W.G. Lambert on Theological Imperialism
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W.G. Lambert on Theological Imperialism

Assyriologists have a lot of big ideas which nobody outside the field seems to know. When I was living in Innsbruck, I stumbled over this article while looking for a different one. It was so striking that I took a few minutes to make a photocopy:

Religious controversy was probably more common in Babylonia from c. 1500-500 B.C. than our records reveal. In Assyria disputes over the relative statuses of the local god Ashur and the Babylonian Mardu lay behind two cases of assassination of the Assyrian king, namely Tukulti-Ninurta I and Sennacherib, both of who were murdered by, or with the connivance of their own sons. Both had plundered Babylon, the holy town, and so raised a political storm.

The underlying cause of all such strife was the universally accepted notion of a ranked pantheon, with a head or heads and other gods in a descending order of importance. … Such rankings were not immutable and changes occurred over the millennia. …

A further cause for strife was provided by a concommitant development, namely equations of gods. Among the various city pantheons viewed as a whole gods existed who had essentially the same attributes but bore different names and were worshoped in different towns. Already in the third millennium B.C. ancient theologians were equating such deities, but with the passage of time this process lead to theological imperialism. Big gods could swallow up smaller gods by being equated with them. … This process did not necessarily involve any change in religious practices. … However, attempts were made to impose these developing ideas on the city cults so that the new concepts would be entirely explicit.

W.G. Lambert, “Syncretism and Religious Controversy in Babylonia,” Altorientalische Forschungen 24 (1997) pp. 158-162

Its fairly clear that in the Fertile Crescent in the First Millennium BCE, there was a tendency for pantheons to shrink. The way in which Judeans came to worship a single god is famous, but one colleague in Vienna believes that by around 400 BCE, sophisticated astral scientists in Babylonia had developed a mechanistic, deterministic world view. Lambert thinks that a tablet in the British Museum which he publishes in this article lists gods who were represented by other gods in a procession. This deprived the smaller temples of a chance to show off the image of their god in public next to the images of the gods with big temples. Temples in Babylon controlled land, livestock, workers, and silver, so controlling one was useful in many ways.

The practice of equating gods or giving one goddess many names has a name, but I don’t remember it.

I have not had many chances to post about the cuneiform world while I work on spears and shields (although I have a lot of pointers to cuneiform sources under Reenacting the Archaic and the Long Sixth Century, and an article under review about Hittite and Assyrian geography). I hope I have more chances to do so in the coming years. Until then, when I stumbled over my copy of this article I decided to draft this.

Don’t let my House be taken over by someone else on spurious pretexts! If you can, please support this site.

(scheduled 27 June 2023)

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