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The God Assur

“The transference of the centre of power from Assur to Nineveh made the anthropomorphic side of Assur’s nature still more prominent. He represented now the whole nation and the central power which governed the nation. He was thus the representative at once of the people and of the king in whose hands the government of the people was centred.

Assyria became “the land of the god Assur,” belonging to him in much the same way as the city of Babylon belonged to Bel-Merodach. But whereas Bel-Merodach was the Baal of a particular city only, Assur was, like the Yahveh of Israel, the national god of a race.

There was yet another respect in which Assur resembled the Yahveh of Israel. There was no goddess Assurritu by the side of Assur, as there was an Anatu by the side of Anu, a Beltis by the side of Bel. If, in imitation of Babylonian usage, Bilat or Beltis is sometimes addressed as the consort of Assur, it is simply a literary affectation; Assur was not a Bel or Baal, like Merodach.

Bilat is a Babylonian goddess; she is properly the wife of the older Bel, in later times identified with Zarpanit. There is no indication that Assur had a “face” or reflection; he stands by himself, and the inspiration received from him by the Assyrian kings is received from him alone. When a female divinity is invoked along with him, it is the equally independent goddess Istar or Ashtoreth.

We possess a list of the deities whose images stood in the temples of Assur at Assur and Nineveh.

At the head of each list the name of Assur is thrice invoked, and once his name is followed by that of Istar. There was, in fact, a special form of Istar, under which she was worshipped as “the Istar of Nineveh;” but the form was purely local, not national, arising from the existence there of a great temple dedicated to her. There was no national goddess to place by the side of the national god.

Assur consequently differs from the Babylonian gods, not only in the less narrowly local character that belongs to him, but also in his solitary nature. He is “king of all gods” in a sense in which none of the deities of Babylonia were.

He is like the king of Assyria himself, brooking no rival, allowing neither wife nor son to share in the honours which he claims for himself alone. He is essentially a jealous god, and as such sends forth his Assyrian adorers to destroy his unbelieving foes. Wife-less, childless, he is mightier than the Babylonian Baalim; less kindly, perhaps, less near to his worshippers than they were, but more awe-inspiring and more powerful.

We can, in fact, trace in him all the lineaments upon which, under other conditions, there might have been built up as pure a faith as that of the God of Israel.”

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. 126-9.

Lewis Spence’s Version of Ishtar and Gilgamesh

“In the Vlth tablet, which relates the story of Ishtar’s love for Gilgamesh, and the slaying of the sacred bull, victory again waits on the arms of the heroes, but here nevertheless we have the key to the misfortunes which later befall them.

On his return to Erech after the destruction of Khumbaba, Gilgamesh was loudly acclaimed. Doffing the soiled and bloodstained garments he had worn during the battle, he robed himself as befitted a monarch and a conqueror.

Ishtar beheld the King in his regal splendour, the flowers of victory still fresh on his brow, and her heart went out to him in love. In moving and seductive terms she besought him to be her bridegroom, promising that if he would enter her house “in the gloom of the cedar” all manner of good gifts should be his—his flocks and herds would increase, his horses and oxen would be without rival, the river Euphrates would kiss his feet, and kings and princes would bring tribute to him.

But Gilgamesh, knowing something of the past history of this capricious goddess, rejected her advances with scorn, and began to revile her. He taunted her, too, with her treatment of former lovers—of Tammuz, the bridegroom of her youth, to whom she clung weepingly year after year; of Alalu the eagle; of a Hon perfect in might and a horse glorious in battle; of the shepherd Tabulu and of Isullanu, the gardener of her father.

All these she had mocked and ill-treated in cruel fashion, and Gilgamesh perceived that like treatment would be meted out to him should he accept the proffered love of the goddess.

The deity was greatly enraged at the repulse, and mounted up to heaven :

“Moreover Ishtar went before Anu (her father), before Anu she went and she (said) : ‘ 0 my father, Gilgamesh has kept watch on me; Gilgamesh has counted my garlands, my garlands and my girdles.’”

Underlying the story of Ishtar’s love for Gilgamesh there is evidently a nature-myth of some sort, perhaps a spring-tide myth; Gilgamesh, the sun-god, or a hero who has taken over his attributes, is wooed by Ishtar, the goddess of fertility, the great mother-goddess who presides over spring vegetation.

In the recital of her former love-affairs we find mention of the Tammuz myth, in which Ishtar slew her consort Tammuz, and other mythological fragments. It is possible also that there is an astrological significance in this part of the narrative.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 167-8.

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