The Gods and Goddesses of the Ancient Near East
Updated: Nov 25, 2022
In this DW World History blog we are going to tackle the gods and goddesses of the Ancient Near East! We'll focus on how the Sumerians viewed the world and discuss how these deities related to each other and reveal how the Babylonians continued and modified these gods.
I. The Sumerian World View
Before we can begin with the gods, we must understand how the ancient people of the Near East viewed the world. Scientifically speaking, their ideas about the universe were rudimentary and superficial at most. In the eyes of the Sumerian philosophers, the major components of the universe were heaven and earth. In the beginning there was just the primeval sea. The indications are that they looked upon the sea as a kind of first cause and prime mover, and they never asked themselves what preceded the sea in time and space. In this primeval sea, the heaven and earth were formed, with the primeval sea surrounding the heaven-earth on all sides, including the top and bottom. A firm bowl (the firma-ment) kept the upper waters back from the earth, but the sky had gates that opened and allowed the rain and snow through.
To them the earth was a flat disk surrounded by this body of salt water. Under the earth was a body of fresh water, while the earth stood firm on pillars sunk into the waters, like the pilings of a pier. Deep below the earth was the underworld, the abode of the dead.
Their world view was a phenomenological representation. Think about this way.. if you are standing in an open field, you see the sky as a disc and the land as flat. At the edge of the land is the sea, the salt water; but if you dig far enough down, you find water: the fresh water.
Between heaven and earth they recognized a substance which they called lil, a word whose approximate meaning is wind, air, breath, spirit; basically the atmosphere. The sun, moon, planets, and stars were a part of this atmosphere, but with a quality of luminosity.
Following the separation of heaven and earth and the creation of light-giving astral bodies, plant, animal, and human life came into existence. Operating, directing, and supervising this universe, was a pantheon consisting of a group of living beings, manlike in form but superhuman and immortal who, though invisible to the mortal eye, were guiding, and controlling the cosmos in accordance with well laid plans and duly prescribed laws. The great realms of heaven, earth, sea, and air; the major astral bodies, sun, moon, and planets; such atmospheric forces such as wind, storm, and tempest; and finally, on earth, such natural entities as river, mountain, and field were all controlled by different superhuman immortal beings that the Sumerians designated as dinger, which we translated by the word 'god'. Everything was controlled by a god, including emotions and human urges. Each city had its own god and each of these gods had their own temples with their own priesthoods.
The gods constituting the pantheon did not have the same importance or equal rank. The god in charge of the pickax or brick mold could hardly be expected to compare with the god in charge of the sun. Nor could the god in charge of the dikes and ditches be expected to equal in rank the god in charge of the earth as a whole. The Sumerian pantheon was conceived as functioning as an assembly with a king at its head; the most important groups in this assembly consisted of seven gods who 'decreed the fates' and fifty gods known as 'the great gods'. But a more significant division set up by the Sumerian theologians within their pantheon was that between creative and noncreative deities, a notion arrived at as a result of their cosmological views. According to these views, the basic components of the cosmos were heaven and earth, sea and atmosphere; every other cosmic phenomenon existed only within one or another of these realms. As a result, it seemed reasonable to infer that the deities in control of heaven, earth, sea, and air were the creative gods and that one or another of these four deities created every other cosmic entity in accordance with plans originated by them.
The Sumerian gods, as illustrated graphically by the Sumerian myths, were entirely anthropomorphic; even the most powerful and most knowing among them were conceived as human in form, thought, and deed. Like man, they planned and acted, ate and drank, married and raised families, supported large households, and were addicted to human passions and weaknesses. By and large they preferred truth and justice to falsehood and oppression, but their motives were by no means clear, and man was often at a loss to understand them. They were thought to live on the 'mountain of heaven and earth, the place where the sun rose,' at least, presumably, when their presence was not necessary in the particular cosmic entities over which they had charge. Just how they traveled is by no means certain from the available data, although we know that the moon god traveled in a boat: the sun god and by chariot, or according to another version, on foot; and the storm god by clouds. Boats were frequently used. But the Sumerian thinkers seem not to have troubled themselves too much with such practical and realistic problems; and so we are not informed about the way in which the gods were supposed to arrive at their various temples and shrines in Sumer and in what fashion they actually performed such human activities as eating and drinking.
The ancient Mesopotamians believed that their deities lived in Heaven, after an earlier history of visiting earth in the mythological texts, and that a god's statue was a physical embodim