The Ancient Religion of the Babylonians

BABYLONIAN FAITH encompassed the whole universe and each sector of it was under the rule of a particular deity. Heaven, earth, sea and air comprised one sector, the sun, the moon and the planets another. Nature, as manifested in rivers, mountains, plains and other geographical features was a further sector and the fourth was the city-state of Babylon. Marduk, the chief god, presided over the pantheon. Like the Sumerians, the Babylonians believed that tools and implements – bricks, ploughs, axes, hoes – had their own particular deities. In addition, individuals had their own personal gods to whom they prayed and looked for salvation. Magic was prominent in Babylonian religion and Ea, god of wisdom, was also god of spells and incantations. The sun and the moon had their own gods, Shamash and Sin respectively. Shamash was also the god of justice. Adad was the god of wind, storm and flood and Ishtar, a dynamic, but cruel deity, was goddess of love and war. Although the general tenor of Babylonian religion was beneficent, there was also a negative, fearful side to it. This was
represented by underworld gods, demons, devils and monsters who posed an ongoing threat to the wellbeing of humanity.


Worship and ritual at the Babylonian temples usually took place out of doors, in courtyards where there were fountains for washing before prayers and altars where sacrifices were offered. The private areas of a temple, the monopoly of the high priest, the clergy and royalty, were indoors. The occult tendency in Babylonian religion was fully represented among the clergy. They included astrologers, soothsayers, diviners, the interpreters of dreams, musicians and singers. Sacrifices took place daily. One Babylonian temple kept a stock of 7,000 head of cattle and 150,000 head of other animals for this purpose alone. Apart from animals, sacrifices consisted of vegetables, incense or libations of water, beer and wine. There were numerous festivals, including a feast for the new moon and the most important, Akitu, which lasted 11 days and involved lively processions. At Akitu, worshippers purified themselves, propitiated the gods, offered sacrifices, performed penance and obtained absolution.


The ethos of Babylonia was essentially philanthropic. Compassion and mercy were prime virtues. The poor and unfortunate, widows and orphans, were accorded special protection. No one, however virtuous, was considered to be faultless so that suffering, where it occurred, was never entirely undeserved. The gods handed out punishment for unethical or immoral behaviour. To obtain the help of the gods in solving problems, it was necessary first of all to confess sin and admit to failings. Only then would an individual’s personal god intercede for them with the greater Babylonian deities. There was no comfortable afterlife in Babylonian belief. After death, the spirit parted from the body and all that awaited it was descent into the
dark underworld. There was no protection from a wretched existence after death, not even for those who had led righteous and ethical lives.


The renowned Babylonian skill in astronomy and mathematics developed from the interest in the heavens that was an integral part of their religion. Using only the naked eye, astronomers would observe the movements of heavenly bodies and use mthem to make prophecies or cast horoscopes. In Babylonian times, the seven planets visible in the sky – the Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn – were wanderers among the fixed constellations of the zodiac. Each of them had its own god or goddess. In common with the Sumerians, the Babylonians believed that heaven and earth had once been joined as a single enormous mountain. This was
imitated by ziggurat temple towers which were regarded as cosmic mountains. Apart from the Tower of Babel, whose construction was detailed in the Biblical Book of
Genesis, the most apposite was the ziggurat built by King Nebuchadnezzar (c. 630–562 BC), the Temple of Seven Spheres of the World. This had seven tiers, one for each stage of heaven, as represented by the seven visible planets. Inside was a vault, also constructed in seven levels, which represented the seven gates through which Ishtar, goddess of sex and war, passed during her regular descents into the underworld.

When Anu the Sublime … and Bel, the lord of Heaven and earth … assigned to Marduk … God of righteousness, dominion over earthly humanity … they made [Babylon] great on earth, and founded an everlasting kingdom, whose foundations are laid as solidly as those of heaven and earth.

From the Prologue to the Laws of Hammurabi, king of Babylon