Religions of the Ancient Near East

Religions of the Ancient Near East

The Religions of the Ancient Near East were mostly polytheistic, with some early examples of emerging Henotheism (Atenism, early Judaism). Especially the Luwian pantheon exerted a strong influence on the Ancient Greek religion, while Assyro-Babylonian religion influenced Achaemenid-era Zoroastrianism.


The history of the Ancient Near East spans more than two millennia, from the Bronze Age to the Early Iron Age, in the region now known as the Middle East, centered around the Fertile Crescent. There was much cultural contact, so that it is justified to summarize the whole region under a single term, but that does not mean, of course, that each historical period and each region should not be looked at individually for a detailed description. This article will attempt to outline the common traits of Ancient Near Eastern religions, and refer to sub-articles for in-depth descriptions.

The Ancient Near East includes the following subregions:
*Mesopotamia (Sumer, Assyria, Akkad): Assyro-Babylonian religion, Mesopotamian mythology
*Ancient Egypt: Ancient Egyptian religion
*the Levant (Canaan, Ugarit, Ebla, Mitanni): Canaanite religion
*Anatolia (the Hittite Empire, Assuwa, Arzawa): Hittite mythology, Hurrian mythology
*the Caucasus and the Armenian Highland (Urartu)
*Cyprus, Crete (Minoan civilization): Minoan religion

Our earliest sources from ca. 2000 BC allow glimpses of Mesopotamian mythology and Egyptian mythology.

The early Hittite religion bore traits descended from Proto-Indo-European religion, but the later Hittite religions becomes more and more assimilated to Assyria.

Ancient Greek religion was strongly influenced by Ancient Near Eastern mythology, but is usually not included in the term. The Mystery religions of Hellenism were again consciously connected with Egyptian mythology.

There are broad practices that these religions often hold in common:
*purification and cleansing rituals
*sacrifices (animal sacrifice, libations, rarely, but prominently in mythology, human sacrifice)
*state (city state) sponsored religions (theocracy)
*magic (invocations, amulets)

Typically, Ancient Near Eastern religions were centered around theocracies, with a dominating regional cult of the deity of a city-state. There were also super-regional mythemes and deities, such as Tammuz and the descent to the underworld.

*Apantomancy: seeing animals
*Cleromancy: drawing lots
*Hepatoscopy: observing the liver of an animal
*Nephomancy: cloud-watching
*Ornithomancy: watching birds in flight
*Capnomancy: watching smoke
*Oneiromancy: divination through dreams



Identification of the gods and goddesses with heavenly bodies — planets and stars, besides sun and moon — and to assigning the seats of all the deities in the heavens is found in Assyro-Babylonian religion.

The personification of the two great luminaries — the sun and the moon — was the first step in the unfolding of this system, and this was followed by placing the other deities where Shamash and Sin had their seats. This process, which reached its culmination in the post-Hammurabic period, led to identifying the planet Venus with Ishtar, Jupiter with Marduk, Mars with Nergal, Mercury with Nabu, and Saturn with Ninurta.

The system represents a harmonious combination of two factors, one of popular origin, the other the outcome of speculation in the schools attached to the temples of Babylonia. The popular factor is the belief in the influence exerted by the movements of the heavenly bodies on occurrences on earth — a belief naturally suggested by the dependence of life, vegetation and guidance upon the two great luminaries. Starting with this belief the priests built up the theory of the close correspondence between occurrences on earth and phenomena in the heavens. The heavens presenting a constant change even to the superficial observer, the conclusion was drawn of a connection between the changes and the everchanging movement in the fate of individuals and of nature as well as in the appearance of nature.

To read the signs of the heavens was therefore to understand the meaning of occurrences on earth, and with this accomplished, it was also possible to foretell what events were portended by the position and relationship to one another of sun, moon, planets and certain stars. Myths that symbolized changes in season or occurrences in nature were projected on the heavens, which were mapped out to correspond to the divisions of the earth.

All the gods, great and small, had their places assigned to them in the heavens, and facts, including such as fell within the domain of political history, were interpreted in terms of astral theology. So completely did this system in the course of time sway men's minds that the cult, from being an expression of animistic beliefs, took on the colour derived from the "astral" interpretation of occurrences and doctrines. It left its trace in incantations, omens and hymns, and it gave birth to astronomy, which was assiduously cultivated because a knowledge of the heavens was the very foundation of the system of belief unfolded by the priests of Babylonia and Assyria.

"Chaldaean wisdom" became, in the classical world, the synonym of this science, which in its character was so essentially religious. The persistent prominence which astrology continued to enjoy down to the border-line of the scientific movement of our own days, and which is directly traceable to the divination methods perfected in the Euphrates valley, is a tribute to the scope and influence attained by the astral theology of the Babylonian and Assyrian priests.

As an illustration of the manner in which the doctrines of the religion were made to conform to the all-pervading astral theory, it will be sufficient to refer to the modification undergone in this process of the view developed in a very early period which apportioned the control of the universe among the three gods Anu, Enlil and Ea. Disassociating these gods from all local connections, Anu became the power presiding over the heavens, to Enlil was assigned the earth and the atmosphere immediately above it, while Ea ruled over the deep. With the transfer of all the gods to the heavens, and under the influence of the doctrine of the correspondence between the heavens and the earth, Anu, Enlil and Ea became the three "ways" (as they are called) on the heavens.

The "ways" appear in this instance to have been the designation of the ecliptic circle, which was divided into three sections or zones — a northern, a middle and a southern zone, Anu being assigned to the first, Enlil to the second, and Ea to the third zone. The astral theology of the Babylonian-Assyrian religion, while thus bearing the ear-marks of a system devised by the priests, succeeded in assimilating the beliefs which represented the earlier attempts to systematize the more popular aspects of the religion, and in this way a unification of diverse elements was secured that led to interpreting the contents and the form of the religion in terms of the astral-theological system.


On the ethical sides, the religion of Babylonia more particularly, and to a less extent that of Assyria, advances to noticeable conceptions of the qualities associated with the gods and goddesses and of the duties imposed on man. Shamash, the sun-god, was invested with justice as his chief trait, Marduk is portrayed as full of mercy and kindness, Ea is the protector of mankind who is grieved when, through a deception practised upon Adapa, humanity is deprived of immortality. The gods, to be sure, are easily aroused to anger, and in some of them the dire aspects predominated, but the view becomes more and more pronounced that there is some cause always for the divine wrath. Though, in accounting for the anger of the gods, no sharp distinction is made between moral offences and a ritualistic oversight or neglect, yet the stress laid in the hymns and prayers, as well as in the elaborate atonement ritual prescribed in order to appease the anger of the gods, on the need of being clean and pure in the sight of the higher powers, the inculcation of a proper aspect of humility, and above all the need of confessing one's guilt and sins without any reserve — all this bears testimony to the strength which the ethical factor acquired in the domain of the religion.

This factor appears to less advantage in the unfolding of the views concerning life after death. Throughout all periods of Babylonian-Assyrian history, the conception prevailed of a large dark cavern below the earth, not far from the Apsu— the fresh water abyss encircling and flowing underneath the earth — in which all the dead were gathered and where they led a miserable existence of inactivity, amid gloom and dust. Occasionally a favoured individual was permitted to escape from this general fate and placed in a pleasant island. It would appear also that the rulers were always singled out for divine grace, and in the earlier periods of the history, owing to the prevailing view that the rulers stood nearer to the gods than other mortals, the kings were deified after death, and in some instances divine honours were paid to them even during their lifetime.

Later influence

The influence exerted by the Babylonian-Assyrian religion was particularly profound on the Semites, while the astral theology affected the ancient world in general, including the Greeks and Romans. The impetus to the purification of the old Semite religion to which the Hebrews for a long time clung in common with their fellows — the various branches of nomadic Arabs — was largely furnished by the remarkable civilization unfolded in the Euphrates valley and in many of the traditions, myths and legends embodied in the Old Testament; traces of direct borrowing from Babylonia may be discerned, while the indirect influences in the domain of the prophetical books, as also in the Psalms and in the so-called "Wisdom Literature", are even more noteworthy.

Even when we reach the New Testament period, we have not passed entirely beyond the sphere of Babylonian-Assyrian influences. In such a movement as early Christian gnosticism, Babylonian elements — modified, to be sure, and transformed — are largely present, while the growth of an apocalyptic literature is ascribed with apparent justice by many scholars to the recrudescence of views, the ultimate source of which is to be found in the astral-theology of the Babylonian and Assyrian priests.


The dominant religious rituals and beliefs of Ancient Egypt merged and developed over time.As an example, during the New Kingdom, the gods Ra and Amun were syncretized into a single god, Amun-Ra. [Sarah Iles Johnston, "Religions of the Ancient World: A Guide", Harvard University Press 2004, p.9] Such syncretism should be distinguished from mere groupings, also referred to as "families" such as Amun, Mut, and Khonsu. Over time, deities took part in multiple syncretic relationships, for instance, the combination of Ra and Horus into Ra-Herakty. Similarly, Ptah, Seker, and Osiris became"Ptah-Seker-Osiris".


Heavily influenced by Mesopotamian mythology, the religion of the Hittites and Luwians retains noticeable Indo-European elements, for example Tarhunt the god of thunder, and his conflict with the serpent Illuyanka.

Tarhunt has a son, Telepinu and a daughter, Inara. Inara is involved with the Puruli spring festival. She is a protective deity (dLAMMA). Ishara is a goddess of the oath.

Neopagan revivals




*Gordon, Cyrus. The Ancient Near East, 3rd Edition, Revised. W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., New York, 1965.
*James, E.O. The Ancient Gods: The History and Diffusion of Religion in the Ancient Near East and the Eastern Mediterranean, 1960.
*Pritchard, James B., editor. The Ancient Near East: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures. Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1958.
*Pritchard, James B., editor. The Ancient Near East, Volume II: A New Anthology of Texts and Pictures. Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1975.
*Jack Sasson et al., eds., Civilizations of the Ancient Near East. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1995.
*Smith, Morton, "The Common Theology of the Ancient near East", Journal of Biblical Literature (1952).

Canaan and Ugarit

*Pardee, Dennis. Ritual and Cult at Ugarit. Society of Biblical Literature, Atlanta, Georgia. 2002.
*Parker, Simon B., ed. Ugaritic Narrative Poetry. Society of Biblical Literature, U.S.A., 1997.
**Smith, Mark S. The Ugaritic Baal Cycle, Volume I: Introduction with Text, Translation and Commentary of KTU 1.1-1.2. E.J. Brill, Leiden, the Netherlands, 1994.

External links

* [ ASOR (American Schools of Oriental Research), Boston University]
* [ University of Michigan. Traditions of Magic in Late Antiquity]
* [ The Edinburgh Ras Shamra Project]
* [ Canaanite/Ugaritic Mythology FAQ, ver. 1.2] by Chris Siren
* [ Canaan and Ancient Israel] by the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.


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