Table of Contents
The pantheon of Babylonian gods is a pantheon of shared deities. It is quite hard to identify an original Babylonian god, other than perhaps Marduk or Nabu. Given how Babylonia was influenced by ancient Sumer, it comes as no surprise that this pantheon of gods is shared between the two cultures.
Not only that, Assyrians and Akkadians also contributed to the Mesopotamian religion, and it all impacted the Babylonian belief system.
By the time Hammurabi took the helm of Babylonia, deities changed their purposes, gravitating more towards destruction, war, violence, and the cults of female goddesses diminished. The history of Mesopotamian gods is a history of beliefs, politics, and gender roles. This article will cover some of humanity’s first gods and goddesses.
Marduk is considered to be the primary deity of Babylonia and one of the most central figures in the Mesopotamian religion. Marduk was considered to be the national God of Babylonia and was often simply called “Lord”.
In the early stages of his cult, Marduk was viewed as a god of thunderstorms. As it usually happens with ancient gods, beliefs change over time. The cult of Marduk went through many stages. He was known as the Lord of 50 different names or attributes, as the God of heaven and earth, and of all nature and humanity.
Marduk was truly a beloved god and Babylonians built two temples for him in their capital. These temples were decorated with shrines on top and Babylonians would gather to sing hymns to him.
The symbolism of Marduk was displayed everywhere around Babylon. He was often depicted riding a chariot and holding a scepter, bow, spear, or a thunderbolt.
Many historians and connoisseurs of Babylonian history and religion claim that Bel was another name that was used to describe Marduk. Bel is an ancient Semitic word that means “Lord”. It is possible that in the beginning, Bel and Marduk were the same deity that went by different names. However, over time, Bel became associated with destiny and order and started to be worshipped as a different deity.
Sin was also known as Nannar, or Nanna, and was a deity shared by Sumerians, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Akkadians. He was a part of the wider Mesopotamian religion but was also one of the most beloved gods of Babylon.
Sin’s seat was the Ziggurat of Ur in the Sumerian empire where he was worshipped as one of the main gods. By the time Babylon started rising, Sin’s temples had fallen into ruins, and were being restored by King Nabonidus of Babylon.
Sin had temples even in Babylonia. He was worshipped as the god of the moon and was believed to be the father of Ishtar and Shamash. Before his cult developed, he was known as Nanna, the god of cattle herders and the livelihood of people in the city of Ur.
Sin was represented by a crescent moon or horns of a great bull indicating that he was also a god of the rise of waters, cattle herders, and fertility. His consort was Ningal, the goddess of reed.
Ningal was an ancient Sumerian goddess of reeds, but her cult survived until the rise of Babylon. Ningal was the consort of Sin or Nanna, the god of the moon and cattle herders. She was a beloved goddess, worshipped in the city of Ur.
Ningal’s name means “Queen” or “The Great Lady”. She was the daughter of Enki and Ninhursag. We sadly do not know much about Ningal except that she may have also been worshipped by the cattle herders in southern Mesopotamia that was abundant with marshlands. This is probably why she was labelled as the goddess of reeds, the plants that grow along marshlands or riverbanks.
In one of the rare surviving stories about Ningal, she hears the pleas of the citizens of Babylon who have been abandoned by their gods, but she is not able to help them and prevent the gods from destroying the city.
Utu is an ancient sun deity of Mesopotamia, but in Babylon he was also known as Shamash and was associated with truth, justice, and morality. Utu/Shamash was the twin brother of Ishtar/Inanna, the ancient Mesopotamian goddess of love, beauty, justice, and fertility.
Utu is described as riding a heavenly chariot that resembled the sun. He was in charge of demonstrating heavenly divine justice. Utu appears in the Epic of Gilgamesh and helps him defeat an ogre.
Utu/Shamash was sometimes described to be the son of Sin/Nanna, the moon god, and his wife Ningal, the goddess of reeds.
Utu even outlived the Assyrian and Babylonian empires and was worshipped for more than 3500 years until Christianity suppressed the Mesopotamian religion.
Enlil is an ancient Mesopotamian god that predates the Babylonian era. He was a Mesopotamian deity of wind, air, earth, and storms and it is believed that he was one of the most important gods of the Sumerian pantheon.
Being such a powerful deity, Enlil was also worshipped by the Akkadians, Assyrians, and Babylonians. He had temples built all over Mesopotamia especially in the city of Nippur where his cult was the strongest.
Enlil fell into oblivion when Babylonians declared him not to be the chief god and proclaiming Marduk as the national protector. Still, Babylonian kings of the early periods of the empire were known to go to the holy city of Nippur to ask for Enlil’s recognition and approval.
Inanna, also known as Ishtar, is an ancient Sumerian goddess of war, sex, and fertility. In the Akkadian pantheon, she was known as Ishtar and was one of the primary deities of the Akkadians.
Mesopotamians believed that she was the daughter of Sin/Nanna, the moon god. In ancient times she was also associated with different possessions that humans would gather at the end of a good year like meat, grain, or wool.
In other cultures, Ishtar was known as the goddess of thunderstorms and rain. She was represented as a fertility figure that epitomized growth, fertility, youth, and beauty. Ishtar’s cult evolved perhaps more than any other Mesopotamian deity.
It is very hard to find a unifying aspect of Ishtar that was celebrated in all Mesopotamian societies. The most common representation of Inanna/Ishtar was as an eight-pointed star or a lion because it was believed that her thunder resembled the roar of a lion.
In Babylon, she was associated with the planet Venus. During the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar II, one of the many gates of Babylon was erected and lavishly decorated in her name.
Anu was a divine personification of the sky. Being an ancient supreme god, he was considered by many cultures in Mesopotamia to be the ancestor of all people. This is why he was not worshipped as other deities, as he was considered more as an ancestral deity. The Mesopotamians preferred to worship his children.
Anu is described as having two sons, Enlil and Enki. Sometimes Anu, Enlil, and Enki were worshipped together and considered as a divine triad. The Babylonians used his name to label the different parts of the sky. They called the space between the zodiac and the equator the “Way of Anu”.
By the time of the rule of Hammurabi, Anu was slowly replaced and side-lined while his powers were attributed to the national god of Babylonia, Marduk.
The worship of Apsu began during the Akkadian Empire. He was considered to be the god of water and a primordial ocean that encircled the earth.
Apsu is also portrayed as having created the first gods who then took over control and became the main gods. Apsu is even described as a freshwater ocean that existed before anything else on earth.
Apsu merged with his consort Tiamat, a monstrous sea serpent, and this merger created all other gods. Tiamat wanted to avenge the death of Apsu and created vicious dragons that were slain by the Babylonian god Marduk. Marduk then takes over the role of the creator and creates the earth.
Enki was also one of the main gods of the Sumerian religion. He was also known as Ea or Ae in ancient Babylon.
Enki was the god of magic, creation, crafts, and mischief. He is considered to be one of the old gods in the Mesopotamian religion and his name loosely translates as Lord of the earth.
Dumuzid, or Tammuz, was the protector of shepherds and the consort of goddess Ishtar/Inanna. Belief in Dumuzid goes as far back as ancient Sumer and he was celebrated and worshipped in Uruk. Mesopotamians believed that Dumuzid caused the change of seasons.
A popular myth involving Ishtar and Tamuz parallels the story of Persephone in Greek mythology. Accordingly, Ishtar dies but Dumuzid doesn’t mourn her death, causing Ishtar to return from the Underworld in anger, and have him sent there as her replacement. However, she later changes her mind, allowing him to stay with her half of the year. This explained the cycle of the seasons.
Geshtinanna was an ancient goddess of the Sumerians, associated with of fertility, agriculture, and interpretation of dreams.
Geshtinanna was the sister of Dumuzid, the protector of shepherds. Each year, when Dumuzid ascends from the underworld to take his place by Ishtar, Geshtinanna takes his place in the underworld for half a year resulting in the change of seasons.
Interestingly, ancient Mesopotamians believed that her being in the Underworld does not result in winter but summer when the earth is dry and scorched from the sun.
Ninurta was an ancient Sumerian and Akkadian god of War. He was also known as Ningirsu and was sometimes portrayed as the god of hunting. He was the son of Ninhursag and Enlil, and the Babylonians believed that he was a brave warrior riding on a lion with a scorpion tail. Like other Mesopotamian gods, his cult changed over time.
The earliest descriptions claim that he was the god of agriculture and a local god of a small city. But what changed the god of agriculture to become a god of war? Well, this is when the development of human civilization comes to play. Once ancient Mesopotamians turned their gaze from farming to conquest, Ninurta, their agriculture god, did as well.
Ninhursag was an ancient deity in the Mesopotamian pantheon. She is described as being the mother of gods and men and was worshipped as a deity of nurture and fertility.
Ninhursag also started off as a local goddess in one of the Sumerian cities, and was believed to be the wife of Enki, the god of wisdom. Ninhursag was linked with the uterus and an umbilical cord symbolizing her role as a mother goddess.
Some historians believe that she was the original Mother Earth and later became a common motherly figure. She became so prominent that ancient Mesopotamians equalized her power with Anu, Enki, and Enlil. In spring, she starts taking care of nature and humans. During the Babylonian times, especially the reign of Hammurabi, male deities became prevalent and Ninhursag became a lesser deity.
Nergal was another ancient god of agriculture, but he became known in Babylon around 2900 BCE. In later centuries, he was associated with death, destruction, and war. He was compared to the power of the scorching sun in the afternoon that stops plants from growing and burns the earth.
In Babylon, Nergal was known as Erra or Irra. He was a dominant, intimidating figure that held a large mace and was adorned with long robes. He was considered to be the son of Enlil or Ninhursag. It is not clear when he became completely associated with death, but at one point priests started offering sacrifices to Nergal. Babylonians feared him as they believed that once he was the one responsible for the destruction of Babylon.
Given the frequency of war and social turmoil in later phases of Mesopotamian history, it is possible that Babylonians used Nergal and his bad temperament to give meaning to the suffering that they endured during wars, famines, and illnesses and explain the constant dramatic events that disrupted their lives.
Nabu is the old Babylonian god of wisdom, writing, learning, and prophecies. He was also associated with agriculture and harvests and was called the “Announcer” which hints towards his prophetic knowledge of all things. He is the maintainer of divine knowledge and records in the library of gods. Babylonians sometimes associated him with their national god Marduk. Nabu is mentioned in the Bible as Nebo.
Ereshkigal was an ancient goddess that ruled the underworld. Her name translates to “Queen of the Night”, which hints at her main purpose, which was to separate the world of the living and the dead and ensure that the two worlds never crossed paths.
Ereshkigal ruled over the underworld that was thought to be under the Mountain of Sun. she ruled in solitude until Nergal/Erra, the god of destruction and war, came to rule with her for half a year every year.
Tiamat is a primordial goddess of chaos and is mentioned in several Babylonian works. It’s through her coupling with Apsu that all the gods and goddesses were created. However, myths about her vary. In some, she’s shown to be the mother of all gods, and a divine figure. In others, she’s described as a terrible sea monster, symbolizing the primordial chaos.
Other Mesopotamian cultures do not mention her, and she can only be found in traces until the era of King Hammurabi in Babylon. Interestingly, she is usually depicted as being defeated by Marduk, so some historians claim that this story serves as a base of the rise of patriarchal culture and the decline of female deities.
Nisaba is often compared to Nabu. She was an ancient deity associated with accounting, writing, and being the scribe of gods. In ancient times, she was even a grain goddess. She is a rather mysterious figure in the Mesopotamian pantheon and was only represented as the goddess of grain. There are no depictions of her as a goddess of writing. Once Hammurabi took the reins of Babylon, her cult decline and she lost her prestige and was replaced by Nabu.
Anshar was also known as Assur and at one point was the chief god of Assyrians, with his powers compared to those of Marduk. Anshar was considered the national god of Assyrians and much of his iconography was borrowed from the Babylonian Marduk. However, with the collapse of Babylonia and the rise of Assyria, there were attempts to present Anshar as a replacement for Marduk, and the cult of Anshar slowly overshadowed the cult of Marduk.
The Babylonian Empire was one of the most powerful states in the ancient world, and the city of Babylon became a center of the Mesopotamian civilization. While the religion was largely influenced by the Sumerian religion, with many Babylonian deities simply borrowed wholesale from the Sumerians, their main deity and national god Marduk was distinctly Mesopotamian. Along with Marduk, the Babylonian pantheon is made up of numerous deities with many playing critical roles in the lives of the Babylonians.