Skip Navigation LinksWH_Polytheism

Focus Question: How were religious beliefs constructed in the ancient civilizations in Mesopotamia?

​The Sumerian civilization was polytheistic (believing in more than one god) and was consequently succeeded by the Babylonians and Assyrians, both of whom adopted the polytheistic beliefs. Many of the gods were similar among civilizations; however, stories and gods were added. For details, see below.
Examining religious practices in the ancient world is a foundation for the study of great monotheistic world religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

As defined in the Oxford English Dictionary, polytheism is the “doctrine or belief that there is more than one god; worship of several gods.” Most ancient civilizations believed in a group of gods and goddesses that were characters in myths that served to explain natural phenomena (like thunder, or death), and establish moral codes. Often, would be a dominant god or goddess within these groups. For example, the Ancient Greeks believed that Zeus was the head of the gods. In Norse mythology, Odin was the greatest god. For the Sumerians, An, the god of air and sky, was the preeminent god. (History Guide).

The Sumerians live in Mesopotamia from 2900-1800 B.C. in political entities called "city-states." These city-states were clusters of cities independent from each other's rule. Each city-state had a patron, or protecting god or goddess (History Guide). This god or goddess was worshipped at the temple in the center of the city, which formed the focal point of local life in each city-state. One of the most important parts of these temples was the tall tower called the ziggurat, meaning "Holy Mountain."

This god or goddess was worshipped at the temple in the center of the city, which formed the focal point of local life in each city-state. One of the most important parts of these temples was the tall tower called a ziggurat, meaning “Holy Mountain”.

According to ancient legend, the Sumerians originally came from the mountains where they believed the gods resided. In order to stay close to these gods after migrating to the Fertile Crescent, these ziggurats were constructed so the priests could serve the needs of the gods (Check out this page for more pictures of ziggurats).

In addition, food and resources went to the gods first (really, to the priests at the temples) while the remainder was then given to the city-state residents. Because each city-state’s god guarded over it and its people, each city-state was sacred. In this sense, the Sumerians thought that the gods and goddesses owned these cities.

Sumerian gods and goddesses represented parts of the natural world and were anthropomorphic, which means they resembled humans (History Guide, Ancient History Encyclopedia). There were four principle gods in Ancient Sumer:

  • An: god of the sky

  • Enki: god of the earth, as well as rivers and water

  • Enlil: god of the wind

  • Ninhursaga: goddess of soil, mountains and plants


Other, lesser gods included

  • Utu: god of the sun

  • Nannar: god of the moon

  • The lesser gods were celestial bodies, considered to be An’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren. (Ancient History Encyclopedia)

The Sumerians were followed in Mesopotamia by the Akkadians, the Babylonians, and the Assyrians, all of whom followed similar gods and goddesses (History for Kids). One very prominent goddess for all of them was Ishtar, or Inanna. She was a fertility goddess, like many female goddesses in the ancient world. In one myth, when Gilgamesh would not love Ishtar, she killed his friend Enkidu. In another story, created to explain the seasons, Ishtar kills her son Tammuz. When she does, the whole earth dies. Ishtar goes to her sister Allatu, goddess of the underworld, and begs her to let Tammuz come back. Like in the Greek myth about Persephone, Tammuz is only allowed to come back from the underworld for spring and summer—thus explaining how the earth “dies” every year in fall and winter.

Ancient_Ziggurat.jpg

The reconstructed facade of the Neo-Sumerian Great Ziggurat of Ur, near Nasiriyah, Iraq.