Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Book Review: Tammi Schneider's "Introduction to Ancient Mesopotamian Religion"

With USDA work keeping me very busy this week, I'm pleased to have yet another helpful review from reader D. Neiman of an important resource.
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Tammi Schneider is professor of religion at Claremont Graduate University where her work centers on the history of the ancient Near East, Israel, and women in the Hebrew Bible. Her most recent offering is just what it sounds like: an introduction to religion in ancient Mesopotamia. Covering major developments in religion from the invention of writing to the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus (4) may seem like a daunting task. Schneider admits upfront that when she says “introduction” she means “introduction,” accordingly the book is only 140 pages long, bibliography included. Despite the brevity, it seemed to me that Schneider was able to highlight all of the most relevant data needed for a student unfamiliar with the primary and secondary literature to become more comfortable in the thought worlds of Sumer, Assyria, and Babylon.

Before interacting with the data itself, Schneider explains the “tools” employed by scholars when writing on religion in ancient Mesopotamia. She notes that, unlike much of the architecture and literature that comes to us from Greece and Rome (preserved by generations of Christians), Mesopotamia was largely lost to time until the 19th century. What was known before that time came from Greek sources and the Hebrew Bible. These texts, according to Schneider, preserved images of a “militaristic state ruled by despots controlling bloodthirsty armies with great wealth” (10). Since the development of historical-critical methods, access to the lands in which the ancient civilizations used to thrive, and the rise of archaeology, we are able to read and see what the inhabitants of ancient Mesopotamia thought about themselves. Even with these incredible finds, Schneider reminds us that what we have is but a drop in what was once an ocean of data.

After taking the reader through a brief (oh so brief) survey of Sumerian, Assyrian, and Babylonian histories, Schneider dives right into the myths. She notes that the appearance of one deity in many different contexts, with many different attributes (sometimes conflicting), may seem confusing to modern readers. It is confusing in this way, according to Schneider, because whereas religion in ancient Mesopotamia was not dogmatic, our modern conception of religion (primarily Christianity) is (39).

She then seeks to explore how the myths understand the universe. Why is it here? How do people fit into it? The answer is not a good one, if you are a human that is. Schneider points to myths like Enki and Ninmah and the well-known Enuma Elish to show that a very popular theme was that humans were created to do work that the gods did not want to do anymore (41-4). As for how the world began, many of the myths only concern themselves with how matter was animated, not any discernible starting point. Discussions of the afterlife are even more uncertain. Schneider points to myths like Inanna’s Decent to the Netherworld and it’s Akkadian variant Ishtar’s Decent to the Netherworld to show that the Mesopotamians did wonder what came after life. As far as these myths are concerned, the ultimate fate of humanity is a grim as it’s origin. The Netherworld is where all people (from babies to separated lovers) go. It is a dark, unpleasant place where Ereshkigal (the Netherworld’s queen) weeps for everyone (49).

The next chapter is a brief overview of the deities themselves. Once again I was surprised how well Schneider was able to cover the relevant points given how vast (not to mention vague) the subject “Mesopotamian pantheon” is. Schneider herself acknowledges this fact at the outset noting that there is no Mesopotamian parallel to Hesiod’s Theogony, that is, there is no surviving text that systematically, and authoritatively, organizes and explains the roles of the gods and goddesses (52). Instead what we have is a collection of religious material that stretches across a very long period of time, and non-religious material (legal, historical) mentioning the gods that also stretches across long period of time.

Using An, Enlil, and Inanna as examples, Schneider demonstrates how the more prominent deities changed over time. An, “heaven” in Sumerian, got his start as the “universal god of creation.” Such a role, of course, would imply that An was the most powerful/important of the divine beings, and this was indeed the case until Marduk took over in the Enuma Elish. Other deities, like Shamash, Enlil and Enki, rose and fell in prominence based on local tastes (especially the tastes of the kings). Schneider points out that the reason for An’s prestige was probably also the reason for his eventual decline: his “transcendence.” Despite being the head of the pantheon for so long, there is not much evidence that An had any real relationship with humanity. 

Enlil of ancient Nippur was descended from An, and was thus regarded as the “king of gods.” Unlike An, who it was mentioned above remained a rather nebulous, aloof god, Enlil and his city were among the favorites of rulers until the reign of Hammurabi. Also unlike An, Enlil seems to have lost out to Marduk primarily because his city lost out to Marduk’s: Babylon. Another example of how fluid these religious changes could be in the ANE.

The largest space in the chapter is reserved for Inanna-Ishtar, the goddess of war, sexuality, and just being an all-around tough-girl (61). This is for good reason as the history of her prominence, along with the history of her mythology are complicated by several considerations.  Schneider notes that some have argued that the fusing of Inanna with her Akkadian counterpart, Ishtar, might have been a deliberate, politically motivated move. The issues are further confused when one introduces the famous recensions of Inanna/Ishtar’s Decent into the Netherworld myths. In the end, Inanna-Ishtar’s development offers better-than-average insight into how myths and gods developed in Mesopotamia.

Chapter six highlights the various cultic/social/religious functions of temples in the Mesopotamia. An important chapter for the student of the Hebrew Bible, as this information can help the reader compare/contrast with the temple of Yahweh in Jerusalem. Schneider points out that Mesopotamia, in contrast to other places in the ANE, reserved sacred, cultic space almost exclusively for the urban setting. There are no sacred trees, or bodies of water, only cities (67).

The temple was quite literally the “house” of the deity. It is thus not surprising that kings, being the representatives of their cities deity on earth, took great care and expense to improve and repair their temples. Among the more interesting cultic features of the temples in Mesopotamia are the cult statues. An anthropomorphic image of each cities god that was ornately dressed and necessary for the “mis pi” ritual. This ritual demanded that the priest(s) washed the mouth of the statue in order to transfer the god from the spiritual world to this one (76-7).

            Chapter seven is an overview of the ancient Mesopotamian women and men who were charged with caring for religious functions. These Schneider places into four categories: those who maintained the temple, diviners, prophets, and a class of female devotees called the Nadītu. Noting that there was no native Mesopotamian word for priest, Schneider points out that all who served in the temple, whether they sang sacred songs or swept the floor, were considered “official personnel.” As the rival cities grew in power and wealth, the category of “priest” became a more defined, official position. Priests quickly became just as powerful in the political arena as they were in the religious one, often justifying their policies by appealing to their divine connections (80).

            Diviners were the “scientists” of the Mesopotamian world. As a consequence of the Mesopotamian worldview (which saw all actions, whether divine or not, as ultimately influencing every other action) the diviners believed they could observe natural events to receive information from the gods. Unlike prophets, the diviners could attain information from the world beyond without the world beyond sending it. Through various means, like star observation and extispicy (the reading of animal entrails), diviners could work for kings and generals, or just offer guidance to people on the corner streets of Babylon (84).

            Prophets were people through whom the gods and goddesses decided to speak. Texts (especially from ancient Mari) show how the prophets of the Hebrew Bible fit into a much larger category of ancient religious life. Through dreams and visions (usually addressed to kings) prophets delivered messages about cultic acts, political advice, and impending catastrophe.

            The final category is that of the Nadītu. Comprised only of women, each nadītu would devote themselves to one deity and only one deity. As these women were apparently unmarried and not allowed to have children, they spent their time praying to and advocating for their god/goddess (89).

            Chapter seven addresses the specific types of texts that have survived from ancient Mesopotamia. Disputations are one such unique genre. In them, two entities, whether animate or inanimate, would engage each other in debate over a pre-determined topic. At the end of the debate, a deity would declare who the winner was. Among the more interesting/entertaining of these is the Disputation between the Hoe and the Plow, in which the respective merits of the common man and the rich are explored (93-4).

            Like the genre of Disputation, the Wisdom genre takes up a good chunk of Mesopotamian literature. Unlike Disputation however, Wisdom aids the student of the Hebrew Bible. It is well known that Mesopotamian works like the Poem of the Righteous Sufferer find their parallels in Canonical books like Job.

            The final chapter explores the complex Mesopotamian relationship between the divine beings and the king. Some kings branded themselves only as their gods’ earthly representatives, others, beginning with Naram-Sin, actually claimed to be divine (119). In line with the theology of retribution that characterizes so much of the ancient Mesopotamian world, kings who were previously associated with divinities could have that association revoked depending on how their life ended. Schneider points to Ur-Namma, a king who died in battle, as one such example (123). Such weakness simply could not be the result of divine help; therefore a long poem was composed detailing the kings’ negative reception in the underworld. Such was the dramatic effect of the event upon the religious culture.

            Schneider’s work is wonderful for the person coming to the field of ancient Mesopotamian religion for the first time. Short enough so as to not “overload” the newcomers, but detailed enough to keep it interesting and to point forward to more detailed works on the subject. It is worth, once again, to point out just how broad the field of ancient Mesopotamian religious studies is. Every category: history, ritual, literature, personnel, all branch out to a dozen more, which themselves branch out even further. With this in mind, I would say it is well worth picking up a copy if you have any desire to expose yourself to the wonderful world of Gilgamesh, Enki, and Ishtar.

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