Samizdat

"Samizdat: Publishing forbidden literature."

Tag: Cutha

Nergal the Destroyer

“The library of Nineveh contained the copy of a tablet which, according to its concluding lines, was originally written for the great temple of Nergal at Cutha. The words of the text are put in the mouth of Nergal the destroyer, who is represented as sending out the hosts of the ancient brood of chaos to their destruction.

Nergal appears at the top, leering over a top register which contains the eight-pointed star of Ishtar and the inverted half-moon crescent of the Moon God Sin.  In the second register, seven demons appear to support the heavens.  The middle register depicts the burial rites for new arrivals in the underworld.  The lower register depicts the goddess Allat, or Ereshkigal, sister of Ishtar, who reigns in the underworld. She kneels upon a horse, which appears to be oppressed by her burden, in a boat which floats upon the waters of life. Note the lions suckling at her breast.  Drawn by Faucher-Gudin, from a bronze plaque of which an engraving was published by Clermont-Ganneau.  The original, which belonged to M. Péretié, is now in the collection of M. de Clercq. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17323/17323-h/17323-h.htm#linkBimage-0039

Nergal appears at the top, leering over a top register which contains the eight-pointed star of Ishtar and the inverted half-moon crescent of the Moon God Sin.
In the second register, seven demons appear to support the heavens.
The middle register depicts the burial rites for new arrivals in the underworld.
The lower register depicts the goddess Allat, or Ereshkigal, sister of Ishtar, who reigns in the underworld. She kneels upon a horse, which appears to be oppressed by her burden, in a boat which floats upon the waters of life. Note the lions suckling at her breast.
Drawn by Faucher-Gudin, from a bronze plaque of which an engraving was published by Clermont-Ganneau.
The original, which belonged to M. Péretié, is now in the collection of M. de Clercq.
http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17323/17323-h/17323-h.htm#linkBimage-0039

Nergal is identified with Nerra, the plague-god, who smites them with pestilence, or rather with Ner, the terrible “king who gives not peace to his country, the shepherd who grants no favour to his people.”

We are first told how the armies of chaos came into existence.

“On a tablet none wrote, none disclosed, and no bodies or brushwood were produced in the land; and there was none whom I approached.

Warriors with the body of a bird of the valley, men with the faces of ravens, did the great gods create. In the ground did the gods create their city. Tiamat (the dragon of chaos) suckled them. Their progeny (sasur) the mistress of the gods created.

In the midst of the mountains they grew up and became heroes and increased in number. Seven kings, brethren, appeared and begat children. Six thousand in number were their peoples. The god Banini their father was king; their mother was the queen Melili.”

It was the subjects and the offspring of these semi-human heroes whom the god Ner was deputed to destroy.

The reverse side of the god Nergal,  drawn by Faucher-Gudin. This is the back of the bronze plate above; the animal-head of the god appears in relief at the top of the illustration. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17323/17323-h/17323-h.htm#linkBimage-0018

The reverse side of the god Nergal, drawn by Faucher-Gudin. This is the back of the bronze plate above; the animal-head of the god appears in relief at the top of the illustration.
http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17323/17323-h/17323-h.htm#linkBimage-0018

It is clear that the legend of Cutha agrees with Berossos in the main facts, however much it may differ in details. In both alike, we have a first creation of living beings, and these beings are of a composite nature, and the nurselings of Tiamat or Chaos.

"Bird men" are depicted.

“Bird men” are depicted.

In both alike, the whole brood is exterminated by the gods of light. A curious point in connection with the legend is the description of chaos as a time when writing was as yet unknown and records unkept. Perhaps we may see in this an allusion to the fact that the Babylonian histories of the pre-human period were supposed to have been composed by the gods.

The date to which the legend in its present form may be assigned is difficult to determine. The inscription is in Semitic only, like the other creation-tablets, and therefore cannot belong to the pre-Semitic age. It belongs, moreover, to an epoch when the unification of the deities of Babylonia had already taken place, and the circle of “the great gods” was complete.

Ea, Istar, Zamama, Anunit, even Nebo and “Samas the warrior,” are all referred to in it. We must therefore place its composition after the rise not only of the hymns of Sippara, but also of the celebrity of the Semitic god of Borsippa.

On the other hand, the reference to the pateśi or priest-king in the concluding lines seems to prevent us from assigning too late a date to the poem. Perhaps we shall not be far wrong in ascribing it to the era of Khammuragas.”

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. 372-4.

Totemic Depictions of the Gods

“It is only the demons and inferior spirits, or mythical personages like Ea-bani, the friend of Gisdhubar, who are portrayed as animals, or as composite figures partly human and partly bestial. Ea alone, in his character of “god of life,” is given the fish’s skin, and even then the skin is but thrown over his back like a priestly cloak.

A depiction of the God Ea, or Oannes.

A depiction of the God Ea, or Oannes.

The composite monsters, whose forms Bêrôssos saw painted on the walls of the temple of Bêlos, were the brood of chaos, not of the present order of the world. The legend of the creation preserved by the priests of Cutha declares that the creatures, half men and half birds, which were depicted in sacred art, were suckled by Tiamat, the dragon-like personification of anarchy and chaos. Their disappearance marked the victory of light over darkness, of the gods of heaven over the Titanic monsters of an extinct age.

The deities of Babylonia were emphatically human; human in character and human in form. They stood in marked contrast to the animal-headed gods of Egypt, and harmonised with the Semitic belief that made the deity the father of the human race, who had created man in his own image.

Even in pre-Semitic days, Chaldean art had already followed the same line of thought, and had depicted its divinities in the likeness of men; but in pre-Semitic days this was a tendency only; it was not until the Accadian came in contact with the Semite that he felt the full force of the Semitic conception, and allowed his ancient deities of light and life to take permanently upon them the human shape.

For there are many indications that it had not always been so. The very fact that the divine beings who in the Semitic era were relegated to the realms of chaos or the inferior world of subordinate spirits, were to the last represented as partly bestial in form, proves pretty clearly that the Babylonians had once seen nothing derogatory to the divine nature in such a mode of representation.

The winged bulls who guarded the approach to the temple and protected it from the invasion of evil spirits, or the eagle-headed cherubs who knelt on either side of the sacred tree, were survivals of a time when “the great gods of heaven and earth” were themselves imaged and adored in similar form.

Winged bulls with human faces guard the approach to the god Nebo.

Winged bulls with human faces guard the approach to the god Nebo.

The same evidence is borne by the animals on whose backs the anthropomorphic deities are depicted as standing in later art. When the gods had become human, there was no other place left for the animals with whom they had once been so intimately connected.

The evidence, however, is not borne by art alone. The written texts aver that the gods were symbolised by animals, like the Sun-god of Kis, whose “image” or symbol was the eagle. It is these symbols which appear on the Babylonian boundary-stones, where in the infancy of Assyrian research they were supposed to represent the Zodiacal signs.

A boundary stone. The eight-pointed star of Ishtar appears at top left, the crescent moon of the Moon God Sin is at top center, and the symbol of the Sun God Shamas appears at top right.

A boundary stone. The eight-pointed star of Ishtar appears at top left, the crescent moon of the Moon God Sin is at top center, and the symbol of the Sun God Shamas appears at top right.

That they were originally something more than mere symbols is expressly indicated in the myths about the goddess of love. Gisdhubar taunts her with her treatment, not only of Alála, the eagle, but also of the horse and the lion, whose names are not given to us.

Here, at any rate, popular tradition has preserved a recollection of the time when the gods of Babylonia were still regarded as eagles and horses and lions. We are taken back to an epoch of totemism, when the tribes and cities of Chaldea had each its totem, or sacred animal, to whom it offered divine worship, and who eventually became its creator-god.

Not less clear is the legend of the first introduction of culture into the valley of the Euphrates. Oannes, or Ea, it was ever remembered, had the body of a fish, and, like a fish, he sank each night into the waters  of the Persian Gulf when the day was closed which he had spent among his favoured disciples of Eridu.

The culture-god himself had once been a totem, from which we may infer how long it was before totemism disappeared, at all events from southern Babylonia, where the contact with Semitic thought was less strong and abiding than was the case further north.”

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. 277-80.

Nergal, God of Death

“It was as the death-dealing lord of Hades that Nergal first became “the hero of the gods,” “who marches in their front.” The metaphor was taken from the champion who, like Goliath, places himself before his comrades and challenges the enemy to combat.

It is thus that we read in the story of the Deluge, when the flood of rain and destruction is described as coming upon the guilty world: “Rimmon in the midst of (heaven) thundered, and Nebo and the Wind-god went in front; the throne-bearers went over mountain and plain; Nergal the mighty removes the wicked; Adar goes in front and casteth down.”

sayce65

As lord of Hades, too, he was made the son of Mul-lil. A hymn (K 5268), the colophon of which tells us that it was composed in Cutha, begins with the words: “Let Nergal be glorified, the hero of the gods, who cometh forth as the strong one, the son of Mul-lil.”

In the same hymn, Marad is declared to be his city, from which we may infer that Marad was near Cutha. Its protecting divinity, however, was, strictly speaking, Lugal-túda,”the royal offspring,” or perhaps “valiant king,” a personification of the thunder-cloud and lightning; but it is evident from the hymn that he had been identified with the death-dealing god of Cutha.

Another depiction of Nergal, patron god of Kutha.

Another depiction of Nergal, patron god of Kutha.

Of Laz, the wife of Nergal, we know little or nothing. Her name survived as the local divinity of Cutha, but her office and attributes were taken by Allat. Even Nergal himself as the lord of Hades belongs rather to the Accadian than to the Semitic period.

Among the Semites he was the hero and champion of the gods, and as such the destroyer of the wicked, rather than the king of death who slays alike the wicked and the good. The sovereignty of Hades had passed out of his hands, and he had become the companion of the solar Adar and the warrior of the gods of heaven.

Under his old name of Ner, however, a curious reminiscence of his primitive character lasted down to late times. In the hymns and other poetical effusions, we not unfrequently come across the phrase, ”mankind, the cattle of the god Ner.”

I have already drawn attention to the agricultural nature of early Chaldean civilisation, and the influence that agriculture had upon the modes of thought and expression of the population. Not only was the sky regarded as the counterpart of the Babylonian plain, and the heavenly bodies transformed into the herds and flocks that fed there, but the human inhabitants of the earth were themselves likened to the cattle they pastured and fed.

One of the earliest titles of the Babylonian kings was “shepherd,” reminding us of the Homeric ποιμην λαων, “shepherd of nations;” and in the Epic of Gisdhubar the sovereign city of Erech is termed the śubur, or “shepherd’s hut.”

Just as the subjects of the king, therefore, were looked upon as the sheep whom their ruler shepherded, so too mankind in general were regarded as the cattle slain by the god of death. They were, in fact, his herd, whom he fed and slaughtered in sacrifice to 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. 196-8.

Seize the Day

“Death in Mesopotamian religious thought did not mean the total extinction of the individual, only of the physical self and of those qualities of a person that made him productive and attractive to other human beings (Bottéro 1992: 268– 86).

A recognizable winged spirit, resembling a dove, passed to the netherworld. This was a dreary, sombre domain ruled by a pitiless hierarchy of deities and demons. There the spirit languished, often in hunger, thirst and misery, unless family or friends remembered to leave offerings of food and drink for the spirit to partake of and prayed for the spirit’s rest and contentment (Foster 1996: 403):

Dust is their sustenance and clay their food,

They see no light but dwell in darkness,

They are clothed like birds in wings for garments,

And dust has gathered on the door and bolt.

A Sumerian poem recounting a visit to the netherworld refers to the dependence of the dead upon the living (Foster 2001: 141):

Did you see the ghost of him who has no one to make funerary offerings?

I saw him. He eats table scraps and bread crusts thrown into the street.

Ghosts and spectres of the dead could trouble the living, sometimes for no apparent reason, sometimes because they had not been properly interred or were discontented because of some human action or neglect. The city Cutha, in northern Babylonia, was considered the city of the dead and the centre of the cult of death.

The netherworld was organized like an earthly or heavenly kingdom, surrounded by walls with seven gates (Lambert 1990). A popular Mesopotamian poem (Dalley 1989: 163–81; Foster 1996: 410–28) told how the netherworld had once been ruled by a queen alone, Ereshkigal, but that she eventually found a husband, Nergal or Erra.

In one version of the story, he forces himself into the netherworld by violence and threatens her into submission. In another, he breaks her loneliness and sexual frustration with a passionate relationship that finally results in their marriage.

The gods of heaven and netherworld, separated, according to the Babylonian Epic of Creation, into two groups of 600 each, could not visit each other, though they could exchange messengers. Even the great gods feared the netherworld, which barred countless human dead from swarming onto the earth to devour the living in their eternal, unsatiated hunger.

The dead entered the netherworld naked and relinquished all hope of returning to life. How their ghosts escaped to plague the living is not clear. Various Mesopotamian stories told of human beings who learned what happened after a person died.

In one, the Sumerian hero Enkidu volunteered in a fit of bravado to go down to the netherworld to retrieve a favourite athletic object of the king, Gilgamesh. This was apparently a stick and a ball or puck that had fallen down there at the pleas of the people who were oppressed by the violent game that made use of them. The losers resented Gilgamesh’s bullying tactics in the game.

Enkidu recognized his relatives and saw certain distinctions among the dead: heroes were treated better than common folk, for example, and stillborn children had a sort of play area with miniature furniture. He barely escaped alive and forgot in the stress of the moment to bring back the objects (Foster 2001: 129–43).

Much later, an Assyrian dignitary described a vision of the netherworld that included an array of monsters, composites of humans and animals in shape. He, like Enkidu, recognized a dead spirit, but fled in an ecstasy of terror and grief, narrowly escaping permanent confinement (Foster 1996: 715–22):

He darted out into the street like an arrow and scooped up dirt from alley and square in his mouth, all the while setting up a frightful clamor, ‘Woe! Alas! Why have you ordained this for me?’

Mesopotamians honoured the dead of their families with a regular ceremony of remembrance and offering. Dead and sometimes even living kings were accorded divine honours and observances in special sanctuaries. Rulers and other powerful people could be buried in lavish tombs with grave gifts, perhaps more as a splendid way of dying than out of hope that they would need such gifts in the afterlife.

Some Sumerian rulers had chariots, animals and even court attendants buried with them; Assyrian queens might be buried with their finest jewelry. Clay or metal vessels might hold food, drink and cosmetics. Burial might be in vaults in royal palaces, under the floor of homes (especially for children) or in cemeteries outside the city.

Graves were not marked on the surface, so far as is known, and funerary inscriptions, naming the deceased or invoking blessings upon them from future descendants or passers-by, were very rare. One literary text describes an excavation to open an ancient tomb and the horrible shock the investigators felt when they beheld and reflected on the fate in store for them (Foster 1996: 436).

One of the major literary achievements of ancient Mesopotamia, the Akkadian Epic of Gilgamesh (George 1999; Foster 2001), tells the story of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, who sought immortal life. This was based on older Sumerian poems about various episodes in Gilgamesh’s life.

In the epic, Gilgamesh’s beloved friend, the wild man Enkidu, dies as the result of an expedition to achieve eternal fame for Gilgamesh by slaying a distant monster and cutting down a great tree. Terrified of dying himself, Gilgamesh abandons all in a desperate quest to find the survivor of the flood, Utanapishtim, to ask him his secret of immortality.

Gilgamesh eventually reaches Utanapishtim after unexampled heroism and hardships, not to mention the timely intervention of several kind-hearted women, but learns that his hope is vain – Utanapishtim was granted immortality for surviving the flood, but this was a one-time event that would not be repeated for Gilgamesh’s sake.

Neither he nor any other human being had any hope of achieving immortality. This poem was popular in learned circles; manuscripts have turned up throughout Mesopotamia, and from Syria and Asia Minor, dating to a time span of 1500 years.

There was no Mesopotamian paradise, no return of the soul in another body for another life, no judgement, and no sense that death might eventually end in a final consummation. Some Mesopotamians responded to this outlook by suggesting that the good for a human being was to enjoy life, love, family and vitality while they were within reach, for even a modest life was better than a grand death, as a tavern keeper advises Gilgamesh (Foster 2001: 75):

When the gods created mankind,

They established death for mankind,

And withheld eternal life for themselves.

As for you, Gilgamesh, let your stomach be full,

Always be happy, night and day.

Make every day a delight,

Night and day play and dance.

Your clothes should be clean,

Your head should be washed,

You should bathe in water,

Look proudly on the little one holding your hand,

Let your mate be always blissful in your loins,

This, then, is the work of mankind.”

Benjamin R. Foster, “Mesopotamia,” in John R. Hinnels, ed., A Handbook of Ancient Religions, Cambridge, 2007, pp. 188-90.

%d bloggers like this: