The ancient area of Mesopotamia is considered “the cradle of civilization” for much of the world. The name means land between rivers, comprising the area of the Tigris-Euphrates river system, roughly modern-day Iraq, plus parts of northeastern Syria, southeastern Turkey, and southwestern Iran.
A non-Semitic tribe calling themselves the black-headed people lived in southern Mesopotamia; the Semitic Akkadians who inhabited the north gave them the name Sumerians. The Sumerians had an advanced civilization that seems to have sprung into being more or less from nowhere around 4000 BCE.
Sumerians were the first known people to grow grains and raise sheep and cattle on a large scale. They were the first to practice “modern” agriculture: large-scale, year-round production, using mono-cropping, irrigation, and specialized workers. Sumer drained marshes for agriculture, aided by the fact that the temples and their high priests owned vast amounts of land — and required that everyone donate labor to the temple, on a moment’s notice and for as long as needed.
The Sumerians’ success at growing and storing grains and herding animals meant they could settle instead of living as nomads. A dozen city-states, of 10,000 or more population each, sprang up in Sumer, such as Eridu and Sippar, each with its own temple for its own tutelary deity, and each ruled by its king or high priest.
Sumer is thought to have been the birthplace of writing; written records begin here about 3100 BCE, consisting of cuneiform text on clay. The Sumerians had a complex system of metrology, the science of measurement; they understood, and perhaps created, arithmetic, geometry, and algebra. Their number system was sexagesimal, based on alternating bases of 10 and 60, and is still used today to measure time and angles. Sumer is said to have been the first to use place values in arithmetic, and the first to calculate the volume of a cube and the area of a triangle.
Sumerians were knowledgeable astronomers; they made star maps. They gave the world its first bureaucracy, with codified systems of law and administration, including “paperwork” (on clay), courts, and jails. They may have been responsible for inventing military formations. They were avid traders and boat-builders and were accomplished at leather- and metalwork, weaving, masonry, and pottery. They may even have invented the wheel—it appears, as a potter’s wheel, nearly simultaneously in the mid-4th millennium BCE, in Mesopotamia, Central Europe, and the northern Caucasus (at the border of Europe and Asia). Soon wheels were propelling carts and grinding grain.
Where did all this advanced knowledge come from? Archaeological findings show that just before the time Sumer blossomed, “civilization” locally consisted, most likely, of peasant farmers, hunter-fishermen, and nomads — and indications are that these rude lifestyles were on their way down, devolving not evolving, at the time Sumer blossomed.
Stories from many civilizations tell of divine teachers — gods and demigods — and sometimes humans specially endowed by the gods with knowledge — who teach humans the arts and sciences needed for civilized living. Ancient texts suggest that one such teacher, Oannes, and his helpers oversaw the education of humans when “kingship” first “from heaven was lowered,” giving rapid rise to Sumerian civilization. Here is what Carl Sagan and his co-auther I.S. Shklovskii had to say about Oannes in the 1966 edition of their book, Intelligent Life in the Universe:
[S]tories like the Oannes legend, and representations especially of the earliest civilizations on Earth, deserve much more critical studies than have been performed heretofore, with the possibility of direct contact with an extraterrestrial civilization as one of many possible alternative explanations.
With or without the help of Oannes, Sumer prospered—and was a popular target for takeover, falling to the Akkadians in 2270, and then being conquered in turn by the Babylonians and Assyrians, among others, with Alexander the Great taking over for Greece in 332 BCE.
Mesopotamians worshiped about 2400 gods and goddesses in the early days, winnowing those to a few hundred over time, as Sumerian gods merged with Akkadian gods, and so forth, and as less popular gods fell by the wayside. Each city-state had its own tutelary deity, who was considered the most superior of all the gods worshipped in that vicinity — although most of the many written prayers that have been found exalt whichever god they’re addressed to as being the best god in every way. Many Mesopotamian gods and goddesses were especially popular with Yahweh’s followers.
In addition to their many gods, Mesopotamians also had many demons to make their lives difficult with plagues and misfortunes, often requiring exorcism. The edimmu, for instance, were ghosts of people who did not have proper burial; [they were vengeful against their former loved ones, love having turned to hate in equal proportion.] They were thought to suck the breath out of sleeping children.
With its lively, multifaceted pantheon, Mesopotamian religion prospered for more than 4000 years. Beginning in the first century CE, it became admixed or replaced with Christianity and Judaism, but remnants of the native religion remained until at least the 4th century CE.
The religious stories of Sumeria, which probably were the first ever to be written down, not only show up transformed into Bible classics—such as the Creation, the Garden of Eden, the Deluge, the Tower of Babel, Moses’s Birth, and the Ten Commandments — but also form the basis of Egyptian and Greek mythologies. Professor Rodney Stark writes in Discovering God that the pantheons of the ancient gods were “remarkably similar”:
Indeed the great Greek historian Herodotus (c. 484-425 BCE) claimed that the gods of Greece had been adopted from Egypt, and many modern scholars agree. [fin][fn: Griffiths, “The Orders of Gods in Ancient Greece and Egypt.”] There is equally strong evidence that both Greek and Egyptian religions display strong Sumerian influences.
Sumer’s was a temple religion; there was no separation of church and state; the highest priest was the king himself. All the people were considered slaves of the city’s god, and the priests, as intermediaries, controlled everyone’s lives.
Priests were mostly descendants of previous priests; it was a closed order. They were highly trained in ritual; important parts were played by dance, hymns, and music — harps, lyres, drums. Sacred temple Sumerian texts were rhythmic, sometimes with much repetition of the “Twelve Days of Christmas” sort, and catchy choruses.
Ordinary people did not take place in temple activities, except occasionally in public ceremonies. Upper nobility might be able to gain access to some temple rites, but usually Sumerian temple rituals were performed and witnessed exclusively by priests. The temple was considered the house of the god(s), and the holy sanctuary where the god(s) resided was out of view of everyone except priests. The gods were believed to actually inhabit the sacred temple idols made in their images, in one or another of their forms, and they needed to be bathed, fed, and similarly cared for, in addition to being petitioned and propitiated.
Temples were huge, built on high spots atop raised platforms, and made of baked mud bricks. When the old temple was worn out, the mud bricks were torn down and flattened, and a new temple was built atop the remains of the old one—the only acceptable, sacred site, making the temple that much higher yet than the surrounding city.
Starting about 2300 BCE, the building style shifted to step pyramids called ziggurats—from two to seven successively smaller tiers of sun-baked bricks, with colorful fired and glazed brick facings outside; inside walls were painted with frescos.
The ziggurats were believed to connect heaven and Earth. Etemenanki, the name of a Babylonian temple dedicated to Marduk, means Temple of the Foundation of Heaven and Earth, or perhaps House of the Platform between Heaven and Earth. It had seven multi-colored tiers, with the temple on top—where the god(s) lived—painted indigo blue. The ziggurat included living quarters for the priests, and was a fortress of privacy at the center of a busy city.
There were five dozen or more significant temples in Sumeria, for various gods. The main triad of deities were known by different names at different times, and fused identities when convenient, but the basic story is that the high god An and his (literal or metaphorical) sons Enki and Enlil create heaven and earth, and then the sons come down to Earth to implement plans to mine and farm and provide a nice lifestyle for the gods. [300 come down; 300 stay up]
The gods cast lots and divided (the Cosmos):
[Anu] went up to [heaven]
[Enlil had] the earth as his subject;
[the lock,] the snare of the sea
[was given] to Enki the wise.[footnote: atrahasis]
Mesopotamia wasn’t the only springboard for civilization. Others around the world are: (dates vary widely among sources) Egypt (starting about 3000 BCE); Yellow River Valley (China, 2200 BCE); Indus Valley (India, 1500 BCE); Andes (Peru, 800 BCE); and Mesoamerica (Mexico, 3rd century BCE).
Ugarit was an ancient port city, the site of modern-day Ras Shamra in Syria.
Ugarit’s location was forgotten until 1928 when a peasant accidentally opened an old tomb while ploughing a field. The discovered area was the Necropolis of Ugarit located in the nearby seaport of Minet el-Beida. Excavations have since revealed an important city that takes its place alongside Ur and Eridu as a cradle of urban culture, with a prehistory reaching back to ca. 6000 BC, perhaps because it was both a port and at the entrance of the inland trade route to the Euphrates and Tigris lands.
The excavations uncovered a royal palace of ninety rooms laid out around eight enclosed courtyards, and many ambitious private dwellings. Crowning the hill where the city was built were two main temples: one to Baal the “king”, son of El, and one to Dagon, the chthonic god of fertility and wheat.
On excavation of the site, several deposits of cuneiform clay tablets were found; all dating from the last phase of Ugarit, around 1200 BC. These represented a palace library, a temple library and—apparently unique in the world at the time—two private libraries, one belonging to a diplomat named Rapanu. The libraries at Ugarit contained diplomatic, legal, economic, administrative, scholastic, literary and religious texts. The tablets are written in Sumerian, Hurrian, Akkadian (the language of diplomacy at this time in the ancient Near East), or Ugaritic (a previously unknown language). No less than seven different scripts were in use at Ugarit: Egyptian and Luwian hieroglyphs, and Cypro-Minoan, Sumerian, Akkadian, Hurrian, and Ugaritic cuneiform. —http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ugarit
Babyloniaca, written by Babylonian priest Berossus circa 280 BCE, says that all the arts and sciences were brought by a “primeval being, half-man, half-fish, Oannes” who came out of the Persian Gulf and “taught man everything there is to know. Since then nothing new has been learned, though much has been forgotten.” In the 1832 edition of Ancient Fragments, author I.P. Cory translates the writings of Berossus concerning Oannes:
At Babylon there was (in these times) a great resort of people of various nations, who inhabited Chaldæa, and lived in a lawless manner like the beasts of the field. In the first year there appeared, from that part of the Erythræan sea which borders upon Babylonia, an animal destitute1 of reason, by name Oannes, whose whole body (according to the account of Apollodorus) was that of a fish; that under the fish’s head he had another head, with feet also below, similar to those of a man, subjoined to the fish’s tail. His voice too, and language, was articulate and human; and a representation of him is preserved even to this day.
This Being was accustomed to pass the day among men; but took no food at that season; and he gave them an insight into letters and sciences, and arts of every kind. He taught them to construct cities, to found temples, to compile laws, and explained to them the principles of geometrical knowledge. He made them distinguish the seeds of the earth, and shewed them how to collect the fruits; in short, he instructed them in every thing which could tend to soften manners and humanize their lives. From that time, nothing material has been added by way of improvement to his instructions. And when the sun had set, this Being Oannes, retired again into the sea, and passed the night in the deep; for he was amphibious. After this there appeared other animals like Oannes, of which Berossus proposes to give an account when he comes to the history of the kings.
In the story of how Enki gets drunk and gives the 100 [sacred] mes to Inana, repetition is used to recall again and again what each me is:
Holy Inana received deceit, the rebel lands, kindness, being on the move, being sedentary. [El said,] “In the name of my power, in the name of my abzu, I will give them to holy Inana, my daughter….”
Holy Inana received the craft of the carpenter, the craft of the coppersmith, the craft of the scribe, the craft of the smith, the craft of the leather-worker, the craft of the fuller, the craft of the builder, the craft of the reed-worker. “In the name of my power, in the name of my abzu, I will give them to holy Inana, my daughter…”
This goes on for a long time, and then repeats as Inana acknowledges what she has been given:
“He has given me deceit. He has given me the rebel lands. He has given me kindness. He has given me being on the move. He has given me being sedentary…He has given me the craft of the carpenter. He has given me the craft of the coppersmith. He has given me the craft of the scribe. He has given me the craft of the smith. He has given me the craft of the leather-worker. He has given me the craft of the fuller. He has given me the craft of the builder. He has given me the craft of the reed-worker….”