Nebo, God of Wisdom, God of Writing

by Esteban

In Semitic days, Zarpanit, the inheritor of all these old traditions and worships, fell from her high estate. She ceased to be the goddess of wisdom, the voice of the deep revealing the secrets of heaven to the diviner and priest; she became merely the female shadow and companion of Merodach, to whom a shrine was erected at the entrance to his temple.

Her distinctive attributes all belong to the pre-Semitic epoch; with the introduction of a language which recognized gender, she was lost in the colourless throng of Ashtaroth or Baalat, the goddesses who were called into existence by the masculine Baalim.

Zarpanit, however, had something to do with the prominence given to Nebo in the Babylonian cult. Nebo, the son of Merodach and Zarpanitu, had, as we have seen, a chapel called E-Zida within the precincts of the great temple of his father.

E-Zida, “the constituted house,” derived its name from the great temple of Borsippa, the suburb of Babylon, the ruins of which are now known to travelers as the Birs-i-Nimrúd. Borsippa, it would seem, had once been an independent town, and Nebo, or the prototype of Nebo, had been its protecting deity.

In the middle of the city rose E-Zida, the temple of Nebo and Nana Tasmit, with its holy of holies, “the supreme house of life,” and its lofty tower termed “the house of the seven spheres of heaven and earth.” It had been founded, though never finished, according to Nebuchadnezzar, by an ancient king.

For long centuries it had remained a heap of ruin, until restored by Nebuchadnezzar, and legends had grown up thickly around it. It was known as the tul ellu, “the pure” or “holy mound,” and one of the titles of Nebo accordingly was “god of the holy mound.”

The word Nebo is the Semitic Babylonian Nabiu or Nabû. It means the proclaimer,” “the prophet,” and thus indicates the character of the god to whom it was applied. Nebo was essentially the proclaimer of the mind and wishes of Merodach.

He stood to Merodach in the same relation that an older mythology regarded Merodach as standing to Ea. While Merodach was rather the god of healing, in accordance with his primitively solar nature, Nebo was emphatically the god of science and literature.

The communication of the gifts of wisdom, therefore, which originally emanated from Ea, was thus shared between Merodach and his son. At Babylon, the culture-god of other countries was divided into two personalities, the one conveying to man the wisdom that ameliorates his condition, the other the knowledge which finds its expression in the art of writing.”

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. 112-3.