Sumerians inhabited southern Mesopotamia from
3000-2000 B.C. The origins of the Sumerians is
unclear -- what is clear is that Sumerian
civilization dominated Mesopotamian law, religion,
art, literature and science for nearly seven
greatest achievement of Sumerian civilization was
their CUNEIFORM ("wedge-shaped") system of writing.
Using a reed stylus, they made wedge-shaped
impressions on wet clay tablets which were then
baked in the sun. Once dried, these tablets were
virtually indestructible and the several hundred
thousand tablets which have been found tell us a
great deal about the Sumerians. Originally, Sumerian
writing was pictographic, that is, scribes drew
pictures of representations of objects. Each sign
represented a word identical in meaning to the
object pictured, although pictures could often
represent more than the actual object.
pictographic system proved cumbersome and the
characters were gradually simplified and their
pictographic nature gave way to conventional signs
that represented ideas. For instance, the sign for a
star could also be used to mean heaven, sky or god.
The next major step in simplification was the
development of phonetization in which characters or
signs were used to represent sounds. So, the
character for water was also used to mean "in,"
since the Sumerian words for "water" and "in"
sounded similar. With a phonetic system, scribes
could now represent words for which there were no
images (signs), thus making possible the written
expression of abstract ideas.
Sumerians used writing primarily as a form of record
keeping. The most common cuneiform tablets record
transactions of daily life: tallies of cattle kept
by herdsmen for their owners, production figures,
lists of taxes, accounts, contracts and other facets
of organizational life in the community. Another
large category of cuneiform writing included a large
number of basic texts which were used for the
purpose of teaching future generations of scribes.
By 2500 B.C. there were schools built just for his
city-state was Sumer's most important political
entity. The city-states were a loose collection of
territorially small cities which lacked unity with
one another. Each city-state consisted of an urban
center and its surrounding farmland. The city-states
were isolated from one another geographically and so
the independence of each city-state became a
cultural norm with important consequences. For
instance, it was held that each city-state was the
estate of a particular god: Nannar (moon) was said
to have watched over the city-state of Ur; Uruk had
An (sky), Sippar had Utu (sun) and Enki (earth)
could be found at Eridu. Nippur, the earliest centre
of Sumerian religion, was dedicated to Enlil, god of
wind (Enlil was supplanted by Marduk at Babylon).
Each city-state was sacred since it was carefully
guarded by and linked to a specific god or goddess.
Located near the centre of each city-state was a
temple. Occupying several acres, this sacred area
consisted of a ziggurat with a temple at the top
dedicated to the god or goddess who "owned" the
city. The temple complex was the true centre of the
community. The main god or goddess dwelt there
symbolically in the form of a statue, and the
ceremony of dedication included a ritual that linked
the statue to the god or goddess and thus harnessed
the power of the deity for the benefit of the
city-state. Considerable wealth was poured into the
construction of temples as well as other buildings
used for the residences of priests and priestesses
who attended to the needs of the gods. The priests
also controlled all economic activities since the
economy was "redistributive." Farmers would bring
their produce to the the priests at the ziggurat.
The priests would "feed" and "clothe" the gods and
then redistribute the remainder to the people of the
its rather large pantheon of gods and goddesses
animating all aspects of life, Sumerian religion was
polytheistic in nature. By far, the most important
deities were An, Enlil, Enki and Ninhursaga. An was
the god of the sky and hence the most important
force in the universe. He was also viewed as the
source of all authority including the earthly power
of rulers and fathers alike. In one myth, the gods
address them in the following manner:
have ordered comes true! The utterance of Prince and
Lord is but what you have ordered, do agree with.
O An! your great command takes precedence, who could
O father of the gods, your command, the very
foundations of heaven and earth, what god could
of wind, was considered the second greatest power of
the universe and became the symbol of the proper use
of force and authority on earth. As the god of wind,
Enlil controlled both the fertility of the soil and
destructive storms. This dual nature of Enlil
inspired a justifiable fear of him:
What has he
planned? . . .
What is in my father's heart?
What is in Enlil's holy mind?
What has he planned against me in his holy mind?
A net he spread: the net of an enemy; a snare he
set: the snare of an enemy.
He has stirred up the waters and will catch the
fishes, he has cast his net, and will bring down the
god of the earth. Since the earth was the source of
life-giving waters, Enki was also god of rivers,
wells, and canals. He also represented the waters of
creativity and was responsible for inventions and
crafts. Ninhursaga began as a goddess associated
with soil, mountains, and vegetation. Eventually she
was worshipped as a mother goddess, a "mother of all
children," who manifested her power by giving birth
these four deities were supreme, there were numerous
gods and goddesses below them. One group included
the astral deities, who were all grandchildren and
great-grandchildren of An. These included Utu, god
of the sun, the moon god Nannar, and Inanna, goddess
of the morning and evening star as well as of war
and rain. Unlike humans, these gods and goddesses
were divine and immortal. But they were not
all-powerful since no one god had control over the
entire universe. Furthermore, humans were capable of
devising ways to discover the will of the gods and
to influence them as well.
relationship of human beings to the gods was based
on subservience since, according to Sumerian myth,
human beings were created to do the manual labour
the gods were unwilling to do for themselves. As a
consequence, humans were insecure since they could
never be sure of the god's actions. But humans did
make attempts to circumvent or relieve their anxiety
by discovering the intentions of the gods; these
efforts gave rise to the development of the arts of
divination, which took a variety of forms. A common
form, at least for kings and priests who could
afford it, involved killing animals, such as sheep
or goats, and examining their livers or other
organs. Supposedly, features seen in the organs of
the sacrificed animals foretold of events to come.
Private individuals relied on cheaper divinatory
techniques. These included interpreting patterns of
smoke from burning incense or the pattern formed
when oil was poured into water.
Sumerian art of divination arose from a desire to
discover the purpose of the gods. If people could
decipher the signs that foretold events, the events
would be predictable and humans could act wisely.
But the Sumerians also developed cultic arts to
influence good powers (gods and goddesses) whose
decisions could determine human destiny and to ward
off evil powers (demons). These cultic arts included
ritualistic formulas, such as spells against evil
spirits, or prayers or hymns to the gods to win
their positive influence. Since only the priests
knew the precise rituals, it is not difficult to
understand the important role they exercised in a
society dominated by a belief in the reality of
Mesopotamian men and women viewed themselves as
subservient to the gods and believed humans were at
the mercy of the god's arbitrary decisions. To
counter their insecurity, the Mesopotamians not only
developed the arts of divination in order to
understand the wishes of their gods, but also
relieved some anxiety by establishing codes that
regulated their relationships with one another.
These law codes became an integral part of
Mesopotamian society. Although there were early
Sumerian law codes, the best-preserved Mesopotamian
collection of law codes was that of Hammurabi
(fl.18th century B.C.).
CODE OF HAMMURABI reveals a society of strict
justice. Penalties for criminal offences were severe
and varied according to the wealth of the
individual. According to the code, there were three
social classes in Babylonia: an upper class of
nobles (government officials, priests, and
warriors), the class of freemen (merchants,
artisans, professionals, and wealthy farmers), and a
lower class of slaves. An offence against a member
of the upper class was punished with more severity
than the same offence against a member of a lower
class. The principle of retaliation ("an eye for an
eye, a tooth for a tooth") was fundamental. It was
applied in cases where members of the upper class
committed criminal offences against their own social
equals. But for offences against members of the
lower classes, a money payment was made instead.
Mesopotamian society, like any other society, had
its share of crime. Burglary was common. If a person
stole goods belonging to the temples, he was put to
death, and so was the person who received the stolen
goods. If the private property of an individual was
stolen, the thief had to make a tenfold restitution.
If he could not do so he was put to death. An
offender caught attempting to loot a burning house
was to be "thrown into that fire."
individuals were often responsible for bringing
charges before a court of law. To insure that
accusations were not brought lightly, the accuser in
cases of murder was responsible for proving his case
against the defendant. If the accuser could not, he
was put to death. Providing false testimony in a
murder case meant the same fate.
code took seriously the responsibilities of all
public officials. The governor of an area and city
officials were expected to catch burglars. If they
failed to do so, public officials in which the crime
took place had to replace the lost property. If
murderers were not found, the officials had to pay a
fine to the relatives of the murdered person.
Soldiers were also expected to fill their duties. If
a soldier hired a substitute to fight for him, he
was put to death, and a substitute was given control
of his estate.
code also extended into the daily life of the
ordinary citizen. Builders were held responsible for
the buildings they constructed. If a house collapsed
and caused the death of its owner, the builder was
put to death. Goods destroyed by the collapsed must
also be replaced and the house itself rebuilt at the
a common feature of Mesopotamian society. Slaves
were obtained by war; others were criminals. Crimes
such as striking one's older brother and kicking
one's mother were punished by condemnation to
slavery. A man could pay his debts by selling both
his children and wife into slavery for a specified
length of time. One could become a slave simply by
going into debt.
used in temples, in public buildings, and in the
homes of private individuals. Most temple slaves
were women who did domestic chores. Royal slaves
were used to construct buildings and fortifications.
Slaves owned by private citizens performed domestic
chores. The laws were harsh for those slaves who
tried to escape or who were disobedient. "If a male
slave has said to his master, 'You are now my
master,' his master shall prove him to be his slave
and cut off his ear." Despite such harsh measures,
slaves did possess a number of privileges: they
could hold property, participate in business, marry
free man or women, and eventually purchased their
of laws in Hammurabi's code dedicated to land and
commerce reveal the importance of agriculture and
trade in Mesopotamian society. Numerous laws dealt
with questions of landholding, such as the
establishment of conditions for renting farmland.
Tenant farming was the basis of Mesopotamian
agriculture. Ten farmers paid their annual rent in
crops rather than money. Laws concerning land-use
and irrigation were especially strict. If a
landowner or tenant failed to keep dikes in good
repair he was required to pay for the grain that was
destroyed. If he could not pay he was sold into
slavery and his goods sold, the proceeds of which
were divided among the injured parties. Rates of
interest on loans were watched carefully. If the
lender raised his rate of interest after a loan was
made, he lost the entire amount of the loan. The
Code of Hammurabi also specified the precise wages
of labourers and artisans.
number of laws in the Code of Hammurabi were
dedicated to marriage and family. Parents arranged
marriages for their children. After marriage, the
party signed a marriage contract. Without this
contract, no one was considered legally married.
While the husband provided a bridal payment, the
woman's parents were responsible for a dowry to the
husband. Dowries were carefully monitored and
governed by regulations.
Mesopotamian society was a patriarchal society, and
so women possessed far fewer privileges and rights
in their marriage. A woman's place was at home and
failure to fulfil her duties was grounds for
divorce. If she was not able to bear children, her
husband could divorce her but he had to repay the
dowry. If his wife tried to leave the home in order
to engage in business, her husband could divorce her
and did not have to repay the dowry. Furthermore, if
his wife was a "gadabout, . . . neglecting her house
[and] humiliating her husband," she could be
guaranteed some rights, however. If a woman was
divorced without good reason she received the dowry
back. A woman could seek divorce and get her dowry
back if her husband was unable to show that she had
done anything wrong. The mother also chose a son to
whom an inheritance would be passed.
relations were strictly regulated as well. Husbands,
but not wives, were permitted sexual activity
outside marriage. A wife caught committing adultery
was pitched into the river. Incest was strictly
forbidden. If a father committed incestuous
relations with his daughter, he would be banished.
Incest between a son and his mother resulted in both
ruled their children as well as their wives.
Obedience was expected: "If a son has struck his
father, they shall cut off his hand." If a son
committed a serious enough offence, his father could
disinherit him. It should be clear that the Code of
Hammurabi covered virtually every aspect of an
individual's life. Although scholars have questioned
the extent to which these laws were actually
employed in Babylonian society, the Code of
Hammurabi provides us an important glimpse into the
values of Mesopotamian civilization.
Sumerians were not the only people to inhabit the
Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia. There were other
groups of people who lived in permanent communities
and who interacted with the Sumerians in times of
peace and in war. By 2350 B.C., Semitic-speaking
people united northern Mesopotamia with the Sumerian
city-states and a new capital was set up at Akkad.
The result was a centralized government under the
authority of the king, his royal court, and the high
class of priests.
most responsible for this development is assumed to
be Sargon. Sargon, whose name is taken to mean "the
king is legitimate," carried out more than thirty
battles against the Sumerian city-states and
eventually, these city-states were incorporated into
the Akkadian kingdom.
foundation of the Akkadian state was economic.
Sargon and his royal court served as the focal point
of all economic activity. Remember, at Sumer, this
task was assumed by the priests of the temple.
Sargon brought vast amounts of wealth to the capital
city – he also brought a huge number of royal
servants and administrators, thus creating a
bureaucratic organization to help rule his kingdom.
Akkadian kingdom, like most Ancient Near Eastern
kingdoms, also embraced a polytheistic religion.
Their gods were anthropomorphic, that is, the gods
took human form. And because the gods took human
form, they also had human qualities: the gods could
be foolish, intelligent, shy, humorous, jealous,
angry or silly. Among themselves, the gods also had
unequal status. The gods were derived from the world
of nature for the simple reason that life in
Mesopotamia was controlled or conditioned by the
seasons. Theirs was a world of nature and in order
to understand nature, the Mesopotamians gave human
shape to the forces of nature. So, we encounter An,
the sky god, Enlil, the god of air, Nanna, the moon
god and Utu, the sun god. The Mesopotamians believed
these gods were responsible for creating the
universe and everything it contained, including
humankind. The gods were also responsible for the
smooth running of that world. The gods ruled the
world of men through their earthly representatives,
and in the case of the Akkadian kingdom, this meant
Sargon. Hopefully, you can already notice the
decreased status of the temple priests at Akkad.
Although they still exist, and continue to serve a
vital role, the mediator between the gods and
ordinary men and women, is now Sargon.
Men and women were
created by the gods to serve the gods to feed and
clothe them, to honour and obey them. One thing
absent from this religion, however, was that the
gods did not specify any code of ethics or morality.
Issues of good and evil were left to men and women
to discover on their own. In the end, the gods gave
the inhabitants of these early river civilizations
an answer to the basic question – why are we here?
what is our role? And the answer was equally simple
– to serve the gods.