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Spence on the Gilgamesh Epic

“The Gilgamesh epic ranks with the Babylonian myth of creation as one of the greatest literary productions of ancient Babylonia. The main element in its composition is a conglomeration of mythic matter, drawn from various sources, with perhaps a substratum of historic fact, the whole being woven into a continuous narrative around the central figure of Gilgamesh, prince of Erech.

It is not possible at present to fix the date when the epic was first written. Our knowledge of it is gleaned chiefly from mutilated fragments belonging to the library of Assur-bani-pal, but from internal and other evidence we gather that some at least of the traditions embodied in the epic are of much greater antiquity than his reign.

Thus a tablet dated 2100 b.c. contains a variant of the deluge story inserted in the XIth tablet of the Gilgamesh epic. Probably this and other portions of the epic existed in oral tradition before they were committed to writing—that is, in the remote Sumerian period.

Assur-bani-pal was an enthusiastic and practical patron of literature. In his great library at Nineveh (the nucleus of which had been taken from Calah by Sennacherib) he had gathered a vast collection of volumes, clay tablets, and papyri, most of which had been carried as spoil from conquered lands.

He also employed scribes to copy older texts, and this is evidently how the existing edition of the Gilgamesh epic came to be written. From the fragments now in the British Museum it would seem that at least four copies of the poem were made in the time of Assur-bani-pal.

They were not long permitted to remain undisturbed. The great Assyrian empire was already declining; ere long Nineveh was captured and its library scattered, while plundering hordes burnt the precious rolls of papyrus, and buried the clay tablets in the debris of the palace which had sheltered them.

There they were destined to lie for over 2000 years, till the excavations of Sir A. H. Layard, George Smith, and others brought them to light. It is true that the twelve tablets of the Gilgamesh epic (or rather, the fragments of them which have so far been discovered) are much defaced; frequently the entire sense of a passage is obscured by a gap in the text, and this, when nice mythological elucidations are in question, is no light matter.

Yet to such an extent has the science of comparative religion progressed in recent years that we are probably better able to read the true mythological significance of the epic than were the ancient Babylonians themselves, who saw in it merely an account of the wanderings and exploits of a national hero.

The epic, which centres round the ancient city of Erech, relates the adventures of a half-human, halfdivine hero, Gilgamesh by name, who is king over Erech.

Two other characters figure prominently in the narrative—Eabani, who evidently typifies primitive man, and Ut-Napishtim, the hero of the Babylonian deluge myth. Each of the three would seem to have been originally the hero of a separate group of traditions which in time became incorporated, more or less naturally, with the other two.

The first and most important of the trio, the hero Gilgamesh, may have been at one time a real personage, though nothing is known of him historically.[1] Possibly the exploits of some ancient king of Erech have furnished a basis for the narrative.

His name (for a time provisionally read Gisdhubar, or Izdubar, but now known to have been pronounced Gilgamesh[2]) suggests that he was not Babylonian but Elamite or Kassite in origin, and from indications furnished by the poem itself we learn that he conquered Erech (or relieved the city from a besieging force) at the outset of his adventurous career.

It has been suggested also that he was identical with the Biblical Nimrod, like him a hero of ancient Babylon; but there are no other grounds for the suggestion.

So much for the historical aspect of Gilgamesh. His mythological character is more easily established. In this regard he is the personification of the sun. He represents, in fact, the fusion of a great national hero with a mythical being.

Throughout the epic there are indications that Gilgamesh is partly divine by nature,though nothing specific is said on that head. His identity with the solar god is veiled in the popular narrative, but it is evident that he has some connexion with the god Shamash, to whom he pays his devotions and who acts as his patron and protector.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 154-6.

Marduk of Babylon: Baal

” … Nebuchadnezzar may invoke Merodach as “the lord of the gods,” “the god of heaven and earth,” “the eternal, the holy, the lord of all things,” but he almost always couples him with other deities–Nebo, Sin or Gula–of whom he speaks in equally reverential terms.

Even Nabonidos uses language of Sin, the Moon-god, which is wholly incompatible with a belief in the exclusive supremacy of Merodach. He calls him “the lord of the gods of heaven and earth, the king of the gods and the god of gods, who dwell in heaven and are mighty.” Merodach was, in fact, simply the local god of Babylon.

Events had raised Babylon first to the dignity of the capital of Babylonia, and then of that of a great empire, and its presiding deity had shared its fortunes. It was he who had sent forth its people on their career of conquest; it was to glorify his name that he had given them victory.

The introduction of other deities on an equal footing with himself into his own peculiar seat, his own special city, was of itself a profanation, and quite sufficient to draw upon Nabonidos his vindictive anger. The Moon-god might be worshipped at Ur; it was out of place to offer him at Babylon the peculiar honours which were reserved for Merodach alone.

Here, then, is one of the results of that localisation of religious worship which was characteristic of Babylonia. Nabonidos not only offended the priests and insulted the gods of other cities by bringing their images into Babylon, he also in one sense impaired the monopoly which the local deity of Babylon enjoyed. He thus stirred up angry feelings on both sides.

Had he himself been free from the common belief of the Babylonian in the local character of his gods, he might have effected a revolution similar to that of Hezekiah; he had, however, the superstition which frequently accompanies antiquarian instincts, and his endeavour to make Babylon the common gathering-place of the Babylonian divinities was dictated as much by the desire to make all of them his friends as by political design.

Now who was this Merodach, this patron-god of Babylon, whose name I have had so often to pronounce? Let us see, first of all, what we can learn about him from the latest of our documents, the inscriptions of Nebuchadnezzar and his successors.

In these, Merodach appears as the divine protector of Babylon and its inhabitants. He has the standing title of Bilu or “lord,” which the Greeks turned into βμλος, and which is the same as the Baal of the Old Testament. The title is frequently used as a name, and is, in fact, the only name under which Merodach was known to the Greeks and Romans.

In the Old Testament also it is as Bel that he comes before us. When the prophet declares that “Bel boweth down” and is “gone into captivity,” he is referring to Merodach and the overthrow of Merodach’s city.

To the Babylonian, Merodach was pre-eminently the Baal or “lord,” like the Baalim or “lords” worshipped under special names and with special rites in the several cities of Canaan.”

 A.H. Sayce, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by the Religion of the Ancient Babylonians, 5th ed., London, 1898, pp. 90-2.

Civil Centralization = Religious Centralization

“Up to the last, Babylonian religion remained local. It was this local character that gives us the key to its origin and history, and explains much that would otherwise seem inconsistent and obscure.

The endeavour of Nabonidos to undermine its local character and to create a universal religion for a centralised Babylonia, was deeply resented by both priests and people, and ushered in the fall of the Babylonian empire. The fundamental religious idea which had underlain the empire had been the supremacy of Merodach, the god of Babylon, over all other gods, not the absorption of the deities of the subject nations into a common cult.

The policy of Nabonidos, therefore, which aimed at making Merodach, not primus inter pares, but absolute lord of captive or vassal deities, shocked the prejudices of the Babylonian people, and eventually proved fatal to its author.

In Cyrus, accordingly, the politic restorer of the captive populations and their gods to their old homes, the priests and worshippers of the local divinities saw the pious adherent of the ancient forms of faith, and the real favourite of Merodach himself.

Merodach had not consented to the revolutionary policy of Nabonidos; he had, on the contrary, sympathised with the wrongs of his brother gods in Babylonia and throughout the world, and had thus deserted his own city and the renegade monarch who ruled over it.

In all this there is a sharp contrast to the main religious conception which subsequently held sway over the Persian empire, as well as to that which was proclaimed by the prophets of Judah, and in the reforms of Hezekiah and Josiah was carried out practically by the Jewish kings. The Ahura-mazda whom Dareios invokes on the rock of Behistun is not only the lord of the gods, he is a lord who will not brook another god by his side.

A penciled illustration of the Behistun Inscription.  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Behistun_Inscription_Eger.png

A penciled illustration of the Behistun Inscription.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Behistun_Inscription_Eger.png

The supreme god of the Persian monarch is as absolute as the Persian monarch himself. In the Persian empire which was organised by Dareios, centralisation became for the first time a recognised and undisputed fact, and political centralisation went hand-in-hand with religious centralisation as well.

In Judah, a theocracy was established on the ruins of the old beliefs which had connected certain localities with certain forms of divinity, and which found such naive expression in the words of David to Saul (1 Samuel xxvi. 19): “They have driven me out this day from abiding in the inheritance of the Lord, saying, Go, serve other gods.”

The destruction of the high-places and the concentration of the worship of Yahveh in Jerusalem, was followed by the ever-increasing conviction that Yahveh was not only a jealous God who would allow none other gods besides Himself; He was also a God who claimed dominion over the whole world.”

A.H. Sayce, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by the Religion of the Ancient Babylonians, 5th ed., London, 1898, pp. 89-90.

The Fall of Nabonidos

“The destruction of the local cults, the attempt to unify and centralise religious worship, was to the Rab-shakeh, as it was to the Babylonian scribes, and doubtless also to many of the Jews in the time of Hezekiah, an act of the grossest impiety.

An annalistic tablet, drawn up not long after the conquest of Babylonia by Cyrus, hints that before making his final attack on the country, the Elamite prince had been secretly aided by a party of malcontents in Chaldea itself.

It is at all events significant that as soon as the army of Nabonidos was defeated, the whole population at once submitted, and that even the capital, with its almost impregnable fortifications, threw open its gates.

The revolts which took place afterwards in the reigns of Dareios and Xerxes, and the extremities endured by the Babylonians before they would surrender their city, prove that their surrender was not the result of cowardice or indifference to foreign rule. The great mass of the people must have been discontented with Nabonidos and anxious for his overthrow.

The anger of Merodach and the gods, in fact, was but a convenient way of describing the discontent and anger of an important section of the Babylonians themselves. Nabonidos did not belong to the royal house of Nebuchadnezzar; he seems to have raised himself to the throne by means of a revolution, and his attempt at centralisation excited strong local animosities against him.

Religion and civil government were so closely bound up together, that civil centralisation meant religious centralisation also; the surest sign that the cities of Babylonia had been absorbed in the capital was that the images of the gods whose names had been associated with them from time immemorial were carried away to Babylon. The cities lost their separate existence along with the deities who watched over their individual fortunes.

The removal of the gods, however, implied something more than the removal of a number of images and the visible loss of local self-government or autonomy. Each image was the centre of a particular cult, carried on in a particular temple in a particular way, and entrusted to the charge of a special body of priests.

It was no wonder, therefore, that the high-handed proceedings of Nabonidos aroused the enmity of these numerous local priesthoods, as well as of all those who profited in any way from the maintenance of the local cults.

Most of the cities which were thus deprived of their ancestral deities were as old as Babylon; many of them claimed to be older; while it was notorious that Babylon did not become a capital until comparatively late in Babylonian history.

The Sun-god of Sippara, the Moon-god of Ur, were alike older than Merodach of Babylon. Indeed, though in the age of Nabonidos the title of Bel or “lord”had come to be applied to Merodach specially, it was known that there was a more ancient Bel–Belitanas, “the elder Bel,” as the Greeks wrote the word–whose worship had spread from the city of Nipur, and who formed one of the supreme triad of Babylonian gods.”

A.H. Sayce, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by the Religion of the Ancient Babylonians, 5th ed., London, 1898, pp. 85-6.

The Rise of Marduk

“In an inscription upon a clay cylinder brought from Babylonia seven years ago, Cyrus is made to declare that the overthrow of Nabonidos, the last independent Babylonian monarch, was due to the anger of Bel and the other gods.

Nabonidos had removed their images from their ancient sanctuaries, and had collected them together in the midst of Babylon. The priests maintained that the deed had aroused the indignation of Merodach, “the lord of the gods,” who had accordingly rejected Nabonidos, even as Saul was rejected from being king of Israel, and had sought for a ruler after his own heart.

It was “in wrath” that the deities had ”left their shrines when Nabonidos brought them into Babylon,” and had prayed Merodach, the divine patron of the imperial city, to “go round unto all men wherever might be their seats.”

Merodach sympathised with their wrongs; “he visited the men of Sumer and Accad whom he had sworn should be his attendants,” and “all lands beheld his friend.” He chose Cyrus, king of Elam, and destined him by name for the sovereignty of Chaldea.

Cyrus, whom the Hebrew prophet had already hailed as the Lord’s Anointed, was thus equally the favourite of the supreme Babylonian god.

“Merodach, the great lord, the restorer of his people,” we are told, “beheld with joy the deeds of his vicegerent who was righteous in hand and heart. To his city of Babylon he summoned his march, and he bade him take the road to Babylon; like a friend and a comrade he went at his side.”

A single battle decided the conflict: the Babylonians opened their gates, and “without fighting or battle,” Cyrus was led in triumph into the city of Babylon.

His first care was to show his gratitude towards the deities who had so signally aided him. Their temples were rebuilt, and they themselves were restored to their ancient seats.

With all the allowance that must be made for the flattery exacted by a successful conqueror, we must confess that this is a very remarkable document. It is written in the Babylonian language and in the Babylonian form of the cuneiform syllabary, and we may therefore infer that it was compiled by Babylonian scribes and intended for the perusal of Babylonian readers.

Yet we find the foreign conqueror described as the favourite of the national god, while the last native king is held up to reprobation as the dishonorer of the gods. It is impossible not to compare the similar treatment experienced by Nebuchadnezzar and the native Jewish kings respectively at the hands of Jeremiah.

The Jewish prophet saw in the Chaldean invader the instrument of the God of Judah, just as the Babylonian scribes saw in Cyrus the instrument of the god of Babylon; and the fall of the house of David is attributed, just as much as the fall of Nabonidos, to divine anger.”

A.H. Sayce, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by the Religion of the Ancient Babylonians, 5th ed., London, 1898, pp. 85-6.

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