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Tag: Winged Bulls

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.

Gods, Goddesses, Demons

” … In the early stages of Sumerian culture, the gods and goddesses who formed groups were indistinguishable from demons. They were vaguely defined, and had changing shapes. When attempts were made to depict them they were represented in many varying forms. Some were winged bulls or lions with human heads; others had even more remarkable composite forms. The “dragon of Babylon”, for instance, which was portrayed on walls of temples, had a serpent’s head, a body covered with scales, the fore legs of a lion, hind legs of an eagle, and a long wriggling serpentine tail. Ea had several monster forms. The following description of one of these is repulsive enough:–

The head is the head of a serpent,

From his nostrils mucus trickles,

His mouth is beslavered with water;

The ears are like those of a basilisk,

His horns are twisted into three curls,

He wears a veil in his head band,

The body is a suh-fish full of stars,

The base of his feet are claws,

The sole of his foot has no heel,

His name is Sassu-wunnu,

A sea monster, a form of Ea.

R.C. Thompson’s Translation.

Even after the gods were given beneficent attributes to reflect the growth of culture, and were humanized, they still retained many of their savage characteristics. Bel Enlil and his fierce son, Nergal, were destroyers of mankind; the storm god desolated the land; the sky god deluged it with rain; the sea raged furiously, ever hungering for human victims; the burning sun struck down its victims; and the floods played havoc with the dykes and houses of human beings.

In Egypt the sun god Ra was similarly a “producer of calamity,” the composite monster god Sokar was “the lord of fear”. Osiris in prehistoric times had been “a dangerous god,” and some of the Pharaohs sought protection against him in the charms inscribed in their tombs.

The Indian Shiva, “the Destroyer”, in the old religious poems has also primitive attributes of like character.

The Sumerian gods never lost their connection with the early spirit groups. These continued to be represented by their attendants, who executed a deity’s stern and vengeful decrees. In one of the Babylonian charms the demons are referred to as “the spleen of the gods”–the symbols of their wrathful emotions and vengeful desires.

Bel Enlil, the air and earth god, was served by the demons of disease, “the beloved sons of Bel,” which issued from the Underworld to attack mankind. Nergal, the sulky and ill-tempered lord of death and destruction, who never lost his demoniac character, swept over the land, followed by the spirits of pestilence, sunstroke, weariness, and destruction.

Anu, the sky god, had “spawned” at creation the demons of cold and rain and darkness. Even Ea and his consort, Damkina, were served by groups of devils and giants, which preyed upon mankind in bleak and desolate places when night fell. In the ocean home of Ea were bred the “seven evil spirits” of tempest–the gaping dragon, the leopard which preyed upon children, the great Beast, the terrible serpent, &c.

In Indian mythology Indra was similarly followed by the stormy Maruts, and fierce Rudra by the tempestuous Rudras.

In Teutonic mythology Odin is the “Wild Huntsman in the Raging Host.”

In Greek mythology the ocean furies attend upon fickle Poseidon.

Other examples of this kind could be multiplied.”

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

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