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The peoples who lived in the lands between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates from 6,000 years ago were many, Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians; Assyrians, Hittites, and Hurrians from the north; Amorites, Elamites, Arameans, and many others. They constructed a picture of the world in which religious worship was very important. We don’t know much about ancient cultures or religions; so here is an attempt to imagine what it might have been like. For all these ancient peoples the gods were ‘out there’, outside the world those gods had created. That world was liable to be destroyed by the foolishness of mankind, and the gods had to be implored to answer human prayer and to help and advise the worshipper who followed the rites devoutly. The land was largely flat, and subject to inundation and other disasters. By contrast, god could be seen in the lightning flash on mountain tops. God was obviously above.
It was the mysterious people from the land of Sumer, of unknown origin and whose language has no obvious roots with any others, who were first to build cities from stone and baked clay bricks, first to claim the desert for fertilised and irrigated areas for crops, first to write down their lore on clay tablets that have been preserved, where many stories later told by Hebrew writers in the bible had their origin. It was the people of Sumer who built the first ziggurat, a stairway to heaven by which the gods could come to earth and answer the prayers of their devotees. At Mohenjo-Daro, 3,500 km due east in modern Pakistan, another people were making the same discoveries at almost the same time, but we know almost nothing about them. To the south the Egyptians were evolving a very different picture of the world, one where the gods were nurturing.
The best known ziggurat is that referred to in the bible, in the Book of Genesis. When the final author of that book was writing or editing his account, Babylon, or Babel, had been conquered by Alexander the Great, and the ziggurat long been in ruins. One of the concepts unique to the final Genesis author was that of a jealous god, fearful of humans becoming too powerful, and so a threat to god. This was why god was said to have expelled Adam and Eve from the Garden east of Eden. The Genesis writer also makes god responsible for the destruction of the ziggurat in Shinar, or Babylon, which in Genesis is a tower built so that men can climb to heaven.
In reality the traffic was going the other way. Not men upwards, but the gods downwards. What is expressed in Genesis is a powerful sense of guilt, of mankind being punished for transgressions against god.
The Genesis author also has a back to front theory about languages. The many languages spoken in Babylon, the hub of a great empire, were also said to be a punishment. Before the tower was built, says the Genesis author, men all spoke one language, but god prevented them from uniting and building another tower by giving them different languages. This is the opposite of the New Testament concept of inspiration enabling the disciples of Jesus to speak in tongues. The opposite too of a known development in language from many dialects to a dominant one, or the imposition of a common language throughout an empire. The bible author conveniently ignores the fact that other polyglot cities existed, including Jerusalem, and that many other ziggurats were built, before and after that of Babylon. It’s a good story, and we remember it. But to understand ancient religions, we have to forget it.
The ziggurat was a temple. It formed part of a group of buildings dedicated to the worship of a god. The ziggurat complex of buildings was not unlike the pyramids in Egypt, but in Egypt the platform for the gods to come to their worshippers, the pyramid, had become separate from the temple complex itself. At the top of the ziggurat was the temple proper, where the priests would pray the city god to come down and answer prayers, and perform acts of power.
This step pyramid structure was thought to imitate the way the world itself was made by the gods. They constructed a solid base upon the primeval waters which existed before the world began, and so began heaven and earth, at first made from the bodies of the very first gods. The world was also seen as a tree, its branches forming the heavens, the trunk earth, and its roots the underground powers of the forces of life and death. The ziggurat was thus aligned to the creation of life and harmony, of the tao.
In ancient times the gods were larger than life, often depicted as such in sculptures. They were powerful, and dangerous, and could be destructive. When implored to come down to earth to effect a change or answer a prayer it was therefore essential the correct rites were followed by priests who knew the ritual to follow. Otherwise the gods could cause harm instead of good.
More can be said of this existence, outside the world, of Middle Eastern gods. Although the gods formed the primeval stuff of the world from their bodies, their children were outside the world, and came from above. Some dread entities came from below.
To see what this distance means, compare the direction that the gods were experienced in the Middle East with those of ancient Greece. In Greece, with its clarity of light, its many mountain ranges and islands, the gods were part of nature. They didn’t come from outside, but through, natural forces. Their manifestation was horizontal, not vertical. God could be found at any time. He was suddenly there. Especially at his temple, which was always built at a site where holiness could be felt. Visitors can still feel it at places like Delphi today if they don’t buy too many souvenirs.
The way we experience the divine affects our political views. This is not as strange as it might at first appear, for we after all are one mind. That god comes through nature creates an intense awareness of nature, and a willingness to explore it, evident in many ancient Greek poems and scientific or philosophical works. God through nature makes us liable to respect natural creations, to conserve, to care for, a material world which in many ways is divine. The Greeks were aware of the gods as part of life, and their religions were an intrinsic part of their lives, and not confined to a separate sphere. It was something anyone, and all, could experience, and it was no accident that democracy evolved first in ancient Greece.
In the Middle East, by contrast, god was outside the world, above it. The world was an inferior creation, doomed to eventual destruction. To know god, the first step was to forget the world. The world, in some extreme cases, became sinful, a snare and a delusion. So the natural world could be exploited, used to accumulate personal wealth, a sign of god’s grace. Exploitation of all kinds, empires, subjugation of races, destruction of environments, economic slavery, corruption in politics, all were permissible, because all concerned a sinful, negligible world destined for eventual destruction. If the excess was too unbalanced, god would come from above and strike down the evil ones. The end of the world was always at hand. Society took the form of the ziggurat, a pyramid with an emperor at the top, priests and officials below him, and these dominating the mass of the people.
It is interesting to see that Christianity, paying a debt to the hierarchical system of Judaism, was founded in Greece by Paul of Tarsus as a new mystery religion similar to the rites of Eleusis, and evolved at first a communal, egalitarian system, which was soon replaced by the European hierarchical system of feudalism. God became ‘Lord’, the feudal leader.
Basic to the life of ancient Mesopotamia was the canal system, which provided food for a large population, and whose leaders organised its continued care. It was an art of compromise: without a myriad of locks and the officials to see to their maintenance, there would be floods. Without an efficient central administration the canals would vanish, to be replaced by the original desert, and with them would go the cities and the peoples they supported. The key figures in this society were the priests. Although there were many gods, priests in every locality eventually raised one god above the others, who became a patron of each city.
Although the gods performed many natural functions to make the world work, as in other religions of the world, they soon became, as well, patrons of different cities, and involved in these cities’ wars for dominance. The Sumerians for instance believed in Nammu, or Tiamet, who was the water which preceded the creation of the world. From her came An, the heaven, and Ninhursang, the earth. Between these two functioned the powerful ones whose worship was necessary, for whom the ziggurats were built. Inanna, goddess of sexuality and war, who later, in other cultures, became Ishtar, then Aphrodite; her sister Ereshkigal, queen of the underworld, some of whose functions were undertaken by Greek Demeter; Ninurtu, god of war and agriculture; Enlil and Ninlil, gods of the air; Nanna and Ningal, god and goddess of the moon; and Enki, god of male fertility and knowledge, whose functions were inherited by Greek Hermes. So powerful and influential was the culture of Sumeria on subsequent peoples in the area that these gods endured for many centuries, their names little different in languages later spoken in the region. The Sumerian language itself survived long after the people who spoke it had vanished, preserved in official rites and documents of later cultures such as that of Babylon and Assyria. All these gods were in some sense An, the heavens, who was god in his monotheistic form. But to worship god efficiently, to enable him to give help to his devotee, it was thought necessary to worship specific aspects of god, which were also specific aspects of human nature.
As the Sumerians developed civilisation, the first surviving signs of it we know about, changes took place within the ruling priesthood. The god of war was invoked by his priest, but war was carried out by a general, and war leaders became powerful. Power was at first shared between king/general and priest. But as the societies living in the cities became more numerous and developed more complex structures, so did the kingship. In particular, diplomacy between cities called for supreme power to be vested in a king/general. The gods and their priests were still an intrinsic part of this. Certain cities claimed a god as a patron deity. In fact what survives of Sumerian writings about the gods is often apparently government propaganda as much as worship. The more powerful the god was asserted to be, the more powerful the city under his protection. So Nippur adopted Enlil; Eridu adopted Enki; Uruk, Inanna; Ur, Nanna.
This politicalisation of religion occurred throughout the Middle East, and seems normal to many people living today. Whereas a Greek travelling to Babylon might have said, “Ah, Inanna is our Aphrodite!” and cheerfully participated in rites to honour that goddess, convinced he had said the last word on the subject, a Babylonian visiting Corinth would have thought the rites of Aphrodite an abomination. Although the concept of ‘heresy’ had not yet been invented, to acknowledge other cities’ gods was to be disloyal to one’s own city god, to weaken that god, and hence the city he patronised. Just as cities conquered one another, gods in the Middle East conquered one another. This is why Yahweh, or El, in the Hebrew bible, is a jealous god, one who will not tolerate any rival.
The only sure proof of the rightness of your beliefs is to conquer the people who worship other gods. This philosophy is central to Judaism, Islam and Christianity, the remarkable thing about Judaism being that, although founded during a period of empire, and while Judah and Israel were polytheistic, it evolved its concept of a supreme and only god during periods of political subjugation, during which eventual political domination was devotedly looked forward to, under the rule of the future messiah.
Human beings are part of the natural creation. Our ideas of the world and the gods are formed by the interaction of our senses with the physical geography of the part of the world we inhabit. ‘Culture’, that part of human civilisation we are still ambiguous about, is a late invention. It was founded in the evolution of religious rites observed in order to protect a group of people. It was preserved through the invention of writing, and spread by political invasion of other peoples. Flat lands suggests the dominance of heights, as any good general can see. So the gods, imagined as dominating us all, must be above, as conceived by inhabitants of the plains. By contrast, inhabitants of the mountain ranges experience gods all around. Even the lightning comes from nearby. The gods appear immanent, within, not transcendent, above. All this, it is important to note, concern the way human beings experience the divine, and in no way describes the nature of the divine, which is unknowable.
The worship of gods is undertaken for very practical reasons, for self preservation. The gods are preservers of human life and well being. It is not surprising to find underlying rituals common to many different religions. In Ur, that same Ur of the Chaldees said in the bible to be the home of Abram or Abraham, the first ‘world power’ we know of, and dominating the Persian Gulf in the second millenium BC, the dominant god was Nanna, god of the moon. Nanna was revered throughout the whole of Mesopotamia during the dominance of the kings of Ur, and later under dynasties of Assyria and Babylon. A rite to honour him celebrates his birth. His parents Enlil and Ninlil, like Inanna, descend to the underworld, and are imprisoned there. In a great ceremony lasting many hours, performed probably on a night with no moon, of a lunar eclipse, Ereshkigal, queen of the underworld, is implored to release Enlil and Ninlil. During this time the two give birth to Nanna, and, coincidentally to the rise of the new moon: Ereshkigal relents and releases the gods in her power. We don’t know if the rise of Nanna symbolised new life for his devotees, but as many later rituals in the Middle East did so, it is possible.
Human beings are a product of their environment. Religion is a device to ensure their harmony with that environment and within themselves. From these cultural forces has arisen politics, the art of dominance, and, most recently, technology, the art of efficiency. But we are still the same people, underneath the surface changes. Perhaps it’s time to go back to Ur and climb the steps of the ziggurat. Me, I’m saving up for a trip to Delphi.
©2012 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.