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Babylon: Imperial Polytheism

“As long, however, as these multitudinous deities were believed to exist, so long was it also believed that they could injure or assist. Hence come such expressions as those which meet us in the Penitential Psalms, “To the god that is known and that is unknown, to the goddess that is known and that is unknown, do I lift my prayer.”

Hence, too, the care with which the supreme Baal was invoked as “lord of the hosts of heaven and earth,” since homage paid to the master was paid to the subjects as well.

Hence, finally, the fact that the temples of the higher gods, like the Capitol at Rome, became gathering places for the inferior divinities, and counterparts on the earth of “the assembly of the gods” in heaven.

That curious product of Mandaite imagination, the Book of Nabathean Agriculture, which was translated into Arabic by Ibn Wahshiya in the 10th century, sets before us a curious picture of the temple of Tammuz in Babylon.

“The images (of the gods),” it tells us,

“congregated from all parts of the world to the temple of el-Askûl (Ê-Sagil) in Babylon, and betook themselves to the temple (haikal) of the Sun, to the great golden image that is suspended between heaven and earth in particular.

The image of the sun stood, they say, in the midst of the temple, surrounded by all the images of the world. Next to it stood the images of the sun in all countries; then those of the moon; next those of Mars; after them the images of Mercury; then those of Jupiter; next of Venus; and last of all, of Saturn.

Thereupon the image of the sun began to bewail Tammuz and the idols to weep; and the image of the sun uttered a lament over Tammuz and narrated his history, whilst the idols all wept from the setting of the sun till its rising at the end of that night. Then the idols flew away, returning to their own countries.”

The details are probably borrowed from the great temple of pre-Mohammedan Mecca, but they correspond very faithfully with what we now know the interior of one of the chief temples of Babylonia and Assyria to have been like.

Fragments have been preserved to us of a tablet which enumerated the names of the minor deities whose images stood in the principal temples of Assyria, attending like servants upon the supreme god.

Among them are the names of foreign divinities, to whom the catholic spirit of Babylonian religion granted a place in the national pantheon when once the conquest of the towns and countries over which they presided had proved their submission to the Babylonian and Assyrian gods; even Khaldis, the god of Ararat, figures among those who dwelt in one of the chief temples of Assyria, and whose names were invoked by the visitor to the shrine.

Ḫaldi was the chief deity of the Ararat (Urartu) pantheon. His shrine at Ardini (likely from Armenian Artin), was in Akkadian Muṣaṣir (Exit of the Serpent/Snake).  Of all the gods of the Ararat (Urartu) pantheon, most inscriptions are dedicated to Khaldi or Hayk (Armenian: Հայկ) or Hayg, also known as Haik Nahapet (Հայկ Նահապետ, Hayk the Tribal Chief), the legendary patriarch of the Armenian nation.  He is portrayed as a man standing on a lion. The kings of Urartu prayed to Khaldi for victory in battle. Temples dedicated to Khaldi were adorned with weapons. https://aratta.wordpress.com/2014/10/25/kaldikali-hel/

Ḫaldi was the chief deity of the Ararat (Urartu) pantheon. His shrine at Ardini (likely from Armenian Artin), was in Akkadian Muṣaṣir (Exit of the Serpent/Snake).
Of all the gods of the Ararat (Urartu) pantheon, most inscriptions are dedicated to Khaldi or Hayk (Armenian: Հայկ) or Hayg, also known as Haik Nahapet (Հայկ Նահապետ, Hayk the Tribal Chief), the legendary patriarch of the Armenian nation.
He is portrayed as a man standing on a lion.
The kings of Urartu prayed to Khaldi for victory in battle. Temples dedicated to Khaldi were adorned with weapons.
https://aratta.wordpress.com/2014/10/25/kaldikali-hel/

The spectacle of such a temple, with the statue or symbol of the supreme Baal rising majestically in the innermost cell, and delivering his oracles from within the hidden chamber of that holy of holies, while the shrines of his wife and offspring were grouped around him, and the statues of ministering deities stood slave-like in front, was a fitting image of Babylonian religion.

“The gods many and lords many” of an older creed still survived, but they had become the jealously-defined officials of an autocratic court. The democratic polytheism of an earlier day had become imperial.

Bel was the counterpart of his vicegerent the Babylonian king, with this difference, that whereas Babylonia had been fused into an united monarchy, the hierarchy of the gods still acknowledged more than one head.

How long Anu and Ea, or Samas and Sin, would have continued to share with Merodach the highest honours of the official cult, we cannot say; the process of degradation had already begun when Babylonia ceased to be an independent kingdom and Babylon the capital of an empire.

Merodach remained a supreme Baal–the cylinder inscription of Cyrus proves so much–but he never became the one supreme 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. 217-20.

Sala of the Copper Hand = Ishtar, Evening Star

Rimmon, accordingly, among the Babylonians and Assyrians, is the god of winds and cloud, of thunder and lightning, of storm and rain; he is the inundator who is called upon to cover the fields of the impious and unjust with water, and to pour his refreshing streams into a thirsty land.

His wife went by the Accadian name of Sala, “the merciful” (?). As her husband had been identified with “the lord of the mountain,” so she too was identified with “the lady of the mountain,” to whom Gudea had built a temple at Tel-loh.

As “lady of the mountain,” however, she was more strictly the consort of the Sun-god of Eridu; and a mythological tablet speaks accordingly of a “Sala of the mountains, the wife of Merodach.”

It is to Zarpanit, the wife of Merodach, again, and not to Sala, that Nebuchadnezzar refers, when he tells us how he “built in Babylon the House Supreme, the temple of the lady of the mountain, for the exalted goddess, the mother who had borne” him. Sala and Zarpanit, therefore, must once have been one and the same divinity.

Sala was, furthermore, the “lady (or exalted lady) of the desert”–a title which brings to one’s recollection the similar title of Rimmon, as “the ever-glowing sun of the desert-land.”

It is under this title that she is addressed in a penitential psalm, where she is named, not Sala, but Gubára, “the fire-flame,” and associated with Mâtu (Matö), “the lord of the mountain.”

As the other deities invoked along with her are Ea and Dav-kina, Merodach and Zarpanit, Nebo and Tasmit, while the whole psalm is dedicated to Nana, the goddess of Erech, it is clear that the psalm is the composition of a worshipper of Nana and native of Erech, whose gods were the gods of Eridu and those who claimed kindred with them.

We may, therefore, see in the primitive Sala the female consort of the Sun-god of Eridu–the original, in fact, of the Babylonian Zarpanit, who became identified on the one side with the “lady of the mountain,” and on the other with the wife of Meri, the “bright firmament” of the starry sky.

Her name, Gubára, points to her solar connection, and makes it probable that she was not the moon–which does not seem to have been regarded as a goddess in any part of Babylonia–nor the dawn, but the evening and morning star.

This will explain why it is that she was known as the goddess of the mountains, over whose heights Venus arose and set, or as the mistress of wisdom and hidden treasure, or, again, as the goddess of the copper hand.

Other mythologies have stories of a solar hero whose hand has been cut off and replaced by one of gold and bronze, and it is in the light of such stories that the epithet must be explained.

(Note: H.C. Rawlinson, The Cuneiform Inscriptions of Western Asia, 1886, ii., 57, 35. The Sun-god Savitar is called “the golden-handed” in the Veda, a term explained in later Sanskrit literature by the statement that the hand of the god had been cut at a sacrifice and replaced by a golden one. The Teutonic Tyr is similarly one-handed, and the Keltic Nuad with the silver hand offers a close parallel to the Chaldean goddess with the copper hand.)

We are expressly told that Sala of the copper hand was the wife of Tammuz, the beautiful Sun-god of Eridu; and we know that Tammuz, the son of the River-god Ea, was the spouse of Ishtar, the evening star.

What wonder, then, that her later husband Rimmon should have become the Sun-god of the Syrians, whose untimely death was mourned in the plain of Jezreel, as the untimely death of his double, the Babylonian Tammuz, was mourned by the women of Phoenicia and Jerusalem?”

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. 209 -12.

More on the Babylonian Zodiac

“Jupiter, the largest of the planets, was identified with Merodach, head of the Babylonian pantheon. We find him exercising control over the other stars in the creation story under the name Nibir.

Ishtar was identified with Venus, Saturn with Ninib, Mars with Nergal, Mercury with Nabu. It is more than strange that gods with certain attributes should have become attached to certain planets in more countries than one, and this illustrates the deep and lasting influence which Semitic religious thought exercised over the Hellenic and Roman theological systems.

The connexion is too obvious and too exact not to be the result of close association. There are, indeed, hundreds of proofs to support such a theory. Who can suppose, for example, that Aphrodite is any other than Ishtar?

The Romans identified their goddess Diana with the patroness of Ephesus. There are, indeed, traces of direct relations of the Greek goddess with the moon, and she was also, like Ishtar, connected with the lower world and the sea.

The Greeks had numerous and flourishing colonies in Asia Minor in remote times, and these probably assisted in the dissemination of Asiatic and especially Babylonian lore.

The sun was regarded as the shepherd of the stars, and Nergal, the god of destruction and the underworld, as the “chief sheep,” probably because the ruddy nature of his light rendered him a most conspicuous object.

Anu is the Pole Star of the ecliptic, Bel the Pole Star of the equator, while Ea, in the southern heavens, was identified with a star in the constellation Argo.

Fixed stars were probably selected for them because of their permanent and elemental nature. The sun they represented as riding in a chariot drawn by horses, and we frequently notice that the figure representing the luminary on Greek vases and other remains wears the Phrygian cap, a typically Asiatic and non-Hellenic headdress, thus assisting proof that the idea of the sun as a charioteer possibly originated in Babylonia.

Lunar worship, or at least computation of time by the phases of the moon, frequently precedes the solar cult, and we find traces in Babylonian religion of the former high rank of the moon-god. The moon, for example, is not one of the flock of sheep under guidance of the sun. The very fact that the calendar was regulated by her movements was sufficient to prevent this.

Like the Red Indians and other primitive folk, the Babylonians possessed agricultural titles for each month, but these periods were also under the direct patronage of some god or gods.

Thus the first month, Nizan, is sacred to Anu and Bel; and the second, Iyar, to Ea. Siwan is devoted to Sin, and as we approach the summer season the solar gods are apportioned to various months.

The sixth month is sacred to Ishtar, and the seventh to Shamash, great god of the sun. Merodach rules over the eighth, and Nergal over the ninth month.

The tenth, curiously enough, is sacred to a variant of Nabu, to Anu, and to Ishtar. The eleventh month, very suitably, to Ramman, the god of storms, and the last month, Adar, falling within the rainy season, is presided over by the seven evil spirits.

Assyrian star map from Nineveh (K 8538). Counterclockwise from bottom: Sirius (Arrow), Pegasus + Andromeda (Field + Plough), [Aries], the Pleiades, Gemini, Hydra + Corvus + Virgo, Libra. Drawing by L.W.King with corrections by J.Koch. Neue Untersuchungen zur Topographie des Babilonischen Fixsternhimmels (Wiesbaden 1989), p. 56ff. http://doormann.tripod.com/asssky.htm

Assyrian star map from Nineveh (K 8538). Counterclockwise from bottom: Sirius (Arrow), Pegasus + Andromeda (Field + Plough), [Aries], the Pleiades, Gemini, Hydra + Corvus + Virgo, Libra. Drawing by L.W.King with corrections by J.Koch. Neue Untersuchungen zur Topographie des Babilonischen Fixsternhimmels (Wiesbaden 1989), p. 56ff.
http://doormann.tripod.com/asssky.htm

None of the goddesses received stellar honours. The names of the months were probably quite popular in origin.

Thus we find that

  • the first month was known as the ‘month of the Sanctuary,’
  • the third as the ‘period of brick-making,’
  • the fifth as the ‘fiery month,’
  • the sixth as the ‘month of the mission of Ishtar,’ referring to her descent into the realms of Allatu.
  • The fourth month was designated ‘scattering seed,’
  • the eighth that of the opening of dams,
  • and the ninth was entitled ‘copious fertility,’
  • while the eleventh was known as ‘destructive rain.’

We find in this early star-worship of the ancient Babylonians the common origin of religion and science. Just as magic partakes in some measure of the nature of real science (for some authorities hold that it is pseudo-scientific in origin) so does religion, or perhaps more correctly speaking, early science is very closely identified with religion.

 The Zodiac of Dendera (or “Dendara”), a stone diagram from an Egyptian temple dated to the mid-1st century BCE, depicts the twelve signs of the zodiac and the 36 Egyptian decans, and numerous other constellations and astronomical phenomena. The Hellenistic-era portrayal of the zodiac is dated to between June 15th and August 15th, 50 BCE based on astronomical data in the diagram.  The positions of planets in specific signs of the zodiac and eclipses that took place on March 7th, 51 BCE and September 25, 52 BCE are depicted. The Dendera Egyptian temple complex dates back to the 4th century BCE, during the rule of the last native Egyptian pharaoh Nectanebo II. It was renovated by later Hellenistic and Roman rulers. http://horoscopicastrologyblog.com/2007/05/24/the-zodiac-of-dendera/


The Zodiac of Dendera (or “Dendara”), a stone diagram from an Egyptian temple dated to the mid-1st century BCE, depicts the twelve signs of the zodiac and the 36 Egyptian decans, and numerous other constellations and astronomical phenomena.
The Hellenistic-era portrayal of the zodiac is dated to between June 15th and August 15th, 50 BCE based on astronomical data in the diagram. The positions of planets in specific signs of the zodiac and eclipses that took place on March 7th, 51 BCE and September 25, 52 BCE are depicted.
The Dendera Egyptian temple complex dates back to the 4th century BCE, during the rule of the last native Egyptian pharaoh Nectanebo II. It was renovated by later Hellenistic and Roman rulers.
http://horoscopicastrologyblog.com/2007/05/24/the-zodiac-of-dendera/

Thus we may believe that the religious interest in their early astronomy spurred the ancient star-gazers of Babylonia to acquire more knowledge concerning the motions of those stars and planets which they believed to be deities.

We find the gods so closely connected with ancient Chaldean astronomy as to be absolutely identified with it in every way. A number was assigned to each of the chief gods, which would seem to show that they were connected in some way with mathematical science.

Thus Ishtar’s number is fifteen; that of Sin, her father, is exactly double that. Anu takes sixty, and Bel and Ea represent fifty and forty. Ramman is identified with ten.

It would be idle in this place to attempt further to outline astrological science in Babylonia, concerning which our knowledge is vague and scanty. Much remains to be done in the way of research before anything more definite can be written about it, and many years may pass before the workers in this sphere are rewarded by the discovery of texts bearing on Chaldean star-lore.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 235-7.

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