Even a casual study in the history of religion will reveal that a significant part of its development is based not on anything supernatural, but on all too human political matters. It’s been pretty much the norm that conquering tribes and nations will impose their own religions on conquered people. Not every conqueror will do this, but it’s quite common. Hey, if your god brings a victory against the enemy, then he must be the true god, or at least the strongest god, right? There can be peaceful transfers of gods and religious ideas from one nation to another as well. What often results is a combination of two or more religions. Fortunately, in polytheistic belief systems, adding a few more gods to the mix tended not to matter too much. Sometimes, however, we see heavenly transfers of power suspiciously mirroring earthly ones. One good example of this is the rise of Marduk, whom I mentioned a few years back in his role as creator of the world.
This was actually a fairly late development in Mesopotamian religion, however. In fact, it seems like the Mesopotamian pantheon was in pretty constant turmoil as far as leadership was concerned. Internet sources refer to a triumvirate of gods with individual functions who were all considering the main god at various times. One was Ea, the god of fresh water, who was earlier known as Enki to the Sumerians. He was worshipped at first in the city of Eridu, but his cult spread throughout the area.
Anu and Enlil were both sky gods, but the former was associated more with the high heavens and stars, and the latter with the wind.
Like Ea/Enki, Marduk also began as a local god, his center of worship being the city of Babylon.
As we know, Babylon eventually came to dominate Mesopotamia and other nearby lands, so their god came to be the main one in Babylonian religion. It seems that Marduk might have originally been a storm god, but in his new role as chief deity, he took on many other traits and attributes. Many of the earlier gods were retained, but some were not. Enlil, regarded as the creator of mankind, was pretty much totally replaced by Marduk. Ea lived on as Marduk’s father, whose place the younger god took after his victory over Tiamat. Marduk then created humanity, with their origin being in (surprise, surprise) Babylon. This story is told in the ancient Babylonian epic known as the Enuma Elish, after its first two words. The poem itself seems to have been written mostly to give credence to Marduk as ruler of the gods.
When the worship of Marduk became dominant, respect for him increased, and it became common to refer to him not by his name but by “Bel,” meaning “Lord.” Sound familiar? It should, not just because Bibles in English (and probably other languages as well) translate the name “Yahweh” as simply “Lord,” but because Bel (which would have been “Baal” in Semitic languages) is referenced in the Bible as a rival to Yahweh. Marduk was also known by many other names, and the Babylonians came to regard some of their other gods as aspects of the big guy. So what happened to the worship of Marduk? I’m not entirely sure, but as the Chaldeans and Assyrians battled for control of the area, worshippers of Marduk and Ashur were also in constant conflict.
Later, as Babylon and Mesopotamia were conquered by the Persians and Greeks, it likely became more common for people to worship their deities instead. Obviously Islam is now the major religion in Iraq, but more than a millennium passed in between the fall of the Babylonian Empire and the life of Muhammad. It kind of bothers me when people simply identify a religion as “pagan” or “polytheistic,” because that encompasses a lot of different religions and even more gods.