Religions Of Babylonia And Assyria
Author: Foot Moore, George
Date: 1913



Assyria

Between the Little and Great Zab, on the west of the Tigris, lay the city
Assur, the first capital of the Assyrians. Further north, opposite the modern
Mosul, was Nineveh, also a very early foundation. Between the two, at the
mouth of the Great Zab, was Calah, and nearly east of Nineveh, at the foot of
the mountains, Arbela. The earliest ruler of Assur of whom we have historical
notice is Ilusuma, who was engaged in a war with Sumuabu, founder of the
kingdom of Babylon (ca. 2060 B.C.). Under the great kings of the First
Dynasty the Assyrians were vassals of Babylon, but in the decline of
Babylonian power under the Kassite kings Assyria regained its independence.
The ups and downs of its history in the following centuries it is unnecessary
to recount here. When it was strong enough it extended its rule to the
mountains of Armenia and over all northern Mesopotamia. Early kings not only
carried their victorious arms far into the heart of Asia Minor, but
established colonies there which long maintained themselves. In the first
half of the thirteenth century an Assyrian king conquered Babylon, though his
possession of it did not last long, and the struggle between these two powers,
in which sometimes the one was the aggressor and sometimes the other,
continued intermittently through the following period, until from the latter
part of the eighth century for more than a hundred years Babylonia was
completely overshadowed by Assyria. In 689, in punishment for repeated
revolts, Sennacherib totally destroyed the city of Babylon; but the city was
soon rebuilt.

The Assyrian civilisation shows at every point the influence of
Babylonia. The system of writing was learned from the Babylonians; the art
has the same origin, though northern influences also are clearly manifest in
it; in religion Babylonian gods have a large place; and the ritual and the
arts of divination are those which had been developed by the Babylonian
priesthoods. The common impression, however, that the Assyrians took their
whole civilisation, as it were, ready-made, from Babylonia appears to be an
exaggeration; it would perhaps in the present state of our knowledge be more
accurate to say that the Assyrians, like the Semitic Babylonians, were largely
indebted to the Sumerian culture, and shared with them considerable elements
derived from the civilisation of western Syria and Asia Minor - Amorite and,
later, Hittite.

The Sumerian kingdoms which at one time and another embraced the greater
part of Babylonia had been formed by the supremacy of one city over its
rivals; they never succeeded in welding the people together into a Sumerian
nation. Still less did the Semitic empires of Akkad or of Babylon accomplish
this. The Assyrians, however, appear from the beginning as a national unity.
The change of the capital from Assur to Calah or Nineveh does not signify the
hegemony of one city over others, but the removal of the royal residence from
one city to another. Consequently the religion has a national character which
distinguishes it from that of Babylonia, and this character was undoubtedly
strengthened by the continual wars which the Assyrians waged either in
aggression or defence against other peoples. Assur thus became the god of the
Assyrian hosts; in his standard, the winged sun, he went before them in the
march and the battle and bestowed upon them victory over their enemies.
Inasmuch as the inscriptions of Assyrian kings are largely occupied with their
campaigns, Assur appears oftenest in this character. But for the Assyrians
themselves he was, as the national god, the giver of all blessings in peace as
in war. Late Assyrian scribes sometimes write the name of Assur in such a way
as to identify him with the Babylonian Anshar, who in the Combat of Bel and
Tiamat figures as one of a former generation of gods, the ruler of the upper
world, and modern scholars have sometimes allowed themselves to be misled by
this cuneiform pun; but it is in the highest degree improbable that these
militant Semites picked out for their national god a figure who among the
Sumerians themselves belonged only to the cosmogonic myth, and had, so far we
know, no place at all in the religion.

Next in importance to Assur stand the goddesses, whom, after the manner
of the Semites generally, the Assyrians named Ishtar, distinguishing them when
necessary by the name of the cities over which they presided - the Ishtar of
Arbela, for instance, and the Ishtar of Nineveh. As the tutelary deities of
cities, the Ishtars of Assyria, like the city goddesses of Syria and Asia
Minor, or like the Greek Athene, are their defenders against the assaults of
enemies, their champions in the fray, and in conformity with the prevailing
temper of the Assyrians are warlike goddesses. Assurbanipal, on the eve of a
battle with the Elamites, appealed to the Ishtar of Arbela, who for his
encouragement appeared to him in a dream: "On the left and right of her hung
quivers; in her hand she held a bow, and a sharp sword did she draw to wage
the battle."

Adad, a west Syrian god who comes into prominence with the First Dynasty
of Babylon, had a high place in the Assyrian pantheon. He is a god of storm
and of the storm of war; his attributes are the three-forked thunderbolt and
the axe, his sacred beast is a bull. He fights in the armies of the
Assyrians, and shares with Assur the sacrifices which victorious kings offer
on the battle-field.

The sun (Utu, Babbar) was the city-god of Larsa in southern Babylonia and
of Sippar in the north; the Semites naturally named him by their own word for
sun, Shamash. As has happened to sky-gods and sun-gods among other peoples,
the all-seeing sun became in a peculiar sense the guardian of right and
justice; he receives the title "judge." At Sippar his two daughters bear the
significant names Kettu and Mesharu, which we may render Justice and Equity.
On the stela on which Hammurabi's code of laws is inscribed the king is
represented standing before Shamash, evidently as the god of justice, though
it is not otherwise intimated in the text that the law is a revelation from
him. The Assyrian kings, especially the later ones, emphasise the moral
attributes of Shamash even more strongly than their predecessors. As their
enemies are of course in the wrong, Shamash becomes also the vindicator of the
right by punishing the foe.

Among the hymns to the gods - most of them would be more accurately
entitled incantations - which seldom display either poetic afflatus or
religious feeling, some of the hymns to Shamash are favourably distinguished.
The splendour of the sun-god, illumining heaven, earth, and sea, and his
vision of all the ways of men, are sung in verses that sometimes rise out of
the commonplace. To Shamash the wayfarer, the hunter, the herdsman, and he
who is set upon by robbers, cry for help, and not in vain; the friendly god
watches over and protects them. He is the vindicator of right. Himself the
incorruptible judge, he punishes the judges who take bribes and pervert
justice, and rewards those who cannot be bought and have a care for the
oppressed.

"The offspring of those who deal unjustly will not prosper.
What their mouth utters in thy presence thou wilt undo,
What issues from their mouth thou wilt annul.
Thou hearest their transgressions, the plan of the wicked thou
rejectest.
All, whoever they be, are in thy care;
Thou undertakest their suit, those in bonds thou dost release;
Thou hearest, O Shamash, supplication, prayer, and invocation."

We have observed that in the divination books of the Baru priests the
gods whose names incessantly recur are Shamash and Adad. The all-seeing god
is appropriately the revealer of hidden things; the use of divination to
determine guilt or innocence, moreover, stands in intimate relation to his
office as judge. For the association of Adad with Shamash there is, however,
no obvious explanation in the character or other functions of Adad; the robe
of the soothsayer fits the tempestuous warrior ill. It may be surmised that
Adad got into the formula as the tribal or national god of the people among
whom the divination texts were compiled or recast. It may be added that the
inscriptions make no reference to Adad's oracular talents.

The moon-god, Sin, was the chief deity of Harran in Mesopotamia as he
was, under the Sumerian name Nannar, in Ur. At Harran he was the head of a
divine family; his queen is called Ningal (Nikkal), he has a daughter Ishtar
(the planet Venus), with the title "princess," and a son, Nusku. In Assyria
itself the worship of Sin seems never to have attained great proportions,
though several kings bear names compounded with his name, and in the order of
the triad he regularly precedes Shamash - a survival, probably, of an older
stage of Semitic religion.

Of the old Sumerian gods Anu was perhaps the first to be honoured in
Assyria with a local cult, a fact the more noteworthy inasmuch as in Babylonia
itself his religious importance was by no means commensurate with his rank in
the pantheon. He is the king and father of the gods. At the city Assur a
double temple for Anu and "his gallant son Adad," erected about the end of the
twelfth century B.C., has recently been excavated. A temple on the same site
about a thousand years earlier was dedicated to Adad alone, without any
mention of Anu. The great triad, Anu, Bel, Ea, is often invoked. The
Assyrian kings who ruled over Babylonia are at pains to give a religious
legitimation to their rule. They have been chosen by the gods to rule over
the land of Bel; to "take the hand of Bel" belongs to the ceremony of
investiture. When Shalmaneser II makes an expedition into Babylonia to put
down a revolt, he declares that he did it by Marduk's command. On the other
hand, they give Marduk the next place after Assur when they list several gods
together. To secure the favour of the Babylonian gods they restore their
temples and offer sacrifice in them. In all this we may see not only a wise
policy, but true reverence for the ancient seats of religion and sources of
priestly wisdom; but this homage to the Babylonian gods in Babylonia did not
give them any corresponding increment of importance in Assyria; the kings
built no temples for Marduk in their own land.

A god designated by the signs "Nin-ib" - what he was really called is
unknown - was especially honoured by some of the Assyrian kings. He was, as
might be supposed, an invincible warrior, whose strength and prowess are
lauded in swollen phrases; like his admirers, he was also a mighty hunter. His
great temple was in Calah. Nergal, the god of Kutha in northern Babylonia,
whom we have already met as a god of the realms of the dead, was also
worshipped in Assyria as a god of war and the chase - a character, indeed,
which all gods and goddesses took among that bellicose folk.

The Assyrian temples, to judge from the few examples of which anything is
known, were of the same general type as those of Babylonia; the characteristic
temple tower stood beside them also. The ritual, the arts of incantation and
divination, were taken over from the Babylonians, as has been already said.
The kings entitle themselves in religious inscriptions priests of Assur, and
stand at the head of the state religion. Many reliefs from their palaces
represent acts of worship in which the king participates, and from them our
knowledge of the apparatus of the cult is chiefly derived; it is, however,
more frequently sacrifice or divination in the camp or the field than worship
in the temples that appears in these reliefs.

The latter half of the eight and the first half of the seventh centuries
were the climax of Assyrian greatness; the rule of the Assyrian kings at its
widest extent reached from Babylonia to Egypt, but it was never a stable and
well-ordered empire, and was maintained only by incessant wars which in the
end exhausted the race as the Napoleonic wars exhausted France. A new
upheaval in those Asiatic steppes which so often in history have poured out
the scourges of God set in motion the Scythian hordes, who overran the
weakened countries of western Asia; a new power arose in Media; the dynasts of
the "Sea Country" on the shores of the Persian Gulf, whose independent spirit
the Assyrians had never been able to subdue, made themselves masters of
Babylon and allied themselves with the Medes against Assyria. In 606 Nineveh
fell, and with that catastrophe the nation which but a generation before had
seemed invincible disappears from history in a way that has hardly a parallel.

The Neobabylonian, or Chaldean, kingdom which arose upon its ruins had a
national character which the old Babylonian states lacked; Marduk was the
national god in the same way that Assur had been in Assyria. The exaltation
of national consciousness expressed itself in a religious revival or
restoration; not only were the great temples of Marduk in Babylon and of Nabu
at Borsippa rebuilt with unprecedented splendour, but throughout all the land
the gods, great and small, were honoured in similar fashion. Nebuchadnezzar,
whom with our mind on the Old Testament we think of chiefly as a conqueror,
records in his inscriptions not his successes in war, but his piety in
building and renewing temples. The last of the kings, Nabonnedos, was digging
up long-buried corner-stones of ancient temples and rejoicing over them with
archaeological enthusiasm while the Persians were knocking the empire to
pieces about his head. The signature of the period is artificial
repristination, very like that which the Saite Dynasty was busy with in Egypt
about the same time.

The Persian conquest (538 B.C.) put an end to Babylonian nationality.
Cyrus treated the religion of the country with statesmanlike respect; he
attributes his victory to Marduk, who had bidden him visit on Nabonnedos the
god's displeasure at some of his religious innovations; he orders the images
of the gods which that king had collected in Babylon to be restored to their
own temples. But though the Persian kings and the Greeks after them did
something for Marduk and Nabu, the great gods of the capital, the religion was
no longer the religion of the state, and under new political and economic
conditions and in contact with an alien civilisation it slowly but steadily
declined.

While the gods thus sank into provincial obscurity, the arts of the
Babylonian magicians and diviners were celebrated in all lands, and the adepts
found new and lucrative fields for their practice in the West. Hoary
antiquity, mystifying hocus-pocus, and elaborate pretence of method conspired
to give these Chaldeans, or "mathematicians," or whatever else they were
called, a great vogue. Divination from astronomical phenomena, in particular,
was an imposing pseudoscience, which formed the basis of astrology. Reasons
have been given above, ^1 for the opinion that this method of divination was
developed by the Semitic Babylonians, rather than by the Sumerians. It is
known to us chiefly through the reports of Assyrian court astrologers and
still later sources, but bears clearly enough the impress of its Babylonian
origin. Signs were taken not only from the moon and the sun, but from the
planets, their heliacal rising, brightness, positions relatively to one
another, to the moon, and to certain stars or constellations, their presence
within a ring around the moon, and the like. The planet Venus was from the
earliest times the star of Ishtar (and her Sumerian doubles of various names);
the astrologers connected the other planets with the greater gods of the
Babylonian pantheon, but with which gods they were severally associated, and
whether at all periods the same gods, is still subject to controversy. For
the Assyrian and Neobabylonian period it seems to be fairly made out that
Jupiter was assigned to Marduk, Mercury to Nabu, Mars to Nergal, and Saturn to
"Nin-ib." An examination of the texts does not show any dominant
correspondence between the sphere or character of the deity and the
prognostications drawn from the behaviour of his planet; Mars is generally a
baleful star, but for that there are other possible explanations besides
association with Nergal. The omens of Jupiter have no such specific reference
to the fortunes of the king and the nation as might be expected of Marduk's
planet; Venus gives substantially the same omens. In general, the planets
have no such distinctive and significant characters as in European astrology,
in which they determine the fortune of individuals.

[Footnote 1: See p. 228.]

It has been asserted that the Babylonian astrology was based on the
theory of an exact correspondence between celestial phenomena and terrestrial
events: the world is in all respects the counterpart of the heavens, and there
is a complete and necessitated parallelism between what goes on above and
below. This theory of the universe, it is affirmed, underlies the Babylonian
religion and gives it its peculiar character; from Babylonia it passed to the
West, and dominated Greek as well as Hebrew thought. In short, the conception
of the universe which prevailed in all our world down to the epoch of modern
science is at bottom the Babylonian "Weltanschauung." The Babylonian theory
itself, according to this doctrine, rests upon an observation and
interpretation of astronomical phenomena which in very remote times led to
extraordinary results. Not only was the track of the planets early mapped off
into the twelve signs of the zodiac, but the precession of the equinoxes was
known to the Babylonian star-gazers thousands of years before our era.

It has been proved, on the contrary, that the Babylonian astronomers at
the height of their art, down to the second century B.C., were ignorant of the
precession of the equinoxes, and that, though some zodiacal constellations
appear on "boundary stones" from Kassite times, there is no trace of the equal
division of the ecliptic into twelve parts till the Neobabylonian or Persian
period. Anything like a scientific astronomy, as distinguished from
observations for purposes of divination, begins only in the last millennium
before our era, and reaches its highest point only after the fall of Babylon -
in fact, in the Greek and Arsacidan time.

Divination by the stars was practised by the Babylonians and Assyrians to
learn what was going to befall kings and peoples; they do not seem to have
imagined that the private fortunes of individuals were determined by the
heavenly bodies, and therefore to be read in the sky. The development of this
side of astrology, with its elaborate methods of forecasting the whole life of
a man by the position of the stars at the hour of his birth (genethlialogy),
is of later date, and, however much they may have learned from the
"Chaldeans," the Greeks were its inventors.

The religion of Assyria, as we have seen, was closely akin to that of its
neighbours in northern Babylonia, from which it borrowed largely. The
extension of Assyrian dominion over a great part of Syria introduced the
worship of Assyrian-Babylonian gods. In the eastern part of this area, which
was for centuries really a part of Assyria, the influence of Assyrian
civilisation and religion was most profound and durable. The worship of the
Babylonian Bel and Nabu at Edessa, for example, flourished until Christian
times. Even in this region, however, the native elements greatly
preponderated in the local religions; and farther west Assyrian-Babylonian
influence is, speaking generally, sporadic and superficial, while there is a
larger admixture from Asia Minor. On the seaboard, finally, the most diverse
civilisations in successive ages left their mark - Syrian, Hittite,
Phoenician, Cypriote, Egyptian - but it is hardly at all affected, directly or
indirectly, by Babylonian culture.

Not only has the influence of the Babylonian religion been enormously
exaggerated, but wholly erroneous notions are entertained about the religion
itself. So far from being the religious initiators of humanity, the
Babylonians remained to the end on a relatively low plane of religious
development - compared with the ancient Chinese, for example. They were great
in demonology and divination, but showed no capacity for religious ideas. The
"latent" monotheism which some Assyriologists attribute to them comes to no
more than such banal litanies as

"Ninib is the Marduk of might,
Nergal is the Marduk of fight,
Zamama is the Marduk of battle,
Enlil is the Marduk of rule and dominion,
Nabu is the Marduk of superintendence(?),
Sin is the Marduk of nocturnal light,
Shamash is the Marduk of decisions,
Adad is the Marduk of rain," etc.

That is to say - putting the utmost possible into the words - the many
gods are names of Marduk in various functions and operations. Such utterances
may signify much or little. When we read in the Veda,

"Men call it Indra, Mitra, Agni, Varuna,
Or heavenly Garutman with glorious pinions.
By many names the poets name what is but One;
They name it Agni, Yama, Mataricvan,"

we recognise the dawning of a philosophical conception of unity, out of which
the monism of the Upanishads will spring. We understand the pantheistic
self-laudation of Isis in Apuleius. But the Babylonian text before us
conceals no such subtleties; what it says is that Marduk is the whole
pantheon, and that, not as a piece of speculation, but as a liturgical
glorification of Marduk. Even such purely verbal unifications of the godhead
are late and infrequent.

 

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