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Category: Oracle

Augury Through the Flights of Birds and the Voice of the Thunder

“The divine storm-bird,” however, who invested himself by stealth with the attributes of Mul-lil, and carried the knowledge of futurity to mankind, served to unite the two species of augury which read the future in the flight of birds and the flash of the lightning.

The first species was but a branch of the general pseudo-science which discovered coming events from the observation of animals and their actions, while the second species was closely allied to the belief that in the thunder men heard the voice of the gods. The old belief marked its impress upon Hebrew as well as upon Assyro-Babylonian thought.

“The voice of thy thunder was in the whirlwind,” says the Psalmist; and nothing can show more clearly what must once have been the Canaanitish faith than the poetic imagery of another Psalm (xxix.):

“The voice of the Lord is upon the waters;

the God of glory thundereth;

the Lord is upon many waters.

The voice of the Lord is powerful;

the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.

The voice of the Lord breaketh the cedars;

yea, the Lord breaketh the cedars of Lebanon. …

The voice of the Lord shaketh the wilderness;

the Lord shaketh the wilderness of Kadesh.

The voice of the Lord maketh the hinds to calve, and discovereth the forests.”

In the Talmud, “the voice of the Lord” has become the bath qôl, or “daughter of the voice,” a supernatural message from heaven which sometimes proceeded from the Holy of Holies, sometimes, like the δαιμονιον of Socrates, assumed the form of an intuition directing the recipient as to his course in life.

This prophetic voice of heaven was heard in the thunder by the Accadians as well as by the Semites. I have already noticed that the Accadians believed the sounds of nature to be divine voices, from which the initiated could derive a knowledge of the future.

At Eridu it was more especially the roar of the sea in which the Sumerian priest listened to the revelations of his deities, and this perhaps was the oracle through which Oannes had spoken to men. In the rival city of northern Babylonia, where the supreme god presided over the realm of the dead, and not over the waters of the sea, the divine voice came to men in the thunder.

By the side of Mul-lil, the lord of the ghost-world, stood Mul-me-sarra (Wül-mö-sára), “the lord of the voice of the firmament.” Mul-me-sarra, in fact, was but Mul-lil himself in another form, and hence, as lord of Hades, was the author, not only of the thunder, but of subterranean noises as well.”

A.H. Sayce, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by the Religion of the Ancient Babylonians, 5th ed., London, 1898, 299-300.

The Tree of Life = The Tree of Knowledge

“But the cedar was something more than a world-tree. It was employed, as we have seen, in incantations and magic rites which were intended to restore strength and life to the human frame. It was thus essentially “a tree of life,” and the prototype and original of those conventional trees of Iife with which the walls of the Assyrian paiaces were adorned.

Stone relief from the throne room of Ashurnasirpal II. Nimrud (ancient Kalhu), northern Iraq. Neo-Assyrian, 870–860 BC. This Assyrian relief is from the throne room of the North-West Palace of Ashurnasirpal II (reigned 883-859 BC) at Nimrud in northern Iraq. It was originally positioned behind the king’s throne. Ashurnasirpal appears twice, shown from two sides, dressed in ritual robes and holding a mace symbolising his authority. The figure of the king on the right makes a gesture of worship to a god in a winged disk in the top centre of the relief.  The source of the king’s power may be Ashur, the national god, or Shamash, the god of the sun and justice.  He holds a ring in one hand, an ancient Mesopotamian symbol of god-given kingship. The figure of the king on the left appears to gesture towards a Sacred Tree in the centre. This balanced combination of steams and foliage is a symbol of fertility and abundance given by the gods. Behind the king, on either side of the relief, is a winged protective spirit who blesses and purifies Ashurnasirpal using a cone-shaped object to sprinkle liquid from a ritual bucket. The relief thus summarises visually the main ideas of Assyrian kingship; he is the source of abundance provided by the gods. Ancient visitors approaching the enthroned king would have thus seen three royal figures, the living king facing them, and, on either side of him, two carved images showing Ashurnasirpal’s relationship with the gods.  Emerging from behind the king himself would be the Sacred-Tree. There was another almost identical relief opposite the main door of the throne room, and similar scenes occupied prominent positions in other Assyrian palaces. They were also embroidered on the royal clothes. J.E. Reade, Assyrian sculpture (London, The British Museum Press, 1983) Excavated by Austen Henry Layard, 1845-7 ME 124531, Room 7-8: Assyria: Nimrud http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/me/s/stone_throne_room_relief.aspx

Stone relief from the throne room of Ashurnasirpal II.
Nimrud (ancient Kalhu), northern Iraq. Neo-Assyrian, 870–860 BC.
This Assyrian relief is from the throne room of the North-West Palace of Ashurnasirpal II (reigned 883-859 BC) at Nimrud in northern Iraq. It was originally positioned behind the king’s throne.
Ashurnasirpal appears twice, shown from two sides, dressed in ritual robes and holding a mace symbolising his authority. The figure of the king on the right makes a gesture of worship to a god in a winged disk in the top centre of the relief.
The source of the king’s power may be Ashur, the national god, or Shamash, the god of the sun and justice.
He holds a ring in one hand, an ancient Mesopotamian symbol of god-given kingship. The figure of the king on the left appears to gesture towards a Sacred Tree in the centre. This balanced combination of steams and foliage is a symbol of fertility and abundance given by the gods.
Behind the king, on either side of the relief, is a winged protective spirit who blesses and purifies Ashurnasirpal using a cone-shaped object to sprinkle liquid from a ritual bucket. The relief thus summarises visually the main ideas of Assyrian kingship; he is the source of abundance provided by the gods.
Ancient visitors approaching the enthroned king would have thus seen three royal figures, the living king facing them, and, on either side of him, two carved images showing Ashurnasirpal’s relationship with the gods.
Emerging from behind the king himself would be the Sacred-Tree.
There was another almost identical relief opposite the main door of the throne room, and similar scenes occupied prominent positions in other Assyrian palaces. They were also embroidered on the royal clothes.
J.E. Reade, Assyrian sculpture (London, The British Museum Press, 1983)
Excavated by Austen Henry Layard, 1845-7
ME 124531, Room 7-8: Assyria: Nimrud
http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/me/s/stone_throne_room_relief.aspx

 Those who have visited the Assyrian collection of the British Museum will remember the curious form which it generally assumes, as well as the figures of the two cherubs which kneel or stand before it on either side. At times they are purely human; at other times they have the head of a hawk and hold a cone–the fruit of the cedar–over the tree by whose side they stand.

Alabaster relief from Nimroud, in the Louvre.  http://world-mysteries.com/mpl.htm

Alabaster relief from Nimroud, in the Louvre. The cone, or “fruit of the cedar,” is in the right hand of the eagle figure.
http://world-mysteries.com/mpl.htm

It is possible that, as time went on, another tree became confounded with the original tree of life. The palm was from the earliest period characteristic of Babylonia; and while its fruit seemed to be the stay and support of life, the wine made from it made “glad the heart of man.”

Date-wine was largely used, not only in Babylonian medicine, but in the religious and magical ceremonies of Babylonia as well. It is not at all improbable, therefore, that the later Babylonian tree of life, with its strange conventional form, was an amalgamation of two actual trees, the cedar and the palm.

Donald A. MacKenzie, Myths of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915, p. 340. http://www.sacred-texts.com/ane/mba/img/34000.jpg

Donald A. MacKenzie, Myths of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915, p. 340.
http://www.sacred-texts.com/ane/mba/img/34000.jpg

It is even possible that while one of them, the cedar, was primarily the sacred tree of Eridu, the other was originally the sacred tree of some other locality of Chaldea.

What gives some colour to this last suggestion is, that in later Babylonian belief the tree of life and the tree of knowledge were one and the same.

The text which describes the initiation of a soothsayer associates the cedar with “the treasures of Anu, Bel and Ea, the tablets of the gods, the delivering of the oracle of heaven and earth.” It was upon the heart or core of the cedar, too, that the name of Ea, the god of wisdom, was inscribed.

And it was wisdom rather than life, the knowledge of the secrets of heaven and the magical arts that benefit or injure, which the priesthood of Babylonia and the gods they worshipped kept jealously guarded.

Only the initiated were allowed to taste of its fruit. In this respect, consequently, there was a marked difference between the belief of the Babylonians and the account which we find in the earlier chapters of Genesis.”

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. 241-2.

The Assassination of Sargon

Thus “Sargon the Later” entered at length into full possession of the empire of Sargon of Akkad. In Babylonia he posed as an incarnation of his ancient namesake, and had similarly Messianic pretensions which were no doubt inspired by the Babylonian priesthood. Under him Assyria attained its highest degree of splendour.

He recorded proudly not only his great conquests but also his works of public utility: he restored ancient cities, irrigated vast tracts of country, fostered trade, and promoted the industries. Like the pious Pharaohs of Egypt he boasted that he fed the hungry and protected the weak against the strong.

” … Sargon found time during his strenuous career as a conqueror to lay out and build a new city, called Dur-Sharrukin, “the burgh of Sargon,” to the north of Nineveh. It was completed before he undertook the Babylonian campaign. The new palace was occupied in 708 B.C. Previous to that period he had resided principally at Kalkhi, in the restored palace of Ashur-natsir-pal III.

He was a worshipper of many gods. Although he claimed to have restored the supremacy of Ashur “which had come to an end,” he not only adored Ashur but also revived the ancient triad of Anu, Bel, and Ea, and fostered the growth of the immemorial “mother-cult” of Ishtar.

Before he died he appointed one of his sons, Sennacherib, viceroy of the northern portion of the empire. He was either assassinated at a military review or in some frontier war. As much is suggested by the following entry in an eponym list.

Eponymy of Upahhir-belu, prefect of the city of Amedu …

According to the oracle of the Kulummite(s)…. A soldier

(entered) the camp of the king of Assyria (and killed him?), month

Ab, day 12th, Sennacherib (sat on the throne).

The fact that Sennacherib lamented his father’s sins suggests that the old king had in some manner offended the priesthood. Perhaps, like some of the Middle Empire monarchs, he succumbed to the influence of Babylon during the closing years of his life.

It is stated that “he was not buried in his house,” which suggests that the customary religious rites were denied him, and that his lost soul was supposed to be a wanderer which had to eat offal and drink impure water like the ghost of a pauper or a criminal.”

Donald A. Mackenzie, Myths of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915, pp. 462-4.

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