This lesson will explore the religion of ancient Sumer and its Akkadian empire. In doing this, it will highlight the Sumerian pantheon, their ziggurats, and their belief in the afterlife.
Engulfing the Southern areas of ancient Mesopotamia, known today as Iran and Iraq, Sumer and its Akkadian Empire is often referred to as the world's first real civilization. Lucky for lovers of history and religion, time has allowed aspects of this culture to survive through Sumerian art and even the Sumerian script known as cuneiform. With these treasures, we are able to gain a glimpse into the ancient lives and religion of Sumer and its people.
According to what scientist have been able to piece together from the ancient ruins of Sumer, the civilization was made up of city-states in which each city was autonomous with its own deities and temples - the most famous of these city-states being the well-known Ur.
Adding to this autonomy, each city-state usually had its own priest-king, or ruler with both secular and sacred authority. Many times this authority was absolute. However, even after the role of priest and king began to split and secular rulers came to power, the Sumerian priests still held a huge amount of authority.
Ziggurats & Pantheon
As far as archaeology has been able to uncover, it seems that each city-state housed a temple. The remains of these massive Sumerian temples, known as ziggurats, can still be seen across the region of Mesopotamia.
To the ancients of Sumer, these temples existed to house their deities. Along with the priests of the faith, singers, slaves and even prostitutes worked within the temples as public rituals and sacrifices took place daily.
As with most ancient religions, the Sumerians believed humans existed to please and serve the gods. The Sumerian pantheon, or gods of the culture, usually took on an Anthropomorphic, or human form. Although they were vast in number, each held to a divine myth of sorts known as the Me. The Me acted like a set of rules to keep the world functioning properly.
Within this set of divine rules, Sumer's gods held many human traits. Some were believed to be wives, offspring, or even slaves of the more important, powerful gods. Like human families, these divine families had their share of quarrels and squabbles to deal with. In the end, the more important deities usually had the last say.
At the top of the Sumerian pantheon were An, Enki, Enlil and Ninhursag. These four were believed to be the creators of all other gods, with Enlil being considered the most important.
Unfortunately for the Sumerians, the afterlife didn't hold the promise of paradise or a heaven. Instead, death began a depressing descent into a dismal underworld.
The Sumerian afterlife involved a descent into a gloomy netherworld to spend eternity as a gidim, or ghost. In this wretched existence, like in life, the dead of Sumer were consigned to the service of the gods.
Encompassing the Southern regions of Mesopotamia, the Sumerian culture is often referred to as the first civilization. Fortunately for historians, the people of Sumer left behind some great clues for us to piece together their religion.
Arranged in city-states, the people of Sumer had a vast pantheon of gods. These gods, who were usually anthropomorphic, or of human form, were believed to be housed in the temples known as ziggurats. Like most ancient civilizations, the Sumerians believed humans existed to serve and please the gods. Also like many other ancient civilizations, the pantheon of Sumer was a hierarchical one with the god Enlil at the helm.
Just like the Sumerians believed they lived to serve their gods, their afterlife held the same sentence. Existing as gidim, or ghosts, the Sumerians believed death led to a depressing underworld of eternal subservience.
This video lesson was designed to encourage you to:
- Examine the city-states of ancient Sumer
- Describe the Sumerians' ziggurats and pantheon of gods
- Analyze the afterlife as the Sumerians saw it