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Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia

Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia
An Illustrated Dictionary
Illustrations by Tessa Rickards

This book offers an introductory guide to the beliefs and customs of the ancient Mesopotamians, as revealed in their art and their writings between about 3000 B.C. and the advent of the Christian era.

Sales restrictions: For sale in the United States, its dependencies, Canada, and Latin America only
January 1992
This book is out of print and no longer available.
192 pages | 6 3/4 x 9 1/2 | illus. |

Ancient Mesopotamia was a rich, varied and highly complex culture whose achievements included the invention of writing and the development of sophisticated urban society. This book offers an introductory guide to the beliefs and customs of the ancient Mesopotamians, as revealed in their art and their writings between about 3000 B.C. and the advent of the Christian era. Gods, goddesses, demons, monsters, magic, myths, religious symbolism, ritual, and the spiritual world are all discussed in alphabetical entries ranging from short accounts to extended essays. Names are given in both their Sumerian and Akkadian forms, and all entries are fully cross-referenced. A useful introduction provides historical and geographical background and describes the sources of our knowledge about the religion, mythology and magic of "the cradle of civilisation".


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Ancient Mesopotamia was the home of some of the world's earliest cities, and the place where writing was invented. For these two major developments alone—urban society and literate society—it might justly be titled the 'cradle of civilisation', but in its literature, its religious philosophies and no less in its art it can also be placed firmly as the direct ancestor of the Western world.

Our knowledge of the civilisation of ancient Mesopotamia is constantly expanding. A hundred and fifty years after the first modern excavations, archaeological work in the Near East continues unabated and new discoveries are constantly being made which add to, reshape and refine our assessments of some of the most staggering human achievements of antiquity. At the sites of ancient settlements and in the museums of Iraq and of other countries one can contemplate and wonder at the monuments, arts, handicrafts and utensils of daily life of the Mesopotamians. Thanks to the Mesopotamians' own greatest invention—writing—and modern decipherment of the languages in which they expressed themselves, we can read their literature, reconstruct their history and learn something of their thoughts.

This is not to say that vast amounts of research do not still remain to be done. If some areas of history can be reconstructed down to the smallest detail, there are periods where enormous gaps in our knowledge remain. If numerous copies survive of one poem, there are many others of which only fragments have been recovered. If we can trace the use and meaning of some religious motifs throughout thousands of years, there remain some whose significance still eludes us completely. There is a constant need for skilled archaeologists and scholarly researchers to sift through the great wealth of evidence coming to light. But for the general reader, several reliable accounts of Mesopotamian civilisation, together with the story of how it has been revealed to us, are now available. There are lavishly illustrated books showing the full range of ancient art, from temple architecture and palace reliefs to cylinder seals and filigree jewellery. And gradually, accurate and readable modern translations of the extensive Sumerian and Babylonian literatures are appearing, together with explanatory studies.

This book does not attempt to emulate the breadth or detail of such works, but rather to serve as an introductory guidebook for those who are tempted to read for the first time about ancient Mesopotamia, and especially to those whose interest is drawn to the belief systems of ancient peoples as revealed in their art and in their writings. It is not intended to be a complete survey of religion and beliefs, and necessarily reflects the particular interests of the authors. There are a number of extended essays, which are complemented by shorter entries covering the most interesting individual deities, motifs and symbols, and a selection of other topics. Inevitably much has been omitted.

The uses to which cuneiform writing was put in Mesopotamia have ensured that, in addition to administrative, commercial and historical documents, extensive attention was paid to the recording of religious matters. In pre-modern societies, religion had a much more pervasive influence on every aspect of life: government and politics, social relations, education and literature were all dominated by it. Thus in this context we subsume under the term religion a wide sweep of ideas and beliefs ranging from magic at one extreme to philosophy at the other. A very considerable portion of ancient art, too, was produced within this broad religious sphere, or using motifs and images derived from religious traditions. The gods, goddesses and demons, the motifs, symbols and religious beliefs of the several thousand years of Mesopotamian civilisation are bewilderingly complex to the modern reader who stands on the threshold of that world. The authors hope that this dictionary can be used as a first reference book to accompany them on their journey within.

Peoples and Places

The cultures of Mesopotamia grew up through the interplay, clash and fusion of different peoples, with their separate social systems, religious beliefs and pantheons, languages and political structures. Uniquely, Mesopotamia was a crossroads and melting-pot for vastly different groups of peoples over thousands of years from the prehistoric periods to the Persian conquest. Moreover, although the potential productivity and prosperity of the region was the impetus for extensive and prolonged immigration, the area has no real geographical unity, nor any obvious or permanent capital, so that it is in marked contrast to civilisations of greater uniformity, such as Egypt. There are, however, a few unifying factors, such as the cuneiform script for writing, the pantheon of gods which through syncretism and assimilation was an evolving tradition, and the highly conservative works of art, especially religious art. In these fields, at least, it is therefore possible to speak of something uniquely 'Mesopotamian'.

The map on page 10 shows the ancient Near East. Mesopotamia—'the land between two rivers'—was a name given first by the Greeks to the exceptionally fertile river valley of the twin streams Tigris and Euphrates, which both rise in the mountains of Turkey. The Tigris flows faster and deeper, has more amuents and is more prone to flood than the Euphrates, which follows a more circuitous course until it joins the Tigris in the very south of Iraq and they flow together as the Shatt al-'Arab down to the Gulf (of which the shoreline may have been slightly further north in ancient times). More generally, the term Mesopotamia is used to cover the whole extent of the civilisation associated with this region, so that the term effectively includes an area extending outside the borders of modern Iraq into Syria, and parts of Turkey and Iran. At its greatest extent, the influence of Mesopotamian civilisation could be felt as far away as modern Iran, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, Turkey, Cyprus and Greece; there were also commercial connections with the Indus Valley (Pakistan). Mesopotamia proper can be divided into two regions, corresponding to two once-great empires and, later, to two provinces of the Persian Empire. The northern area is Assyria, named after its original capital city Assur; the southern is Babylonia, named after its principal city Babylon: the boundary between the two lay a little north of modern Baghdad. Earlier Babylonia was made up of two regions: a southern area called by modern archaeologists Sumer (anciently Sumerum) and a northern half called Akkad, and it is from these two areas that the principal ancient languages of Mesopotamia take their names: Sumerian, an agglutinative, ergative language of which no related language is preserved, and Akkadian, a member of the Semitic family of languages (including also Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic, Phoenician and Ugaritic).

The people who invented writing in Sumer in roughly 3400 BC almost certainly spoke Sumerian. They had no traditions of having come to that region from elsewhere and, although the archaeological evidence is not absolutely conclusive, there seems no reason necessarily to assume that they were not the descendants of the earlier, prehistoric peoples of Sumer. Although in time Sumerian spread, as a written language, as far as western Syria, and was widely used as a cultural language throughout Mesopotamian history, its homeland was Sumer, where it was probably spoken as a vernacular until about 2000 BC. None of the other languages related to Sumerian was ever written down and so they remain unknown to us.

The Sumerians, then, were the originators of the early high civilisation of southern Mesopotamia from shortly before 3000 BC. As their language died out as an everyday idiom, they were probably absorbed into the other peoples of the region, who spoke languages of the Semitic family. Scribes with Semitic names are attested in northern Babylonia almost as early as the earliest writing we can read, and they probably spoke Old Akkadian, the earliest recorded form of a Semitic language. Akkadian is used as a general term for this language, of which the later forms Assyrian and Babylonian are also dialects. Other early Semitic languages are Amorite, which we know only from personal names (the Amorites were apparently a largely nomadic people) and the recently discovered language of Ebla in western Syria, which seems to have been very close to Old Akkadian. Akkadian first came to the fore during the period of the Akkadian kingdom (see below), but it was Assyrian and Babylonian, in their respective areas, which gradually took over as Sumerian died out in the south.

A third ethnic group, the Hurrians, were settled in a wide band across northern Mesopotamia, most of Syria and the very south-east of Turkey by at least 2000 BC. These agricultural people spoke a language of their own, of which the only known relative is the later Urartian; the extent to which they possessed a definable civilisation of their own, as opposed to borrowing their religion and art from their neighbours, is still debated. The climax of their history was the formation of the Hurrian kingdom of Mitanni, which reached its high point around 1400 BC. More than a century later, there still seems to have been a considerable number of Hurrians in Assyria and northeastern Babylonia, but thereafter they must have been absorbed into the general population.

The names of many tribal and nomadic peoples are mentioned throughout Mesopotamian history, especially the often warlike groups who were either attracted down into the fertile river valleys from the inhospitable Zagros Mountains to the east, or were driven into Mesopotamia by the pressure of other groups behind them. Such a people were the Gutians, whose entry on the Mesopotamian scene coincided with, if it was not actually responsible for, the decline and fall of the Akkadian kingdom. According to some sources, a series of Gutian leaders ruled southern Mesopotamia until a Sumerian dynasty was eventually able to reassert itself.

A similar story can be told about the Kassites, a people who are first mentioned in Syria in the eighteenth century BC but who moved gradually down into Babylonia and eventually controlled it. A dynasty of Kassite kings ruled Babylonia for half a millennium thereafter. We know very little about the origins of the Kassites, and only a few words of their unclassifiable language and the names of some of their gods: despite their position of political control, they appear to have contributed relatively little to the culture of the lands they ruled.

It was inevitable that the stable, urban cultures of Babylonia and Assyria should be infiltrated by nomadic elements who took advantage of the opportunity to gain material benefit, whether peacefully or by raiding. There is good evidence that both the earliest Assyrians (with their 'kings who lived in tents') and the earliest Babylonians were of Amorite origin. During the second millennium a further wave of Semitic nomads entered history, first as troublesome raiders, then as mercenaries and gradually as settled elements in the population. These were the Aramaeans, who may have developed originally out of one particular Amorite tribal clan. By soon after 1000 BC it is likely that their language, Aramaic, was widely used as an everyday vernacular in both Assyria and Babylonia as well as over most of Syria and Palestine (where Hebrew also was still spoken). The Neo-Babylonian Empire founded in 626 BC may also have had its origins in an Aramaic-speaking tribal confederation, the Chaldaeans. In this way, there was throughout Mesopotamian history a constant interference with the settled, traditional civilisation of the great ancient cities by a variety of groups moving into the area from the mountain fastnesses to the east or the rolling plains to the north-west. These new ethnic and cultural infusions were an important factor in reviving and preserving the long-lived culture which they found in the river valleys.

A great power to the north-west of Mesopotamia was the kingdom of the Hittites, with its capital at Hattusas in central Turkey. This people, who spoke the earliest recorded Indo-European language, had become very powerful at a time when Babylonia was weak, and a Hittite king was able to attack Babylon itself during the seventeenth century BC, although their kingdom never made any serious headway with expansion into the Mesopotamian area, and after 1200 BC was no longer a force to be reckoned with. Similarly the kings of Elam, located in south-west Iran to the east of Babylonia, were able at various times to make forays deep into Babylonian territory, on one occasion carrying away the cult statue of the Babylonian national god, Marduk. For short periods the Elamites (who spoke a language unrelated to any other surviving language) were able to control parts of Babylonia, even to rule it, and some cultural transfer seems to have taken place: certain aspects of Babylonian magic and religion seem to derive from Elam.

Mythology and Legends

The myths and legends of ancient Mesopotamia form an exceptionally diverse collection of material. Some are preserved in Sumerian and some in Akkadian, the earliest from 2500 BC and the latest from the first century BC. As might be expected from such a broad field, they display very considerable variety, and in many cases there are several different versions of a narrative, originating from different localities or in different periods, some of which directly contradict other versions. Some myths were created within the historical period; others are of indeterminate antiquity. No doubt they were transmitted orally in many forms and on many occasions: however, the only form in which they survive is of course the written form. It is essential to bear in mind that every myth or legend preserved in written form is preserved as part of a (perhaps fragmentary) work of literature which was created in a specific historical environment and which was intended to serve a specific literary aim. In this way they can be compared to the use of Greek myths by the Greek tragedians, and the same cautions apply. There is no homogeneous system and it makes no sense to talk of the 'character of Mesopotamian myth', except in the most general terms. The very distinction between myth, legend and history is of course a largely modern one.

A particular problem which must also be mentioned is the evident disparity between those literary versions of the myths which happen to survive and the graphic versions of mythical themes used in various heraldic and iconic ways in Mesopotamian fine art. This has been a source of great difficulty in the interpretation of ancient works of art. It serves to emphasise the extraordinary richness of the Mesopotamian heritage, since it seems to imply that many mythical themes used in art refer to narratives of which no written version has yet been recovered.

Most of the Akkadian works incorporating myths and legends which have been studied and edited so far are now available in English translations, but numbers of Sumerian compositions are available only in foreign language editions or in doctoral dissertations (which may not be readily available), or have not yet been published. Apart from these, there are many that have not yet even been read or studied in modern times.

Interest in the Bible has been an important stimulus to modern research in and about the ancient Near East in general. The very diverse collection of prose and poetry, written down over a considerable period of time in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, which makes up the Bible, is the product of a world both alien to that of Mesopotamia and in which nonetheless many echoes of Mesopotamian society, beliefs and history are to be found. This raises the complex question of the existence of various oral traditions throughout the whole Near East, influencing each other. The Mesopotamian evidence happens to be attested in writing at much earlier dates, but this need not lead to the conclusion that it was therefore the origin of all similar themes occurring later on.

Art and Iconography

The interpretation of elements in the religious art of ancient Mesopotamia encounters the difficulty that direct 'captions' (that have been so fundamentally useful in the study of Egyptian and Classical art) are extremely rare and hardly ever straightforward. The following examples may help to illustrate this point. The symbols of the gods shown on Babylonian kudurru-stones (stones recording royal land grants) occasionally have captions identifying the deities symbolised. All the known examples of these had been looted from Babylonia and taken to the Elamite city of Susa, and the labels were perhaps added there for the benefit of the Elamites. Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian figurines of supernatural beings are sometimes inscribed with incantations which name the creature concerned (for example, as Huwawa, Lamastu or Pazuzu). In the Neo-Assyrian Period, clay figurines of beneficent beings were also often inscribed with magical spells. These do not name the creatures directly, but they are named in ritual texts which give instructions for the figurines' manufacture, the writing to be put on each type and the sites of placement or burial within a building. Furthermore, on stelae and rock reliefs erected by Assyrian kings (or exceptionally governors) to commemorate special events, there is sometimes a one-to-one correlation in both number and order between the gods invoked in the inscription and the symbols depicted. Yet more usually this is not so. For the kudurrus, moreover, the gods invoked in the curses of the main text are never those symbolised on the stone.

Sometimes named supernatural beings are described in texts in a way which makes it possible to relate them to extant art. Once again, the Neo-Assyrian rituals concerning the placing of magical figurines, for example, refer to types of creature which can easily be identified even though the figurines of these particular creatures were never inscribed. An example is the Sages (apkallu) 'with the faces of birds, and wings, carrying in their right hands a "purifier" (mullilu) and in their left a bucket (banduddû)', or another set of Sages 'cloaked in the skins of fishes'. Similarly the inscription on one of the kudurru-stones refers in clear terms to some of the symbols of the gods (though not the ones carved upon it):

. . . the seat and horned crown of Anu, king of heaven; the walking bird of Enlil, lord of the lands; the ram's head and goat-fish, the sanctuary of great Ea; . . . the sickle, water-trough (and) wide boat of Sîn; the radiant disc of the great judge Samas; the star-symbol of Istar, the mistress of the lands; the fierce young bull of Adad, son of Anu . . .

and so on. On the other hand, written descriptions of works of art and descriptions of supernatural beings in works of literature may be too exceptional or too literary or imprecise to correlate with examples of art.

Glyptic art (for the ancient Near East the term refers to the craft of cutting small seals) provides the most spectacular detail of the religious art of any period, including the association of figures and motifs. On the seals were cut, in miniature and in reverse (for sealing), friezes which involve gods, worshippers, symbols and other motifs, often arranged heraldically or in a form which gives the appearance of a mythological scene. The seals are often inscribed with writing (usually also in reverse) which may give the names of particular deities (as part of a person's name, as the name of the seal owner's personal god or within a prayer of incantation). Occasionally it is clear that the deities so named correspond to those depicted. More usually, however, it is not so. Some scholars have argued that while on an individual seal the deity shown may not be the one mentioned, nevertheless in any given period there will be a rough correlation on seals in general between the deities most often depicted and those whose names are most frequently given. However, the identifications so far suggested appear on other grounds improbable. It may be that the mention of some gods was sometimes an alternative to their depiction and that certain gods were known more for their personalities and deeds than for their pictorial forms.

A much-used method has attempted to relate scenes on seals, especially of the Akkadian Period, to later mythology (on the assumption that the scenes reflect earlier, perhaps orally transmitted, versions of the later written narratives). Although fairly plausible in itself, the application of this idea to the question of identification is problematic because it has allowed very imprecise correlations of art and literature. In reaction, some have maintained that one-to-one correspondences of named gods and creatures with elements in art do not exist and that a repertoire of stock figures in art was related only in a very general way to the records of gods, demons and heroes in literature. However, this view has itself led to some very wide and subjective interpretations of artistic themes. Enough identifications can now be made from written sources to suggest that, although they may have developed or even changed their meanings from time to time, the figures and motifs of art do attempt to represent specific gods, beings and well-known symbolic objects.

The identification of specific named gods and demons in Mesopotamian art naturally has implications for our appreciations of the mythological narratives themselves.


The table on page 22 is intended to give some idea of the chronology of the various political developments and ethnic movements. Writing was invented towards the end of the Late Uruk Period, named after the important city of Uruk in southern Sumer where so much of the monumental architecture of that epoch was excavated. (Uruk is actually the later Akkadian name for Sumerian Unug.) The subsequent series of independent and sometimes warring city-states of Sumer is grouped together as the Early Dynastic Period. This is the period of the earliest literary and religious texts that can effectively be read (for instance the great lists of the names of more than 500 gods and goddesses from the Sumerian town of Suruppag), so that when the name or cult of a deity is traced back to the Early Dynastic Period, that means in practice to the beginning of written history. Exact dates for these early periods are diffficult to calculate, but the Early Dynastic Period (which is sometimes divided into sub-periods for archaeological purposes) is regarded as ending in about 2390 BC, when the first great kingdoms began. Four south Mesopotamian kingdoms follow each other in succession, but the first of these is of special note since, apart from the quite remarkable extent of its rulers' conquests, it was centred on a city of northern Babylonia where a Semitic language was spoken. The city of Agade, which has still not been located, gave its name to the region of which it was capital (Akkad), to its language and to its kingdom. The period is sometimes known also as the Sargonic period, after Sargon (a Biblical form of the name of the founder of the kingdom, Sarrum-kin). It was the collapse of this kingdom that the Gutians took advantage of, and a Gutian period of uncertain length marks their control of at least parts of Sumer and Akkad at this date (although the Sumerian city-state of Lagas seems to have remained independent). The great Sumerian kingdoms of the Third Dynasty of Ur (a city in southern Sumer) and then of Isin and Larsa (partially contemporary with each other) mark the apogee of Sumerian culture, even if the star of a fifth kingdom, that centred on a still insignificant city of Akkad called Babylon, was rising. The kings of this Old Babylonian Period (or First Dynasty of Babylon), including Hammurabi (reigned 1848-1806 BC according to the now preferred chronology), sometimes made their official pronouncements bilingually in Akkadian and Sumerian, but as a living language and culture Sumerian was by now obsolescent. In northern Mesopotamia, the city of Assur remained a minor city-state in a largely Hurrian area until the fourteenth century BC, with one brilliant and brief exception in the reigns of Samsi-Adad I (1869-1837BC) and his son when an 'Old Assyrian' kingdom of enormous proportions suddenly came into being, swept across Syria and was then lost. The collapse of the Old Babylonian kingdom in the south was hastened by the arrival of the Kassites, and their long rule over Babylonia from their capital Dur-Kurigalzu is termed the Middle Babylonian Period, matched by a Middle Assyrian Period in northern Mesopotamia. The date 1000 BC is then conventionally taken as marking the beginning of the Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian Periods, although the great days of the most famous Assyrian kings, ruling at successive capitals, Assur, Kalhu (modern Nimrud), Dur-Sarken (modern Khorsabad) and Ninua (Nineveh)—kings such as Sargon II, Sennacherib, Esarhaddon and Assurbanipal—came to an end with the fall of Nineveh in 612 BC at a time when the Neo-Babylonian Empire, founded in 626 BC, had barely begun. The Neo-Babylonian dynasty - whose territory reached its greatest extent under Nebuchadnezzar II (reigned 605-562 BC) - ruled until 539 BC. This crucial date in Mesopotamian history, the capture of Babylon by Cyrus, king of the Medes and Persians, marks the first point at which the whole of Mesopotamia was to become part of an empire ruled from outside its own borders. The age of 'world empires' had begun. The Persian or Achaemenid Empire (so called from an eponymous ancestor of Cyrus' family) was swept away in 331 BC by Alexander the Great: the Hellenistic Period which followed is often also called Seleucid after the dynasty initiated by the general of Alexander who gained control of Mesopotamia, Iran, Syria and half of Turkey. His son founded Seleucia-on-the-Tigris in 274 BC. The Parthians, an Iranian people, effectively dominated Babylonia from 126 BC, and their dynasty (sometimes called Arsacid, again after an eponymous ancestor) ruled Mesopotamia until they were dispossessed by another great Iranian dynasty, the Sasanians, in AD 227. The very latest texts written in Akkadian in the cuneiform script—reports of astronomical observations—are dated towards the end of the first century AD, and by this time it is very unlikely that there was more than a handful of people—highly educated intellectuals—who were still in touch with the ancient culture of Mesopotamia and able to understand its languages or read its writing. The beginning of the Christian era marks a convenient, if approximate, date for the extinction of the three-thousand-year Mesopotamian literate tradition.



“The authors know their material inside out . . . The choice of illustrations, both half-tone and line-drawings, and the careful, cross-referencing of entries make this book a compelling compendium of ideas and images.”
History Today