Archaeology Odyssey 5:4, July/August 2002


In his classic Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization (1964), the eminent American Assyriologist A. Leo Oppenheim devoted a brilliant chapter to religion, in which he explained “Why a ‘Mesopotamian Religion’ Should Not Be Written.” Oppenheim deeply lamented the meager and disjointed archaeological, iconographic and literary remains, and he concluded that the conceptual chasm separating us from the ancients would never allow for a coherent, meaningful understanding of Mesopotamian religious beliefs.

Fortunately, Oppenheim’s pessimism has not deterred other major scholars, who are hardly fools rushing in where he feared to tread. Two particularly important works are Thorkild Jacobsen’s The Treasures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion (1976) and H.W.F. Saggs’s The Encounter With the Divine in Mesopotamia and Israel (1978). Both of these books circumvent some of Oppenheim’s objections by concentrating on specific topics about which more is known. Jacobsen, focusing on images and metaphors for the divine found in prayers and myths, traces the development of religious symbolism from the third through the first millennium B.C.E., but he avoids discussion of such troubling issues as cultic worship and the role of religion in society. Saggs, on the other hand, compares Mesopotamian writings with biblical texts, and he uses the Bible as a cultural bridge to discuss Mesopotamian attitudes toward creation, history, good and evil, communication with the divine, and universal religion.

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