babylonian religion 4071

Babylonian Religion

April 29, 2021

Babylonian Religion, moral and supernatural beliefs and ritual practices of the ancient Babylonians (see Babylonia). The cosmogony and cosmology of Babylonian religion—that is, the gods and demons, cults and priests, and moral and ethical teachings—were taken almost entirely from the Sumerians (see Sumer). The Babylonians, however, whose dominant ethnic strain was Amorite, undoubtedly modified many of the borrowed Sumerian religious beliefs and practices in accordance with their own cultural heritage and psychological disposition. To cite only two outstanding examples, it was the military success and political drive of the Semitic Amorites that made the city of Babylon the religious and cultural center of the land and that gave the Amorite god Marduk preeminence in the Babylonian pantheon. Nevertheless, the Babylonian theologians found it necessary to justify Marduk’s newly acquired exalted position by the legal fiction that his Sumerian predecessors, the gods An and Enlil, had themselves officially transferred their powers to him.


The Babylonians believed in a pantheon consisting of beings, human in form but superhuman in power and immortal, each of whom, although invisible to the human eye, ruled a particular component of the cosmos, however small, and controlled it in accordance with well-laid plans and duly prescribed laws. Each was in charge of one of the great realms of heaven, earth, sea, and air; or of one of the major astral bodies—the sun, moon, and planets; or, in the realm of the earth, of such natural entities as river, mountain and plain, and of such social entities as city and state. Even tools and implements, such as the pickax, brick mold, and plow, were under the charge of specially appointed deities. Finally, each Babylonian had a personal god, a kind of good angel, to whom prayers were addressed and through whom salvation could be found.

At the head of this multitude of divine kings was Marduk, the Amorite tribal god, who had played only a minor and relatively unimportant role in the religious life of the land before the time of the ruler Hammurabi in the 18th and 17th centuries bc. According to the Babylonian mythological poem known in world literature as Enuma elish (“When above,” its initial two words), Marduk was granted the leadership of the pantheon as well as the “kingship over the universe entire” as a reward for avenging the gods by defeating Tiamat, the savage and defiant goddess of chaos, and her monstrous host. Following his victory, Marduk fashioned heaven and earth, arranged and regulated the planets and stars, and created the human race.

Among the more important Babylonian deities, in addition to Marduk, were Ea, the god of wisdom, spells, and incantations; Sin, the moon god, who had his main temples at Ur and Harran, two cities associated in the Bible with the Hebrew patriarch Abraham; Shamash, the sun god and the god of justice, who is depicted on the stele, or tablet, inscribed with the code of Hammurabi (see Hammurabi, Code of); Ishtar, the ambitious, dynamic, and cruel goddess of love and war; Adad, the god of wind, storm, and flood; and Marduk’s son Nabu, the scribe and herald of the gods, whose cult eventually rivaled that of his father in popularity. In addition to the sky gods were the netherworld deities, as well as a large variety of demons, devils, and monsters, who were a constant threat to humanity and its well-being, and a few good, angelic spirits.


Each of the important deities had, in one or more of the Babylonian cities, a large temple in which he or she was worshiped as the divine civic ruler and protector. The larger cities also contained many temples and chapels dedicated to one deity or another; Babylon, for example, possessed more than 50 temples in Chaldean times (8th to 6th century bc).

Temple services were generally conducted in open courts containing fountains for ablution and altars for sacrifices. The cella, or inner part of the temple, in which the statue of the deity stood on a pedestal in a special niche, was the holy of holies, and only the high priest and other privileged members of the clergy and court were permitted to enter it. In the temple complexes of the larger cities, a ziggurat, or staged tower, was often built, crowned by a small sanctuary, which probably was reserved for the all-important sacred-marriage ceremony celebrated in connection with the new-year festival.

The upkeep of the major Babylonian temples required large revenues, which were provided primarily by gifts and endowments from the court and the wealthy. In the course of the centuries, some of the major Babylonian temples accumulated immense wealth and came into possession of large estates and factories employing large numbers of serfs and slaves. Primarily, however, the temple was the house of the god, in which all the needs of the deity were provided for in accordance with ancient rites and impressive ceremonies carried out by a vast institutionalized clergy. The latter comprised high priests, sacrifice priests, musicians, singers, magicians, soothsayers, diviners, dream interpreters, astrologers, female devotees, and hierodules (temple slaves).

Sacrifices, which were offered daily, consisted of animal and vegetable foods, libations of water, wine, and beer, and the burning of incense. Numerous annual and monthly festivals were held, including a feast to celebrate the new moon. The most important festival of all was the celebration of the new year at the spring equinox; it was known as the Akitu festival because some of its more esoteric ritual was enacted in the Akitu, Marduk’s shrine outside of Babylon. The festival lasted 11 days and included such rites as purification, sacrifice, propitiation, penance, and absolution, but it also involved colorful processions. The culmination was probably the sacred-marriage ceremony previously mentioned, which took place in the sanctuary crowning the ziggurat.


Babylonian documents indicate that the ethical and moral beliefs of the people stressed goodness and truth, law and order, justice and freedom, wisdom and learning, and courage and loyalty. Mercy and compassion were espoused, and special protection was accorded widows, orphans, refugees, the poor, and the oppressed. Immoral and unethical acts were considered transgressions against the gods and the divine order and were believed to be punished by the gods accordingly. No one was considered to be without sin, and therefore all suffering was held to be deserved. The proper course for Babylonians unhappy with their condition in life was not to argue and complain but to plead and wail, to lament and confess their inevitable sins and failings before their personal god, who acted as their mediator in the assembly of the great gods.

The religiosity of the Babylonians has come to be proverbial, and not unjustifiably so. Nevertheless, religious skepticism existed and may have been more prevalent than sources reveal.

One extant literary document known as the Babylonian Theodicy, for example, consists of a debate between a skeptic and a believer in which the latter finds it necessary to conclude with the patent and somewhat unsatisfying argument that the will of the gods is inscrutable. In another Babylonian essay, taking the form of a dialogue between a master and slave, the tone is similarly skeptical and the mood cynical; the relativist view is advanced that all human actions can be justified and are therefore fundamentally without meaning, particularly because death makes life itself insignificant.

For the Babylonians, death was indeed the consuming dread and a source of great despair. The Babylonian generally believed that at death the disembodied spirit descends to the dark nether world, and that human existence beyond the grave is at best only a dismal, wretched reflection of life on earth. Any hope of an eternal reward for the righteous and deserving was absent; everyone was impartially consigned to the world below. It is not strange that the most popular, dramatic, and creative Babylonian literary work, the Gilgamesh Epic, centers on a vain and pathetic quest for eternal life.

See also Assyria; Assyro-Babylonian Language; Assyro-Babylonian Literature; Mesopotamian Art and Architecture.

Contributed By:  Samuel Noah Kramer

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