What Are the Duties of Mesopotamian Priests?

A road winds through a Mesopotamian landscape by an ancient shrine.
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The priests of ancient Mesopotamia possessed a large amount of authority that extended throughout several realms of Mesopotamian society. As a result, the duties of priests varied in nature, from religious to governmental and even medical early on in Mesopotamian history. Moreover, different priests performed different duties, although all priests held a high authority status, as Mesopotamian culture taught that all priests had connection to the divine.

1 Religion

A sculpture of the Mesopotamian god, Pazuzu, on display outside of an art museum in London.
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The Mesopotamians thought of priests as human representatives of the gods. Priests held the primary role in all things religious in nature. Different priests performed different duties, however. Purification priests and exorcists chased away evil and malicious spirits. Another faction of priests created images and statues for the temple, and yet another branch of the priesthood sang songs and played instruments, while others wrote the liturgical compositions. The more powerful levels of priests were in charge of determining the desires of the gods. Priests used divination to determine the will of the gods, who Mesopotamians believed created humans solely for the sake of convenient manual labor. Only priests knew the specific rituals behind divination, so priests played an essential role in determining what the gods intended. The priests sacrificed animals and examined their organs as one form of divination. Mesopotamian priests also used astrology to help understand the movements of the gods.

2 Government

The face of an ancient treasury building in Jordan.
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Early Mesopotamian society did not separate religion and government. Priests had duties of both religious leaders and government officials. In other words, instead of simply priests, they were a sort of priest-king. Priests held the responsibility of documenting and archiving transactions and laws. They led the military and judged disputes. The priests also controlled the local economy, long distance trade, land ownership and employment of all other Mesopotamians. A hierarchy of priests surveyed the land and assigned fields to workers. The society was redistributive, and the priests determined what the society spent its wealth on. Produce and other goods brought to the temple fell into the hands of the priests. After feeding and clothing the gods, the priests doled out the remainder of this produce and wealth to the citizens. Additionally, crimes against a priest were punished more severely than citizens with a lower rank, but because their place in society was greater, priests and other nobility had greater accountability, and a priest who committed a crime faced a greater punishment as well.

3 Medicine

A mesopotamian relief sculpture of a winged sage which represents the tree of life.
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In early Mesopotamia, priests possessed some basic duties regarding medical treatment. Simple medical treatments relied on the priests, as did much diagnosis, since priests and their powers of divination provided the Mesopotamians their closest understanding of the intentions of the gods. Surgeons later took on these basic medical treatments in addition to surgery, granting them nearly as high a place in society as the priests by taking over a priestly duty.

Caitlynn Lowe has been writing since 2006 and has been a contributing writer for Huntington University's "Mnemosyne" and "Huntingtonian." Her writing has also been in "Ictus" and "Struggle Creek: A Novel Story." Lowe earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Huntington University.