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The book 'Treasures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion' by Thorkild Jacobsen is a text used by courses in my seminary and others to provide a background to religious feeling and development over a long stretch of human history -- nearly three thousand years. Whether one accepts that the patriarchs of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are real historical figures or not, no one can plausibly deny that the religious development of the peoples of Canaan (and indeed of all the ancient world around the eastern Mediterranean to the Indus river) were affected by the cultural and religious developments in Mesopotamia, the centre of the region, and a fertile region second to none known in the world, on a par with the Nile, around which another major civilisation arose.
This is a text of history of Mesopotamia in its own right. By the time history gets back this far, the lines become very blurred, rather like parallel lines intersecting on the horizon. Literature, religion, archaeology, sociology, psychology -- all of these disciplines become intertwined in Jacobsen's text as he looks at Sumerian society.
The book is organised with an introduction, then according to time divisions of fourth, third, and second millennia, then concludes with an epilogue into the first millennium, during which the Bible as we know it (and most ancient history such as is commonly known occurred) came to be.
Ancient Mesopotamian Religion: The Terms
The first chapter introduces basic concepts for doing religious studies of any historical era, as well as those specific to this text. Key concepts such as understanding the numinous, the confrontation with power not of this world, the use of metaphor and the importance and limitations on literalness are explored. With regard to what makes Mesopotamian religion unique, Jacobsen explores this with direct quotation from texts from the periods of Sumerian history. One thing that is important in the development of religion is the shift toward human identification. No longer do 'sun gods' and 'nature gods' dominate.
The ancient Mesopotamians also saw this divinity as immanent, rather than transcendent. It is something within, at the centre, rather than something beyond. Because of this, the idea of a god living in a certain place or having special 'holy places' was a strong one -- a god was more present (sometimes only present) in certain places that usually became pilgrimage points or temples. (One can see here the obvious parallel of the ancient Israelites with God who lives more fully on a mountain in Sinai or in a temple in Jerusalem.)
What is true for us is also true for the ancient Mesopotamians in their religious development -- over the course of three thousand years, a dramatic development has taken place (just as thousands of years of development have wrought great changes in Judaism and Christianity), but there is always a tension and interplay of ideas between the old and the new.
Religion through the Millennia
Looking at modern religions, ancient religious impulses and concerns rooted in nature have never completely faded. But during the third millennium, divine powers began to be seen as rulers and helpers of cities and tribes. There was personality beginning to be added to divinities, and they had particular human interests. Gods and goddesses became patrons of rulers and cities on earth, again reflecting the very real needs of the people at the time, whose security rested with rulers and a new invention in the world, the organised military force. Once again, one can see these issues relevant in ancient biblical texts.
Into the second millennium, the distance of gods and goddess lessened, as people came to regard them not only as patron of cities, remote and distant rulers, or impersonal forces (although all of these elements survived in the divine images and characters) but also as personal patrons, someone/thing that could intervene in times of trouble, that could be thanked in times of personal prosperity, that could be sought for personal inspiration. Household gods and personal relationships with deities became common. Again, we can see this not only in the ancient biblical texts, but right up to the present day. It is from this second millennium that the Akkadian epic Gilgamesh derives; when we think of Gilgamesh today, it is this version we know. However, the elements of the Gilgamesh epic go back into the earliest parts of Sumerian history.
Minor criticisms
This is a generally excellent work. Jacobsen writes with an elegant but not overblown style, with liberal use of translated original texts to illustrate points. However, I consider it an important if not crucial point for histories such as this to have visual illustrations, maps, timelines, charts and other visual aids. Linguistically-oriented as I am, I appreciate a good narrative, but I also find that drawing on multiple intelligences reinforces the learning. There are a mere eight illustrations in this text, and three charts (oddly enough, not listed among the illustrations). There are no maps. Given the several thousand years of history being presented here, surely one map could be included? Similarly, there are no depictions of the original languages used, or the cuneiform script in which many of the original documents were penned. Line art, computer generated graphics, and photographs are readily available; the inclusion of a few would enhance this text greatly.
Overall, however, this is an excellent text, and one that will give great reading pleasure and considerable insight to the reader. Discover the ancient stories of snakes and floods. Encounter the gods who live on mountains and in temples. All hundreds if not thousands of years before the book we call the Bible came into being.
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