Ancient History & Civilisation


Religion and the state—The junctions and powers of the clergy—The lesser gods—Marduk—Ishtar—The Babylonian stories of the Creation and the Flood—The love of Ishtar and Tammuz—The descent of Ishtar into Hell—The death and resurrection of Tammuz—Ritual and prayer—Penitential psalms—Sin—Magic—Superstition

The power of the king was limited not only by the law and the aristocracy, but by the clergy. Technically the king was merely the agent of the city god. Taxation was in the name of the god, and found its way directly or deviously into the temple treasuries. The king was not really king in the eyes of the people until he was invested with royal authority by the priests, “took the hands of Bel,” and conducted the image of Marduk in solemn procession through the streets. In these ceremonies the monarch was dressed as a priest, symbolizing the union of church and state, and perhaps the priestly origin of the kingship. All the glamor of the supernatural hedged about the throne, and made rebellion a colossal impiety which risked not only the neck but the soul. Even the mighty Hammurabi received his laws from the god. From the patesis or priest-governors of Sumeria to the religious coronation of Nebuchadrezzar, Babylonia remained in effect a theocratic state, always “under the thumb of the priests.”65

The wealth of the temples grew from generation to generation, as the uneasy rich shared their dividends with the gods. The kings, feeling an especial need of divine forgiveness, built the temples, equipped them with furniture, food and slaves, deeded to them great areas of land, and assigned to them an annual income from the state. When the army won a battle, the first share of the captives and the spoils went to the temples; when any special good fortune befell the king, extraordinary gifts were dedicated to the gods. Certain lands were required to pay to the temples a yearly tribute of dates, corn, or fruit; if they failed, the temples could foreclose on them; and in this way the lands usually came into possession by the priests. Poor as well as rich turned over to the temples as much as they thought profitable of their earthly gains. Gold, silver, copper, lapis lazuli, gems and precious woods accumulated in the sacred treasury.

As the priests could not directly use or consume this wealth, they turned it into productive or investment capital, and became the greatest agriculturists, manufacturers and financiers of the nation. Not only did they hold vast tracts of land; they owned a great number of slaves, or controlled hundreds of laborers, who were hired out to other employers, or worked for the temples in their divers trades from the playing of music to the brewing of beer.66 The priests were also the greatest merchants and financiers of Babylonia; they sold the varied products of the temple shops, and handled a large proportion of the country’s trade; they had a reputation for wise investment, and many persons entrusted their savings to them, confident of a modest but reliable return. They made loans on more lenient terms than the private money-lenders; sometimes they lent to the sick or the poor without interest, merely asking a return of the principal when Marduk should smile upon the borrower again.67 Finally, they performed many legal functions: they served as notaries, attesting and signing contracts, and making wills; they heard and decided suits and trials, kept official records, and recorded commercial transactions.

Occasionally the king commandeered some of the temple accumulations to meet an expensive emergency. But this was rare and dangerous, for the priests had laid terrible curses upon all who should touch, unpermitted, the smallest jot of ecclesiastical property. Besides, their influence with the people was ultimately greater than that of the king, and they might in most cases depose him if they set their combined wits and powers to this end. They had also the advantage of permanence; the king died, but the god lived on; the council of priests, free from the fortunes of elections, illnesses, assassinations and wars, had a corporate perpetuity that made possible long-term and patient policies, such as characterize great religious organizations to this day. The supremacy of the priests under these conditions was inevitable. It was fated that the merchants should make Babylon, and that the priests should enjoy it.

Who were the gods that formed the invisible constabulary of the state? They were numerous, for the imagination of the people was limitless, and there was hardly any end to the needs that deities might serve. An official census of the gods, undertaken in the ninth century before Christ, counted them as some 65,000.68 Every town had its tutelary divinity; and as, in our own time and faith, localities and villages, after making formal acknowledgment of the Supreme Being, worship specific minor gods with a special devotion, so Larsa lavished its temples on Shamash, Uruk on Ishtar, Ur on Nannar—for the Sumerian pantheon had survived the Sumerian state. The gods were not aloof from men; most of them lived on earth in the temples, ate with a hearty appetite, and through nocturnal visits to pious women gave unexpected children to the busy citizens of Babylon.69

Oldest of all were the astronomic gods: Anu, the immovable firmament, Shamash, the sun, Nannar, the moon, and Bel or Baal, the earth into whose bosom all Babylonians returned after death.70 Every family had household gods, to whom prayers were said and libations poured each morning and night; every individual had a protective divinity (or, as we should say, a guardian angel) to keep him from harm and joy; and genii of fertility hovered beneficently over the fields. It was probably out of this multitude of spirits that the Jews moulded their cherubim.

We do not find among the Babylonians such signs of monotheism as appear in Ikhnaton and the Second Isaiah. Two forces, however, brought them near to it: the enlargement of the state by conquest and growth brought local deities under the supremacy of a single god; and several of the cities patriotically conferred omnipotence upon their favored divinities. “Trust in Nebo,” says Nebo, “trust in no other god”;71 this is not unlike the first of the commandments given to the Jews. Gradually the number of the gods was lessened by interpreting the minor ones as forms or attributes of the major deities. In these ways the god of Babylon, Marduk, originally a sun god, became sovereign of all Babylonian divinities.72 Hence his title, Bel-Marduk—that is, Marduk the god. To him and to Ishtar the Babylonians sent up the most eloquent of their prayers.

Ishtar (Astarte to the Greeks, Ashtoreth to the Jews) interests us not only as analogue of the Egyptian Isis and prototype of the Grecian Aphrodite and the Roman Venus, but as the formal beneficiary of one of the strangest of Babylonian customs. She was Demeter as well as Aphrodite—no mere goddess of physical beauty and love, but the gracious divinity of bounteous motherhood, the secret inspiration of the growing soil, and the creative principle everywhere. It is impossible to find much harmony, from a modern point of view, in the attributes and functions of Ishtar: she was the goddess of war as well as of love, of prostitutes as well as of mothers; she called herself “a compassionate courtesan”;73 she was represented sometimes as a bearded bisexual deity, sometimes as a nude female offering her breasts to suck;74 and though her worshipers repeatedly addressed her as “The Virgin,” “The Holy Virgin,” and “The Virgin Mother,” this merely meant that her amours were free from all taint of wedlock. Gilgamesh rejected her advances on the ground that she could not be trusted; had she not once loved, seduced, and then slain, a lion?75 It is clear that we must put our own moral code to one side if we are to understand her. Note with what fervor the Babylonians could lift up to her throne litanies of laudation only less splendid than those which a tender piety once raised to the Mother of God:

I beseech thee, Lady of Ladies, Goddess of Goddesses, Ishtar, Queen of all cities, leader of all men.

Thou art the light of the world, thou art the light of heaven, mighty daughter of Sin (the moon-god). . . .

Supreme is thy might, O Lady, exalted art thou above all gods.

Thou renderest judgment, and thy decision is righteous.

Unto thee are subject the laws of the earth and the laws of heaven, the laws of the temples and the shrines, the laws of the private apartment and the secret chamber.

Where is the place where thy name is not, and where is the spot where thy commandments are not known?

At thy name the earth and the heavens shake, and the gods they tremble. . . .

Thou lookest upon the oppressed, and to the down-trodden thou bringest justice every day.

How long, Queen of Heaven and Earth, how long,

How long, Shepherdess of pale-faced men, wilt thou tarry?

How long, O Queen whose feet are not weary, and whose knees make haste?

How long, Lady of Hosts, Lady of Battles?

Glorious one whom all the spirits of heaven fear, who subduest all angry gods; mighty above all rulers; who holdest the reins of kings.

Opener of the womb of all women, great is thy light.

Shining light of heaven, light of the world, enlightener of all the places where men dwell, who gatherest together the hosts of the nations.

Goddess of men, Divinity of women, thy counsel passeth understanding.

Where thou glancest, the dead come to life, and the sick rise and walk; the mind of the diseased is healed when it looks upon thy face.

How long, O Lady, shall mine enemy triumph over me?

Command, and at thy command the angry god will turn back.

Ishtar is great! Ishtar is Queen! My Lady is exalted, my Lady is Queen, Innini, the mighty daughter of Sin.

There is none like unto her.76

With these gods as dramatis personæ the Babylonians constructed myths which have in large measure come down to us, through the Jews, as part of our own religious lore. There was first of all the myth of the creation. In the beginning was Chaos. “In the time when nothing which was called heaven existed above, and when nothing below had yet received the name of earth, Apsu, the Ocean, who first was their father, and Tiamat, Chaos, who gave birth to them all, mingled their waters in one.” Things slowly began to grow and take form; but suddenly the monster-goddessTiamat set out to destroy all the other gods, and to make herself—Chaos—supreme. A mighty revolution ensued in which all order was destroyed. Then another god, Marduk, slew Tiamat with her own medicine by casting a hurricane of wind into her mouth as she opened it to swallow him; then he thrust his lance into Tiamat’s wind-swollen paunch, and the goddess of Chaos blew up. Marduk, “recovering his calm,” says the legend, split the dead Tiamat into two longitudinal halves, as one does a fish for drying; “then he hung up one of the halves on high, which became the heavens; the other half he spread out under his feet to form the earth.”77 This is as much as we yet know about creation. Perhaps the ancient poet meant to suggest that the only creation of which we can know anything is the replacement of chaos with order, for in the end this is the essence of art and civilization. We should remember, however, that the defeat of Chaos is only a myth.*

Having moved heaven and earth into place, Marduk undertook to knead earth with his blood and thereby make men for the service of the gods. Mesopotamian legends differed on the precise way in which this was done; they agreed in general that man was fashioned by the deity from a lump of clay. Usually they represented him as living at first not in a paradise but in bestial simplicity and ignorance, until a strange monster called Oannes, half fish and half philosopher, taught him the arts and sciences, the rules for founding cities, and the principles of law; after which Oannes plunged into the sea, and wrote a book on the history of civilization.79 Presently, however, the gods became dissatisfied with the men whom they had created, and sent a great flood to destroy them and all their works. The god of wisdom, Ea, took pity on mankind, and resolved to save one man at least—Shamash-napishtim—and his wife. The flood raged; men “encumbered the sea like fishes’ spawn.” Then suddenly the gods wept and gnashed their teeth at their own folly, asking themselves, “Who will make the accustomed offerings now?” But Shamash-napishtim had built an ark, had survived the flood, had perched on the mountain of Nisir, and had sent out a reconnoitering dove; now he decided to sacrifice to the gods, who accepted his gifts with surprise and gratitude. “The gods snuffed up the odor, the gods snuffed up the excellent odor, the gods gathered like flies above the offering.”80

Lovelier than this vague memory of some catastrophic inundation is the vegetation myth of Ishtar and Tammuz. In the Sumerian form of the tale Tammuz is Ishtar’s young brother; in the Babylonian form he is sometimes her lover, sometimes her son; both forms seem to have entered into the myths of Venus and Adonis, Demeter and Persephone, and a hundred scattered legends of death and resurrection. Tammuz, son of the great god Ea, is a shepherd pasturing his flock under the great tree Erida (which covers the whole earth with its shade) when Ishtar, always insatiable, falls in love with him, and chooses him to be the spouse of her youth. But Tammuz, like Adonis, is gored to death by a wild boar, and descends, like all the dead, into that dark subterranean Hades which the Babylonians called Aralu, and over which they set as ruler Ishtar’s jealous sister, Ereshkigal. Ishtar, mourning inconsolably, resolves to go down to Aralu and restore Tammuz to life by bathing his wounds in the waters of a healing spring. Soon she appears at the gates of Hades in all her imperious beauty, and demands entrance. The tablets tell the story vigorously:

When Ereshkigal heard this,

As when one hews down a tamarisk (she trembled?).

As when one cuts a reed (she shook?).

“What has moved her heart, what has (stirred) her liver?

Ho, there, (does) this one (wish to dwell) with me?

To eat clay as food, to drink (dust?) as wine?

I weep for the men who have left their wives;

I weep for the wives torn from the embrace of their husbands;

For the little ones (cut off) before their time.

Go, gate-keeper, open thy gate for her,

Deal with her according to the ancient decree.”

The ancient decree is that none but the nude shall enter Aralu. Therefore at each of the successive gates through which Ishtar must pass, the keeper divests her of some garment or ornament: first her crown, then her ear-rings, then her necklace, then the ornaments from her bosom, then her many-jeweled girdle, then the spangles from her hands and feet, and lastly her loin-cloth; and Ishtar, protesting gracefully, yields.

Now when Ishtar had gone down into the land of no return,

Ereshkigal saw her and was angered at her presence.

Ishtar without reflection threw herself at her.

Ereshkigal opened her mouth and spoke

To Namtar, her messenger. . . .

“Go, Namtar, (imprison her?) in my palace.

Send against her sixty diseases,

Eye disease against her eyes,

Disease of the side against her side,

Foot-disease against her foot,

Heart-disease against her heart,

Head-disease against her head,

Against her whole being.”

While Ishtar is detained in Hades by these sisterly attentions, the earth, missing the inspiration of her presence, forgets incredibly all the arts and ways of love: plant no longer fertilizes plant, vegetation languishes, animals experience no heat, men cease to yearn.

After the lady Ishtar had gone down into the land of no return,

The bull did not mount the cow, the ass approached not the she-ass;

To the maid in the street no man drew near;

The man slept in his apartment,

The maid slept by herself.

Population begins to diminish, and the gods note with alarm a sharp decline in the number of offerings from the earth. In panic they command Ereshkigal to release Ishtar. It is done, but Ishtar refuses to return to the surface of the earth unless she is allowed to take Tammuz with her. She wins her point, passes triumphantly through the seven gates, receives her loin-cloth, her spangles, her girdle, her pectorals, her necklace, her ear-rings and her crown. As she appears plants grow and bloom again, the land swells with food, and every animal resumes the business of reproducing his kind.81 Love, stronger than death, is restored to its rightful place as master of gods and men. To the modern scholar it is only an admirable legend, symbolizing delightfully the yearly death and rebirth of the soil, and that omnipotence of Venus which Lucretius was to celebrate in his own strong verse; to the Babylonians it was sacred history, faithfully believed and annually commemorated in a day of mourning and wailing for the dead Tammuz, followed by riotous rejoicing over his resurrection.82

Nevertheless the Babylonian derived’ no satisfaction from the idea of personal immortality. His religion was terrestrially practical; when he prayed he asked not for celestial rewards but for earthly goods;83 he could not trust his gods beyond the grave. It is true that one text speaks of Marduk as he “who gives back life to the dead,”84 and the story of the flood represents its two survivors as living forever. But for the most part the Babylonian conception of another life was like that of the Greeks: dead men—saints and villains, geniuses and idiots, alike—went to a dark and shadowy realm within the bowels of the earth, and none of them saw the light again. There was a heaven, but only for the gods; the Aralu to which all men descended was a place frequently of punishment, never of joy; there the dead lay bound hand and foot forever, shivering with cold, and subject to hunger and thirst unless their children placed food periodically in their graves.85 Those who had been especially wicked on earth were subjected to horrible tortures; leprosy consumed them, or some other of the diseases which Nergal and Allat, male and female lords of Aralu, had arranged for their rectification.

Most bodies were buried in vaults; a few were cremated, and their remains were preserved in urns.86 The dead body was not embalmed, but professional mourners washed and perfumed it, clad it presentably, painted its cheeks, darkened its eyelids, put rings upon its fingers, and provided it with a change of linen. If the corpse was that of a woman it was equipped with scentbottles, combs, cosmetic pencils, and eye-paint to preserve its fragrance and complexion in the nether world.87 If not properly buried the dead would torment the living; if not buried at all, the soul would prowl about sewers and gutters for food, and might afflict an entire city with pestilence.88 It was a medley of ideas not as consistent as Euclid, but sufficing to prod the simple Babylonian to keep his gods and priests well fed.

The usual offering was food and drink, for these had the advantage that if they were not entirely consumed by the gods the surplus need not go to waste. A frequent sacrifice on Babylonian altars was the lamb; and an old Babylonian incantation strangely anticipates the symbolism of Judaism and Christianity: “The lamb as a substitute for a man, the lamb he gives for his life.”89 Sacrifice was a complex ritual, requiring the expert services of a priest; every act and word of the ceremony was settled by sacred tradition, and any amateur deviation from these forms might mean that the gods would eat without listening. In general, to the Babylonian, religion meant correct ritual rather than the good life. To do one’s duty to the gods one had to offer proper sacrifice to the temples, and recite the appropriate prayers;90 for the rest he might cut out the eyes of his fallen enemy, cut off the hands and feet of captives, and roast their remainders alive in a furnace,91 without much offense to heaven. To participate in—or reverently to attend—long and solemn processions like those in which the priests carried from sanctuary to sanctuary the image of Marduk, and performed the sacred drama of his death and resurrection; to anoint the idols with sweet-scented oils,* to burn incense before them, clothe them with rich vestments, or adorn them with jewelry; to offer up the virginity of their daughters in the great festival of Ishtar; to put food and drink before the gods, and to be generous to the priests—these were the essential works of the devout Babylonian soul.93

Perhaps we misjudge him, as doubtless the future will misjudge us from the fragments that accident will rescue from our decay. Some of the finest literary relics of the Babylonians are prayers that breathe a profound and sincere piety. Hear the proud Nebuchadrezzar humbly addressing Marduk:

Without thee, Lord, what could there be

For the king thou lovest, and dost call his name?

Thou shalt bless his title as thou wilt,

And unto him vouchsafe a path direct.

I, the prince obeying thee,

Am what thy hands have made.

’Tis thou who art my creator,

Entrusting me with the rule of hosts of men.

According to thy mercy, Lord, . . .

Turn into loving-kindness thy dread power,

And make to spring up in my heart

A reverence for thy divinity.

Give as thou thinkest best.94

The surviving literature abounds in hymns full of that passionate self abasement with which the Semite tries to control and conceal his pride. Many of them take the character of “penitential psalms,” and prepare us for the magnificent feeling and imagery of “David”; who knows but they served as models for that many-headed Muse?

I, thy servant, full of sighs cry unto thee.

Thou acceptest the fervent prayer of him who is burdened with sin.

Thou lookest upon a man, and that man lives. . . .

Look with true favor upon me, and accept my supplication. . . .

And then, as if uncertain of the sex of the god—

How long, my god,

How long, my goddess, until thy face be turned to me?

How long, known and unknown god, until the anger of thy heart shall be appeased?

How long, known and unknown goddess, until thy unfriendly heart be appeased?

Mankind is perverted, and has no judgment;

Of all men who are alive, who knows anything?

They do not know whether they do good or evil.

O Lord, do not cast aside thy servant;

He is cast into the mire; take his hand!

The sin which I have sinned, turn to mercy!

The iniquity which I have committed, let the wind carry away!

My many transgressions tear off like a garment!

My god, my sins are seven times seven; forgive my sins!

My goddess, my sins are seven times seven; forgive my sins! . . .

Forgive my sins, and I will humble myself before thee.

May thy heart, as the heart of a mother who hath borne children, be glad;

As a mother who hath borne children, as a father who hath begotten, may it be glad!95

Such psalms and hymns were sung sometimes by the priests, sometimes by the congregation, sometimes by both in strophe and antistrophe. Perhaps the strangest circumstance about them is that—like all the religious literature of Babylon—they were written in the ancient Sumerian language, which served the Babylonian and Assyrian churches precisely as Latin serves the Roman Catholic Church today. And just as a Catholic hymnal may juxtapose the Latin text to a vernacular translation, so some of the hymns that have come down to us from Mesopotamia have a Babylonian or Assyrian translation written between the lines of the “classic” Sumerian original, in the fashion of a contemporary schoolboy’s “interlinear.” And as the form of these hymns and rituals led to the Psalms of the Jews and the liturgy of the Roman Church, so their content presaged the pessimistic and sin-struck plaints of the Jews, the early Christians, and the modern Puritans. The sense of sin, though it did not interfere victoriously in Babylonian life, filled the Babylonian chants, and rang a note that survives in all Semitic liturgies and their anti-Semitic derivatives. “Lord,” cries one hymn, “my sins are many, great are my misdeeds! . . . I sink under affliction, I can no longer raise my head; I turn to my merciful God to call upon him, and I groan! . . . Lord, reject not thy servant!”96

These groanings were rendered more sincere by the Babylonian conception of sin. Sin was no mere theoretical state of the soul; like sickness it was the possession of the body by a demon that might destroy it. Prayer was in the nature of an incantation against a demon that had come down upon the individual out of the ocean of magic forces in which the ancient Orient lived and moved. Everywhere, in the Babylonian view, these hostile demons lurked: they hid in strange crannies, slipped through doors or even through bolts and sockets, and pounced upon their victims in the form of illness or madness whenever some sin had withdrawn for a moment the beneficent guardianship of the gods. Giants, dwarfs, cripples, above all, women, had sometimes the power, even with a glance of the “evil eye,” to infuse such a destructive spirit into the bodies of those toward whom they were ill-disposed. Partial protection against these demons was provided by the use of magic amulets, talismans and kindred charms; images of the gods, carried on the body, would usually suffice to frighten the devils away. Little stones strung on a thread or a chain and hung about the neck were especially effective, but care had to be taken that the stones were such as tradition associated with good luck, and the thread had to be of black, white or red according to the purpose in view. Thread spun from virgin kids was particularly powerful.97 But in addition to such means it was wise also to exorcise the demon by fervent incantation and magic ritual—for example, by sprinkling the body with water taken from the sacred streams—the Tigris or the Euphrates. Or an image of the demon could be made, placed on a boat, and sent over the water with a proper formula; if the boat could be made to capsize, so much the better. The demon might be persuaded, by the appropriate incantation, to leave its human victim and enter an animal—a bird, a pig, most frequently a lamb.98

Magic formulas for the elimination of demons, the avoidance of evil and the prevision of the future constitute the largest category in the Babylonian writings found in the library of Ashurbanipal. Some of the tablets are manuals of astrology; others are lists of omens celestial and terrestrial, with expert advice for reading them; others are treatises on the interpretation of dreams, rivaling in their ingenious incredibility the most advanced products of modern psychology; still others offer instruction in divining the future by examining the entrails of animals, or by observing the form and position of a drop of oil let fall into a jar of water.99 Hepatoscopy—observation of the liver of animals—was a favorite method of divination among the Babylonian priests, and passed from them into the classical world; for the liver was believed to be the seat of the mind in both animals and men. No king would undertake a campaign or advance to a battle, no Babylonian would risk a crucial decision or begin an enterprise of great moment, without employing a priest or a soothsayer to read the omens for him in one or another of these recondite ways.

Never was a civilization richer in superstitions. Every turn of chance from the anomalies of birth to the varieties of death received a popular, sometimes an official and sacerdotal, interpretation in magical or supernatural terms. Every movement of the rivers, every aspect of the stars, every dream, every unusual performance of man or beast, revealed the future to the properly instructed Babylonian. The fate of a king could be forecast by observing the movements of a dog,100 just as we foretell the length of the winter by spying upon the groundhog. The superstitions of Babylonia seem ridiculous to us, because they differ superficially from our own. There is hardly an absurdity of the past that cannot be found flourishing somewhere in the present. Underneath all civilization, ancient or modern, moved and still moves a sea of magic, superstition and sorcery. Perhaps they will remain when the works of our reason have passed away.

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