Early Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia


Getty Images / Nik Wheeler

We can only speculate about early religion. When the ancient cave painters drew animals on the walls of their caves, this may have been part of a belief in the magic of animism. By painting the animal, the animal would appear; by painting it speared, success in the hunt might be guaranteed.

Neanderthals buried their dead with objects, presumably so they could be used in the afterlife.

By the time mankind was banding together in cities or city-states, structures for the gods—like temples—dominated the landscape.

Four Creator Gods

Ancient Mesopotamians attributed the forces of nature to the workings of divine forces. Since there are many forces of nature, so there were many gods and goddesses, including four creator gods. These four creator gods, unlike the Judaeo-Christian concept of God, were NOT there from the beginning. The forces of Taimat and Abzu, who had emerged from a primordial chaos of water, created them. This isn't unique to Mesopotamia; the ancient Greek creation story also tells of primordial beings who emerged from Chaos.

  1. The highest of the four creator gods was the sky-god An, the over-arching bowl of heaven.
  2. Next came Enlil who could either produce raging storms or act to help man.
  3. Nin-khursag was the earth goddess.
  4. The fourth god was Enki, the water god and patron of wisdom.

These four Mesopotamian gods did not act alone, but consulted with an assembly of 50, which is called the Annunaki. Innumerable spirits and demons shared the world with the Annunaki.​

How the Gods Helped Mankind

The gods bound people together in their social groups and were believed to have provided what they needed to survive. The Sumerians developed stories and festivals to explain and harness help for their physical environment. Once a year came the new year and with it, the Sumerians thought the gods decided what would happen to mankind for the coming year.


Otherwise, the gods and goddesses were more concerned with their own feasting, drinking, fighting, and arguing. But they could be prevailed upon to help on occasion if ceremonies were performed to their liking. The priests were responsible for the sacrifices and rituals that were essential for the help of the gods. In addition, property belonged to the gods, so priests administered it. This made the priests valuable and important figures in their communities. And so, the priestly class developed.

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Gill, N.S. "Early Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, thoughtco.com/early-religion-in-ancient-mesopotamia-112341. Gill, N.S. (2020, August 28). Early Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/early-religion-in-ancient-mesopotamia-112341 Gill, N.S. "Early Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/early-religion-in-ancient-mesopotamia-112341 (accessed June 6, 2023).