“Ancient Mesopotamian Religion: A Descriptive Introduction” by Ivan Hrůša

Ancient Mesopotamian ReligionIvan Hrůša. Ancient Mesopotamian Religion: A Descriptive Introduction. Translated by Michael Tait. Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 2015, pp. 232, 36.00 €.

Although Mesopotamian religion tends to be complex with historical records ranging roughly 3 millennium, Ivan Hrůša (Professor at Pontifical Biblical Institute-Rome) maneuvers the contours, shifts, and developments of ancient Mesopotamian religion to present a fully descriptive introduction to the subject.

Organization of the book is simple. First, he provides descriptions and dates of various periods of Mesopotamian history to establish a more tangible historical framework of reference. Chapter 1 proceeds with brief summary of important elements in the ancient concept of divinity: division of the gods and goddesses, henotheistic tendencies (and of course polytheistic), and the importance of m e in ancient Mesopotamia. Chapter 2 discusses the principle deities and provides reference to their most significant mythologies. Chapter 3 presents the socio-religious role of the Temple and gods in the Temple, along with the personnel who work in the various cults. Chapter 4 expands upon the issue of Temple and reviews the various ritual and calendar elements necessary for cult worship. Chapter 5 covers the different types of prayers and hymns in ancient Mesopotamian literature, while Chapter 6 engages more so with rituals and incantations, integral aspects to ancient Mesopotamian religion. Finally, Chapter 7 focuses solely on divination as “the discipline which seeks to gain knowledge of the future or of the divine world by means of observation and interpretation of phenomena in the material world or in the personal perception” (153).

Overall, his descriptive introduction is exquisitely written and translated and holds potential to be integral for any classroom on or student of ancient Near Eastern civilizations. Here we will explore a few highlights from his work. First of all, the skill with which he writes is excellent because he essentially compresses an expansive, complex, and dynamic regional and literary history into a brief, succinct, and concise description. So, the reader is able to quickly note how distinct ancient Mesopotamian religion is from modern conceptions of religion. For example, in introducing the ancient concept of m e, Hrůša provides a relatively extensive semantic range list of what m e actually implies. By not appealing to modern tendencies of clear, concise definitions and terms, his ability to stay true to the wide range of meanings within ancient Mesopotamian religion helps to place to reader within the ancient world.

Secondly, although it would have been helpful were the point fleshed out more, he does well in noting that “our distinction between “prayer” and “incantation” is not valid: intercession to the god [prayer] and magical manipulation were complementary since the most important gods themselves (Ea, Marduk) were masters of incantations and magic rituals, and leant efficacy to the magic rituals performed by human beings” (86-87). Because our vision of ancient Mesopotamia is often clouded by modern conceptions of religion, even by our redescriptive use of “religion” for ancient Mesopotamia, Hrůša’s note is important to  the reader. Without it, many inexperienced readers would quickly assume a strong distinction between “incantation” and “prayer”. That said, he should have spent more time discussing the issue within Chapter 1 (“Concept of divinity in Mesopotamia”) so as to provide a snapshot of the complementary nature of the two ideas as a foundation to the whole introduction. Perhaps a general introduction to the cognitive environment of ancient Mesopotamia would have been helpful as well.

Third, regarding Chapter 2’s introduction of principal divinities, Hrůša references major mythologies relevant to each. It would have been helpful, though, if he’d also included references to important and major divination and prayer texts. Although mythologies are without a doubt integral to Mesopotamian religion, inclusion of major prayer and divination texts would provide a valuable direction for students to proceed for their own studies. To counter-balance this critique, though, each chapter does contain a topical bibliography including both classic studies and most recent treatments of the topics.

In conclusion, Hrůša’s nuanced descriptive introduction is extremely relevant to students and scholars. Aside from a few minor critiques, his work is exceptional. While some may find it dry and somewhat monotonous due to its non-fluff nature and focus on material over writing style, it is nonetheless an important introduction to ancient Mesopotamian religion, not to mention the most up-to-date introduction. He avoids scholarly debates and disagreements in order to focus on what we actually know about the structure of ancient Mesopotamian religion. I highly recommend this work for graduate students and as a starting point for studies in ancient Mesopotamian religious practices.

*I’d like to express my gratitude to Ugarit-Verlag for providing a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion.