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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.

The Legend of Queen Semiramis

” … It was during this campaign, says Diodorus Siculus, that Ninus first beheld Semiramis. Her precise legendary or mythical origin is obscure. Some writers aver that she was the daughter of the fish-goddess Ataryatis, or Derketo, and Oannes, the Babylonian god of wisdom… Ataryatis was a goddess of Ascalon in Syria, and after birth her daughter Semiramis was miraculously fed by doves until she was found by one Simmas, the royal shepherd, who brought her up and married her to Onnes, or Menon, one of Ninus’s generals.

He fell by his own hand, and Ninus thereupon took Semiramis to wife, having profoundly admired her ever since her conduct at the capture of Bactria, where she had greatly distinguished herself. Not long afterward Ninus died, leaving a son called Ninyas.

During her son’s minority Semiramis assumed the regency, and the first great work she undertook was the interment of her husband, whom she buried with great splendour, and raised over him a mound of earth no less than a mile and a quarter high and proportionally wide, after which she built Babylon.

This city being finished, she made an expedition into Media ; and wherever she went left memorials of her power and munificence. She erected vast structures, forming lakes and laying out gardens of great extent, particularly in Chaonia and Ecbatana. In short, she leveled hills, and raised mounds of an immense height, which retained her name for ages.

After this she invaded Egypt and conquered Ethiopia, with the greater part of Libya; and having accomplished her wish, and there being no enemy to cope with her, excepting the kingdom of India, she resolved to direct her forces toward that quarter.

She had an army of 3,000,000 foot, 500,000 horse, and 100,000 chariots. For the passing of rivers and engaging the enemy by water she had procured 2000 ships, to be so constructed as to be taken to pieces for the advantage of carriage: which ships were built in Bactria by men from Phoenicia, Syria, and Cyprus. With these she fought a naval engagement with Strabrobates, King of India, and at the first encounter sunk a thousand of his ships.

After this she built a bridge over the river Indus, and penetrated into the heart of the country. Here Strabrobates engaged her. Being deceived by the numerous appearance of her elephants, he at first gave way, for being deficient in those animals she had procured the hides of 3000 black oxen, which, being properly sewn and stuffed with straw, presented the appearance of so many elephants. All this was done so naturally that even the real elephants of the Indian king were deceived.

But the stratagem was at last discovered, and Semiramis was obliged to retreat, after having lost a great part of her army. Soon after this she resigned the government to her son Ninyas, and died. According to some writers, she was slain by his hand.

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 25-7.

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