Bel-Merodach Returns to Babylon

by Esteban

” … Babylon welcomed its new king–a Babylonian by birth and the son of a Babylonian princess. The ancient kingdom rejoiced that it was no longer to be ruled as a province; its ancient dignities and privileges were being partially restored.

But one great and deep-seated grievance remained. The god Merodach was still a captive in the temple of Ashur.

No king could reign aright if Merodach were not restored to E-sagila. Indeed he could not be regarded as the lord of the land until he had “taken the hands of Bel.”

The ceremony of taking the god’s hands was an act of homage. When it was consummated the king became the steward or vassal of Merodach, and every day he appeared before the divine one to receive instructions and worship him. The welfare of the whole kingdom depended on the manner in which the king acted towards the god.

If Merodach was satisfied with the king he sent blessings to the land; if he was angry he sent calamities. A pious and faithful monarch was therefore the protector of the people.

This close association of the king with the god gave the priests great influence in Babylon. They were the power behind the throne. The destinies of the royal house were placed in their hands; they could strengthen the position of a royal monarch, or cause him to be deposed if he did not satisfy their demands.

A king who reigned over Babylon without the priestly party on his side occupied an insecure position. Nor could he secure the co-operation of the priests unless the image of the god was placed in the temple. Where king was, there Merodach had to be also.

Shamash-shum-ukin pleaded with his royal brother and overlord to restore Bel Merodach to Babylon. Ashur-bani-pal hesitated for a time; he was unwilling to occupy a less dignified position, as the representative of Ashur, than his distinguished predecessor, in his relation to the southern kingdom.

At length, however, he was prevailed upon to consult the oracle of Shamash, the solar lawgiver, the revealer of destiny. The god was accordingly asked if Shamash-shum-ukin could “take the hands of Bel” in Ashur’s temple, and then proceed to Babylon as his representative.

In response, the priests of Shamash informed the emperor that Bel Merodach could not exercise sway as sovereign lord so long as he remained a prisoner in a city which was not his own.

Ashur-bani-pal accepted the verdict, and then visited Ashur’s temple to plead with Bel Merodach to return to Babylon.

“Let thy thoughts,” he cried, “dwell in Babylon, which in thy wrath thou didst bring to naught. Let thy face be turned towards E-sagila, thy lofty and divine temple. Return to the city thou hast deserted for a house unworthy of thee. O Merodach! lord of the gods, issue thou the command to return again to Babylon.”

Thus did Ashur-bani-pal make pious and dignified submission to the will of the priests. A favourable response was, of course, received from Merodach when addressed by the emperor, and the god’s image was carried back to E-sagila, accompanied by a strong force.

Ashur-bani-pal and Shamash-shum-ukin led the procession of priests and soldiers, and elaborate ceremonials were observed at each city they passed, the local gods being carried forth to do homage to Merodach.

Babylon welcomed the deity who was thus restored to his temple after the lapse of about a quarter of a century, and the priests celebrated with unconcealed satisfaction and pride the ceremony at which Shamash-shum-ukin “took the hands of Bel.”

The public rejoicings were conducted on an elaborate scale. Babylon believed that a new era of prosperity had been inaugurated, and the priests and nobles looked forward to the day when the kingdom would once again become free and independent and powerful.”

Donald A. Mackenzie, Myths of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915, pp. 480-2.