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A Babylonian Incantation

“In the hymns the mamit occupies a conspicuous place. Thus we read:

“0 curse, curse, the boundary that none can pass!

The limit of the gods (themselves) against which they may not transgress!

The limit of heaven and earth which altereth not!

The unique god against whom none may sin!

Neither god nor man can undo (it). A snare not to be passed through, which is set for evil.

Whether an evil utuk, or an evil alu, or an evil ekimmu, or an evil gallu, or an evil god, or an evil incubus, or a labartu, or a labatsu, or an akhkharu, or a lilu, or a lilat, or the maid of a lilu, or the evil plague-demon, or a disease-bringing asakku, or a bad sickness, which has set its head towards the dropping water of Ea, may the snare of Ea seize it! which has stretched its head against the wisps of Nirba (the Corn-god), may the lasso of Nirba bind it!

Against the limitation (of the curse) it has transgressed. Never may (the limitation) of the gods, the limitation of heaven and earth, depart from it. (The limitation of the great) gods it reverences not. May (the lasso of) the great gods bind it! May the great gods curse it! May they send back (the demon) to (his) home! The home of (his) habitation may they cause him to enter!

As for him who has turned to another place, to another place, a place invisible, may they bring him!

As for him who has turned into the gate of the house, the gate of a place from whence there is no exit may they cause him to enter! As for him who has stationed himself in the door and bolts, in the door and bolts may they hind him with bonds from which there is no release!

As for him who has blown (?) into the threshold and socket, who into threshold and hinge has crept, like water may they pour him out, like a cup may they shatter him, like a quarry-stone may they break him to pieces! As for him who has passed across the beam, his wings may they cut!

As for him who has thrust his neck into the chamber, may they twist his neck!”

H.C. Rawlinson, The Cuneiform Inscriptions of Western Asia, 1886, iv, 16, No. 1.

This is a fair sample of the incantations by means of which the Babylonians believed that they could free themselves from the demoniac agencies that surrounded them. The power of the mamit was such that the gods themselves could not transgress it, and the mamit was accordingly invoked to protect the mortal from the demons of plague and sickness.

But the plague itself might be regarded as a mamit or “doom” inflicted by heaven upon the guilty earth.”

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. 307-9.

The Zodiacal Organization of the Gilgamesh Epic

“The doctrine of the necessity for ministering to the dead is here enunciated in no uncertain fashion.

Unless their bodies are decently buried and offerings of food and drink made at their graves, their lives in the otherworld must be abjectly miserable. The manner in which they meet their end is likewise taken into account, and warriors who have fallen on the field of battle are pre-eminently fortunate.

Eabani is evidently one of the ‘happy’ spirits; his ghost is designated utukku, a name applied not only to the fortunate dead, but likewise to a class of beneficent supernatural beings.

The term edimmu, on the other hand, designates a species of malevolent being as well as the errant and even vampirish spirits of the unhappy dead. The due observance of funeral and commemorative rites is thus a matter which touches the interests not only of the deceased but also of his relatives and friends.

We have seen from the foregoing that the epic of Gilgamesh is partly historical, partly mythological. Around the figure of a great national hero myths have grown and twined with the passing of the generations, and these have in time become woven into a connected narrative, setting forth a myth which corresponds to the daily or annual course of the sun.

Within this may be discerned other myths and fragments of myths—solar, seasonal, and diluvian.

But there is in the epic another important element which has already been referred to—the astro-theological. The zodiacal significance of the division of the epic into twelve tablets may be set aside, since, as has been indicated, the significance is in all probability a superficial one merely, added to the poem by the scribes of Assur-bani-pal, and not forming an integral part of it.

At the same time it is not hard to divide the epic naturally into twelve episodes, thus:

  1. Gilgamesh’s oppression of Erech;
  2. the seduction of Eabani;
  3. the slaying of the monster Khumbaba;
  4. the wooing of Ishtar;
  5. the fight with the sacred bull;
  6. Eabani’s death;
  7. Gilgamesh’s journey to the Mountain of the Sunset;
  8. his wanderings in the region of thick darkness;
  9. the crossing of the waters of death;
  10. the deluge-story;
  11. the plant of life;
  12. the return of Eabani’s spirit.

Throughout the epic there are indications of a correspondence between the exploits of the hero and the movements of heavenly bodies.

It is possible, for instance, that Gilgamesh and his friend Eabani had some relation to the sign Gemini, also associated in ancient Chaldean mythology with two forms of the solar deity, even as were the hero and his friend.

The sign Leo recalls the slaying of Khumbaba, the allegorical victory of light over darkness, represented on monuments by the figure of a lion (symbol of fire) fighting with a bull.

Following the sign of Leo, the wooing of the hero by the goddess Ishtar falls naturally into the sign of Virgo, the virgin. The sign of Taurus is represented by the slaying of the celestial bull, Alu, by Gilgamesh.

The journey of the hero to Mashu and his encounter with the scorpion-men at the gate of the sunset are, of course, mythological representations of the sign of Scorpio, as are also his wanderings in the region of thick darkness.

It is noticeable in this respect that Babylonian astrology often doubled the eighth sign (Scorpio) to provide a seventh; it is therefore not unlikely that this sign should correspond with two distinct episodes in the poem.

The first of these episodes is associated with Scorpio by virtue of the introduction of scorpion-men; and the second, on the assumption that the scorpion is symbolical of darkness.

Perhaps the sea-goddess Sabitu is associated astrologically with the fish-tailed goat which is the conventional representation of Capricornus.

Then the placing of the deluge-story in the XIth tablet, corresponding with the eleventh sign of the zodiac, Aquarius, the water-bearer, is evidently in keeping with the astrological aspect of the epic.

Chaldean mythology connected the rainy eleventh month with the deluge, just as the first month of spring was associated mythologically with the creation.

The healing of Gilgamesh’s sickness by Ut-Napishtim may possibly symbolise the revival of the sun after leaving the winter solstice.

Lastly, the sign of Pisces, the twelfth sign of the zodiac, corresponding to the return of Eabani from the underworld, and perhaps also to the restoration of Gilgamesh to Erech, is emblematic of life after death, and of the resumption of ordinary conditions after the deluge.

It has been suggested, though without any very definite basis, that the epic was first put together before the zodiac was divided into twelve—that is, more than two thousand years before the Christian era.

Its antiquity, however, rests on other grounds than these. In later times the Babylonian astrological system became very complicated and important, and so lent its colour to the epic that, whatever the original plan of that work may have been, its astral significance became at length its most popular aspect.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 181-3.

Gilgamesh and Eabani Kill the Bull of Heaven

“To resume the tale: In her wrath and humiliation Ishtar appealed to her father and mother, Anu and Anatu, and begged the former to create a mighty bull and send it against Gilgamesh.

Anu at first demurred, declaring that if he did so it would result in seven years’ sterility on the earth; but finally he consented, and a great bull, Alu, was sent to do battle with Gilgamesh.

The portion of the text which deals with the combat is much mutilated, but it appears that the conflict was hot and sustained, the celestial animal finally succumbing to a sword-thrust from Gilgamesh. Ishtar looks on in impotent anger.

“Then Ishtar went up on to the wall of strong-walled Erech; she mounted to the top and she uttered a curse, (saying),

‘Cursed be Gilgamesh, who has provoked me to anger, and has slain the bull from heaven.’”

Then Eabani incurs the anger of the deity —“

When Eabani heard these words of Ishtar, he tore out the entrails of the bull, and he cast them before her, saying,

‘As for thee, I will conquer thee, and I will do to thee even as I have done to him.’”

Ishtar was beside herself with rage. Gilgamesh and his companion dedicated the great horns of the bull to the sun-god, and having washed their hands in the river Euphrates, returned once more to Erech. As the triumphal procession passed through the city the people came out of their houses to do honour to the heroes.

The remainder of the tablet is concerned with a great banquet given by Gilgamesh to celebrate his victory over the bull Alu, and with further visions of Eabani.

The Vllth and VlIIth tablets are extremely fragmentary, and so much of the text as is preserved is open to various readings. It is possible that to the Vllth tablet belongs a description of the underworld given to Eabani in a dream by the temple-maiden Ukhut, whom he had cursed in a previous tablet, and who had since died.

The description answers to that given in another ancient text—the myth of Ishtar’s descent into Hades—and evidently embodies the popular belief concerning the underworld.

“Come, descend with me to the house of darkness, the abode of Irkalla, to the house whence the enterer goes not forth, to the path whose way has no return, to the house whose dwellers are deprived of light, where dust is their nourishment and earth their food. They are clothed, like the birds, in a garment of feathers; they see not the light, they dwell in darkness.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 168-70.

The Demons Named

” … The existence of several elaborate incantation series in Ashurbanapal’s library, prescribing a large number of formulas to be recited in connection with symbolical rites to get rid of the demons, furnishes the proof for the practical significance attached to incantations in both Babylonia and Assyria.

These series, Babylonian in origin, revert to Sumerian prototypes and represent compilations stretching over a long period, with additions intended to adapt them to conditions prevailing in Assyria.

The scribes of Ashurbanapal were not indulging in a purely academic exercise in copying the archives of Babylonian temples ; their purpose, as was also the aim of the king, was to make Nineveh the central religious authority as well as the political mistress by having in their control the accumulated experience of the past, in dealing with the religious needs and problems of their own age.

A feature which these incantation series [1] have in common is the recognition of a large number of demons, with special functions assigned in many cases to the one class or the other.

So, for example, there is a demon Labartu, represented as a horrible monster with swine sucking at her breasts, [2] who threatens the life of the mother at childbirth; a group known as Ashakku who cause varieties of wasting diseases, another demon Ti’u, whose special function was to cause diseases, manifesting themselves by headaches accompanied by fever, and so on through a long list. It will be apparent that there is no differentiation between the demon and the disease. The one is the synonym of the other, and accordingly in medical texts the demons are introduced as the designations of the diseases themselves.

The names given to the demons in many cases convey the “strength” or “size” ascribed to them, such as Utukku, Alu, Shedu, Gallu, or they embody a descriptive epithet like AkKkhazu, “seizer” (also the name of a form of jaundice); ‘Eabisu, the one lying-in-wait; Labasu, “overthrower”; Lilu and the feminine Lilitu, “night-spirit;” Etimmu, ghost or shade, suggesting an identification of some demons with the dead who return to plague the living, Namtar, “pestilence,” and more the like.

The descriptions given of them, cruel, horrible of aspect, blood-thirsty, flying through space, generally invisible though sometimes assuming human or animal shape or a mixture of the two, further illustrate the conceptions popularly held.”

Morris Jastrow, The Civilization of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915, pp. 241-3.

Lilith

“Some of the supernatural beings resemble our elves and fairies and the Indian Rakshasas. Occasionally they appear in comely human guise; at other times they are vaguely monstrous. The best known of this class is Lilith, who, according to Hebrew tradition, preserved in the Talmud, was the demon lover of Adam. She has been immortalized by Dante Gabriel Rossetti:

Of Adam’s first wife Lilith, it is told

(The witch he loved before the gift of Eve)

That, ere the snake’s, her sweet tongue could deceive,

And her enchanted hair was the first gold.

And still she sits, young while the earth is old,

And, subtly of herself contemplative,

Draws men to watch the bright web she can weave,

heart and body and life are in its hold.

The rose and poppy are her flowers; for where

Is he not found, O Lilith, whom shed scent

And soft shed kisses and soft sleep shall snare?

Lo! as that youth’s eyes burned at thine, so went

Thy spell through him, and left his straight neck bent

And round his heart one strangling golden hair.

Lilith is the Babylonian Lilithu, a feminine form of Lilu, the Sumerian Lila. She resembles Surpanakha of the Ramayana, who made love to Rama and Lakshmana, and the sister of the demon Hidimva, who became enamoured of Bhima, one of the heroes of the Mahabharata, and the various fairy lovers of Europe who lured men to eternal imprisonment inside mountains, or vanished for ever when they were completely under their influence, leaving them demented.

The elfin Lilu similarly wooed young women, like the Germanic Laurin of the “Wonderful Rose Garden,” who carried away the fair lady Kunhild to his underground dwelling amidst the Tyrolese mountains, or left them haunting the place of their meetings, searching for him in vain:

A savage place! as holy and enchanted

As ere beneath the waning moon was haunted

By woman wailing for her demon lover…

His flashing eyes, his floating hair!

Weave a circle round him thrice,

And close your eyes with holy dread,

For he on honey dew hath fed

And drunk the milk of Paradise.

Coleridge’s Kubla Khan.

Another materializing spirit of this class was Ardat Lili, who appears to have wedded human beings like the swan maidens, the mermaids, and Nereids of the European folk tales, and the goddess Ganga, who for a time was the wife of King Shantanu of the Mahabharata.

The Labartu, to whom we have referred, was a female who haunted mountains and marshes; like the fairies and hags of Europe, she stole or afflicted children, who accordingly had to wear charms round their necks for protection. Seven of these supernatural beings were reputed to be daughters of Anu, the sky god.

The Alu, a storm deity, was also a spirit which caused nightmare. It endeavoured to smother sleepers like the Scandinavian hag Mara, and similarly deprived them of power to move. In Babylonia this evil spirit might also cause sleeplessness or death by hovering near a bed. In shape it might be as horrible and repulsive as the Egyptian ghosts which caused children to die from fright or by sucking out the breath of life.”

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

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