Technical terms

These are the technical terms used in this website.

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The abzu (Sumerian form) or apsû (Akkadian form) was a large underground body of water in Mesopotamian cosmic geography. It was the domain of the god Enki/Ea. The city of Babylon was said to have been built on top of the abzu, and the Sumerian myth Enki and Ninhursag describes that the first humans were created from clay taken from the top of the abzu.
The akītu festival, one of the most important in the religious calendar, is also referred to as the New Year's festival. Although it is already known from the third millennium BCE, most of our information about the akītu comes from the first millennium.
An = Anum
Important compendium that lists ancient Mesopotamian deities. Mesopotamian religion was polytheistic. Thousands of gods and goddesses appear in the written record throughout the three millennia of Mesopotamian history. Ancient scribes compiled long lists with the names of these deities. The god list An = Anum was first compiled in the Middle Babylonian period and consists of a total of seven tablets (see An = Anum on the Digital Corpus of Cuneiform Lexical Lists [,Q003221,Q003222,Q003223,Q003224,Q003225,Q003226]). It is a thematic, two-column list, with the left column containing the names of Sumerian deities, and the right column their Akkadian equivalents. The title is taken from its first entry that names An, the Sumerian sky god, and his Akkadian equivalent Anum. The most recent scholarly edition can be found in Litke 1998.
Refers to events that took place before the Flood/deluge. The Mesopotamian myth of Atramhasis, a story that is similar to the Biblical Flood story but predates it by about 1000 years, describes a deluge that the gods sent to destroy humanity. Only one human, Atramhasis, survives it. The Sumerian King List (ETCSL 2.1.1) mentions four dynasties that reigned before the deluge, Eridu, Badtibira, Larag, and Šurrupag.
Being of human form. Beginning sometime in the third millennium BCE, gods were imagined as having human form, although thus far no divine statue has survived the ages.
This term (plural apodoses) describes a consequence of an event/action, a consequence of a protasis TT . For example, Mesopotamian omens and laws are constructed in the following way: "If X, then Y"; "then Y" is referred to as the apodosis.


Relating to the Underworld, the land of the dead.
The term cult is sometimes used in a derogatory manner to describe religions that are considered to be abnormal or crazy. In this website, the term is used neutrally, to indicate the worship and religious beliefs of ancient peoples.
Cuneiform writing
The writing system of ancient Mesopotamia, so called because the signs look a bit like wedges. Many languages were written using the cuneiform writing system. Signs were written onto clay or incised into stone. For more information see the website Cuneiform Revealed.
Cylinder seal
Small stone cylinder with an inscribed or decorated surface that was rolled onto clay documents. Seals were used to mark documents with the symbol of the official or individual responsible for them, or to prevent unauthorised access to them.


Dedicatory inscription
These are inscriptions placed on objects, such as ritual vessels, statues, or architectural elements that were part of the temple. They usually contain a dedication to the deity to whom the temple or sanctuary belongs.
This term (adjective: divinatory) describes the ancient art of foretelling the future by observing and interpreting certain phenomena, such as the insides of animals, the stars, birds, and other natural phenomena. See also haruspicy TT  and omen TT .
Divine genealogy
The term genealogy is used to describe a family relationship and its history. Divine genealogies refer to family relationships of gods and goddesses within the pantheon. For example, a deity will be described as the son/daughter or brother/sister of god X. In ancient Mesopotamia, such genealogical relationships often tell us more about a deity's standing within the hierarchy of the pantheon. If a god X is called the son of god Y, it means that god Y had a higher standing in the pantheon than god X.
An expert who practices divination TT ; see also Haruspex TT .
Modern abbreviation for "(any) divine name".


A dialect of the Sumerian language, a linguistic isolate. Sumerian's main dialect was called eme-gir15. Emesal only occurs in religious texts, such as cultic lamentations, or in the direct speec h of goddesses in literary texts. Therefore it was thought to have been a women's language. However, more research is needed to determine whether this was really the case.
Enūma eliš
This literary text, often referred to as the Babylonian story of creation, describes the elevation of the god Marduk to the highest position in the pantheon. For a recent translation see Foster 2005: 436-386.
Epic of Gilgameš
The most famous work of literature from ancient Mesopotamia. Its hero is Gilgameš, a legendary king of the city of Uruk. Gilgameš and his friend Enkidu go on several adventures, during which they first encounter and kill Huwawa, the supernatural guardian of the cedar forest. Later they slay the Bull of Heaven and insult the goddess Ištar. The gods punish Enkidu for his trespasses and kill him. Upon his friend's death, Gilgameš is thrown into a crisis and seeks the secret of eternal life. Ultimately he fails in his quest at immortality but concludes that he can only become immortal by acquiring eternal fame. The first attestations of literary works about Gilgameš date to the Ur III and Old Babylonian periods, from which we have several poems written in Sumerian (see Gilgameš in the Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature [*#]). The first Akkadian version dates to about 1800 BCE and was later expanded into the 12 tablet version that is called the Standard Babylonian version. There are several translations into English available today. Andrew George's translation that was published in 2003 as part of the Penguin Classics series addresses non-specialists, while his scholarly edition, also published in 2003, is more interesting to specialists (George 2003).
A title accompanying a deity's name that describes one or more of his/her characteristics or functions.
An explanation of the origin of a particular word.
In Assyriology, an exorcist refers to a type of expert who through rituals and incantations was able to heal people from disease.


A note or explanation on the meaning of a particular word.
This term refers to the cutting and carving of precious stones. In Assyriology it often refers to iconography of images that were carved upon small precious or semi-precious stones to decorate the cylinder seals TT .
Creature with the body of a fish and the head and front legs of a goat. Associated with the god Ea (Enki). The constellation Capricorn in the zodiac is a Roman revival of the goat-fish.


An expert on haruspicy TT .
Haruspicy refers to the practice of interpreting the insides of sacrificed animals to foretell the future. In ancient Mesopotamia, it was especially the liver of the sheep that was considered significant.


In ancient Mesopotamia, incantations, which are only preserved in written form, consisted of two parts, a ritual part and an incantation part. The ritual part describes instructions for the incantation priest, including, for example, fashioning objects, drawing a circle, etc., whereas the actual incantation part consists of the incantation that the priest was supposed to recite while performing the ritual.


A large stone bearing an inscription concerning a land grant or sale. Kudurrus are known in Southern Mesopotamia from the Kassite period until around the seventh century BCE. Symbols of the deities who assured the transaction are carved onto the kudurru, occasionally with an identifying inscription. These named symbols are an invaluable source for identifying divine iconography.


Literally, "burning", a series of rituals and incantations concerned with preventing and removing evil sorcery.
The Sumerian word ME (plural MEs) denotes a key concept of Mesopotamian religion. It is often translated as "divine ordinances" or "divine powers" or the like. In some texts (such as Inana's Descent to the Netherworld ETCSL 1.4.1), the MEs are imagined as concrete objects, which the goddess Inana wears and takes off so she can be admitted into the Netherworld. Taking off the objects makes her powerless and vulnerable, so she dies in the Netherworld and has to be revived.
In Akkadian the term is translated as parṣū 'rites', which may suggest that the gods derive their powers from rituals, which make up the fabric of the cosmic order in Mesopotamian culture.


An omen is a sign that is deemed to be significant for foretelling the future. In the first millennium BCE, such omens, based on observation, were collected into long series, such as Šumma ālu TT .


Phonetic complement
In the cuneiform writing system, there are some signs that bear no inherent meaning but just indicate how the previous sign is to be read. Because they only bear a phonetic value, not a semantic value, these signs are referred to as phonetic complements.
This term (plural: protases) describes a conditional clause, a subordinate clause beginning with "if." For example, Mesopotamian omens and laws are constructed in the following way: "If X, then Y".
A writing of an Akkadian word that looks like a logogram but is essentially syllabic.


Royal hymn
A subcategory of Sumerian hymns. Royal hymns were either dedicated to a god and included prayers for the king or they were hymns written entirely in praise of kings.
Royal inscription
Inscriptions that were placed on architectural elements, such as bricks, clay nails, clay cones, etc., or onto votive objects, such a vessels, cylinder seals, or statues (also see dedicatory inscription TT ). Because it was a royal prerogative, such inscriptions were mostly written in the names of kings or members of the royal family, in some cases members of the elites could also have their names written on objects. Royal inscriptions range from short, one-line inscriptions only containing the name of the king to longer and more elaborate inscriptions that give historical and religious details. Most of the inscriptions placed on architectural elements were invisible as they were buried in foundation deposits or covered in wall plaster.


A wise person; in Assyria, one of the seven semi-divine scholars from before the great flood, who brought wisdom and learning to humankind.
Stele, stelae
A standing stone monument of substantial size, carved with inscriptions and/or images.
This term (verb: to syncretise) describes a complicated religious process, by which either certain elements of religious worship or certain characteristics of deities were mixed. There is an abundance of secondary literature in the history of religions that seeks to describe this phenomenon. In ancient Mesopotamian studies, it is more frequently used to describe either the identification of one god with another or their merger. For example, when the Sumerian moon god Nanna is merged with the Akkadian moon god Sin, we speak of a syncretism, through which Nanna and Sin became virtually the same deity, i.e. the moon god. However, syncretism is in ancient Mesopotamia is still poorly understood and in need of more comprehensive studies.


Šumma ālu
Literally, "If a city (is set on a height)", the canonical series of terrestrial omens, in at least 120 tablets, named after the first line of the first omen in the collection.
A major first-millennium incantation series, literally šurpû means "combustion." Also see Maqlu TT .


Theophoric name
The term theophoric, which literally means "bearing a deity," is used to describe personal names that invoke a deity. For example, the personal name Rim-Sin, which means "Beloved by the god Sin," has Sin-the moon god's name-as the theophoric element.


(Akkadian: utukkū lemnūtu "evil utukku-demons"). A series of incantations concerned with driving away evil demons.


Year name
Ancient administrative texts from about the Early Dynastic III until the Old Babylonian period named years after certain events in order to date the administrative processes. They commemorated, among others, religious events, such as the appointment of high-priestesses or the dedication of religious objects of worship.


An ancient temple tower, alternative spelling ziqqurat. These large constructions were built of baked bricks and included several steps, most likely with a temple on top. They were one of the most visible monuments and must have been defining features of ancient landscapes. Ziggurats are known from Ur, Nippur, and Babylon, among other places.

Content last modified: 11 Feb 2013.

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