Ancient god of the heavens), Utu (god

Ancient Mesopotamia was a land of chaotic weather and inner turmoil. Religion became a political weapon for fighting among the city-states. This lesson explores the link between religion and politics in the ancient land.

Mesopotamian Kings

When you hear the word ‘king,’ do you think of the ruler of just one country? In most instances, this rings true.

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However, ancient Mesopotamia was a region that contained several city-states, much like Italy during the Italian Renaissance period. Mesopotamia at this time did not have a centralized government but, instead, had many smaller regions with their own separate governments. The early kings ruled over only their own city-states.Lacking a centralized government and leader, the ancient region was prone to internal fighting among the kings for land and resources. As early as the 4th millennium BCE, ancient Mesopotamia covered the region that is now known as Iraq. It was settled between two major rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates.

Although fertile, this land was prone to cycles of flooding and other natural disasters.

Religion in Mesopotamia

Religion in Mesopotamia served as a means to explain the uncertainty that developed as a result of the unpredictable weather conditions. The Mesopotamians could attribute the chaotic weather to the will of a god, finding comfort in the belief that they were at the mercy of the gods rather than the mercy of nature’s anarchy. Mesopotamian gods were anthropomorphic.

Anthropomorphic gods were human in appearance with many human personality traits. Gods required food and drink, and some gods had more power than others.Most people had a relationship with their personal deity. However, the gods with the most power, although seemingly distant from humanity, were venerated by most people. A few of these more powerful gods are Enki (god of water and wisdom), Enlil (god of the sky who could create raging storms), Anu (the father of the gods and god of the heavens), Utu (god of the sun), Nana (god of the moon) and Ninhursag (goddess of the Earth).

Religion and Politics Rule Mesopotamia

Religion was often one aspect that forged a common bond among the members of a Mesopotamian city-state. Naturally, religion became closely linked with politics.

Religious beliefs, however, could vary between city-states. Some gods, with similar aspects and descriptions, may have been worshiped under a different name in more than one region. For example, Anu, mentioned previously as the father of the gods, was known by this same name in some of the larger city-states: Akkad, Babylon and Assyria. A god with similar attributes was known in Sumer (another major city-state) as An.

Because the Mesopotamians believed the gods controlled the precarious weather, a social class developed around the priests. Priests were given the task of creating rituals to honor the patron deity of their city-state. Priests gained power because everything belonged to the gods. They made decisions regarding land, commercial trade, agricultural development and even war.

They gained wealth from the contributions of the people to the gods. They also commissioned the building of ziggurats. Ziggurats were large structures with varying levels. Their main purpose was likely as a dwelling place for the local deity. They were located in the city’s center as a place of commerce.

The Power of Priests

In most regions in early Mesopotamia, the priest was considered the ruling official.

Priest-kings held administrative and religious governing authority. In later periods, however, a king ruled separately from a priest. Although kings were not viewed as gods, they were considered to be appointed by the gods. The city’s priest, however, still held influence. A priest’s disagreement with a king’s decision could lead to tension.

For this reason, the king may have appointed members of the royal household to religious official status.One of the more well-known kings is Sargon. Sargon was from the land of Akkad. He was the first to unite several cities under one rule in the 24th century BCE.

When Sargon defeated the Urak king, Lugalzagesi, he put a yolk on him and forced him to march to a holy city dedicated to Enlil. Lugalzagesi claimed to have a special relationship with this deity. Sargon used religion to display his power.

His land expanded through one of southern Mesopotamia’s largest cities, Sumer, and also into northern Mesopotamia.Sargon’s successors held control over their land until around 1750 BCE, when the land was conquered by Babylonian leader Hammurabi. Hammurabi is unique because he created a code of laws governing behavior. The code consisted of over 200 acts and their required punishment. Hammurabi claimed authority to create these laws by stating they were dictated to him by Marduk, the patron god of Hammurabi’s homeland of Babylon.

Lesson Summary

Religion was a major aspect of the varying Mesopotamian societies because it established order amid chaotic, unpredictable environmental conditions. Although beliefs, practices and even deities may have differed among regions, the strong link between religion and politics remained constant. Power was a balancing act between the kings and the priests.

Learning Outcome

When you’ve finished this video, you should be able to:

  • Discuss the political climate of Mesopotamia
  • Identify Sargon and Hammurabi
  • Explain religion in Mesopotamia and how it related to politics
  • Describe priests and how they ruled in Mesopotamia
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