Ancient Assyria: Religion, Death & Burial

Instructor: Tommi Waters

TK Waters has a bachelor's degree in literature and religious studies and a master's degree in religious studies and teaches Hebrew Bible at Western Kentucky University.

Religion and superstitions influenced ancient Assyrian life and politics. In this lesson, we'll explore the religious role of the king, temples, funerary beliefs and more.

Kings and Gods

Did you know that the religion of ancient Assyria was quite similar to the infamous beliefs and practices of ancient Egypt? Both civilizations believed in a multitude of gods, had a conception of an afterlife, and had leaders who ruled on behalf of the gods. The Assyrian king was the ruler of the nation and was in charge of governing the nation's army, laws, and politics. However, the king was also a religious leader and was seen as a mediator between the people and the gods. To appease the gods, the king was supposed to rule powerfully by conquering nations, gaining wealth, and expanding the empire. In ancient Assyria, it was more important for a ruler to be powerful than ''good'' - and sometimes power demanded violence.

While the Assyrians worshiped a variety of gods, Ashur became the chief god of the entire nation over time. Each major city had a local deity who was the most important god or goddess of that city. Ashur began as the local deity of the city of Ashur, which was named for him, before he eventually became the national deity, probably because the city became the kingdom's capital. The conception of Ashur seemed to be influenced by the warfare and violence that his city stood for as well as the stories and characteristics of the Babylonian god Marduk, who created humans. But scholars do not know much about the god beyond this.

Relief depicting the Assyrian god Ashur
Relief depicting the Assyrian god Ashur

Ancient Assyria and the Supernatural

Beyond belief in the gods, the ancient Assyrians held the supernatural or mystical in high regard. At the gates of cities, the Assyrians placed statues of genii who were essentially the guardian ''angels'' of the religion. They were usually portrayed with wings and beards and would protect the city and offer blessings through water from a pine cone they were holding. The ancient Assyrians also had taboo days, which were certain days on the calendar in which a specified food was supposed to be avoided. Today, this would be like saying, ''On January 2, tater tots are taboo and should not be eaten.''

In addition to taboos, the ancient Assyrians were strongly influenced by omens, which were texts that presented an ''if…then'' scenario. The omens could be good or bad and were usually about the nation as a whole, not just individuals. Omens were often dependent on human actions: if a person did the thing in the first part of the omen, then the second part would happen. This would look something like ''If the king eats fish on Monday, then the nation will have a yearlong famine.'' Omens could also be determined by diviners, people who studied and practiced communicating with the divine through certain rituals. According to ancient Assyrian belief, the gods would ''write'' an omen on a sheep's liver; the diviner would be able to ''read'' this message by noticing bumps or grooves on the organ.

Model of a sheep liver that would be used by ancient Assyrian diviners for determining omens
Model of a sheep liver

Religious Establishments

Perhaps because of the Christianization of Assyria, little is known about the festivals the ancient Assyrians celebrated. However, as an agricultural society, they marked the change of season by celebrating the vernal (spring) and autumnal (fall) equinoxes, the days which marked the change of season. While the buildings of the ancient Assyrians have also been destroyed over the ages, scholars have been able to reconstruct what they would have looked like from some archaeological findings and historical records. The major religious buildings of ancient Assyria were ziggurats, literally ''raised areas.'' While they look similar to the Egyptian pyramids, they were not built as tombs but as temples to the gods. Ziggurats had square bases and levels with staircases up to the top where the temple to the local deity was.

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