Behavior over Belief

Even though many ancient texts talk about religion, archaeologists know very little about ordinary people’s beliefs. Only a few wealthy people could write, and they are the ones who wrote down their religious practices. We do know, however, that ancient religion focused more on behavior than ideas. What someone did mattered more than what they believed. Ancient people also did not distinguish between the religious world and the secular one – every part of life had spiritual meaning.

Sumerian Priest

Sumerian Priest


The Sumerian Worldview
This replica statue depicts a member of the Sumerian priestly class, identified by his distinctive shaved head. Sumerians priests like this one recorded god-lists that were hundreds of names long. Some gods were associated with natural events, like storms. Others were responsible for the fate of a single city.

Sumerians believed that the world was the product of the gods’ actions, both good and bad. While the gods expected moral behavior from humans, they sometimes acted immorally themselves. In order to gain the gods’ favor, Sumerians saw it as their duty to serve them according to specific rituals.

Libation Cup

Libation Cup

21st Century BCE

Snakes and Sacrifices
In addition to the more familiar animal sacrifices, people in the ancient Near East also sacrificed liquids such as wine or oil to the gods. This libation cup belonged to Gudea, the ensi or city-prince of Lagish, who oversaw temple celebrations and sacrifices. It would have contained wine for sacrifices to the god Ningizzida. Its decorations, entwined snakes and a dragon, were typical in the Chaldean religion.

The inscription on the cup reads, “To Ningizzida his god…for the prolongation of his life Gudea Patesi of Sirpouria dedicates this offering.”

Bull Statue

Bull Rhyton


13th Century BCE

A Bull by the Horns
Like Gudea’s libation cup, this bull also held wine to be used in sacrifices. Hollow vessels like this one are known as rhytons when they come from Greek-speaking cultures (this rhyton was made by the Myceneans on the island of Cyprus).

However, bulls were also a popular religious symbol in the Near East. Wild or horned animals, in addition to representing the power of a king, often symbolized the power of a particular god. Sumerians did not believe that gods took animal forms, but a bull might be used to represent a storm god’s supernatural power.