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Tag: Canaanites

Nebo, God of Prophecy

“A knowledge of Babylonian letters and learning was accompanied by a knowledge of the Babylonian god of letters and learning.

In Assyria, Nebo was honoured as much as he was in Babylonia itself. The Assyrian kings and scribes might be silent about the name of Merodach, but the name of Nebo was continually in their mouths.

His name and worship passed even to the distant Semitic tribes of the west. The names of places in Palestine in which his name occurs, proves that the god of prophecy was adored by Canaanites and Moabites alike. Moses, the leader and prophet of Israel, died on the peak of Mount Nebo, and cities bearing the name stood within the borders of the tribes of Reuben and Judah.

When the Israelites entered upon their literary era, the old name of roch, or “seer,” was exchanged for the more literary one of Nēbi, or “prophet.”

The Semites of Babylonia provided Nebo with a wife, Tasmitu, “the hearer.” She helped to open and enlarge the ears which received the divine mysteries her husband’s inspiration enabled his devout servants to write down.

The revolution which transferred the learning of the Babylonians from the Accadians to the Semites, transferred the patronage of the literary class from the old god Ea to his younger rivals Nebo and Tasmit.

[ … ]

The Semites of Babylonia thus closely resembled their brother Semites of Canaan in their fundamental conception of religion. As the Canaanite or Phoenician had “lords many,” the multitudinous Baalim who represented the particular forms of the Sun-god worshipped in each locality, so too the gods of Semitic Babylonia were equally multitudinous and local–Merodach, for example, being merely the Bel or Baal of Babylon, just as Mel-karth (Melech-kiryath) was the Baal of Tyre.

But the parallelism extends yet further. We have seen that the rise of the prophet-god in Babylonia marks the growing importance of literature and a literary class, just as the beginning of a literary age in Israel is coeval with the change of the seer into the prophet.

Now the literary age of Israel was long preceded by a literary age among their Phoenician neighbours, and its growth is contemporaneous with the closer relations that grew up between the monarchs of Israel and Hiram of Tyre.

What Israel was in this respect to the Phoenicians, Assyria was to Babylonia. The Assyrians were a nation of warriors and traders rather than of students; their literature was for the most part an exotic, a mere imitation of Babylonian cuiture.

In Babylonia, education was widely diffused; in Assyria, it was confined to the learned class. We must remember, therefore, that in dealing with Assyrian documents we are dealing either with a foreign importation or with the thoughts and beliefs of a small and special class.”

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. 119-122.

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.

Sumerian Sacred Stories, c. 3500 BCE

” … it is quite as obvious that for the history of the progress of our civilization as we see and know it today, it is the tone and temper, the word and spirit of the ancient mythologies, those of the Greeks and Hebrews, of the Hindus and Iranians, of the Babylonians and Egyptians, which are of prime significance. It is the spiritual and religious concepts revealed in these ancient literatures which permeate the modern civilized world.

Still almost entirely unknown to this very moment is Sumerian mythology, the sacred stories of the non-Semitic, non-Indo-European people which in historical times, from approximately 3500 to 2000 B.C., inhabited Sumer, the relatively small land situated between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and stretching from the Persian Gulf northward approximately as far as modern Bagdad; a land that may be aptly described as the culture cradle of the entire Near East.

Should the reader turn, for example, to Hastings’ Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics29 and examine the very long article on the cosmogonic or creation myths of the world, he will find a large and relatively exhaustive list of peoples, ancient and modern, cultured and primitive, whose cosmogonic concepts are described and analyzed. But he will look in vain for Sumerian cosmogony.

Similarly, the collection entitled Mythology of All the Races 30 devotes thirteen volumes to an analysis of the more important mythologies in the world; here, too, however, there will be found few traces of Sumerian mythology. Whatever little is known of Sumerian mythology is largely surmised from the modified, redacted, and in a sense, garbled versions of the Babylonians who conquered the Sumerians toward the very end of the third millennium B.C., and who used the Sumerian stories and legends as a basis and nucleus for the development of their own myths.

But it is a known fact that in the long stretch of time between approximately 3500 and 2000 B.C. it was the Sumerians who represented the dominant cultural group of the entire Near East. It was the Sumerians who developed and probably invented the cuneiform system of writing; who developed a well integrated pantheon together with spiritual and religious concepts which influenced profoundly all the peoples of the Near East; who, finally, created and developed a literature rich in content and effective in form.

Moreover, the following significant fact must be borne in mind. By the end of the third millennium B.C. Sumer had already ceased to exist as a political entity and Sumerian had already become a dead language, for by that time Sumer had been overrun and conquered by the Semites, and it is the Semitic Accadian language which gradually became the living, spoken tongue of the land.

Nevertheless Sumerian continued to be used as the literary and religious language of the Semitic conquerors for many centuries to come, like Greek in the Roman period and like Latin in the Middle Ages. Indeed for many centuries the study of the Sumerian language and literature remained the basic pursuit of the scribal schools and intellectual and spiritual centers not only of the Babylonians and Assyrians, but also of the many surrounding peoples such as the Elamites, Hurrians, Hittites, and Canaanites.

Obviously, then, both because of their content as well as because of their age, the Sumerian mythological tales and concepts must have penetrated and permeated those of the entire Near East. A knowledge of the Sumerian myths and legends is therefore a prime and basic essential for a proper approach to a scientific study of the mythologies current in the ancient Near East, for it illuminates and clarifies to no small extent the background behind their origin and development.” i

Samuel Noah Kramer, Sumerian Mythology, 1944, pp. 27-9.

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