki breathed life into him. He brought civilization to the world, and in the Flood story, he warns Utnapishtim, the Sumerian Noah, that Enlil plans to engulf mankind. Parallels to Prometheus, who brought fire down from the mountains to benefit mankind, are apparent.

Enki the beneficent

By the Waters of Babylon

Marduk with a very peculiar reptilian pet--a sirrush?

After the Babylonians subjugated the Sumerians, in large part they absorbed the religion of the conquered, substituting their Semitic god Marduk, sun god son of Enki, for Enlil in the Enuma Elish. In their version, An, Enlil, and Enki, the Sumerian Triad, elect Marduk to slay Tiamat, appointing him Bel or Lord of the gods and giving him fifty names, among them those of other gods, which imparted to him their collective powers.

A Marduk coin

As scholar A.H. Sayce clarifies:

"When the name was changed, the person or thing was changed along with it. To give Merodach [Marduk] another name, therefore, was equivalent to changing his essential characteristics, and endowing him with the nature and property of another god.... With the name came the personality of the god to whom it originally belonged, and who now, as it were, lost his individual existence." (2)

A comic book version of Marduk

The Babylonians used their Enuma Elish to symbolize their acquisition of Sumer. The Sumerian Triad appoints the Babylonian Marduk to restore order in out of, bestowing on him the title of Lord. By conquering Sumer, the Babylonians thought they were merely restoring order. They saw the Sumerian acceptance of their rule as a mandate.

An Assyrian bas-relief of a smiting Marduk

Marduk was definitely an important political symbol for Babylonia. When Hammurabi ordered his Code engraved on a stele, the text begins by addressing Marduk; and Hammurabi had it placed it Esagila, Marduk's temple in Babylon, even though he worshipped Shamash.

Shamash the sun god

When Tukulti-Ninurta I captured Babylon and its king, he also captured the city statue of Marduk to signify his victory. During the New Year's Festival, Tiglath-Pileser gripped the hand of Marduk's statue to please the god's priesthood, which demanded such a sign of fealty from rulers who wished to prove their legitimacy. Even as late as 538 B.C., Marduk's priesthood had the strength to lead Babylon in revolt against Belshazzar, because the people of Babylon believed Belshazzar’s father Nabonidus had insulted their god.

A contemporary re-imagining of Marduk as a devil

As Babylonian national god, Marduk was the supreme god and creator, and governor of the universe. As the city god of Babylon, he had the most opulent temple, and the New Year's Festival was dedicated to him. Just how high a position did Marduk occupy?

According to renowned ancient Near East scholar Morris Jastrow, Jr.:

"As the position of Marduk, however, became more and more assured without danger of being shaken, the feeling of rivalry in his relations to the other gods began to disappear. Marduk's supremacy no longer being questioned, there was no necessity to curtail the homage paid of Shamash at Sippar or to En-lil at Nippur; hence the religions importance of the old centers is not diminished by the surpassing glory of Babylon. There was room for all. Marduk's toleration is the best evidence of his unquestioned headship." (3)

The dragon of Marduk on the Ishtar gate: many scholars, including Willy Ley and L. Sprague de Camp, have speculated this shirrush depicted here was actually a prehistoric saurian or a gigantic reptile several times bigger than a Komodo dragon; see Willy Ley's Exotic Zoology (1959) and de Camp's historical novel, The Dragon of the Ishtar Gate (1961)

And yet, Jastrow asserts:

"The process involved in the absorption of the roles and attributes of other gods which we have noted in the case of Enlil, Ninib, and Shamash appears to have gone to even greater lengths in the case of Marduk, who is addressed in terms as though he were the one and only deity. The monotheistic strain in the prayers and hymns addressed to Marduk is sometimes so pronounced that if one substitutes Yahweh or God for Marduk, they might form a part of a Jewish or Christian service of today. A god on whom other gods bestow fifty names is well advanced on the way to become the one and only power, as the source of all phenomena in nature.

An ancient sea serpent sighting?

"Still, the limitations of the monotheistic tendency in Babylon must be recognized. Not only do the other gods of the pantheon continue to receive recognition in their temples and sanctuaries scattered throughout the land, but neither Babylonians nor Assyrians ever passed beyond the point of regarding gods as personifications of nature. Marduk, too, remains on this basis." (4)

A modern reinterpretation of Marduk--again, as a devil: thou art challenged, O pale Gaililean

Yet Marduk never attained henotheistic status, let alone monotheistic status, because every Babylonian prayed to a patron god and goddess to solve his or her everyday problems. Consequently they never experienced the closeness that absolute dependence creates in the monotheist on his or her all-powerful, omnipresent God. As the hymn says, "Closer, God, To Thee."

The Young Lions

Bow down to Assur, god of war

Later, the great god Assur held the Assyrians together while they struggled to form a national state for 700 years. From 2000 to 1362 B.C., while foreigners (the Amorites and the Hurrians among them) dominated the Assyrians, Assur was the one constant in their cultural tradition they could cling to. He was so firmly a part of Assyrian culture that they transferred his temple when they moved the capital from Assur, to Calah, to Nineveh, to Dur-Sharrukin, and back to Nineveh—unlike Marduk, who stayed in Babylon. The Assyrians named their national god, their capital city, and their national state all Assur. The exact origin of the name, and which of the three bore it first, are not known.

A ziggurat dedicated to Assur

To spread the worship and domain of Assur, the Assyrians turned world conquest into a religious crusade. For them, when they invaded and conquered Mesopotamia, they were only performing a sacred act of devotion to their national god; when they terrorized, tortured, and massacred their enemies, they were only destroying devils opposed to Assur. Assyria was "the land of Assur," the Assyrian army "the army of Assur," their spears and swords "the mighty weapons of Assur." Victories were won "by the help of Assur." Assur chose the king of Assyria, who at the same time served as the lord of the land, the high priest of Assur, and the leader of the national army.

As a sign of the power Assur exerted over the Assyrian mind, Ashurbanipal said Assur commanded him to wage war in his dreams. The Assyrian army carried his symbol, the mystical, impersonal sun disc, into battle, so that Assur would be fighting right beside them. In battle it was Assur, not the Assyrian army, that fought and triumphed. So it is not surprising that more than anything else, Assur was a god of war. Assur was the spirit of Assyria.

Assur performing a miracle

When the Assyrian captured Babylon, they allowed the worship of Marduk to continue, to pacify the conquered, but in the rest of Babylonia, they elevated Assur to the head of the pantheon, making him the hero of their Enuma Elish. Yet to maintain the loyalty of the Babylonians, the Assyrians let Marduk occupy the second rank, with the name of Bel, and they distinguished him by naming the Bel of the Sumerians "the old Bel."

The monster Tiamat (left) versus the righteous Assur

Like Marduk, Assur was a sun god who absorbed the powers of the other gods. "Other members of the pantheon might affect his colour,—little Ashurs by the side of the great one. In a manner, therefore, somewhat different from the case of Marduk, he becomes the dominating figure that overshadows all others. He is the Great God, the God of Gods beside whom all others pale into insignificance." (5) In 714, when Sargon II reported to the gods that he has conquered Urartu, he listed Assur first.

The Assyrians gave their god the combined powers of the Sumerian Triad. Like Anu, he created the cosmos and rules the gods; like Enlil, he lords over mankind; like Enki, he is Lord of the Deep. He had held them together while they were emerging as a nation, and he was the guiding force of their national state, similar to Yahweh in Israel. In some ways, the Assyrians thought of Assur the same way the Hebrews thought of Yahweh. "Thus Assur, though of solar form, is the great god of battles, he is sexless and childless, and though he produces all things, he is not linked with inferior divinities, he admits no rivals, he is unique, personal, supreme.” (6)

But after Ashurbanipal, Assyria weakened and fell to the Scythians and the Medes. "The god Ashur went down with his people. He was but a god of blood and fire, and could not survive the decay of the powers of blood and fire which alone had made him great. He had no great ethical character, was no better than his people. As the Egyptian proverb has it, 'The ox which goes at the head of the herd and leads the others to pasture is but an animal like his fellows.'" (7)

The Heretic Pharoah


In Egypt, during the Eighteenth Dynasty, Amenhotep IV, the sickly son of the pharoah, was educated by priests. Not fit for athletics, he turned to daydreaming. When his aging father, Amenhotep III, appointed him coregent, he duly erected temples to Amon, the Egyptian national god. But somewhere along the way, his dreams turned to fanaticism, and he created the sun god Aton, whose only form was his symbol, the winged sun disc.

After his father died and Amenhotep IV ascended the throne in 1363 B.C., he changed his name from Amenhotep ("Amon is pleased") to Iknaton ("Aton is pleased"). With the fervent belief that Aton, "the sole god," had founded the universe and created and aided mankind, he launched an all-out campaign to usurp Amon, the national god, and establish his own god Aton as the one and only national god of Egypt.

Using his absolute powers as pharoah, he had Amon's temples smashed, his temples dismantled, his name chistled off, and moved the capital to Amarna, away from Amon's cult in Thebes. He disbanded the cult of Osiris, ending his own chances for an afterlife, and forbid his subjects to worship their former gods. He ordered them to worship himself instead, while he and his court directed their devotion to Aton. But since he never bothered to enforce his dictum too strictly, the Egyptians worshipped their old gods in secret.

However, Atonism was not a monotheism. Amon and Osiris were Iknaton's only two divine targets. He allowed Ra to exist, and Iknaton never claimed Aton was omnipotent, although in several cases he ordered several passages mentioning "the gods" obliterated and he asserted that Aton was the Creator who ruled the universe and mankind. Although he declared Aton was the one and only god, so did all cults of their respective god. If he ever considered imposing Atonism as a universal religion, so that one god would provide a common cultural link to bind the Egyptian empire, he never strove to proselytize outside of Egypt.

Despite all his efforts, after he died, Ikhnaton was declared a heretic, and after his name was erased in shame, Aton was forgotten, and Amon and Osiris returned to their former glory. (The aristocracy tended to worship aloof, imperial Amon, who ruled all creation, while the lower classes were drawn to warm, fatherly Osiris, who cared for them in the afterlife.)

But it was to be expected. Ikhnaton had undertaken no effort to indoctrinate his conservative subjects with his radical ideas; he had only used force, and since he was their pharoah and a god, they nodded their heads dumbly like cropping sheep. He never bothered to give Atonism any real significance to them, never bothered to make it moral, and without faith, Atonism died with him. Like it or not, the social contract prescribes that only what people will accept will last. He displaced Amon, their national god, and better than Set ever did, he killed Osiris, their own hope for a life after death.

And what did he give them in return? Aton was an impersonal sun disc. The best god that Atonism offered them to worship was Iknaton. The people stuck to their old gods because they knew them and could depend on them.

Iknaton was a failure. He spent all his time shoving Aton down Egyptian throats and so neglected the responsibilities of statecraft that when he died, the Egyptian empire was in the primary stages of decay. It took Ramses II to restore the old order, after "the gods turned their backs on Egypt," as he put it.

The Chosen People

In the beginning the Hebrews were henotheists. (Henotheists are devoted to a single god, while accepting the existence of other deities.) Jeremiah himself said in the sixth century BC, in Jeremiah 11:13: "According to the number of thy cities are thy gods, O Judah." When Jacob fled from Laban, Rachel hid the teraphim, as the household gods were called. Yahweh originated as a storm god in the Sinai, where storms rage violent and fearful. In the Old Testament, Yahweh is clearly a storm god. He speaks with a voice of thunder from the sky. In retribution he strikes with lightning bolts. He holds the power to grant or withhold rain.

Yet he is anthropomorphic, although he has no corporeal body. He speaks throughout the Old Testament. In Genesis 2:7, he forms Adam out of earth, presumably with His hands, and into him breathes life, presumably with His mouth. In Genesis 3:8, He is described as walking in the Garden of Eden. He whistles in Isaiah 7:18. Moses sees His back. He displays very human emotions; throughout the Old Testament, His mood changes from love to anger to satisfaction to disappointment to jealousy.

He was the tribal god of the Hebrews just as Marduk was the national god of the Babylonians and Assur the national god of the Assyrians. But His relationship with His people was different from that of other ancient Near Eastern deities with their nations. He had chosen the Hebrews alone; Yahweh was their God; and beginning with the holy covenant He initiated with Noah and established with Abraham, He watched over the tribes of Israel with great interest.

Nicholas Roerich's striking depiction of Moses parting the Red Sea

He was a jealous, henotheistic god that strictly forbid His people to worship His rivals. In the early days of the tribe, many Hebrews were tempted to worship Baal. The storm and fertility god of the neighboring Caananites was much more understandable and easier to worship; cast in a more traditional mold, he had a statue and a wife and a whole mythos behind him. But the Prophets persuaded Josiah to end all idolatry, and the faith of Yahweh won out, with the help of the absolute obedience He commanded and the pressure the Hebrew social structure exerted.

Unlike all other ancient Near Eastern gods, Yahweh forbade sorcery and all other forms of magic. Exodus 22:18 commands, "Thou shall not suffer a witch to live." Yahweh could provide all the supernatural assistance the Hebrews needed. He was also smart, for a god. Marduk had failed to attain henotheistic status because the Babylonians depended on personal gods.

The Hebrews believed their Creator would rule his handiwork forever, and although He was a transcendent God who was always present, He was always near man; certainly Moses, Isaiah, and Elijah approached Him closely. Unlike Enlil and Marduk, he had no female consort, and for that matter, no known personal mythology. For the Hebrews it was enough that He existed.

In many ways His motives were mysterious. Where the Mesopotamian gods created man to ease their loneliness, Yahweh says, "Let us make man in our own image," to rule and populate the earth, in Genesis 2.

But He is an active God who makes it clear man is His creation and that He masters the fate of mankind. In the story of the Fall, He punishes Adam and Eve for defying his commandment not to partake of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge (sciencia, maybe the point where Neanderthals evolved into Cro-Magnons and realized their were naked); in the story of the Flood, He punishes a sinful world by opening the windows of heaven and letting the surrounding, all-encompassing waters of chaos rush in, following Mesopotamian cosmogony; He scatters the builders of the Tower of Babel. He devastates Sodom and Gomorrah, the sinful cities, with a rain of fire and brimstone.

His believers regard him as a holy God; He is much more glorious than any man. He is righteous, knowing good from evil and demanding that men make moral judgements. And gracious is He in His kindness, watching over his beloved people, freeing His people, the Hebrews, from bondage in Egypt. According to the Prophets, He reveals Himself in the physical reality of the world He created and in the events He has engineered, which we know as history. If we can catch a glimpse of the Lord’s plan for us and for the cosmos, we call it divine revelation.

After the Babylonian captivity, the Hebrews could have lost faith in their God, believing He had betrayed them. But because of their strong faith in Him, they decided He had punished them for sinning against Him. Faith was Yahweh's secret as a god.

Thus Spake Zarathustra


In Iran, in roughly 700 B.C., Zoroaster reformed the Aryan nature religion established in Persia and founded a monotheism later known as Zoroastrianism. After he converted King Vishtaspa of Bactria and his consort, Zoroastrianism became the Persian state religion, which Zoroaster proselytized throughout the country. Its God was Ahura Mazda, the All-Wise Lord. This is how Zoroaster conceived of him:

"He is the Good Artificer, or Worker, through whom everything comes into life and exists. Brighter than the brightest of creation, older than the oldest in the universe, He sits at the apex among the Celestial Beings in the Highest Heaven, He knows no elder and has no equal. He is the first and the foremost. Immune from the limitations of Time and Space, He is Ever-the-Same, the most perfect Being; moving all, yet moved by none. The Greatest of all, it is He who has destined the benefits of His kingdom for all who lead a life of Reason and Truth. It is He who decides Victory between the rival hosts of good and evil. Everything comes from Him and through Him, the Lord of all." (8)

Zoroastrianism is based on the concept of ethical dualism. Ahura Mazda, the embodiment of Good, constantly battles Ahriman, the personification of Evil. Sometimes they are known as Spenta Mainya, the Holy Spirit (remarkably like the Holy Ghost), and Angra Mainyu, the Evil Spirit.

Ahrua Mazda

Ahriman, Satan's grandfather

Although Ahrua Mazda is a spirit, he has two sons (Vehu Manah, Good, and Asha, Righteousness) and a daughter (Armaiti, Devotion). Yet he is not known to have a wife. However, Zoroastrianism encourages incestuous marriage, so who knows? To help fight evil, Ahrua Mazda has a crew of angels, the Amesha Spenta.

A Roman statue of Ahriman, proving the devil never lacks for admirers

The hand of Ahriman? We wonder

Zoroaster was obsessed with the idea of evil, and so his religion preaches righteousness. He made his creed the doctrine of free will. Even Ahriman, the Devil, chose to disobey Ahura Mazda by being evil. Ahura Mazda sentences souls to heaven or hell depending on whether they have practised good or evil in life. He will make the rebels who reject his ethics suffer and give happiness to the righteous who conform to his Good Mind.

The seal of King Darius, depicting Ahura Mazda

In later times, Zoroastrianism influenced Judaism and Christianity, although the religion itself died out after a few hundred years and the remaining sect quietly moved to India. Quite possibly, it introduced the idea of a devil to the Hebrews during the Babylonian captivity; Satan first appears in the Book of Job, believed written after the captivity. The Zoroastrian ideas of Satan, Paradise and Purgatory, resurrection, and the Holy Spirit appear suddenly in the New Testament, with no previous mention or development.

Ahura Mazda

Here We Are

So changed the idea of the Creator in the ancient Near East. He began in three forms in loosely-organized Sumer, grew powerful as Marduk, the national god of Babylonia, and embodied the national spirit of Assyria, where as the war god Assur, he shaped Assyrian thought to a frightening degree. He appeared for a short span in Egypt, where an impractical pharoah tried to set him up, knocking away the other gods; but to live, a god must feed on more than power and zeal.

Strangely enough, the idea of a single Creator, greater than all the other gods, grew not in a sophisticated empire with a centralized religion, but in a desert, where a small tribe stumbled upon revealed religion and devotion to a single God that had explicitly chosen them; and from then on, the Hebrews sustained the power of Yahweh with their unyielding faith.

In Persia, Zoroaster rediscovered the ageless idea of the Creator, and with the help of his king, spread his worship. But odd to say, Zoroastrianism extorted its greatest influence on two other religions, now known to us as Judaism and Christianity.

* * * * *


  1. Georges Roux, Ancient Iraq (Baltimore, 1964), p. 86.
  2. A.H. Sayce. The Religions of Ancient Egypt and Babylonia (Edinburgh, 1903), p. 331.
  3. Morris Jastrow, Jr., The Religion of Babylonia and Assyria (Boston. 1898), p. 691.
  4. Morris Jastrow, Jr., The Civilization of Babylonia and Assyria (Philadelphia. 1915). p. 217.
  5. Morris Jastrow, Jr., Aspects of Religious Belief and Practise in Babylonia and Assyria (New York, 1960), pp. 122-123.
  6. Philo Laos Mills. Prehistoric Religion (Washington. 1918), p. 97.
  7. Robert William Rogers, The Religion of Babylonia and Assyria (New York, 1908), p. 70.
  8. Sir Rustom Masani, Zoroastrianism (New York, 1938). p. 36.

St. Moses the Black: isn't the universality of syncretism (the borrowing of religious ideas) fascinating?

The giant Sumerian ogre-god Humbaba, who plays a prominent role in the epic of Gilgamesh


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A contemporary representation of the Sumerian god Enki

1 comment:

Zariadris said...

Beautifully and incisively written. Well done, and thanks.