How Did the Mesopotamian & Egyptian Religious Systems Differ?

by Judy Brown

In the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt, religion was essential to life and life was inseparable from religion. Religious laws and customs governed the day-to-day existence of all citizens, whatever their rank in society. Both Mesopotamia and Egypt were governed by theocracies, where kings were believed to rule by divine right. However, their systems reflect the different social and geographical characteristics of each area.

Mesopotamian Culture

Mesopotamia covered the region known as Sumer, in southern Iraq between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, and extended north and east to parts of modern-day Syria, Turkey and Iran. Records of Mesopotamian life date from around 4000 B.C., when the Sumerians developed cuneiform writing as well as mathematical and scientific skills. Much of the area was marshy and subject to unpredictable floods, droughts and storm damage, which could ruin harvests and livelihoods. Consequently, the dominant religious concern in earliest times was the power of nature and the need to appease the gods who controlled it.

Mesopotamian Gods and Priests

Mesopotamian city-states had patron gods or goddesses, who were seen as the supreme controllers of law, weather and fertility. The gods’ wishes were interpreted by priests and kings, known as “ensi,” who gained access to divine power and responsibility by marrying their god’s priestesses. The three most important gods were Enlil, the god of storm and earth; Anu, the sky god; and the water god Ea or Enki. Then came the sun god Utu, or Shamash; the moon god Nanna, or Sin; and the goddess of fertility, Inanna, or Ishtar. Religious focus shifted as fear of war overtook fear of infertility, and by the third millennium B.C., the gods were viewed as military leaders and protectors of the people. Later still, they were perceived as guardians bringing love or prosperity to individuals, and the chief god became known as Marduk.

Egyptian Culture

The Nile provided Egypt with food, water, transport and trade. Its floods were predictable and partly controllable, enabling a steady, well-planned way of life. In effect, it allowed the Egyptians to maintain a stable, autocratic state 600 miles long. The religious system reflected a more orderly, optimistic view of life than in Mesopotamia, and the richly furnished tombs and stately funeral rites suggest they were planning for an equally prosperous afterlife. Egyptians wrote in pictorial hieroglyphics rather than cuneiform, and their records date from around 3000 B.C. Plentiful supplies of stone and slave labor enabled them to leave pyramids and tombs as evidence of their belief in perpetual life. This is in contrast to the Mesopotamians, who left less grand architecture but wrote down epic myths that indicate concern with the quality of life before, rather than after death.

Egyptian Gods and Priests

As in Mesopotamia, the supreme lawgivers in Egypt were the gods, ruling through the pharaoh. Whereas Mesopotamian rulers were interpreters of divine law and acted on behalf of their city-state, pharaohs were seen as living gods in their own right with authority throughout Egypt. They had power to ensure prosperity and fertility by controlling the waters, and to translate divine order and justice into earthly laws. The king of the gods was Amen, also called Amon or Amun, later joined by Ra (or Re), the sun god, in the cult of Amen-Ra. Osiris was god of the Nile and of the dead. His consort Isis was the moon goddess and archetypal mother of creation. Other principal deities in the pantheon included the sky god Horus, son of Isis and Osiris; and Thoth, the god of knowledge. Around 1570 B.C., the pharaoh Akhenaton tried to introduce a monotheistic religion, but his successor Tutankhamen restored the traditional pantheon. When the absolute power of the pharaoh began to break down due to insurgencies around 2100 B.C., divine kingship became more concerned with protecting the people in the name of Ra than in the name of total supremacy.

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