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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.

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 Legends of Queen Semiramis

The legends of Semiramis indicate that Sammu-rammat was associated like Queen Tiy with the revival of mother worship.

As we have said, she went down to tradition as the daughter of the fish goddess, Derceto. Pliny identified that deity with Atargatis of Hierapolis.

In Babylonia the fish goddess was Nina, a developed form of Damkina, spouse of Ea of Eridu. In the inscription on the Nebo statue, that god is referred to as the “son of Nudimmud” (Ea). Nina was the goddess who gave her name to Nineveh, and it is possible that Nebo may have been regarded as her son during the Semiramis period.

The story of Semiramis’s birth is evidently of great antiquity. It seems to survive throughout Europe in the nursery tale of the “Babes in the Wood.” A striking Indian parallel is afforded by the legend of Shakuntala, which may be first referred to for the purpose of comparative study.

Shakuntala was the daughter of the rishi, Viswamitra, and Menaka, the Apsara (celestial fairy). Menaka gave birth to her child beside the sacred river Malini.

“And she cast the new-born infant on the bank of that river and went away. And beholding the newborn infant lying in that forest destitute of human beings but abounding with lions and tigers, a number of vultures sat around to protect it from harm.”

A sage discovered the child and adopted her. “Because,” he said, “she was surrounded by Shakuntas (birds), therefore hath she been named by me Shakuntala (bird protected).”

Semiramis was similarly deserted at birth by her Celestial mother. She was protected by doves, and her Assyrian name, Sammu-rammat, is believed to be derived from “Summat“–“dove,” and to signify “the dove goddess loveth her.”

Simmas, the chief of royal shepherds, found the child and adopted her. She was of great beauty like Shakuntala, the maiden of “perfect symmetry,” “sweet smiles,” and “faultless features,” with whom King Dushyanta fell in love and married in Gandharva fashion.

Semiramis became the wife of Onnes, governor of Nineveh, and one of the generals of its alleged founder, King Ninus. She accompanied her husband to Bactria on a military campaign, and is said to have instructed the king how that city should be taken.

Ninus fell in love with Semiramis, and Onnes, who refused to give her up, went and hanged himself. The fair courtesan then became the wife of the king.

The story proceeds that Semiramis exercised so great an influence over the impressionable King Ninus, that she persuaded him to proclaim her Queen of Assyria for five days. She then ascended the throne decked in royal robes. On the first day she gave a great banquet, and on the second thrust Ninus into prison, or had him put to death. In this manner she secured the empire for herself. She reigned for over forty years.

Professor Frazer inclines to the view that the legend is a reminiscence of the custom of appointing a mock king and queen to whom the kingdom was yielded up for five days. Semiramis played the part of the mother goddess, and the priestly king died a violent death in the character of her divine lover.

“The mounds of Semiramis which were pointed out all over Western Asia were said to have been the graves of her lovers whom she buried alive…. This tradition is one of the surest indications of the identity of the mythical Semiramis with the Babylonian goddess Ishtar or Astarte.”

As we have seen, Ishtar and other mother goddesses had many lovers whom they deserted like La Belle Dame sans Merci (pp. 174-175).

As Queen of Assyria, Semiramis was said to have cut roads through mountainous districts and erected many buildings. According to one version of the legend she founded the city of Babylon. Herodotus, however, says in this connection:

“Semiramis held the throne for five generations before the later princess (Nitocris)…. She raised certain embankments, well worthy of inspection, in the plain near Babylon, to control the river (Euphrates), which, till then, used to overflow and flood the whole country round about.”

Lucian, who associates the famous queen with “mighty works in Asia,” states that she was reputed by some to be the builder of the ancient temple of Aphrodite in the Libanus, although others credited it to Cinyras, or Deukalion.

Several Median places bear her name, and according to ancient Armenian tradition she was the founder of Van, which was formerly called “Shamiramagerd.” Strabo tells that unidentified mountains in Western Asia were named after Semiramis.

Indeed, many of the great works in the Tigro-Euphrates valley, not excepting the famous inscription of Darius, were credited to the legendary queen of Babylonia and Assyria. She was the rival in tradition of the famous Sesostris of Egypt as a ruler, builder, and conqueror.

All the military expeditions of Semiramis were attended with success, except her invasion of India. She was supposed to have been defeated in the Punjab. After suffering this disaster she died, or abdicated the throne in favour of her son Ninyas.

The most archaic form of the legend appears to be that she was turned into a dove and took flight to heaven in that form. After her death she was worshipped as a dove goddess like “Our Lady of Trees and Doves” in Cyprus, whose shrine at old Paphos was founded, Herodotus says, by Phoenician colonists from Askalon.

Fish and doves were sacred to Derceto (Attar), who had a mermaid form. “I have beheld”, says Lucian, “the image of Derceto in Phoenicia. A marvellous spectacle it is. One half is a woman, but the part which extends from thighs to feet terminates with the tail of a fish.”

Donald A. Mackenzie, Myths of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915, pp. 423-6.

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