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Around 3500-around 2000 BCE

Mesopotamia / Religions /
Sumer /

1. High religion
2. Private religion
3. Concept of gods
4. Concept of man
5. Temples and cult
6. Goal of the religion
7. Myths
Detailed articleMesopotamian gods and goddesses

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The god Enki.

From Temple of Ninhursag, Tall al-Ubayd, Iraq

From Temple of Ninhursag, Tall al-Ubayd, Iraq.

Religious ideas and practice among the people of Sumer, during the period 3500-2000 BCE.
The term must not be interpreted so that Sumerian religion was an established religion. There were religious ideas shared among all inhabitants and cities, but from city to city, as well as between individuals there could be substantial and unsystematic differences. When considered a large structure, Sumerian religion was henotheistic rather than polytheistic.
It also had clear elements of animism and anthropomorphism.
As centuries passed, dynasties changed and the name of the religion of this region also changed name. The succeeding system would become Babylonian religion, then Assyrian.

High religion
As far as evidence goes, it is clearly indicated that religion was an established axis of the society. Religion, culture, society and politics were intertwined to a degree that it actually is a question whether or not religion can be identified in the sense of being separate from these other aspects of society.
From religious structures emerged political structures, but then again, the political elite could impose necessary changes to religion to fit political goals.
Veneration also had its local characters, with unique temple structures, priest responsibilities and festivals.

Private religion
Religion continued down into the level of family and individual. While leaving the responsibility of dealing with the main gods into the hands of the religious and political elite, the ordinary man and woman revered their special gods and acted out their specific rituals. There could be correspondance between private religion and high religion, like in the case of annual ceremonies.

Concept of gods
The religion was dominated by a number of gods, a system where each city had its own central god, different from the others. Although there were certain deities that were shared by the cities, often at an elevated position, no system was ever developed for a coexistence of the city gods.
Gods were revered through man-like statues. To each god was attributed important powers.
The highest of gods in Sumerian religion was An, who represented the heaven. His wife was Ki, representing the earth. The highest gods on the level under them were Enki at Eridu, Enlil at Nippur and Inannna at Uruk. Among other city gods were Utu at Sippar and Nanna at Ur.
Enki was the god of water, Ki was the god of earth, Enlil was the god of air, and An was, as noted above, the god of heaven.

Concept of man
Sumerian myths told that man was created by the gods from clay, with the purpose of serving the gods.
There was a clear symbiosis between man and god. Gods were in control over human fate. Humans, and especially the leaders, were in charge of keeping the gods pleased. All types of rituals, from daily t monthly to yearly, were acted out inside the temple. There were several daily rituals.

Temples and cult
Each citizen had work duties to their temple, but the work they performed was often of communal character and general interest, like the creation of irrigation system.
Sumerian temples were in their most elevated shape the ziggurat, grand structures built from mud-brick.
Animal sacrifice was a central part of Sumerian cult.

Goal of the religion
The Sumerian image of an afterlife was not positive nor negative, believing in a an existance as a ghost in a dark underworld.

Sumerian creation myths tell about the world being created from an ancient sea.

Confused? Try to find a good place to start learning about Mesopotamia in
Where to begin?Detailed article

By Tore Kjeilen