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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.

Assyrian Monotheism versus Babylonian Pantheism

“Henceforward “the heaven of Anu” denoted the serene and changeless regions to which the gods fled when the deluge had broken up the face of the lower heaven, and which an Assyrian poet calls “the land of the silver sky.”

It was to this spiritualised heaven that the spirit of Ea-bani, the friend of Gisdhubar, ascended, and from which he gazed placidly on the turmoil of the earth below; and it was from his seat therein that Anu assigned their places in the lower heaven to Samas, Sin and Istar, the Sun, the Moon and the Evening Star, according to the legend of the seven wicked spirits.

But the spiritualisation of Anu did not stop here. As a Semitic Baal he had become a supreme god, the lord and father of the universe. It was only a step further, therefore, to make him himself the universe, and to resolve into him the other deities of the Babylonian pantheon.

We read occasionally in the hymns of “the one god.”

“The ban, the ban,” a poet writes, personifying the priestly sentence of excommunication, like the Ara of Aeskhylos or the divine burden of Zechariah (ix.l),

“is a barrier which none may overpass; the barrier of the gods against which they cannot transgress, the barrier of heaven and earth which cannot be changed; the one god against whom none may rebel; god and man cannot explain (it); it is a snare not to be passed which is formed against the evil, the cord of a snare from which there is no exit which is turned against the evil.”

The conception of Anu, however, as “the one god” was pantheistic rather than monotheistic. The cosmological deities of an older phase of faith were in the first instance resolved into him. In place of the genealogical, or gnostic, system which we find in the account of the Creation in days, we have a pantheistic system, in which Lakhama and the other primeval forces of nature are not the parents of Anu, but are identified with Anu himself.

It is easy to conceive how the old deity An-sar, “the upper firmament,” with all its host of spirits, might be identified with him; but when we find Uras also, the Sun-god of Nipur, made one with Anu, “the hearer of prayer,” and the eagle-like Alala, the bridegroom of Istar and double of Tammuz, equally resolved into the god of Erech, it is plain that we have to do with an advanced stage of pantheism.

This monotheistic, or rather pantheistic, school of faith has been supposed by Sir Henry Rawlinson to have grown up at Eridu; but the fact that it centres round the name of Anu points rather to Erech as its birth-place. How long it flourished, or whether it extended beyond a narrow group of priestly thinkers, we have no means of ascertaining.

Assyrian bas-relief perhaps showing their warrior god Asshur as an Eagle, accompanying Assyrian warriors from the west palace at Nimroud, biblical Calah (p. 214. Austen Henry Layard. A Popular Account of Discoveries at Nineveh. London. John Murray. 1852).  http://www.bibleorigins.net/SundiscEagleAssyrian.html

Assyrian bas-relief perhaps showing their warrior god Asshur as an Eagle, accompanying Assyrian warriors from the west palace at Nimroud, biblical Calah (p. 214. Austen Henry Layard. A Popular Account of Discoveries at Nineveh. London. John Murray. 1852).
http://www.bibleorigins.net/SundiscEagleAssyrian.html

It is interesting, however, as showing that the same tendency which in Assyria exalted Assur to the position of an all-powerful deity who would brook neither opposition nor unbelief, among the more meditative Babylonians produced a crude system of pantheism.

Austen Henry Layard. A Popular Account of Discoveries At Nineveh. London. John Murray. 1852, p. 211. http://www.bibleorigins.net/Sundiscarcherdrawnbow.html

Austen Henry Layard. A Popular Account of Discoveries At Nineveh. London. John Murray. 1852, p. 211.
http://www.bibleorigins.net/Sundiscarcherdrawnbow.html

Whatever question there may be as to whether the pure and unmixed Semite is capable of originating a pantheistic form of faith, there can be little doubt about it where the Semite is brought into close contact with an alien race. The difference between the Assyrian and the Babylonian was the difference between the purer Semite and one in whose veins ran a copious stream of foreign blood.”

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. 190-2.

Points of Correspondence Between Genesis and the Enuma Elish

” … It would be tempting to trace the framework of the Seven Days of Creation, upon which the narrative in Genesis is stretched, to the influence of the Seven Tablets of Creation, of which we now know that the great Creation Series was composed. The reasons for the employment of the Seven Days in the Hebrew account are, however, not the same which led to the arrangement of the Babylonian poem upon Seven Tablets.

In the one the writer’s intention is to give the original authority for the observance of the Sabbath; in the other there appears to have been no special reason for this arrangement of the poem beyond the mystical nature of the number “seven.”

Moreover, acts of creation are recorded on all of the first six Days in the Hebrew narrative, while in the Babylonian poem the creation only begins at the end of the Fourth Tablet. 1 The resemblance, therefore, is somewhat superficial, but it is possible that the employment of the number “seven” in the two accounts was not fortuitous.

Whether the Sabbath was of Babylonian origin (as seems probable) or not, it is clear that the writer of the narrative in Genesis was keenly interested in its propagation and its due observance. Now in Exilic and post-Exilic times the account of the Creation most prevalent in Babylonia was that in the poem Enuma elish, the text of which was at this time absolutely fixed and its arrangement upon Seven Tablets invariable.

That the late revival of mythology among the Jews was partly due to their actual study of the Babylonian legends at this period is sufficiently proved by the minute points of resemblance between the accounts of the Deluge in Genesis and in the poem of Gilgamesh. 1

It is probable, therefore, that the writer who was responsible for the final form of Gen. i-ii, 4a, was familiar with the Babylonian legend of Creation in the form in which it has come down to us. The supposition, then, is perhaps not too fanciful, that the connection of the Sabbath with the story of Creation was suggested by the mystical number of the Tablets upon which the Babylonian poem was inscribed.

Further resemblances to the Babylonian Creation legends may be traced in the second Hebrew account of the Creation which follows the first in Gen. ii, 4b-7. According to this version man was formed from the dust of the ground, which may be compared to the mixing of Bel’s blood with earth according to the account of Berossus, the use of the Creator’s blood in the one account being paralleled by the employment of His breath in the other for the purpose of giving life to the dust or earth.

Earth is not mentioned in the recovered portion of the Sixth Tablet, but its use in the creation of men is fully in accordance with Babylonian beliefs. Thus, according to the second Babylonian account of the Creation, 1 Marduk formed man by pouring out dust beside a reed which he had set upon the face of the waters. Clay is also related to have been employed in the creation of special men and heroes; thus it was used in Ea-bani’s creation by Arum, 2 and it is related to have been mixed with divine blood for a similar purpose in the fragmentary legend Bu. 91-5-9, 269. 3

To the account of the creation of woman in Gen. ii, 18 ff. we find a new parallel in l. 5 of the Sixth Tablet of the Creation Series, in the use of the word issimtu, “bone,” corresponding to the Hebrew ‘esem which occurs in the phrase “bone of my bones” in Gen. ii, 23.

In addition to the Babylonian colouring of much of the story of Paradise we may now add a new parallel from the Babylonian address to a mythical River of Creation, inscribed on S. 1704 and the Neo-Babylonian Tablet 82-9-18, 5311. 1

This short composition is addressed to a River to whom the creation of all things is ascribed, 2 and with this river we may compare the mythical river of Paradise which watered the garden, and on leaving it was divided into four branches.

That the Hebrew River of Paradise is Babylonian in character is clear; and the origin of the Babylonian River of Creation is also to be found in the Euphrates, from whose waters southern Babylonia derived its great fertility. 3 The life-giving stream of Paradise is met with elsewhere in the Old Testament, as, for instance, in Ezekiel xlvii, and it is probable that we may trace its influence in the Apocalypse.”1

Leonard William King, The Seven Tablets of Creation, London, 1902. pp. xci-xcv.

On the Burial Rites

” … The primitive house-burial rite is referred to in the Ethiopic version of the life of Alexander the Great.

The “Two-horned,” as the hero was called, conversed with Brahmans when he reached India. He spoke to one of them, “saying: ‘Have ye no tombs wherein to bury any man among ye who may die?’

And an interpreter made answer to him, saying:

‘Man and woman and child grow up, and arrive at maturity, and become old, and when any one of them dieth we bury him in the place wherein he lived; thus our graves are our houses. And our God knoweth that we desire this more than the lust for food and meat which all men have: this is our life and manner of living in the darkness of our tombs.'”

When Alexander desired to make a gift to these Brahmans, and asked them what they desired most, their answer was, “Give us immortality.”

In the Gilgamesh epic the only ray of hope which relieves the gloomy closing passages is Ea-bani’s suggestion that the sufferings endured by the dead may be alleviated by the performance of strict burial rites. Commenting on this point Professor Jastrow says: “A proper burial with an affectionate care of the corpse ensures at least a quiet repose.

Such a one rests on a couch and drinks pure water;

But he whose shade has no rest in the earth, as I have seen and you will see,

His shade has no rest in the earth

Whose shade no one cares for …

What is left over in the pot, remains of food

That are thrown in the street, he eats.”

Gilgamesh Epic.

By disseminating the belief that the dead must be buried with much ceremony, the priests secured great power over the people, and extracted large fees.

In Egypt, on the other hand, the teachers of the sun cult sold charms and received rewards to perform ceremonies so that chosen worshippers might enter the sun-barque of Ra; while the Osirian priests promised the just and righteous that they would reach an agricultural Paradise where they could live and work as on earth, but receive a greater return for their labour, the harvests of the Otherworld being of unequalled abundance.”

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

Nether Cuthah

” … In the Descent of Ishtar the Babylonian Underworld is called Cuthah.

This city had a famous cemetery, like Abydos in Egypt, where many pious and orthodox worshippers sought sepulture. The local god was Nergal, who symbolized the destructive power of the sun and the sand storm; he was a gloomy, vengeful deity, attended by the spirits of tempest, weariness, pestilence, and disease, and was propitiated because he was dreaded.

In Nether Cuthah, as Ea-bani informed Gilgamesh, the worm devoured the dead amidst the dust and thick darkness.

It is evident that this Underworld was modelled on the grave. In early times men believed that the spirits of the dead hovered in or about the place of sepulture. They were therefore provided with “houses” to protect them, in the same manner as the living were protected in their houses above the ground.

The enemies of the human ghosts were the earth spirits. Weapons were laid beside the dead in their graves so that they might wage war against demons when necessary.

The corpse was also charmed, against attack, by the magical and protecting ornaments which were worn by the living–necklaces, armlets, ear-rings, &c.

Even face paint was provided, probably as a charm against the evil eye and other subtle influences.

So long as corpses were left in their graves, the spirits of the dead were, it would appear, believed to be safe. But they required food and refreshment. Food vessels and drinking urns were therefore included in the funerary furniture, and the dead were given food offerings at regular intervals.

Once a year the living held feasts in the burial ground, and invited the ghosts to share in the repast. This custom was observed in Babylonia, and is not yet obsolete in Egypt; Moslems and Coptic Christians alike hold annual all-night feasts in their cemeteries.

[ … ]

According to Babylonian belief, the dead who were not properly buried roamed through the streets searching for food, eating refuse and drinking impure water.”

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

Excerpts from the Epic of Gilgamesh

” … Pir-napishtim made answer, reminding the pilgrim that all men must die. Men built houses, sealed contracts, disputed one with another, and sowed seeds in the earth, but as long as they did so and the rivers rose in flood, so long would their fate endure. Nor could any man tell when his hour would come. The god of destiny measured out the span of life: he fixed the day of death, but never revealed his secrets.

Gilgamesh then asked Pir-napishtim how it chanced that he was still alive. “Thou hast suffered no change,” he said, “thou art even as I am. Harden not thy heart against me, but reveal how thou hast obtained divine life in the company of the gods.”

Pir-napishtim thereupon related to his descendant the story of the deluge … The gods had resolved to destroy the world, and Ea in a dream revealed unto Pir-napishtim how he could escape. He built a ship which was tossed about on the waters, and when the world had been destroyed, Bel discovered him and transported him to that island in the midst of the Sea of Death.

Gilgamesh sat in the boat listening to the words of his ancestor. When the narrative was ended, Pir-napishtim spoke sympathetically and said: “Who among the gods will restore thee to health, O Gilgamesh? Thou hast knowledge of my life, and thou shalt be given the life thou dost strive after. Take heed, therefore, to what I say unto thee. For six days and seven nights thou shalt not lie down, but remain sitting like one in the midst of grief.”

Gilgamesh sat in the ship, and sleep enveloped him like to a black storm cloud.

Pir-napishtim spoke to his wife and said: “Behold the hero who desireth to have life. Sleep envelops him like to a black storm cloud.”

To that lone man his wife made answer: “Lay thine hand upon him so that he may have perfect health and be enabled to return to his own land. Give him power to pass through the mighty door by which he entered.”

Then Pir-napishtim addressed his wife, saying: “His sufferings make me sad. Prepare thou for him the magic food, and place it near his head.”

On the day when Gilgamesh lay down, the food was prepared by seven magic processes, and the woman administered it while yet he slept. Then Pir-napishtim touched him, and he awoke full of life.

Gilgamesh spake unto Pir-napishtim and said: “I was suddenly overcome by sleep…. But thou didst awaken me by touching me, even thou…. Lo! I am bewitched. What hast thou done unto thy servant?”

Then Pir-napishtim told Gilgamesh that he had been given to eat of the magic food. Afterwards he caused Arad Ea to carry Gilgamesh to a fountain of healing, where his disease-stricken body was cleansed. The blemished skin fell from him, and he was made whole.

Thereafter Gilgamesh prepared to return to his own land. Ere he bade farewell, however, Pir-napishtim revealed unto him the secret of a magic plant which had power to renew life and give youth and strength unto those who were old.

Arad Ea conducted the hero to the island where the plant grew, and when Gilgamesh found it he rejoiced, and said that he would carry it to Erech, his own city, where he would partake of it and restore his youth.

So Gilgamesh and Arad Ea went on their way together, nor paused until they came to a well of pure water. The hero stooped down to draw water. But while he was thus engaged that demon, the Earth Lion, crept forth as a serpent, and, seizing the magic plant of life, carried it away. Stricken with terror, Gilgamesh uttered a curse. Then he sat down and wept bitterly, and the tears streamed over his face. To Arad Ea he spake, saying: “Why has my health been restored to me? Why should I rejoice because that I live? The benefit which I should have derived for myself has now fallen to the Earth Lion.”

The two travellers then resumed their journey, performing religious acts from time to time; chanting dirges and holding feasts for the dead, and at length Gilgamesh returned to Erech. He found that the city walls were crumbling, and he spake regarding the ceremonies which had been performed while yet he was in a far-distant country.

During the days which followed Gilgamesh sorrowed for his lost friend Ea-bani, whose spirit was in the Underworld, the captive of the spirits of death. “Thou canst not draw thy bow now,” he cried, “nor raise the battle shout. Thou canst not kiss the woman thou hast loved; thou canst not kiss the child thou hast loved, nor canst thou smite those whom thou hast hated.”

In vain Gilgamesh appealed to his mother goddess to restore Ea-bani to him. Then he turned to the gods, and Ea heard him. Thereafter Nergal, god of death, caused the grave to yawn, and the spirit of Ea-bani arose like a wind gust.

Gilgamesh, still dreading death, spoke to the ghost of his friend, saying: “Tell me, my friend, O tell me regarding the land in which thou dost dwell.”

Ea-bani made answer sorrowfully: “Alas! I cannot tell thee, my friend. If I were to tell thee all, thou wouldst sit down and weep.”

Said Gilgamesh: “Let me sit down and weep, but tell me regarding the land of spirits.”

The text is mutilated here, but it can be gathered that Ea-bani described the land where ill-doers were punished, where the young were like the old, where the worm devoured, and dust covered all. But the state of the warrior who had been given burial was better than that of the man who had not been buried, and had no one to lament or care for him.

“He who hath been slain in battle,” the ghost said, “reposeth on a couch drinking pure water–one slain in battle as thou hast seen and I have seen. His head is supported by his parents: beside him sits his wife. His spirit doth not haunt the earth.

But the spirit of that man whose corpse has been left unburied and uncared for, rests not, but prowls through the streets eating scraps of food, the leavings of the feast, and drinking the dregs of vessels.”

So ends the story of Gilgamesh in the form which survives to us.”

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

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