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 VI - The Duty Of Man To His God And To His Neighbour

In the three preceding chapters the principal legends and myths that have been found in Babylonian literature have been described, and the extracts which have been quoted from them will have enabled the reader to form a couception of what the more powerful Babylonian gods were believed to be like. We have seen An n administering the powers of heaven, we have seen Bēl upon the earth destroying mankind in his anger and directing the oracles of all the gods, and Ea in the Deep regulating ther affairs of his own household and revealing secrets by his hidden wisdom.

Shamash, the Sun-god, has been seen in his character as the just judge of the whole earth, hearing the appeals of such as had suffered wrong, and giving help and advice to those who needed it. The great goddess Ishtar has been revealed in two characters. She has appeared as a cruel and wanton lover, persecuting those who yielded to her passion and seeking revenge upon those who refused her love ; she has also been seen in her gentler character as a devoted wife, descending to the underworld to seek her husband. Other deities have also been described in the exercise of their own peculiar functions, especially Marduk, the city-god of Babylon, who appears as the leader and the champion of the gods when they are in distress.


A Man’s Spiritual Foes.

In addition to these greater gods many other deities, of less power and importance, have been incidentally mentioned in the course of the legends. These, however, scarcely give an adequate idea of the number of supernatural beings who were believed to exist in the heavens and upon the earth, and beneath the earth. The legends that have been described are chiefly concerned with the doings of the more powerful gods and the great heroes of antiquity, and they naturally do not deal with the sprites, and goblins, and spectres, which were believed to haunt and harass a man in his daily life and in the performance of his ordinary duties. For the ancient Babylonian moved in a world peopled by demons and spirits, whom he could not see, but whose influence at any moment might cause him misfortune, sickness, or death.

Many of these spirits were actively hostile to man and waged an incessant warfare against him. Others, though less actively hostile, were to be no less feared, for at any time a man might unwittingly incur their wrath by some act which trenched upon their jealously guarded rights. An ill-omened word, or the eating or drinking of an impure thing, was sufficient to rouse the wrath of some one of these beings; and, although the victim might have committed no intentional act of disobedience, he had to endure their persecution, sometimes without even a knowledge of its cause.


Babylonian Demon's.

Image right: A Babylonian demon. (British Museum, No. 22,438.)

These beings were conceived to be of hideous and repulsive appearance, often uniting in strange combinations the bodies and limbs of various birds and beasts. The accompanying illustration is a specimen of an evil Babylonian demon, taken from a clay figure in the British Museum. The head of the monster was no doubt partly suggested by that of a lion, and its ferocious aspect betokens ill to the man who might have the misfortune to place himself within its power.

In order to realize the great number and variety of such beings it would be necessary to turn to the spells and incantations and magical formulae which occupy so large a place in the religious literature of the Babylonians. To ignore this lower aspect of the belief of the Babylonians would be to give a one-sided and incomplete picture of their religion, but Babylonian magic does not fall within the limits of the present volume. We are here concerned with the higher side of the Babylonian religion, and, having already described the general character of the greater gods, it now remains to enquire in what relation man stood to these great deities, and also to what extent his religious beliefs affected his duty to his fellow man.


The Conception of God.

It has already been stated that, so far as we can see from their religious literature, the Babylonians had no conception of a single supreme and all-powerful God. In this matter they did not resemble the ancient Egyptians, who believed that such a being existed above the company of the gods and on a different plane from them. The Egyptian held that this allpowerful God could manifest his might in the persons of the gods of various departments of nature, but at the same time they believed that he was the ultimate cause of the entire universe and was the creator and director of both gods and men.[1] The Babylonians knew no such supreme deity, but it should be added that some few passages in their inscriptions perhaps indicate a glimmering belief in that direction.


The Word “Ilu.”

The Babylonian word for “god” is ilu, and the ideograph for the word is always placed as a determinative particle before the names .of deities. One of its most common uses is in the plural, in the phrase ilāni ralūti, “the great gods,” an expression which denotes the company of the great gods as distinguished from the host of lesser deities and spirits. When ilu occurs in the singular it is usually in the course of the description of some particular deity, as in the phrases ilu rabū, “a great god,” and ilu ali-ia, “god “ of my city,” applied to the god Marduk. In other passages it takes a pronominal suffix, as in the phrases ili-ia, “my god,” ili-ka, “thy god”; or it is coupled with the substantive ishtar, “goddess”; and in both these cases it is clear that the reference is made to some particular deity. There are, however, a few passages in which ilu stands entirely by itself, and where it is possible that it should be translated as “god” without any qualifying phrase. Such a passage occurs towards the end of the poem of the ancient king of Cuthah, which has been described in Chapter III.[2]

Here the king, after narrating his own history, proceeds to offer advice to any future ruler, and he addresses his words to any

“king, or ruler, or prince, or any one whatsoever, whom the god shall call to rule over the kingdom.”

No particular god is mentioned, and ilu occurs entirely by itself; it is possible, however, to refer the phrase to Nergal, the god of Cuthah, in whose temple the legend is preserved. In any case, this use of ilu is of rare occurrence, and it would be rash to rely on this evidence alone for proving that the Babylonians conceived an abstract and supreme deity apart from the separate and distinct gods of the various divisions of the natural world. Perhaps the Assyrians approached nearer to such a conception than the Babylonians, for their god Ashur was the symbol of their own national existence, and, although they retained the worship of the other gods from the Babylonians, they assigned to Ashur a position of supremacy among them and ascribed to him many of the attributes which belonged properly to the older gods.


Marduk the Intercessor.

Among the Babylonians the god Marduk in the course of time acquired a position of peculiar interest. As the god of Babylon be was naturally from the first of easy access to the inhabitants of his own city, and this intimacy with his own people was gradually extended until we find him appearing before his father Ea in the character of mediator and intercessor on behalf of men. We have already seen how Marduk was regarded as the creator of the world and of mankind, and it is in accordance with this tradition that he should have been thought to use his influence on behalf of the creatures whom he had made. Marduk’s character as intercessor is well illustrated by the following extract from a religious text, the recital of which would procure relief for a sick man and remove the evil spell by which he was troubled.

The text reads—

“An evil curse like a demon has beset the man,
Sorrow and trouble have fallen upon him,
Evil sorrow has fallen upon him,
An evil curse, a spell, a sickness..
The evil curse has slain that man like a lamb.
His god has departed from his body,
His guardian goddess has left his side.
He is covered by sorrow and trouble as with a garment, and he is overwhelmed;


Marduk the Friend of Man.

Then Marduk beheld him,
And he entered into the house of his father Ea and he said unto him:
‘O my father, an evil curse like a demon has beset the man.’
Twice he spake unto him, (and he added): 
‘I know not what that man has done, nor whereby he may be cured.’
And Ea made answer to his son, Marduk, (saying):
‘O my son, what dost thou not know ? what can I tell thee more ?
O Marduk, what dost thou not know ? what can I tell thee more ?
What I know, thou also knowest.
Go, my son, Marduk,
Take him to the house of purification,
Dissolve the spell from upon him, remove the spell from upon him.’”

The prominent position of Marduk in the company of the gods is amply attested in the numerous hymns and prayers that have been found addressed to him. Prayers and hymns, however, of a very similar nature were addressed to the other great gods, and these were believed to detract in no way from the deference due to Marduk or to any other deity. It seems to be clear that each god, when worshipped in his own temple, was regarded with profound reverence and could even be credited with sovereign power over the other gods without exciting their jealousy, and without laying his worshippers open to rebuke.


A Man’s own God and Goddess.

In the description of the sick man’s evil plight, quoted above, two lines occur in which it is stated that

“his god has departed from his body, his guardian goddess has left his side.”

The explanation of these two lines brings us to what is perhaps the most interesting, and at the same time the most characteristic, feature of the relationship which existed between the ancient Babylonian and his god. We have seen that Marduk appears in general as the protector and the friend of mankind, but every Babylonian had in addition two divine protectors, with whom his fortunes were most intimately connected. Each man had his own patron god and goddess, who made his welfare their peculiar charge, and to whose service he was specially devoted. In any trouble or affliction he would first turn to these two deities and implore them to exert their influence on his behalf.

The mere fact that he had fallen into adversity, however, was often proof that his god and goddess were temporarily estranged, and, should this be the case, it was necessary for him first to pacify their wrath and then to secure their assistance. What principles actuated the Babylonians in their choice of patron deities are not clearly indicated in their religious literature. It is not unreasonable to suppose that a child’s parents dedicated it at its birth to the care of some god and goddess, and that the choice was left entirely to them. We may be sure that whatever deities were selected they were among those who had temples or shrines in the city in which the parents lived, and who would therefore be in a position to effectually protect their offspring.


Belief in Guardian Deities.

The belief in guardian deities is intimately connected with the magical side of Babylonian religion, and the pacification of a man’s angry god and goddess was one of the commonest objects to which spells and incantations were applied. It may be inferred therefore that the belief in these protecting gods goes back to a remote period in Babylonian history. In his combat with the invisible demons and spirits in the midst of which a man was believed to live it would have gone hard with him if he had been left to his own unaided efforts. His natural protectors were his own patron god and goddess, and he was sure of their constant care and protection, if he did nothing to offend them or estrange them from him.


Priestly Meditation.

When misfortune or sickness fell upon a man and he perceived that his patron deities were offended with him, his first act was to hasten to the temple of his god and goddess and secure the services of a priest who might aid him in regaining their favour. The design most frequently engraved upon Babylonian and Assyrian cylinder-seals is a representation of the owner of the seal being led by a priest into the presence of his god; and it is clear that the priest’s mediation was necessary in order that the offended deity might be duly appeased. Frequently upon the seals an attendant is represented walking behind the owner and bearing offerings into the temple, and, when these had been handed over to the priest, the penitent was ready to be led into the god’s presence. The priest then took him by the hand and both priest and penitent raised their other hands as a symbol of worship and supplication. In this order the man was led into the presence of his offended god. If he was sore afflicted with disease, or oppressed by his sense of guilt, he would sit or lie upon the ground, and with bitter sighs and groans would declare his sin and pray for absolution.


Confession of Sin.

Among the religious works of the Babylonians and Assyrians a number of tablets have been found which served as service-books for the use of priest and penitent when they had entered the presence of the offended deity.[3] In these service-books the priest sometimes addresses the god and describes the sad condition of the man who wishes to make his confession ; at other times the penitent himself takes up the prayer.

The following is an extract from one of these compositions :—

The priest:

“In sorrow there he sits ;
With[4] cries of affliction, in trouble of heart.
With bitter tears in bitter sorrow,
Like the doves he moans grievously, night and day.
Unto his merciful god, like a wild cow, he cries,
He mates a grievous sighing.
Before his god he casts down his face in supplication,
He weeps,  that he may approach, that nothing may hold him back.”

The penitent:

“My deed will I declare, my deed which cannot be declared.
My words will I repeat, my words which cannot be repeated.
O my god, my deed will I declare, my deed which cannot be declared.”

In another prayer a penitent addresses his god and goddess together, and prays to be purified from his sin in the following words :—

“O my god, who art angry, accept my prayer.
O my goddess, who art augry, receive my supplication.
Receive my supplication and let thy spirit be at rest.
O my goddess, look with pity on me and accept my supplication.
Let my sins be forgiven,
let my transgressions be blotted out.
Let the ban be torn away,
let the bonds be loosened.
Let the seven winds carry away my sighs.
I will rend away my wickedness,
let the bird bear it to the heavens.
Let the fish carry off my misery,
let the river sweep it away.
Let the beast of the field take it from me.
Let the flowing waters of the river wash me clean.”


Misery of the Penitent.

Sometimes the god or goddess to whom the prayer is addressed is mentioned by name, as in the following extract, in which the penitent submits himself entirely to the will of the goddess Ishtar and seeks to arouse her pity by a reference to bis condition of abject misery.

He makes his appeal to the goddess as follows :—

“O mother of the gods, who fulfils their commands,
O lady of mankind, who makes the green herb to spring up,
Who created all things, who guides the whole of creation,
O mother Ishtar, whose side no god can approach,
O exalted lady, whose command is mighty,
A prayer will I utter.
That which appears good unto her, may she do unto me!
O my lady, from the days of my youth I have been much yoked to misfortune.
Food have I not eaten, weeping was my nourishment.
Water have I not drunk, tears were my drink.
My heart never rejoices, my spirit is never glad.”

A man’s appeal to his god and goddess was not always successful, for his sin may have been so great that his petitions for forgiveness were not sufficient in themselves to appease their wrath. In such a case, when the penitent found that his appeals remained unanswered, he had recourse to some more powerful god or goddess by whose assistance he sought to bring about his reconciliation with his patron deities.

The following is an extract from a service-book which was intended for the use of priest and penitent upon such an occasion:—

The penitent:

“I, thy servant, full of sighs, cry unto thee.
Whosoever has sinned, thou acceptest his fervent prayer.
The man on whom thou lookest in pity, that man lives,
O ruler of all things, lady of mankind,
O merciful one, whose turning is propitious, who acceptest supplication.”

The priest:

“Since his god and his goddess are angry with him, he cries unto thee.
Turn to him thy countenance and take his hand.”

The penitent:

“Beside thee there is no deity who guides aright.
In justice look on me with pity and accept my supplication.
Declare my forgiveness and let thy spirit be appeased.
When, O my lady, will thy countenance be turned ?
I moan like the doves, I satiate myself with sighs.”

The priest:

“With pain and grief his spirit is oppressed.
He sheds tears, he utters cries of woe.”


The Anger of Patron Deities.

It happened sometimes that a man through his transgressions offended some powerful deity, while he still retained the help and sympathy of his own god and goddess. In such a case he made his appeal at tbe shrine of the deity he had offended, and he believed that his own god and goddess made intercession for him at his side. The following extract is taken from a prayer to be delivered by a man who had offended Shamash the Sun-god and his wife Ai, and who sought to appease their wrath, while his own god and goddess added their voice to his appeal. The priest first described the man’s humility and grief; the extract reads as follows:—

The priest:

“By his face, which through tears he does not raise, he makes lamentation to thee.
By his feet, on which fetters are set, he makes lamentation to thee.
By his hand, which is spent through weariness, he makes lamentation to thee.
By his breast, which utters cries as of a flute, he makes lamentation to thee.”

The Penitent:

“O lady, through bitterness of heart I cry to thee in sorrow:
Declare my forgiveness. O lady, say to thy servant, ‘It is enough.’
Let thy heart be appeased. Bestow mercy on thy servant who is in affliction.
Turn thy countenance towards him, accept his supplication.
Turn in mercy towards thy servant, with whom thou wast angry.
O lady, my hands are bound, I prostrate (?) myself before thee.
Intercede for me before the mighty hero, Shamash, thy beloved spouse,
That for a life of many days I may walk before thee.
My god has prayed to thee, that thy heart may be at rest;
My goddess has made supplication to thee, that thy spirit may be appeased.”


Their Help in Trouble.

A penitent usually trusted to his condition of grief and misery to move the pity of an angry god or goddess. Sometimes, however, the priest would make a reference to the offerings which the penitent would make, when he was pardoned and restored to health and prosperity.

Such an inducement to pardon a penitent is urged by a priest upon an angry god in the following extract:—

“Open his bonds, remove his fetters.
Make bright his countenance, commend him to his god, his creator.
Give thy servant life, that he may praise thy power.
That he may bow down before thy greatness in all
dwellings. Receive his gift, accept his purchase money,
That, he may walk before thee in a land of peace,
That with overflowing abundance he may fill thy shrine,
That in thy temple his offerings may be set,
That with oil as with water he may anoint thy bolts,
And that with oil in abundance he may make thy threshold overflow.”


Conception of Sin.

No doubt in the early periods of their religious development, the offences which the Babylonian committed were of a formal and ceremonial character. Their sufferings might be due to the infringement of a religious ordinance, or to the eating or drinking of an impure thing, or to an ill-omened word or action. There is no doubt, however, that in the course of time moral considerations tinged their earlier beliefs. Misfortune was still believed to be the result of sin and transgression, but the character of the sin was gradually changed. Injustice and evil-doing were believed to anger a man’s god as much as offences against his own peculiar rites, and in this way a man’s duty towards his god led to a conception of the duty he owed towards his fellow man.


Growth of Morality.

The belief that oppression and injustice were followed by material misfortune is well attested in a document from Ashur-bāni-pal’s library, which contains a number of warnings to a king against injustice, and which unequivocally states that any act of that description would recoil upon himself or upon his land.[5]

The beginning of this tablet reads as follows :—

“If the king does not give heed to justice, his people shall be overthrown and his land shall be brought to confusion.

If he gives no heed to the law of his land, Ea, the king of destinies, shall change his destiny, and shall visit him with misfortune.

If he gives no heed to his nobles, his days shall (not) be long.

If he gives no heed to the wise-men, his land shall revolt against him.

If he gives heed to wisdom (?), the king shall behold the strengthening of the land.

If he gives heed to the commands of Ea, the great gods shall endow him with true knowledge and discernment.

If he treats a man of Sippar with injustice and gives a harsh decision, Shamash, the judge of heaven and earth, shall give a harsh decision in his land, and shall appoint a just prince and a just judge in place of injustice.

If the men of Nippur come to him for judgment and he accepts gifts and treats them with injustice, Bēl, the lord of the world, shall bring a foreign foe against him and shall overthrow his army, and his prince and his leader they shall hunt as outcasts (?) through the streets.

If the men of Babylon take money with them and give bribes, and he favours the cause of (these) Babylonians and turns to (their) entreaty, Marduk, the lord of heaven and earth, shall bring his foe against him, and shall give his goods and his possessions to his enemy. And the men of Nippur, Sippar, or Babylon who do these things shall be cast into prison.”


A Man’s Duties to His Neighbour.

In this tablet it is clearly stated that the gods would punish oppression and injustice with misfortune, and there is evidence of this belief in other Babylonian documents of a religious nature. From a series of magical incantatious we learn that a wrong committed by a man against his neighbour carried with it a punishment no less severe than that which accompanied any offence against a ceremonial code.[6]


List of Offences.

The various sins which a man might commit are enumerated in the form of questions, and the following extract will serve to indicate their general character:—

“Has he estranged the father from his son ?
Has he estranged the son from his father ?
Has he estranged the mother from her daughter ?

Has he estranged the daughter from her mother ?
Has he estranged the mother-in-law from her daughter-in-law ?
Has he estranged the daughter-in-law from her mother-in-law ?
Has he estranged the brother from his brother ?
Has he estranged the friend from his friend ?
Has he estranged the companion from his companion ?
Has he refused to set a captive free, or has he refused to loose one who was bound ?
Has he shut out a prisoner from the light?
Has he said of a captive ‘Hold him fast’, or of one who was bound has he said, ‘Strengthen his bonds ?’
Has he committed a sin against a god, or has he committed a sin against a goddess ?
Has he offended a god, or has he held a goddess in light esteem ?
Is his sin against his own god, or is his sin against his own goddess ?
Has he done violence to one older than himself, or has he conceived hatred against an elder brother ?
Has he held his father and mother in contempt, or has he insulted his elder sister ?
Has he been generous in small things, but avaricious in great matters ?
Has he said ‘yea’ for ‘nay’ ?
Has he said ‘nay’ for ‘yea’ ?
Has he spoken of unclean things, or [has he counselled] disobedience ?
Has he uttered wickedness ? . . .
Has he used false scales ? . . .
Has he accepted a wrong account, or has he refused a rightful sum ?
Has he disinherited a legitimate son, or has he recognized an illegitimate son ?
Has he set up a false landmark, or has he refused to set up a true landmark ?
Has he removed bound, border, or landmark ?
Has he broken into his neighbour’s house ?
Has he drawn near his neighbour’s wife?
Has he shed his neighbour’s blood ?
Has he stolen his neighbour’s garment ?”


A High Moral Code.

Here we have enumerated a comprehensive series of sins and offences, the commission of any one of which was considered sufficient to bring down upon a man the wrath of his god. Taken together they prove that in the seventh century before Christ, if not earlier, the Babylonians and Assyrians possessed a system of morality which in many respects resembled that of the descendants of Abraham.




Footnotes and references:


See Budge, Egyptian Ideas of the Future Life, chap. I.


See above p. 95.


Cf. Zimmern, Babylonische Busspsalmen, Leipzig, 1885.


In this and the following extracts the capital letter marks the beginning of a new line in the text.


The text is published in Cuneiform Inscriptions of Western Asia, Yol. IV., pl. 48.


Cf. Zimmern, Die Besclhwörungetafeln Schurpu, pp. 3 ff.

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