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Category: Storm God

Zu, Thunder God, and the Tablets of Destiny

Zu was a storm-god symbolized in the form of a bird. He may typify the advancing storm-cloud, which would have seemed to those of old as if hovering like a great bird above the land which it was about to strike. The North-American Indians possess such a mythological conception in the Thunder-bird, and it is probable that the great bird called roc, so well known to readers of the Arabian Nights, was a similar monster—perhaps the descendant of the Zu-bird.

Zu or Anzu (from An 'heaven' and Zu 'to know' in Sumerian), as a lion-headed eagle, ca. 2550–2500 BCE, Louvre.  Votive relief of Ur-Nanshe, king of Lagash, representing the bird-god Anzu (or Im-dugud) as a lion-headed eagle.  Alabaster, Early Dynastic III (2550–2500 BCE). Found in Telloh, ancient city of Girsu. H. 21.6 cm (8 ½ in.), W. 15.1 cm (5 ¾ in.), D. 3.5 cm (1 ¼ in.)

Zu or Anzu (from An ‘heaven’ and Zu ‘to know’ in Sumerian), as a lion-headed eagle, ca. 2550–2500 BCE, Louvre.
Votive relief of Ur-Nanshe, king of Lagash, representing the bird-god Anzu (or Im-dugud) as a lion-headed eagle.
Alabaster, Early Dynastic III (2550–2500 BCE). Found in Telloh, ancient city of Girsu. H. 21.6 cm (8 ½ in.), W. 15.1 cm (5 ¾ in.), D. 3.5 cm (1 ¼ in.)

We remember how this enormous creature descended upon the ship in which Sindbad sailed and carried him off. Certain it is that we can trace the roc or rukh to the Persian simurgh, which is again referable to a more ancient Persian form, the amru or sinamru, the bird of immortality, and we may feel sure that what is found in ancient Persian lore has some foundation in Babylonian belief.

The Zu-bird was evidently under the control of the sun, and his attempt to break away from the solar authority is related in the following legend.

It is told of the god Zu that on one occasion ambition awaking in his breast caused him to cast envious eyes on the power and sovereignty of Bel, so that he determined to purloin the Tablets of Destiny, which were the tangible symbols of Bel’s greatness.

At this time, it may be recalled, the Tablets of Destiny had already an interesting history behind them. We are told in the creation legend how Apsu, the primeval, and Tiawath, chaos, the first parents of the gods, afterward conceived a hatred for their offspring, and how Tiawath, with her monster-brood of snakes and vipers, dragons and scorpion-men and raging hounds, made war on the hosts of heaven.

Her son Kingu she made captain of her hideous army—

To march before the forces, to lead the host,
To give the battle-signal, to advance to the attack,
To direct the battle, to control the fight.

To him she gave the Tablets of Destiny, laying them on his breast with the words:

“Thy command shall not be without avail, and the word of thy mouth shall be established.”

Through his possession of the divine tablets Kingu received the power of Anu, and was able to decree the fate of the gods.

After several deities had refused the honour of becoming champion of heaven, Merodach was chosen. He succeeded at length in slaying Tiawath and destroying her evil host; and having vanquished Kingu, her captain, he took from him the Tablets of Destiny, which he sealed and laid on his own breast. It was this Merodach, or Marduk, who afterward became identified with Bel.

The Zu Bird appears to dominate the top of this bas relief, while the head of the figure on the right is missing, common vandalism committed by grave robbers: defacing the heads and the eyes of idols crippled their efficacy.

The Zu Bird appears to dominate the top of this bas relief, while the head of the figure on the right is missing, common vandalism committed by grave robbers: defacing the heads and the eyes of idols crippled their efficacy.

Now Zu, in his greed for power and dominion, was eager to obtain the potent symbols. He beheld the honour and majesty of Bel, and from contemplation of these he turned to look upon the Tablets of Destiny, saying within himself :

“Lo, I will possess the tablets of the gods, and all things shall be subject unto me. The spirits of heaven shall bow before me, the oracles of the gods shall lie in my hands. I shall wear the crown, symbol of sovereignty, and the robe, symbol of godhead, and then shall I rule over all the hosts of heaven.”

Thus inflamed, he sought the entrance to Bel’s hall, where he awaited the dawn of day. The text goes on :

Now when Bel was pouring out the clear water, (i.e. the light of day?)
And his diadem was taken off and lay upon the throne,
(Zu) seized the Tablets of Destiny,
He took Bel’s dominion, the power of giving commands.
Then Zu fled away and hid himself in his mountain.

Bel was greatly enraged at the theft, and all the gods with him. Anu, lord of heaven, summoned about him his divine sons, and asked for a champion to recover the tablets. But though the god Ramman was chosen, and after him several other deities, they all refused to advance against Zu.

The end of the legend is unfortunately missing, but from a passage in another tale, the legend of Etana, we gather that it was the sun-god, Shamash, who eventually stormed the mountain-stronghold of Zu, and with his net succeeded in capturing the presumptuous deity.

This legend is of the Prometheus type, but whereas Prometheus (once a bird-god) steals fire from heaven for the behoof of mankind, Zu steals the Tablets of Destiny for his own. These must, of course, be regained if the sovereignty of heaven is duly to continue, and to make the tale circumstantial the sun-god is provided with a fowler’s net with which to capture the recalcitrant Zu-bird.

Jastrow believes the myth to have been manufactured for the purpose of showing how the tablets of power were originally lost by the older Bel and gained by Merodach, but he has discounted the reference in the Etana legend relating to their recovery.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 193-5.

Lady Ishtar, Goddess

Ishtar was undoubtedly a goddess of Semitic origin and symbolized the fertility of the earth. She was the great mother’ who fostered all vegetation and agriculture.

It is probable that her cult originated at Erech, and in the course of centuries and under many nominal changes dispersed itself throughout the length and breadth of western Asia and even into Greece and Egypt. It is probable that a number of lesser goddesses, such as Nana and Anunit, may have become merged in the conception of this divinity, and that lesser local deities of the same character as herself may have taken her name and assisted to swell her reputation.

She is frequently addressed as ‘mother of the gods,’ and indeed the name ‘Ishtar’ became a generic designation for ‘goddess.’ But these were later honours. When her cult centred at Erech, it appears to have speedily blossomed out in many directions, and, as has been said, lesser cults probably eagerly identified themselves with that of the great earth-mother, so that in time her worship became more than a Babylonian cult.

Indeed, wherever people of Semitic speech were to be found, there was the worship of Ishtar. As Ashteroth, or Astarte, she was known to Canaanites, Phoenicians, and Greeks, and there is some likelihood that the cult of Aphrodite had also its beginnings in that of Ishtar. We shall enquire later whether she can be the Esther of the Scriptures.

Astrologically she was identified with the planet Venus, but so numerous were the attributes surrounding her taken from other goddesses with which she had become identified that they threatened to overshadow her real character, which was that of the great and fertile mother. More especially did her identification with Nin-lil, the consort of En-lil, the storm-god, threaten to alter her real nature, as in this guise she was regarded as a goddess of war.

It is seldom that a goddess of fertility or love achieves such a distinction. Gods possessing an agricultural significance are nearly always war-gods, but that is because they bring the fertilizing thunder-clouds and therefore possess the lightning arrow or spear. But Ishtar is specifically a goddess of the class of Persephone or Isis, and her identification with battle must be regarded as purely accidental.

In later times in Assyria she was conceived as the consort of Asshur, head of the Assyrian pantheon, in days when a god or goddess who did not breathe war was of little use to a people like the Assyrians, who were constantly employed in hostilities, and this circumstance naturally heightened her reputation as a warlike divinity.

But it is at present her original character with which we are occupied, indeed in some texts we find that, so far from being able to protect herself, Ishtar and her property are made the prey of the savage En-lil, the storm-god.

“His word sent me forth,” she complains; “as often as it comes to me it casts me prostrate upon my face. The unconsecrated foe entered my courts, placed his unwashed hands upon me, and caused me to tremble. Putting forth his hand he smote me with fear. He tore away my robe and clothed his wife therein : he stripped off my jewels and placed them upon his daughter. Like a quivering dove upon a beam I sat. Like a fleeing bird from my cranny swiftly I passed. From my temple like a bird they caused me to fly.”

Such is the plaint of Ishtar, who in this case appears to be quite helpless before the enemy.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 123-5.

An Underworld Love Story

“The Persephone of the Babylonian Underworld was Eresh-ki-gal, who was also called Allatu. A myth, which was found among the Egyptian Tel-el-Amarna Letters, sets forth that on one occasion the Babylonian gods held a feast.

All the deities attended it, except Eresh-ki-gal. She was unable to leave her gloomy Underworld, and sent her messenger, the plague demon Namtar, to obtain her share.

The various deities honoured Namtar, except Nergal, by standing up to receive him. When Eresh-ki-gal was informed of this slight she became very angry, and demanded that Nergal should be delivered up to her so that he might be put to death.

The storm god at once hastened to the Underworld, accompanied by his own group of fierce demons, whom he placed as guardians at the various doors so as to prevent the escape of Eresh-ki-gal.

Then he went boldly towards the goddess, clutched her by the hair, and dragged her from her throne.

After a brief struggle, she found herself overpowered. Nergal made ready to cut off her head, but she cried for mercy and said: “Do not kill me, my brother! Let me speak to thee.”

This appeal indicated that she desired to ransom her life–like the hags in the European folk tales–so Nergal unloosed his hold.

Then Eresh-ki-gal continued: “Be thou my husband and I will be thy wife. On thee I confer sovereignty over the wide earth, giving thee the tablet of wisdom. Thou shalt be my lord and I will be thy lady.”

Nergal accepted these terms by kissing the goddess. Affectionately drying her tears, he spoke, saying: “Thou shalt now have from me what thou hast demanded during these past months.”

In other words, Nergal promises to honour her as she desired, after becoming her husband and equal.”

Donald A. Mackenzie, Myths of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915.

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