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18th-5th century BCE

Index / Religions / Historical /
Mesopotamia / Religions /
Babylonian and Assyrian religion

Detailed articleBabylonian religion
Detailed articleAssyrian religion
Detailed articleMesopotamian gods and goddesses

Babylonian and Assyrian religion coexisted as belief systems for a period of 1300 years, from the 18th century until the 5th century BCE. The belief systems were in competition, and claimed their assets through a focus on qualities and functions, rather than through absolute ownership of the truth.
We know the most about Babylonian religion, but Assyrian religion is very similar in terms of its world view, and its view of humans, of society, and of cult practices and of sacred buildings. The only true difference was with the god revered as supreme among in the divine pantheon. The Assyrians preferred Ashur to the Babylonian Marduk.
Babylonian religion was a continuation of Sumerian religion, with the major change being that their god Marduk was placed on top of the Sumerian pantheon. The older gods of Enki and Enlil remained important gods.

Babylonian gods were represented as humans, but were defined with superhuman powers. They were in principle immortal, although a god could be killed. As with other pantheons, each god controlled certain aspects of the cosmos, and cults were arranged accordingly.
Beneath Marduk there was a group of popular and important gods. Ea was the god of wisdom, spells and incantations. Sin was the moon god. Shamash was the god of the sun and of justice. Ishtar was the unreliable goddess of love and war.
Under the gods and goddesses there were deities of the underworld; demons, devils, monsters. There were a few good spirits as well.

Temples and Cult
The main gods were revered at large temples; every major city had one. Villages most probably had shrines of some sort. In general, Babylonian and Assyrian religion assumed that a god or a goddess needed a home, or at least a place where humans could communicate with him or her.
Around the 7th century BCE there were as many as 50 temples in Babylon.
The organization of a Babylonian/Assyrian temple had similarities to contemporary Egyptian temples. There was an open court with fountains for ablution and altars for sacrifices. The indoor parts of the temple contained the dwellings of the god. The god was represented with a statue, and only very few could enter this precinct.
The greatest temples of Babylonia were ziggurats, a sort of step-pyramid. On top of a ziggurat, a sanctuary was placed.
In order to keep the temples functioning, they were provided upon construction with the ownership of land. As gifts were given to the temples, the temples would develop into wealthy organizations, possessing political importance.
In the temples, there were daily ceremonies. More important were the monthly and yearly rituals. The most important festival was the New Year Festival, known as Akitu. This festival lasted for 11 days, and was celebrated in the most lavish ways. The festival concluded in the sacred marriage.
In times of hardship a Babylonian or Assyrian would place his or her problems in front of the chosen god(dess) with great humility, to confess sins and to hope for the help of the deity.
Ethics in Babylonian and Assyrian religion was linked to actions directed towards a society of peace. The ethical system could be deemed humanistic, in which caring for other people was central.
Death and afterlife in Babylonian and Assyrian religion was not viewed in an optimistic light. The view was that the spirit of the deceased would enter the underworld. There was no Paradise or hope for any rewards for the righteous.

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By Tore Kjeilen