Throughout history, art has been used as a language to express a society’s religious and cultural values. This is no different in ancient cultures such as Mesopotamia, Egypt and Greece. Faith is such an important part of life for the earliest of civilizations. The belief in multiple gods provides answers for the people of these cultures. It gave these people an incentive to provide and worship for their deities in order to obtain proper vegetation and happy lives. The gods were in control of their happiness—if they did not do what they were meant to do, the gods would punish them. If they did not perform the proper rituals, make the correct sacrifices, or worship in the correct way, it could cause famine and lead to death.
Each of these deities has a purpose in these societies. Some are gods of war, some gods of the sun, and some are the gods of fertility and mankind. Throughout this exhibition of ancient polytheistic religions (and one monotheistic one), we will learn about the role that each of these deities play part in. Beginning in Mesopotamia, we will explore first the patron goddess Inanna, the daughter of Anu and in charge of growth and vegetation. Next we will explore further into the Near East where their patron god is Shamash, the God of Justice. We will then travel to Akkad, home of the self-appointing god, Naram-Sin. After that we will travel to Egypt, where we will explore the traditional beliefs of Egyptian polytheism through the god Horus before diving into the monotheistic rule of King Akhenaten and the Aten. Next we will travel to Greece and learn about Athena, the goddess of war and patron deity of Athens. Finally we will end with the ancient Romans, a society that based their religious beliefs heavily on the Greek, and study their version of the sun god Apollo. Each of these regions has its own ways to worship its deities, and all of it is documented through art.
Inanna: The Goddess of Mesopotamia
Inanna, also known as Ishtar or Astarte, is one of the deities heavily worshiped by the people of the Mesopotamian river valley, also known as the “black-headed” people. She goes by many names and is usually accompanied by animals. She is the twin sister of the sun god Shamash and daughter of Anu, or Enki, and Aya. She came to more prestige as time went on, following the idol of her father. She is known for her lustful sexuality and often associated with the planet Venus. In the article “Ecology of the Erotic in a Myth of Inanna,” she is described as being “queen of the night sky where she flared as a living torch, and she rules the day as well, coming down to walk about in human form among her people (Grahn, 58).” The people of Mesopotamia worshipped her for being a fierce warrior and protector of her people, as well as being the decider of the ancient civilization’s political welfare. She is not “motherly” or “nurturing,” but rather a provider for her people.
She was the patron deity of Uruk, one of the world’s first civilizations of ancient Sumer and the largest city in the ancient world at its absolute height. Archeologists date the city of Uruk back to around 4500 B.C.E. It is unknown where these people came from but they are the people who first invented a written language and use a pottery wheel. Found at the sights of ancient Mesopotamian city-states like Uruk and Babylon are vast amounts of pottery, seals, and archeological remains—many of which feature ancient deities known to those cultures, like Inanna.
There are many legends surrounding her. One of the lesser known is the legend of her encounter with the human Su-kale-tuda. It is a story of one of her journeys on earth when she was inspecting her people. While napping under a willow tree, she was ravaged by a black-headed youth. After waking, Inanna realizes the horrifying truth of what has happened to her and immediately contemplates what to do about her attacker. She hunts him down for several days. When she does not find him immediately, she punished the people of Sumer by turning their water into her blood and refused to reenter her shrine until her attacker was handed to her. She eventually found him and sentenced him to death., and the myth ends with praise sung to her. It is important to note that the goddess is never self-pitying but merely outraged. She never complains of pain but only seeks vengeance (Grahn, 61). This myth is important to the people of Mesopotamia because it teaches them that she is the one who ultimately decides their fate. It also teaches the black-headed people to fear her, and to disrespect her virtue is unacceptable and punishable by death.
Inanna was believed to be in charge of keeping her land fertile and providing healthy vegetation for her people. She is also a protector. The image provided shows a winged goddess, most likely Inanna, attended by owls and lions. It is right to assume that this image is of Inanna because she was the most worshipped goddess in Babylon at the time this was made. Most of the legends that surround her happened when she was in her human form inspecting the land. In this image, she is a goddess with wings. This image shows her in her most dutiful state. Like the legend of her and Su-kale-tuda, this image also shows us her reign over the ancient Sumerian people—as a goddess and someone way more powerful than them. She is one of the oldest deities in history, and she helps start a long tradition of polytheistic religions.
Shamash: The Patron God of Ancient Babylonia
Shamash is the sun god in Mesopotamian culture. He is in charge of bringing light and warmth to his people, allowing crops to grow and flourish. He is the twin brother of the goddess Inanna and son of Anu (Enki) and Aya. He was most heavily worshipped in Babylon, where the Code of Hammurabi is believed to be a contract that was written in his favor. He had power of light over evil and was known as the god of justice for his people and governor of the universe. He also was in charge of overlooking the underworld and bestowed and light on his people. He was the great conquerer of death, often depicted flying around the heavens in his chariot, seeking justice and peace in all the lands. Unlike many of the deities in the ancient world, he is rarely depicted in human form, but always in his deified state (Britannica).
Babylon rose to power under the leadership of their great king, Hammurabi, who began his reign around 1792 B.C.E. Hammurabi was a great king and conqueror and is most known for the creation of his code. The code is written in cuneiform, a series of line patterns and the world’s first written language. In total it contains a prologue, 282 laws, and an epilogue. The prologue explains that the gods designated Hammurabi, mainly Shamash, to write down their laws. The laws covered all three levels of society in Babylon. The three levels included the upper-class free man, or the “awilum,” the “mushkenum,” who is free but not considered upper class, and the slave, or “wardum.” According to the Hammurabi code, each citizen was divided by class and is treated to the punishment of that class. All people of Babylon were entitled to court hearings by a judge and an appeal to the king. The rules varied—some dealt with agriculture, property rights, business, or the rights of slaves; others dealt with fixed wages, prescribed duties, and personal rights. “An eye for an eye” is perhaps Hammurabi’s most popular law and is still highly referenced to this day. Many rules revolved around the crowing of crops and referred to both landowners and tenant farmers. At the time, both women and slaves were believed to be the personal property of free men, but women were surprisingly liable to certain rights and benefits under Hammurabi’s code. Slaves also had the ability to buy back their freedom, be adopted as freed people, and marry free women. Although Hammurabi’s code was not the first of its kind, it was the grandest and most detailed (Kruger).
“Shamash was not only the god of justice but also governor of the whole universe (Britannica).” He was the ultimate judge. Hammurabi’s Code was given to him from the god Shamash. As shown at the told of the eight-foot-tall stele, Shamash presents him with the laws and they are recorded on the surface below. In the detail featured on the top of the stele of Hammurabi’s code, the god is pictured holding the symbols of justice and righteousness, a staff and a ring. Ancient Babylonians believed that the Shamash decided their fate and made their laws. He controlled the consequences of their behaviors for the living and in the afterlife after death. Art historians are very lucky to have found this artifact. Not only does it present the first form of written language, it also provides a look into ancient Babylonian society, government, culture, and religion. With the addition of Shamash presenting Hammurabi with the codes, we can see the importance that the god had on ancient Babylonian people.
Naram-Sin: The Self-Proclaimed Deity of Akkad
Although Akkadian King Naram-Sin is not technically a Mesopotamian deity, he is recognized in this exhibition for his self-proclaimed god status. This status is shown in his figural representation on the Victory Stele of Naram-Sin, including his size, dress, and general nature, and also in his descriptions of his own status. The Akkadian Empire came to power roughly around 2334 B. C. E. after Sargon the Great, Naram-Sin’s grandfather, sacked the city of Ur. According to the Sumerian King List, there were five rulers of Akkad: Sargon, Rimush, Manishtusu, Naram-Sin, and Shar-Kali-Sharri, who maintained the Akkadian dynasty for 142 years before it collapsed around 2083 B. C. E. Naram Sin ruled from 2260-2223 B. C. E. Previously, the rulers of Mesopotamian regions considered themselves to be servants of the gods—higher up and more holy and legitimate than their people but still answering to the needs of the deities. He dubbed himself the King of the Universe and is considered by many historians to be the last great conqueror of Akkad.
Mears writes, “Naram-Sin was a ruthless and brilliant ruler who aspired to the greatness of his grandfather, Sargon the Great. Naram-Sin began his 36-year reign by defeating another rebellious coalition of Sumerian and neighboring kings in hoping to take advantage of the turmoil of succession (Mears, 51).” This is shown in the image above of him defeating his enemy. He conquered many regions after coming into power, many of which were regions that once belonged to Akkad before one of the kings before him lost control of the empire. His conquests expanded all around the Mediterranean, and many of them were acquired by using violent and ruthless military tactics. He eventually went too far after sacking the holy city of Nippur when trying to subside a revolt from its people. The revolt led to a divide between Naram-Sin’s army and the people revolting, and he eventually fell from power. This event is known as “The Curse of Agade (Mears, 52).”
During his rule, a new relationship between ruler and deity started to form. The rulers and deities started to look more equal. On the Victory Stele of Naram-Sin, the king is shown as a great conqueror. He has just won a battle against the Lullubi army and is sleighing the last enemy. He is larger than the rest of the people in the image, standing at the top of the mountain and basking in the sunrays of the gods. he is also wearing a horned crown on his head, which is a garment usually reserved for the gods in most figural depictions of this time. This image is an example of change in Akkadian art. After this, particularly in ancient Egyptian art, rulers seem to have a deified nature in many of their depictions. This image is the first one to do so. He eventually presented himself with the title, “Naram-Sin, the mighty, God of Agade, King of the Four Quarters (Mears, 52).” This self-deified proclamation was said to have offended the gods so much that it ultimately led to Naram-Sin’s defeat.
The depiction of a king in this manner was an art historical milestone. It represented a great change. The kings no longer had to remain mortal, but now had the ability to deify themselves. Naram-Sin was worshiped like a god for a long time before his following diminished, he was glorified by his people as a powerful immortal, and he was well respected by priests and Akkadian citizens. It is possible that he only assumed the role of deity for political purposes, but it nevertheless was a very bold move.
Horus: The Egyptian God of Sun and Sky
Horus is arguably the most well-known and powerful deity of Ancient Egypt. He is the son of Osiris and Isis and was believed to be the god of the sun and the sky, as well as in charge of Egyptian kingship. He is often depicted as a man with a falcon’s body, or in the case of the image provided, a full falcon. His right eye was said to be the sun, or morning star, and his left eye was the moon, or evening star. He is known for the legend of his 80-year-long battle over the rule of Egypt with his uncle, Set (or Seth), following the death of his father Osiris.
There are many version of the story of the battle between Set and Horus. The most complete recount of these battle comes from a surviving papyrus written during the reign of Ramses V. Legend has it that Set killed Osiris by cutting him up into many pieces and throwing his body parts into various spots down the Nile River. Set was the god of chaos and destruction—he was selfish, ruthless, and uncaring. When the two approach the sun god Re about who should take over rule of Egypt, Re does not believe that Horus is mature enough and too inexperienced to take on such a responsibility. He believes that Osiris’s brother, who is ironically also his murderer, is far more suited for the position. Re asks for help from Nieth, the goddess of creation, to tell him who is best suited. She responds that Horus is the better fit, but in return he should grant Set two of his to be Set’s wives. After this, Re is still not convinced. The two petition for the leadership of Egypt for many years. Horus’s mother, Isis, tries to help by tricking Set into saying that her son is the rightful heir. Set continually challenges Horus to many duels, and at one point Horus challenges Set to a river race, where Horus cheats without success. Finally, after many years of unresolved conflict, Osiris writes to Re and threatens to kill all human and gods and send them to the underworld if the two do not subside. Re declares Horus king, and allows Set to come with him to the sky. Set then becomes the god of thunder and storms (A Hussein).
These legends are not only documented on papyrus, but also on the walls of ancient Egyptian temples. The image shown above was found in the Temple of Horus, and it depicts a scene in which Horus is fighting Set during one of their many battles; Set is in the form of a hippopotamus. This is possibly the battle between the two that took place in the river. The two fought under water for three months, transformed as hippopotami, until the two eventually subside in order to rest. It could also be a depiction of when Set and Horus are competing in a river race; the two were supposed to both race on boats made of stone. Horus cheats by making his out of wood and disguising it as stone. When Set’s boat sinks and he realizes that his nephew cheated him, he transforms into a hippopotamus and destroys Horus’s wooden boat.
One of the many great things about Egyptian mythology is that there are so many legends and stories and so many gods to write about, and it is reflected in the art. It is clear how devoted the Egyptians were to their religion. They believed that keeping their deities happy was a necessity for a fulfilling afterlife. Wall drawing such as this one reflected their legends, and it gives historians a chance to dive into these ancient cultures.
The Aten: The Monotheistic God of Egypt
The Aten, also known as Aton, is the sun god of the monotheistic religion created in Egypt by the pharaoh Akhenaton (originally Amenhotep IV) called Atenism. Atenism is constantly referred to as a cult of the sun and sun disks. He is depicted in Egyptian art as what appears to be human hands, representative of sunrays. He is believed to be developed from the traditional Egyptian sun-god Re. In the Atom Hymn, found in one of Akhenaton’s tombs, describes the new religion:
“Men had slept like the dead; now they lift their arms in praise, birds fly, fish leap, plants bloom, and work begins. Aton creates the son in the mother’s womb, the seed in men, and has generated all life. He has distinguished the races, their natures, tongues, and skins, and fulfills the needs of all. Aton made the Nile in Egypt and rain, like a heavenly Nile, in foreign countries. He has a million forms according to the time of day and from where he is seen; yet he is always the same (Britannica).”
The Great Hymn to the Aten was most likely written by Akhenaten himself. There are many inscriptions of this poem, the most complete of which located in the tomb of King Tutankhamun’s successor, Ay. (There are some theories that Tutankhamun was Akhenaten’s son and took the throne directly after his death). When made pharaoh, King Akhenaton devoted all of his time to worship the Aton and even went so far as to erase all imagery and writings of any previous notions towards a polytheistic religion in Egypt. He moves the capital from Thebes and builds the city of Akhetaten where the Aten is to be heavily worshipped. This idea of a monotheistic belief system dramatically alters the whole fabric of Egyptian religion. It does not, however, last very long after Akhenaten’s death. After he dies the original gods are redeemed and Akhenaten’s city is abandoned.
Before Akhenaten’s reign, ancient Egyptians believed that all of the universe’s elements—the sun, the moon, the rivers, air, etc.—were actually multiple gods. They believed that the gods controlled things like weather and storms depending on their moods. When Amenhotep IV was made ruler of Egypt, he took his country in a whole new direction by introducing one single deity. He declared the Aten the only god, and even changed his name to mean “effective for the Aten (R Hussein).” Unlike many of the gods from traditional Egyptian mythology, the Aten is not a god that takes human form, but is the actual light in the world surrounding us. The physical rays of sun were believed to be the God himself touching his people. Unlike traditional temples meant for the gods, the Aten’s temple was opened at the roof so that his worshippers could be touched by his light when entering the temple. Akhenaten wasn’t only the king of Egypt, but the high priest of the Aten as well.
Images of the Aten are often consistent of three parts—the hands of the Aten, Akhenaten and/or his wife Nefertiti receiving the symbol of like, called the “ankh,” and the Aten’s worshippers. In the image provided, the image shows the Aten, represented by multiple hands, presenting either Akhenaten or Nefertiti with the ankh. It is only a fragment of the original so it is unclear whether or not Atenism worshippers were originally depicted in the image. This image is so important because shows the clear devotion that the king or queen has for this deity and how willing Akhenaten was to completely altar an entire country’s belief system that had existed for hundreds of years before him.
Athena: Goddess of Wisdom and War Strategy
Ancient Greece came out of the dark ages around 1200-800 B.C.E. and lasted until the Romans took over in 146 B.C.E. Greek culture is known for many things, especially art and architecture as well as Greek mythology. The Greeks believed that the gods lived all around them. Athena is a goddess of many things. She is the goddess of wisdom, justice, war strategy, the arts, and many more. She is the patron goddess of Athens and worshipped by many throughout Greece and Italy. The people of Athens chose her to be their patron goddess for her strength, cunning, and military tactics and dedicated the Parthenon to her. She was believed to be the favorite of Zeus’s children, born without a mother in the form of a headache on her father’s forehead. She is extremely powerful. She is the strongest of all of the female goddesses in Greek mythology, and is very heavily worshipped. Greek mythology was adopted and altered by the Romans after they took over. The Greeks worshipped many gods, but there were twelve major gods that they worshipped the most. The Twelve Olympians of Mount Olympus consisted of Zeus, the god of the sky and justice; Hera, the goddess of marriage and Zeus’s wife/sister; Poseidon, of the sea and brother of Zeus; Demeter, the goddess of the harvest; Apollo, the god of music and prophecy; Artemis, the goddess of the hunt; Ares, the god of war; Aphrodite, the goddess of love; Hephaestus, the god of fire; Hermes, the trickster and messenger for his father, Zues; Hestia, the goddess of hearth and home, as well as one of the original Olympians; and finally, Athena, goddess of wisdom and war strategy. Zeus is the king of these gods (Johnson).
Athena was never reproduced, and was later identified with virginity. Most of what we know about Greek and Roman deities comes from Homer’s novels, such as the Iliad and the Odyssey. In the Iliad, Athena fought alongside her fellow Greek heroes. Athena contrasted very heavily with Ares, the god of War, in many ways. Athena was not only tough and dangerous; she was also intelligent and civilized. She sought justice, as where Ares mostly cared for blood lust. Her heroic qualities were found on her breastplate that she often wore into battle—fear, strife, defense, and assault. She also appears in the Odyssey as the main deity of Odysseus. She is responsible for assisting Odysseus in returning home from the war (Johnson).
Athena is most widely worshipped in the city of Athens, which was named after her. Legend says that Athena and Poseidon competed to become patron deity of the city before it was named. The competition was for each deity to present the city with a gift, and the better offering wins. Poseidon provided a well, but the water was salty and it was therefore no use to the people of the city. Athena was cunning, and she eventually outwitted Poseidon for the title of patron goddess by planting an olive tree, a food in which to this day Greeks cannot live without. Poseidon was not happy with the results and cursed the city. The people of Athens then build the Acropolis, a monument on top of a hill in Athens dedicated to the goddess herself (Murrin).
This image provided is of a sculpture that was found at the Acropolis. It is important because it shows us what devotion the Greeks had to their deities and how intensely they worshipped them. There is so much care and craft in this sculpture. In the Parthenon, located inside the Acropolis, there was a very large sculpture of Athena and a narrative frieze that wrapped all the way around. These Athenians worshipped their patron goddess so fiercely that they build a whole complex of architecture and narrative art just for her. This image provided is only the tip of the iceberg found inside.
Apollo: The God of Music and Prophecy
The Romans adopted the Twelve Olympians later, and the names changed to Jupiter, Juno, Neptune, Ceres, Mars, Mercury, Vulcan, Venus, Minerva, Diana, and Vesta. Apollo’s is one of the very few original Greek deities whose name does not change when translated into Roman mythology. He is so universally known that his name does not need to change (Johnson).
Like Athena, Apollo is the god of many things—music, art, poetry, sun, light, medicine, oracles, knowledge etc. He is possibly the most highly recognized Greek god after his father, Zeus. Zeus and his mother, Leto, met when they both took shape as birds and conceived Apollo and his twin sister Artemis, goddess of the hunt. He is known for protecting his people by shooting their enemies with his bow and arrows. He is the ideal, the “kouros”, in Greek and Roman art of this time that many artists based the perfect human model after. He was “the god of divine distance, who sent or threatened from afar; the god who made men aware of their own guilt and purified them from it; who presided over religious law and the constitutions of cities; who communicated with mortals through prophets and oracles his knowledge of the future and the will of his father, Zeus (Britannica).” Other than Zeus, he was the god of all gods. The other gods were said to fear him, and he was by far the most worshipped god during the Hellenic period with many cults devoted to worshipping him. Even today many people travel to sites known to Apollo, such as the famous Oracle at Delphi, to “seek advice on matters such as war and personal affairs (Johnson).”
Apollo had many love interests, most famously with Daphne, and punished them fiercely when they rejected him. Artemis, Apollo’s twin, shot Coronis, and Cassandra was forced to tell true prophecies that appeared to be untrue after she refused his advances. The story of Apollo and Daphne is very popular in Greek and Roman mythology. After teasing Hermes about his archery skills, Hermes gets his revenge by shooting Apollo with a golden love arrow; this forces him to fall in love with the nymph, Daphne, who is struck with an opposite arrow by Hermes and is therefore not interested in him. She wishes to be a virgin for the rest of her life like Artemis, Apollo’s twin sister. Apollo continues to chase her, but when he finally catches up to her, she is turned into a laurel tree. After this, Apollo declares that he will always wear a crown of laurel on his head to remind him of his precious Daphne (Johnson).
Apollo is not only very important to the foundation of Greek and Roman mythology, but is also important to ancient Greek and Roman art history. Apollo is very often the symbol of the kouros, or the ideal human figure. The kouros is represented as a young, standing male very closely related to that of typical Egyptian figures. The hint of the Egyptian was very evident in early Greek kouros statues, but became less and less evident as time went on (Britannica). In the image provided, Apollo does not appear to be frontal and rigid, but rather in a more relaxed pose. He is full of action and gesture like later depictions of Greek deities, but he is well past the days of standing stock-still in unnatural poses. This later pose was adopted by Roman art, as depicted in the image provided.
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