The Human Journey
Pre-Axial Thought Introduction

Pre-Axial Thought


Pages 12345

Clay tablet with a large man and 3 smaller people
Tablet of Shamas (relief). Shamash (Babylonian) or Utu (Sumerian) is the sun god of Sumerian mythology and the son of the moon god Nanna and the goddess Ningal.

To the Mesopotamians the god was present in an object and caused it to be, thrive and flourish. The Sumerian word both for “sun” itself and the invisible, august and powerful deity within it was Utu and the moon god was Nanna, which is also the word for “moon.” Unlike the idea of a transcendent god or gods, for the Mesopotamians “The Numinous was the indwelling spirit and power of many phenomena and situations and it differed with each of them. Thus ancient Mesopotamian religion was conditioned to a pluralistic view, to polytheism, and to the multitude of gods and divine aspects that each recognized.” (Jacobsen, Thorkild, The Treasures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion.)

impression in clay of
Impression of the cylinder seal of Ḫašḫamer, Governor of Sin at Iškun-Sin, c. 2100 BCE. The seated figure may be a king, bestowing the governorship on Ḫašḫamer, who is led before him by a lamma (protective goddess). Nanna himself is present in the form of a crescent.

So, like the Greeks seven centuries later, the Mesopotamians believed in a pantheon of gods. There were deities connected with various professions – such as scribes and builders – “Mesopotamia had gods for everything from brickmaking to brewing” even including, apparently, a Lord of Livestock Pens! (Wright, Robert, The Evolution of God.) Each city-state had its own patron god or goddess who belonged to this pantheon, such as:

Anu, representing the sky and the patron god of Erech (Uruk) and Der
Enlil (Bel), the god of air and the patron deity of the city of Nippur
Enki (Aa or Ea), the god of the fresh groundwater (Apsu) and of the city of Eridu
Ninhurshag, the mother goddess and the goddess of Kish
Nanna (Sin), the moon god of Ur and father of the sun (Utu)
Utu (the sun), the patron deity of the city of Larsam
Inanna, the war and love goddess and patron of Unug and Zabalam
Ishtar, a goddess of love and of war and the patron of Agade, Nineveh and Arbela
Nina, another goddess like Ishtar at Nina
Hadad or Rimmon (the storm god), the god at Muri, Ennigi and Kakru
Nergal (Mars), a plague and war god at Cuthah
Allatu (Erishkigal), the goddess of the underworld

In order to insure the presence of this power, the gods were provided with “a place.” Thus, divine images were fashioned which became the gods themselves. Participants in cult dramas actually became the god(s) in question – literally a re-presentation that is able to “fulfill the divine will with all its beneficent results for the community.” (Jacobsen, Thorkild.) The creative power of the word itself was also a way to evoke the gods, particularly in the early periods. Literature of praise and lament, of myths, epics and disputations, all activated their latent supernatural power.

Similarly worshippers could create statues of themselves to stand in perpetual prayer on their behalf before the god or goddess to whom the sanctuary was dedicated. When the temples were renovated, those statues that had fallen into disrepair or outlived the terms of their dedication were carefully buried within the building.

Stone statues of worshippers standing hands clasped
Worshipper Statues, limestone, gypsum - Early Dynastic Period, c. 2900-2500 BCE, Diyala River Valley. These carved stone figures, their eyes wide with awe and their hands clasped in reverence, were placed in Mesopotamian temples by worshippers to stand in perpetual prayer on their behalf before the god or goddess to whom the sanctuary was dedicated. (From:

Above all, the temple house was built to achieve and insure the divine presence. Just as the owner of a house would be present in his home, the god’s presence and power filled the house. As the place of the god, the temple was sacred, awesome, set apart from the secular activities of the world and visited only by the priesthood. Every temple was different, since every temple held an individual god, its presence reflecting the specific nature and function of that god – an embodiment.

There was a hierarchy in the world of the gods and only those who controlled the fundamental way the universe ran were considered major deities. Enki, the god of fresh water and Lord of Wisdom, was one as were the gods of the sky, the sun and the air. Although these gods were served and revered by everyone, they were quite distant and unconnected to ordinary life. The bridging of the cosmic world of the gods and the personal world of the individual seems to have appeared first in Mesopotamia towards the end of the third millennium BCE.

Ordinary people depended on a relationship with their own personal god for protection and to intercede for them with the great deities. This personal god was not part of the public face of religion but confined to the individual. It was concerned with his good or bad luck, his success or lack of it. In fact, the Akkadian term to describe luck and good fortune was: “to acquire a god.” According to Jacobsen, this proverb expresses the Mesopotamian idea of the personal god and it also gives us another example of how the orderly life was appreciated: “When you plan ahead your god is yours, when you do not plan ahead your god is not yours.” Obviously, misfortune or lack of success meant that the god had left – perhaps angry and so punishing the person. From this notion the idea of a parental deity evolved. But with a difference, of course: these parents were and had to remain, divine. And their children would sometimes have to suffer because of the impersonal nature of divinity.

The divine mind is remote
Like the utmost of the heavens
Knowledge of it is arduous,
People are uninformed.
(Gudea, Cylinder B)

Human failures and mistakes called forth divine punishment on a national scale with no recourse. The Mesopotamians believed that the gods created humans so that we could carry on their work. Hence, idleness was not encouraged, which is not surprising since survival between the Tigris and the Euphrates certainly depended on labor. The region between the two rivers was subject to destructive seasonal flooding which had to be controlled. As a result, people acquired the skills they needed to construct levees and develop a system of irrigation canals so that families could form communities and build city-states, and settle within the walls where they could connect with their gods in safety.

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