Assur, National Deity of Assyria

by Esteban

“Supreme over the old Babylonian pantheon rises the figure of a new god, the national deity of Assyria, its impersonation Assur. Assur is not merely primus inter pares, merely the president of the divine assembly, like Merodach; he is their lord and master in another and more autocratic sense.

Like the Yahveh of Israel, he claims to be “king above all gods,” that “among all gods” there is none like unto himself. In his name and through his help the Assyrian kings go forth to conquer; the towns they bum, the men they slay, the captives they take, are all his gifts.

It is to destroy “the enemies of Assur,” and to lay their yoke upon those who disbelieve in his name, that they load their armies into other lands; it is his decrees, his law, that they write upon the monuments they erect in conquered countries.

The gods of Babylonia are invoked, it is true; their old Babylonian titles are accorded to them; they are called upon to curse the sacrilegious in the stereotyped phrases of the ancient literature; but it is Assur, and Assur alone, to whom the Assyrian monarch turns in moments of distress; it is Assur, and Assur alone, in whose name he subdues the infidel. Only the goddess Istar finds a place by the side of Assur.

It is not difficult to account for all this. In passing from their native homes to Assyria, the Babylonian deities lost that local character which was the very breath of their existence. How far they owe their presence in Assyrian literature to the literary class, how far they had been brought from Babylonia in early days by the people themselves, I am not prepared to say.

One fact, however, is clear; in becoming Assyrian the Babylonian gods have lost both their definiteness and their rank. The invocations addressed to them lack their old genuine ring, their titles are borrowed from the literature of the southern kingdom, and their functions are usurped by the new god Assur.

It is almost pitiable to find Bel-Merodach invoked, in phrases that once denoted his power above other deities, by the very kings who boast of their conquests over his people, or who even razed his city to the ground.

The Assyrian, in fact, occupied much the same position as an Israelite who, while recognizing the supremacy of his national God, thought it prudent or cultivated to offer at the same time a sort of inferior homage to the Baalim 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. 122-3.