Akkadian Prayers in Ancient Mesopotamia

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By: Alan Lenzi

Prayer is ubiquitous in human societies, including ancient Mesopotamia, but it often appears alien or distant to our modern sensibilities. A closer look shows that this seemingly arcane topic tells us much about Mesopotamian hopes, fears, rituals, and history, sometimes in deeply human ways.

How do we identify Akkadian prayers?

The Mesopotamians never defined “prayer,” though they had a number of words that we translate with the term (e.g., Akkadian supû, teslītu, and ikribu).

Votive statues showing the attitude of prayer, found at Tell Asmar, Iraq, ca. 2900-2500 BCE. Oriental Institute, University of Chicago.

Votive statues showing the attitude of prayer, found at Tell Asmar, Iraq, ca. 2900-2500 BCE. Oriental Institute, University of Chicago.

Although the scribes sometimes labeled their texts with superscripts and rubrics, these usually designated a text’s function (e.g., for impotence) rather than genre. Thus, when Assyriologists sort through the thousands of Akkadian texts that have come down to us from ancient Mesopotamia, they must decide for themselves what counts as a prayer and what does not. And to do this, they have to use a contemporary definition of “prayer,” which ideally is altered in conversation with the Mesopotamian data.

Tailoring their definition in light of the ancient data keeps scholars from simply projecting their own ideas onto the texts and thereby misunderstanding the ancient materials. A preliminary definition of prayer (as found in texts) might run something like this: when a text records an appeal to some supra-human, benevolent being who is presumed to be powerful enough to assist in granting the appeal.

To whom were the prayers directed?

As one might have guessed, gods are typically the supra-human beings to whom appeals were directed in ancient Akkadian prayers. But this similarity with Western religious traditions should not constrict our textual perspective. We also finds appeals to other entities, such as family ghosts or deified objects (e.g., salt, or the river). These texts must also be considered prayers.

What can we say about the form and content of Akkadian prayers?

Prayers are quite diverse in terms of form and therefore also length. A prayer could be as short as a personal name (e.g., “Nebuchadnezzar” means “O Nabu, guard my firstborn, Akkadian, Nabû-kudurrī-uṣur]), a short letter addressed to a deity, or a few lines on the legend of a cylinder seal. The highly structured and formulaic texts that scholars have dubbed “incantation-prayers” typically range between about twenty to thirty-five lines. Some prayers, however, are much longer, as is a literary prayer to Marduk that runs to over 200 lines. Still others display great scribal sophistication, as does a double acrostic prayer from the first millennium.


 

Hymn to Marduk, first millennium BCE. Metropolitan Museum 86.11.313

Hymn to Marduk, first millennium BCE. Metropolitan Museum 86.11.313

Prayer to Marduk, Library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh, first millennium BCE. British Museum K.20155

Prayer to Marduk, Library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh, first millennium BCE.
British Museum K.20155


Although prayers often are stand alone texts, they sometimes were embedded in another literary genre (such as royal inscriptions), collected into a series (e.g., diviner’s queries called tāmītus), or integrated into a complex ritual (e.g., a royal purification ritual called Bīt Rimki or the Assyrian royal coronation).

The content of prayers differs widely but several general features commonly occur, though their presence and order vary. One feature that occurs without fail is the invocation, which identifies the entity to whom the prayer is directed. The invocation always lies at the beginning of a prayer and is often followed by praise for the invoked being’s character, attributes, or function. For example, “O Gula, most exalted lady, merciful mother, who dwells in the pure heavens,” or “Ishtar, queen of the entire inhabited world, guiding mankind aright.” High gods tend to receive more praise than personal gods or familial ghosts, who presumably were on more familiar terms with the supplicant. (One prayer begins simply “You, the ghosts of my family, progenitors in the grave.”)

Stamp seal showing a standing bull. On the side is Gula, goddess of healing, ca. 700 BCE.  British Museum 1940,0210.8

Stamp seal showing a standing bull. On the side is Gula, goddess of healing, ca. 700 BCE.
British Museum 1940,0210.8

Complaint is another common feature in prayers. One particularly poignantly example complains “(My) life has become like that (of someone) beaten with wooden poles.” Supplicants often voice their woes, laments, and confessions to the being to whom they are appealing. Sometimes these occur during but also after the expression of praise. Complaints may also be interlaced with the supplicant’s petitions, yet another common feature in Akkadian prayers.

Even though petition is the conceptual heart of prayer, the number of words given to the task varies widely. Sometimes an entire prayer contains only one brief petition while in other cases petition dominates the text. Akkadian prayers often conclude with a reprise of praise, in which the supplicant praises or promises to praise the addressee for a favorable reply (“That I may proclaim your greatness (and) resound your praises!”).

To understand the content of prayer fully, we have to go beyond these various components because Akkadian prayer was very much an embodied act, including verbal as well as kinesthetic or physically learned aspects. The wording of the prayer itself often describes ritual gestures, which demonstrate subservience or imposition, and ritual acts. For example, a supplicant might state that he is seizing the hem of the deity’s garment or is making an offering. Moreover, some prayers were recited during a larger ritual procedure (e.g., extispicy, the study of entrails) or were accompanied by instructions for what was to be done before, during, or after the prayer’s recitation. Interestingly, the latter do not always correspond to ritual acts mentioned in the prayer.

Seated figure in attitude of prayer, ca. 2500 BCE British Museum 1919,1011.2607

Seated figure in attitude of prayer, ca. 2500 BCE
British Museum 1919,1011.2607

Cylinder seal showing a bearded worshipper facing a god and a goddess, ca. 900-500 BCE. British Museum 1854,0401.1

Cylinder seal showing a bearded worshipper facing a god and a goddess, ca. 900-500 BCE.
British Museum 1854,0401.1

Here a caveat is also in order. Although the Akkadian prayers that have come down to us typically consisted of words and actions, appeals could also be communicated in ancient Mesopotamia without words by way of a votive statue placed in the deity’s inner chamber, for example, or through a presentation scene on a cylinder seal. Although words seem essential to our contemporary concept of prayer, that was simply not the case in ancient Mesopotamia.

Who prayed and why?

Kings dominate the documented supplicants, although Old Babylonian letter-prayers demonstrate that common people could also make appeals to the gods.

The ancient Mesopotamians prayed for the same general reason people pray today: they needed something that the gods could supply. This might be a response to a query, forgiveness for a sin, the restoration of health, renewed prosperity, help against an enemy, or deliverance from the threat of an announced evil (in the form of an ominous sign), among other things. Ritual officials assisted supplicants in making petitions by providing the proper, pre-formulated ritual to enact that included the prayer to recite (e.g., a shaziga for sexual impotence, a namburbi to turn away the announced evil of an ominous sign, or a dingirshadabba for the quelling of the wrath of a personal deity). Occasionally, a ritual instructs a person to speak from their heart, which seems to be a reference to extemporaneous prayer.

What do historians learn from Akkadian prayers?

Since Akkadian prayers are fundamentally about people asking the gods for something, these texts provide opportunities for historians to learn about the hopes and fears of ancient Mesopotamians. We conclude with a prayer from a common man of the Old Babylonian period, who brings to expression in a personal way the economic fears and anxieties that historians believe existed on a wide scale during his times:

To my lord Amurrum [an Amorite family god], whose command is heard before Shamash [high god of justice], speak: Thus (says) Ardum [which means “slave”], your servant, “With men you created me and caused me to pass (unharmed) on the street. Moreover, I would bring you a sheep offering yearly and offer (it) to your honored divinity. Now, the enemy has overcome me so that I am a poor man. My brothers did not come to my aide. If . . . [unclear], raise me from the bed I am lying on, that I may bring a lavish sheep offering and come before your divinity. . . . [unclear]. May my family not be dispersed! Those who look upon me (hereby) submit (this petition) to your beautiful divinity.

Alan Lenzi is Associate Professor and Chair of Religious Studies at the University of the Pacific.

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