WORSHIP AND SINS IN MESOPOTAMIA
Individual Mesopotamians were supposed to pray daily to deities of their choice and honor them with sacrifices, hymns and incense offerings. According to one Mesopotamian Counsels of Wisdom axiom: "Reverence begets favor, sacrifice prolongs life, and prayer atones for guilt.”
Ira Spar of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “While the great gods of the pantheon were worshipped by priests at rituals in cultic centers, ordinary people had no direct contact with these deities. In their homes, they worshipped personal gods, who were conceived as divine parents and were thought to be deities who could intercede on their behalf to ensure health and protection for their families.” [Source: Spar, Ira. Metropolitan Museum of Art, April 2009, metmuseum.org \^/]
Wealthy worshipers placed inscribed jewelry and bowls next to the statues and other devotees submitted letters of complaint. During prayers, the faithful kneeled, prostrated themselves and rose holding one hand in front of the mouth or raising both hands in the air. Many people kept statuettes of gods in their house. Many houses had small niches to keep them.
The Babylonian described a sinner as "one who has eaten what is taboo to his god or goddess, who has 'no' for 'yes' or has said 'yes' for 'no,' who has pointed his finger (falsely accusing) a fellow man...caused evil to be spoken, has judged incorrectly, oppressed the weak, estranged a son from his father or a friend from a friend, who has nor freed the captive..." Sins could be absolved by a penitential psalm, prayer or lament or an expiatory sacrifice in which a "lamb is substitute for man." Demons were exorcized by a priest who transferred the demon to a wax or wooden figure that was thrown in a fire. [ World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder, Facts on File Publications, New York]
Websites and Resources on Mesopotamia: Ancient History Encyclopedia ancient.eu.com/Mesopotamia ; Mesopotamia University of Chicago site mesopotamia.lib.uchicago.edu; British Museum mesopotamia.co.uk ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Mesopotamia sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Louvre louvre.fr/llv/oeuvres/detail_periode.jsp ; Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org/toah ; University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology penn.museum/sites/iraq ; Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago uchicago.edu/museum/highlights/meso ; Iraq Museum Database oi.uchicago.edu/OI/IRAQ/dbfiles/Iraqdatabasehome ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; ABZU etana.org/abzubib; Oriental Institute Virtual Museum oi.uchicago.edu/virtualtour ; Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur oi.uchicago.edu/museum-exhibits ; Ancient Near Eastern Art Metropolitan Museum of Art www.metmuseum.org
Archaeology News and Resources: Anthropology.net anthropology.net : serves the online community interested in anthropology and archaeology; archaeologica.org archaeologica.org is good source for archaeological news and information. Archaeology in Europe archeurope.com features educational resources, original material on many archaeological subjects and has information on archaeological events, study tours, field trips and archaeological courses, links to web sites and articles; Archaeology magazine archaeology.org has archaeology news and articles and is a publication of the Archaeological Institute of America; Archaeology News Network archaeologynewsnetwork is a non-profit, online open access, pro- community news website on archaeology; British Archaeology magazine british-archaeology-magazine is an excellent source published by the Council for British Archaeology; Current Archaeology magazine archaeology.co.uk is produced by the UK’s leading archaeology magazine; HeritageDaily heritagedaily.com is an online heritage and archaeology magazine, highlighting the latest news and new discoveries; Livescience livescience.com/ : general science website with plenty of archaeological content and news. Past Horizons : online magazine site covering archaeology and heritage news as well as news on other science fields; The Archaeology Channel archaeologychannel.org explores archaeology and cultural heritage through streaming media; Ancient History Encyclopedia ancient.eu : is put out by a non-profit organization and includes articles on pre-history; Best of History Websites besthistorysites.net is a good source for links to other sites; Essential Humanities essential-humanities.net: provides information on History and Art History, including sections Prehistory
Babylonian Worship: a Man and His God
Babylonian Worship: A man and his god: “1-9 A person should steadfastly proclaim the exaltedness of his god. A young man should devoutly praise the words of his god; the people living in the righteous Land should unravel them like a thread. May the balaj singer assuage the spirit of his neighbour and friend. May it soothe their hearts, bring forth ......, utter ......, and measure out ....... Let his mouth shaping a lament soothe the heart of his god, for a man without a god does not obtain food. [Source: Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk]
“10-34 There is a young man who does not wickedly put his efforts into evil murder, yet he spends the time in grief, asag illness and bitter suffering. The fate demon has brought need and ...... close to him. Bitter ...... has confused his judgment of it, and covered his ....... Behind his back they have overpowered him like a ....... Before his god the youth, the young man weeps bitterly over the malice he has suffered. He is reverent and performs obeisance. He speaks ...... of his suffering. In his total exhaustion ......, ...... he weeps. ......, ...... he weeps bitterly. He was able to fill the ...... for him. He ...... to him and addresses him: "Grief ......, despair ......, and ...... has been put in place. I am a young man, I am knowledgeable, but what I know does not come out right with me. The truth which I speak has been turned into a lie. A man of deceit has overwhelmed me like the south wind and prostrated me before him. My unwitting arm has shamed me before you. You have doled out to me suffering ever anew. When I go into the house I despair. When I, a young man, go out into the street, I am depressed.
“35-63 "My righteous shepherd has become angry with me, a youth, and looked upon me with hostility. My herdsman has plotted malice against me although I am not his enemy. My companion does not say a true word to me. My friend falsifies my truthfully spoken words. A man of deceit has spoken insulting words to me while you, my god, do not respond to him and you carry off my understanding. An ill-wisher has spoken insulting words to me -- he angered me, was like a storm and created anguish. I am wise -- why am I tied up with ignorant youths? I am discerning -- why am I entangled among ignorant men? "Food is all about, yet my food is hunger. When shares were allotted to all the people, my allotted share was suffering. A brother ...... insulted me, created anguish. He ...... my ......, raised up ...... and carried off ....... A hostile ...... without wisdom wrote on clay . He sought the ...... of the journey. He cut down the ...... of the road like a tree. He ...... the supervisor and ...... my steward. “My god, ...... before you. I would speak to you: my tears are excess and my words are supplication. I would tell you about it, would unravel to you like a thread the evil of my path. ...... the confusion of what I have done . Let the wise ...... in my plans; tears will not cease. I am less qualified than my friend; I am inferior to my companion.
“64-81 "Now, let my mother who bore me not cease lamenting for me before you. Let my sister, truly a sweet-voiced balaj singer, narrate tearfully to you the deeds by which I was overpowered. Let my wife voice my suffering ...... to you. Let the singer expert in chanting unravel my bitter fate to you like a thread. "My god, the day shines bright over the Land, but for me the day is black. The bright day has become a ...... day. Tears, lament, anguish and despair are lodged within me. Suffering overwhelms me like a weeping child. In the hands of the fate demon my appearance has been altered, my breath of life carried away. The asag demon, the evil one, bathes in my body. "In the overwhelming bitterness of my path I never see a good dream -- but unfavourable visions daily never stop for me. Anguish embraced me though I am not its wife and ....... Grief spread its lap for me though I am not its small child. Lamentation sweeps over me as if it were a southerly wind-storm and ....... My brother cried "Alas"."... 10 lines fragmentary 5 lines missing...
“97-105 "I weep ...... and ....... My god, you who are my father who begot me, lift up my face to you. Righteous cow, god of mercy and supplication, let me acquire noble strength. For how long will you be uncaring for me and not look after me? Like a bull I would rise to you but you do not let me rise, you do not let me take the right course. The wise heroes say true and right words: "Never has a sinless child been born to its mother; making an effort does not bring success ; a sinless workman has never existed from of old."
“106-129 "My god -- the ...... of forgetting which I have ...... against you, the ...... of releasing which I have prepared before you -- may you utter words of grace on a young man who knows the holy words "May he not consume me". When the day is not bright, in my vigour, in my sleep, may I walk before you. May I ...... my impurities and uncleanliness in the health of the city. May you utter words of grace on him who knows the words "When anger and the evil heart came about". Indeed he speaks joyously to him who knows the words "When fear and ...... burned". "My god, ...... after you have made me know my sins, at the city's gate I would declare them, ones forgotten and ones visible. I, a young man, will declare my sins before you. In the assembly may tears rain like drizzle. In your house may my supplicating mother weep for me. May your holy heart have mercy and compassion for me, a youth. May your heart, an awe-inspiring wave, be restored towards me, the young man."
“120-145The man's god heard his bitter weeping. After his lamentation and prolonged wailing had soothed the heart of his god towards the young man, his god accepted the righteous words, the holy words he had spoken. The words of supplication which the young man had mastered, the holy prayers, delighted his god like fine oil. His god stretched his hand away from the hostile words. He ...... like rain the anguish which had embraced him though he was not its wife ...... and scattered to the winds the grief which had spread its arms round him. He let the lamentation which had swept over him as if it were a southerly wind-storm be dissipated. He eradicated the fate demon which had been lodged in his body. He turned the young man's suffering into joy. He set by him as guardian a benevolent protective demon that keeps guard at the mouth . He gave him kindly protective goddesses. The young man steadfastly proclaims the exaltedness of his god. He brings forth ...... and makes known ....... He refreshes himself ....... He trusts in you and ......."I have set my sights on you as on the rising sun. Like (the Sabbath) Ninmah ......, you have let me exert great power. My god, you looked on me from a distance with your good life-giving eyes. May I proclaim well your ...... and holy strength. May your ...... heart be restored towards me. May you absolve my sin. May your heart be soothed towards me." Jicgijal of the lament of supplication for a man's god.
Priests in Mesopotamia
Sumerian high priests were believed to be mouthpieces of the gods. They presided over rituals and often divined the future by reading the entrails of sheep or goats. Hammurabi Code of the Babylonians addresses a class of persons devoted to the service of a god, as vestals or hierodules. The vestals were vowed to chastity, lived together in a great nunnery, were forbidden to open or enter a tavern, and together with other votaries had many privileges.
Temple priests and priestess lived in apartment in the temple. The sex of the overseer was usually opposite that of the major deity in the temple. Under the main priest or priestess was of courtier of minor priests, each of whom performed a different task at the temple such as sacrificing, anointing or pouring libations. Quarters for sacred prostitutes, temple slaves and eunuchs were placed around the temple. ["World Religions" edited by Geoffrey Parrinder, Facts on File Publications, New York]
Morris Jastrow said: “The power thus lodged in the priests of Babylonia and Assyria was enormous. They virtually held in their hands the life and death of the people, and while the respect for authority, the foundation of all government, was profoundly increased by committing the functions of the judges to the servitors of the gods, yet the theory upon which the dispensation of justice rested, though a logical outcome of the prevailing religious beliefs, was fraught with grave dangers. A single unjust decision was sufficient to shake the confidence not merely in the judge but in the god whose mouthpiece he was supposed to be. An error on the part of a judge demonstrated, at all events, that the god no longer cherished him; he had forfeited the god’s assistance. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 <>]
“Accordingly, one of the first provisions in the Hammurabi code ordains that a judge who renders a false decision is to be removed from office. There was no court of appeal in those days; nor any need of one, under the prevailing acceptance of legal decisions. The existence of this provision may be taken as an indication that the incident was not infrequent. On the other hand, the thousands of legal documents that we now have from almost all periods of Babylonian-Assyrian history furnish eloquent testimony to the scrupulous care with which the priests, as judges, sifted the evidence brought before them, and rendered their decisions in accordance with this evidence.” <>
Solar Cults in Mesopotamia
Morris Jastrow said: “After having thus sketched in some detail the character and development of Anu, Enlil, Ea, Ninib, Nebo, and Marduk, we can be briefer in our consideration of the remaining chief figures in the Babylonian-Assyrian pantheon. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 <>]
“The importance of solar cults in an agricultural community explains the circumstance that we encounter so many centres in which the chief deity is a sun-god. It has been already pointed out that the god who was probably the original patron deity of Nippur—Ninib—was a solar deity, that Anu of Uruk was such a deity and Marduk likewise, and that Ninib, becoming in consequence of the pre-eminent religious position of Nippur the chiefest sun-god, absorbs other sun-gods such as Ningirsu of Lagash and Zamama of Kish. In addition, there are three other important centres in ancient Babylonia in which the patron deity represents some phase of the sun—Cuthah, Larsa, and Sippar. In Cuthah he was known as Nergal, in Larsa and Sippar as Ut, “day,” or Babbar “shining one,” for which the Semitic form is Shamash. Cuthah appears to have been a very early Sumerian settlement, though it never rose to any striking political importance, and the same is the case with Larsa, while Sippar, not far from Babylon, seems to have been one of the earliest strongholds of the Semites. <>
“Too much stress must not be laid, however, on such distinctions, for, as we have seen, the mixture of Sumerians and Semites was so pronounced, even in the oldest period revealed by the documents at our command, that a differentiation between Semitic and non-Semitic elements in the conceptions formed of the gods is not generally possible. Climatic and sociological conditions are more effective factors in such conceptions than racial traits. More important for our purposes is it to recognise that there are two phases presented by the sun in a climate like that of Babylonia and Assyria. On the one hand, he is the great beneficent power who triumphs over the storms and rains of winter, who repairs the havoc wrought by the flooding of the land and by the destruction through violent winds, and clothes nature in a garment of verdant glory. But he is also a destructive force. The fierce heat of the summer evokes distress and sickness. <>
“The sun may become a fire that burns up the crops. For reasons that are not as clear as one might wish, Nergal becomes, in Babylonian theology, the type of the sun’s destructive power. He is associated with pestilence, famine, and the grave; and we shall see, in a subsequent lecture, that, as a gloomy and morose god, he is assigned to a position at the head of a special pantheon of the lower world where the dead dwell. His city, Cuthah, becomes a poetical designation for the great gathering-place of the dead, and his name is explained, perhaps fancifully, as “the lord of the great dwelling,” that is, the grave. It is quite within the range of possibility that Cuthah may have been a place that acquired special sanctity as a burial-place, as Kerbela, in the same region, is still regarded as such by the Shiite sect of Islam. The animal associated with Nergal, as a symbol, is a fierce lion, and he is pictured as greedy for human victims. The various names assigned to him, almost without exception, emphasise this forbidding phase of his nature, and the myths associated with him deal with destruction, pestilence, and death. Naturally, Nergal is also pictured as a god of war, bringing about just the results for which he would be held responsible. In Babylonian-Assyrian astrology, he is identified with the planet Mars, and the omen-literature shows that Mars in ancient days, as still at the present time, was regarded as the planet unlucky above all others.
Moon Cults in Mesopotamia
Morris Jastrow said: “The moon-cult of Babylon is associated chiefly with two centres, Ur and Harr an, of which Ur is the older and the more important, and the centre of a Sumerian dynasty which represents almost the last effort of the non-Semitic population to control the Euphrates Valley. Harran, to the north, falls within the domain where the Semites developed their greatest strength, but despite this fact the moon-cult at that place may represent a transfer from Ur, as that of the sun-god was transferred from Larsa to Sippar. The god, Sin, appears under various designations; prominent among them is that of En-Zu, “the lord of knowledge,” of which the name Sin may be a derivative. As the god of wisdom, he reminds us of Nebo, but his knowledge lies more particularly in reading the signs in the heavens. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 <>]
“It is in astrological lore and through the widespread influence of astrology in Babylonia and Assyria that Sin appears in the full exuberance of his powers. The moon as the great luminary of the night, with its constantly changing phases, forms, in fact, the basis of divination through the phenomena observed in the heavens. This form of divination, as we shall see in a subsequent lecture, is the direct outcome of speculation in the temple-schools—not an outgrowth of popular beliefs,—but such was the importance that astrology (which may be traced back to the days of Sargon) acquired in the course of time that in an enumeration of the gods, even in texts other than astrological compilations, Sin invariably takes precedence over Shamash. <>
“The Semitic form of his name is Nannar, which means “illumination” or “luminary,” and this appears to be a designation more particularly connected with the cult at Harran. It is by virtue of being the great luminary of the night also that he becomes the “father of the gods,” as he is frequently called in hymns. He is depicted on seal cylinders as an old man with a flowing beard, said in poetical compositions to be of a lapis-lazuli colour. His headgear consists of a cap on which the horns of the moon are generally indicated; and it is interesting to note, as pointing to the influence acquired by the moon-cult, that the horns became a general symbol of divinity which, e.g., Naram-Sin attaches to his head on the famous monument on which he depicts himself as a ruler with the attribute of divinity. <>
“The antiquity of the moon-cult is attested by very ancient Sumerian hymns that have come down to us, in which he is frequently described as sailing along the heavens in a ship. It is a reasonable supposition that the moon’s crescent suggested this picture of a sailing bark. The association between Sin and the city of Ur is particularly close, as is seen in the common designation of this centre as the “city of Nan-nar.” No doubt the political importance of the place had much to do with maintaining the high rank accorded to Sin in the systematised pantheon. And yet outside of his sphere in Babylonian-Assyrian astrology, the moon-cult, apart from special centres like Ur and Harr an, is not a prominent feature in the actual worship. The agricultural life is too closely dependent on the sun to permit of any large share being taken by the moon. He is not among the Powers whose presence is directly felt in communities whose chief occupation is the tilling of the soil; and, as has already been suggested, his position in astrological divination determines the relationship in which he stands to both gods and mankind
Morris Jastrow said: “So deeply rooted is the belief that through a sacrificial animal a sign indicative of the divine purpose can be obtained, that the idea of tribute involved in offering an animal appears, so far as the Babylonian religion is concerned, to have been of a secondary character, if not indeed a later addition to the divina-tory aim. The theory upon which divination by the means of the liver rested is both curious and interesting. It was believed that the god to whom an animal was offered identified himself for the nonce with the proffered gift. The god in accepting the animal became, as it were, united to it, in much the same way as those who actually eat it. It lies beyond our scope to explain the origin of animal sacrifice, but in ancient religions the frequent association and identification of gods with animals suggest that the animal is sanctified by the sacrifice, acquiring the very attributes which were associated with the god to whom it is offered. Be this, however, as it may, it seems certain that in animal sacrifice an essential feature is the belief that the soul or spirit of the god becomes identical with the soul of the sacrificial animal. The two souls become attuned to one another, like two watches regulated to keep the same time. Through the soul of the animal, therefore, a visible means was obtained for studying the soul of the god, thus enabling mortals to peer, as it were, into the mental workshop of the gods and to surprise them at work, planning future events on earth—which were due, according to the current belief, to their direct initiative. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 <>]
“But where was the soul of the god? Using the term soul in the popularly accepted sense, it is not surprising to find mankind, while in a state of primitive culture, making the attempt to localise what it conceived to be the soul or vital essence of an animate being. Nations, even in an advanced state of culture, speak in figurative language of the heart or brain as comprising the essence or soul of being; and even after that stage of mental development is passed, where the soul is sought for in any specific human organ, human speech still retains traces of the material views once commonly associated with the soul. A goodly part of mankind’s mental and physical efforts may be said to be engrossed with this search for the human soul. <>
“In most of the Aryan and Semitic languages, the word for soul means “breath,” and rests upon the notion that the actual breath, emitted through the mouth, represents the real soul. This is still a widespread popular belief. Antecedent to this stage we find three organs of the human body—liver, heart, and brain—receiving in turn the honour of being the seat of the soul. This order of enumeration represents the successive stages in these simple-minded endeavours. Among people of to-day still living in a state of primitive culture, we find traces of the belief which places the soul in the liver. The natives of Borneo before entering on a war are still in the habit of killing a pig, and of inspecting the liver as a means of ascertaining whether or not the moment chosen for the attack is propitious; and, similarly, when a chieftain is taken ill, it is believed that, through the liver of a pig offered to a deity, the intention of the god, as to whether the victim of the disease shall recover or succumb, will be revealed.
See Separate Article MESOPOTAMIAN DIVINATION, OMENS AND SUPERSTITIONS
Incantation Rites in Mesopotamia
Morris Jastrow said: “Nevertheless, we must be careful not to draw the dividing line between public and private rites too sharply. Even incantations, when performed for individuals, have their official side; for the ritual accompanying them is derived from the observances prescribed more particularly for the rulers on occasions of public misfortune. At such times the endeavour was made to appease the gods through the chanting of lamentations, through confession of guilt, and through expiatory sacrifices and atonement ceremonies. The incantations themselves abound in references to the public welfare. The technical term shiptu (“incantation”), by which they are known, is extended to hymns—a valuable indication that the hymnal literature is an outgrowth from incantations, and that the primary purpose of these hymns was neither praise, thanksgiving, nor tribute, but the reconciliation of the gods, who had shown their displeasure in some manner, or had sent advance signals of an impending catastrophe. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 <>]
“Dr. Langdon believes he has found evidence that the incantation rites were originally performed over afflicted persons in huts erected preferably on the bank of a flowing stream, and that therefore at this stage of their development they formed no part of the official cult of the temples. On the basis of this evidence he distinguishes between public and private services, and assigns incantations and prayers, designated as shiptu , to the private service. Without entering into a detailed examination of this theory here, but even accepting its full force, it would prove only that the Babylonian religion contains survivals of the early period when magic—in its widest sense —formed the chief element in the religion; or (according to those scholars, who like Mr. J. G. Frazer, separate magic from religion) of that period when magic held sway to the exclusion of religion. At all events, the incantation rites, whatever their original character, were taken over into the official cult—as Langdon also admits—and this fact carries with it, I think, the conclusion that the ashipu , as the “magician” or exorciser was generally called, was a member of the priestly organisation. Even the early examples of incantations at hand reveal their official character by the introduction of such terms for the various classes of incantations as “house of light,” “house of washing,” and “house of baptism,” and show that we are long past the stage when magic was, if ever, an extra-official rite. <>
“We are justified, however, in drawing the conclusion that the incantation rituals—including under this term both the collection of the magic formulas and the rites to be performed in connection with them — represent a link between the more primitive features of the Babylonian religion, and those elements which reflect the later period of an organised and highly specialised priesthood, with a correspondingly elaborate organisation of the cult. To dogmatise about the phases of that cult, and to declare the incantation ritual to be the oldest division is hazardous, especially in the present state of our knowledge, but, I think, it is safe to say that the beliefs and practices found in this ritual bring us close to the earliest aspects of the popular religion. <>
“It must not be supposed, however, that these purification rites were always and everywhere carried out in the same way. The variations and modifications seem to be endless. Instead of treating the sick man in his apartment, the ceremonies were frequently enacted on the roof of his house, and this appears to have been quite generally the case when the deity especially invoked was Ishtar. Directions are given to sweep the roof, holy water is sprinkled over it, a table is spread for the goddess with dates and a mixture of meal, honey, and butter, and a libation of wine is poured out.” <>
Examples of Incantation Rites in Mesopotamia
Morris Jastrow said: “It is difficult to suppose that the jumble of often meaningless formulas in the incantation texts, with their accompaniment of rites, originating in the lowest kind of sympathetic and imitative magic, should have been evolved by the same priests who added to these earlier elements, and frequently overshadowed them by ethical reflections, emphasising high standards of ethics; they also attached to them prayers that breathe a comparatively lofty religious spirit. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 <>]
“But not always. For instance, here is one where there are almost childish invocations to the evil spirits to leave the body of their victim:
“Away, away, far away, far away!
For shame, for shame, fly away, fly away!
Round about face, away, far away!
Out of my body away!
Out of my body far away!
Out of my body, for shame!
Out of my body, fly away!
Out of my body, face about!
Out of my body, go away!
Into my body do not return!
To my body do not approach!
My body do not oppress!
By Shamash, the mighty, be ye exorcised!
By Ea, the lord of all, be ye exorcised!
By Marduk, the chief exorciser of the gods, be ye exorcised!
By Gish-Bar, your consumer, be ye exorcised!
Be ye restrained from my body! <>
“But in the midst of these we find introduced prayers to various deities of which the following, addressed to the fire-god, may serve as an example:
“O Nusku, great god, counsellor of the great gods,
Guardian of the offerings of all the Igigi,
Founder of cities, renewer of sanctuaries,
Glorious day, of supreme command,
Messenger of Anu, obedient to the oracle of Enlil,
Obedient to Enlil, the counsellor, the mountain of the Igigi.
Mighty in battle, of powerful attack,
O, Nusku, consumer, overpowering the enemy,
Without thee no table is spread in the temple,
Without thee the great gods do not inhale the incense,
Without thee, Shamash, the judge executes no judgment. <>
“The hymn glides almost imperceptibly into an appeal to burn the sorcerer and sorceress:
“I turn to thee, I implore thee, I raise my hands to thee, I sink down at thy feet,
Bum the sorcerer and the witch!
Blast the life of the dreaded sorcerer and the witch!
Let me live that I may make thy heart glad, and humbly pay homage to thee. <>
“Both the incantation formulas and the impressive prayers assume, as an accompanying rite, the burning of an image, or of some symbol of the witch or sorcerer. This is done, in the firm belief that the symbolical destruction will be followed by a genuine release from their grasp. And yet it is evident that the incantation texts and incantation rituals represent a composite production, receiving their final shape as the result of the collaboration of many hands. Primitive and popular elements were combined with doctrines and practices which, developed in the schools of theological speculation, furnished an outlet for the intellectual and spiritual activity of those to whom, as the special servitors of the gods and as the mediators between the gods and the populace, the unfolding of the religious life of the country was entrusted.” <>
Purification in Incantation Rites in Mesopotamia
Morris Jastrow said: “The influence of the religious theories elaborated by the priests is to be seen in the prominence given to the idea of purification throughout the incantation rituals. The idea itself, to be sure, belongs to the primitive notion of taboo , which specifies an “unclean” condition, due to contact with something either too sacred or too profane to be touched, but the application of the taboo to all circumstances for which incantation rites are required takes us beyond the well-defined limits of primitive conceptions. Under the influence of the purification scheme, the primitive rites of sympathetic magic receive a new and higher interpretation. They become symbolical ceremonies, intended to emphasise the single aim of one who has fallen under the spell of evil spirits to cleanse himself from the sickness, or the misfortune, whatever its nature, that has been brought upon him. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 <>]
“I have washed my hands, I have cleansed my body,
With the pure spring-water which flows forth in the city of Eridu.
All that is evil, all that is not good,
Which is in my body, my flesh, and my sinews,
The evil dream at night, the evil signs and omens that are not good. <>
“Instead of the common exorcisers—medicine-men and lay magic-workers,—we find the officials of the temple combining with the primitive rites an appeal to the gods, particularly Ea, Marduk, Nusku (or Girru), Shamash, Adad, and the Anunnaki. Disease becomes, under this aspect of higher purification, the punishment for sins committed against the gods, and, gradually, the entire incantation ritual assumes the colour of an expiatory ceremony. <>
“An occasion is thus found for the introduction of the ethical spirit, the desire to become reconciled with the gods by leading a pure and clean life—corresponding to the material cleanliness, which the suppliant hopes to attain by the incantation rites. Hence, in the midst of a collection of incantation formulas, based on the most primitive kind of sympathetic magic, we meet not merely prayers to gods that represent a far higher grade of thought, but also ethical considerations, embodied in the enumeration of a long category of possible sins that the suppliant for divine forgiveness may have committed. The question is asked why punishment in the shape of bodily tortures was sent, and incidental thereto the Biblical ten commandments are paralleled. <>
“Has he estranged father from son?
Has he estranged son from father?
Has he estranged mother from daughter?
Has he estranged daughter from mother?
Has he estranged mother-in-law from daughter-in-law?
Has he estranged daughter-in-law from mother-in-law?
Has he estranged brother from brother?
Has he estranged friend from friend?
Has he estranged companion from companion?
Has he not released a prisoner, has he not loosened the bound one ?
Has he not permitted the prisoner to see the light?
Has he in the case of the captive, commanded, “take hold of him,” in the case of one bound (said), “bind him!”
Is it a sin against a god, a transgression against a goddess ?
Has he offended a god, neglected a goddess?
Was his sin against his god, was his wrong toward his goddess?
An offence against his ancestor, [?] hatred toward his elder brother?
Has he neglected father or mother, insulted the elder sister?
Given too little, refused the larger amount ?
For “no” said “yes,” for “yes” said “no”?
Has he used false weights ?
Has he taken the wrong sum, not taken the correct amount?
Has he disinherited the legitimate son, has he upheld an illegitimate son?
Has he drawn a false boundary, not drawn the right boundary?
Has he removed the limit, mark, or boundary?
Has he possessed himself of his neighbour’s house?
Has he shed his neighbour’s blood?
Has he stolen his neighbour’s garment?
Has he not released a freedman out of his family?
Has he divided a family once united?
Has he set himself up against a superior?
Was his mouth frank, but his heart false?
Was it “yes” with his mouth, but “no” with his heart?
Has he taught what was impure, instructed in what was not proper?
Did he follow the path of evil?
Did he overstep the bounds of what was just? <>
“Sickness itself being held as unclean, purification rites were observed on recovery; these included the purification of the house in which the patient had lain. After a king’s recovery from illness, the directions are specific that in addition to the ceremonies around the king’s bed, the palace was to be purified by passing through it with torches and censers. In the palace court seven tables must be spread to the seven chief deities, with offerings of various kinds of bread, dates, meal, oil, honey, butter, milk, with some sweet drink. Seven censers and seven vessels of wine were furthermore to be provided and finally a lamb for sacrifice. Elsewhere, we are told that for the purification of a house that had in any way become unclean, the rooms, the threshold, the court roof, beams, and windows must be touched with asphalt, gypsum, oil, honey, butter, or holy water. Similar ceremonies were enacted to purify the image of a god before it could be put to use, or after it had become unclean. <>
“This purification of the dwelling reminds one of the regulations in the Priestly Code of the Old Testament for the ritualist cleansing of the house that had shown symptoms of infection. Whether or not we may assume that, at the comparatively late date to which the Priestly Code belongs,—about the middle of the fifth century B.C., —medical science had advanced to a knowledge that disease could lurk in the walls and floors of houses, and that the regulations of the Priestly Code, therefore, reflect the influence of this advance, the basis of the Pentateuchal purification ritual is certainly of a much more primitive character, and identical with that which we find in the incantation ritual of Babylonia. The main emphasis in both is on purification from ritualist uncleanliness, and this point of view is a direct issue from the primitive ideas associated with taboo.
Water and Fire in the Purification Rites in Mesopotamia
Morris Jastrow said: “To summarise the incantation cult, it will be sufficient to indicate that, while, as we have seen, many gods are appealed to, the most important share in the rites is taken by water and fire—suggesting, therefore, that the god of water—more particularly Ea —and the god of fire—appearing under various designations, Nusku, Girru, Gish-Bar—are the chief deities on which the ritual itself hinges. Water and fire are viewed as the two purifying elements above all others. The “unclean” person was sprinkled with water, while the priest pronounced certain sacred formulas, having the power of “cleansing” a patient from sickness. The water was of course specially sanctified for this purpose, drawn from springs or sacred streams, as both the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers were regarded. There was probably connected with every large temple one or more springs, and a bit rimki or "bath-house” where the purification rites were performed, although this house was no doubt originally outside of the temple area in a field or some remote place. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 <>]
“We are reminded of the “bath-house” to this day attached to synagogues of the rigid orthodox type, whereto the women resort monthly to cleanse themselves. It is tempting to discern in this rite, now restricted to women, who represent everywhere the conservative element in religion, a survival of the old Babylonian purification ritual. Instead of water, oil of various kinds was also used. Details of the rites no doubt varied in different cities, and there are indications that the purification rites were, even in later times, occasionally performed on the banks of running streams—perhaps a survival of the period when the incantation ritual did not yet form part of the official cult. <>
“By the side of the “bath-house,” we meet frequent references to a bitnuri, “house of light,” and it is permissible to recognise in this term the designation of a special place within the temple area, wherein the purification by fire was completed. Originally, no doubt, fire was used as a means of directly destroying the demons in human form—the sorcerers and witches—who, either of their own initiative, or at the instigation of those who had invoked their aid, had cast a spell upon the victims. A favourite method employed by the exorcisers of these demons was to make images of them, modelled in clay, pitch, tallow, dough, or other materials, that could be melted or destroyed by fire, and then to throw the images into the fire to the accompaniment of formulas which generally expressed the hope that, as the images were consumed, the sorcerers and witches might feel the tortures of the flames, and either flee out of the bodies of their victims, or release their hold upon them. Parallels to this procedure, resting entirely on sympathetic magic, are to be found in abundance among peoples of primitive culture. <>
“There was, however, another aspect of fire. As the sacred god-given element, the flame was associated with purity, and it became in many religions —notably in Zoroastrianism—a symbol of life itself. Through contact with it, therefore, freedom from contamination was secured. The true meaning of the practices of the Canaanites, who, as we are told, caused their children to “pass through the fire” (which seemed so abhorrent to the Hebrew prophets), was a desire thoroughly to purify the new-born child. Among many customs, found all over the world, illustrative of this quality of fire, it is sufficient to recall that down to a late day the custom obtained among the peasants of Germany—and, perchance, still survives in remote corners—of driving cattle through a fire kindled in the fields, thereby securing immunity from the cattle plague. <>
“In the case of the sick, and of those otherwise afflicted, the contact with the fire was purely symbolical—vicarious, so to speak. Besides the method just described, the incantation texts tell us of various objects, such as certain plants, wood, wheat, onions, dates, palm-blossoms, wool, and seeds which were thrown into a fire, while an incantation was recited to the effect that, as the object disappears in the fire never to return, so the man’s sins, uncleanliness, or sickness may vanish never to return.” <>
“One of these incantations reads:
“As this onion is peeled, and thrown into the fire,
Consumed by Girru, never again to be
Planted in a bed, never again to be furrowed,
Never again to take root,
Its stalk never to grow again, never to see the shining sun,
Never again to be seen on the table of god or king,
So may the curse, the ban, pain distress
Sickness, sighing, sin, transgression, injury,
Misdeed, the sickness in my body, which is in
My flesh and bowels be treated like this onion,
Be consumed this day by Girru.
May the ban be removed, may I see the light!
Exorcism Rites in Mesopotamia
Morris Jastrow said: “While water and fire thus constitute the chief factors in the purification rites, the ceremonies themselves are further complicated by elaborate preparations for the final act of exorcising the demons, or of destroying the sorcerers and witches. The patient had to be prepared for the act. The exorcising priests donned special garments—often in imitation of the god in whose name they acted. Pieces of flesh and a mixture of dates, flour, honey, and butter, and other viands were offered to the demons as bribes, that they might thus be made more kindly disposed. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 <>]
“The rites were generally performed at sunrise or shortly before—though occasionally also at night. The place where they were to be performed was to be swept clean, a table and often several tables were set, whereon the objects for the sacrifice were arranged, torches were lit, libations of wine poured out, and various other details were prescribed, some of which are not at all clear. In connection with every separate act of preparation a formula or prayer was recited, and great care was exercised that every detail should be carried out according to established custom. The slightest error might vitiate the entire ceremony. <>
“We are fortunate in having several pictorial representations, on bronze, and stone tablets, of exorcising rites which help us to understand the directions in the text. In these representations we see the seven chief demons, frequently mentioned in the incantation rituals, grouped together, and revealing by the expression of their faces and their threatening attitude their nature and purpose. The afflicted sufferer is lying on a bed at either end of which stands an ashipu (“exorciser”) or mashmashu (“purifier”). The protecting deity and favourable spirits are also portrayed as helping to ward off the evil demons. Labartu, with the ass as her attendant, appears in the lowest compartment, where also are seen the offerings to appease the demons, and the ceremonial implements used in the incantation ceremonies.” <>
Public Lamentation Rituals in Mesopotamia
Morris Jastrow said: “A further development of the taboo , but in a much higher direction, is represented by the public lamentation ritual, which from early days appears to have formed a part of the official cult on occasions of public distress, when the gods had manifested their displeasure by sending a pestilence, by disaster in war, by atmospheric disturbances, dealing death and destruction, or by terrifying phenomena in the heavens. We have numerous examples of such lamentations whereof the antiquity is sufficiently attested by the fact that they are written in Sumerian, though for a better understanding translations into Babylonian, either in whole or in part, were added in the copies made at a later date. The basis of these texts is likewise the notion of uncleanliness. The entire land was regarded as having become taboo through contamination of some kind, or through some offence of an especially serious character. The gods are depicted as having deserted the city and shown their anger by all manner of calamities that have been visited upon the country and its inhabitants. Atonement can be secured only by an appeal to the gods, and a feature of this atonement ritual—as we may also call this service—is abstention from food and drink. We may well suppose that on such occasions the people repaired to the temples and participated in the service, though no doubt the chief part was taken by the priests and the king. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 <>]
“It was probably for these occasions that purification ceremonies (which appear to have been particularly elaborate) were prescribed for the priests, though it should be added that for all other occasions, also, the priests had to take precautions so as to be in a state of ritualist cleanliness before undertaking any service in the temples. Atonement for the priests and the king, for the former as the mediators between the gods and their worshippers, for the latter as standing nearer to the gods than the masses and in a measure, as we have seen, a god’s representative on earth, was an essential preliminary to obtaining forgiveness for the people as a whole. In the public lamentation-songs it is the general condition of distress that is emphasised, and the impression is gained that the priests send forth their appeals to the gods for forgiveness on behalf of the people in general. <>
“We have already had occasion to indicate the preeminent position occupied by the city of Nippur in the religious life of Babylonia. It is therefore interesting to note that the atonement and lamentation ritual worked out by the priests of this centre became the pattern which was followed in other places —such as Isin, Ur, Larsa, Sippar, Babylon, and Borsippa. The proof is furnished by examples of lamentations, bearing internal evidence of their original connection with the temple E-Kur at Nippur, but in which insertions have been made to adapt them to other centres. The laments themselves are rather monotonous in character, though the rhythmic chanting no doubt lessened the monotony and heightened their solemnity. They describe the devastation that has been wrought, repeating in the form of a litany the prayer that the gods may be appeased. Occasionally, the laments contain picturesque phrases.
“As an instance, one will perhaps be sufficient, which contains the insertions referred to, adapting the Nippur composition to Ur and Larsa.
O honoured one, return, look on thy city!
O exalted and honoured one, return, look on thy city!
O lord of lands, return, look on thy city!
O lord of the faithful word, return, look on thy city!
O Enlil, father of Sumer, return, look on thy city!
O shepherd of the dark-headed people, return, look on thy city!
O thou of self-created vision, return, look on thy city!
Strong one in directing mankind, return, look on thy city!
Giving repose to multitudes, return, look on thy city!
To thy city, Nippur, return, look on thy city!
To the brick construction of E-Kur, return, look on thy city!
To Ki-Uru, the large abode, return, look on thy city!
To Dul-Azag, the holy place, return, look on thy city!
To the interior of the royal house, return, look on thy city!
To the great gate structure, return, look on thy city!
To E-Gan-Nun-Makh, return, look on thy city!
To the temple storehouse, return, look on thy city!
To the palace storehouse, return, look on thy city!
Unto the smitten city—how long until thou returnest?
To the smitten—when wilt thou show mercy?
The city unto which grain was allotted,
Where the thirsty was satiated with drink.
Where she could say to her young husband, “my husband,”
Where she could say to the young child, “my child,”
Where the maiden could say, “my brother.”
In the city where the mother could say, “my child,”
Where the little girl could say, “my father.”
There the little ones perish, there the great perish.
In the streets where the men went about, hastening hither and thither,
Now the dogs defile her booty,
Her pillage the jackal destroys,
In her banqueting hall the wind holds revel,
Her pillaged streets are desolate.
Mesopotamia Lamentations and the Destruction of Its Cities
Morris Jastrow said: “In reading the closing lines of this litany, we are instinctively reminded of the prevailing note in the Biblical book of Lamentations, the five chapters of which represent independent compositions. These lamentation-songs still constitute, in orthodox Judaism, an integral part of the ritual for the day commemorative of the double destruction of Jerusalem —the first by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C., and the second in 70 A.D., by the Romans—and, precisely as in ancient Babylonia, fasting constitutes one of the features of the day. Whether or not the second destruction actually occurred on the day commemorated is more than doubtful; and it is not even certain that the first destruction occurred on the 9th day of the 5th month. It is more likely that this day had acquired a significance as a day of fasting and lamentation, long before Jerusalem fell a prey to Babylonia, and for this reason was chosen by the Jews in commemoration of the great national catastrophe. Be this as it may, the resemblance between the Hebrew and the Babylonian “lamentation” rituals suggests a direct influence on the Hebrews; which becomes all the more plausible if it be recalled that another fast day, which in post-exilic times became for the Jews the most solemn day of the year, took its rise during the sojourn of the Jews in Babylonia. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 <>]
“Destructions of cities are often mentioned in the dates attached to business documents of ancient Babylonia. We have also a series of texts in which the distress incident to national catastrophes brought about by the incursion of enemies is set forth in diction which recalls the style of the lamentation-psalms. It is interesting to note that in the' astrological omens (which formed the subject of the previous lecture) references to invasions by foreign foes are very frequent, and phrases are introduced, clearly taken from these commemorative compositions. All this points to the deep impression made upon the country by the disasters of the past, and suggests the question whether, in commemoration of these events, a certain day of fasting and lamentation may not have been yearly set aside, whereon the ancient compositions of the “Nippur” ritual were recited or sung in the temples, with an enumeration of the various occasions in the past when the gods had manifested their displeasure and wrath. <>
“With such a supposition, one could reasonably account for the additions in the old ritual, referring to catastrophes in Ur, Larsa, Sippar, Babylon, and so forth, instead of the mere substitution of these names for that of Nippur which would have sufficed if the purpose had been merely to recall some particular event. Lacking direct evidence of a day set apart as a general fast-day and day of penitence, humiliation, and prayer for favour and grace during the coming year, a certain measure of caution must be exercised; but we are fully justified in going so far at least as to assume that the lamentation ritual was performed in the great centres when there was an actual or impending catastrophe, and that on such occasions the dire events of the past were recalled in laments which, by virtue of the sanctity that everything connected with the cult at Nippur had acquired, were based on the “Nippur” ritual. <>
“The fear of divine anger runs, as an undercurrent, throughout the entire religious literature of Babylonia and Assyria. Rulers and people are always haunted by the fear lest Enlil, Sin, Shamash, Ea, Marduk, Nebo, Nergal, Ishtar, or some other deity manifest displeasure. This minor key is struck even in hymns which celebrate the kindness and mercy of the higher powers; there was a constant fear lest their mood might suddenly change. Death and sickness stood like spectres in view of all men, ready at any moment to seize their victims. Storms and inundations, however needful for the land, brought death and woe for man and beast. Enemies were constantly pressing in on one side or the other; and thus the occasions were frequent enough when the people were forced to cringe in contrition before the gods in the hope that they might soon smile with favour, and send joy into the heart of man, or else that a threatened blow might never fall.
Mesopotamia Penitential Psalms
Morris Jastrow said: “As a complement to the public lamentation ritual, we have numerous compositions in which woe is poured forth before a god or goddess, and emphasis is laid upon the consciousness of guilt. The soul is bowed down with the consciousness of some wrong committed, and even though the particular sin for which misfortune—sickness or some misadventure or trouble—has been sent is unknown to the suppliant himself, he yet feels that he must have committed some wrong to arouse such anger in the god who has struck him down. This is the significant feature in these “penitential psalms,” as they have been called, and one that raises them far above the incantation ritual, even though they assume the belief also in the power of demons and sorcerers to bring to pass the ills whereto human flesh is heir. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 <>]
“To be sure, most, if not all, of these penitential psalms assume that the penitent is the king, just as most of the other classes of hymns are royal hymns; but this would appear to be due mainly to the official character of the archives from which the scribes of Ashurbanapal obtained their material. In compositions of Assyrian origin, or modified by Assyrian priests, the official character is even more pronounced, since these priests, acting directly at the command of their royal master, had him more particularly in mind. We are safe in assuming that these royal laments and confessions formed the model for those used by the priests when the lay suppliant came before them, though exactly to what extent they were used in the case of individuals, as supplementary to the incantation rites, it is impossible to say. Confession and lament are the burden of these psalms: “Many are my sins that I have committed, / May I escape this misfortune, may I be relieved from distress!” And again: “My eye is filled with tears, / On my couch I lie at night, full of sighs, /Tears and sighing have bowed me down.” <>
“The indications are distinct in these compositions that they formed part of a ritual, in which the officiating priest and the penitent each had his part. The priest, as mediator, enforces the appeal of the penitent:
“He weeps, overpowered he cannot restrain himself.
Thou hearest earnest lament, turn thy countenance to him!
Thou acceptest petition, look faithfully on him!
Thou receivest prayer, turn thy countenance to him!
Lord of prayer and petition, let the prayer reach thee!
Lord of petition and prayer, let the prayer reach thee! <>
“The appeal is here made to Enlil, Marduk, and Nebo, and closes with the refrain which is frequent in the penitential psalms:
May thy heart be at rest, thy liver be appeased!)
May thy heart like the heart of the young mother,—
Like that of the mother who has borne, and of the father who has begotten,—return to its place! <>
“Reference has been made to the fact that the sense of guilt in these hymns is so strong as to prompt the penitent to a confession, even when he does not know for what transgression—ritualistic or moral—he has been punished, nor what god or goddess he has offended. The penitent says in one of these psalms:
O lord my transgressions are many, great are my sins.
My god, my transgressions are many, great are my sins.
O god, whoever it be, my transgressions are many, great are my sins.
O goddess, whoever it be, my transgressions are many, great are my sins.
The transgressions I have committed, I know not.
The sin I have done, I know not.
The unclean that I have eaten, I know not.
The impure on which I have trodden, I know not...
The lord in the anger of his heart has looked at me,
The god in the rage of his heart has encompassed me.
A god, whoever it be, has distressed me,
A goddess, whoever it be, has brought woe upon me.
I sought for help, but no one took my hand,
I wept, but no one hearkened to me,
I broke forth in laments, but no one listened to me.
Full of pain, I am overpowered, and dare not look up.
To my merciful god I turn, proclaiming my sorrow.
To the goddess [whoever it be, I turn proclaiming my sorrow].
O lord, [turn thy countenance to me, accept my appeal].
O goddess, [look mercifully on me, accept my appeal].
O god [whoever it be, turn thy countenance to me, accept my appeal].
O goddess whoever it be, [look mercifully on me, accept my appeal].
How long yet, 0 my god, [before thy heart shall be pacified]?
How long yet, O my goddess, [before thy liver shall be appeased]?
O god, whoever it be, may thy angered heart return to its place!
O goddess, whoever it be, may thy angered heart return to its place! <>
“The higher intellectual plane reached by these compositions is also illustrated by the reflections attached to them on the weakness of human nature and the limitations of the human mind, unable to fathom the ways of the gods:
“Men are obtuse,—and no one has knowledge.
Among all who are,—who knows anything?
Whether they do evil or good,—no one has knowledge.
O lord, do not cast thy servant off!
In the deep watery morass he lies—take hold of his hand!
The sin that I have committed, change to grace!
The transgressions that I have committed,—let the wind carry off!
Tear asunder my many iniquities like a garment! <>
“Even more interesting are the reflections put into the mouth of an ancient—probably legendary— king of Nippur, Tabi-utul-Enlil, in a composition which combines with an elaborate and touching lament the story of an aged royal sufferer, who like Job was known for his piety, and yet was severely punished and sorely tried by painful disease. As in the book of Job, the tone of the composition is pessimistic and skeptical—at least to the extent of questioning whether any one can understand the hidden ways of the gods: “I attained (mature) life, to the limit of life I advanced. / Whithersoever I turned—evil upon evil! <>
“This penitential psalm ends with the answer to the king’s appeal; its most striking passage is the following—one of the finest in the whole realm of Babylonian literature, and marked by a remarkably modem undertone. The king declares that he did everything to please the gods; he prayed to them; he observed the new-moon, and the festivals, and brought the gods offerings: “Prayer was my rule, sacrificing my law, / The day of worship of my god, my joy, / The day of devotion to my gods, my profit and gain. <>
“He instructed his people in the ways of the gods and did all in the hope of pleasing the higher powers —but apparently in vain:
“What, however, seems good to one, to a god may be displeasing.
What is spurned by oneself may find favour with a god.
Who is there that can grasp the will of the gods in heaven?
The plan of a god is full of mystery,—who can understand it?
How can mortals learn the ways of a god?
He who is still alive at evening is dead the next morning.
In an instant he is cast into grief, of a sudden he is crushed.
This moment he sings and plays,
In a twinkling he wails like a mourner.
Like opening and closing, (mankind’s) spirit changes.
If they hunger, they are like corpses.
Have they been satiated, they consider themselves a rival to their god.
If things go well, they prate of mounting to heaven.
If they are in distress, they speak of descending into Irkallu” <>
Eclipse Rituals and Prayers in Mesopotamia
Morris Jastrow said:“As we have seen, neither the cause or the nature of an eclipse was understood until a very late period, and, accordingly, the term “darkening” was applied indiscriminately to any phenomenon that temporarily obscured the moon. At the end of each month, therefore, the king proceeded to the sanctuary to take part in a ritual that must have had the same sombre character as the “lamentation” cult. In a collection of prayers, technically known as “Prayers for the Lifting Up of the Hand,” i.e., prayers of imploration, we have an example of a prayer recited on the disappearance of the moon at the end of the month, to which an allusion to an eclipse is added. The addition illustrates the association of ideas between the disappearance of the moon and a genuine eclipse. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 <>]
“One suggested the other, and we gain the impression that the belief prevailed that unless one succeeded in pacifying the gods at the end of the month, an eclipse would soon follow. It was a belief hard to disprove; if no eclipse took place, the conclusion followed that the gods had been pacified. The prayer reads thus:
“O Sin, O Nannar, mighty one . . .
O Sin, unparalleled, illuminator of the darkness!
Granting light to the people of all lands,
Guiding aright the black-headed people.
Bright is thy light, in the heavens thou art exalted!
Brilliant is thy torch, like fire burning,
Thy brightness fills the wide earth.
The joy [?] of mankind is increased at thy appearance.
O lofty one of the heavens, whose course no one can fathom! Supreme is thy light like Shamash, thy first-born.
Before thee the great gods prostrate themselves,
The oracle of all lands is entrusted to thee.
The great gods beseech thee to give counsel!
Assembled, they stand in submission to thee!
O Sin, glorious one of E-Kur, they beseech thee that thou mayest render a decision!
The day of disappearance is the day of the proclaiming the decision of the great gods !
The thirtieth day is thy holy day, a day of appeal to thy divinity.
In the evil hour of an eclipse of the moon in such and such a month and on such and such a day.
Against the evil omens and the evil unfavourable signs which threaten my palace and my land. <>
“Besides the beginning and end of the month, the middle of the month was fraught with significance. Experience must have taught the priests and the people that a genuine eclipse of the moon could take place only at this period, when the moon appears to be taking a “rest” for a few days—remaining apparently unchanged. The middle of the month was therefore designated as shabbatum, conveying the idea of “resting.” The term corresponds to the Hebrew Shabbath or Shabbathon, which among the Hebrews was applied originally to the four phases of the moon, and then to a regular interval of seven days, without reference to the moon’s phases, and thus became the technical term for the weekly “day of rest.” In a previous lecture, we dwelt on the importance attached to the appearance of the full-moon. <>
“An appearance too early or somewhat belated augured a misfortune,—defeat in war, bad crops, insufficient flooding of the canals, or death. Rejoicing therefore followed the appearance of the full-moon at the expected time; and joy was multiplied when the danger of an eclipse was passed. This Babylonian “Sabbath” was, therefore, appropriately designated as “a day of pacification” when the gods appeared to be at peace with the world, smiling on the fields and gracious toward mankind. <>
“Among the collections of hymns to Sin there are several that bear the impress of having been composed for the celebration of the full-moon:
“O Sin, resplendent god, light of the skies, son of Enlil, shining one of E-Kur!
With universal sway thou rulest all lands! thy throne is placed in the lofty heavens!
Clothed with a superb garment, crowned with the tiara of ruler-ship, full grown in glory!
Sin is sovereign—his light is the guide of mankind, a glorious ruler,
Of unchangeable command, whose mind no god can fathom.
O Sin, at thy appearance the gods assemble, all the kings prostrate themselves.
Nannar, Sin . . . thou comest forth as a brilliant dark-red stone.
. . . as lapis lazuli. At the brilliancy of Sin the stars rejoice, the night is filled with joy.
Sin dwells in the midst of the resplendent heavens, Sin, the faithful beloved son.
Exalted ruler, first-born of Enlil . . .
Light of heaven, lord of the lands . . .
His word is merciful in Eridu . . .
Thou hast established Ur as thy dwelling[?]. <>
“The sun, as well as the moon, was celebrated in hymns, and there can be little doubt that, in the many localities of sun-worship, both at his rising and at his setting, the priests daily chanted those hymns, accompanied by offerings and by a more or less elaborate ritual.” <>
New Moon Rituals in Mesopotamia
Morris Jastrow said:The complement to the day of disappearance of the moon, elsewhere called “a day of distress,” is the new-moon day, when, amidst exclamations of joy, the return of the moon is hailed as its release from captivity. A prayer for this occasion—to be recited at night—is attached to the above text and reads as follows:
“O god of the new-moon, unrivalled in might, whose counsel no one can grasp,
I have poured for thee a pure libation of the night, I have offered to thee a pure drink.
I bow down to thee, I stand before thee, I seek thee!
Direct thoughts of favour and justice towards me!
That my god and my goddess who since many days have been angry towards me,
May be reconciled in right and justice, that my path may be fortunate, my road straight!
And that he may send Zakar, the god of dreams, in the middle of the night to release my sins!
May I hear that thou hast taken away my iniquity.
That for all times I may celebrate thy worship! <> [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 <>]
“We have an interesting proof that this new-moon prayer was actually used on the occasion of the appearance of the new-moon. A tablet has been found at Sippar, containing this very prayer, put into the mouth of Shamash-shumukin (the brother of King Ashurbanapal) who, by appointment of his brother, ruled over Babylonia for twenty years (648-628 B.C.). Attached to this prayer are directions for the accompanying ritual, which includes an offering of grain, dates, and meal, of binu wood, butter, cream, and wine. <>
“To this day the Arabs greet the new-moon with shouts of joy, and the Jewish ritual prescribes a special service for the occasion which includes the recital of psalms of “joy.” This joy on the reappearance of the moon is well expressed in various “Sumerian” hymns, originating with the moon-cult at Ur. They have all the marks of having been chanted by the priests when the first crescent was seen in the sky. The crescent is compared to a bark, in which the moon-god sails through the heavens. In one of these chants we read:
Self-created, glorious one, in the resplendent bark of heaven!
Father Nannar, lord of Ur!
Father Nannar, lord of E-Kishirgal !
Father Nannar, lord of the new-moon!
Lord of Ur, first-born son of Enlil!
As thou sailest along, as thou sailest along!
Before thy father, before Enlil in thy sovereign glory!
Father Nannar, in thy passing on high, in thy sovereign glory!
O bark, sailing on high along the heaven in thy sovereign glory!
Father Nannar, as thou sailest along the resplendent road
Father Nannar, when, like a bark on the floods, thou sailest along!
Thou, when thou sailest along, thou, when thou sailest along!
Thou when thou risest, thou when thou sailest along!
In thy rising at the completion of the course, as thou sailest along!
Father Nannar, when like a cow thou takest care of the calves !
Thy father looks on thee with a joyous eye—as thou takest care!
Come! glory to the king of splendour, glory to the king who comes forth!
Enlil has entrusted a sceptre to thy hand for all times,
When over Ur in the resplendent bark thou mountest. <>
“In this somewhat monotonous manner, and evidently arranged for responsive chanting, the hymn continues. The keynote is that of rejoicing at the release of the new-moon, once more sailing along the heavens, which it is hoped augurs well also for relief from anxiety on earth.”
Sumero-Akkadian Prayer to Every God
Mircea Eliade of the University of Chicago wrote: This Sumero-Akkadian prayer to Every God “is, in effect, a general prayer, asking any god for pardon for any transgression. The writer, in his suffering, admits that he may have broken some divine rule. But he does not know either what he has done or what god he has offended. Furthermore, he claims that the whole human race is ignorant of the divine will and thus is perpetually committing sin. The gods, therefore, should have mercy and remove his transgressions. [Source: Eliade Site]
May the fury of my lord's heart be quieted toward me.
May the god who is not known be quieted toward me;
May the goddess who is not known be quieted toward me.
May the god whom I know or do not know be quieted toward me;
May the goddess whom I know or do not know be quieted toward me,
May the heart of my god be quieted toward me;
May the heart of my goddess be quieted toward me.
May my god and goddess be quieted toward me.
May the god who has become angry with me be quieted toward me,
May the goddess who has become angry with me be quieted toward me.
(lines I 1- 1 8 cannot be restored with certainty)
in ignorance I have eaten that forbidden by my god;
in ignorance I have set foot on that prohibited by my goddess.
0 Lord, my transgressions are many; great are my sins.
0 my god, (my) transgressions are many; great are (my) sins.
my goddess, (my) transgressions are many; great are (my) sins.
O god whom I know or do not know, (my) transgressions are many;
great are (my) sins,
O goddess whom I know or do not know, (my) transgressions are many;
great are (my) sins;
The transgression which I have committed, indeed I do not know;
The sin which I have done, indeed I do not know.
The forbidden thing which I have eaten, indeed I do not know;
The prohibited (place) on which I have set foot, indeed I do not know;
The lord in the anger of his heart looked at me;
The god in the rage of his heart confronted me;
When the goddess was angry with me, she made me become ill.
The god whom I know or do not know has oppressed me;
The goddess whom I know or do not know has placed suffering upon me.
Although I am constantly looking for help, no one takes me by the hand;
When I weep they do not come to my side.
I utter laments, but no one hears me;
I am troubled; I am overwhelmed, I can not see.
O my god, merciful one, I address to thee the prayer, 'Ever incline to
I kiss the feet of my goddess, I crawl before thee.
(lines 41-9 are mostly broken and cannot be restored with certainty)
How long, 0 my goddess, whom I know or do not know, eye thy hostile
heart will be quieted?
Man is dumb; he knows nothing;
Mankind, everyone that exists-what does he know?
Whether he is committing sin or doing good, he does not even know.
0 my lord, do not cast thy servant down;
He is plunged into the waters of a swamp, take him by the hand.
The sin which I have done, turn into goodness;
The transgression which I have committed, let the wind carry away;
My many misdeeds strip off like a garment.
0 my god, (my) transgressions are seven times seven; remove my
O my goddess, (my)transgressions are seven times seven; remove my
O god whom I know or do not know, (my) transgressions are seven times seven;
remove my transgressions;
O goddess whom I know or do not know, (my) transgressions are seven times
seven; remove my transgressions.
Remove my transgressions (and) I will sing thy praise.
May thy heart, like the heart of a real mother, be quieted toward me;
Like a real mother (and) a real father may it be quieted toward me.
[Source: Translation by Ferris J. Stephens, in Ancient Near Eastern Texts (Princeton, 1950), PP. 391-2; reprinted in Isaac Mendelsohn (ed.), Religions of the Ancient Near East, Library of Religion paperbook series (New York, 1955 X PP. 175-.7)]
Penitential Prayer to God
This “Penitential Prayer to Every God” was found on a tablet which dates from the mid-seventh century B.C.. The original prayer is from Sumer and probably dates from somewhat earlier. [Source: "Penitential Psalms," Robert F. Harper, trans., in “Assyrian and Babylonian Literature,” R. F. Harper, ed. (New York, 1901). Reprinted in: Eugen Weber, ed., The Western Tradition, Vol I: From the Ancient World to Louis XIV. Fifth Ed., (Lexington, MA; D.C. Heath,1995) pp. 38 and 39, Then Again]
May the wrath of the heart of my god be pacified!
May the god who is unknown to me be pacified!
May the goddess who is unknown to me be pacified!
May the known and unknown god be pacified!
May the known and unknown goddess be pacified!
The sin which I have committed I know not.
The misdeed which I have committed I know not.
A gracious name may my god announce!
A gracious name may my goddess announce!
A gracious name may my known and unknown god announce!
A gracious name may my known and unknown goddess announce!
Pure food have I not eaten,
Clear water have I not drunk.
An offense against my god I have unwittingly committed.
A transgression against my goddess I have unwittingly done.
0 Lord, my sins are many, great are my iniquities!
My god, my sins are many, great are my iniquities! . . .
The sin, which I have committed, I know not.
The iniquity, which I have done, I know not.
The offense, which I have committed, I know not.
The transgression I have done, I know not.
The lord, in the anger of his heart, hath looked upon me.
The god, in the wrath of his heart, hath visited me.
The goddess hath become angry with me, and hath grievously stricken me.
The known or unknown god hath straitened me.
The known or unknown goddess hath brought affliction upon me.
I sought for help, but no one taketh my hand.
I wept, but no one came to my side.
I lamented, but no one hearkens to me.
I am afflicted, I am overcome, I cannot look up.
Unto my merciful god I turn, I make supplication.
I kiss the feet of my goddess and [crawl before her] . . .
How tong, my god . . .
How long, my goddess, until thy face be turned toward me?
How long, known and unknown god, until the anger of thy heart be pacified?
How long, known and unknown goddess, until thy unfriendly heart be pacified?
Mankind is perverted and has no judgment.
Of all men who are alive, who knows anything?
They do not know whether they do good or evil.
0 lord, do not cast aside thy servant!
He is cast into the mire; take his hand.
The sin which I have sinned, turn to mercy!
The iniquity which I have committed, let the wind carry away.
My many transgressions tear off like a garment!
My god, my sins are seven times seven; forgive my sins!
My goddess, my sins are seven times seven; forgive my sins!
Known and unknown god, my sins are seven times seven; forgive my sins.
To Ishtar, Begetress of All: Babylonian Prayer, c. 1600 B.C.
“To Ishtar, Begetress of All” (1600 B.C.) goes:
1. O fulfiller of the commands of Bel..........
Mother of the gods, fulfiller of the commands of Bel
You who brings forth verdure, you O lady of mankind,---
5. Begetress of all, who makes all offspring thrive
Mother Ishtar, whose might no god approaches,
Majestic lady, whose commands are powerful
A request I will proffer, which---may it bring good to me!
O lady, from my childhood I have been exceedingly hemmed in by trouble!
“10. Food I did not eat, I was bathed in tears!
Water I did not quaff, tears were my drink!
My heart is not glad, my soul is not cheerful;
....................I do not walk like a man.
15. ...........painfully I wail!
My sighs are many, my sickness is great!
O my lady, teach me what to do, appoint me a resting-place!
My sin forgive, lift up my countenance!
“20. My god, who is lord of prayer, ----may he present my prayer to you!
My goddess, who is mistress of supplication, ---may she present my prayer to you!
God of the deluge, lord of Harsaga, ---may he present my prayer to you!
The god of pity, the lord of the fields, ---may he present my prayer to you!
God of heaven and earth, the lord of Eridu,---may he present my prayer to you!
“21. The mother of the great water, the dwelling of Damkina,---
may she present my prayer to you!
Marduk, lord of Babylon, ---may he present my prayer to you!
His spouse, the exalted offspring of heaven and earth,---
may she present my prayer to you!
The exalted servant, the god who announces the good name,---
may he present my prayer to you!
“22. The bride, the first-born of Ninib, ---may she present my prayer to you!
The lady who checks hostile speech, ---may she present my prayer to you!
The great, exalted one, my lady Nana, ---may she present my prayer to you!
[Source: George A. Barton, “Archaeology and the Bible”,” 3rd Ed., (Philadelphia: American Sunday School, 1920), pp. 398-401]
To Ishtar, He Raises to You a Wail: Babylonian Prayer
“To Ishtar, He Raises to You a Wail” (1600 B.C.) reads:
“1. ...........He raises to you a wail;
....................He raises to you a wail
On account of his face which for tears is not raised, he raises to you a wail;
On account of his feet on which fetters are laid, he raises to you a wail;
“5. On account of his hand, which is powerless through oppression, he raises to you a wail;
On account of his breast, which wheezes like a bellows, he raises to you a wail;
O lady, in sadness of heart I raise to you my piteous cry, "How long?"
O lady, to your servant---speak pardon to him, let your heart be appeased!
To your servant who suffers pain---favor grant him!
“10. Turn your gaze upon him, receive his entreaty!
To your servant with whom you are angry---be favorable unto him!
O lady, my hands are bound, I turn to you!
For the sake of the exalted warrior, Shamash, your beloved husband,
take away my bonds!
“15. Through a long life let me walk before you!
My god brings before you a lamentation, let your heart be appeased!
My goddess utters to you a prayer, let your anger be quieted!
The exalted warrior, Anu, your beloved spouse,---may he present my prayer to you!
Shamash, god of justice, may he present my prayer to you!
“20. .............the exalted servant, ---may he present my prayer to you!
..........the mighty one of Ebarbar, ---may he present my tears to you!
"Your eye turn truly to me," may he say to you!
"Your face turn truly to me," may he say to you!
"Let your heart be at rest", may he say to you!
“25. Let your anger be pacified", may he say to you!
Your heart like the heart of a mother who has brought forth, may it rejoice!
Like a father who has begotten a child, may it be glad!
[Source: George A. Barton, “Archaeology and the Bible”,” 3rd Ed., (Philadelphia: American Sunday School, 1920), pp. 398-401]
To Nanna, Lord of the Moon: Babylonian Prayer
“To Nanna, Lord of the Moon” (1600 B.C.) reads:
“1. O brilliant barque of the heavens, ruler in your own right,
Father Nanna, Lord of Ur,
Father Nanna Lord of Ekishshirgal,
Father Nanna, Lord of the brilliant rising,
“5. O Lord, Nanna, firstborn son of Bel,
You stand, you stand
Before your father Bel. You are ruler,
Father Nanna; you are ruler, you are guide.
O barque, when standing in the midst of heaven, you are ruler.
“10. Father Nanna, you yourself ride to the brilliant temple.
Father Nanna, when, like a ship, you go in the midst of the deep,
You got, you go, you go,
You go, you shine anew, you go,
You shine anew, you live again, you go.
“15. Father Nanna, the herd you restore.
When your father looks on you with joy, he commands your waxing;
Then with the glory of a king brilliantly you rise.
Bel a scepter for distant days for your hands has completed.
In Ur as the brilliant barque you ride,
“20. As the Lord, Nudimmud, you are established;
In Ur as the brilliant boat you ride.
. . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . .. . . .. .. .
The river of Bel Nanna fills with water.
“21. The brilliant river Nanna fills with water.
The river Diglat [Tigris] Nanna fills with water.
The brilliance of the Purattu [Euphrates] Nanna fills with water.
The canal with its gate Lukhe, Nanna fills with water.
The great marsh and the little marsh Nanna fills with water.
[Source: George A. Barton, “Archaeology and the Bible”,” 3rd Ed., (Philadelphia: American Sunday School, 1920), pp. 398-401]
To Bel, Lord of Wisdom: Babylonian Prayer
“To Bel, Lord of Wisdom” (1600 B.C.) goes:
1. O Lord of wisdom ruler...............in your own right,
O Bel, Lord of wisdom.............ruler in your own right,
O father Bel, Lord of the lands,
O father Bel, Lord of truthful speech,
“5. O father Bel, shepherd of the Sang-Ngiga [black-headed ones, or Babylonians],
O father Bel, who yourself opens the eyes,
O father Bel, the warrior, prince among soldiers,
O father Bel, supreme power of the land,
Bull of the corral, warrior who leads captive all the land.
“10. O Bel, proprietor of the broad land,
Lord of creation, you are chief of the land,
The Lord whose shining oil is food for an extensive offspring,
The Lord whose edicts bind together the city,
The edict of whose dwelling place strikes down the great prince
“15. From the land of the rising to the land of the setting sun.
O mountain, Lord of life, you are indeed Lord!
O Bel of the lands, Lord of life you yourself are Lord of life.
O mighty one, terrible one of heaven, you are guardian indeed!
O Bel, you are Lord of the gods indeed!
“20. You are father, Bel, who cause the plants of the gardens to grow!
O Bel, your great glory may they fear!
The birds of heaven and the fish of the deep are filled with fear of you.
O father Bel, in great strength you go, prince of life, shepherd of the stars!
O Lord, the secret of production you open, the feast of fatness establish, to work you call!
25. Father Bel, faithful prince, mighty prince, you create the strength of life!
[Source: George A. Barton, “Archaeology and the Bible”,” 3rd Ed., (Philadelphia: American Sunday School, 1920), pp. 398-401]
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Mesopotamia sourcebooks.fordham.edu , National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, especially Merle Severy, National Geographic, May 1991 and Marion Steinmann, Smithsonian, December 1988, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, BBC, Encyclopædia Britannica, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated September 2018