The Sacred Books of Chaldea and the Long Shadow Cast by Francois Lenormant

by Esteban

“To François Lenormant, whose untimely death was an irreparable loss to the progress of Assyrian research, belongs the merit of first describing and defining the sacred books of ancient Babylonia.

With the keenness of perception that characterised him, he pointed out two main collections of Babylonian sacred texts; one containing magic incantations and exorcisms; the other, hymns to the gods.

The magical texts obviously belong to an earlier and less advanced stage of religious belief than the hymns; they presuppose, in fact, a sort of Shamanism, according to which each object and power of nature has its zi or “spirit,” which can be propitiated only by a sorcerer-priest and certain magical rites; while the hymns, on the other hand, introduce us to a world of gods, and their language from time to time approaches a high level of spiritual expression.

The collection of hymns Lenormant very happily named the Chaldean Rig-Veda, and to them he subsequently added a third collection, consisting of penitential psalms which in many respects resemble the psalms of the Old Testament.

All three collections are generally composed in both Accadian and Semitic Babylonian, the Semitic Babylonian being a translation of the presumably older Accadian text which is written line by line above it.

It was natural to suppose that what has happened in the case of other sacred books happened also in Babylonia; that the magical texts were first collected together, the collection subsequently acquiring a sacred character; and that a similar process took place in the case of the hymns.

The whole work would have been complete before the culture and literature of the Accadians were handed on to the Semites: in this way the preservation of the Accadian originals would be accounted for, the very words of the primitive documents and their correct pronunciation having come to be looked upon as sacred and inspired; while the Semitic interlinear translation served, like the Aramaic Targums of the Old Testament, to assist the priests in understanding the object of their recitations.

As time went on, the religious beliefs which underlay the magical texts became so far removed from those of a later age that the texts themselves gradually passed into the background, the collection of hymns taking more and more their place as pre-eminently the Babylonian Bible.

The theory as thus stated is at once simple and probable. But although in its main outlines it is no doubt correct, further research has shown that its simplicity is due to the imperfection of the materials upon which Lenormant had to work, and that it will have to be very considerably modified before all the facts now known to us are accounted for.

In the first place, there are numerous magical texts which are later, and not older, than many of the hymns. Nothing is more common than to find a magical text breaking off into a hymn or a fragment of a hymn the recitation of which forms part of the spell or ceremony.

A large number of the hymns that have come down to us are thus embedded in the magical documents of which they form an integral part. The hymn to the seven evil spirits, for instance, quoted in a former Lecture, is really a portion of one of the most famous of the magicaI texts.

In such instances there can be no question that the hymn is older than the text in which it is found. Moreover, it is difficult to distinguish the hymns when used in this way from similar poetical addresses to divine beings, which, so far from being especially sacred, were employed as spells in medical practice.”

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. 315-7.