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Religions of the ancient Near East


Religions of the ancient Near East

The religions of the ancient Near East were mostly polytheistic, with some early examples of primitive monolatry (Mardukites), Ashurism and Monism (Atenism). Some scholars believe that the similarities between these religions indicate that the religions are related, a belief known as patternism.[1]

The Luwian and Hittite pantheons of Asia Minor exerted a strong influence on the ancient Greek religion, while the Sumero-Akkadian-Assyro-Babylonian religion influenced Achaemenid-era Zoroastrianism and Judaism, and together with Egyptian and Greek traditions, in turn strongly influenced Christianity, Mandeanism and Islam.


  • Overview 1
  • Mesopotamia 2
    • Astrology 2.1
    • Ethic 2.2
    • Demonology 2.3
    • Later influence 2.4
  • Egypt 3
  • Levant 4
  • Anatolia 5
  • Books 6
    • General 6.1
    • Canaan and Ugarit 6.2
  • See also 7
  • References 8
  • External links 9


The history of the ancient Near East spans more than two millennia, from the Bronze Age to the Early Iron Age, in the region now known as the Middle East, centered around the Fertile Crescent. There was much cultural contact, so that it is justified to summarize the whole region under a single term, but that does not mean, of course, that each historical period and each region should not be looked at individually for a detailed description. This article will attempt to outline the common traits of ancient Near Eastern religions, and refer to sub-articles for in-depth descriptions.

The ancient Near East includes the following subregions:

The earliest sources, from c. 2500 BC, allow glimpses of Mesopotamian mythology and Egyptian religion.

The early Hittite religion bore traits descended from Proto-Indo-European religion, but the later Hittite religions became more and more assimilated to Semitic Assyria.

Ancient Greek religion was strongly influenced by ancient Near Eastern mythology, but is usually not included in the term. The Mystery religions of Hellenism were again consciously connected with Egyptian religion.

There are broad practices that these religions often hold in common:

Typically, ancient Near Eastern religions were centered around theocracies, with a dominating regional cult of the god of a city-state. There were also super-regional mythemes and deities, such as the God Tammuz and the descent to the underworld.



Impression of the cylinder seal of Ḫašḫamer, patesi (High Priest) of Sin at Iškun-Sin, c. 2400 BC


Identification of the Gods and Goddesses with heavenly bodies — planets and stars, besides Sun and Moon — and to assigning the seats of all the deities in the Heavens is found in Assyro-Babylonian religion.

The personification of the two great luminaries — the Sun and the Moon — was the first step in the unfolding of this system, and this was followed by placing the other deities where Shamash and Sin had their seats. This process, which reached its culmination in the post-Hammurabic period, led to identifying the planet Venus with Ishtar, Jupiter with Marduk, Mars with Nergal, Mercury with Nabu, and Saturn with Ninurta.

The system represents a harmonious combination of two factors, one of popular origin, the other the outcome of speculation in the schools attached to the temples of Babylonia. The popular factor is the belief in the influence exerted by the movements of the heavenly bodies on occurrences on earth — a belief naturally suggested by the dependence of life, vegetation and guidance upon the two great luminaries. Starting with this belief the Priests and Priestesses built up the theory of the close correspondence between occurrences on earth and phenomena in the Heavens. The Heavens presenting a constant change even to the superficial observer, the conclusion was drawn of a connection between the changes and the ever-changing movement in the fate of individuals and of nature as well as in the appearance of nature.

To read the signs of the heavens was therefore to understand the meaning of occurrences on Earth, and with this accomplished, it was also possible to foretell what events were portended by the position and relationship to one another of the sun, the moon, the planets and certain stars. Myths that symbolized changes in season or occurrences in nature were projected on the heavens, which were mapped out to correspond to the divisions of the earth.

All the gods, demons and spirits had their places assigned to them in the heavens, and facts, including such as fell within the domain of political history, were interpreted in terms of astral theology. So completely did this system in the course of time sway men's minds that the cults and sects, from being an expression of animistic beliefs, took on the color derived from the "astral" interpretation of occurrences and doctrines. It left its trace in incantations, omens and hymns, and it gave birth to astronomy, which was assiduously cultivated because a knowledge of the heavens was the very foundation of the system of belief unfolded by the priests of Babylonia and Assyria.

"Chaldaean wisdom" (a misnomer, as the Chaldeans had long disappeared) became, in the classical world, the synonym of this science, which in its character was so essentially religious. The persistent prominence which astrology continued to enjoy down to the border-line of the scientific movement of our own days, and which is directly traceable to the divination methods perfected in the Euphrates valley, is a tribute to the scope and influence attained by the astral theology of the Babylonian and Assyrian priests.

As an illustration of the manner in which the doctrines of the religion were made to conform to the all-pervading astral theory, it will be sufficient to refer to the modification undergone in this process of the view developed in a very early period which apportioned the control of the universe among the three Gods Anu, Enlil and Ea. Disassociating these Gods from all local connections, Anu became the power presiding over the Heavens, to Enlil was assigned the earth and the atmosphere immediately above it, while Ea ruled over the deep. With the transfer of all the Gods to the heavens, and under the influence of the doctrine of the correspondence between the heavens and the earth, Anu, Enlil and Ea became the three "ways" (as they are called) on the heavens.

The "ways" appear in this instance to have been the designation of the ecliptic circle, which was divided into three sections or zones — a northern, a middle and a southern zone, Anu being assigned to the first, Enlil to the second, and Ea to the third zone. The astral theology of the Babylonian-Assyrian religion, while thus bearing the ear-marks of a system devised by the priests, succeeded in assimilating the beliefs which represented the earlier attempts to systematize the more popular aspects of the religion, and in this way a unification of diverse elements was secured that led to interpreting the contents and the form of the religion in terms of the astral-theological system.


On the ethical sides, the religion of Babylonia more particularly, and to a less extent that of Assyria, advances to noticeable conceptions of the qualities associated with the Gods and Goddesses and of the duties imposed on man. Shamash, the Sun-God, was invested with justice as his chief trait, Marduk is portrayed as full of mercy and kindness, and Ea is in general the protector of mankind, a father who takes them under his protection. The Gods, to be sure, are easily aroused to anger, and in some of them the dire aspects predominated, but the view becomes more and more pronounced that there is some cause always for the divine wrath. Though, in accounting for the anger of the Gods, no sharp distinction is made between moral offences and a ritualistic oversight or neglect, yet the stress laid in the hymns and prayers, as well as in the elaborate atonement ritual prescribed in order to appease the anger of the Gods, on the need of being clean and pure in the sight of the higher powers, the inculcation of a proper aspect of humility, and above all the need of confessing one's guilt and sins without any reserve — all this bears testimony to the strength which the ethical factor acquired in the domain of the Religion.

This factor appears to less advantage in the unfolding of the views concerning life after death. Throughout all periods of Babylonian-Assyrian history, the conception prevailed of a large dark cavern below the earth, not far from the Apsu— the fresh water abyss encircling and flowing underneath the earth — in which all the dead were gathered and where they led a miserable existence of inactivity, amid gloom and dust. Occasionally a favoured individual was permitted to escape from this general fate and placed in a pleasant island. It would appear also that the rulers were always singled out for divine grace, and in the earlier periods of the history, owing to the prevailing view that the rulers stood nearer to the Gods than other mortals, the kings were deified after death, and in some instances divine honours were paid to them even during their lifetime.


Main Article: Mesopotamian Demon

Ancient Near Eastern religion knew an elaborate system of benevolent, neutral and malevolent Demons (which more resembled Greek Daemons than the Christian concept of Evil Demons), and much of medicine consisted of Exorcisms, e.g. of Lamashtu, the hermaphroditic Demoness responsible for complications at childbirth and infant deaths.

In Assyrian and Babylonian mythology the seven evil Demons were known as Shedu or Lamassu, meaning "Storm-Demon". They were represented in winged bull form, derived from the colossal bulls used as protective genii of royal palaces, the name "Shed" assumed also the meaning of a propitious genius in Babylonian magical literature.[2]

Later influence

Mesopotamian empires such as the Akkadian Empire, Neo-Sumerian Empire, Old Assyrian Empire, Babylonian Empire, Middle Assyrian Empire, Neo Assyrian Empire and Neo Babylonian Empire asserted Mesopotamian dominance (particularly during the Neo Assyrian Empire 911-605 BC) from the Caucasus Mountains to Arabia and Egypt, and from Cyprus and the east Mediterranean to Persia.

Thus the influence exerted by the Assyrian-Babylonian religion was particularly profound on other Romans.

The impetus to the purification of the old Semitic polytheistic religions to which the Hebrews for a long time clung in common with their fellows — the various branches of nomadic Amorites, Canaanites, Arameans, Suteans, Chaldeans and Arabs — was largely furnished by the remarkable civilization unfolded in the Euphrates valley and in many of the traditions, myths and legends embodied in the Old Testament; traces of direct adaptation from and responses to Akkad, Assyria and Babylonia may be discerned, while the indirect influences in the domain of the prophetical books, as also in the Psalms and in the so-called "wisdom literature", are even more noteworthy. Stories in the Tanakh, Old Testament and Quran such as the Genesis creation narrative, Tower of Babel, The Great Flood and the book of Esther, as well as various biblical characters such as Noah, Nimrod, Lilith and Asnapper bear very clear influence from Assyria and Babylonia.[3][4][5]

Even when we reach the New Testament period, we have not passed entirely beyond the sphere of Babylonian-Assyrian influences. In such a movement as early Christian gnosticism, Assyrio-Babylonian elements — modified, to be sure, and transformed — are largely present, while the growth of an apocalyptic literature is ascribed with apparent justice by many scholars to the recrudescence of views, the ultimate source of which is to be found in the astral-theology of the Babylonian and Assyrian Priests.

The Assyrians began to form and adopt a distinct Eastern Rite Christianity (Church of the East), with its accompanying Syriac Literature, between the 1st and 3rd centuries AD, however native religion was still alive and well into the 4th century AD, and pockets survived into the 10th century AD and possibly as late as the 17th century in Mardin. However, the religion is now dead, and the indigenous Assyrian (a.k.a. Chaldo-Assyrian) people of northern Iraq, southeast Turkey, northeast Syria and northwest Iran, though still retaining Akkadian infused Eastern Aramaic dialects as a mother tongue, together with personal, family and tribal names harking back to their past, are now wholly Christian.


The dominant religious rituals and beliefs of ancient Egypt merged and developed over time. As an example, during the New Kingdom, the Gods Ra and Amun were syncretized into a single God, Amun-Ra.[6] Such syncretism should be distinguished from mere groupings, also referred to as "families" such as Amun, Mut, and Khonsu. Over time, Gods took part in multiple syncretic relationships, for instance, the combination of Ra and Horus into Ra-Herakty. Similarly, Ptah, Seker, and Osiris becamePtah-Seker-Osiris.


The deities worshipped in Canaanite religion during the Late Bronze Age notably included El Elyon and his sons, the Elohim, the goddess Anat and Hadad, the storm god and heroic slayer of Yam. The composition of the Hebrew Bible began centuries after the Bronze Age collapse, but many of these names are still reflected in Biblical Hebrew, especially the Elohim in the Elohist source, and the title Ba'al, originally a title of Hadad, as the rival or nemesis of Yahweh.


Seated deity, late Hittite Empire (13th century BC)

Heavily influenced by Mesopotamian mythology, the religion of the Hittites and Luwians retains noticeable Indo-European elements, for example Tarhunt the God of thunder, and his conflict with the Serpent-God Illuyanka.

Tarhunt has a son, Telepinu and a daughter, Inara. Inara is involved with the Puruli spring festival. She is a protective Goddess (dLAMMA). Ishara is a Goddess of the oath.



  • Gordon, Cyrus. The Ancient Near East, 3rd Edition, Revised. W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., New York, 1965.
  • James, E.O. The Ancient Gods: The History and Diffusion of Religion in the Ancient Near East and the Eastern Mediterranean, 1960.
  • Pritchard, James B., editor. The Ancient Near East: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures. Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1958.
  • Pritchard, James B., editor. The Ancient Near East, Volume II: A New Anthology of Texts and Pictures. Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1975.
  • Jack Sasson et al., eds., Civilizations of the Ancient Near East. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1995.
  • Smith, Morton, The Common Theology of the Ancient near East, Journal of Biblical Literature (1952).
  • van der Toorn, Karel (1995). Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible. New York: E.J. Brill.  
  • Mark S. Smith, God in translation: deities in cross-cultural discourse in the biblical world, vol. 57 of "Forschungen zum Alten Testament", Mohr Siebeck, 2008, ISBN 978-3-16-149543-4.

Canaan and Ugarit

  • Pardee, Dennis. Ritual and Cult at Ugarit. Society of Biblical Literature, Atlanta, Georgia. 2002.
  • Parker, Simon B., ed. Ugaritic Narrative Poetry. Society of Biblical Literature, U.S.A., 1997.
  • Smith, Mark S. The Ugaritic Baal Cycle, Volume I: Introduction with Text, Translation and Commentary of KTU 1.1-1.2. E.J. Brill, Leiden, the Netherlands, 1994.

See also


  1. ^ Samuel H. Hooke (1970). The Siege Perilous: Essays in Biblical Anthropology and Kindred Subjects. Ayer Publishing. p. 174.  
  2. ^ See Delitzsch, Assyrisches Handwörterbuch. pp. 60, 253, 261, 646; Jensen, Assyr.-Babyl. Mythen und Epen, 1900, p. 453; Archibald Sayce, l.c. pp. 441, 450, 463; Lenormant, l.c. pp. 48-51.
  3. ^ Julian Jaynes (2000). The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Mariner Books. Retrieved 2013-06-16.
  4. ^ Georges Contenau La Magie chez les Assyriens et les Babyloniens, Paris, 1947.
  5. ^ Harris, Stephen L. (2002). Understanding the Bible. McGraw-Hill. pp. 50–51.ISBN 9780767429160.
  6. ^ Sarah Iles Johnston, Religions of the Ancient World: A Guide, Harvard University Press 2004, p.9

External links

  • Ancient Mesopotamian Gods and Goddesses, on Oracc
  • Mespototamian Religion and Mesopotamian Pantheon on Ancient History Encyclopedia
  • ASOR (American Schools of Oriental Research), Boston University
  • University of Michigan. Traditions of Magic in Late Antiquity
  • Canaanite/Ugaritic Mythology FAQ, ver. 1.2 by Chris Siren
  • Canaan and Ancient Israel by the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
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