Babylonian Religion and Mythology
Chapter I - The Gods Of Babylon
It was at one time the fashion with many scholars to regard the civilization of the Babylonians as of a purely Semitic origin; and more than one writer on the religion of that country has moulded his work on the fundamental thesis that the Semitic Babylonians and they alone were the originators of the complicated system of religious practise and belief which we know existed from a very early period upon the banks of the Euphrates. Recent excavations in Babylonia, however, have proved one fact with absolute certainty—that before the Semites ever reached Babylonia a non-Semitic race occupied the country, tilled the land, tended herds of cattle, built cities, dug canals, and advanced to a state of considerable civilization. But there are indications that even this race, the Sumerians as they are called, were not the first possessors of the land. It is probable that they themselves were settlers like the Semites of a later time, and that they reached the fertile valley of the rivers from some mountainous home in the northern half of Central Asia.
Who occupied the country before the Sumerians came we cannot say, for of the aboriginal inhabitants of the land we know nothing. The first inhabitants of Babylonia of whom we have definite knowledge are the Sumerians; and during recent years our knowledge of them has been vastly increased. In any treatment of the religious beliefs of the Semitic Babylonians, the existence of the Sumerians cannot be ignored, for they profoundly influenced the faith of the Semitic invaders before whose onslaught their empire fell. The religious beliefs of the Babylonians cannot be rightly understood unless at the outset this foreign influence is duly recognized.
Influence Of Sumerian Beliefs.
To what date we are to assign the beginning of Sumerian influence in Babylonia it is quite impossible to say, though such a date as six or seven thousand years before Christ is not an extravagant estimate for the foundation of the earliest religious centres in the country. The decline of the political power of the Sumerians, on the other hand, may be assigned approximately to the period which lies between B.C. 2500 and B.C. 2300. At the latter date Babylon had been raised to a position of pre-eminence among the cities of the land, and the Semitic population in the country had gained a complete ascendancy over their ancient rivals, whom they gradually absorbed ; from this time onwards the city of Babylon maintained her position and never ceased to be the capital of the country to which in later times she gave her name.
But in spite of the early date to which we must put back the beginnings of Babylonian civilization, it is only among the remains of a very much later period that we find adequate materials for the study of the Babylonian religion. It is true that during the long course of the history of that country and of Assyria we get occasional glimpses of the religious beliefs and legends, which were current at different periods, from the historical and votive inscriptions of kings and governors. But it is only at quite a late date, that is to say a few years before the fall of Nineveh, that we gain a comparatively full knowledge of Babylonian mythology and belief.
The Scribes Of Assyria.
The great religious works of the Babylonians are known to us fronrdocuments which do not date from an earlier period than the seventh century B.c. In the palaces that were unearthed at Kuyunjik, the site of Nineveh, there were found, scattered through the mounds of earth, thousands of clay tablets written in the Assyrian character, and in many cases with colophons bearing the name of Ashur-bāni-pal and the statement that he had caused them to be included in his library. This monarch reigned from B.C. 669 to about B.C. 625, and, though one of the last kings to occupy the Assyrian throne, he made strenuous efforts to preserve the ancient literature of Babylonia and Assyria. His scribes visited specially the ancient cities and temples in the south, and made copies of literary compositions of all classes which they found there. These they collected and arranged in his palace at Nineveh, and it is from them that the greater part of our knowledge of Babylonian mythology and religion is derived.
Their Copies of Early Texts.
Though the tablets date from the seventh century only, it is possible that the texts inscribed upon them had their origin in a very remote period, and a detailed study of them proves that such was the case. If, for instance, two or more copies of a text are found to differ greatly in detail from one another, we naturally assume that a considerable period has elapsed for such variations to have crept into the text. Besides this, the imperfect condition of many of the originals from which the scribes made their copies, the notes and colophons they added to the texts, and the lists and commentaries they compiled to explain them, prove the antiquity of the literature they studied. Such evidence is conclusive that the religious literature the Assyrians have left us M as not of their own production, but was their inheritance from an earlier time.
While the Babylonians in their religious beliefs were profoundly influenced by the Sumerians, they in their turn exercised an even greater influence on the Assyrians. The latter people, at first but a handful of colonists from Babylonia, took with them the faith of their mother country, and, though they subsequently gained their independence, and after many centuries of conflict held the elder branch of their race in subjection, their system of religion, with but few changes and modifications, was Babylonian to the core. Hence their religious works and writings may be used as material for the study of the Babylonian religion.
Lists of the Gods.
When we examine these Assyrian tablets, and attempt to gain from them a knowledge of the gods of Babylon, we find they present us with a truly bewildering number of deities. The Babylonians and Assyrians were a conservative people, and the priestly class, to whose labours we are indebted for our knowledge of the Babylonian religion, faithfully collected and chronicled all local traditions arfd beliefs, no matter whence they came. Their religion was still a living thing, and they had not lost belief in the existence or the power of the gods, but they studied their national traditions to some extent from their literary side; and they sought to classify and arrange into some system the numerous and sometimes conflicting traditions which had arisen and obtained currency at different periods in quite different parts of the country.
The largest tablet that has been recovered from Ashur-bāni-pal’s library, for instance, is inscribed with a list of the names of the gods and their titles. The tablet when complete must have measured some 11 X 16 inches ; it was inscribed on each side with six columns of minute writing, every column containing over one huudred and fifty lines, and nearly every line giving the name of a separate deity. This is only one out of many tablets inscribed with lists of the names of the gods, and the existence of these documents serves to show that in the literature of the period we must expect to find the Babylonian religion in a fully advanced state of its development.
Other Sources of Information.
Were we entirely dependent on such lists and catalogues it would be hard to gather a very consistent or very intelligible notion of what the Babylonian gods were like; but fortunately this is not the case. Numbers of hymns and prayers have been recovered, which, by the titles and attributes therein ascribed to the gods, enable us to trace their relationships to one another and their respective rank and power. Stories and legends of the gods have also been preserved, and from these it is possible to construct a fairly complete sketch of Babylonian mythology. Moreover, the names of the gods frequently figure in the historical inscriptions of Babylonian and Assyrian kings, not only of this late period, but also in those of rulers who occupied the throne during many earlier periods of the country’s history. The victories gained over enemies were ascribed by each ruler to the help vouchsafed him by his own gods, and from the names of those he mentions we learn what gods were held in special reverence during his reign.
The kings of Babylon, too, were great builders and delighted to construct new temples and to restore the old ones which had fallen into decay. From the records of their building operations, and from the votive tablets deposited in the temples, we gain much information regarding the worship of the deities in whose honour they were made. Another source of information, especially for the early Sumerian period, are the lists of temple revenues and accounts; while the very names of private persons preserved in business documents of various dates, containing as so many of them do the names of gods, serve to indicate roughly the changes which the principal gods experienced in the popular estimation. It is of course to be regretted that we do not possess copies of the great religious and mythological works of the Babylonians during the earlier periods of their history, from which it would be possible to trace with absolute certainty the course of their religious development.
The numerous indirect sources of information referred to, however, enable us to control and classify the religions literature of the later Assyrian and Babylonian empires. By these means it is possible to gain a knowledge from native sources of Babylonian mythology and belief, and to supplement the scanty references to the religion of the country which are found in the Old Testament and in the works of the classical writers.
Description of the Gods.
The gods of the Babylonians, in the forms under which they were worshipped during the later historical periods, were conceived as beings with very definite and characteristic personalities. All the great gods, while wielding superhuman powers, were regarded as endowed wil^Tīuman forms, and, though they were notyieible, except in dreams and visions, to their worshippers, each was thought to possess a definite character and to have a body and features peculiar to himself. Not only were they like unto men in body, but in thought and feeling they were also very human. Like men they were born into the world, and like men they loved and fought, and even died. The Babylonians, in fact, had a very material conception of the higher powers. They had no belief in a supreme and abstract deity of a different mould and nature to themselves; and though they ascribed all power and might to many of the greater gods they worshipped, they pictured these beings as swayed by human passions, and as acting in dependence on each other.
About their gods they composed strange tales and legends, in which we read how some of them performed acts of bravery and valour, liow others displayed cunning and treachery, and how others again exhibited fear and greed. It is true that, unlike men, their power was unlimited, they wielded magical weapons, and uttered spells and words of power; but for all that they were fashioned in human mould; the separation between the Babylonian and his god was not in nature but in degree.
Their Nature and Origin.
In following the doings of the gods and in noting the attributes ascribed to them, we are naturally confronted by the problem as to what suggested to the Babylonian his precise differentiation in their characters. Was it merely fancy or arbitrary invention on his part ? We need not appeal to the comparative study of religion to answer the question in the negative, for the characters of the gods themselves betray their origin. They are personifications of natural forces; in other words, the gods and many of the stories told concerning them are the best explanation the Babylonian could give, after many centuries of observation, of the forces and changes he saw at work around him in the natural world. He saw the sun pass daily overhead, he observed the phases of the moon and the motions of the stars; he felt the wind and feared the tempest; but he had no notion that these things were the result of natural laws.
In company with other primitive peoples he explained them as the work of beings very like himself. He thought of nature as animated throughout by numberless beings, some hostile and some favourable to mankind, in accordance with the treatment he had experienced from them. Prom the greater powers and forces in nature he deduced the existence of the greater gods, and in many of the legends and myths he told concerning them we may see his naive explanation of the working of the universe. He did not speak in allegory or symbol, but believed his stories literally, and moulded his life in accordance with their teaching.
The Greater Gods.
Babylonian religion, therefore, in its general aspect may be regarded as a worship of nature, and the gods themselves may be classified as the personifications of various natural powers. But here at the outset we meet with a difficulty which has not yet been quite satisfactorily explained. During its early history the country was not a corporate whole under one administration, but the great cities, with the land immediately adjacent to them, formed a number of independent states. It was only after many centuries of separate existence, or of temporary coalition, that a permanent fusion was brought about between these separate kingdoms. Back in this dim past we can trace the existence of many of the great Babylonian gods of later times, and, as in later times, so still more at this early period, we find their worship was not equally prevalent throughout the country, but the cult of each deity was specialized and centred in separate cities.
Enlil, the god of the earth, for instance, was worshipped in the earliest period at Nippur; Ea, the god of the deep, at Eridu; Nannar, the Moon-god, at Ur; Utu, the Sun-god, at Larsa, and so on. Now taken in the aggregate, the worship of all these deities presents a consistent picture of the worship of nature in its different parts, and for the later periods such a picture no doubt accurately corresponds to the general character of the national religion. But in the earliest period the great cities of the land were not parts of a single kingdom ; and it is not quite clear how this local distribution of the great natural gods among a number of originally independent cities can be explained.
Their Local Distribution.
In seeking a solution of this problem it is necessary to realize the fact that the religious system of the Babylonians was the product of a long period of gradual development. The consistent scheme of nature worship practised by the later Babylonians was not received by them in a complete and finished form from their remote ancestors and predecessors in the land. At this remote period we may assume that its state was a very simple and a very primitive one. The horizon of these early peoples embraced little more than the walls of the cities in which they dwelt, and each city was content to worship and do battle for the honour of its local god; the fortune of the god was bound up with that of the city, and the downfall of the god followed close on the ruin of the city. With the gradual amalgamation of these separate cities into larger states, an adjustment between the local gods was necessary.
In any such coalition the god of the predominant city would naturally take precedence over those of the conquered or dependent cities with which he became associated. It is conceivable that in this way the relationships between some of the gods of the Babylonians arose. Even so, it is difficult to trace the process by which a local city-god became associated with one of the great powers of nature, and to decide whether his aspect as a god of a special department of the universe was inherent in his nature from the beginning, or was due to some subsequent development. Such questions present a number of attractive problems, many of which will doubtless be solved as more material relating to the earliest period of Babylonian history is published. Meanwhile, in whatever way we may explain it, the local worship in different cities of Babylonia of many of the greater natural gods is one of the most striking characteristics of the Babylonian system.
Growth of the City-God.
In giving a sketch of the principal gods of Babylonia it will be expedient to confine ourselves in the main to the periods of Babylonian history subsequent to the rise of the city of Babylon to power, which was followed by the consolidation of the separate portions of the country into a single state. It would of course be possible to push our enquiry back into the earliest period when the Sumerian was in possession of the country and the influence of the Semite was still unfelt. Although the study of the Sumerian deities is still in its infancy, it would be possible to give their names as found in the early inscriptions from Niffer, Mukayyar and Tell Loh, and, with the help of the later explanatory lists of the Assyrians, to trace in some measure their adoption and the modification of their names, attributes, etc., by the Babylonians. But to follow such a plan within the limits of the present volume would result in little more than a catalogue of names and equations, many of which are still matters of conjecture. It will be better therefore to treat only of those great Semitic deities who figure so prominently in Babylonian mythology, and to refer to their Sumerian prototypes only in so far as they illustrate their later characters.
Sumerian and Semitic Deities.
Even during the Semitic period the Babylonian company of the gods underwent considerable changes. The assimilation of the Sumerian deities was not a sudden process, and the meeting of the two systems did not produce uniform results throughout the country. Moreover, in the later as in the earlier periods, every city had its own local god, to whose service the whole city was devoted, and around whose temple local traditions and local myths gathered and flourished. The prominence which any one such local tradition attained in the Babylonian system was iu proportion to the political position and influence of the city in which it arose. It is not a matter of surprise, therefore, that we come across varying traditions with regard to the positions and relationships of some of the gods. But with the gradual unification of the country many such variant traditions were harmonized and explained by the priesthood. It is thus possible, while making full allowance for the influence of local beliefs and of political changes, to give a brief sketch of the company of the Babylonian gods which will harmonize with their position and character in the great religious and mythological and legendary works of the nation.
Image: Copy of an impression from a cylindor-seal. Ur-Gur, King of Ur, abuot B.C. 2500 performing an act of worship before Enzu, or Sin, the Moou-God.
The text reads:
“Khashkhamer, thy servant, governor of the town of Ishkun-Sin, [has dedicated this seal on thy behalf], O Ur-Gur, mighty hero, King of Ur.”
(British Museum, No. 89,126,)
Anu, Bēl, and Ea.
At the head of the company of the gods may be set the great triad of deities Anu, Bēl and Ea, whose spheres of influence together embraced the entire universe. Anu was the god of heaven, Bēl the god of the earth and of mankind, and Ea the god of the abyss of water beneath the earth. At a very early period in Sumerian history we find these three deities mentioned in close connection with each other under their Sumerian names of Anna (Anu), Enlil (Bēl), and Enki (Ea).
Lugalzaggisi, who caused the inscription to be written in which their names occur, was one of the earliest Sumerian rulers of whose reign we have evidence, and we can thus trace back the existence of this great triad of gods to the very beginning of history. During the later periods the connection of these deities with each other, as the three great gods of the universe, remained unshaken. Each member of the triad had his own centre of worship. Thus Anu, though he had temples in other parts of the country, was paid peculiar reverence in Uruk, the Babylonian name of the city of Erech, which is mentioned as one of the oldest cities of Babylonia in the table of nations in Genesis.
The god Bēl, as has been already stated, was identified by the Semites with the Sumerian deity Enlil, whose worship in E-kur, his temple in the city of Nippur, was the oldest local cult of which we have evidence in the archaic inscriptions that have yet been recovered. The worship of the third member of the triad, Ea, originated in Eridu, the southernmost of the great cities of Babylonia, the site of which, now marked by the mound of Abu Shahrēn, stands fifty miles from the mouth of the Shatt el-Arab, but which in the earliest period of Babylonian history, before the formation of the present delta, must have stood on the shore of the Persian Gulf.
Sin, Shmash, and Rammān.
After these three deities with their world-wide dominion may be set a second triad, consisting of the two great gods of light, Sin and Shamash, and the god of the atmosphere, Rammān. Sin, the Moon-god, identified also with Nannak, had two centres of worship, the temple E-gish-shir-gal in Ur, and the temple E-khul-khul in Kharran, of which the former was the more ancient. In Ur the worship of the Moon-god was celebrated from remote antiquity, and in influence and splendour his cult appears to have eclipsed that of Shamash, the Sun-god, whose worship was centred in the cities of Sippar and Larsa, in two great temples each of which bore the name of E-babbara, “the bright house.”
Position of the Sun-God.
According to one tradition Shamash was regarded as the son of the Moon-god, and this subordination of Sun-worship to the cult of the Moon is an interesting peculiarity of early Babylonian religion. At a later period, when the system of mythology was more fully developed, the Sun-god attained a position of greater prominence. He was then regarded as the judge of heaven and earth, and in the legends it was his decision to which appeal was made in cases of wrong and injustice. The god Eammān, while particularly associated with thunder and lightning, was in general the god of the atmosphere and controlled the clouds, the mist and the rain. He was held in especial reverence by the Assyrian kings who loved to compare the advance of their forces in battle to the onslaught of the Storm-god.
Image: Scene from the so-called “Sun-god Tablet.” Nabū-pal-iddina, king of Babylon, about B.C. 900. peiforroing an act of worship before Shamash, the Sun-god, who is scaled within his shrine in the temple ol Sippar. (British Museum, No. 12,137.)
Marduk and Nabū.
The most prominent deity in the company of the Babylonian gods was Marduk, who, as the local god of Babylon, naturally claimed the highest respect from the men of his own city. The extension of his influence was a result of the rise of Babylon to the position of the capital city in a united empire, and it is to this fact we may trace his identification with the old Babylonian deity Bēl, whose worship had flourished for so many centuries at Nippur, and the prominent part which he plays in Babylonian legend and mythology. From the days of Khammurabi onward Marduk never lost this position of supremacy among the other gods. Traces of his original subordinate character at the time when Babylon was still unknown may be seen in the fact that he was never regarded as the oldest of the gods, nor as endowed from the beginning with his later attributes ; he was conceived as having won his power and supremacy by his own valour and by the services he rendered both to gods and to mankind.
In intimate association with Marduk may be mentioned Nabū, the god of Borsippa, a city which is marked to-day by the mound of Birs Nimrūd, and which, built a little to the south-west of Babylon on the opposite bank of the Euphrates, was in its later period little more than a suburb of the capital. To this fact we may trace the close connection of Nabū with Marduk, whose son and minister he was supposed to have been. E-zida, his temple in Borsippa, was closely associated with E-sagil, Marduk’s great shrine in Babylon, and these two sanctuaries were the most famous in the country.
Nergal, Ninib, and Nusku.
Another prominent deity was Nergal, whose temple, E-shidlam, in the city of Kūtū, or Cuthah, was one of the oldest and largest sanctuaries in Northern Babylonia. In general character Nergal was the god of battle, and, no doubt from its destructive nature, of pestilence also ; in still another capacity he was regarded as the god of the dead. The connection of Nergal with the city of Cuthah was never severed throughout the long period of Babylonian history. Dungi, one of the earliest kings of the city of Ur, records the building or restoration of his shrine in that city, and more than two thousand years later, among the Babylonians whom Sargon sent to colonize Samaria, we read of certain men of Cuth, or Cuthah, who made an image of Nergal, to whom they trusted to preserve them from the lions that roamed through the devastated land.
A god who was in later times closely associated with Nergal is Ninib. The reading of his name is conjectural, and his original character is also a matter of some uncertainty, but under the Assyrian kings his personality was more clearly indicated. By them he was regarded as a god of battle and the chase, and it was to Nergal and Ninib that they ascribed the gift of their mighty weapons. The Fire-god, Nusku, may also be mentioned among the more important deities, in view of the prominent position he occupies in the magical works of the Babylonians.
The Babylonian goddesses, with one exception, are not very imposing figures, nor are their characters very sharply defined or differentiated. Their position corresponded to some extent with the inferior position of women in Babylonia. It has already been remarked that the Babylonian conceived his gods to be very human in their form and feelings, and it was but natural that his picture of their wives should have been drawn after the same model. Their principal functions in fact were to receive the favours of their lords and to become the mothers of a younger generation of gods. In several instances we may trace their position of dependence in the very names by which they were known. Thus Anatu, the wife of Anu, and Bēlit, the wife of Bēl, in name as well as nature are merely female counterparts of the male deities with whom they are associated. Damkina, the wife of Ea, was a slightly more important personage to-judge from the numerous hymns addressed to her in the later period, a fact that may perhaps be explained as arising from her position as the mother of Marduk.
Tsaepanituji, Marduk’s wife, however, was of little account away from her partner, and the same may be said of Tashmetu the wife of Nabū, Ningal the wife of the Moon-god, Al the wife of the Sun-god, Shala the wife of Eammān, Gula the wife of Ninib, and Laz the wife of Nergal. In fact, the goddesses of Babylonia exercised but little independent power, and, both in the ritual of worship and in the myths and stories told about the gods, they play a very unimportant and subordinate part.
There is one very striking exception to this general rule, namely the goddess Ishtar. This deity in her own person appears to have absorbed the power and influence which were, at times, ascribed to other goddesses. She was identified with the Sumerian goddess Ninni, and in the Assyrian inscriptions she becomes the wife of the national god Ashur; she was also referred to as “Bēlit,” i.e., “the Lady,” and in this character she assumed the titles and prerogatives of the wife of Bēl. In course of time the name “Ishtar” was employed as a generic term for goddess. In Babylonia moreover, she was known by two different local names, which represented two quite distinct and separate characters. Under the title Anunitu she was worshipped as the goddess of battle at Agade and also at the city called Sippar of Anunitu ; and under this aspect she was regarded as the daughter of Sin the Moon-god and of Ningal his wife.
At the great temple of E-ana at Freeh, on the other hand, she was worshipped as the goddess of love and identified with Nanā; and in this character she was regarded as the daughter of Anu and Anatu. It was in her gentler character as the goddess of love that she became connected in legend with Dumuzi or Tammuz, her lover who died in early youth, and for the sake of whose recovery she descended to the realm of the dead. She was served at Erech by numerous priestesses attached to her worship, and the rites practised at her shrine, a later form of which is described by Herodotus, were performed in her honour as the goddess of love. By the Assyrians she was chiefly revered as the goddess of battle; she had two famous shrines in Assyria, one at Nineveh and one at Arbela, and at both she was worshipped in her warlike character.
The Gods in Heaven.
Such are the characteristics of the principal gods of the Babylonians during the greater part of their history, and the sketch here given, though drawn from the religious and historical literature, is not inconsistent with the attributes assigned to them in the astrological and astronomical inscriptions. The identification of the planets with some of the greater gods was probably neither a very early nor primitive development, but one which took place after the Babylonian company of the gods had been definitely formed. When the worship of a host of local gods had given place to an organized system of nature worship, and when the growth of legend and myth necessitated a belief in the constant intercourse of the gods with one another, it was not unnatural for the Babylonians to assume that the gods dwelt together in some special place, that is to say in heaven.
From the earliest times the sun and moon were regarded as the symbols of the gods Shamash and Sin respectively, and the movements of the two great luminaries were believed to be directed by them. At a later period the movements of the planets were also thought to be directed by gods whose symbols they were, and it is probable that in this way the identification of Marduk with Jupiter, of Ishtar with Venus, of Ninib with Saturn, of Nergal with Mars and of Nabū with Mercury took place. The members of the great triad of deities, who have been referred to as standing at the head of the company of the gods, were not omitted from this process; Bēl and Ea were transferred to heaven and placed side by side with Anu, and the three henceforth divided the heavens between them.
Spirits and Demons.
In the above sketch we have only enumerated the ilāni rabūti, or “great gods” of the Babylonians, and it must not be forgotten that subordinate to them stood a host of lesser gods as well as countless demons and spirits possessing various powers and influences. Of these lesser spirits the two classes most frequently met with in the religious inscriptions are the Anunnaki and the Igigi, the “Spirits of the Earth” and the “Spirits of Heaven,” respectively. Each class is generally mentioned in connection with the other, and they are described as carrying out the will of the great gods. In the magical literature the number of demons and ghosts and spirits which were hostile to mankind is very numerous, and to escape their evil influence it was necessary to invoke the assistance of magic and to employ powerful spells; by these means the help and protection of the great gods might be obtained to deliver a man from their baneful acts.
Footnotes / commentary:
The Sumerians take their name from “Shumēru,” an ancient name for Southern Babylonia.
E.g., Nippur, Ur, Sliirpurla, etc.
The tablet is exhibited in the British Museum, Nineveh Gallery Case I., No. 4.
See the names and attributes of the various deities eolleeted by Jastrow in his Religion of Babylonia and Assyria, pp. 51 ff.
Genesis x. 10.
A place Bituated about two hours’ ride from the modern city of Hillah.
See below, p. 37.
2 Kings xvii. 30.
Book I., chap. 199.
See Jensen, Die Kosmologie der Babylonier, pp. 134 ff.
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