The Human Journey
Pre-Axial Thought Introduction

Pre-Axial Thought


Pages 12345

mosaic from Ur with blue background
The Standard of Ur mosaic is made of red limestone, bitumen, lapis lazuli, and shell, probably depicting peacetime, from the royal tombs of Ur.

The later Marduk Ziggurat, or Etemenanki, “The Foundation of Heaven and Earth” of Babylon measured 298.48 feet (91 meters) in height with a square base also of 298.48 feet on each side. Exteriors of these temples were often faced with fired bricks glazed with different colors that may have had astrological significance.

drawing of the Marduk Ziggurat
Reconstruction of Etemenanki, based on Schmid

Access to the topmost shrine where the god dwelt was provided by a series of ramps on one side of the structure, or by means of a spiral ramp from the base to the summit. Only those of the priesthood were allowed inside and to them was given the responsibility of caring for the god and attending to his/her needs. One practical function of the ziggurats was that they provided a high place on which the priesthood could escape the rising water that annually inundated lowlands and occasionally flooded for hundreds of miles.

Another practical function of the ziggurat was for security. Since the shrine was accessible only by way of stairways, a small number of guards could prevent anyone else but the chosen few from entering the sacred shrine on top.

The hereditary kings of Babylonia and Assyria were also the chief priests and were regarded as intermediaries between the gods and the people; they were divinely authorized to rule. “According to Mesopotamian cosmology, the universe had once been on the brink of chaos, but fortunately kingship was then invented, which meant that gods who favored order could be rallied to defeat an older generation of gods who didn’t.” (Wright, Robert, The Evolution of God, p. 75.)

As kings conquered and absorbed city-states, their gods too were absorbed into each other, with characteristics and qualities merging into a single deity. As monarchs became more and more powerful, one or two began to see himself as a deity. The first ruler who declared himself divine was Naram-Sin of Akkad who reigned sometime during the 23rd century. After Naram-Sin no ruler declared himself divine for about two centuries, when Shulgi, the second king of the Third Dynasty of Ur, took up the custom of self-deification in an attempt to consolidate the empire he had inherited from his father Ur-Nammu. The trend of the powerful to assume or be awarded god-like stature is one that will show up again and again in our human journey.

drawing of Marduk and a Dragon
Marduk and his dragon Mushussu, from a Babylonian cylinder seal.

During the reign of Hammurabi in the 18th century BCE, Babylon became the principal city of southern Mesopotamia, and the patron deity of Babylon, the god Marduk, was elevated to the level of supreme god. Marduk eventually became head of the Mesopotamian pantheon, absorbing the qualities and characteristics of over 50 deities; his ascension is one of the first indications of what would eventually become monotheism.

To illustrate how the rise of Marduk came about, the Enuma Elish (“When above”) was created by the Babylonian priests to sing the praises of Babylon and to strengthen her claim to supremacy over all the cities of the land. (Heidel, Alexander, Univ. Chicago.) Although the oldest extant copies date to 1000 BCE, it was likely written in the First Babylonian Dynasty (1894-1595 BCE) during the reign of Hammurabi when Marduk became the national god.

The Mesopotamians recited, or chanted, their epics at special times to honor the god in question. The effect was hauntingly rhythmic and believed to have great power to exorcise evil spirits, to stem the potential inundation of the city by the rise of the rivers once the snows had melted, and so on.

This website collects recordings of modern Assyriologists reading ancient Babylonian and Assyrian poetry and literature aloud in the original language. It is the first undertaking of its kind.

According to the Enuma Elish (Enûma Eliš), Marduk demanded supreme and undisputed authority among the gods as his reward for delivering them from disaster. He proved worthy and was granted “kingship over the totality of the whole universe.” The city of Babylon and Marduk’s great temple complex, the Esagila, south of the ziggurat Etemenanki, was built by the Anunnaki (a general designation for all the gods of heaven and earth) in gratitude to Marduk for their deliverance. After its completion, a joyful banquet took place at which attendees recited the fifty names previously attributed to various gods, which were now passed on to Marduk with all their attributes and abilities, making “his way pre-eminent.”

Marduk, as creator of the present world order, was honored every New Year in a sacred festival at which Babylonians believed the great pantheon of gods actually entered the city in order to honor him. As part of the festivities the Enuma Elish was read twice by the high priest as he stood before the statue of the god Marduk while the king and guests are thought to have dramatized the narration.

As previously mentioned, it is not possible to assert the dates of any of these creations since they were written and rewritten, and must originally have stemmed from oral sources. Stories, such as the creation story, were revised to suit the times but earlier versions were retained. Scholars claim that all the tablets found in Ashurbanipal’s library at Nineveh or from the cities of Ashur, Kish or Uruk are copies of older ones.

From 668-627 BCE in the time of Ašhurbanipal and the Neo-Babylonian Dynasty and again in the Early Persian period of Cyrus the Great, Marduk was the chief god of Babylon. Because they opposed the oppressive measures of Nabonidus, the last Neo-Babylonian king, the priests of Marduk facilitated the peaceful occupation of Babylon by Cyrus. With Cyrus and the Persians came the teachings of Zoroaster, which claimed Ahura Mazda as the Supreme True God. These two ways of understanding the universe and our place in it would influence Judeo-Christian thought from its first recorded beginnings to the present day.

In 587 BCE Nebuchadnezzar the Babylonian king, son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, violently ransacked Judah, the capital of Ancient Israel and took the young king Jehoiachin and 8,000 of his people, including royal and aristocratic families, prisoners to Babylon. The now famous Babylonian Exile left little doubt in the minds of the people of Babylonia of the supreme power of their own national god, Marduk.


On December 3, 1872, the Assyriologist G. Smith astounded the London Society for Biblical Archaeology with the news that he had discovered on a cuneiform tablet an account of the Flood that was so similar to that of the biblical book of Genesis that its influence could not be denied.

clay tablet
The Deluge tablet of the Gilgamesh epic in Akkadian.

The Flood story in the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh found on 12 tablets at Nineveh is very close to the biblical one, but it predates the Bible story by at least 2,000 years. The Izdubar (or “Gilgamesh”) legends included not only the Story of the Flood, but the story of the Tower of Babel and of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah as well, all originally written down at least as early as 2000 BCE from an oral tradition that was very much older.

Like Moses, Sargon, the Akkadian king who unified Sumer, was found in a reed basket that was flowing up a river and brought up under the protection of the high priestess of Inanna, who was more than likely, a royal princess.

The high point of Babylonian civilization was the rule of Hammurabi (around 1700 BCE). From his reign, we have the first written record of a legal code, which most likely was established through oral tradition long before: the Law Code of Hammurabi, written 1,200 years before the Israelites, while exiled in Babylon, wrote down their Ten Commandments.

Click to view the map of Babylon

From their cuneiform writings on clay tablets scholars know that the Mesopotamians, like the later Greeks, attempted to understand their world and the universe in any way they could.

We find antecedents of Greek philosophy in early Mesopotamian wisdom, in their forms of dialectic, dialogs, epic poetry, folklore, hymns, lyrics, prose works, and proverbs. Disputations or literary debates were a popular form of exchange. A kind of literary tournament involved two people who represented prototypes of a similar sort. By turns each presented its own qualities, advantages and credentials until one was declared the winner: it might be “Summer versus Winter,” “Bird versus Fish,” “Tree versus Reed,” “Silver versus Copper,“ “Ox versus Horse,” and so on. As the Assyriologist Professor Jean Bottéro notes, “behind the mental games and the endemic passion of the ‘duel of prestige’ there lies a real analysis of the objects presented, always with the same care to dissect, to compare, to classify, to understand things.

Mesopotamians created an “encyclopedia” compiled in the first half of the second millennium, which contained nearly ten thousand entries that classified and organized, for example, “all the known trees and objects usually made of wood; all the reed implements; clay containers; skins and articles in leather; various metals and what is made of them; animals, both domesticated and wild; parts of the body; stones and objects in stone; plants other than trees; fish and birds; fibers, fabrics and clothes; all that can be found on the face of the earth – cities and dwelling places, mountains and waterways, in Mesopotamia itself and in the surrounding areas; and finally all things, natural and prepared, that were used as foodstuffs.” (Bottéro)

Cuneiform tablet
Cuneiform: Sumerian inscription in monumental archaic style, c. 26th century BCE

Their cuneiform writing was based on pictography – so the idea of representing an object with another object was current and powerful. By drawing a foot you could conjure walking, moving, standing up or transport.   By extension, everything the gods produced to make the world function as they wished became “their script.”  So, when an unexpected event happened it was interpreted to mean that the gods were writing an equally unusual outcome – or destiny.  And you could only determine what that was if you could interpret the abnormal phenomenon in question in all its detail.  Consequently, many tablets found are examples of deductive divination, omens and predictions. One example Bottéro gives from what he calls an “enormous  treatise on divination” is “If a horse attempts to mount a cow: there will be a decline of the land.”

The movements of the stars and meteorites were obviously significant affecting births both of animals and of humans, crops and health; behaviors both human and animal, accidents, and of course dreams were all portentous.

A discourse between a master and his slave, The Dialogue of Pessimism (c 1000 BCE) is, on an obvious level, either a negative view of existence that basically states that any action is counteracted by non-action and is eventually futile, or a satire on the relationship between an indolent master and his far-wiser servant; but, as Professor Jean Bottéro suggests in his book Mesopotamia: Writing, Reasoning, and the Gods, it was also a vehicle through which to stimulate the mind: “a fundamental indication for us to go beyond the text itself.” When we allow that to happen, an affiliation with Socratic dialogue is evident. By simultaneously comprehending a thesis and its antithesis, individuals would be able to access an intuitive ability – a change in consciousness.

Here is a sample of the work:

From an edition of the text by W.G. Lambert in 1960 in his masterly work Babylonian Wisdom Literature , pp. 139-140.


- Slave, listen to me!
- Here I am, master, here I am!
- Quick! Fetch me water for my hands and give it to me. I want to sacrifice to my god.
- Sacrifice, master, sacrifice! The man who sacrifices to his god is satisfied at heart. He accumulates benefit after benefit.
- O well, slave, I do not want to sacrifice to my god!
- Do not sacrifice, master, do not sacrifice! You will teach your god to run after you like a dog. Whether he asks of you “Rites” or “Do you not consult your god?” or anything else!


- Slave, listen to me!
- Here I am, master, here I am!
- I want to perform a public benefit for my country!
- So do it, master, do it! The man who performs a public benefit for his country His actions are exposed to the circle of Marduk!
- O well, slave, I do not want to perform a public benefit for my country!
- Do not perform, master, do not perform! Go up the ancient tells and walk about. See the mixed skulls of plebeians and nobles. Which is the malefactor and which is the benefactor?


- Slave, listen to me!
- Here I am, master, here I am!
- What then is good? To have my neck and yours broken, Or to be thrown into the river, is that good?
- Who is so tall as to ascend to heaven? Who is so broad as to encompass the entire world?
- O well, slave, I will kill you and send you first! -
- Yes, but my master would certainly not survive me for three days!...