Reviews of

Ancient Mesopotamian Religion and Mythology

In A. R. George, Ancient Israel, Ancient Near East, Kurtis Peters, Mohr Siebeck, Mythology, T. M. Oshima, W. G. Lambert on September 13, 2017 at 6:59 pm

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2017.09.20 | W. G. Lambert, Ancient Mesopotamian Religion and Mythology: Selected Essays, ed. A. R. George and T. M. Oshima, Orientalische Religionen in der Antike 15 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2016). ISBN: 9783161536748.

Review by Kurtis Peters

W. G. Lambert’s contributions to Assyriology are unquestionably many. His work in Babylonian wisdom literature and the publishing of the Atra-Ḫasīs epic are alone testament to the enduring value of his work. In the present volume one finds a range of Lambert’s essays on the pantheon, myth, and religion found in ancient Mesopotamia. The editors, A. R. George and T. M. Oshima, divided the volume into five sections. First is “Introductory Considerations”, within which one finds two essays, “Morals in Mesopotamia” and “Ancient Mesopotamian Gods: Superstition, Philosophy, Theology”. Though the material here overlaps with much of what comes in later essays, these set some necessary groundwork and do so in a more generalist way. That the latter was published in Revue de l’histoire des religions confirms its broad scope. 

The second through the fourth sections are differentiable only in nuance: “The Gods of Ancient Mesopotamia”, “The Mythology of Ancient Mesopotamia”, and “The Religion of Ancient Mesopotamia”. The fifth and final section would be the most relevant to the readers of RBECS – “Ancient Mesopotamia and Israel”.

Section II, “The Gods of Ancient Mesopotamia” is primarily concerned with determining who, as precisely as possible, constituted the pantheon. The first essay catalogues the various changes to the general Mesopotamian pantheon from earliest records until the neo-Babylonian period. The second outlines the role and identity of female gods and their relationship to the roles of women in Mesopotamian culture. The third and fourth essays focus on regional expressions of the pantheon, that of the Hurrian people and that of Mari respectively. The fifth and sixth are similar except in that they focus on the identity of a particular god, Assur in the first and Ishtar of Nineveh in the second.

Section III, “The Mythology of Ancient Mesopotamia” explores more directly the nature of mythology for ancient Mesopotamians as well as some of its content. The first essay is the only non-English piece included in the volume and sets out to rescue mythology from the clutches of what Lambert sees as unhelpful trends in research, not least the relevance of one Claude Lévi-Strauss, and to reestablish the necessity of philology, which “nichts von ihrer Bedeutung verloren hat” (95). The other essays explain the relationship of Sumerian and Babylonian cosmology (second and fourth essays), the theology of death (third essay), the mythology surrounding the god Ninurta (fifth) and the very nature of myth and ritual for the Babylonians (sixth).

Section IV, “The Religion of Ancient Mesopotamia” gathers up what the two preceding sections leave behind. Here Lambert seeks primarily to explain the expression of Mesopotamian religion, the practices of its adherents. In “The Reign of Nebuchadnezzar I: A Turning Point in the History of Ancient Mesopotamian Religion” he argues that Nebuchadnezzar I’s reign is a rare point in history where one can almost pinpoint a religious shift. No doubt there were changes in religion, as the first essay of section II explained, but here Lambert thinks we have evidence of the shift itself. He sees the reign of this king, who saw the return of the statue of Marduk to Babylon, as the time when Marduk rose to complete supremacy in the Mesopotamian pantheon. He argues that, contrary to the commonly held position, Marduk was indeed exalted during the reign of Hammurabi, but only from marginality to being among the great gods, not to complete supremacy over the pantheon. Enuma Elish, he maintains, says that Marduk was given “supreme rule over all the peoples”, which is not equivalent to supreme rule over all the gods (159). Lambert’s attention to the text, here and elsewhere, deserves great credit. The remaining essays in section IV are somewhat loosely connected, with subjects of syncretism and religious controversy, food and drink offerings to the gods, Ishtar’s cult, Babylonian diviners, and the language of devotion and love in Mesopotamian religious practice.

Section V, “Ancient Mesopotamia and Israel” closes the volume with three essays. The first, “Old Testament Mythology in its Ancient Near Eastern Context” is of considerable value to biblical studies in its general approach to reading the Hebrew Bible in a broader setting. The remaining two are more specific, concerning in turn destiny and divine intervention, and the Flood in its various ANE sources.

A primary achievement in this volume is synthesis. Many of the essays do not seek to elucidate some new fine point of Mesopotamian mythology, but rather to gather and summarize material in such a way that provides the reader clarity in the overall picture. Of course, the religious milieu of ancient Mesopotamia was the air its people breathed. There was little need to dedicate time listing all the gods and their relationships with one another, except perhaps in times of cultural transition. The modern scholar, then, must infer what those relationships were and what the arrangement of gods was in this town or that, during this era or that. Unless one were quite saturated with the texts of several millennia over the whole of the Near East, this would quickly become bewildering. Of course, this is the world to which Lambert gave his long career and this left him well placed to offer guidance through the quagmire. As mentioned above, the second section of this book “The Gods of Ancient Mesopotamia” sets out to do just that, but it is the first essay in this section that truly shines: “The Historical Development of the Mesopotamian Pantheon: A Study in Sophisticated Polytheism.” Originally published in 1975, it became somewhat of a landmark study of its kind. It is, like much of his work, solidly historical-critical in its approach. Whatever the reader’s sensitivities to such a method, this essay is necessary ground work, without which other methods would be severely hampered. For those in biblical studies this is the most important essay to read. Even within Assyriology, the synthesis demonstrated here is remarkable, taking the reader from the earliest known pantheon arrangement in early Sumerian culture over two millennia to the supremacy of Marduk and his son Nabû in the neo-Babylonian period.

Lambert’s essay on Old Testament Mythology may raise the ire of some biblical scholars, though of course Lambert never shied away from doing so. Here he denounces in biblical studies the same as he does in Mesopotamian studies – “trends”. In his opening remarks he criticizes biblical studies for only taking seriously Source criticism, and then for rejecting it altogether, and then for the study “not of the O.T. at all, but of amphictyonies, or myth and ritual, or of a kind of autumnal festival not found in Law, Prophets or Writings” (215). He allows that these trends have always had something to offer, “but such trendiness has distracted from more serious pursuits” (215). These serious pursuits, it turns out, are none other than textual criticism and other related disciplines, within which he includes mythological study. Lambert’s bias comes through rather clearly.

Very telling for the volume as a whole is the beginning of George’s introduction: “In approaching ancient religion and mythology, W. G. Lambert espoused no theory; in fact he deliberately ignored it…. He recognised only one methodology: to start with the text in front of him” (1). There is much to be praised about Lambert’s approach to the text, but this view of his own work errs on the naive. It appears to be none other than a recurrence of “back in my day…”. Of course, one does not need to value each trend of scholarship, but to ignore them and to pretend as if one’s method is not itself a preference of one trend over another is a flight of fancy. Nevertheless, Lambert’s approach and methodology has produced excellent results and provided scholarship with a wealth of resources. His commitment to primary texts has made him one of the foremost Assyriologists and one to whom not only Assyriology but also biblical studies is in great debt. The present volume, therefore, ought to be a standard by which many other such studies are measured.

Kurtis Peters

University of British Columbia

kurtis.peters[at]ubc.ca

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