Roots of Western Religions: The Ancient Near East (Mesopotamia)

(Fall 2003; WLU)

Course description:

This course explores the ancient Near Eastern roots of western religions. We will focus our attention on the earliest civilizations in ancient Mesopotamia (what is now Iraq). We will draw on both written and archeological evidence in order to glimpse into the beliefs and practices of these peoples, giving attention to the legacies of Mesopotamian culture in relation to Israelite religion, Judaism, and Christianity. In the process, students will be introduced to key concepts and methods in the study of religion and ancient civilizations.

Required books (available at the WLU bookstore):

  • Jean Bottérro, Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.
  • Stephanie Dalley, ed., Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, The Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
  • The Bible (preferably the New Revised Standard Version)
  • Course pack


  • Assignment 1: Review of articles (2-3 pages double-spaced) 10%
  • Assignment 2: Analysis of primary sources (5 pages) 25%
  • Test in class20%
  • Take-home final exam (due back in the final class) 35%
  • Participation and attendance 10%


Outline of discussion schedule:

Orientation and Context

Week 1

Introduction to the academic study of religion in the Ancient Near East: Methods, sources, and problems

Readings: Bottérro, chapters 1, 3 (pp. vii-6, 21-28); Georges Roux, “In Search of the Past” (course pack)

Week 2

Mesopotamia, its peoples and societies: Sumerians and Akkadians -- Birth of a civilization; Babylonians and Assyrians -- Powerful heirs of the civilization; Neighbours: Hittites, Canaanites, Israelites, Egyptians, and others

A sketch of daily life in ancient Mesopotamia

Readings: Bottérro, chapter 2 (pp. 7-20); Marten Stol, “Private Life in Ancient Mesopotamia” (course pack); Maynard Paul Maidman, “Nuzi: Portrait of an Ancient Mesopotamian Provincial Town” (course pack); Herodotus, The Histories, 1.195-200 (course pack)

Religion 1: Stories about the gods and their relation to humans

Week 3

A sketch of religious life: Activities (practices/lifestyles), worldviews (belief/myth), and attitudes; Introducing the gods and stories about them (mythology)

Readings: Bottérro, chapter 4 (pp. 29-43); Bottérro, chapter 5 (especially pp. 44-77); Dalley, “Introduction” (pp. xv-xix) and the “Glossary of deities” (pp. 317-331);

Week 4

The society of the gods and the creation of the world (Marduk and Yahweh)

Readings: Bottérro, chapter 5 (pp. 77-113); “ The Epic of Creation” (Dalley, pp. 228-277); “Theogony of Dunnu” (Dalley, pp. 278-281); Genesis, chapters 1-5 (Bible)

Week 5

Human society and the gods’ society: Flood stories (Atrahasis and Noah)

Readings: “Atrahasis” (Dalley, pp. 1-38); Genesis, chapters 6-9 (Bible); George Roux, “An Age of Heroes” (course pack)

Week 6

The adventures of the hero Gilgamesh

Readings: “The Epic of Gilgamesh” (Dalley, pp. 39-153);

Week 7

Death and gods of the underworld

Readings: “The Descent of Ishtar to the Underworld” and “Nergal and Ereshkigal” (Dalley, pp. 154-181)

Week 8

Order and chaos: Chaos monsters and the legacies of the combat myth (Anzu and Leviathan/Behemoth)

Readings: “Anzu” (Dalley, pp. 203-227); Job, chapters 38-42 (Bible); Psalm 74:12-17; Psalm 89:5-18 (Bible); Revelation, chapters 12-13, 20 (Bible)

Religion 2: Temples, rituals, and practices

Week 9

Background: Official and popular religion; Official cults, temples (and ziggurats), and festivals for the gods; Priests, scribes, and other functionaries

Readings: Bottérro, chapter 6 (pp. 114-125, 149-170); Genesis 11:1-9 (Bible); Herodotus, The Histories, 1.182-183 (course pack)

Week 10

Relating to the gods: Offerings/sacrifice, prayer, hymns (sung prayers)

Readings: Bottérro, chapter 6 (pp. 125-149, especially analyzing the ancient prayers on pp. 135-36, 138-39, 139-149); “Akkadian Rituals” (course pack)

Week 11

Interpreting the gods’ messages (“divination”): Dreams, magicians, prophets, and astrologers

Readings: Bottérro, chapter 6 (pp. 170-202); “Akkadian Oracles and Prophecies” (course pack); Daniel, chapters 1-2 (Bible)

Legacies of Mesopotamia

Week 12

Retrospect: Mesopotamia and the origins of western religion

Readings: Bottérro, chapter 7 and conclusion (pp. 203-223)