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Tag: Assur-bani-pal

On Divination in Ancient Babylonia

“Divination as practised by means of augury was a rite of the first importance among the Babylonians and Assyrians. This was absolutely distinct from divination by astrology.

The favourite method of augury among the Chaldeans of old was that by examination of the liver of a slaughtered animal. It was thought that when an animal was offered up in sacrifice to a god that the deity identified himself for the time being with that animal, and that the beast thus afforded a means of indicating the wishes of the god.

Simulacrum of a sheep’s liver, inscribed with magical formulae for purposes of divination by the priests of Babylon.   Photo W. A. Mansell and Co. Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, London, 1917. P. 281. http://www.wisdomlib.org/uploads/images/clay-object.jpg

Simulacrum of a sheep’s liver, inscribed with magical formulae for purposes of divination by the priests of Babylon.
Photo W. A. Mansell and Co.
Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, London, 1917. P. 281.
http://www.wisdomlib.org/uploads/images/clay-object.jpg

Now among people in a primitive state of culture the soul is almost invariably supposed to reside in the liver instead of in the heart or brain. More blood is secreted by the liver than by any other organ in the body, and upon the opening of a carcase it appears the most striking, the most central, and the most sanguinary of the vital parts. The liver was, in fact, supposed by early peoples to be the fountain of the blood supply and therefore of life itself.

Hepatoscopy or divination from the liver was undertaken by the Chaldeans for the purpose of determining what the gods had in mind. The soul of the animal became for the nonce the soul of the god, therefore if the signs of the liver of the sacrificed animal could be read the mind of the god became clear, and his intentions regarding the future were known.

Divinatory clay liver models for training soothsayers.  The one in the middle foretells the destruction of small cities.  Baken clay, 19th–18th centuries BC, from the royal palace at Mari (now in Syria).  Louvre Museum  wikidata:Q19675 Department of Oriental Antiquities, Richelieu, ground floor, room 3 Accession number	AO 19837 Excavated by André Parrot, 1935–1936 Source/Photographer	Jastrow (2005) http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Divinatory_livers_Louvre_AO19837.jpg

Divinatory clay liver models for training soothsayers.
The one in the middle foretells the destruction of small cities.
Baken clay, 19th–18th centuries BC, from the royal palace at Mari (now in Syria).
Louvre Museum
wikidata:Q19675
Department of Oriental Antiquities, Richelieu, ground floor, room 3
Accession number AO 19837
Excavated by André Parrot, 1935–1936
Source/Photographer Jastrow (2005)
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Divinatory_livers_Louvre_AO19837.jpg

The animal usually sacrificed was a sheep, the liver of which animal is most complicated in appearance. The two lower lobes are sharply divided from one another and are separated from the upper by a narrow depression, and the whole surface is covered with markings and fissures, lines and curves which give it much the appearance of a map on which roads and valleys are outlined. This applies to the freshly excised liver only, and these markings are never the same in any two livers.

Certain priests were set apart for the practice of liver-reading, and these were exceedingly expert, being able to decipher the hepatoscopic signs with great skill. They first examined the gall-bladder, which might be reduced or swollen. They inferred various circumstances from the several ducts and the shapes and sizes of the lobes and their appendices. Diseases of the liver, too, particularly common among sheep in all countries, were even more frequent among these animals in the marshy portions of the Euphrates Valley.

The literature connected with this species of augury is very extensive, and Assur-bani-pal’s library contained thousands of fragments describing the omens deduced from the practice. These enumerate the chief appearances of the liver, as the shade of the colour of the gall, the length of the ducts, and so forth.

The lobes were divided into sections, lower, medial, and higher, and the interpretation varied from the phenomena therein observed. The markings on the liver possessed various names, such as ‘palaces,’ ‘weapons,’ ‘paths,’ and ‘feet,’ which terms remind us somewhat of the bizarre nomenclature of astrology.

Later in the progress of the art the various combinations of signs came to be known so well, and there were so many cuneiform texts in existence which afforded instruction in them, that a liver could be quickly ‘read’ by the barû or reader, a name which was afterward applied to the astrologists as well and to those who divined through various other natural phenomena.

One of the earliest instances on record of hepatoscopy is that regarding Naram-Sin, who consulted a sheep’s liver before declaring war. The great Sargon did likewise, and we find Gudea applying to his ‘liver inspectors’ when attempting to discover a favourable time for laying the foundations of the temple of Nin-girsu.

Throughout the whole history of the Babylonian monarchy in fact, from its early beginnings to its end, we find this system in vogue. Whether it was in force in Sumerian times we have no means of knowing, but there is every likelihood that such was the case.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 281-3.

Babylonian Astrology

“With the Semitic domination of Sargon of Accad, however, Babylonian astronomy entered upon a new phase. To him, tradition ascribed the compilation of the standard work on Babylonian astronomy and astrology called the Observations of Bel, and afterwards translated into Greek by Berossos (Editorial note: a book by Johannes Haubold, et al, The World of Berossos, 2013, which presents material presented at an academic conference in 2010, can be downloaded in its entirety. Our gratitude is owed to Harrassowitz Verlag of Wiesbaden. A faster and shorter resource is Robert Drews, “The Babylonian Chronicles and Berossus,” Iraq, 1975, which is synopsized in the ensuing three posts).

But the edition of the work which we possess presupposes a much later date. Aries, and not Taurus, marks the beginning of the year, and the text contains references to political and geographical facts, some of which are probably not much older than the age of Assur-bani-pal. This is explained by the nature of the work. It was not so much a treatise on astronomy, as on the pseudo-science that had been evolved out of the observations of astronomy.

The Chaldean priests had grasped but imperfectly the idea of causation; their fundamental assumption was “post hoc, ergo propter hoc;” when two events had been noticed to happen one after the other, the first was the cause of the second. Hence their anxiety to record the phenomena of the heavens and the occurrences that took place after each; if a war with Elam had followed an eclipse of the sun on a particular day, it was assumed that a recurrence of the eclipse on the same day would be followed by a recurrence of a war with Elam.

Assyrian star planisphere found in the library of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal (Aššur-bāni-apli – reigned 668-627 BCE) at Nineveh.  The function of this unique 13-cm diameter clay tablet, in which the principal constellations are positioned in eight sectors, is disputed. The texts and drawings appear to be astro-magical in nature.  Kuyunjik Collection, British Museum, K 8538 [= CT 33, 10]. London. http://www.staff.science.uu.nl/~gent0113/babylon/babybibl.htm

Assyrian star planisphere found in the library of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal (Aššur-bāni-apli – reigned 668-627 BCE) at Nineveh.
The function of this unique 13-cm diameter clay tablet, in which the principal constellations are positioned in eight sectors, is disputed. The texts and drawings appear to be astro-magical in nature.
Kuyunjik Collection, British Museum, K 8538 [= CT 33, 10]. London.
http://www.staff.science.uu.nl/~gent0113/babylon/babybibl.htm

In this way a science of astrology was created whose students could foretell the future by observing the signs of the sky.

It is obvious that a work whose object was to connect astronomical observations with current events must have been constantly undergoing alteration and growth. New observations would from time to time be introduced into it, sometimes causing confusion or even omissions in the text. There are instances in which we can detect the presence of observations placed side by side, though belonging to very different periods, or of older records which have been supplemented by the calculations of a later age.

In their present form, therefore, the Observations of Bel have to be used with caution if we would argue from them to the beliefs and practices of early Babylonia.

But the astrological science, or pseudo-science, which underlies the whole work, shows that even in its earliest form it was a product of the Semitic epoch. Between the attitude of mind presupposed by this pseudo-science, and the attitude of mind presupposed by the magical texts and Shamanistic cult of Sumerian Chaldea, there lies an impassable gulf.

This illustration is from a page on Babylonian astronomy hosted by the science faculty of the Mathematical Institute of Utrecht University.  http://www.staff.science.uu.nl/~gent0113/babylon/babybibl_fixedstars.htm A dedicated work assessing the influences of Chaldean astrology on later Greek and Roman knowledge can be found in Franz Cumont, Astrology and Religion Among the Greeks and Romans, 1912.  Full text available for download at several locations on the net, including: http://theosnet.net/dzyan/miscpubs/Astrology_and_Religion.pdf

This illustration is from a page on Babylonian astronomy hosted by the science faculty of the Mathematical Institute of Utrecht University.
http://www.staff.science.uu.nl/~gent0113/babylon/babybibl_fixedstars.htm
A dedicated work assessing the influences of Chaldean astrology on later Greek and Roman knowledge can be found in Franz Cumont, Astrology and Religion Among the Greeks and Romans, 1912.
Full text available for download at several locations on the net, including:
http://theosnet.net/dzyan/miscpubs/Astrology_and_Religion.pdf

According to the latter, events are brought about by the agency of the innumerable spirits of earth and air, and can be controlled by the spells and exorcisms of the sorcerer; according to the astrologer of Sargon’s court, they are natural occurrences, caused and determined by other natural occurrences which can be discovered and noted by the observer. Out of the astrologer the astronomer could be born; between science and sorcery there can be only an eternal feud.

It does not follow, however, that the pre-Semitic population of Chaldea took no notice of the phenomena of the sky. Unusual phenomena, such as an eclipse, must necessarily excite the attention of superstitious and half-civilized tribes; and the formation of a calendar, the invention of the Zodiac, and the naming of the principal constellations, show that a rudimentary astronomy was already in existence.

Indeed, the Observations of Bel not only contain technical terms of Accadian origin, but embody notices of phenomena like eclipses which presuppose a long period of earlier observations.

Unless such observations had existed, even the first compilation of the work would have been impossible. It was astrology, not the rudiments of astronomy, for which the Semites of Babylonia can claim the entire credit.”

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. 398-400.

Tales of the Storm God Zu

“The scribes of Assur-bani-pal have preserved for us the mutilated copy of a bilingual poem, or part of a poem, which recounted the flight of Zu to the mountain of ‘Sabu or Kis. It begins thus:

Lugal-tudda (fled) to the mountain a place remote

In the hill of ‘Sabu he (dwelt).

No mother inhabits it and (cares for him).

No father inhabits it and (associates) with him.

No priest who knows him (assists him).

He who (changed) not the resolution, even the resolution of his heart,

in his own heart (he kept) his resolution.

Into the likeneas of a bird was he transformed,

into the likeness of Zu the divine storm-bird was he transformed,

His wife uplifts the neck.

The wife of Zu, the son of Zu, may he cause them to dwell in a cage,

even the god of the river-reeds (Enna) and the goddess the lady of the basket of river-reeds (Gu-enna).

From his mountain he brought (her),

as a woman fashioned for a mother made beautiful,

the goddess of plants, as a woman fashioned for a mother made beautiful.

Her paps were of white crystal;

her thighs were bathed in silver and gold.

[Here follow many mutiliated lines]

On (his) head he placed a circlet;

….on his head he set a coronal

(when) he came from the nest of the god Zu.

(In a place) unknown in the mountain he made his tomb.”

From left, Storm God Ninurta, with bows and arrows.  Ishtar, queen of heaven and earth is elevated with wings and spears and maces on her shoulders.  The tree of life sprouts to her right, our left.  The Sun God Shamash rises from the mountain Kur in the center, with rays of light on his shoulder.  The God of Water and Wisdom, Enki/Ea battles the bird-god Imdugud/Anzu, with depictions of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and fish coursing from his shoulders.  At far right is the deified vizier Usmu, the two-faced. All gods wear conical hats with four pairs of horns.  At far left is the word Adda in Accadian cuneiform, "Scribe."  Accordingly this cylinder seal is known as the Seal of Adda, Akkadian period, 2350-2100 BCE. British Library.  [No. 89,115.] http://www.ancientworlds.net/aw/Article/787375

From left, Storm God Ninurta, with bows and arrows.
Ishtar, queen of heaven and earth is elevated with wings and spears and maces on her shoulders.
The tree of life sprouts to her right, our left.
The Sun God Shamash rises from the mountain Kur in the center, with rays of light on his shoulder.
The God of Water and Wisdom, Enki/Ea battles the bird-god Imdugud/Anzu, with depictions of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and fish coursing from his shoulders.
At far right is the deified vizier Usmu, the two-faced. All gods wear conical hats with four pairs of horns.
At far left is the word Adda in Accadian cuneiform, “Scribe.”
Accordingly this cylinder seal is known as the Seal of Adda, Akkadian period, 2350-2100 BCE. British Library. [No. 89,115.]
http://www.ancientworlds.net/aw/Article/787375

It will be seen that the identity of the god Zu with a bird is explained in accordance with the ideas of a modern time. It has become a transformation voluntarily undergone by the deity, for the sake, as it would seem, of securing a beautiful bride.

The old faith of totemism is thus changing into a fairy-tale. But there were other stories which remembered that the transformation of the god was not the voluntary act it is here represented to have been.”

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. 295-7.

Semiramis, Queen of Assyria

“But Istar was not merely the goddess of love. By the side of the amorous goddess there was also a warlike one. The Syrian goddess who migrated westward was a warrior as well as a bride. Among the Hittites and their disciples in Asia Minor, she was served not only by Galli, but by Amazons–warrior priestesses–as well.

Ishtar receives the worship of an Amazon. Ishtar stands on a lion, holding a bow with arrows at her back. Her eight-pointed star is atop her head.

Ishtar receives the worship of an Amazon. Ishtar stands on a lion, holding a bow with arrows at her back. Her eight-pointed star is atop her head.

The Artemis of Ephesos, her lineal descendant, was separated by a wide gulf from the Aphroditê of Cyprus. Both Artemis and Aphroditê were alike the offspring of the same Babylonian deity, but in making their way to Greece they had become separated and diverse. The goddess of the Hittites and of Asia Minor preserved mainly her fiercer side; the goddess of Phoenician Cyprus her gentler side. Both sides, however, had once been united in the Istar of Chaldea.

The Greek myths which recounted the story of Semiramis recorded the fact. For Semiramis is but Istar in another guise. As Istar was called “queen” by the Assyrians, so is Semiramis the queen of Assyria; as Semiramis deserts Menôn for Ninos or Nineveh, so did Istar desert her old haunts for her later temple at Nineveh.

The dove into which Semiramis was changed was the bird sacred to Istar. Her passion for her son Ninyas, “the Ninevite,” whom another version of the myth names Zames or Samas, is an echo of the passion of Istar, the Dav-kina of Eridu, for Tammuz the Sun-god. The warrior-queen of Assyria, in fact, was the great Babylonian goddess in her martial character.

Tammuz and Ishtar.

Tammuz and Ishtar.

While the gentler-mannered Babylonians preferred to dwell upon the softer side of Istar, the Assyrians, as was natural in the case of a military nation, saw in her mainly the goddess of war and battle. Like Babylonia, with its two centres of her worship at Erech and Accad, Assyria also had its two great sanctuaries of Istar at Nineveh and Arbela.

That she should have had no famous temple in Assur, the old capital of the kingdom, shows clearly the comparatively late development of her cult. Doubtless the earliest inhabitants of the Assyrian cities had brought with them the name and worship of Istar, but it could only have been long afterwards that it attained its final celebrity. Indeed, we can trace its progress through the historical inscriptions until it culminates in the reign of Assur-bani-pal.

There was a particular cause for this gradual development which was connected with the warlike attributes of the Assyrian Istar. The Assyrians were an essentially Semitic people. Their supreme goddess accordingly was that vague and colourless Bilit ili, “the mistress of the gods,” who sat as a queenly shadow by the side of Bel.

They had none of those associations with the older Accadian goddesses, with their specific names and functions, which the natives of the Babylonian cities possessed; apart from Istar, the evening star, there was no goddess among them who could claim a more independent position than that of a Bilit ili. Assur himself had no special consort, like Zarpanit at Babylon or even  at Accad.

Except Istar, therefore, the Assyrian pantheon was destitute of a goddess who could assert her equality with the gods.”

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. 270-2.

Syncretic Istar

“But who, all this while, was the goddess, whom one legend made the faithful wife enduring even death for her husband’s sake, while another regarded her as the most faithless and cruel of coquettes?

I have already spoken of her as the goddess of love, and such, indeed, she was to the Babylonian or Assyrian of later days. In the story of her descent into Hades, her residence in the lower world is marked by all cessation of intercourse between male and female in the animal creation, as well as among the gods of heaven.

It was this feature of the story which caused it to find its way into the literature of another people, and to survive the days when the clay tablets of Assyria and Babylon could still be read. We find it serving to point a moral in the pages of the Talmud.

We are there told how a pious rabbi once prayed that the demon of lust should be bound, and how his petition was granted. But society quickly fell into a state of anarchy. No children were born; no eggs even could be procured for food; and the rabbi was at length fain to confess that his prayer had been a mistaken one, and to ask that the demon should again be free.

But though a moral signification thus came to be read into the old Babylonian myth, it was a signification that was originally entirely foreign to it. Prof. Tiele has clearly shown that the legend of Istar’s descent into Hades is but a thinly-veiled description of the earth-goddess seeking below for the hidden waters of life, which shall cause the Sun-god and all nature with him to rise again from their sleep of death.

Drawn by Faucher-Gudin, from an intaglio at Rome. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17323/17323-h/17323-h.htm#linkBimage-0018

Drawn by Faucher-Gudin, from an intaglio at Rome.
http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17323/17323-h/17323-h.htm#linkBimage-0018

The spirits of earth, the gnomes that guard its treasures below, watch over the waters, and not until they are led forth and placed on their golden throne can their precious treasure be secured. It is the earth who loses her adornments, one by one, as she passes slowly downward into the palace-prison of the infernal goddess, and it is the earth who is once more gladdened at spring-time with the returning love of the youthful Sun-god.

Istar, then, must primitively have been the goddess of the earth, and the bride of Tammuz at Eridu must accordingly have been his mother Dav-kina. This alone will explain the persistent element in the myth as it made its way to the Greeks, according to which the mother of Tammuz was also his sister.

Istar, Tillili, Dav-kina, were all but different names and forms of the same divinity. We have just seen that Tillili, at all events, was the primordial earth.

Drawn by Faucher-Gudin, from a heliogravure in Ménant's Recherches sur la Glyptique orientale. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17323/17323-h/17323-h.htm#linkBimage-0018

Drawn by Faucher-Gudin, from a heliogravure in Ménant’s Recherches sur la Glyptique orientale.
http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17323/17323-h/17323-h.htm#linkBimage-0018

What Istar was primitively, however, will not explain what she became in those later ages of Babylonian history to which our monuments belong. Her origin faded more and more into the background; new elements entered into her character; and she absorbed the attributes and functions of numberless local divinities. The Istar of Assur-bani-pal or Nabonidos was the inheritress of cults and beliefs which had grown up in different localities and had gathered round the persons of other deities.”

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. 250-2.

Cult of Nabu at Calah

“As for Bel, whose place Merodach usurped in the Babylonian pantheon, he was also recognized in Assyria, and Tiglath-pileser I built him a temple in his city of Asshur. Tiglath prefixes the adjective ‘old’ to the god’s name to show that he means Bel, not Bel-Merodach.

Sargon, too, who had antiquarian tastes, also reverts to Bel, to whom he alludes as the ‘Great Mountain,’ the name of the god following immediately after that of Asshur. Bel is also invoked in connexion with Anu as a granter of victory.

His consort Belit, although occasionally she is coupled with him, more usually figures as the wife of Asshur, and almost as commonly as a variant of Ishtar. In a temple in the city of Asshur, Tiglath-pileser I made presents to Belit consisting of the images of the gods vanquished by him in his various campaigns.

Assur-bani-pal, too, regarded Belit as the wife of Asshur, and himself as their son, alluding to Belit as ‘Mother of the Great Gods,’ a circumstance which would go to show that, like most of the Assyrian kings, his egoism rather overshadowed his sense of humour.

In Assur-bani-pal’s pantheon Belit is placed close by her consort Asshur. But there seems to have been a good deal of confusion between Belit and Ishtar because of the general meaning of the word Belit.

 [ … ]

Stephen Thompson - Asshur, Assyrian God, Marble Relief, British Museum, 1872 The Catalogue of a Series of Photographs from the Collections of The British Museum (Photographed by S. Thompson), Part III, W.A. Mansell & Co, London, 1872, p. 30. In the Nimrud Gallery of the Museum, Eastern side, #355. B.C. 884.  Marble slab. Eagle-headed winged deity Asshur (the chief of all the Gods), holding cone and basket, (supposed to represent the receptacle in which the divine gifts are stored,) and standard inscriptions. https://www.flickr.com/photos/photohistorytimeline/10171487505/

Stephen Thompson – Asshur, Assyrian God, Marble Relief, British Museum, 1872
The Catalogue of a Series of Photographs from the Collections of The British Museum (Photographed by S. Thompson), Part III, W.A. Mansell & Co, London, 1872, p. 30.
In the Nimrud Gallery of the Museum, Eastern side, #355. B.C. 884.
Marble slab. Eagle-headed winged deity Asshur (the chief of all the Gods), holding cone and basket, (supposed to represent the receptacle in which the divine gifts are stored) and standard inscriptions.
https://www.flickr.com/photos/photohistorytimeline/10171487505/

As in Babylonia so in Assyria, Nabu and Merodach were paired together, often as Bel and Nabu. Especially were they invoked when the affairs of Babylonia were being dealt with. In the seventh century b.c. we find the cult of Nabu in high popularity in Assyria, and indeed Ramman-Nirari III appears to have made an attempt to advance Nabu considerably.

George Rawlinson - Source: Seven Great Monarchies Of The Ancient Eastern World, Vol 1. (1875) The Chaldean god Nebo, from a statue in the British Museum.  http://www.totallyfreeimages.com/56/Nebo.

George Rawlinson – Source: Seven Great Monarchies Of The Ancient Eastern World, Vol 1. (1875)
The Chaldean god Nebo, from a statue in the British Museum.
http://www.totallyfreeimages.com/56/Nebo.

He erected a temple to the god at Calah, and granted him many resounding titles. But even so, it does not seem that Ramman-Nirari intended to exalt Nabu at the expense of Asshur. Indeed it would have been impossible for him to have done so if he had desired to.

Asshur was as much the national god of the Assyrian people as Osiris was of the Egyptians. Nabu was the patron of wisdom, and protector of the arts; he guided the stylus of the scribe; and in these attributes he is very close to the Egyptian Thoth, and almost identical with another Babylonian god, Nusku ...

Sargon calls Nabu ‘the Seer who guides the gods,’ and it would seem from some notices of him that he was also regarded as a leader of heavenly or spiritual forces.

Those kings who were fond of erudition paid great devotion to Nabu, and many of the tablets in their literary collections close with thanksgiving to him for having opened their ears to receive wisdom.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 227-9.

Lady Ishtar

Ishtar was frequently placed by the side of Asshur as a war-goddess.

Ere she left the plains of Babylonia for the uplands of Assyria she had evinced certain bellicose propensities. In the Gilgamesh epic she appears as a deity of destructive and spiteful character, if not actually of warlike nature.

The goddess Ishtar depicted center with wings and the horned headdress of divinity, weapons on her back, foot resting on a lion, her symbolic animal.

The goddess Ishtar depicted center with wings and the horned headdress of divinity, weapons on her back, foot resting on a lion, her symbolic animal.

But if the Babylonians regarded her first and foremost as the great mother-goddess, the Assyrians took but little notice of this side of her character. To them she was a veritable Valkyrie, and as the Assyrians grew more and more military so she became more the war-goddess and less the nature-mother of love and agriculture.

She appeared in dreams to the war-loving Kings of Assyria, encouraging and heartening them with words of cheer to further military exploits. Fire was her raiment, and, as became a goddess of battle, her appearance was terrific. She consumed the enemies of Assur-bani-pal with flames.

Ishtar, Mesopotamian goddess of sexuality and warfare. The star atop her crown is Venus, the planet with which she was identified.  In the first millennium BC unusual stones were used to make seals: this seal is made of green garnet, which may have come from northern Pakistan.  British Museum, ME 89769, acquired 1835. http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/me/g/garnet_cylinder_seal_ishtar.aspx

Ishtar, Mesopotamian goddess of sexuality and warfare. The star atop her crown is Venus, the planet with which she was identified.
In the first millennium BC unusual stones were used to make seals: this seal is made of green garnet, which may have come from northern Pakistan.
British Museum, ME 89769, acquired 1835.
http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/me/g/garnet_cylinder_seal_ishtar.aspx

Still, strangely enough, in the religious texts, influenced probably by Babylonian sources, she was still to a great extent the mild and bountiful mother of nature. It is in the historical texts which ring with tales of conquest and the grandiloquent boastings of conquering monarchs that she appears as the leader of armies and the martial goddess who has slain her thousands and her tens of thousands.

So has it ever been impossible for the priest and the soldier to possess the selfsame idea of godhead, and this is so in the modern no less than in the ancient world.

Yet occasionally the stern Assyrian kings unbent, and it was probably in a brief interval of peace that Assur-nazir-pal alluded to Ishtar as the lady who “loves him and his priesthood.”

Sennacherib also spoke of the goddess in similar terms. It is necessary to state that the name or title of Belit given to Ishtar does not signify that she is the wife or consort of Bel, but merely that she is a ‘great lady,’ for which the title ‘Belit’ is a generic term.

If she is at times brought into close association with Asshur she is never regarded as his wife. She is not the consort of any god, but an independent goddess in her own right, standing alone, equal with Asshur and the dependant of no other divinity. But it was later only that she ranked with Asshur, and purely because of her military reputation.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 213-4.

Nebo, God of Wisdom, Scribe of the Gods, Patron of Writing

“The popularity of Nebo was brought about through his association with Merodach. His chief seat of worship was at Borsippa, opposite to Babylon, and when the latter city became the seat of the imperial power the proximity of Borsippa greatly assisted the cult of Nebo.

So close did the association between the deities of the two cities become that at length Nebo was regarded as the son of Merodach—a relationship that often implies that the so-called descendant of the elder god is a serious rival, or that his cult is nearly allied to the elder worship.

Nebo had acquired something of a reputation as a god of wisdom, and probably this it was which permitted him to stand separately from Merodach without becoming absorbed in the cult of the great deity of Babylon.

Nabu, or Nebo, sculpted bronze figure by Lee Lawrie. Door detail, east entrance, Library of Congress John Adams Building, Washington, D.C. Photographed 2007 by Carol Highsmith (1946–), who explicitly placed the photograph in the public domain. - Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nabu#/media/File:Nabu-Lawrie-Highsmith.jpeg

Nabu, or Nebo, sculpted bronze figure by Lee Lawrie. Door detail, east entrance, Library of Congress John Adams Building, Washington, D.C.
Photographed 2007 by Carol Highsmith (1946–), who explicitly placed the photograph in the public domain. – Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nabu#/media/File:Nabu-Lawrie-Highsmith.jpeg

He was credited, like Ea, with the invention of writing, the province of all ‘wise’ gods, and he presided over that department of knowledge which interpreted the movements of the heavenly bodies. The priests of Nebo were famous as astrologers, and with the bookish king Assur-bani-pal, Nebo and his consort Tashmit were especial favourites as the patrons of writing.

By the time that the worship of Merodach had become recognised at Babylon, the cult of Nebo at Borsippa was so securely rooted that even the proximity of the greatest god in the land failed to shake it.

Even after the Persian conquest the temple-school at Borsippa continued to flourish.

But although Nebo thus ‘outlived’ many of the greater gods it is now almost impossible to trace his original significance as a deity. Whether solar or aqueous in his nature—and the latter appears more likely— he was during the period of Merodach’s ascendancy regarded as scribe of the gods, much as Thoth was the amanuensis of the Egyptian otherworld—that is to say, he wrote at the dictation of the higher deities.

A depiction of the Egyptian god of writing, Thoth.

A depiction of the Egyptian god of writing, Thoth.

When the gods were assembled in the Chamber of Fates in Merodach’s temple at Babylon, he chronicled their speeches and deliberations and put them on record. Indeed he himself had a shrine in this temple of E-Sagila, or ‘the lofty house,’ which was known as E-Zila, or ‘the firm house.’

Once during the New Year festival Nebo was carried from Borsippa to Babylon to his father’s temple, and in compliment was escorted by Merodach part of the way back to his own shrine in the lesser city. It is strange to see how closely the cults of the two gods were interwoven.

The Kings of Babylonia constantly invoke them together, their names and those of their temples are found in close proximity at every turn, and the symbols of the bow and the stylus or pen, respectively typical of the father and the son, are usually discovered in one and the same inscription.

Even Merodach’s dragon, the symbol of his victory over the dark forces of chaos, is assigned to Nebo.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 184-6.

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.

Bilat, Beltis, Nin-Ki-Gal, Allat, Infernal Queen of the Underworld

“When the god of Nipur became Semitic, his character underwent a change.

As the supreme deity of the state he was necessarily a Baal, but the Semitic Baal embodied very different conceptions from those which were associated with the Accadian Mul-lil. It is true that, as I have just pointed out, his primitive attributes still clung to him, but they were superadded to other attributes which showed him to be the supreme Sun-god of Semitic worship.

That supreme Sun-god, however, revealed himself to his worshippers under two aspects; he might be either the beneficent god who gave life and light to the world, or he might be the fierce and wrathful sun of summer who scorches all nature with his heat, and sinks at night, like a ball of glowing metal, into the darkness of the under-world.

Necessarily it was rather under the latter aspect that the Mul-lil of Nipur became the Semitic Bel.

This is the Bel whose cult was carried to Assyria, and whose name is mentioned frequently in the inscriptions of Nineveh, where among other titles he bears that of “father of the gods.”

This is a title which he received, not in virtue of his primitive character, but because he had become the Semitic Bel.

He was distinguished from the younger Bel of Babylon, Bel-Merodach, as βελιτανας or βολαθην (Βêl-êthûn), (ed. note: Greek sic) “the older Baal,” when Babylon became the imperial city, and its Bel claimed to be the father and head of the Babylonian gods.

But the distinction, as might be expected, was not always observed, and the older and younger Bel are sometimes confounded together.

The confusion was rendered the more easy by the fact that the wife of the Bel of Nipur was addressed as Bilat, and thus was undistinguished in name from Beltis of Babylon.

But she was in reality, as we have seen, the queen of Hades, Nin-ki-gal as the Accadians called her, or Allat as she is named in the Semitic texts.

Allat is interpreted “the unwearied;” like the Homeric epithet of Hades, αδαμαστος, “the inflexible” divinity who ceases not to deal on all sides his fatal blows. Her proper title, however–that, at least, under which she had originally been known at Nipur–was Nin-lil, “the lady of the ghost-world.”

It is under this name that Assur-bani-pal addresses her (Trustees of the British Museum (H.C. Rawlinson), The Cuneiform Inscriptions of Western Asia, ii. 66) as “the mistress of the world, whose habitation is the temple of the library” (i.e. the temple of Istar at Nineveh).

As Allat, the goddess of Hades, she was a much-dreaded and formidable figure, who is described in the legend of the Descent of Istar as inflicting upon her sister-goddess all the pains and diseases which emanated from her demoniac satellites.

The unfortunate Istar, stripped of her clothing and adornments, is held up to the scorn of the lower world; and Namtar, the plague-demon, is ordered by Allat to smite her with maladies in the eyes, in the sides, in the feet, in the heart, in the head, and, in short, in all the limbs.

Throughout the legend Namtar appears as the messenger of the infernal queen.”

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. 148-50.

More Epithets of Nebo

“We have only to glance over the titles which were given to Nebo to see how thoroughly the conception of “the prophet” was associated with that of ‘”the writer.”

He is not only “the wise,” “the intelligent,” “the creator of peace,” “the author of the oracle;” he is also “the creator of the written tablet,” “the maker of writing,” “the opener” and “enlarger of the ear.”

Assur-bani-pal is never weary of telling us, at the end of the documents his scribes had copied from their Babylonian originals, that “Nebo and Tasmit had given him broad ears (and) endowed (him) with seeing eyes,” so that he had “written, bound together and published the store of tablets, a work which none of the kings who had gone before had undertaken, even the secrets of Nebo, the list of characters as many as exist.”

In the literary dialect of the Semitic epoch, Nebo went by the Accadian name of dim-sar, “the scribe,” and the ideograph by which he is sometimes denoted was regarded by the Semitic literati as signifying “the maker of intelligence” and “the creator of writing.”

These, however, were not the only titles that Nebo bore. He was also “the bond of the universe,” and “the overseer of the angel-hosts of heaven and earth.” The latter office might be explained as derived from his duties as scribe of the gods; but it is hard to discover what connection there could be between the first title and his association with literature.

Light is thrown upon it, however, by the fact that the ziggurrat or tower of his temple at Borsippa had the name of “the house of the seven bonds of heaven and earth.” The seven “bonds” seem to represent the seven planets, or rather their stations; the tower was in seven stages, and each stage was painted so as to symbolise the colours symbolical of the several planets.

Nebo must, therefore, have once been an elemental god, or at all events a god connected with the chief of the heavenly bodies.

We know that Babylonian astronomy made him the presiding deity of the planet Mercury, just as it made Merodach the presiding deity of Jupiter; but it cannot have been in reference to this that the tower of his temple was dedicated to the seven heavenly spheres.

Nebo cannot well have been one of the seven himself in the conception of its builders; he must rather have been the universe in which the seven spheres were set.”

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. 114-6.

Spence on the Gilgamesh Epic

“The Gilgamesh epic ranks with the Babylonian myth of creation as one of the greatest literary productions of ancient Babylonia. The main element in its composition is a conglomeration of mythic matter, drawn from various sources, with perhaps a substratum of historic fact, the whole being woven into a continuous narrative around the central figure of Gilgamesh, prince of Erech.

It is not possible at present to fix the date when the epic was first written. Our knowledge of it is gleaned chiefly from mutilated fragments belonging to the library of Assur-bani-pal, but from internal and other evidence we gather that some at least of the traditions embodied in the epic are of much greater antiquity than his reign.

Thus a tablet dated 2100 b.c. contains a variant of the deluge story inserted in the XIth tablet of the Gilgamesh epic. Probably this and other portions of the epic existed in oral tradition before they were committed to writing—that is, in the remote Sumerian period.

Assur-bani-pal was an enthusiastic and practical patron of literature. In his great library at Nineveh (the nucleus of which had been taken from Calah by Sennacherib) he had gathered a vast collection of volumes, clay tablets, and papyri, most of which had been carried as spoil from conquered lands.

He also employed scribes to copy older texts, and this is evidently how the existing edition of the Gilgamesh epic came to be written. From the fragments now in the British Museum it would seem that at least four copies of the poem were made in the time of Assur-bani-pal.

They were not long permitted to remain undisturbed. The great Assyrian empire was already declining; ere long Nineveh was captured and its library scattered, while plundering hordes burnt the precious rolls of papyrus, and buried the clay tablets in the debris of the palace which had sheltered them.

There they were destined to lie for over 2000 years, till the excavations of Sir A. H. Layard, George Smith, and others brought them to light. It is true that the twelve tablets of the Gilgamesh epic (or rather, the fragments of them which have so far been discovered) are much defaced; frequently the entire sense of a passage is obscured by a gap in the text, and this, when nice mythological elucidations are in question, is no light matter.

Yet to such an extent has the science of comparative religion progressed in recent years that we are probably better able to read the true mythological significance of the epic than were the ancient Babylonians themselves, who saw in it merely an account of the wanderings and exploits of a national hero.

The epic, which centres round the ancient city of Erech, relates the adventures of a half-human, halfdivine hero, Gilgamesh by name, who is king over Erech.

Two other characters figure prominently in the narrative—Eabani, who evidently typifies primitive man, and Ut-Napishtim, the hero of the Babylonian deluge myth. Each of the three would seem to have been originally the hero of a separate group of traditions which in time became incorporated, more or less naturally, with the other two.

The first and most important of the trio, the hero Gilgamesh, may have been at one time a real personage, though nothing is known of him historically.[1] Possibly the exploits of some ancient king of Erech have furnished a basis for the narrative.

His name (for a time provisionally read Gisdhubar, or Izdubar, but now known to have been pronounced Gilgamesh[2]) suggests that he was not Babylonian but Elamite or Kassite in origin, and from indications furnished by the poem itself we learn that he conquered Erech (or relieved the city from a besieging force) at the outset of his adventurous career.

It has been suggested also that he was identical with the Biblical Nimrod, like him a hero of ancient Babylon; but there are no other grounds for the suggestion.

So much for the historical aspect of Gilgamesh. His mythological character is more easily established. In this regard he is the personification of the sun. He represents, in fact, the fusion of a great national hero with a mythical being.

Throughout the epic there are indications that Gilgamesh is partly divine by nature,though nothing specific is said on that head. His identity with the solar god is veiled in the popular narrative, but it is evident that he has some connexion with the god Shamash, to whom he pays his devotions and who acts as his patron and protector.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 154-6.

Ashurbanipal’s Great Library of Nineveh

“But if Assur-bani-pal was effeminate and lax in government, he was the first great patron of literature. It is to his magnificent library at Nineveh that we owe practically all that we have preserved of the literature that was produced in Babylonia.

He saw that the southern part of his empire was far more intellectual and cultured than Assyria, and he despatched numerous scribes to the temple schools of the south, where they copied extensively from their archives every description of literary curiosity— hymns, legends, medical prescriptions, myths and rituals were all included in the great library at Nineveh. These through the labours of Layard and Rassam have been restored to us.

It is a most extraordinary instance of antiquarian zeal in an epoch which we regard as not far distant from the beginnings of verifiable history. Nearly twenty thousand fragments of brick, bearing the results of Assur-bani-pal’s researches, are housed in the British Museum, and this probably represents only a portion of his entire collection.

Political motives have been attributed to Assur-bani-pal in thus bringing together such a great library. It has been argued that he desired to make Assyria the centre of the religious influence of the empire. This would derogate greatly from the view that sees in him a king solely fired with the idea of preserving and retaining all that was best in ancient Babylonian literature in the north as well as in the south, and having beside him for his own personal use those records which many circumstances prove he was extremely desirous of obtaining. Thus we find him sending officials on special missions to obtain copies of certain works.

It is also significant that Assur-bani-pal placed his collection in a library and not in a temple—a fact which, discounts the theory that his collection of literature had a religious-political basis.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 35-6.