Diffusion of the Worship of Ancient Mesopotamian Deities along the Trade Routes

This project is being undertaken in order to contextualize ancient Mesopotamian religion in the broader geographical and chronological framework of cultural interrelations and religious exchange across Eurasia. It attempts to answer the questions on religions in cultural contact, both diachronically and synchronously. In the investigation, the processes underlying the diffusion of religious beliefs are explored — absorption, adoption and demarcation, re-evaluation of traditions due to contact with others, and densification (consolidation/retraction). It utilizes the worship of one Mesopotamian deity, the goddess Nanaya, as a prism through which these processes can be analyzed into their constituent facets. Nanaya was a goddess whose name was never lost on the pages of time. Her worship in the Hellenistic and Roman worlds guaranteed her mention by classical authors, while her veneration among the Parthians and Sassanians brought her to the attention of the Islamic writers. Even the biblical reader was aware of her existence, since the Second Book of Maccabees records that Antiochus IV Epiphanes was murdered by the priests of Nanaya in the goddess' temple, which he had come to despoil (2 Macc 1:13ff.). Nonetheless, the area of her deepest veneration was in central Asia. The various Iranian peoples – the Scythians, Bactrians, Sogdians, Chorasmians, Tokharians (Yuezhi) and in particular the confederation of the latter which established the Kushan (Kuṣāṇa) kingdom near Kabul and Peshawar, whose empire stretched to the Ganges in the first three centuries CE venerated Nana(ya) throughout the millennia. Despite her repute, this goddess presents an enigma. The etymology of her name, her genealogy, consorts, children, and manifestations are all uncertain. In particular, her origin is unknown; she may be a foreign goddess imported into Mesopotamia from the east along the trade routes or she may be a Mesopotamian goddess whose worship spread out from this epicentre to Greece at the westernmost limit and to China at the easternmost. The project will examine the issue of the attraction of her worship to various ethnic and religious groups over such an extensive geographical area. It will focus on the direction and mode of the adoption and adaptation of the worship of Nanaya across the geographical and religious boundariesas well as the channels of communication and the multiple mutual interrelations of the different cultures over such a large spatial area and temporal depth.

Research questions to be addressed will center on the focal points of cultural contact and the estimation of the religious communities in which the worship of the goddess Nanaya was systemic and the appraisal of the routes of the diffusion of her veneration. The distribution pattern of the spread of her worship and the influence of the trade networks or geo-political factors on that pattern will be assessed as well as a comparison with the trade routes from different periods. The aims of this project are: (1) to identify and assemble all primary material relating to the cult of the goddess Nanaya from Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Iran, Central Asia, East Asia and India; (2) to analyze the similarities and differences of her cult in various geographical locations taking into account diachronic and synchronic developments; and (3) to assess the religious contacts and to ascertain the paths of diffusion of her cult and to offer various scenarios, based on all sources. The identification of the possible carriers of this tradition will be considered — to what ethnic group did the traders belong? Furthermore, the ethnicity and religion of the receiving communities is to be evaluated. The subject of possible differences between various communities along the same trade route as to their receptiveness will be explored.

Affiliated Persons


Dr. Joan Westenholz

Individual Researcher