Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria

by Morris Jastrow | 1911 | 121,372 words

More than ten years after publishing his book on Babylonian and Assyrian religion, Morris Jastrow was invited to give a series of lectures. These lectures on the religious beliefs and practices in Babylonia and Assyria included: - Culture and Religion - The Pantheon - Divination - Astrology - The Temples and the Cults - Ethics and Life After Death...

WHEN the American Committee for Lectures on the History of Religions kindly invited me to deliver a course of lectures under its auspices, I hesitated at first for various reasons, but was led to accept by the consideration that the invitation would afford an opportunity to summarise in a popular and (I trust) a readable form the results of recent researches on some aspects of the religion of Babylonia and Assyria, in which I was privileged to have a share. The importance of the extensive omen literature of Babylonia and Assyria, very imperfectly known until a few years ago, is now generally recognised, and I feel that no apology is necessary for devoting two of the lectures to the two chief aspects of this literature—divination through the liver, and divination through the observation of the heavens. Both forms of divination have wide and significant bearings on the general history of religious rites and beliefs. Through hepatoscopy, a definite link has been established between the Euphratean culture and the Etruscan civilisation, with the Hittites, apparently, as the mediating factor. The Babylonian astrologers are the “fathers” of all who seek to read the future in the stars; and as I write these lines, Prof. Franz Cumont’s valuable paper on “Babylon und die Griechische Astronomie” (Neue Jahrbūcher fur das Klassische Altertum, I Abt., Band XXVII., pp. i-io) comes to hand, to emphasise the debt that even Greek astronomy owes to the results obtained by the Babylonian priests, actuated though these were, at least up to a late period, solely by the supposed bearings of the study of the movements of heavenly bodies on human destinies.

So steady is the increase in the material for the study of the Baby Ionian-Assyrian religion, and so unceasing is the activity of the band of scholars in this country and Europe who are devoting themselves to the interpretation of this material, that it becomes necessary from time to time to recast our views of the pantheon and the cult. I have, therefore, availed myself of this opportunity to present in outline a picture of the chief deities in the systema-tised pantheon, with due regard to the manner in which the original traits of these deities were overlaid with the attributes accorded to them because of the political position assumed by the centres in which they were worshipped. While many problems still remain to be worked out, I venture to hope that my presentation of the pantheon will be regarded as an advance upon previous attempts.

Our knowledge of the local cults in the earlier periods before the tendency towards centralisation set in is still very defective, but the broad subdivisions of the cult are now clear; and we are also in a much better position than some years ago to sketch the general character of the temple architecture of both Babylonia and Assyria, thanks, chiefly, to the work done at Nippur, Babylon, and Kalah-Shergat (or Ashur). Through the Hammurapi Code, in conjunction with the numerous business documents of all periods, we are able to trace the development of ethics, and the application of ethical principles to the practical affairs of life. So far as the limitations of a single lecture allow, I have tried to do this in the concluding chapter, which may therefore be regarded as an illustration of the actual influence exerted by the religion upon the life and thought of the people. Throughout, I have kept in mind to distinguish between the popular religion and the somewhat artificial form given to it in the official cult, largely through the attempts of the priests to bring the current beliefs into accord with theological speculations, unfolded in the schools attached to the temples. How far I have succeeded in doing so, it will be for others to judge, but I am convinced that for a proper understanding of the religion under discussion, we must differentiate more sharply than has hitherto been done between these two currents of thought— the popular and the speculative. In the views of life after death, the contrast between what the people believed and the way in which the priests partly justified and partly modified these beliefs is particularly instructive.

The illustrations have been carefully chosen and will, I trust, aid in elucidating the subject. Special attention should be called to the explanatory comments added to the illustrations in which I have endeavored to give the data necessary for their interpretation.

My profound thanks are due to my esteemed friend Prof. C. H. Toy for the careful revision that he has given to my manuscript, in the course of which he made a large number of valuable suggestions, bearing both on the matter and on the form of presentation, while that dearest and rarest of men, who has been my “guide, philosopher, and friend” during my career, and who has permitted me to grace this volume by inscribing his name on the dedication page, has added to the heavy debt that I already owe him—a debt too large for me to even pay the interest thereof—by submitting the manuscript to a final and critical examination. How much this has meant, those who know Dr. Furness need not be told.

My thanks are also due to Dr. George B. Gordon, the efficient director of the Museum of Archaeology of the University of Pennsylvania, for his kindness in placing at my disposal the Museum material for a large number of the illustrations in this volume.

The index is the work of my pupil, Dr. B. B. Charles, Research Fellow in Semitic Languages at the University of Pennsylvania, to whom I am under many obligations for the care, time, and thought that he has bestowed on the task.

My wife has, as on former occasions, read proof and assisted in various other ways in the preparation of the volume. Deep as are my obligations to her for this direct aid, what she has done by her loving and continuous sympathy with my work has been a help and a source of strength too great (and too close to my heart) to be expressed in words

Lastly, as I write these lines I recall with pleasure and gratitude the sympathetic audiences that listened to the story of the long-forgotten past, now so largely restored to us. If some of my hearers should also be among my readers, I hope that the written word will strengthen the bond of sympathy created by the spoken one.

M. J., Jr.

University of Pennsylvania,
          March, 1911.

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