What Gave Rise to Polytheism?
The name of the ancient city of Babylon means the gate of gods, itself one firm indication why there are many Babylonian gods. That religion in Babylonian times was highly polytheistic owes much to the rise into power of the rulers of Babylonia, a territory in southern Mesopotamia bounded by the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. The influence of the entire Babylonia and its eponymous capital city became pronounced over the rest of Mesopotamia when Hammurabi asserted military and political might in the region during 1792–1750 BC.
With Babylonia and its capital becoming a virtual melting pot, the Babylonian gods became a reflection of the different faiths of the various peoples in Mesopotamia. Hence, some of the gods worshiped in Babylon were deities of the Sumerians, the first people to settle in the Mesopotamian region. Babylonia gods also included those adopted from other Mesopotamian settlers like the Assyrians, Amorites, and the Akkadians.
A Hierarchy of Gods
A common thread that links these gods is that they are a reflection of the common concerns of various peoples, their fears, and their needs. The Mesopotamian desert nomads had their sand and water gods. The Sumerians had gods of harvest and city gods. The mountain men of Mesopotamia had deities for lightning and thunder. Some of these gods were eventually integrated into an existing single god. A hierarchy among these gods was likewise established, so much so that there are minor gods and city gods.
The Sumerians, in particularly, were noted for this system of gods. A main temple for each of these deities was built for each city. This practice gave rise to the presence of many temples in Mesopotamian cities. The main temples for the Sumerians, for instance, were for major gods such as the temples for their god of heaven (Anu), sea god (Enki or Ea), goddess of love (Ishtar), and deity for the air (Enlil).
The Mighty God Marduk
Babylonian religion therefore centered on many temples wherein elaborate festivals were held for each god. Diviners and exorcists, among other various types of priests, presided over these rituals. The most sophisticated of these rites were reserved for Marduk which emerged as the chief Babylonian god around 1100 BC.
Marduk was so revered as a national god in Babylonia that the kingdom’s ruler had to kneel before the god’s statue during the New Year celebration in Mesopotamia. This god was also a dominant figure in Babylonia literature, glorified as the deity responsible for the creation of heaven and earth.
According to this Babylonian tale, Marduk led all other gods in defeating the demon-goddess Tiamat and her forces. Earning the crown of supreme god with the victory, he became the creator of heaven and earth by using the remains of his slain adversary. The dominance of Marduk over other Babylonian gods is even indicated in some writings of the ancient historian, Herodotus, who indicated that the biblical Tower of Babel was erected in this deity’s honor.