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Bottero, Jean

Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia


Trans. Teresa Lavender Fagan
Chicago: University of Chicago Press
246 pp., $30.00, ISBN 0-226-06717-3
Publication Date: 1 August, 2001

For: History:
Reviews of New Books 29 (2001) 182.
Reviewer, M. W. Chavalas

Jean Bottero has for fifty years been one of the most prolific scholars in the field of
Mesopotamian studies. In the past decade, he has written numerous popular works that
have helped further an understanding of Mesopotamian civilization to an interested
public. Some of those which have been translated include, Mesopotamia (1995),
Ancestor of the West (2000), The Birth of God (2000), and Ancient Mesopotamia:
Everyday Life in the First Civilization (2001). Although the present work is a translation
of his La plus vielle religion: En Mesopotamie (1998), it is in fact a substantial revision
of his La religion babylonienne, written nearly fifty years ago.
It has been a generation since T. Jacobsen wrote, The Treasures of Darkness: A
History of Mesopotamian Religion. Thus, this work is a welcome addition to the
growing popular works on Mesopotamian religion and culture. It is certainly suitable as
a supplementary text on Mesopotamian civilization.
Bottero has a simple premise in which he has espoused in his recent works that
Mesopotamia is our cultural ‘ancestor’; thus a study of its religion is fundamental to
understanding our own traditions. Unlike Jacobsen’s historical study, Bottero’s work is
thematic. After a brief introduction to the history of religion, Mesopotamian history, and
the problem of sources, Bottero approaches his subject with three sweeping chapters,
entitled, ‘Religious Sentiment’, Religious Representations’, and Religious Behavior’.
Though these chapters are briefly outlined, they are very long, and thus not as useful to
the student as they could be. Bottero uses his half-century of expertise to draw upon
textual and iconographic information concerning Mesopotamian hymns, prayers,
incantations, rituals, and other texts, which illuminate the study of Mesopotamian
religion, the earliest known religious tradition. Bottero discusses the pantheon of the
gods, their ranks, the nature of the gods, their origins, temple worship, divination, magic,
and sorcery. His sections on the ‘care and feeding’ of the gods and the New Year festival
are masterpieces. He ends the work with a study of the survival of this tradition into the
biblical sphere and the West.
Since the civilization of Mesopotamia lasted for over three millennia, any work that
attempts to synthesize its religious tradition will be subject to criticism. For example,
Bottero said very little about religious differences from period to period, differences in
local traditions (e.g., Babylonia and Assyria), and family religion (see now, K. van der
Toorn, Family Religion in Babylonia, Syria, and Israel, 1996). Just as problematic are
his ubiquitous dated ideas concerning the unique racial characteristics of the Sumerians
and Akkadians, the originators of Mesopotamian religion.
Though Bottero writes in vivid French, the English translation will probably be
considered cumbersome and wordy to undergraduate students. However, Bottero offers
excerpts of numerous translations of religious texts, which are extremely useful to the
student who will not have easy access to many of these obscure texts. Furthermore,
Bottero has such a wealth of knowledge that even seasoned Mesopotamian scholars will
find much food for thought in this little volume.

MARK W. CHAVALAS, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse