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Tag: Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria

Ashurbanipal’s Great Library of Nineveh

“But if Assur-bani-pal was effeminate and lax in government, he was the first great patron of literature. It is to his magnificent library at Nineveh that we owe practically all that we have preserved of the literature that was produced in Babylonia.

He saw that the southern part of his empire was far more intellectual and cultured than Assyria, and he despatched numerous scribes to the temple schools of the south, where they copied extensively from their archives every description of literary curiosity— hymns, legends, medical prescriptions, myths and rituals were all included in the great library at Nineveh. These through the labours of Layard and Rassam have been restored to us.

It is a most extraordinary instance of antiquarian zeal in an epoch which we regard as not far distant from the beginnings of verifiable history. Nearly twenty thousand fragments of brick, bearing the results of Assur-bani-pal’s researches, are housed in the British Museum, and this probably represents only a portion of his entire collection.

Political motives have been attributed to Assur-bani-pal in thus bringing together such a great library. It has been argued that he desired to make Assyria the centre of the religious influence of the empire. This would derogate greatly from the view that sees in him a king solely fired with the idea of preserving and retaining all that was best in ancient Babylonian literature in the north as well as in the south, and having beside him for his own personal use those records which many circumstances prove he was extremely desirous of obtaining. Thus we find him sending officials on special missions to obtain copies of certain works.

It is also significant that Assur-bani-pal placed his collection in a library and not in a temple—a fact which, discounts the theory that his collection of literature had a religious-political basis.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 35-6.

Semiramis was Legendary, Mythical, and Real

“It was through the researches of Professor Lehmann-Haupt of Berlin that the true personal significance of Semiramis was recovered. Until the year 1910 the legends of Diodorus and others were held to have been completely disproved and Semiramis was regarded as a purely mythical figure. Old Bryant in his Antient Mythology, published at the beginning of last century, proves the legendary status of Semiramis to his own satisfaction.

He says :

“It must be confessed that the generality of historians have represented Semiramis as a woman, and they describe her as a great princess who reigned in Babylon; but there are writers who from their situation had opportunities of better intelligence, and by those she is mentioned as a deity. The Syrians, says Athenagoras, worshipped Semiramis, and adds that she was esteemed the daughter of Dercatus and the same as the Suria Dea. . .

Semiramis was said to have been born at Ascalon because Atargatus was there worshipped under the name of Dagon, and the same memorials were preserved there as at Hierapolis and Babylon. These memorials related to a history of which the dove was the principal type. It was upon the same account that she was said to have been changed to a dove because they found her always depicted and worshipped under that form. . . .

From the above I think it is plain that Semiramis was an emblem and that the name was a compound of Sama-ramas, or ramis, and it signified ‘the divine token,’ a type of providence, and as a military ensign, (for as such it was used) it may with some latitude be interpreted ‘the standard of the most High.’ It consisted of the figure of a dove, which was probably encircled with the iris, as those two emblems were often represented together. All who went under that standard, or who paid any deference to that emblem, were styled Semarim or Samorim. It was a title conferred upon all who had this device for their national insigne.”

There is much more of this sort of thing, typical of the mythic science of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It is easy to see how myth became busy with the name of the Assyrian Queen, whose exploits undoubtedly aroused the enthusiasm not only of the Assyrians themselves but of the peoples surrounding them. Just as any great work in ancient Britain was ascribed to the agency of Merlin or Arthur, so such monuments as could not otherwise be accounted for were attributed to Semiramis. Western Asia is monumentally eloquent of her name, and even the Behistun inscriptions of Darius have been placed to her credit. Herodotus states that one of the gates of Babylon was called after her, and that she raised the artificial banks that confined the river Euphrates. Her fame lasted until well into the Middle Ages’, and the Armenians called the district round Lake Van, Shamiramagerd.

There is very little doubt that her fame became mingled with that of the goddess Ishtar: she possesses the same Venus-like attributes, the dove is her emblem, and her story became so inextricably intertwined with that of the Babylonian goddess that she ultimately became a variant of her. The story of Semiramis is a triumphant vindication of the manner in which by certain mythical processes a human being can attain the rank of a god or goddess, for Semiramis was originally very real indeed. A column discovered in 1909 describes her as “a woman of the palace of Samsi-rammon, King of the World, King of Assyria, King of the Four Quarters of the World.”

This dedication indicates that Semiramis, or, to give her her Assyrian title, Sammuramat, evidently possessed an immense influence over her husband, Samsi-rammon, and that perhaps as queen-mother that influence lasted for more than one reign, so that the legend that after a regency of forty-two years she delivered up the kingdom to her son, Ninyas, may have some foundation in fact. She seems to have made war against the Medes and Chaldeans. The story that on relinquishing her power she turned into a dove and disappeared may mean that her name, Sammuramat, was easily connected with the Assyrian summat, the word for “dove;” and for a person of her subsequent legendary fame the mythical connexion with Ishtar is easily accounted for.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 27-9.

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.

The Tel el Amarna Letters Between Assyrian Kings and Egyptian Pharaohs

” … What the Babylonian chronologists called ‘the First Dynasty of Babylon’ fell in its turn, and it is claimed that a Sumerian line of eleven kings took its place. Their sway lasted for 368 years—a statement which is obviously open to question.

These were themselves overthrown and a Kassite dynasty from the mountains of Elam was founded by Kandis (c . 1780 B.C.) which lasted for nearly six centuries. These alien monarchs failed to retain their hold on much of the Asiatic and Syrian territory which had paid tribute to Babylon and the suzerainty of Palestine was likewise lost to them.

It was at this epoch, too, that the high-priests of Asshur in the north took the title of king, but they appear to have been subservient to Babylon in some degree. Assyria grew gradually in power. Its people were hardier and more warlike than the art-loving and religious folk of Babylon, and little by little they encroached upon the weakness of the southern kingdom until at length an affair of tragic proportions entitled them to direct interference in Babylonian politics.

[ … ]

The circumstances which necessitated this intervention are not unlike those of the assassination of King Alexander of Serbia and Draga, his Queen, that happened 3000 years later.

The Kassite king of Babylonia had married the daughter of Assur-yuballidh of Assyria. But the match did not meet with the approval of the Kassite faction at court, which murdered the bridegroom-king.

This atrocious act met with swift vengeance at the hands of Assur-yuballidh of Assyria, the bride’s father, a monarch of active and statesmanlike qualities, the author of the celebrated series of letters to Amen-hetep IV of Egypt, unearthed at Tel-el-Amarna.

This clay tablet is part of a collection of 382 cuneiform documents discovered in 1887 in Egypt, at the site of Tell el-Amarna. ... The majority date to the reign of Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten) (1352-1336 BC), the heretic pharaoh who founded a new capital at Tell el-Amarna. This letter is written in Akkadian, the diplomatic language of Mesopotamia at the time. It is addressed to Amenhotep III from Tushratta, king of Mitanni (centred in modern Syria). Tushratta calls the pharaoh his 'brother', with the suggestion that they are of equal rank. The letter starts with greetings to various members of the royal house including Tushratta's daughter Tadu-Heba, who had become one of Amenhotep's many brides. ... Tushratta goes on to inform Amenhotep that, with the consent of the goddess Ishtar, he has sent a statue of her to Egypt. He hopes that the goddess will be held in great honour in Egypt and that the statue may be sent back safely to Mitanni. Three lines of Egyptian, written in black ink, have been added, presumably when the letter arrived in Egypt. The addition includes the date 'Year 36' of the king. W.L. Moran, The Amarna letters (John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1992) http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/me/l/clay_tablet_letter,_egypt_2.aspx

This clay tablet is part of a collection of 382 cuneiform documents discovered in 1887 in Egypt, at the site of Tell el-Amarna. …
The majority date to the reign of Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten) (1352-1336 BC), the heretic pharaoh who founded a new capital at Tell el-Amarna.
This letter is written in Akkadian, the diplomatic language of Mesopotamia at the time. It is addressed to Amenhotep III from Tushratta, king of Mitanni (centred in modern Syria). Tushratta calls the pharaoh his ‘brother’, with the suggestion that they are of equal rank. The letter starts with greetings to various members of the royal house including Tushratta’s daughter Tadu-Heba, who had become one of Amenhotep’s many brides. …
Tushratta goes on to inform Amenhotep that, with the consent of the goddess Ishtar, he has sent a statue of her to Egypt. He hopes that the goddess will be held in great honour in Egypt and that the statue may be sent back safely to Mitanni.
Three lines of Egyptian, written in black ink, have been added, presumably when the letter arrived in Egypt. The addition includes the date ‘Year 36’ of the king.
W.L. Moran, The Amarna letters (John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1992)
http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/me/l/clay_tablet_letter,_egypt_2.aspx

He led a punitive army into Babylonia, hurled from the throne the pretender placed there by the Kassite faction, and replaced him with a scion of the legitimate royal stock. This king, Burna-buryas, reigned for over twenty years, and upon his decease the Assyrians, still nominally the vassals of the Babylonian Crown, declared themselves independent of it.

Not content with such a revolutionary measure, under Shalmaneser I (1300 B.C.) they laid claim to the suzerainty of the Tigris-Euphrates region, and extended their conquests even to the boundaries of far Cappadocia, the Hittites and numerous other confederacies submitting to their yoke.

Shalmaneser’s son, Tukulti-in-Aristi, took the city of Babylon, slew its king, Bitilyasu, and thus completely shattered the claim of the older state to supremacy. He had reigned in Babylon for some seven years when he was faced by a popular revolt, which seems to have been headed by his own son, Assur-nazir-pal, who slew him and placed Hadad-nadin-akhi on the throne.

This king conquered and killed the Assyrian monarch of his time, Bel-kudur-uzur, the last of the old Assyrian royal line, whose death necessitated the institution of a new dynasty, the fifth monarch of which was the famous Tiglath-pileser I.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 21-3.

Sargon: Conquerer, Librarian

“But the first great Semitic empire in Babylonia was that founded by the famous Sargon of Akkad. As is the case with many popular heroes and monarchs whose deeds are remembered in song and story— for example, Perseus, Oedipus, Cyrus, Romulus, and our own King Arthur—the early years of Sargon were passed in obscurity.

Sargon is, in fact, one of the ‘fatal children.’ He was, legend stated, born in concealment and sent adrift, like Moses, in an ark of bulrushes on the waters of the Euphrates, whence he was rescued and brought up by one Akki, a husbandman.

But the time of his recognition at length arrived, and he received the crown of Babylonia. His foreign conquests were extensive. On four successive occasions he invaded Syria and Palestine, which he succeeded in welding into a single empire with Babylonia. Pressing his victories to the margin of the Mediterranean, he erected upon its shores statues of himself as an earnest of his conquests. He also overcame Elam and northern Mesopotamia and quelled a rebellion of some magnitude in his own dominions.

His son, Naram-Sin, claimed for himself the title of “King of the Four Zones,” and enlarged the empire left him by his father, penetrating even into Arabia. A monument unearthed by J. de Morgan at Susa depicts him triumphing over the conquered Elamites. He is seen passing his spear through the prostrate body of a warrior whose hands are upraised as if pleading for quarter. His head-dress is ornamented with the horns emblematic of divinity, for the early Babylonian kings were the direct vicegerents of the gods on earth.

The brilliance of Naram-Sin's reign is reflected in the execution of this stele, which commemorated his victory over Satuni, king of the Lullubi.  The Akkadian army is climbing the steep slopes of the Zagros Mountains, home to the Lullubi. This upward march sweeps aside all resistance. To the right of a line of trees clinging to the mountainside, defeated enemies are depicted in a posture of submission. Those who have been killed are trampled underfoot by the Akkadian soldiers or drop over the precipice. These mountain people are clad in a tunic of hide and wear their long hair tied back. The composition is dominated by the lofty figure of the king, to whom all eyes - those of the Akkadian soldiers and of their Lullubi enemies - are turned. The triumphant sovereign, shown taller than the other men in the traditional manner, leads his army in the attack on the mountain.  He is followed by standard bearers who march before helmeted soldiers carrying bows and axes. Naram-Sin tramples the bodies of his enemies, while a kneeling Lullubi tries to tear out the arrow piercing his throat. Another raises his hands to his mouth, begging the Akkadian king for mercy.  But the conqueror's gaze is directed toward the top of the mountain. Above Naram-Sin, solar disks seem to radiate their divine protection toward him, while he rises to meet them. The Akkadian sovereign wears a conical helmet with horns - a symbol traditionally the privilege of the gods - and is armed with a large bow and an axe. This victorious ascension chiseled in stone thus celebrates a sovereign who considers himself on an equal footing with the gods. In official inscriptions, Naram-Sin's name was therefore preceded with a divine determinative.  He pushed back the frontiers of the empire farther than they had ever been, from Ebla in Syria to Susa in Elam, and led his army

The brilliance of Naram-Sin’s reign is reflected in the execution of this stele, which commemorated his victory over Satuni, king of the Lullubi.
The Akkadian army is climbing the steep slopes of the Zagros Mountains, home to the Lullubi. This upward march sweeps aside all resistance. To the right of a line of trees clinging to the mountainside, defeated enemies are depicted in a posture of submission. Those who have been killed are trampled underfoot by the Akkadian soldiers or drop over the precipice. These mountain people are clad in a tunic of hide and wear their long hair tied back.
The composition is dominated by the lofty figure of the king, to whom all eyes – those of the Akkadian soldiers and of their Lullubi enemies – are turned. The triumphant sovereign, shown taller than the other men in the traditional manner, leads his army in the attack on the mountain.
He is followed by standard bearers who march before helmeted soldiers carrying bows and axes. Naram-Sin tramples the bodies of his enemies, while a kneeling Lullubi tries to tear out the arrow piercing his throat. Another raises his hands to his mouth, begging the Akkadian king for mercy.
But the conqueror’s gaze is directed toward the top of the mountain. Above Naram-Sin, solar disks seem to radiate their divine protection toward him, while he rises to meet them. The Akkadian sovereign wears a conical helmet with horns – a symbol traditionally the privilege of the gods – and is armed with a large bow and an axe.
This victorious ascension chiseled in stone thus celebrates a sovereign who considers himself on an equal footing with the gods. In official inscriptions, Naram-Sin’s name was therefore preceded with a divine determinative.
He pushed back the frontiers of the empire farther than they had ever been, from Ebla in Syria to Susa in Elam, and led his army “where no other king had gone before him.”
He now appears as a universal monarch, as proclaimed by his official title “King of the Four Regions” – namely, of the whole world.
http://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/victory-stele-naram-sin

Even at this comparatively early time (c . 3800 b.c.) the resources of the country had been well exploited by its Semitic conquerors, and their absorption of the Sumerian civilization had permitted them to make very considerable progress in the enlightened arts. Some of their work in bas-relief, and even in the lesser if equally difficult craft of gem-cutting, is among the finest efforts of Babylonian art.

Nor were they deficient in more utilitarian fields. They constructed roads through the most important portions of the empire, along which a service of posts carried messages at stated intervals, the letters conveyed by these being stamped or franked by clay seals, bearing the name of Sargon.

Sargon is also famous as the first founder of a Babylonian library. This library appears to have contained works of a most surprising nature, having regard to the period at which it was instituted.

One of these was entitled The Observations of Bel, and consisted of no less than seventy-two books dealing with astronomical matters of considerable complexity; it registered and described the appearances of comets, conjunctions of the sun and moon, and the phases of the planet Venus, besides recording many eclipses. This wonderful book was long afterward translated into Greek by the Babylonian historian Berossus, and it demonstrates the great antiquity of Babylonian astronomical science even at this very early epoch.

Another famous work contained in the library of Sargon dealt with omens, the manner of casting them, and their interpretation—a very important side-issue of Babylonian magico-religious practice.

Among the conquests of this great monarch, whose splendour shines through the shadows of antiquity like the distant flash of arms on a misty day, was the fair island of Cyprus. Even imagination reels at the well-authenticated assertion that five thousand seven hundred years ago the keels of a Babylonian conqueror cut the waves of the Mediterranean and landed upon the shores of flowery Cyprus stern Semitic warriors, who, loading themselves with loot, erected statues of their royal leader and returned with their booty.

A god in horned cap brandishes a mace and the forked lightening of Iva-Vul, Thunder God, and sets foot on a recumbent bull.  Behind him is a leaping ibex. In front, a man, perhaps the king, in a short coat, standing full face. Behind him a man on bended knee, possibly the owner of the cylinder. Above him, a small deer is recumbent and inverted.  Then a figure in a long garment, and 3 rows of cuneiform writing:

A god in horned cap brandishes a mace and the forked lightening of Iva-Vul, Thunder God, and sets foot on a recumbent bull.
Behind him is a leaping ibex. In front, a man, perhaps the king, in a short coat, standing full face. Behind him a man on bended knee, possibly the owner of the cylinder. Above him, a small deer is recumbent and inverted.
Then a figure in a long garment, and 3 rows of cuneiform writing:
“Arba Istar: son of Ibu Beled: servant of the god Naram-Sin.”
The king Naram-Sin, to whom a divine determinative prefix is given here, reigned in Babylonia no later than 2600 BCE.
Cyprus, plate 4300.
John L. Myres, Handbook of the Cesnola Collection of Antiquities from Cyprus, 1914.

In a Cyprian temple De Cesnola discovered, down in the lowest vaults, a haematite cylinder which described its owner as a servant of Naram-Sin, the son of Sargon, so that a certain degree of communication must have been kept up between Babylonia and the distant island, just as early Egypt and Crete were bound to each other by ties of culture and commerce.

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 16-9.

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