“Among the gods of Babylonia none achieved wider and more enduring fame than Tammuz, who was loved by Ishtar, the amorous Queen of Heaven–the beautiful youth who died and was mourned for and came to life again. He does not figure by his popular name in any of the city pantheons, but from the earliest times of which we have knowledge until the passing of Babylonian civilization, he played a prominent part in the religious life of the people.
Tammuz, like Osiris of Egypt, was an agricultural deity, and as the Babylonian harvest was the gift of the rivers, it is probable that one of his several forms was Dumu-zi-abzu, “Tammuz of the Abyss.” He was also “the child,” “the heroic lord,” “the sentinel,” “the healer,” and the patriarch who reigned over the early Babylonians for a considerable period.
“Tammuz of the Abyss” was one of the members of the family of Ea, god of the Deep, whose other sons, in addition to Merodach, were Nira, an obscure deity; Ki-gulla, “world destroyer,” Burnunta-sa, “broad ear,” and Bara and Baragulla, probably “revealers” or “oracles.” In addition there was a daughter, Khi-dimme-azaga, “child of the renowned spirit”. She may have been identical with Belit-sheri, who is referred to in the Sumerian hymns as the sister of Tammuz.
This family group was probably formed by symbolizing the attributes of Ea and his spouse Damkina. Tammuz, in his character as a patriarch, may have been regarded as a hostage from the gods: the human form of Ea, who instructed mankind, like King Osiris, how to grow corn and cultivate fruit trees. As the youth who perished annually, he was the corn spirit. He is referred to in the Bible by his Babylonian name.
When Ezekiel detailed the various idolatrous practices of the Israelites, which included the worship of the sun and “every form of creeping things and abominable beasts”–a suggestion of the composite monsters of Babylonia–he was brought “to the door of the gate of the Lord’s house, which was towards the north; and, behold, there sat women weeping for Tammuz.”
The weeping ceremony was connected with agricultural rites. Corn deities were weeping deities, they shed fertilizing tears; and the sowers simulated the sorrow of divine mourners when they cast seed in the soil “to die,” so that it might spring up as corn. This ancient custom, like many others, contributed to the poetic imagery of the Bible. “They that sow in tears,” David sang, “shall reap in joy. He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.”
In Egypt the priestesses who acted the parts of Isis and Nepthys, mourned for the slain corn god Osiris.
Gods and men before the face of the gods are weeping for
thee at the same time, when they behold me!…
All thy sister goddesses are at thy side and behind thy couch,
Calling upon thee with weeping–yet thou are prostrate upon thy bed!…
Live before us, desiring to behold thee.
It was believed to be essential that human beings should share the universal sorrow caused by the death of a god. If they remained unsympathetic, the deities would punish them as enemies. Worshippers of nature gods, therefore, based their ceremonial practices on natural phenomena.
“The dread of the worshippers that the neglect of the usual ritual would be followed by disaster, is particularly intelligible,” writes Professor Robertson Smith, “if they regarded the necessary operations of agriculture as involving the violent extinction of a particle of divine life.”
By observing their ritual, the worshippers won the sympathy and co-operation of deities, or exercised a magical control over nature.”
Donald A. Mackenzie, Myths of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915.