Home > Uncategorized > Imagined faiths I: Mesopatamia

Imagined faiths I: Mesopatamia

What was it to be a Mesopatamian peasant, in say, 3000BCE? A pointless question in a way; this culture left little trace of what anyone but its elites believed — yet even that knowledge something remarkable, for it is also the first culture anywhere whose religion we know anything substantive about. And I have spent a few days now immersed in this belief system, an immersion that only reminds me how hard it is to recapture with full imaginative force the word of those who grow in a ‘faith’ that is simply a description of how the world is.

Our man might live in the countryside, but the focus of this countryside is the city, and the focus of the city, the temple, service to which, however indirect, is his raison d’etre. He can see it now, high and white, its geometrically buttressed walls throwing a sharp, tight rythm of shadow in the distance, raised above the city itself, dominating the flat, fertile plain, the reed-groves and waterways.

Its presence is, I think, a comforting one; it is a home: the home for a god. He or she inhabits the images in its dark, richly appointed inner sanctuary; but he or she is also everywhere else: if he is a sky god he is in the sky and the temple and any statue consecrated to his name; if the god of the sweet waters, in likewise. There are a thousand others, but a handful dominate, of which these are two. Knowledge that such beings, or perhaps one should call them natural forces with personalities, natural forces that respond to being treated well by human beings. Knowled, then, that he or she is being properly fed, and attended to, and honoured, is a reassurance.

Because these powers, duly cared for — as is the duty of humanity — are beneficient. But they are also capricious. Our peasant knows only too well how the skys and the sweet waters, and specific winds and specific conditions of the stars, and a thousand other things large and small, each animated by a named force we call a God, can break their order and fail us. Everything is animate, conscious, posessed of power, he knows; but some powers matter more than others. If the wind switches or the water’s don’t rise, the great flat plain on which he grows the food for himself and the food for the gods will bring nothing forth, and all will starve, and it will be our fault. There is a deep strain of fatalism and fear here, a certainty of our dependence on this all-powerful forces, at once distant and immanent.

Every city serves a different god; every object, every person, has a supernatural accompaniment. Great myth-cycles — Gilgamesh, Creation — might be sung when he gets home, stories of the doings of men and gods. The priests rule his city on their behalf; if its fate diminishes, it is they, more than anyone else, who are likely to have done wrong.

Their rituals are elaborate, and private; but over the ensuing millenia they will become more grand, and more political. The priests will become kings, and need theologies to justify a new phenomenon: the ruling of one city by another. The gods will become more like human personalities, with internal politics of their own, and plans and intentions. Architecture will become more vainglorious in the service of these powers: great palace and temple complexes, built around an enormous pyramid-like ziggurat of rammed earth. Cities, empires, cultures within this great continuum — in which there is nothing else in the universe but the great plain, its twin rivers, and its surrounding mountains — will rise and fall. By the time Babylon reaches its imperial pomp, in the first millenium BCE, the entire city will be built around the structures designed to houses the great, 12-day New Year festival: a processional way through gates made of bright tile, dominated by massive winged gods; a ziggurat brightly painted topped by a tiny, mysterious temple.

Yet this very festival has our peasant’s concerns at its heart, for during it the gods reconfigure the bonds on which the cycle of nature depends, and, if things go wrong, the very laws of the universe will be broken, and the forces of nature and chaos, which underly everything, and from which man himself was fashioned, will take over. And it’s all down to the king, and the rituals of scapegoat and cleansing that he and his priests enact around the city in those days, to which all the gods are brought in a mighty procession of inhabited images.

Our peasant’s faith is curiously unconcerned with death. A vaguely-imagined netherworld, configured much as a darker, less happy version of the one he inhabits, exists; people are buried with grave-gods, sometimes in elaborate subterrenan vaults. But the focus of this faith, this worldview, is the land of the living, in which mighty, capricious gods are immanent, and humanity’s duty is to serve them and ensure the annual rising of the waters, on which existence depends, recurs.

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Charmian Cannon
    May 23, 2012 at 11:07 am

    Jonky I’ve just read your latest blog. Fascinating but I wish it didn’t have to be read on line. I wonder is it a kind of rehearsal for your book? I love the accessible style which really tries to imagine being a Mesopotanian peasant . Is this the kind of style for the book or is that to be more formal and academic? I’m about to email you about other matters which is why I met your blog. Mum

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