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Tag: Mermaids

Chimeras in Babylonian-Assyrian Divination

” … The factor of fancy manifests itself in these handbooks of the Babylonian-Assyrian diviners in a form which is especially interesting, because of the explanation it affords for the widespread belief in antiquity in hybrid creatures such as satyrs, mermaids, fauns, harpies, sphinxes, winged serpents and the many fabulous monsters of mythology and folk-lore.

We have long lists of the young of animals having the features or parts of the body of another animal. Instead, however, of being recorded as a mere resemblance, an ewe giving birth to a lamb having a head which suggests that of a lion, or of a dog, an ass, of a fox or a gazelle, or ears or eyes which suggest those of another animal, it is stated that the ewe has given birth to a lion, dog, ass, fox gazelle, as the case may be.

In the same way, since it often happens that the face of an infant suggests a bird, a dog, a pig, a lamb, or what not, the fancied resemblance leads to the statement that a woman has given birth to the animal in question, which thus becomes an omen, the interpretation of which varies according to the ideas associated with the particular animal.

A lion suggests power and enlargement, and therefore a lamb or an infant with a lion-like face points to increase and prosperity in the land and to the growing strength of the ruler, and is also a favorable sign for the stall or house in which such a creature is born.

PLATE XXXIII

The Tree of Life with Assyrian King and with winged creature as guardian and fertilizer of the Tree — Symmetrically repeated.

The Tree of Life with Assyrian King and with winged creature as guardian and fertilizer of the Tree — Symmetrically repeated.

Favorable ideas, though of a different order, are associated with the lamb, pig, ox and ass, whereas with the dog as an unclean animal in the ancient as well as in the modern Orient, the association of ideas was unfavorable, and similarly with the serpent, wild cow and certain other animals, the interpretation refers to some misfortune, either of a public or private character, and occasionally of both.

This feature of a fancied resemblance between one animal and another and between an infant and some animal was the starting-point which led, through the further play of the imagination, to the belief in hybrid creatures and all kinds of monstrosities. The case of an infant being born with feet united so as to suggest the tail of a fish is actually recorded in our lists of birth-signs, and from such an anomaly to the belief in mermaids and tritons, half human and half fish, is only a small step, rendered still more credible by the representation in art which convents the resemblance to a fish tail into a real tail.

Since we have the direct proof [2] of the spread of the Babylonian-Assyrian system of divination from birth-omens, as of the two other systems above discussed, to Asia Minor, Greece and Rome, there is every reason to believe that we are justified in tracing back to this system the belief in fabulous beings of all kinds, though it may of course be admitted that there are also other factors involved.

We find this belief in Babylonia and Assyria, where we encounter in the ancient art hippocentaurs as well as bulls and eagles with human faces, and in the Assyrian art the winged monsters with human faces and the bodies of bulls or winged human figures with eagle faces. The process once begun would naturally lead to all kinds of ramifications and combinations.”

Morris Jastrow, The Civilization of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915, pp. 263-6.

Lilith

“Some of the supernatural beings resemble our elves and fairies and the Indian Rakshasas. Occasionally they appear in comely human guise; at other times they are vaguely monstrous. The best known of this class is Lilith, who, according to Hebrew tradition, preserved in the Talmud, was the demon lover of Adam. She has been immortalized by Dante Gabriel Rossetti:

Of Adam’s first wife Lilith, it is told

(The witch he loved before the gift of Eve)

That, ere the snake’s, her sweet tongue could deceive,

And her enchanted hair was the first gold.

And still she sits, young while the earth is old,

And, subtly of herself contemplative,

Draws men to watch the bright web she can weave,

heart and body and life are in its hold.

The rose and poppy are her flowers; for where

Is he not found, O Lilith, whom shed scent

And soft shed kisses and soft sleep shall snare?

Lo! as that youth’s eyes burned at thine, so went

Thy spell through him, and left his straight neck bent

And round his heart one strangling golden hair.

Lilith is the Babylonian Lilithu, a feminine form of Lilu, the Sumerian Lila. She resembles Surpanakha of the Ramayana, who made love to Rama and Lakshmana, and the sister of the demon Hidimva, who became enamoured of Bhima, one of the heroes of the Mahabharata, and the various fairy lovers of Europe who lured men to eternal imprisonment inside mountains, or vanished for ever when they were completely under their influence, leaving them demented.

The elfin Lilu similarly wooed young women, like the Germanic Laurin of the “Wonderful Rose Garden,” who carried away the fair lady Kunhild to his underground dwelling amidst the Tyrolese mountains, or left them haunting the place of their meetings, searching for him in vain:

A savage place! as holy and enchanted

As ere beneath the waning moon was haunted

By woman wailing for her demon lover…

His flashing eyes, his floating hair!

Weave a circle round him thrice,

And close your eyes with holy dread,

For he on honey dew hath fed

And drunk the milk of Paradise.

Coleridge’s Kubla Khan.

Another materializing spirit of this class was Ardat Lili, who appears to have wedded human beings like the swan maidens, the mermaids, and Nereids of the European folk tales, and the goddess Ganga, who for a time was the wife of King Shantanu of the Mahabharata.

The Labartu, to whom we have referred, was a female who haunted mountains and marshes; like the fairies and hags of Europe, she stole or afflicted children, who accordingly had to wear charms round their necks for protection. Seven of these supernatural beings were reputed to be daughters of Anu, the sky god.

The Alu, a storm deity, was also a spirit which caused nightmare. It endeavoured to smother sleepers like the Scandinavian hag Mara, and similarly deprived them of power to move. In Babylonia this evil spirit might also cause sleeplessness or death by hovering near a bed. In shape it might be as horrible and repulsive as the Egyptian ghosts which caused children to die from fright or by sucking out the breath of life.”

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

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