In his history of Mesopotamian religion, Treasures of Darkness, Thorkild Jacobsen calls attention to the intimate relationship between a temple and the god who was supposed to reside in it.

The presence of the temple was “visible reassurance that the God was present and available, that he - as the hymn to the moon god expressed it - ‘among the (creatures) in whom is breath of life has settled down in a holy abode” (16). Like a human home-owner, the god was identified with His house. To call the temple a “house” for the god carried all the connotations of “emotional closeness of a human owner and his home,” but in addition it implied “a closeness of essence, of being, amounting more nearly to embodiment than to habitation. In some sense the temple, no less than the ritual drama and the cult image, was a representation of the form of the power that was meant to fill it” (16). This is why the house was considered a sacred house: The indwelling god’s own luminous sacredness infused the house itself.

Thus, Jacobsen writes, “The identity may even be total, making of the temple . . . more nearly an embodiment than a habitation. Thus the temple of the god Ningirsu in Girsu was known as E-ninnu, ‘the house Ninnu.’ Ninnu (perhaps ‘Lord Universe’) is but another name for the god. The identity of temple and god is further elaborated in the full form of the temple name . . . ‘E-ninnu, the flashing thunderbird’ . . . ‘thunderbird roaring on the horizon, in which the temple is identified with the original nonhuman form of the god, the thunderbird Imdugud”(17). No wonder ancient kings sought divine guidance as they designed temples: they wanted to make sure that the house of the god was a fitting body for the god who was its soul.

Jacobsen lists other examples of houses named for gods: “House rising sun” for the sun god Utu; “House causing light” for the moon god; “House of date clusters” for a goddess; “He who issues forth from the thriving mesu tree” (17).

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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