Conquering the Gods

by Estéban Trujillo de Gutiérrez

“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.

Austen Henry Layard. A Popular Account of Discoveries At Nineveh. London. John Murray. 1852, p. 211.

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.