Great Assyrian Gods: Assyrian Religion & Beliefs (2600–2025 BC)

Assyrian monarchs considered themselves to be closely related to the gods, and this belief in the divine right to rule meant that religion was an important aspect of the Assyrian Empire throughout its existence, so it’s important to understand the Assyrian Gods and Assyrian Religion.

Assyrian kings were obsessed with their power. The Assyrian palaces and the reliefs in them were absolutely meant to intimidate anyone who came into the presence of the King.

Assyrian Government & Conquests on Walls of Palaces & Temples
Assyrian Government & Conquests on Walls of Palaces & Temples

Within one of the largest palaces, there could be anything up to six miles of walls telling the story of the King’s conquests, the great battles he fought, all the people he killed.

The Relationship of The Assyrian Gods and Their Kings

In general, the Assyrians practiced polytheism, believing in many different gods who reigned over different aspects of life. While the Assyrians shared religious beliefs with the Babylonians, they did not have nearly as many gods.

The Assyrian kings claim that they were chosen by either the god’s assembly or by a special god who selected him to become the future king.

Šulmanu-ašāredu I(Shalmaneser I) said:

When, Aššur, the lord, faithfully chose me to worship him,gave me the scepter, weapon and staff to (rule) properly the people, and granted me the true crown of lordship!

Our Historical textual information’s come from the Middle and Neo Assyrian periods. However royal and private correspondence and everyday life activities ie social, trade, religious literature etc. mainly Neo-Assyrian from the seven century until the fall of Nineveh in 612 B.C.

In this paper:

Aššur as the National god of Assyria
The Assyrian king as Vice-regent of the God Aššur
The Assyrian king is the Image of the God
Choice of the Assyrian king.
King’s respect of Gods.
God ‘s house (Temples ), Festivals and their Statues.
Did the Assyrian impose their religion on other nations.
Religion as Justification of waging war.

The main reason for this is that gods are usually associated with cities, and Babylonia had many more cities than its northern neighbor.

Ashur(Aššur) as the National God of Assyria

The principal god in Assyrian religion was Ashur. He is the king of all the gods and the creator of the Assyrian people. It is because of this the name Assur was chosen as Assyria’s first and main city, and in this city many different temples were constructed in his honor.

The god Aššur did not have a family as did the other Sumerian and Babylonian gods. We find that Ninlil wife of Enlil became wife of Aššur and was called “Mullissu”.

According to the Assyrian people, the entire Assyrian nation belonged to him, and his kings were mere representatives of Ashur. It was their principle aim to do his bidding and to please him, and the Assyrian kings attributed everything, such as the resources available to them, their military victories, and their own personal intelligence, to Ashur. Also Some one wrote to the king saying:

The King, My Lord, is the chosen of the great Gods!

Many Assyrian kings took a name that started with Ashurt as a way of demonstrating this deep connection they felt with the main Assyrian god. However, it’s worth noting religion in Assyria, as is the case in many ancient civilizations, can best be described as a cult. There is little evidence to suggest that commoners spent much time worshiping the gods, even if they did recognize them as the creators and controllers of destiny.

Temples of Assyrian Gods

The most important example about the relationship between Assyrian Gods and their King was his present personally either when they build new temple or reconstruct others. There is a massive literature about building activities within Assyria and other places such as Babylon, Uruk etc.

Over time, cities would come to favor one god over the other, and many temples would be erected in honor of that god with a main temple being used as the center of worship in that city. Sacrifice was an important part of worship, as was prayer to idols.

Assyrian Gods: Ashur the chief god of the Assyrian
Assyrian Gods: Ashur the chief god of the Assyrian

Next to Ashur in importance was Ninurta, who was the god of warfare and hunting, two of the primary activities undertaken by Assyrians. Another major deity was Ishtar, the goddess of battle and love, and she was considered to be the goddess of two major Assyrian cities: Nineveh and Arba’il. Each of these different deities had a unique personality that was discussed in Assyrian literature and portrayed through Assyrian art.

Ancient Assyrian Temples
Ancient Assyrian Temples

But Ashur, on the other hand, was always portrayed as a king and was depicted as a solemn, austere, and stoic leader who was most concerned with portraying a regal appearance. The bureaucracy of the temple reflected how religion was used to help maintain control over certain cities. Since the king of Assur, or Assyria as a whole, was the closest to the gods, he was the one who would decide which cities were or were not in good standing with Ashur.

Assyrian Priests

The priests who ran a city’s main temple were appointed by the king, and if a city went into rebellion or did not meet its tax or tribute obligations, then the king would punish them by withholding the resources needed to maintain the temple which would cause it to fall into disrepair, something that would have been a source of great shame for ancient Assyrians. But this relationship was not entirely one-sided, as the priests had significant impact over the actions of a king.

It was the job of the priest to tell the king when he could or could not go to war and what he should do in order to secure success on his next campaign. In this sense, politics and religion became closely connected, with both sides using the other as a means of advancing their power and influence within the Assyrian state. Of course, in the event of discrepancy, the king, who had the closest relationship with the gods, would always have the final say.

Role of Assyrian Gods

Clearly, religion played a major role in the social control of Assyrian subjects, but this is a phenomenon that existed primarily in the cities closest to Assur and the other major Assyrian metropolises. The Assyrian kings were, generally speaking, tolerant of other religions that they encountered. Conquered cities and territories were almost never asked to convert religion or pay homage to Assyrian gods.

Role Of Gods In Middle Assyrian Society
Role Of Gods In Middle Assyrian Society

But a city’s religious monuments were often stolen and taken hostage as a means of coercing them into submission. However, if a city pledged allegiance to an Assyrian king, then these monuments would be returned. Should a rebellion arise, then they could be destroyed, which would have been a near catastrophic event for ancient Mesopotamian peoples, something they would have wanted to avoid at all costs.

Unfortunately, little evidence remains that details the exact nature of religious rites and ceremonies. Either these were never recorded, or such records have never been found. One of the few ceremonies we do know about is Akitu, which can best be understood as a celebration of the new year. Nearly every city had its own Akitu temple that was usually located outside the walls of the city.

Its celebration involved elaborate processions and a great banquet. It was during this ceremony that the king was granted the right to rule for another year. Another aspect of Assyrian religion worth mentioning is the art of prognostication.

Assyrian Religious Rituals

Most Assyrians believed that someone who was in good standing with the gods—mainly the priests—could predict the future, largely through the interpretation of different signs and symbols, such as constellations or weather patterns.

Assyrian Religious Rituals
Assyrian Religious Rituals

The position of “diviner” was one of the top positions in the Assyrian court, as it was this person’s job to predict what would happen in upcoming military campaigns. The sacrifice of lambs was one of the main ways in which diviners would try to predict the outcomes of campaigns. Kings would have scribes write out an “oracle request” on a tablet, which would then be presented to the gods. The lambs would be killed and the diviners would examine some of the organs and entrails for clues as to the outcome of the kingly request.

A record was kept of the examination and sent back to the king, who would then have to make a decision based on what was determined at the ceremony. It was not unheard of for a king to ignore the results of these predictions, but it was considered a very bad omen to do so. Overall, Assyrian religion was not particularly advanced.

It was essentially a cult that was used by kings to legitimize their rule and to help them determine the best course of action in war. However, despite its rudimentary form, the Assyrian gods played a major role in the development of Assyrian society and the advancement of its empire.

Related Articles: Ancient Assyrian Culture, Art, Math, and Science


References:

  • Ninlil RLA p.452-461, A.k. Grayson,.”Assyrian civilization ” CAH III.2 p. 195
  • K. Radner, Die Macht des Namens Altorientalische Strategien zur Selbsterhaltung, (Wiesbaden.2005) p.210ff.
  • RIMA I P.183:22-26, Cf. the words of Šulmanu-ašared III: “When Aššur, the great lord, chose me in his steadfast heart ” RIMA III p.8:11-12.
  • SAA.X, 207:18-19; LAS 145,S.Parpola,loc.cit, JNES 52 P.168,note 33.

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