Time According to the Babylonians

In Mesopotamia, a region long settled by other peoples, the Babylonians had to establish their dominance. By adopting various myths from the Sumerians, and then amending them, they created a sense of the long view of time. Into this invention of time stretching into the infinite past, the Babylonians inserted themselves, thereby breaking the timeline into two parts: before and after their arrival. They grafted the legacy of the Sumerians to themselves. Moreover, possessing a concrete sense of time, the Babylonians then subdivided it in a number of ways, each division of time serving a religious or imperial need. They bifurcated time into two distinct parts – one: circular and repeating, the other: an arrow into the future. These two splits of time complemented each other in the Babylonian mind.

Every New Year which began at the Spring Equinox, the Creation Myth (Enuma Elish) was read. This myth begins with the original creation of the world by Tiamat, the God of Chaos, and Apsu, the God of Waters. Later Anu, a God from the succeeding generation becomes the “Father of the Gods.” Eventually, He cedes his powers to Enlil, from yet a newer generation of Gods, who seeks to overthrow the original Gods. After Apsu is killed, Tiamat wages war on the newer Gods. In desperation, Enlil goes to Marduk, the principal deity of Babylon, for help. On the condition that He is made the Ruler of the Gods, Marduk agrees. After killing Tiamat, Marduk remakes the world from her body.

This creation story cements Babylon’s place in Mesopotamian history. After ages of rule by other peoples and their Gods, Mesopotamia is then recreated by the Babylonians. Generations of Gods follow each other ending with Marduk. Thus, Babylon becomes the terminus point for the timeless past, and the future that is now Babylon. The ritual of reading the Creation Myth every New Year was the intersection of circle with arrow time, and also the combination of both.

In its various forms, the Gilgamesh Epic highlights the nexus of time and immortality. Within this epic is the story of a Great Deluge. Like the Creation Story, the time in the Great Flood is broken into two halves, the world before Babylon and after. According to this myth, the list of Kings before the Flood numbered ten. After the Flood, the Kings reigned from the City of Kish (in Sumer), with reigns consisting of 300 years to 1,200 years. In this story, comes a sense of a long past, a rupture, and then the start of a new age. Because Kish had great symbolic significance, the myth allows Babylon to become the heir to the ancient civilization of Sumer. The story gives to the people of Babylonia, the sense of a great destiny. Babylon is the New World remade from the older world. Once more, time in Babylonian perception was broken, and then welded together again.

The Gilgamesh Epic, itself, focuses on the questions of death and immortality. After his friend, Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh comes to dislike death. Resolving to end death for all, he searches for the key of immortality. During his adventures, various Gods tell him to enjoy life and accept death gracefully. Through a series of mishaps, Gilgamesh is denied immortality for himself and his people. However, he realizes that his city will exist long after his death. His immortality would come from his legacy, which is his city. Babylonians saw this in terms of themselves as the legacy of Sumer. Again it was presented as endless time that was disrupted.

In Babylon, the year was divided into two halves – summer and winter, in explicit circle time. In the myth of Ishtar’s (Inanna) Descent Into the Underworld, winter comes about when Ishtar sends her husband Tammuz (Dumuzi) to take her place in the Land of the Dead. In desperation, Tammuz then seeks help from his sister, Belit-seri (Geshtinanna). After much negotiation with the Gods of the Underworld, both siblings decide to take each other’s place for six months at a time.

Ishtar’s husband, Tammuz was the God of Crops and Flocks. The Babylonians saw Him as the life blood of the land and the sheep. When He went into the Underworld, winter came. At that time his sister, Belit-seri reemerged, and presided over the autumn harvest and wine making. She became the Goddess of Wine and Grapes.

At the Spring Equinox, the Babylonians started their New Year. To commemorate this, the King would enact a sacred marriage with the temple priestess of Ishtar. Their mating was to reaffirm the marriage of Ishtar, the Goddess of Fertility, with her husband, Tammuz. These marriage rites was to ensure that the King was accepted as one of the Gods, and blessed by Ishtar, who also blessed the crops. This was circle time, repeated every year at the same day.

In contrast, the Autumn Equinox was the beginning of the Royal Year. At this time, the King offered First Fruits for the blessings of the Gods for him and his city. Afterwards, he would begin a project such as building a temple. Counting regnal years in Babylon started with the harvest, and was often named for the King’s latest project. The passage of time was demarked by the reigns of kings and their deeds. Again the Babylonian sense of time was divided into two parts, one for the Gods and the other for the kings. Regnal time was inserted as an arrow to the future into the circle time of the harvests.

In their daily lives, the Babylonians were very conscious of the passage of time. They measured days, months, and years (with a nineteen month calendar to tract solar and lunar eclipses). They used artificial time to track governmental and commercial activity for regnal years and fiscal years. Against this backdrop of dividing time into smaller units came the sense of timelessness that rose from living in Mesopotamia. Being conscious of being a part of a succession of kingdoms in the region, the Babylonians both merged their myths with the Sumerians, and divided them into two parts, before Babylon, and after. Time for the Babylonians was to split into two parts, one an arrow pointing towards the future, whilst the other a circle that returned back to Babylon.

Works Used.

“Ancient Mesopotamian Gods and Goddesses.” U.K. Higher Education Project. 2011. Web. http://oracc.museum.upenn.edu/amgg/index.html .
Black, Jeremy and Anthony Green, “Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia.” University of Texas: Austin. 1992.
Cicero, Sandra, “A Guide to the Babylonian Tarot.” Llewellyn: Woodbury, MN, 2006. Print.
King, L.W., “Babylonian Religion and Mythology.” Wisdom Library. 1903. Web. http://www.wisdomlib.org/mesopotamian/book/babylonian-religion-and-mythology/d/doc7086.html .
Cohen, Mark, “Festivals and Calendars of the Ancient Near East Calendar,” PDF. 2015.
Dickie, Lloyd and Paul Boudreau, “Awakenings Higher Consciousness: Guidance from Ancient Egypt and Sumer.” Inner Traditions: Rochester (VT). 2015.
Jacobsen, Thorkild, “The Treasures of Darkness.” Yale University Press: New Haven. 1976.

Some Fields – aka Lenses – for Studying Polytheistic Religions

Polytheistic religions are, by design, multifaceted. There is no single model that encompasses every polytheistic religion. There are, however, several different fields that can be used to explore polytheistic religions, just as there are different fields in every subject. History, for example, can be broken down into many different fields – environmental history, labor history, queer history, women’s history, race history, statistical history, microhistory, etc. In the same vein, polytheistic religions can each individually be explored through certain fields of study.

I try to utilize the twelve fields that follow when I am studying a polytheistic religion. I’ll go more in-depth with each one in regard to the Heathen religion in my future posts, but for now, I am just going to introduce the fields themselves.

The first field is cosmogony, which is the study of the creation of the universe. Every religion has an origin story for the cosmos – some have several. Understanding those creation myths are vital to understanding the religion they underpin. In Heathenry, the creation myth revolves around the collision of fire and ice giving rise to the spark of life in the middle of the Ginnungagap, or yawning void, which then gave rise to everything else.

The second field is cosmology, which is the study of the universe itself. This differs from cosmogony because cosmology looks at the structure of the universe after its creation. Said a different way, the creation myth/s of religion are so integral that they require a separate, in-depth study. In Heathenry, the cosmology centers around the World Tree, Yggdrasil, the Nine Worlds that rest in its branches, and the Three Wells that lay at its roots.

The third field is theogony, which refers to the lineage of the gods. This gives us information about the family of the gods, how the gods structure and arrange themselves, and what the relationships are between different gods. Within Heathenry, there are two or three families of gods, depending on your perspective. Traditional Heathens only acknowledge the Aesir and Vanir families, but others acknowledge the Jotuns (Rokkr) as a third family.

The fourth field centers around sacred calendars, rites, and practices. This includes the calendars that the religion historically used, the days considered sacred, the rituals practiced and the method of practice, and the daily way of life. Many people approach polytheistic religions through this field, as most polytheistic religions are centered on right practice (orthopraxy). Polytheistic religions are lived religions, so practice is a necessity – it is the only requirement. While there are many ways to study a religion, there is only one way to follow a religion, and, in polytheistic religions, that means through practice.

The fifth field is eschatology, which is the study of death, judgment, and final destination. It is the study of the afterlife. Every religion views death differently. Considering the fact death is the most intriguing and terrifying phenomena in the universe, it makes sense that there are so many different ideas of what happens when you die. Within Heathenry, there are several different afterlives, but there are also several conflicting views as to who goes to which life. Most polytheistic religions are life-affirming, so they are rooted in a this-world mentality. Heathenry is no different, as the afterlife you receive is considered to be one based entirely on the deeds you perform in this life.

The sixth field is axiology, or the study of values and ethics. It is the moral creed that underpins religion. Many polytheistic religions do not have creeds that are explicitly stated; instead, the moral codes are culturally embedded and learned through the myths themselves. Within Modern Heathenry, the moral codes are often found in the Poetic lay known as the Havamal. This is a set of maxims supposedly given by Odin himself, as the translation of Havamal is “Words of the High One.”

The seventh field is pneumatology, or the study of spiritual beings and phenomena. This deals with the types of spiritual creatures a person would be expected to encounter and/or honor. This can include the gods but is typically focused on other classes of spirits. Within Heathenry, that includes elves, wights, and trolls – Kvedulf Gunndarson has a wonderful book on the topic called “Elves, Wights, and Trolls: Studies Towards the Practice of Germanic Heathenry” that really explores the pneumatology of Heathenry.

The eighth field is soulology, or the study of the soul or soul-complex. Soulology itself is a modern term, as the traditional word here would have been psychology. Psychology was once understood to be the study of the soul, but in its modern iteration, it is known as the study of the human psyche. These aren’t identical concepts, so it is important to differentiate them. Within Heathenry, the soul is considered a soul-complex with many parts to it. It is not unusual, in polytheistic religions, to see soul-complexes that describe five or more souls or soul parts.

The ninth field is semiotics & symbology, which is the study of signs & symbols and their interpretation and uses. Within Heathenry, there are many signs and symbols, all of which mean vastly different things. Runes are the mainstay of Heathen symbology, but there is also the Helm of Awe, Mjolnir, the Runic Compass, the Valknut, and the Irminsul (to name a few).

The tenth field is sophology, or the study of wisdom. In this sense, wisdom comes from reading the myths, applying appropriate cultural interpretations to those myths, and using the myths as guidelines for experiential living. It also requires utilizing knowledge gained from other fields of study and/or life experience and synthesizing that knowledge into a composite whole. Wisdom does not operate in a vacuum nor can it be found in a single place. Ethics are a part of wisdom, but morality changes depending on the culture. Due to its nature, wisdom is virtually impossible to pin down or describe, as it has a variety of forms. Within Heathenry, wisdom is highly valued, as Odin, the chief god of the pantheon, is a god of wisdom who always seeks more of it.

The eleventh field is sexology, or the study of sex. This includes the act of sex itself and how it was viewed, as well as gender and how that is construed within the religion. Different religions view nonbinary identities as incredibly sacred; others view them as perverse. In some religions, there are gods that require practitioners to be of one sex or another, and some practices are restricted to certain sexes. In the modern world, people often find it offensive when religious restrictions prevent them from accessing certain gods or certain rituals. Not all people need access to all things. That is why there are still closed religions, and it is important to respect the closed nature of those religions.

The twelfth field is occultology, or the study of the occult (meaning secret). Within polytheistic religions, this refers to magic derived from religious practices. Within Heathenry, there are three specific branches of magic. There is seidhr, which is a type of trance/oracular magic, traditionally only performed by women (there were and are exceptions). There is galdr, which is runic vibrational magic, that was traditionally magic done by men (again, exceptions exist). Lastly, there is spaecraft, and in today’s terms translates to herbalism and/or cunning.

The fields can, and do, overlap each other. That said, it is sometimes easier to use a narrow lens to look at a complex subject to better understand it. Though each of these fields can be used as narrow lenses to explore polytheistic religions, it is important to keep in mind that every religion is far more than the twelve fields listed here – i.e. the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

I am the farthest removed you can get from being a reductionist, and I highly discourage anyone from trying to use these fields in a manner that suggests that they are the only parts of a religion. They are not – these are simply the ones that I have found useful in my own studies. I’m sure there are thousands upon thousands of other techniques to use to approach the study of religion. These are just the ones that I have developed for myself. If they help you, great, but do not go out and try to tell people that they are the “only way to study religion.” That is a mindset born from living in a monotheistic culture, and, if you are practicing a polytheistic religion, it is one I highly encourage you to divest yourself of as soon as possible.

Going forward, I will be examining Heathenry through these fields. Some will require more discussion than others, some will require less – in any case, it won’t be as simple as a 12-part series. Moreover, the views I express are mine alone, and they do not represent the views of the entire Heathen community.