Babylonian Religion and Mythology

by Leonard William King | 1903 | 52,755 words

An account of the principal facts concerning Babylonian religion and mythology. This account is based upon the cuneiform inscriptions which have been excavated in Mesopotamia during the last fifty-five years....

Chapter V - Tales Of Gods And Heroes

The Poem of Gilgamesh.

In the two preceding chapters we have described the legends of the Babylonians which have left their mark upon Hebrew literature. Of such legends those which dealt with the creation of the world formed in themselves a complete body of traditions, and these we have treated as such in Chapter III. The story of the deluge, on the other hand, which formed the subject of Chapter IV., has not come down to us as a separate legend, but occurs in the course of a long poem which describes the adventures of a great Babylonian hero named Gilgamesh. As the account of the deluge there narrated forms a complete story, we took it from its context, in order to treat it in connection with the legends 'of creation. We will now describe the remaining portions of this great poem of the Babylonians, which deals with the exploits of Gilgamesh, the greatest mythical hero of their race.


Introduction to the Poem.

The name of the hero was, for many years, read “Izdubar,” or “Gishdubar,” but we now know that the Babylonians pronounced the ideogram which formed the name, “Gilgamesh.”[1]  It has been suggested that Gilgamesh is to be identified with the hero Nimrod, who was “a mighty hunter before the Lord,” and the beginning of whose kingdom was “Babel, and Erech, and Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar”;[2] but, beyond the fact that both Nimrod and Gilgamesh were great Babylonian heroes of antiquity, there are no other grounds for assuming their identity.

Of Nimrod we know little besides what is told us in the passage in Genesis referred to, but the deeds of Gilgamesh are recounted in the longest Babylonian poem that has come down to us. It is written upon a series of twelve tablets, which, like those of the Creation series, are distinguished by numbers. The late Sir Henry O. Eaw-linson made the suggestion that the poem was a solar myth, the twelve tablets corresponding to the twelve months of the year, but the contents of the majority of the tablets do not fit in with this view of their origin. In fact, it is probable that the division of the poem into twelve sections was a comparatively late arrangement, the work of the scribes who collected and edited the ancient legends.

We know that stories and legends of the hero Gilgamesh go back into remote antiquity, for cylinder-seals, made during the Sumerian period,[3] have been found, on which are engraved the deeds of valour performed by him. The actual poem, however, in which we read these stories, like most of the other legends of the Babylonians, is known to us from Assyrian tablets which were written in the seventh century before Christ. Several copies of the work were made for Ashur-bāni-pal’s library, and, from the numerous fragments of them that are in the British Museum, it is possible to piece together the story, and to give several of the episodes of the narrative in detail.[4] The story clings to the ancient city of Erech, the chief seat of the worship of the goddess Ishtar, and, although in the course of his adventures, Gilgamesh travelled into distant lands, he always returned to the city of Erech.


The Siege of Erech.

The Eirst Tablet of the series, is much broken. A fragment has been found which not improbably contained the opening words of the poem, for it seems to describe the benefits that will accrue to a man who will study the poem and make himself acquainted with the hero’s history. After these prefatory remarks, the text introduces the name of Erech, and describes the misfortunes that have fallen upon this ancient city in consequence of a siege that has taken place.

All living things that are in the city, gods, and men, and beasts, are confused and terrified; the text reads as follows :—

“She asses [tread down] their young,
Cows [turn upon] their calves.
Men cry aloud like beasts,
And maidens mourn like doves.
The gods of strong-walled Erech
Are changed to flies, and buzz about the streets.
The spirits of strong-walled Erech
Are changed to serpents, and glide into holes (?).
For three years the enemy besieged Erech,
And the doors were barred, and the bolts were shot,
And Ishtar did not raise her head against the foe.”

We have no mention of Gilgameshupon these fragments of the First Tablet, but, as on the Second Tablet we find the inhabitants of Erech groaning under his rule, it is not improbable that the foe mentioned as besieging Erech was led by Gilgamesh, and that they succeeded in capturing the city.


The Tyranny of Gilgamesh.

Another view is that Gilgamesh came forward and delivered Erech from her enemies, and in return for his services was elected ruler of the city. By whichever of these means he obtained his throne in Erech, there is no doubt that his rule soon became unpopular, for he forced all the young men of the city into his service and carried off the maidens to his court.

The elders complained, saying:

“Gilgamesh hath not left the son to his father,
Nor the maid to the hero, nor the wife to her husband.”

They therefore cried to the goddess Aruru against the tyranny of Gilgamesh, complaining that he acted in this despotic manner because he had no rival to keep him in check. Day and night the people raised their complaint, and the gods of heaven heard them and had compassion upon them. And the gods also cried aloud to Aruru, bidding her create a being, equal to Gilgamesh in strength, who might fight with him and limit his power. They urged that as she had created Gilgamesh,[5] so she must now create his rival. Aruru listened to their words and proceeded to plan and to create a being who should be capable of opposing Gilgamesh.


The Creation of Ea-bani.

The passage referring to the creation of this being, who was named Ea-bani, reads as follows:—

“Upon hearing these words (i.e., the words of the gods)
Aruru conceived a man of Anu[6] in her mind.
Aruru washed her hands,
She broke off a piece of clay, she cast it on the ground.
Thus she created Ea-bani, the hero.”

Ea-bani, however, was not wholly human in form. From his picture upon cylinder-seals we know that he had the head, and body, and arms of a man, but his legs were those of a beast.

The following description of Ea-bani is given in the poem:—

“The whole of his body was [covered] with hair,
He was clothed with long hair like a woman.
The quality of his hair was luxuriant, like that of the Corn-god.
He knew [not] the land and the inhabitants thereof,
He was clothed with garments as the god of the field.
With the gazelles he ate herbs,
With the beasts he slaked his thirst,
With the creatures of the water his heart rejoiced.”


Tsāidu, the Hunter.

A new personage now comes on the scene and, from the abruptness with which he is introduced, it is evident that he has already been described in some previous portion of the poem that is wanting. This new personage is Tsāidu, “the hunter,” who appears to have been sent into the mountains by Gilgamesh in order to capture Ea-bani. The gods no doubt in due time would have brought Ea-bani to Erech to do battle with Gilgamesh, and the object of Gilgamesh in sending Tsāidu to capture Ea-bani was clearly to forestall their intention. “The hunter” accordingly went out into the mountains and lay in wait for Ea-bani. For three days Tsāidu watched Ea-bani as he went down to the stream to drink, but he thought he was too strong to overcome in single combat.

He therefore returned to Erech and told Gilgamesh of the monster’s strength; he described his own terror at beholding him, and added that he destroyed all the traps which had been set for him, saying:—

“He rangeth over [all] the mountains,
Eegularly with the beasts [he feedeth],
Eegularly his feet [are set] towards the drinking-place.
But I was afraid, I could not approach him.
He hath filled up the pit which I digged,
He hath destroyed the nets which I [spread],
He hath caused the cattle and the beasts of the field to escape from my hands,
And he doth not let me make war (upon them).”


The Plot to Capture Ea-bani.

Gilgamesh was not discouraged by Tsāidu’s want of success, and he revealed to him a device by which he might capture Ea-bani, who had proved too cunning for the ordinary snares of the hunter, saying:—

“Go, my Tsāidu, and take Ukhat with thee.
And when the beasts come down to the drinking-place,
Then let her tear off her clothing and disclose her nakedness.
(Ea-bani) shall see her, and he shall draw nigh unto her,
And the cattle, which grew up on his field, shall forsake him”

Ukhat, whom Tsāidn was told to take with him, was one of the sacred women who were in tho service of Ishtar and were attached to the ancient temple of that goddess in the city of Erech.

The narrative continues:—

“Tsāidu departed, and took with him the woman Ukhat.
They took the straight road,
And on the third day they reached the appointed place.
Then Tsāidu and. the woman placed themselves in hiding.
For one day, for two days, they lurked by the drinking-place.
With the beasts (Ea-bani) slaked his thirst,
With the creatures of the waters his heart rejoiced.
Then Ea-bani (approached) . . . ,
With the gazelles he ate herbs,
With the beasts he slaked his thirst,
With the creatures of the water his heart rejoiced.”


Ea-bani Tempted by Ukhat.

As Ea-bani came near, Ukhat caught sight of him, and Tsāidu exclaimed:—

“That is he, Ukhat, loosen thy girdle,
Uncover thy nakedness that he may receive thy favours,
Be not faint-hearted, lay hold upon his soul.
He shall see thee, and shall draw nigh unto thee.
Open thy garment, and he shall lie in thine arms.
Give him pleasure after the manner of women.
His cattle, which grew up in his field, shall forsake him,
While he holdeth thee in the embraces of love.”

Ukhat did as Tsāidu bade her, and the plot was attended with success, as we may see from the following lines:—

“Ukhat loosened her garment, she uncovered her nakedness,
She was not faint-hearted, and she laid hold upon his soul.
She opened her garment, and he lay in her arms.
She gave him pleasure after the manner of women,
And he held her in the embraces of love.
For six days and six nights Ea-bani drew nigh and tarried with Ukhat.
After he had satisfied himself with her abundance,
He turned his attention to his cattle.
His gazelles lay, and looked at Ea-bani,
The beasts of the field turned away from him.
Ea-bani was terrified, his body grew stiff,
His knees stood still, as his cattle departed.”


His Love for the Woman.

Ea-bani, however, did not attempt to pursue them or to induce them to return to him. Kecovering from his dismay he turned once more to the companion at his side and—

“He returned to love, he sat at the feet of the woman,
And he gazed up into her face,
And as the woman spake he listened.
And the woman said unto Ea-bani:
‘Thou art of great stature, O Ea-bani, and art like unto a god.
Why then dost thou lie with the beasts of the field ?
Come, let me bring thee to strong-walled Erech,
To the bright house, the dwelling of Anu and Ishtar,
To the palace of Gilgamesh, who is perfect in strength,
And who, like a mountain-bull, wieldeth power over men.’
She spake unto him and he hearkened unto her word,
In the wisdom of his heart he wished for a friend.
Ea-baui spake unto the woman :
‘Come then, Ukhat, lead me away,
To the bright and holy dwelling of Anu and Ishtar,
To the palace of Gilgamesh, who is perfect in strength,
And who like [a mountaiu-bull wieldeth power] over men.’”

The text of the poem which follows is broken, and it is only with difficulty that the thread of the narrative can be made out. Ea-bani had heard so much of the might of Gilgamesh from Ukhat that he desired to win his friendship; but, it appears, he first wished to test the hero’s strength, and to join with him in battle. It was with this object that he set out with Ukhat for the city of Erech, and they happened to arrive there during the celebration of a festival. Ea-bani, however, had a dream in which he was warned to refrain from attempting to do battle with Gilgamesh. He was told that Gilgamesh was more powerful than he, and that, as by day and by night he did not rest, he could not hope to take him unawares. He was also told in his dream that Gilgamesh was beloved of Shamash, the Sun-god, and that the three great gods, Anu, Bēl, and Ea, had given wisdom unto him.


Gilgamesh and Ea-bani.

Meanwhile Gilgamesh also had a dream, and he was troubled because he could not interpret it. He therefore went to his mother Aruru and enquired of her the meaning of his vision. He told her that in his vision the stars of heaven seemed to fall upon him, and his mother seems to have interpreted the dream as foretelling the coming of Ea-bani, and also to have advised him to make friends with Ea-bani.

Gilgamesh and Ea-bani did not enter into combat, and the Third Tablet of the series tells how they became friends. From the fragments of the text which remain, it appears that Ea-bani did not at first give heed to the warning vouchsafed him in his dream, and it was only after the personal intervention of the Sun-god that he gave up the desire to do battle with Gilgamesh, and consented to treat him henceforth as his comrade. In order to induce Ea-bani to remain at Erech, Shamash conferred on him royal rank, and he promised him that he should recline on a great couch while the princes of the earth kissed his feet, and that the people of Erech should proclaim their submission unto him. Ea-bani listened to the Sun-god, and consented to remain in Erech as the friend of Gilgamesh.


Expedition Againts Khumbaba.

The next section of the poem is also incomplete, but enough of the text remains to enable us to make out the story, which concerns an expedition undertaken by both heroes against an Elamite despot[7] named Khumbaba. The preparations for the expedition and the battle with Khumbaba are described upon the Fourth and Fifth Tablets of the series. Before setting out for the castle of Khumbaba, Ea-bani prayed to the Sun-god, and Gilgamesh recounted to his friend a favourable dream which had been sent to him, in which he beheld the dead body of Khumbaba. In due time the two heroes came to a wood of cedar trees, in the middle of which Khumbaba’s castle was built. Khumbaba was feared by all who dwelt near him, for his roaring was like the storm, and any man, who was rash enough to enter into his cedar wood, perished. The two heroes, however, undismayed by the reports of their enemy’s power, pressed forward on their journey.

They entered the wood, but were amazed at the great size of the trees that grew therein, and in the words of the poem—

“They stood still, and marvelled at the wood,
They gazed at the height of the cedars,
They gazed at the entrance of the wood,
The place where Khumbaba was wont to walk and set his foot.
The road had been laid out, and the path was well made.”


The Slaying of Khumbaba.

After describing the beauty of the greatest of the cedars, which possessed a pleasant and delightful shade and a sweet smell, the tablet breaks off. How the heroes penetrated to the castle, and in what manner they succeeded in slaying Khumbaba, we do not know; but that they were successful in the fight is clear from the last line of the tablet. Half this line is preserved and reads “the head of Khumbaba,” from which we may perhaps infer that Gilgamesh and Ea-bani, after slaying the tyrant, cut off his head from his body.


Ishtar’s Passion for Gilgamesh

Hitherto the heroes had only met with success. Enjoying the favour of the Sun-god, they had succeeded in slaying a powerful enemy of their city, and they now returned to Erech elated with their victory. From this time forward, however, their lot was not so happy, and the Sixth Tablet gives the reason of their misfortunes, for it narrates how Gilgamesh incurred the wrath of the powerful goddess Ishtar.

The tablet opens with an account of how, on his return from Erech, Gilgamesh removed the stains of battle, and clothed himself in his royal robes, in the following words:—

“[He cleansed] his weapons, he polished his weapons,
[He removed] his armour from upon him,
[He took off] his soiled garments, he clothed himself in clean raiment.
He donned [his robes of] honour, he bound on his diadem,
Gilgamesh wore his crown, he bound on his diadem.”

The sight of the hero thus arrayed on his return from battle kindled with love for him the heart of the goddess Ishtar.

The poem tells how she beheld the comeliness of Gilgamesh, and addressed him in these words:—

“Come, Gilgamesh, be thou my spouse.
Bestow thy strength upon me as a gift,
And thou shalt be my husband, and I will be thy wife.
I will set thee in a chariot of lapis lazuli and gold,
With wheels made of gold and horns made of diamonds,
And mighty . . . steeds shalt thou yoke to it.
Thou shalt enter our house with the sweet scent of cedars.
When thou enterest our house,
[The great and] the mighty shall kiss thy feet.
Kings, and rulers, and princes shall bow down before thee,
And from mountain and plain shall they bring gifts unto thee as tribute.”


Gilgamesh Repulses Ishtar.

The goddess promised in addition that his flocks should bear twins, that the horses of his chariot should be swift, and that his cattle should be unrivalled. But Gilgamesh refused her proffered love, remembering the fate of those who had already enjoyed it, and thus upbraided her with her treachery :—

“On Tammuz, the spouse of thy youth,
Thou didst lay affliction every year. 
Thou didst love the brilliant Allalu-bird,
But thou didst smite him and break his wing ;
He stands in the woods, and cries, ‘O my wing.’
Thou didst also love a lion, perfect in strength,
Seven by seven didst thou dig snares for him.
Thou didst also love a horse, pre-eminent in battle;
Bridle, spur, and whip didst thou lay upon him,
Thou didst make him to gallop for seven Kasbu,
Trouble and sweating didst thou force him to bear,
And on his mother Silili thou didst lay affliction.
Thou didst also love a shepherd of the flock,
Who continually poured out for thee the libation (?),
And daily slaughtered kids for thee ;
But thou didst smite him, and didst change him into a leopard,
So that his own sheep-boy hunted him,
And his own hounds tore him to pieces.”


The Bull from Heaven.

Gilgamesh also recounted the sad fate of a gardener in the service of Anu, Ishtar’s father, whom she had loved. Every day he brought her costly gifts and made bright the dish from which she ate; but when she grew tired of him she changed him into a cripple, so that henceforth he could not rise from his bed.

Gilgamesh ended his taunts with the words,

“As for me, thou wouldst love me, aud like unto them thou wouldst [afflict me].”

When Ishtar heard this she was enraged and she went up into heaven, where she sought out her father Anu, and her mother Anatu, and complained that Gilgamesh had scorned her. Anu attempted to soothe her, but she demanded vengeance upon Gilgamesh, and asked Anu to create a monstrous bull, named Alū, which should destroy the hero. Anu yielded to his imperious daughter and created the bull in accordance with her wish.


The Figth with the Bull.

The account of the battle between the bull and the two heroes Ea-bani and Gilgamesh, is very incomplete, but the struggle seems to have been long and fierce, and towards the end of the account we read that Ea-bani seized the bull by the tail so that Gilgamesh was no doubt enabled to slay the monster with his sword. In the accompanying illustration, we see Gilgamesh and Ea-bani each engaged in conflict with a bull. The picture may possibly be based upon some  variant form of the legend, according to which Anu sent two divine bulls against Gilgamesh and his friend. Perhaps it is simpler, however, to regard it as a picture of the two heroes on a hunting expedition, for on other cylinder-seals they are frequently represented as struggling with several bulls and lions at the same time. It will be noticed that in the centre of the picture is a fir tree growing upon what appears to be a pile of stones.

Image: Ea-bani and Gilgamesh in conflict with two bulls. (From a cylinder-seal in the British Museum, No. 89,308.)

The small half circles, however, which look like stones, are conventional representations of mountains; the engraver intended to convey the impression that the fight with the bulls took place in a well-wooded and mountainous country.


Ea-bani Taunts Ishtar.

The poem next describes the wrath of Ishtar at the death of the bull as follows :—

“Then Ishtar went up on to the wall of strong-walled Erech ;
She mounted to the top and she uttered a curse, (saying),
‘Cursed be Gilgamesh, who has provoked me to anger,
And has slain the bull from heaven.’
When Ea-bani heard these words of Ishtar,
He tore out the entrails (?) of the bull,
And he cast them before her, (crying),
‘As for thee, I will conquer thee,
And I will do to thee even as I have done to him.’”

Thus Ea-bani drew down upon himself the wrath of Ishtar.

Then Ishtar assembled the three grades of priestesses attached to her service and they made lamentation over the death of the bull.

The horns of the bull were of great value, for they were exceedingly large and each of them held six measures of oil. Gilgamesh, therefore, in gratitude for his victory, dedicated them to the Sun-god, who is described in this passage of the poem under the local name of Lugal-Marada, that is “King of Marad,” Marad being a city in Babylonia. After dedicating the horns with much ceremony at the altar of the god, Gilgamesh and his attendants washed their hands in the Euphrates and then set out for Erech. On their arrival they rode through the streets of the city, and the people gathered together to gaze upon them as they passed.

The princesses of the city also came out to meet Gilgamesh, and he cried out unto them, saying—

“Who is glorious among heroes ?
Who is mighty among men ?
Gilgamesh is glorious among heroes,
Gilgamesh is mighty among men.”

In this manner he passed through Erech and entered into his palace. There he prepared a banquet at which he entertained his friends in honour of his victory over the great bull. After the banquet the guests reclined upon their couches and slept. During Ea-bani’s sleep he saw a vision, and when he awoke in the morning he drew nigh to Gilgamesh and began to tell him of the things which he had seen.


Ea-bani’s Death.

The Seventh Tablet begins with Ea-bani’s account of his dream, but so few fragments of the text of this and the following tablet have been preserved that it is not possible to follow the course of.the narrative at this point. All we know for certain is that Ea-bani’s death occurs at the end of the Eighth Tablet. He seems to have received a wound in battle, but in what manner and at the hands of what foe, we cannot say. All that we can gather from the mutilated text is that he was laid low upon his bed with the sickness which resulted from his wound. For twelve days he lay sick, and having summoned Gilgamesh to his bedside, and having told him the manner in which he had received his wound, he died. We may reasonably conjecture that his death was brought about by Ishtar, whose anger he had aroused. Gilgamesh himself escaped from death, but we find he had been smitten with a sore sickness, which no doubt was also due to the anger of the great goddess whose love he had scorned.


The Grief of Gilgamesh.

The Ninth Tablet opens with the lament of Gilgamesh for the death of his friend, and with his resolve to seek out his ancestor, Tsīt-napishtim, who might perhaps help him to escape a similar fate.

The tablet begins as follows :—

“For his friend Ea-bani
Gilgamesh wept bitterly and he lay stretched out upon the ground.
(He cried) : ‘Let me not die like Ea-bani!
Grief hath entered into my body, and
I fear death, and I lie stretched out upon the ground.
To (test) the power of Tsīt-napishtim, son of Ubara-Tutu,
I will set out, and I will not tarry by the way.’”

Gilgamesh describes his journey thus

“To a mountain gorge I came by night,
Lions I beheld, and I was terrified.
I raised my head and I prayed to the Moon-god,
And to the [chief] of the gods came my cry,
[And he hearkened and] showed favour unto me.”


The Mountain of the Sunset.

From what remains of the text it appears that Gilgamesh had a dream in which the Moon-god shewed him the way by which he might safely pass over the mountains. Gilgamesh succeeded in crossing the first mountain range 'which barred his path, and he next came to a still greater mountain named Māshu, that is to say, the Mountain of the Sunset.

The poem continues as follows:—

“Then he came to the Mountain of Māshu,
The portals of which are guarded daily [by monsters];
Their backs mount up to the rampart of heaven,
And their fore parts Teach down beneath Arallū.
Scorpion-men guard the gate (of Māshu);
They strike terror [into men], and it is death to behold them.
Their splendour is great, for it overwhelms the mountains;
From sunrise to sunset they guard the Sun.
Gilgamesh beheld them,
And his face grew dark with fear and terror,
And the wildness of their aspect robbed him of his senses.”

One of the Scorpion-men then caught sight of Gilgamesh, and, turning to his wife, told her that the body of the man they saw approaching resembled that of a god. His wife replied that Gilgamesh was partly divine and partly human. The Scorpion-man then told her how Gilgamesh had set out on his long journey in accordance with the will of the gods, and he described the steep mountains which he had already crossed. Gilgamesh, seeing that the monster regarded him with friendly eyes, recovered from his fright, and told him of the purpose of his journey, namely, to go to Tsīt-napishtim, his ancestor, who stood in the assembly of the gods, and bad the power over life and death.

The Scorpion-man replied by describing the difficulties and dangers which he would encounter if he persisted in his purpose of traversing the Mountain of Māshu, adding that for twelve kasbu, that is, for a space of twenty-four hours, he would have to pass through thick darkness. But Gilgamesh was not discouraged. The Scorpion-man, therefore, yielded to his request, and opened the gate of the mountain and let him through.


The Region of Thick Darkness.

For twenty-four hours Gilgamesh marched onwards, “and the darkness was thick and there was no light.” But at the end of this long and dreadful journey he came out once more into the light of the sun, and the first thing he beheld was a beautiful and wonderful tree.

The poem describes the tree in the following words:—

“Precious stones it bore as fruit,
Branches hung from it which were beautiful to behold.
The top of the tree was lapis lazuli,
And it was laden with fruit which dazzled the eye of him that beheld.”

This tree grew in a great park or orchard beside other trees which were also laden with precious stones; but Gilgamesh did not tarry among the trees nor stop to gather their fruit. The shore of the sea was not far off and he wished to lose no time in reaching it, for he knew that he must cross the sea to reach Tsīt-napishtim his ancestor.


The Princess Sabitu.

The text of the Tenth Tablet reveals to us Gilgamesh involved in further troubles. The sea-coast, to which he had now come, was ruled over by a princess named Sabitu, who dwelt in a palace by the shore. She beheld Gilgamesh from afar, and, as he drew near, she went into her palace and shut the door. Without her assistance, however, Gilgamesh could not cross the sea, so he went up to her door and demanded why she had shut it, and threatened that if she did not open it he would break it down. A gap in the text prevents us from knowing Sabitu’s answer to this threat.

When the text is again continuous we find Gilgamesh telling Sabitu the reason of his journey, namely, that he may learn how to escape the fate of his friend Ea-bani; he ended by asking her the way to the abode of Tsīt-napishtim, saying—

“[Tell me] O Sabitu, which is the way to Tsīt-napishtim ?
If it is possible, I will cross the sea.
But if it is not possible, I will lie me down upon the ground in despair.”

Sabitu replied, saying—

“O Gilgamesh, there hath never been a ferry (here),
Neither hath any one ever crossed the sea.
The hero Shamash hath crossed the sea, but, besides Shamash, who can cross it ?
The crossing is difficult, the way is very hard,
The Waters of Death are shut in (?), they are closed up as with a bolt.
O Gilgamesh, how canst thou cross the sea ?
And if thou shouldst come to the Waters of Death, what wouldst thou do ?”


Arad-Ea, the Sailor.

Sabitu, however, told Gilgamesh that there was one who might perhaps help him, namely, Arad-Ea, the sailor who served Tsīt-napishtim. To him she sent him and told him to ask Arad-Ea to take him across. If he refused, Gilgamesh would have to turn back.

Gilgamesh sought out Arad-Ea and told him of his grief, and of the reason of his journey; he then made the request that he would show him the way to Tsīt-napishtim, and ended his demand with the words he had already used to Sabitu, saying—

“If it is possible, I will cross the sea,
But if it is not possible, I will lie me down upon the ground in despair.”

Arad-Ea consented to make the journey, and told Gilgamesh to go into the wood and cut down a tree out of which he might make a large rudder for the ship, since they would need special tackle for the voyage.


The Waters of Death.

The poem then describes how they made their preparations and set out on their journey, as follows—

“Gilgamesh on hearing this (i.e., Arad-Ea’s instructions)
Took his axe in his hand ....
And he went into the wood and [cut] a rudder, five measures in length,
And he smeared it all over with pitch.
Gilgamesh and Arad-Ea then went up into [the ship],
The ship was thrust out into the waves, and they began their voyage.
A course of one month and five days within three days [did they accomplish],
And thus Arad-Ea arrived at the Waters of Death.”

Image: Gilgamesh and Arad-Ea crossing the ocean and the “Waters of Death.” On the left of the picture is a representation of Gilgamesh and Ea-bani in conflict with a lion. (From a cylinder-seal in the British Museum, No. 89,588.)


The Meeting wit Tsīt-napishtim.

To pass over the Waters of Death was a task attended with difficulty and danger, and Arad-Ea needed all the help that Gilgamesh could give him to steer the ship in safety. After they had made the passage, Gilgamesh loosened his girdle and rested from his exertions. Then they drew nigh the shore of the land where Tsīt-napishtim and his wife dwelt apart from mankind. Tsīt-napishtim beheld Gilgamesh afar off and marvelled to see a living man cross the Waters of Death. Gilgamesh then approached the shore and, while still sitting in the ship, he explained to Tsīt-napishtim the reason he •had sought him out. He told him of his adventures with Ea-bani, and he described the sad death of his friend and his own grief at his loss. He recounted how he had set out to seek help from Tsīt-napishtim, and how on his journey he had passed over steep mountains and crossed dangerous seas. He ended his long recital by asking his ancestor how he might escape the sad fate of death that had overtaken Ea-bani his friend.

Tsīt-napishtim was grieved at the words of Gilgamesh, but told him he could do nothing to help him to escape from death.

He told him that death comes to all, and that no man could escape from it,

“As long as houses are built, . . .
And as long as brethren quarrel,
And as long as there is hatred in the land,
And as long as the river beareth its waters [to the sea].”

He added that the gods whose lot it is to decree death pass sentence when they will, and that no man could tell when his own time might come.

And he said—

“The Anunnaki, the great gods, decree fate,
And with them Mammetum, the maker of destiny,
And they determine death and life,
But the days of death are not known.”

With these words the Tenth Tablet of the poem ends.


Tsīt-napishtim’s Story.

On the Eleventh Tablet Gilgamesh asked Tsīt-napishtim the reason of his own escape from death. He gazed upon him, and, seeing that his appearance was like that of a living man, said—

“I behold thee, O Tsīt-napishtim,
But thy appearance is not changed. As I am, so art thou also.
Yea, thou art not changed. As I am, so art thou also.”

He then asked him the reason, saying,

“[Tell me], How didst thou obtain the life which thou dost enjoy in the assembly of the gods ?”

In reply to this question, Tsīt-napishtim told Gilgamesh the story of the dgluge, which has been already described in Chapter IY.


The Healing of Gilgamesh.

During the telling of the story, Gilgamesh sat listening at a little distance from the shore in the ship, for, sore-smitten as he was with sickness, he was not able to go up from the ship. When Tsīt-napishtim had finished the tale of his own adventures he turned to the hero and promised to restore him to health, for that at least he could do, though he could not show him a way to escape from death when his time should come. As a first step towards the recovery Tsīt-napishtim bade him sleep. For six days and six nights Gilgamesh continued to sit in the ship, and at the end of that time sleep came upon him suddenly “like a storm.” While Gilgamesh slept, Tsīt-napishtim told his wife to prepare some magic food, which she administered unto him while he slept.

On awaking from his sleep Gilgamesh felt that he was enchanted, and asked what had been done to him, and they told him of the magical food which had been prepared and which he had eaten. To complete his cure Tsīt-napishtim caused Arad-Ea to carry Gilgamesh to a certain fountain where he washed his sores in the healing waters, and he was cleansed from his terrible disease. When he was about to depart on his homeward journey, the wife of Tsīt-napishtim asked her husband what they could give him to ensure his safe return to his own land. Although Tsīt-napishtim had already told Gilgamesh that no man could escape from death, yet now, as the latter was preparing to take his leave, he disclosed to him the existence of a magic plant which had the power of prolonging life.

Gilgamesh then set sail in company with Arad-Ea to go and search for the plant. They succeeded in finding it, and Gilgamesh joyfully cried that he would carry it to Erech with him, and that by eating it he would regain his youth. Gilgamesh and Arad-Ea then turned back carrying the plant with them. And when they had journeyed thirty Icasbu, they came to a brook wherein flowed cool and refreshing water. And when Gilgamesh went down to the brook to drink, a demon in the form of a serpent darted out and carried away the plant. Gilgamesh bitterly lamented the loss of the plant, but could do nothing to recover it. He therefore continued his journey and in due time returned to Erech. With this incident the Eleventh Tablet closes.


Gilgamesh Mourns for Ea-bani.

The Twelfth Tablet of the poem relates how Gilgamesh, after his return from his long journey, continued to lament for Ea-bani. He called to mind the common acts of daily life, which his friend could no longer perform, now that he was imprisoned in the underworld, and addressing Ea-bani he said—

“Thou canst no longer stretch thy bow upon the earth;
And those who were slain with the bow are round, about thee.
Thou canst no longer bear a sceptre in thy hand;
And the spirits of the dead have taken thee captive.
Thou canst no longer wear shoes upon thy feet;
Thou canst no longer raise thy war-cry on the earth.
No more dost thou kiss thy wife whom thou didst love;
No more dost thou smite thy wife whom thou didst hate.
No more dost thou kiss thy daughter whom thou didst love;
No more dost thou smite thy daughter whom thou didst hate.
The sorrow of the Underworld hath taken hold upon thee.”


Ea-bani’s Return from the Dead.

Gilgamesh then appealed to the gods to help him in his sorrow and to enable him to again behold his friend. With this object he went alone into the temple of the god Bēl, and, addressing him as his “father,” told him of his trouble ; but Bēl could not help him. He next told his sorrow to Sin, the Moon-god, but he too could do nothing for him; and Ea, to whom he next appealed, could do naught to help him. Last of all he besought Nergal, the god of the dead, to use his power and to restore Ea-bani to him. On hearing the prayer of Gñgamesh, Nergal granted his request.

He opened the ground, and

“caused the spirit of Ea-bani to come forth from the earth like a wind.”

Gilgamesh thereupon asked Ea-bani to describe to him the underworld, crying,

“Tell me, my friend, tell me; tell me the appearance of the land which thou hast seen.”

But Ea-bani replied,

“I cannot tell thee, my friend, I cannot tell thee.”

This refusal to speak of the abode of the dead was not due to any command laid upon Ea-bani not to reveal such matters to the living, but was prompted by his grief at the dreariness of the region from which he had just been released.


The Condition of the Dead.

After bidding Gilgamesh sit down and weep, he proceeded to describe the underworld as an abode of misery, where was the worm which devoured, and where all was cloaked in dust. The text is here imperfect, but the closing lines of the tablet which contain the end of Ea-bani’s description of the condition of the dead are preserved.

In this passage Ea-bani contrasts the lot of the warrior, who has received due burial, with that of the man whose corpse is left uncared for on the field, in the following words:—

“On a couch he lieth
And drinketh pure water,
The man who was slain in battle—thou and I have oft seen such an one.
His father and his mother [support] his head,
And his wife [kneeleth] at his side.
But the man whose corpse is cast upon the field—
Thou and I have oft seen such an one—
His spirit resteth not in the earth.
The man whose spirit has none to care for it—
Thou and I have oft seen such an one—
The dregs of the vessel, the leavings of the feast,
And that which is cast out upon the street, are his food.”

With these words the poem comes to an end.


Composition of the Poem.

We have followed the exploits of the hero Gilgamesh as they are told on the tablets from Ashur-bāni-pal’s library, and from their varied nature it is clear that they have been drawn from many different sources. What historical foundation may underlie the tales told of this early king of Erech we cannot say, but it is legitimate to suppose that some early ruler did perform acts of valour in the past, and that his name has formed a centre around which stories and legends gathered in the course of centuries. To separate the different narratives which have been combined to form the poem as we know it would scarcely repay the trouble of analysis, but a bare enumeration of the principal sections of the story will suffice to show its composite nature.

The rule of Gilgamesh in Erech, the story of Ukhat and Ea-bani, the expedition against Khumbaba, the love of the goddess Ishtar for Gilgamesh, the slaying of the monstrous bull, the journey of Gilgamesh to the Mountain of the Sunset, the passage of the Waters of Death, Tsīt-napishtim’s story of the Deluge, the search for the Plant of Life, and the recall of Ea-bani’s spirit from the underworld—such are the chief sections into which the poem falls. Of these the account of the deluge is the section most loosely connected with the story of Gilgamesh, but other sections of the poem, which have been more skilfully interwoven, were doubtless at one time entirely independent of the narrative.


Gilgamesh and Alexander.

We may assume that many of these tales go back to hoary antiquity, and that in the course of time they became associated with the name of Gilgamesh, having previously been associated with the names of other heroes. It is interesting to note that as Gilgamesh was thus credited with adventures that were not his by right, so at a later time some of his exploits were borrowed to add lustre to the fame of another popular hero, Alexander the Great. As Gilgamesh set out to learn the secret of immortality, and in the course of his journey came to the Mountain of Māshu, and passed through a region of thick darkness, and crossed the Waters of Death, so Alexander is said to have journeyed in search of the Waters of Life, and to have come to a mountain called Mūsās or Māsīs, and to have passed through the land of darkness, and to have crossed the foetid sea.[8] This journey of Gilgamesh, moreover, in consequence of its being ascribed to Alexander in the text of Pseudo-Callisthenes, has found an echo in the Koran.[9]


Ishtar’s Descent into the Underworld.

Of the various sections of the great Babylonian poem describing the deeds of Gilgamesh the most interesting portions are perhaps those towards the end in which Ea-bani talks with Gilgamesh after the release of the former from the underworld; for from these passages we gain some information with regard to the conceptions formed by the Babylonians of a future life. Another of the principal legends of the Babylonians recounts how the goddess Ishtar once left the earth and descended into the underworld, and the poem in which this legend has been preserved enables us to augment the fragments of Ea-bani’s description of the dead that have come down to us.[10]

The poem describing the descent of the goddess begins as follows:—

“To the land whence none return, the place of darkness,
Ishtar the daughter of Sin inclined her ear.[11]
The daughter of Sin inclined her ear
To the house of darkness, the seat of the god Irkalla,
To the house from which none who enter come forth again,
To the road whose course returns not,
To the house wherein he who enters is excluded from the light,
To the place where dust is their bread, and mud their food.
They behold not the light, they dwell in darkness,
And are clothed like birds in a garment of feathers
And over door and bolt the dust is scattered.


The Gates of the underworld.

When Ishtar drew near the gate of the land whence none return,
She spake to the porter at the gate:
‘Ho! Porter! Opeu thy gate !
Open thy gate that I may enter in.
If thou openest not thy gate, so that I may not enter,
I will smite the door, I will shatter the bolt,
I will smite the threshold and tear down the doors,
I will raise up the dead, that they may devour the living,
And the dead shall outnumber those that live.’
The porter opened his mouth,
And addressed the mighty Ishtar:
‘Stay, O Lady, do not throw it down.
Let me go and declare thy name to the queen Allatu.’”

The porter then went to Allatu, the queen of the underworld, and told her of Ishtar’s coming; but Allatu was angered at the news aud wept for Ishtar’s victims, and she bade the porter admit her, saying—

“Go, porter, open thy gate for her,
And take possession of her according to the ancient laws.”


Allatu’s Cruelty.

The poem then describes how Ishtar was admitted, and how she was gradually stripped of her clothing, in the following words:—

“The porter went and opened his gate for her, (saying),
‘Enter, O Lady, let Cuthah[12] be glad at [thee].
Let the palace of the land whence none return rejoice before thee.’
The First Gate he made her enter, . . . and he took the great crown from off her head.
‘Why, O porter, didst thou take the great crown from off my head ?’
‘Enter, O Lady, for thus are the laws of Allatu.’”

In this manner was Ishtar made to pass through each of the seven gates of the underworld. At every gate an article of her apparel was removed, and to her remonstrances the porter always made the same reply, bidding her pass through the gate, for such were the laws of Allatu. Thus, naked and powerless, she was brought into Allatu’s presence. The queen of the underworld did not receive her with favour, and commanded Namtar, the demon of the plague, to strike her with disease in all the members of her body.


Ishtar’s Return to Earth.

But Ishtar was not left for ever in the clutches of Allatu. The absence of the goddess of love from the earth soon brought disaster upon men and beasts, for they no longer felt the desires of the body, and all creatures ceased to perform their natural functions. News of this calamity was carried to Shamash the Sun-god by Pap-sukal, the minister of the gods, and Shamash hastened to Sin and to Ea to consult with them as to what measures should be taken to remedy this state of things. Ea thereupon created a being named Udduslm-nāinir, whom he sent down to the underworld to procure the release of Ishtar.

Following Ea’s instructions Uddushu-nāmir obtained admittance to the underworld and appeared before Allatu. He conjured her by the power of the great gods to grant him the Waters of Life, by means of which he intended to restore Ishtar to life. Allatu was enraged at the request, and, although she could not resist the power he had invoked on behalf of Ishtar, she wreaked her vengeance upon him and cursed him with a terrible curse. She then turned to Namtar and told him to bring Ishtar forth and sprinkle over her the Waters of Life. When this had been done Ishtar was led out through the seven gates of the underworld, and at each of the gates the article of her apparel that had previously been taken from her was restored. Thus was she brought back again to earth.

Image: Representation upon a Babylonian eylinder-seal of the goddess Ishtar and otber deities. In tbe centre is Shamash, the e un-god. rising on the horizon. Ou his right, by the side of a sacred tree, stands the goddess Ishtar, with outstretched whips. On her right is a god holding a bow and a lion, and on her left are a nver-god and another deity. The name of the owner of the seal, written to the left of the picture, is "Adda, the scribe.” (British Museum, No. 89,115.)


Tamnux and Ishtar.

In the actual text of the legend we are not told Ishtar’s motive in descending into the underworld, but we may perhaps see a reference to it in the last few lines of the poem. Considerable doubt exists with regard to the interpretation of these lines, but it seems clear that they are not a continuation of the narrative and that they were intended to be addressed to the persons who may be supposed to have heard the poem recited—perhaps to certain mourners for the dead. In this exhortation the reciter refers to Tammuz, the spouse of Ishtar’s youth, and he bids his hearers pour out pure water in his honour and offer him goodly oil.

A little further on a reference is made to “the day of “ Tammuz” as a time when male and female mourners made lamentation and when incense was burnt. It may be conjectured therefore that the motive of the goddess in descending to the underworld was to bring back her youthful husband from the dead, and the poem in the form in which we have it would in that case contain only a part of the original legend. This story of the goddess Ishtar was possibly recited at the annual festival held in commemoration of the death of Tammuz, when women mourned for the dead god in Babylonia, as they mourned for him at Jerusalem in the time of the prophet Ezekiel.[13]


Etana and the Eagle.

We have seen that a portion of the poem of Gilgamesh, and the legend of the goddess Ishtar, contained descriptions and stories of the underworld; for the underworld was a mysterious abode about which legends would naturally gather. Heaven was also a place of mystery, and it is not surprising that stories of heroes who had journeyed thither should also find a place in Babylonian mythology. One such story is told of an old Babylonian hero named Etana, who, with the help of his friend the Eagle, succeeded in penetrating into heaven. A series of tablets existed in Ashur-bāni-pal’s library, which recounted the deeds of Etana,[14] and on most of the fragments that remain the Eagle appears as Etana’s friend and comrade. On one occasion, when the wife of Etana was about to bear him a son, but could not bring the child to the birth, the Eagle helped Etana to procure the “Plant of Birth” which would ensure a safe delivery.


Etana’s Journey to Heaven.

On another occasion the Eagle carried Etana up to heaven. The hero clung to the Eagle’s wings, and they mounted together till they could see the gates of heaven. .As they drew near to the Gate of Anu, Bēl, and Ea and to the Gate of Sin, Shamash, Rammān, and Ishtar, they beheld a throne of great splendour, and Etana was afraid and cast himself down at the foot of the throne. But the Eagle encouraged Etana to mount with him still higher and they again set out. After every two hours of his flight, the Eagle pointed to the earth below them, which grew smaller and smaller as they ascended, and at length they reached the Gate of Anu, Bēl, and Ea. After resting for a while the Eagle proposed to Etana that he should carry him up still higher to the dwelling of the goddess Ishtar. Again they set out, but when they had flown for six hours Etana cried to the Eagle to stop. What misfortune then overtook the pair we do not know, for the text of the legend is broken; what still remains, however, recounts that they fell headlong through the air and were dashed upon the ground.[15]


The Eagle’s Fate.

From the portion of the legend quoted in the note we learn the Eagle’s fate, but we are not told what became of his friend, the hero Etana. Etana must have incurred the anger of the gods by attempting to mount to their abode, and it is possible that he was dashed to pieces when he fell with the Eagle to the ground from the height of heaven.


Adapa and the South Wind.

Image right: Image: Head of the demon ot the South-west wind. (British Museum, No. 22,459)

A legend is told of another ancient hero, named Adapa, who also journeyed to heaven, but in this case the hero did not seek to get there by his own devices, but was summoned thither by Anu, the god of heaven. The legend is preserved on one of the tablets that was found at Tell el-Amarna,[16] and, in the form in which we have it, dates from the first half of the fifteenth century before Christ.

The story narrates that Adapa, the son of Ea, was one day out on the sea in a boat, engaged in catching fish for his father’s house. Suddenly Shūtu, the South wind, blew and upset his boat and threw him into the water. Adapa was furious at this outrage, so he caught the South wind by her wings and broke them. In this passage the South wind is pictured as a winged female monster, and it is possible that in other respects also she was thought to resemble a bird.

We have no representation of her, but it may be inferred that she was a creature of unprepossessing appearance, for the South wind was dreaded by the Babylonians inasmuch as it caused destructive floods in the low-lying regions of the Euphrates valley. The accompanying illustration of a kindred spirit, the demon of the South-west wind, is taken from a marble head in the British Museum, and it well represents the hideous conception formed by the Babylonians of the monster who caused destructive storms and tempests.


Adapa is Summoned to Heaven.

When Adapa had broken Shūtu’s wings, the South wind was no longer able to blow over the earth. After seven days had passed, Anu, the god of heaven, asked his minister Ilabrat why the South wind had ceased to blow, and he told him that Adapa had broken her wings. Anu thereupon summoned Adapa to heaven to answer the charge. Before he set out Adapa received instructions from his father Ea, who told him how, by putting on garments of mourning, he would propitiate Tammuz and Gishzida, the two gods who stood at the gate of heaven, and who, if approached with due deference, would secure for him a favourable reception before Ann. Ea also warned him that after he entered Anu’s presence they would offer him “Meat of Death” and “Water of Death neither of these was he to touch. They would then bring him a garment and oil, and these he need not avoid; the garment he might put on and with the oil he might anoint himself.


Adapa’s Pardon.

On arriving at the gate of heaven Adapa duly secured the favour of Tammuz and Gishzida and was led into Anu’s presence. Anu asked him why ba bad broken the wings of the South wind, and Adapa related how the South wind had upset his boat while he was fishing on the sea. Tammuz and Gishzida then interposed on Adapa’s behalf, and at their words Anu’s anger against Adapa was turned away. Then Anu, having pardoned Adapa for his offence, decided that, as he had seen the interior of heaven, he must be added to the company of the gods. He therefore commanded that they should bring Adapa "Meat of “Life” that he might eat. But Adapa would not eat the “Meat of Life”; neither would he drink the “Water of Life” which was next placed before him. But when they brought him a garment he put it on, and when they offered him oil he anointed himself therewith.

And Anu, when he saw that Adapa had not partaken of the “Meat of Life” and the “Water “ of Life,” asked him, saying,

“Come, Adapa, why dost thou neither eat nor drink ? For now thou canst not live.”

And Adapa answered that he had refused to eat and drink, because Ea his lord had so commanded him. The reason which prompted Ea to lay these injunctions upon his son seems to have been that he feared the gods would seek to slay Adapa. Anu, on the other hand, decided to make Adapa immortal, and did not offer him deadly food as Ea had predicted. Thus Adapa, through his father’s suspicions, missed the privilege of enjoying immortality.


The Tablets of Destiny.

In the legends of Etana and Adapa we have stories of mortals who by presumptuous acts brought themselves into conflict with the gods. Among the gods themselves, however, ambition was not absent, and in the legend of Zū we read how one of the lesser deities aimed at obtaining the control of the whole company of the gods.[17] It will be remembered that Marduk was identified in course of time with the older god Bēl, or Enlil,[18] and in the great legend of the creation we are told that he captured the Tablets of Destiny from Kingu, the captain of the host of Tiāmat.


Zū’s Theft.

In the following legend we read how at a later time Zū stole them from Bēl and carried them off to his mountain.

The legend runs as follows:—

“His eyes beheld the symbols of Bēl’s dominion,
The crown of his sovereignty, and the robe of his godhead.
Zū gazed at his divine Tablets of Destiny,
And he gazed at the father of the gods, the god of Duranki,
And a longing for Bēl’s dominion was held fast in his heart.
‘I will take the Tablets of the gods,
And I will direct the oracles of all the gods.
I will establish my throne and dispense my commands.
I will rule all the Spirits of Heaven.’
And his heart meditated battle
At the entrance of the hall, where he beheld as he waited the dawn of the day.
Now when Bēl was pouring out the clear water,
And his diadem was taken off and lay upon the throne,
(Zū) seized the Tablets of Destiny,
He took Bel’s dominion, the power of giving commands.
Then Zū fled away and hid himself in his mountain.”

The gods were dismayed at the theft, and Bel strode through the hall in rage. Then Anu, the god of heaven, addressed the gods, his sons, and called for a champion, who should recover the Tablets. Thereupon the goda called upon Eammān to be their champion, and Anu promised him honour and power should he succeed. But Eammān refused the offer, as did also two other deities when asked. Who eventually conquered Zū and recovered the Tablets is not quite certain, for the end of the legend is missing. From a passage in the legend of Etana, however, it may be conjectured that the Sun-god undertook the task, and vanquished Zū by catching him in his net.


Religious Characters of the Legends.

Such are the principal legends and stories, as fax as we know them, that were told in Babylonia concerning the gods and the heroes of olden time. That they were not idle tales, but had a religious significance for the people among whom we find them, is what might be inferred from a comparison of them with the mythologies of other nations. We have, moreover, evidence to this effect in some of the poems that have been already described. In the poem which recounts the descent of Ishtar into the underworld, we saw reason to believe that it was recited in connection with the yearly festival held in commemoration of the death of Tammuz.

The introduction to the long poem which records the history of Gilgamesh stated that a knowledge of the hero’s achievements would bring prosperity to the man who made himself acquainted with them, and it is probable that this statement was not regarded as a mere conventional preface, but was implicitly believed. It is true that in the legend we are not told that Gilgamesh was raised to the company of the gods, but he was undoubtedly regarded as a god in popular belief.

There is a prayer in the British Musenm[19] in which a sick man beseeches Gilgamesh to cure him of his sickness, and he addresses him as the

“perfect king, the judge of “the Anunnalti, the great arbiter among men who orders the four quarters of heaven, the governor of the world, and the lord of the regions of the earth” ;

the sick man also exclaims,

“Thou art a judge, and like unto a god thou gi vest decisions.”

It is clear therefore that to Gilgamesh was ascribed no small authority and power. The estimation in whiph both he and the hero Etana were held is also attested by the fact that the determinative for “god” is always placed before their names.


Legends as Amulets.

A further piece of evidence that these mythological compositions were put to very practical uses is afforded by certain tablets which have been found inscribed with legends concerning the chief Plague-god of the Babylonians,[20] describing the destruction which he and his attendant deity Ishum spread upon the earth. Both gods are therein pictured as warriors who held bloody sway in the cities of Babylonia, and undertook military expeditions into distant lands. These legends are inscribed on several tablets, and the last one of the series recounts how the ahger of the Plague-god was at length appeased, and ends with a speech of the Plague-god, in which he promises protection and prosperity to all those who make known his wondrous deeds. He continues,

“Should I be angry, and should “the seven-fold god cause destruction; the dagger of “pestilence shall not approach the house wherein this “tablet is set, and it shall remain unharmed.”

This last section of the poem, including the passage just quoted, has been found on two interesting tablets in the British Museum.[21] At the top of each tablet is a small projection in which a hole has been bored, and through it was passed a cord by which it might be suspended. There is no doubt that these tablets were hung up in the entrance of a house, and that they served as amulets for keeping off the plague. Thus there are many indications that the myths and legends of the gods played an important part in the practical religion and worship of the Babylonians.



To decide in what manner these various legends of the gods arose, and to trace the changes which they underwent in the long course of Babylonian history, would result in an interesting, but certainly a very speculative, enquiry. Conjecture, based mainly on the internal evidence furnished by the myths themselves in the forms in which they have come down to us, naturally cannot lead to very definite results; but one broad conclusion may be drawn from a study of the tablets with at least some probability of its being correct. It can hardly be disputed that changes in the aspect of nature suggested many of the legends about the gods.

Perhaps the clearest instance of this explanation of natural processes by legend is presented in the legends of the Plague-god; the campaigns he undertook, and the bloody battles he waged, were doubtless suggested by the ravages of disease which were regarded as his handiwork. The descent of Ishtar into the underworld and the languishing of all nature in consequence, which was followed by her restoration to earth and the renewal of the powers of men and beasts, was clearly intended to explain the decay of nature in the autumn, and the quickening of ’ the earth in the spring. Zū’s treacherous usurpation of Bēl’s sovereignty may perhaps be based on the sudden overwhelming of the sun by storm and clouds.


History and Legend.

There is another element in many of these legends which must not be lost sight of, and that is the substratum of historical fact which underlies the story, and was the nucleus around which it gathered. Echoes from the history of the remote past may perhaps be traced in such episodes as the expedition of Gilgamesh and Ea-bani against Khumbaba king of Elam, as well as in some of the conflicts described in the Plague-god legends. The growth of legends around the figures of prominent heroes is common in every race that has a history, and this was particularly the- case in Babylonia.


Legends of Early Kings.

A number of legends, for instance, have come down to us concerning certain ancient Babylonian kings, of whose historical existence we have abundant proof from other sources. Sargon I. was an actual king, who ruled in the city of Agade about B.C. 3800, and many of whose inscriptions have recently been found at Nippur. Yet we possess a legend concerning this monarch, in which he tells how his mother set him floating on the Euphrates in a basket made of rushes, how Akki the gardener rescued him and brought him up as his own son, and how while he was still a gardener the goddess Ishtar loved him and eventually set him over the kingdom which he ruled. The text of the legend of Sargon was a long one, but little more than this story of his youth has been preserved. It will at least suffice to show how myth and legend gathered around the figures of famous kings and heroes of old time.

The legend of Sargon is not a solitary example of this process. The so-called “Cuthæan “ legend of Creation” describes a legend of an early king of Cuthah,[22] and fragments of similar myths have been found in Ashur-bāni-pal’s library which recount the legendary deeds of Naram-Sin, the son of Sargon, who lived about B.C. 3750, and of Dungi, king of Ur, about B.C. 2500, aud of Khammurabi, king of Babylon, about B.C. 2200, and of Nebuchadnezzar I., king of Babylon about B.C. 1120. The tablets which contain these legends are very fragmentary, but they illustrate the process by which historical personages in course of time became demi-gods and legendary heroes.

Footnotes and references:


Ælian mentions an ancient king Gilgamos, a name he evidently took from the hero of this poem.


Gen. x. 8-10.


I.e., from about B.C. 4000 to B.C. 2300.


Cf. Jeremias, Izdubar-Nimrod, Leipzig, 1891.


It will be remembered that according to one version of the Creation story, the goddess Aruru, in company with Marduk, is credited with the creation of mankind; see above, p. 90.


I.e., a divine man, a demi-god. In this phrase “Anu” is used as a general name for “god.”


The people of Elam, which was situated to the east of Mesopotamia, were, from an early period, in constant conflict with Babylonia.


See Budge, The History of Alexander the Great, pp. 148, 171 ff., and The Life and Exploits of Alexander the Great, Vol. I., pp. xl, f.; Meissner, Alexander und Gilgamos , pp. 4 ff.


Sūra, xviii.


Cf. Jeremias, Die babylonisch-assyrischen Vorstellungen vom Leben nach dem Tode, pp. 10 ff.


I.e., turned her attention.


In Cuthah was E-shidlam, the great temple of Nergal the god of the dead; the name of the city is here used as a synonym for the underworld.


Ezek. viii. 14.


The legends of Etana have been edited by E. T. Harper, Beitrage zur Astyriologie, Bd. II., pp. 391 ff., and Morris Jastrow, op. cit., Bd. III., pp. 363 ff.


Another portion of tbe story of Etana refers to the subsequent fate of the Eagle; and it may here be described as it illustrates a class of Bahylooian myths in which beasts aud birds are represented talking like men, and appealing to the gods fur help and advice. The story tells how the Eagle iacurred the hatred of the Serpent, and how the latter, with the help of the Suo-god, took his revenge.

The story hegins with tbe following lioes :—

“His heart prompted the Eagle . . . ,
He considered, and his heart [prompted him . .]
To eat the young of his companiou . .
The Eagle opened his month and spake un!o his young, saying,
‘The young of the Serpent will I eat . .
I will ascend and [mount up] into heaven ;
I will swoop down upon the top of a tree and I will eat (the Serpent’s) brood.’
“Oue of the young birds who was endowed with much wisdom, addressed the Eagle, his father:
‘Do not eat, O my father, (for) the net of Shamash is laid.
The snare and the ban of Shamash will fall upon thee and will catch thee.
Whoso transgresseth the law of Shamash, will Shamash terribly [requite].’
But he did not hearken to them, and gave no beed to tlie word of his young one.
He swooped down and ate the young of the Serpent.”

The Serpent then repaired to Shamash the Sun-god, who as judge of heaven and earth could not allow such a wrong to go unpunished, aud he told him his story and appealed to him for justice.

He described how his nest was set in a tree and how the Eagle espied it, and devoured his young, saying :—

“He swooped down and ate [my young ones] !
[Behold], O Shamash, the evil he hath done me.
Help, O Shamash ! Thy net is like unto the broad earth ;
Thy snare is like unto the distant heaven !
“Who hath ever escaped from thy net ?
Even Zfi, the worker of evil, who raised the head of evil, [did not escape]!”

The story of Zū which is here referred to by the Serpent has been partly recovered from other tablets from Ashur-bāni-pal’s lihrary, and is described later on in this chapter. Wc there read of Zū’s treachery, and how he stole the Tablets of Destiny from Anu, and how he escaped with them to bis mountain home. From the Serpent’s reference to his fate we gather that the Sun-god succeeded in catchiog and punishing him. In the story of the Serpent and the Eagle, Shamash does not himself punish the Eagle, hut explains to the Serpent a device by which he may obtain vengeance.

The narrative continues :—

[“ When he had listened to] the prsyer of the Serpent,
Shamash opened liis mouth and to [the Serpent spake] :
‘Take the road and go [into the mountain],
And hide thyself in a wild [ox that is dead].
Open its bowels, [tear open its helly],
And take up thy dwelling [in its belly].
[All] the birds of heaven [shall swoop down],
The Eagle [shall come] with them,
And not knowing [thy plot (?)],
He will seek a piece of the flesh, moving swiftly,
And makiug for the hidden parts.
When he hath entered into the midst, do thou seize him by his wing, 
Tear off his wings, his pinions, and his claws,
Pull him in pieces and cast him into a pit, . . .
That he may die a death from hunger and thirst.’
At the word of Shamash, the hero, the Serpent departed and went into the mountain.
And the Serpent came upon a wild ox,
And he opened its bowels, he tore open its belly,
And he took up his dwelling in its belly.
All the birds of heaven swooped down and ate of the flesh.
But the Eagle (at first) suspected his evil purpose,
And with the flock of birds did not eat of the flesh.
Then the Eagle opened his mouth and spake unto his young:
‘Come ! let us swoop down, and let us also eat of the flesh of this wild ox!’
One of the young birds, who was endowed with much wisdom,
To turn aside [his] father . . . spake :
‘[O my Father], the Serpent lurks in [the flesh of] this wild ox !’
But he did not hearken to them, and gave no heed to the word of his young one.
He swooped down and stood upon tbe wild ox.
The Eagle . . . examined the flesh, he looked about carefully before and behind him.
He again examined the flesh, he looked about carefully before and behind him.
Then, moving swiftly, he made for the hidden parts.
When he had entered into the midst, the serpent seized him by his wing.”

So far everything had fallen out as the Sun-god had foretold. The Eagle, now that he sees he is in his enemy’s power, begs for mercy, and tries to bribe the Serpent. But the latter reminds him that an appeal to Shamash is irrevocable, and that if he did not carry out the Sun-god’s bidding, he would himself share in the punishment which he now inflicts.

“The Eagle opened [his mouthj and spake to the Serpent:
‘Have mercy upon me, and I will present thee with a gift according to thy pleasure.’
The Serpeut opened his mouth and spake to the Eagle:
‘If I release thee, Shamash will . . . against us,
And thy punishment will be transferred to me,
Which now, as a punishment, I execute on thee.’
So he tore off his wings, his pinions, and his talons,
He pulled him in pieces and cast him into a pit, . . .
And he died a death from hunger and thirst.”


See above, p. 118 f.; cf. Harper, Beiträge zur Assyrilogie, Db. II., pp. 418 ff.


Seo Harper, op.cit., pp. 408 if.


See above, pp. 18 ff.


Sm. 1371 + Sm. 1877.


The name of this god is generally read as Dibbarra, though Ura and Girra are also possible readings.


See Zeitschrift für Assyriologie, Bd. XI. pp 50 ff.


See above, pp. 92 ff.

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