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Book: Theorizing Religion in Antiquity

Chapter: 8. Ancient Mesopotamian Scholars, Ritual Speech and Theorizing Religion without "Theory" or "Religion"

DOI: 10.1558/equinox.27968


There is no word in the Babylonian language for “religion” or “theory.” This fact is not surprising since the scribes rarely discussed abstract concepts that we find useful for organizing our existence. For example, there is no general word for “music,” “law,” “art,” “science,” or “culture.” There are, however, many words for ritual speech, and there is very good evidence for how the ancient scribes classified and organized many of these texts they label as such by function and/or genre into series and ritual complexes. As J. Z. Smith has emphasized, taxonomy or classification is fundamental to cognition, and religions are powerful classificatory engines. This paper surveys the evidence for labeling and organizing Mesopotamian ritual speech, with emphasis on the Akkadian materials of the first millennium BCE. If there is evidence that discourse with accompanying ritual actions directed to non-human, non-obvious beings was labeled and organized distinctly from discourse directed to humans, might we see therein the beginnings of a tacit theory of religion, despite the absence of the words “theory” and “religion”?

Chapter Contributors

  • Alan Lenzi ( - alenzi) 'University of the Pacific'