Picking at Threads, Part 2 – Religions of the Ancient Near East

Prehistoric Religion

One thing is certain: YHWH worship was not the first religion.

We know that there have been humans on Earth for about 200,000 years.  The oldest civilization for which we have any written record is the Sumerian civilization in ancient Mesopotamia.  We have a great deal of art from earlier humans, however.  Of particular note are the cave paintings that date to as far back as 40,000 years BCE.  Many of these paintings are that of animals, showing the respect and perhaps reverence that these peoples had for the animals of their world.  This is possibly a glimpse of early religious belief.  The fact that these animals were important enough to be the primary subject of the earliest artwork we know of could be an indication that they were revered.  Some paintings also picture hybrids of humans and animals.

There have also been a number of carved figurines discovered in the Upper Paleolithic (40,000-10,000  BCE), such as the Venus figurines depicting women with highly emphasized female “assets”, so to speak, and the very interesting Löwenmensch figurine, a lion-headed male figure that puts one in mind of Egyptian depictions of gods.  It is possible that these figurines depict gods or at the very least a sacred view of the female form or animals.

Burial of the dead is also evidence of very early religious belief.  Of course there are also practical reasons for burying the dead, such as respecting the corpse by not allowing animals to eat it and reducing the smells of decay.  However, when one finds burials that are also accompanied by material goods, such as tools, weapons, animal skeletons, jewelry and even being positioned in certain ways or facing certain directions, religious practices and rituals must be considered.  Ceremonial human burials can be found that are tens and even hundreds of thousands of years old.

But this isn’t quite religion as we know it, with gods, offerings, blessings, curses, prayers, temples and afterlife.  Still, it is evidence that humans were already placing high importance on nature and a possible early form of animism, where all life and possibly even non living entities, such as mountains, rivers, deserts, seas and the sky, contained spirits.  Thus, there was a “spirit of the deer” or “spirit of the forest”.   One may attempt to commune with these spirits to have a successful hunt, a good harvest, to prevent or produce rain, an easy winter or have many children.

Sacrifices are also common among “primitive” religions.  The gods in these religions are seen as active forces in the world.  The rain god, for example, may find favor in your people and send adequate rains for crops.  The fertility god may be upset with the actions of an individual and deny them children or kill the children during childbirth.  To stay in the good graces of these gods, one may need to conduct superstitious rituals, employ symbols, recite words or make sacrifices to placate them.  Even with these acts, the rains may still not come, which means the rain god is particularly upset with all your people.

We also know that many early gods, goddesses and demigods were associated with celestial objects, such as the sun, moon, planets and stars.  The patterns of the stars were seen as shapes of these important celestial beings.  Which god’s symbol was high in the sky when you were born could be seen as influential in your life.  You may be seen as related to this god and that you will take on some of this god’s abilities or features in an early, theistic version of astrology.

In time, the gods and goddesses of various aspects of the cosmos were organized and the stories of the origins of these gods, their deeds, misfortunes and interactions with humankind were told orally and eventually recorded using the earliest writing systems known to man.

Introducing the Sumerians

The earliest recognizable gods and pantheons are to be found in the written records of Sumer, which also happens to be among the earliest writings ever found, dating to between 3000 and 4000 BCE.  These writings are most often in the form of clay tablets and cylinders written using the Cuneiform script (see the top image of this article), produced by pushing a reed into the soft clay then allowing the clay to set.  Sumer was a collection of city states that followed the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in ancient Mesopotamia, today Iraq.

The Sumerian religion is rich in colorful legends and interesting stories of their gods and heroes.  It was also heavily influential on the religious beliefs of subsequent cultures such as the Akkadian empire, Babylon and arguable even Israel.  I couldn’t possibly give a full account of Sumerian religion in this article, but it’s worth mentioning a few interesting things.

The Sumerians were polytheists.  As is typical in polytheistic religions, gods are not all-powerful, perfect beings.  They are basically supernatural humans with supernatural powers and very human flaws and emotions, such as sadness, lust, anger, desire for material objects, gullibility and wrath.  They also had certain “primeval gods”, who were more like spirits of the cosmos that represent parts of the cosmos itself, such as heaven/sky (considered to be the same thing), earth, air and primordial waters.  In some cultures these primeval gods create or give birth to the gods of the pantheon.  The first Sumerian primeval god was Abzu/Apsu, who represented a cosmic “deep ocean”, as the name means.  Note that in the Babylonian and Assyrian temples there were holy water vessels known as “abzu”.  This could be the earliest inference to baptism rituals.

In the Sumerian creation story, there first was the Abzu, the great deep ocean.  Nowhere in the creation story is it told how these waters were created or if they were considered eternal.  This Abzu gave birth to the heaven(sky), represented by the god An, and earth, represented by the goddess Ki, which were united at the time.  The union of An and Ki created air, represented by Enlil.  The heaven and earth (both considered to be solid) were then separated by the expanding air created by their union.  Now in completely darkness, Enlil begot the moon goddess Nanna, who then begot the Sun god Utu.  The Sumerian pantheon is a veritable family tree of deities.

So what we have in this creation story is a flat earth covered by a dome, surrounded by primordial waters and filled with air.  Just below the earth was the Sumerian underworld, the place where all the deceased were destined, ruled by the goddess Ereshkigal, twin sister of Inanna, the lady of Heaven and one of Sumeria’s most important deities.  This leads to another interesting story.

There is a well known and well preserved story of Inanna and her descent to the underworld.  There are a few different versions of the story, but one tells of Inanna making this trip to pay her respects to the deceased husband of her twin and the ruler of the underworld, Ereshkigal.  In order to make the descent, she must pass through seven gates.  At each gate she must remove a piece of clothing or jewelry, thereby reducing her power.  By the time she passes the seventh gate, she is naked and powerless.  The laws of the underworld state that once you enter the underworld, you cannot leave.  Seven judges then sentence Inanna to death and eternity in the underworld.  She is turned into a corpse and hung on a hook.  Note the use of the number seven.  This is by no means the only time it is used in Sumerian religion.  It is a very important number, quite possibly related to the number of celestial bodies that moved along the stars: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the Moon and the Sun.  Regardless of its origins, seven will be a frequently found number in Sumerian myth, as well as other Ancient Near Eastern religions.

Inanna had instructed her servant to inform the other gods if something should go wrong during her trip to the underworld.  Dutifully obeying, her servant tells the other gods, but only Enki shows distress.  The god Enki crafts two figures out of the dirt beneath the fingernails of the gods (ewww…) and instructs them to please Ereshkigal and ask for Inanna’s corpse.  After spending three days in the underworld, Inanna was resurrected by Enki’s two figures.

The final Sumerian myth I will discuss here is quite fascinating though sadly incomplete.  It is a flood story.  The cuneiform tablets have been badly damaged and nearly two thirds of the tale is missing.  But what remains is very interesting indeed.  Here are the two largest sections that have survived, and even they are missing text:

The flood. . .
Thu[s wa]s treated . . .
Then did Nin[tu weep] like a . . .,
The pure Inanna [set up] a lament for its people,
Enki took coun[sel] with himself, Anu, Enlil, Enki, (and) Ninhursag . . . ,
The gods of heaven and earth [uttered] the name of
Anu (and) Enlil.
Then did Ziusudra, the king, the pashishu [of] . . . ,
Build a giant . . . ;
Humbly obedient, reverent|ly| [he] . . . ,
Attending daily, constantly [he] . . . ,
Bringing forth all kinds of dreams, [he] . . . ,
Uttering the name of heaven (and) earth, [he] . . .
. . . the gods a wall . . . ,
Ziusudra, standing by its side, list[ened].
“Stand by the wall I will say a word to thee, [take my word],
[Give] ear to my instruction:
by our . . . a flood [|will sweep|] over the cult centers;
To destroy the seed of mankind . . . ,
Is the decision, the word of the assembly [of the gods].
By the word commanded by Anu (and) Enlil . . . ,
Its kingship, its rule [|will be put to an end|].”

All the windstroms, exceedingly powerful, attacked as one,
At the same time, the flood sweeps| over the cult centers.
After, for seven days (and) seven nights,
The flood had |swept over| the land,
(And) the huge boat had been tossed about by the windstorms on the great waters,
Utu came forth, who sheds light on heaven (and) earth.
Ziusudra opened| a window of |the huge boat,
The hero Utu| brought his rays into| the giant boat.
Ziusudra, the king,
Prostrated himself before Utu,
The king kills an ox, slaughters a sheep.

In this story we have the gods planning a flood to destroy all the seed of mankind.  It appears as though Enki takes pity upon mankind and instructs the pious, obedient King Ziusudra to build a giant boat.  For seven days and seven nights the flood swept over the land until Utu (the sun) shone forth light as Ziusudra opens the window of the giant boat.  Ziusudra then prostrates himself before Utu then kills an ox and a sheep, presumably as a sacrifice to the gods for saving him.  This should sound very familiar to anyone who has read the Book of Genesis in the Bible.  And remember, this predates the Genesis flood narratives by at least a thousand years, likely more.   Another very interesting similarity is that in the Sumerian Kings List, those kings that reigned before the Flood are said to have reigned for tens of thousands of years, obviously implausible lengths of time.  One king, En-men-lu-ana, reigned for 43,000 years according to this legend.  Yet after the flood, the reigns were much shorter, though still quite implausible, numbering in the hundreds of years.

Sumer functioned for millenia as a collection of city-states.  But eventually the first empire would be built and the man who built it would go down in legend.

Sargon and the Akkadian Empire

It is argued by some historians that the first true empire was that of the Akkadian empire, named after its primary city Akkad, which has since been lost.  The Akkadiam empire was born of the Sumerian city states in the south of Mesopotamia and the northwestern Semitic Akkadians.   The Akkadian king to whom this conquest and uniting is credited is Sargon.  The empire was relatively short lived at just under 200 years (2334 BCE to 2154 BCE).   Akkadian religion was essentially a slightly changed form of the Sumerian religion before them (and near them).  They maintained a very similar pantheon but certain gods had different names.  For example,  Sumerian Enki was Akkadian Ea.  Other gods also came to be of more importance, such as the sun god, Shamash (the same as Utu in Sumerian).

Of more interest for this article, however, is the birth narrative of Sargon.  The date of origin for this narrative is a little difficult to narrow down, but the tablet discovered in an ancient library at Ninevah dates to about 700 BCE and it is very likely a copy of an older text, as this seems to have been the primary purpose of this library: to make copies and preserve older traditions.  So it is very unlikely that this copy is the original.  Sargon himself lived 1600 years prior so the narrative originated sometime between 2334 and 700 BCE.  Linguistically it is consistent with older Akkadian writings, which raises the probability that it was written much earlier.  But unless an older manuscript is found, it’s impossible to say exactly when it was originated.  Nonetheless, this is a translation of Sargon’s birth legend:

Sargon, the mighty king, king of Agade, am I.
My mother was a changeling, my father I knew not.
The brother(s) of my father loved the hills.
My city is Azupiranu, which is situated on the banks of the Euphrates.
My changeling mother conceived me, in secret she bore me.
She set me in a basket of rushes, with bitumen she sealed
My lid.
She cast me into the river which rose not (over) me,
The river bore me up and carried me to Akki, the
drawer of water.
Akki, the drawer of water lifted me out as he dipped his
Akki, the drawer of water, [took me] as his son
(and) reared me.

In short, the story is that Sargon was born the illegitimate son of a priestess.  To hide this scandal, she placed the babe in a basket sealed with bitumen which was later found by Akki the drawer of water.  It is believed that this tale was written to show that Sargon was a man of the people rather than of the divine as many other kings of the ancient world were considered.

The obvious connection here is that of the story of Moses being placed on the Nile in the same manner.  It’s actually difficult to say if one narrative influenced the other but if that’s the case, the probability is higher that the Sargon narrative influenced the Moses narrative, based simply on the age of available manuscripts.  However it’s also possible that they were both inspired by an even earlier narrative.  It’s also possible that this was a relatively common folk tale in ancient river cultures such as Egypt and Mesopotamia.

Enter the Babylonians

A direct descendant of Sumerian religion is the Babylonian mythos which has its own Flood myth, similar to and probably adapted from the Sumerians.  In the poem, “The Epic of Gilgamesh”, the hero is Utnapishtim, who is warned by the god “Ea” that the other gods under the influence of the god Enlil were planning to annihilate mankind with a flood.  Ea tells Utnapishtim to forget about his home and to build a large boat on which to take his possessions, family, craftsmen and animals of the land.  The Flood comes and lasts 7 days and 7 nights, as the gods (other than Enlil) lament the decision.  Utnapishtim then releases a dove, then a sparrow, both of which return.  The raven, however, finds land and does not return.  Utnapishtim releases the animals and makes a sacrifice to the gods.  The gods enjoy the smell and are pleased, except for Enlil, whose idea it was to destroy mankind.  Ishtar (formerly Inanna) declares that she will never forget these days.

The religion of Babylon is also interesting because it shows us how religions changed and developed over time in the Ancient Near East.  One positive aspect of polytheism is its natural inclusiveness.  If you live in a polytheistic culture and come into contact with another, since having many gods is not a problem you are free to simply include the gods of the other culture.  You may also conclude that one of your gods is the very same god as one in the other culture, just under a different name.  This was especially common when relationships between cultures were positive and mutually beneficial.  If the relationship between the cultures was adversarial, say one culture conquers another, then something different could happen.  The chief deities of the conquering culture would often assimilate the deities of the conquered.  The conquering deity is thus “strengthened”, as it takes on the attributes of the conquered deity.

Changes could even occur within the pantheons of the same culture over time.  In the Ancient Near East, it was common for there to be patron deities of cities or regions.  For example, in Sumeria the major cities had their own patron deities. For the city of Ur it was Nanna, Shuruppak’s was Ninlil, Uruk may have been Inanna or Anu at different times, and Eridu’s was Enki.  The relative importance of various deities may depend on many factors, including the power and political influence of the cities, rulers and even temples and priests.

In Babylon, the patron deity would become Marduk.  The city of Babylon was relatively unimportant politically and economically during the Sumerian and Akkadian days.  The king Hammurabi, whom the now legendary “Code of Hammurabi” is named after, is said to have turned Babylon into a more populous city with advances in architecture, one of the first major law codes and a greater focus on religion.  Babylon became a holy city and the center of an empire.  As it did, Marduk became a greater god.

Marduk’s story is best told in the Babylonian Creation myth, the Enuma Elish.  It tells of Marduk’s conquests in a cosmic civil war, his taming of the primordial seas, the creation of a firmament and flat earth, the creation of mankind, the stars and heavenly bodies and their regular patterns (the calendar).  This narrative illustrates Marduk’s power and superiority over all other gods.  It does not deny the existence of other gods, merely places Marduk clearly and firmly above them.  The Enuma Elish is a religious writing that “fixes” earlier Sumerian and Akkadian writings.  When an author writes a story or narrative that “fixes” or changes a story to suit their own beliefs this is called a “redaction”.  Basically, this is the author saying, “No, that’s not how it happened.  This story doesn’t mention Marduk.  I should fix this.”   This was a very common practice in the Ancient Near East and even into the first few centuries CE.

The religious influence of Babylon saw the spread of Marduk worship even into cities with other patron deities where according to their mythology, Marduk assumed the power of those deities.  The two most prominent were the gods Ea (considered to be Marduk’s father) and Enlil.  The story says that Ea, recognizing Marduk’s superior power, willingly passed the torch to his son, thereby eclipsing Ea in both importance and power.  With Enlil, however, there was resistance.  Enlil was a very important deity for many people, particularly in the city of Nippur, formerly the largest and most influential Mesopotamian city state.  The assumption of Enlil’s power came at Enlil’s expense, as opposed to the more peaceful assumption of Ea.

This is typical of Ancient Near Eastern religions.  Formerly unimportant or even unknown gods would rise to the top of a pantheon if that god’s people, city or nation grew in power or influence.  This could be a peaceful transition where the god simply moves in and the old gods willingly hand over power, or it could be violent where the people of the rising god would conquer those of the rival god.  Gods between different regions would be shared, traded and even equated with each other.  This is why the pantheons of the ancient world are more like giant patchwork quilts rather than distinct, entirely different pantheons.

The Religion of Canaan

The last of the Ancient Near Eastern religions we will examine is that of ancient Israel itself.  Still older than any Biblical manuscript yet discovered are the clay tablets discovered in the 1930’s at Ras Shamra or the ancient city of Ugarit in Canaan.  There are many clay tablets written in a Semitic cuneiform language.  The words bear strong resemblance to early Hebrew but are written using the same methods as Sumerians and Babylonians.

The Canaanites, like the Babylonians and Sumerians, were polytheists who worshiped many gods, some of which are directly influenced by or even borrowed from Babylonian, Assyrian, Egyptian and even earlier Sumerian pantheons.

The Canaanite pantheon was headed by the creator god “El”.  This was a personal name for the ultimate Creator.  His consort/wife was “Asherah”.  El and Asherah had 70 sons, known as the “sons of El” or also as the “elohim”.  El had many epithets or alternate names, such as “Toru El” which translates to “Bull El”, “creator of creatures”, “father of the gods”, “creator eternal”, “Father of years” and “El the warrior”.

Among the 70 sons of El were various major gods of the Canaanite pantheon, such as Dagon, Mot, Yam, Yarikh, Kothar-wa-Kasis, Molech, and most importantly Ba’al (Hadad).  They also had female goddesses such as Anat, Astarte (the Canaanite version of Ishtar/Inanna), Nikkal and Qetesh.

Slight variations to this also seemed to exist along the borders of Canaan, such as among the Moabites whose favorite deity was Chemosh, the Ammonites, Assyrians (whose primary deity was Ashur) and others.

El was seen as the overseer god who created all things, who with Asherah created the other gods, but who left the rest of the business to the lesser gods.  El and his subordinate gods formed what is called in the Ugarit tablets as “The divine council” or the “council of El”.  El is depicted as living on a mountain and conducting divine meetings in tents.

El’s superior position would come to be challenged, however.  Ba’al became such a popular deity in Canaan that a story was developed to show his rise in power to become a rival to El in stature.  Stories involving Ba’al gaining superiority over El begin to have a similar tone as those of Marduk being passed the torch by the god Ea.

This is the very pagan religion in Canaan that is declared wicked by the Torah and it will become very important in subsequent “Picking at Threads” posts.


In summary, we have evidence for religious beliefs and practices that go back tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of years.  The very earliest written historical documents of the Sumerians often involve their religious beliefs and pre-date Israel by thousands of years.  It is obvious that they were influential to the subsequent Akkadian and Babylonian empires and religious systems as well as the Canaanite religion as well.  In fact, you can see influence of various surrounding religions in the Canaanite mythos.

Gods were traded, equated and assimilated.  Some rose to power while others relinquished that power or had it taken from them.  Gods assumed the powers, features, descriptions and roles of the gods they conquered or assimilated, and there was occasionally resistance to these major theological shifts.

The Canaanite religion is perhaps the most interesting of all.  Its head deity El, his competitor Ba’al and the other sons of El will be major figures in coming articles.  This pagan culture was the birthplace of Israel, Judaism and thus the background of Christianity as well.  We have now covered some of what we know of Ancient Near Eastern religions and how they influenced each other as well as some of their stories, legends, myths and gods.

In the next article (Part 3), we will have our first look at the bible, in particular the Torah, also known as the Pentateuch: the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy.  I’m going to approach it objectively and as academically as I am able and according to current research.  Then in Part 4 we will combine what we know from Parts 2 & 3 to see if we can learn a few new things about the bible and Judaism.



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