“Big Gods” in Ancient Mesopotamia

The Cultural Evolution of Supernatural Protectors


  • Karolina Prochownik Ruhr University Bochum




Big Gods, cultural evolution, supernatural punishment hypothesis, supernatural protectors, Marduk


According to the Big Gods Theory, religions with beliefs in moralizing supernatural agents were culturally selected because they enhanced in-group cooperation during intergroup competition and conflict (e.g. Norenzayan 2013). According to the supernatural punishment hypothesis (SPH), this was possible because such agents were culturally represented as punitive and wrathful (e.g. Shariff and Norenzayan 2011). These gods activated reputational concerns, fears of punishment, and social compliance among believers. I examine evidence for the SPH from ancient Mesopotamia based on the cultural evolution of beliefs in the god Marduk. I argue that, contrary to the SPH, Marduk and other ancient Mesopotamian gods were often imagined to be both punitive and benevolent. I examine potential psychological and ecological factors involved in the cultural transmission of beliefs in these supernatural protectors alternative to those proposed by the SPH. I raise general questions concerning collecting and interpreting big data as evidence for Big Gods.

Author Biography

Karolina Prochownik, Ruhr University Bochum

Karolina Prochownik is a senior researcher at the Center for Law, Behavior, and Cognition, Faculty of Law, Ruhr University Bochum. She holds a PhD in philosophy and a PhD in law. Her research interests are in experimental philosophy, ethics, moral psychology, and the cognitive science of religion.


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How to Cite

Prochownik, K. (2022). “Big Gods” in Ancient Mesopotamia: The Cultural Evolution of Supernatural Protectors. Journal of Cognitive Historiography, 7(1-2), 117–146. https://doi.org/10.1558/jch.22650