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Conquering the Gods

“Even Bel-Merodach was absorbed into the Assyrian pantheon. To the Assyrians, Babylonia was the country of Bel, and they referred to their southern neighbours as the ‘subjects of Bel.’ This, of course, must be taken not to mean the older Bel, but Bel-Merodach. They even alluded to the governor whom they placed over conquered Babylonia as the governor of Bel, so closely did they identify the god with the country.

It is only in the time of Shalmaneser II— the ninth century b.c. —that we find the name Merodach employed for Bel, so general did the use of the latter become. Of course it was impossible that Merodach could take first place in Assyria as he had done in Babylonia, but it was a tribute to the Assyrian belief in his greatness that they ranked him immediately after Asshur in the pantheon.

Austen Henry Layard. A Popular Account of Discoveries At Nineveh. London. John Murray. 1852, p. 211. http://www.bibleorigins.net/Sundiscarcherdrawnbow.html

Austen Henry Layard. A Popular Account of Discoveries At Nineveh. London. John Murray. 1852, p. 211.
http://www.bibleorigins.net/Sundiscarcherdrawnbow.html

The Assyrian rulers were sufficiently politic to award this place to Merodach, for they could not but see that Babylonia, from which they drew their arts and sciences, as well as their religions beliefs, and from which they benefited in many directions, must be worthily represented in the national religion.

And just as the Romans in conquering Greece and Egypt adopted many of the deities of these more cultured and less powerful lands, thus seeking to bind the inhabitants of the conquered provinces more closely to themselves, so did the Assyrian rulers believe that, did they incorporate Merodach into their hierarchy, he would become so Assyrian in his outlook as to cease to be wholly Babylonian, and would doubtless work in favour of the stronger kingdom.

In no other of the religions of antiquity as in the Assyrian was the idea so powerful that the god of the conquered or subject people should become a virtual prisoner in the land of the conquerors, or should at least be absorbed into their national worship.

Some of the Assyrian monarchs went so far as to drag almost every petty idol they encountered on their conquests back to the great temple of Asshur, and it is obvious that they did not do this with any intention of uprooting the worship of these gods in the regions they conquered, but because they desired to make political prisoners of them, and to place them in a temple-prison, where they would be unable to wreak vengeance upon them, or assist their beaten worshippers to war against them in the future.

It may be fitting at this point to emphasize how greatly the Assyrian people, as apart from their rulers, cherished the older beliefs of Babylonia. Both peoples were substantially of the same stock, and any movement which had as its object the destruction of the Babylonian religion would have met with the strongest hostility from the populace of Assyria.

Just as the conquering Aztecs seem to have had immense reverence for the worship of the Toltecs, whose land they subdued, so did the less cultivated Assyrians regard everything connected, with Babylonia as peculiarly sacred.

The Kings of Assyria, in fact, were not a little proud of being the rulers of Babylonia, and were extremely mild in their treatment of their southern subjects—very much more so, in fact, than they were in their behaviour toward the people of Elam or other conquered territories. We even find the kings alluding to themselves as being nominated by the gods to rule over the land of Bel.

The Assyrian monarchs strove hard not to disturb the ancient Babylonian cult, and Shalmaneser II, when he had conquered Babylonia, actually entered Merodach’s temple and sacrificed to him.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp.  225-7.

Nergal, God of Death

“It was as the death-dealing lord of Hades that Nergal first became “the hero of the gods,” “who marches in their front.” The metaphor was taken from the champion who, like Goliath, places himself before his comrades and challenges the enemy to combat.

It is thus that we read in the story of the Deluge, when the flood of rain and destruction is described as coming upon the guilty world: “Rimmon in the midst of (heaven) thundered, and Nebo and the Wind-god went in front; the throne-bearers went over mountain and plain; Nergal the mighty removes the wicked; Adar goes in front and casteth down.”

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As lord of Hades, too, he was made the son of Mul-lil. A hymn (K 5268), the colophon of which tells us that it was composed in Cutha, begins with the words: “Let Nergal be glorified, the hero of the gods, who cometh forth as the strong one, the son of Mul-lil.”

In the same hymn, Marad is declared to be his city, from which we may infer that Marad was near Cutha. Its protecting divinity, however, was, strictly speaking, Lugal-túda,”the royal offspring,” or perhaps “valiant king,” a personification of the thunder-cloud and lightning; but it is evident from the hymn that he had been identified with the death-dealing god of Cutha.

Another depiction of Nergal, patron god of Kutha.

Another depiction of Nergal, patron god of Kutha.

Of Laz, the wife of Nergal, we know little or nothing. Her name survived as the local divinity of Cutha, but her office and attributes were taken by Allat. Even Nergal himself as the lord of Hades belongs rather to the Accadian than to the Semitic period.

Among the Semites he was the hero and champion of the gods, and as such the destroyer of the wicked, rather than the king of death who slays alike the wicked and the good. The sovereignty of Hades had passed out of his hands, and he had become the companion of the solar Adar and the warrior of the gods of heaven.

Under his old name of Ner, however, a curious reminiscence of his primitive character lasted down to late times. In the hymns and other poetical effusions, we not unfrequently come across the phrase, ”mankind, the cattle of the god Ner.”

I have already drawn attention to the agricultural nature of early Chaldean civilisation, and the influence that agriculture had upon the modes of thought and expression of the population. Not only was the sky regarded as the counterpart of the Babylonian plain, and the heavenly bodies transformed into the herds and flocks that fed there, but the human inhabitants of the earth were themselves likened to the cattle they pastured and fed.

One of the earliest titles of the Babylonian kings was “shepherd,” reminding us of the Homeric ποιμην λαων, “shepherd of nations;” and in the Epic of Gisdhubar the sovereign city of Erech is termed the śubur, or “shepherd’s hut.”

Just as the subjects of the king, therefore, were looked upon as the sheep whom their ruler shepherded, so too mankind in general were regarded as the cattle slain by the god of death. They were, in fact, his herd, whom he fed and slaughtered in sacrifice to the 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. 196-8.

Trinities versus Male-Female Dualism

“The early importance and supremacy of Erech in Semitic Babylonia caused its god to assume a place by the side of Ea of Eridu and Mul-lil, the older Bel. It is possible that the extension of his cult had already begun in Accadian days. The Ana, or Sky-god, to whom Gudea at Tel-loh erected a temple, may have been the Sky-god of Erech, more especially when we remember the connection that existed between Erech and Eridu on the one hand, and between Tel-loh and Eridu on the other.

However this may be, from the commencement of the Semitic period Anu appears as the first member of a triad which consisted of Anu, Bel or Mul-lil, and Ea. His position in the triad was due to the leading position held by Erech; the gods of Nipur and Eridu retained the rank which their time-honoured sanctity and the general extension of their cult had long secured to them; but the rank of Anu was derived from the city of which he was the presiding god.

The origin of the triad was thus purely accidental; there was nothing in the religious conceptions of the Babylonians which led to its formation. Once formed, however, it was inevitable that a cosmological colouring should be given to it, and that Anu, Bel and Ea, should represent respectively the heaven, the lower world and the watery element.

Later ages likened this cosmological trinity to the elemental trinity of the Sun, the Noon and the Evening Star; and below the triad of Anu, Bel and Ea, was accordingly placed the triad of of Samas, Sin and Istar. But this secondary trinity never attracted the Babylonian mind.

This finely cut seal depicts Ishtar, Mesopotamian goddess of sexuality and warfare.  Her strength as a warrior is stressed here, as she is shown with weapons rising from her shoulders. Ishtar appears to have been associated at an early period with the Sumerian goddess Inanna and both deities are depicted with symbols of fertility, such as the date palm, and of aggression, such as the lion.  This iconography survived relatively unchanged for over a thousand years. Here, Ishtar's astral quality is also emphasized: above her crown is a representation of the planet Venus.  In the first millennium BC more unusual stones were used to make seals: this one is made of green garnet, which may have come from northern Pakistan. British Museum, ME 89769, acquired 1835. D. Collon, First impressions: cylinder seals (London, The British Museum Press, 1987) H. Frankfort, Cylinder seals (London, Macmillan, 1939) http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/me/g/garnet_cylinder_seal_ishtar.aspx

This finely cut seal depicts Ishtar, Mesopotamian goddess of sexuality and warfare.
Her strength as a warrior is stressed here, as she is shown with weapons rising from her shoulders.
Ishtar appears to have been associated at an early period with the Sumerian goddess Inanna and both deities are depicted with symbols of fertility, such as the date palm, and of aggression, such as the lion.
This iconography survived relatively unchanged for over a thousand years. Here, Ishtar’s astral quality is also emphasized: above her crown is a representation of the planet Venus.
In the first millennium BC more unusual stones were used to make seals: this one is made of green garnet, which may have come from northern Pakistan. British Museum, ME 89769, acquired 1835.
D. Collon, First impressions: cylinder seals (London, The British Museum Press, 1987)
H. Frankfort, Cylinder seals (London, Macmillan, 1939)
http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/me/g/garnet_cylinder_seal_ishtar.aspx

Up to the last, as we have seen, Sin continued to be the father of Samas and Istar, and Babylonian religion remained true to its primitive tendency to dualism, its separation of the divine world into male and female deities.

The only genuine trinity that can be discovered in the religious faith of early Chaldea was that old Accadian system which conceived of a divine father and mother by the side of their son the Sun-god.

The Semitic Anu necessarily produced the feminine Anat, and as necessarily Anat was identified with the earth as Anu was with the sky. In this way the Accadian idea of a marriage union between the earth and the sky was adapted to the newer Semitic beliefs. But we must not misunderstand the nature of the adaptation.

Anat never became an independent deity, as Dav-kina, for example, had been from the outset; she had no separate existence apart from Anu. She is simply a Bilat matati, “a mistress of the world,” or a Bilat ili, “a mistress of the gods,” like the wife of Bel or of Samas: she is, in fact, a mere colourless representation of the female principle in the universe, with no attributes that distinguish her from Anunit or Istar except the single one that she was the feminine form of Anu.

Goddess Ishtar, center, with wings, standing armed with one foot on a lion, her symbol.  The goddess is portrayed wearing the horned headdress of divinity and indistinct weaponry on her back.

Goddess Ishtar, center, with wings, standing armed with one foot on a lion, her symbol.
The goddess is portrayed wearing the horned headdress of divinity and indistinct weaponry on her back.

Hence it is that the Canaanites had not only their Ashtaroth, but their Anathoth as well, for the Anathoth or “Anats” differed from the Ashtaroth or “Ashtoreths” in little else than name. So far as she was an active power, Anat was the same as Istar; in all other respects she was merely the grammatical complement of Anu, the goddess who necessarily stood at the side of a particular god.”

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. 192-4.

Assyrian Monotheism versus Babylonian Pantheism

“Henceforward “the heaven of Anu” denoted the serene and changeless regions to which the gods fled when the deluge had broken up the face of the lower heaven, and which an Assyrian poet calls “the land of the silver sky.”

It was to this spiritualised heaven that the spirit of Ea-bani, the friend of Gisdhubar, ascended, and from which he gazed placidly on the turmoil of the earth below; and it was from his seat therein that Anu assigned their places in the lower heaven to Samas, Sin and Istar, the Sun, the Moon and the Evening Star, according to the legend of the seven wicked spirits.

But the spiritualisation of Anu did not stop here. As a Semitic Baal he had become a supreme god, the lord and father of the universe. It was only a step further, therefore, to make him himself the universe, and to resolve into him the other deities of the Babylonian pantheon.

We read occasionally in the hymns of “the one god.”

“The ban, the ban,” a poet writes, personifying the priestly sentence of excommunication, like the Ara of Aeskhylos or the divine burden of Zechariah (ix.l),

“is a barrier which none may overpass; the barrier of the gods against which they cannot transgress, the barrier of heaven and earth which cannot be changed; the one god against whom none may rebel; god and man cannot explain (it); it is a snare not to be passed which is formed against the evil, the cord of a snare from which there is no exit which is turned against the evil.”

The conception of Anu, however, as “the one god” was pantheistic rather than monotheistic. The cosmological deities of an older phase of faith were in the first instance resolved into him. In place of the genealogical, or gnostic, system which we find in the account of the Creation in days, we have a pantheistic system, in which Lakhama and the other primeval forces of nature are not the parents of Anu, but are identified with Anu himself.

It is easy to conceive how the old deity An-sar, “the upper firmament,” with all its host of spirits, might be identified with him; but when we find Uras also, the Sun-god of Nipur, made one with Anu, “the hearer of prayer,” and the eagle-like Alala, the bridegroom of Istar and double of Tammuz, equally resolved into the god of Erech, it is plain that we have to do with an advanced stage of pantheism.

This monotheistic, or rather pantheistic, school of faith has been supposed by Sir Henry Rawlinson to have grown up at Eridu; but the fact that it centres round the name of Anu points rather to Erech as its birth-place. How long it flourished, or whether it extended beyond a narrow group of priestly thinkers, we have no means of ascertaining.

Assyrian bas-relief perhaps showing their warrior god Asshur as an Eagle, accompanying Assyrian warriors from the west palace at Nimroud, biblical Calah (p. 214. Austen Henry Layard. A Popular Account of Discoveries at Nineveh. London. John Murray. 1852).  http://www.bibleorigins.net/SundiscEagleAssyrian.html

Assyrian bas-relief perhaps showing their warrior god Asshur as an Eagle, accompanying Assyrian warriors from the west palace at Nimroud, biblical Calah (p. 214. Austen Henry Layard. A Popular Account of Discoveries at Nineveh. London. John Murray. 1852).
http://www.bibleorigins.net/SundiscEagleAssyrian.html

It is interesting, however, as showing that the same tendency which in Assyria exalted Assur to the position of an all-powerful deity who would brook neither opposition nor unbelief, among the more meditative Babylonians produced a crude system of pantheism.

Austen Henry Layard. A Popular Account of Discoveries At Nineveh. London. John Murray. 1852, p. 211. http://www.bibleorigins.net/Sundiscarcherdrawnbow.html

Austen Henry Layard. A Popular Account of Discoveries At Nineveh. London. John Murray. 1852, p. 211.
http://www.bibleorigins.net/Sundiscarcherdrawnbow.html

Whatever question there may be as to whether the pure and unmixed Semite is capable of originating a pantheistic form of faith, there can be little doubt about it where the Semite is brought into close contact with an alien race. The difference between the Assyrian and the Babylonian was the difference between the purer Semite and one in whose veins ran a copious stream of foreign blood.”

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. 190-2.

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