A history of ancient Babylon (Babylonia) including its cities, laws, kings and legacy to civilization

Main Babylonian Page

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Part Five


Code Of Hammurabi

A Brief Overview of Babylonia

The Last Kings of Babylonia

Care to express an opinion on a current or past historical event?

Need to ask a question from our many visitors?

Just visit our Forum and leave your message.


Weekly Poll

Please Help Keep Us On the Web.

We are a Non-Profit Organization and the cost of continuing is becoming more than we can handle.  Therefore, we are asking you to please donate anything you can to help keep us on the web.

Please Help Click Here



Babyloniamap.jpg (83915 bytes)


Stele of Hammurabi    

babylonia1.jpg (23563 bytes)

babylonia2.jpg (35680 bytes)




























Babylonia, A history of ancient Babylon (Babylonia) including its cities, laws, kings and legacy to civilization.

Part Six

History Of The Babylonians Language And Literature

Book:        Introduction

Author:      Godspeed, George




     22. The discoverers of the long-buried memorials of Assyria and

Babylonia were at first and for a long time unable to read their message.

But side by side with the work of the explorer and excavator went

continually the investigations of the scholar.  The objects sent back by

European excavators and installed in museums immediately attracted the

attention and enlisted the energetic activity of many students, who gave

themselves to the task of decipherment.  Beginning with Georg Friedrich

Grotefend, of Hannover, who, in 1815, published a translation of some brief

inscriptions of the Achemaenian kings of Persia, this scientific activity

was immensely stimulated by the discoveries and investigations of Sir Henry

Rawlinson, who, after more than fifteen years of study in the East,

published, in 1851, his "Memoir on the Babylonian and Assyrian Inscriptions"

containing the text, transliteration, and translation of the Babylonian part

of the Behistun inscription, which records the triumph of Darius I. of

Persia over his enemies.  During the same period the brilliant French savant

Jules Oppert, the Irish scholar Edward Hincks, and the Englishman Fox Talbot

had been making their contributions to the new linguistic problem.  In 1857

the accuracy and permanence of their results were established by a striking

test.  Copies of the inscription of Tiglathpileser I. of Assyria, recently

unearthed, were placed in the hands of the four scholars, Rawlinson, Oppert,

Hincks, and Fox Talbot, and they were requested to make, independently of

one another, translations of the inscription in question.  A comparison of

these translations showed them to be substantially identical.  A new

language had been deciphered, and a new chapter of human history opened for

investigation.  Since that time these and other scholars, such as E.

Schrader, Friedrich Delitzsch, Paul Haupt, A. H. Sayce, and many more in

Europe and America have enlarged, corrected, and systematized the results

attained, until now the stately science of Assyriology, or the organized

knowledge of the language, literature, and history of Babylonia and Assyria,

has a recognized place in the hierarchy of learning.


     23. The Babylonio-Assyrian writing, as at first discovered in its

classical forms, appears at a hasty glance like a wilderness of short lines

running in every conceivable direction, each line at one end and sometimes

at both ends, spreading out into a triangular mass, or wedge.  From this

likeness to a wedge is derived the designation "wedge-shaped" or "cuneiform"

(lat. cuneus), as applied to the characters and also to the language and

literature.  Closer examination reveals a system in this apparent disorder.

The characters are arranged in columns usually running horizontally, and are

read from left to right, the great majority of the wedges either standing

upright or pointing toward the right.  These wedges, arranged singly or in

groups, stand either for complete ideas (called "ideograms," e.g. a single

horizontal wedge represents the preposition in) or for syllables (e.g. a

single horizontal crossed by a single vertical wedge represents the syllable

bar).  It would be natural that, in course of time, the wedges used as signs

for ideas would also be used as syllables, and the same syllable be

represented by different wedges, thus producing confusion.  This was

remedied by placing another character before the sign for a particular idea

to determine its use in that sense (hence, called a "determinative;" e.g.

before all names of gods a sign meaning "divine being") or, after it, a

syllabic character which added the proper ending of the word to be employed

there (hence, called "phonetic complement").  In spite of these devices,

many signs and collocations of signs have so many possible syllabic values

as to render exactness in the reading very difficult.  There are about five

hundred of these different signs used to represent words or syllables.

Their origin is still a subject of discussion among scholars.  The

prevailing theory is that they can be traced back to original pictures

representing the ideas to be conveyed.  But, at present, only about fifty

out of the entire number of signs can be thus identified, and it may be

necessary to accept other sources to account for the rest.


     24. The material on which this writing appears is of various sorts.

The characters were incised upon stone and metal, - on the marbles of

palaces, on the fine hard surfaces of gems, on silver images and on plates

of bronze.  There are traces, also, of the use as writing material of skins,

and of a substance resembling the papyrus of ancient Egypt.  But that which

surpassed all other materials for this purpose was clay, a fine quality of

which was most abundant in Babylonia, whence the use spread all over the

ancient oriental world.  This clay was very carefully prepared, sometimes

ground to an exceeding fineness, moistened, and moulded into various forms,

ordinarily into a tablet whose average size is about six by two and one-half

inches in superficial area by one inch in thickness, its sides curving

slightly outwards.  On the surface thus prepared the characters were

impressed with a stylus, the writing often standing in columns, and carried

over upon the back and sides of the tablet.  The clay was frequently moulded

into cones and barrel-shaped cylinders, having from six to ten sides on

which writing could be inscribed.  These tablets were then dried in the sun

or baked in a furnace, - a process which rendered the writing practically

indestructible, unless the tablet itself was shattered.


     25. This prevailing use of clay was doubtless the cause of the

disappearance of the picture-writing.  The details of a picture could not

easily be reproduced; circles gave way to straight lines joined together;

these were gradually reduced in number; the line was enlarged at the end

into the wedge, for greater distinctness, until the conventional form of the

signs became established.


     26. This method of writing by wedges was adopted from Babylonia by

other peoples, such as those of ancient Armenia, for their own languages,

just as German may be written in Latin letters.  A problem of serious moment

and great difficulty has arisen because of a similar use of the cuneiform in

Babylonia itself.  Side by side with cuneiform documents of the language

represented in the bulk of the literature which has come down to us, and

which may be called the Babylonio-Assyrian, there are some documents, also

in cuneiform, in which the wedges do not have the meanings which are

connected with them in the Babylonio-Assyrian.  In some cases the same

document is drawn up in two forms, written side by side, in which the way of

reading the characters of one will not apply to those of the other, although

the meaning of the document in both forms is the same.  Evidently the

cuneiform signs are here employed for two languages.  What the philological

relations of these languages may be, has given rise to a lively controversy.

On the one hand, it is claimed that the two show marked philological

similarities which carry them back to a common linguistic ground, and

indicate that they are two modes of expressing one language, namely, the

Semitic Babylonia.  The one mode, the earlier, which stood in close relation

to the primitive picture-writing, and may be called the "hieratic," was

superseded in course of time by the other mode, which became the "common" or

"demotic," and is represented in the great mass of Babylonio-Assyrian

literature.  The former had its origin in the transition from the

ideographic to the phonetic mode of writing, - a transition which was

accompanied with "the invention of a set of explanatory terms, mainly drawn

from rare and unfamiliar and obsolete words expressed by the ideograms." It

was later developed into an "artificial language" by the industry of

priestly grammarians (McCurdy, History Prophecy and the Monuments, I. sects.

82 f.).  On the other hand, the majority of scholars maintains that the

earlier so-called "hieratic" is an independent and original language whose

peculiar linguistic features point decidedly to a basis essentially

different from that of the Semitic Babylonian.  This language they regard as

hailing from a pre-Semitic population of Babylonia, the "Sumerians," whose

racial affinities are not yet satisfactorily determined.  The Semitic

Babylonians, coming in later, adopted from them the cuneiform writing for

their own language, while permitting the older speech to continue its life

for a season.  Divergence of view so radical in regard to the same body of

linguistic facts can have only one explanation, - the facts are not decisive

and the fundamental questions must await final adjudication till a time when

either new documents for philological investigation are discovered, or light

is obtained from other than linguistic sources.


     27. As the valley of the Tigris and Euphrates formed the common home of

Babylonians and Assyrians, so the two peoples possessed a common language,

and their literatures may be regarded as parts of one continuous

development.  Centuries before the name of Assyria appeared in history, the

Babylonians possessed a written language and developed an ample literature.

Both language and literature passed over to the later nation on the upper

Tigris, and were cherished and continued there.  Comparatively slight

differences in the forms of the cuneiform signs, and a greater emphasis upon

certain types of literature are all that distinguish the two peoples in

these regards.  Indeed, the kings of Nineveh filled their libraries in large

part with copies of ancient Babylonian books, a practice which has secured

to us some of the choicest specimens of Babylonian literature.  In sketching

their literatures, therefore, the typical forms are the same and serve as a

basis for a common presentation.


     28. Religion was the inspiration of the most important and the most

ample division of the literature of Babylonia.  Scarcely any side of the

religious life is unrepresented.  Worship has its collections of ritual

books, ranging from magical and conjuration formulae, the repetition of

which by the proper priest exorcises the demons, delivers from sickness, and

secures protection, to the prayers and hymns to the gods, often pathetic and

beautiful in their expressions of penitence and praise.  Mythology has been

preserved in cycles which have an epic character, the chief of which is the

so-called Epic of Gilgamesh, a hero whose exploits are narrated in twelve

books, each corresponding to the appropriate zodiacal sign.  The famous

story of the Deluge has been incorporated into the eleventh book.  Less

extensive, but of a like character, are the stories of the Descent of Ishtar

into Arallu, or Hades, of the heroes Etana and Adapa, and the legends of the

gods Dibbara (Girra) and Zu.  The cosmogonic narratives are hardly to be

separated from these, the best known of which is the so-called Creation Epic

of which the fragments of six books have been recovered.  The poetry of

these epics is quite highly developed in respect to imagery and diction.

Even metre has been shown to exist, at least in the poem of creation.  Among

the rest of the religious texts may be mentioned fragments of "wisdom" and

tables of omens for the guidance of rulers.


     29. If the Babylonians had a passion for religion, the Assyrians were

devoted to history, and the bulk of their literature may be described as

historical.  The Babylonian priests, indeed, preserved lists of their kings;

business documents were dated, and rulers left memorials of their doings.

But the first two can hardly claim to be literature, and the royal texts, in

fulness and exactness, are surpassed by those of the Assyrian kings.  The

series of Assyrian historical texts on the grand scale begins with the

inscription of Tiglathpileser I.  (about 1100 B.C.), written on an eight-

sided clay cylinder, and containing eight hundred and nine lines.  The

inscription covers the first five years of a reign of at least fifteen

years.  It begins with a solemn invocation to the gods who have given the

king the sovereignty.  His titles are then recited, and a summary statement

of his achievements given.  Then, beginning with his first year, the king

narrates his campaigns in detail in nearly five hundred lines.  The

description of his hunting exploits and his building of temples occupies the

next two hundred lines.  The document closes with a blessing for the one who

in the future honors the king's achievements, and a curse for him who seeks

to bring them to naught.  This, for its day, admirable historical narrative

formed a kind of model for all later royal inscriptions, many of which copy

its arrangement and almost slavishly imitate its style.  Its combination of

summary statement with an attempt at chronological order, somewhat

unskilfully made, is dissolved in the later inscriptions.  They are of two

sorts, either strictly annalistic, arranged according to the years of a

king's reign, or a splendid catalogue of the royal exploits organized for

impressiveness of effect, and hence often called "laudatory" texts.

Examples of one or both forms have been left by all the great Assyrian

kings.  The most important among them are the inscriptions of Ashurnacirpal,

Shalmaneser II., Sargon, Sennacherib, Esarhaddon, and Ashurbanipal.


     30. Closely connected with the historical documents is the diplomatic

literature.  An example of this is the so-called "Synchronistic History of

Assyria and Babylonia," a memorandum of the dealings, diplomatic or

otherwise, of the two nations with one another, from before 1450 B.C.  down

to 700 B.C., in regard to the disputed territory lying between them.  To the

same category belong royal proclamations, tribute lists, despatches, and an

immense mass of letters from officials to the court, - correspondence

between royal personages or between minor officials.  Such correspondence

begins with the reign of Khammurabi of Babylon (about 2275 B.C.), and is

especially abundant under the great Assyrian kings from Sargon to

Ashurbanipal.  Not belonging to the epistolary literature of Assyria and

Babylonia, but written in the cuneiform character, and containing letters

from kings of Assyria and Babylonia as well as to them, is the famous Tel-

el-Amarna correspondence, taken from the archives of Amenhotep IV. of Egypt,

- in all some three hundred letters, - which throws a wonderful light upon

the life of the world of Western Asia in the fifteenth century B.C.  The

numerous inscriptions describing the architectural activities of the kings

belong here as well as to religious literature.  Among the earliest

inscriptions as well as the longest which have been discovered are the pious

memorials of royal temple-builders.  The inscriptions of Nebuchadrezzar II.

the Great deal almost entirely with his buildings.


     31. The literature of law is very extensive.  While no complete legal

code for either Babylonia or Assyria has been discovered, some fragments of

a very ancient document, containing what seem to be legal enactments,

indicate that such codes were not unknown.  Records of judicial decisions,

of business contracts, and similar documents which are drawn up with lawyer-

like precision, attested by witnesses and afterwards deposited in the state

archives, come from almost all periods of the history of these peoples, and

testify to their highly developed sense of justice and their love of exact

legal formalities.


     32. Science and religion were most closely related in oriental

antiquity, and it is difficult to draw the line between their literatures.

Studies of the heavens and the earth were zealously made by Babylonian

priests, in the practical search after the character and will of the gods,

who were thought to have their seats in these regions.  In their

investigations, however, the priests came upon many important facts of

astronomy and physical science.  These materials were collected into large

works, of which some modern scholars have believed an example to exist in

the so-called "Illumination of Bel," which, in seventy-two books, may go

back to an age before 2000 B.C.  Other similar collections are geographical

lists, rudimentary maps, catalogues of animals, plants, and minerals.  The

ritual calendars which were carefully compiled for the priests and temple

worshippers illustrate the beginnings of a scientific division of time.

Education is represented also in grammatical and lexicographical works, as

well as in the school books and reading exercises prepared for the training-

schools of the scribes.


     33. Of works in lighter vein but few examples have been found.  The

epics indeed may be classed as poetry, and served equally the purposes of

religious edification and entertainment.  Besides these, fragments of folk

songs have been found.  Folk tales are represented by some remains of

fables.  Popular legends gathered about the famous kings of the early age;

an example of which is the autobiographical fragment attributed to Sargon I.

of Agade.  In comparison, however, with the tales which adorn the literature

of ancient Egypt, Assyria and Babylonia were singularly barren in light



     34. The word "literature" in the preceding paragraphs has been used

with what may seem an unwarranted latitude of meaning.  Neither in content,

nor in form, nor in purpose could much of the writing described be strictly

included in that term.  But, in the study of the ancient world, scrap of

written evidence is precious to the historian, and these crude attempts are

the beginnings, both in form and in thought, of true literary achievement.

The form of literature was fundamentally limited by the material on which

books were written.  It demands simple sentences, brief and unadorned, -

what might be called the lapidary style.  Imitation and repetition are also

characteristic.  The royal inscriptions have a stereotyped order.  In

religious hymns and prayers, epithets of gods and forms of address tend

constantly to reappear from age to age with wearisome monotony.  Lack of

true imaginative power, and, at the same time, a realistic sense for facts

show themselves; the one in the grotesqueness of the poetical imagery, the

other in the blunt straightforward statements of the historical

inscriptions.  Yet even in the earliest poetical composition, the principle

of "parallelism," or the balancing of expressions in corresponding lines,

was employed, a device which, supplying the place of rhyme, became so

powerful a means of expression in the mouth of the Hebrew prophet.  A

progress in ease and force of utterance is traceable also in the royal

inscriptions, if one compares that of Tiglathpileser I.  with those of

Esarhaddon or Ashurbanipal.  Babylonia and Assyria, indeed, in this sphere

as in so many others, were great not so much in what they actually wrought

as in the example they gave and the influences they set in motion.  They

planted the seeds which matured after they themselves had passed away.

Main Page

World History Center