From under the Dust of Ages

by William St. Chad Boscawen | 1886 | 41,453 words

A series of six lectures on the history and antiquities of Assyria and Babylonia, delivered at the British Museum....

Lecture 5 - Chaldean Libraries

BEROSUS, the Chaldean historian, resorts to an ingenious literary fiction to preserve the continuity of narrative in his "History of Chaldea," which he claims to have based on documentary evidence, extending back over a period of twenty myriads of years. The deluge, which forms the concluding episode in the first book, and his account of which is, as I have shown, based upon the copies of the story of Samas-Napisti stored in the libraries of Chaldea, causes no rupture in the long series of records to which he claims to have had access ; for by the ingenious device of making Xisuthrus an author and historian, he is able to carry his series of records beyond the dividing streams of the deluge.

Xisuthrus was, according to Berosus, instructed by the god Cronos, whom we can identify with Hea of the tablet, before the deluge, to write a history of

" the beginning, progress, and end of all things up to that time, and to deposit these records in Sippar of the Sun, where in after time they would be found by the survivors, and form the first chapters of Chaldean history."

But even this primitive sire of the Chaldeans, the pious Xisuthrus, cannot lay claim to be the founder of Babylonian literature ; for the earliest chapters of his historical work were transmitted to him by a still more remote author, Annedotos-Oannes, called Musaros, to whom Berosus attributes the writings of the Chaldean Book of Origins. In claiming for the national literature so vast an age, and carrying its records back thus far into the azure of the past, Berosus affords us a strong proof of his being a member of the scribe caste.

To these ancient Chaldean gens de lettres their profession was all things ; its history was the history of the world ; in the time when there was no literature there was no world. They could find no better description of chaos than the time when " in those days no record was written."

Berosus, in carrying back his authorities to so remote a period, is but acting up to the traditions of his order, who saw in the Musaros- Oannes, who rose from the sea to teach men the rudiments of civilisation, arts, and letters, the founder of their caste.

The account which Berosus gives of this mysterious founder of the scribe caste is : —

" In the beginning there were in Babylon a great number of men of various races, who had colonised Chaldea. They lived without laws, after the manner of animals.

But in the first year there appeared coming out of the Erythrian Sea (Persian Gulf), on the coast where it borders Babylonia, an animal endowed with reason, named Oannes. He had all the body of a fish, but below the head of the fish another head, which was that of a man, also the feet of a man, which came out of its fish's tail. He had a human voice, and its image is preserved to this day.

This animal passed the day time among men, taking no nourishment.

It taught them use of letters, of sciences, and of arts of every kind, the rules for the foundation of towns and the building of temples, the principles of laws and geometry, the sowing of seeds and the harvest; in one word, it gave to men all that conduced to the enjoyment of life. Since that time nothing excellent has been invented. At the time of sunset this monster Oannes threw itself into the sea, and passed the night beneath the waves, for it was amphibious.

He wrote a book upon the beginning of all things, and of civilisation, which he left to mankind."

(Berosus Frag, i., Edit. Lenonnant.)

Helladice quotes the same story, and calls the composite being Oes ; while another writer, Hyginus, calls him Euahanes. It is evident, M. Lenormant remarks, that this latter name is more correct than Oannes, for it points to one of the Akkadian names of Hea Hea — Khan, " Hea the fish," — and must be identified with the fish- headed god so often represented on the sculptures from Nimroud (B. M , N. G , No. 29), and clay figures have been found at Nimroud and Khorsabad, as well as numerous representations on seals and gems.

We have already seen how Hea has the titles of " he who knows all things," " the god of wisdom," and his abode was in the Absie or mysterious deep, the house of wisdom. It was therefore to Hea, the Oannes of Berosus, that the Babylonian scribes traced their origin.

The god Hea had other descendants beside his mediatorial son Merodach, the chief being —

Chaldean Library Img2

(Hea - Davkina. Merodach. Zirat-Panit. Nebo. Tasmituv)

The titles which Nebo assumes are those which show that he had taken very much the place of his grandfather Hea as the god of learning. In a tablet which gives his numerous titles (W. A. I. ii., 60, No. 2), we find him called " the son of Merodach," " the first-born lord," "the binder of all," "the maker of oracles," " the maker of writings on written tablets," " the wise god," " the lord of illustrious knowledge,'' " the clearer-up of difficulties," " the enlarger of the ears or mind," " the maker of inscriptions." All these titles mark him as the Hermes of Chaldea.

His name, Nabti, means the Prophet, and he is associated with a goddess, Tasmituv, " the Hearer," a relationship which reminds us very much of that of master and pupil.

There is a bilingual hymn to this god in Akkadian and Assyrian, which brings before us the position of the divinity in Chaldea ( W. A. I. iv., 20, No. 3) :—

Oh Lord, by thy wisdom, a wisdom unequalled.
Nebo, by thy wisdom, a wisdom unequalled.
By thy temple of E-Zida, a temple unequalled.
By thy city of Borsippa, a city unequalled.
By thy held of Babylonia, a field unequalled.
By thy weapon . . . which from its mouth death pours not forth,
Blood is not shed.
Thy command, as heaven is unchangeable, in heaven thou art supreme.

The temple of E-Zida, the house of knowledge, was the shrine of this great god in the city of Borsippa, the site of which is now marked by the ruins of the Birs Nirnmd. This was the great centre of Babylonian learning, the alma mater of the scribe caste.

I now pass to what may be called the historical evidence of the remote antiquity of the scribe caste.

Turning to our oldest inscription of which the date is fixed by indisputable facts, we are met at once with evidence of the great antiquity of writing and writers in Chaldea.

The inscriptions of Sargon of Agadhe or Akkad, and Naram Sin, are now known by the twice repeated statement in two cylinders of Nabonidus to date from B.C. 3750. These two inscriptions read thus —


No. I. No. II.
1. Sar-Ga-Ni. 1. Na-Ra-Am Dp. Eu-Zu  (Sin).
2. Sar Lukli. 2. Sar.
3. A-Ga-De. 3. Ki-Ib-Ra-Tim.
4. A-na. 4. Ar-Ba-Ini.
5. II Samas Ki (Sipar). 5. Sar.
6. In. Ud Kip-nun-ki. 6. A-pi-Ra-Ak.
7. A-mu-ra. 7. Ma-Gan (Ki).

The first of these inscriptions reads —

" Sargon, the good king of Agadhe (Akkad) ; to the Sun god, within Sippara, I looked."

The second —

" Naram Sin, king of the four quar- ters ; the lands of Apirak and Magan."

Both these documents are written, not in the most ancient language of Chaldea, but in a language which will at once be recognised as good Semetic, akin to Hebrew. The words Arbaim, " four ; " Sar, " king ; " Naram, " beloved ; " Kiprat, " border ; " Amuru, " I looked," all find their analogy in the Hebrew lexicon.

But we must remember that it is more universally admitted by all Assyrian scholars that the cuneiform mode of writing with its compiled syllabary, with ideographs, polyphones, &c, and its texts reading from left to right, could not be the invention of a Semetic people. M. Eenan, a master of Semetic paleography and learning, who at one time could not understand this abnormal character of the Assyrian inscriptions, now writes : —

" No one in the present day can doubt that this Turanian civilisation possessed, and most probably created, the writing called cuneiform."

Yet here, at the remote period of thirtyeight centuries before the Christian era, we are brought face to face with a remarkable problem. This writing, once pictorial, as both Mr Houghton and myself have shown, has passed through the ideographic into the phonetic stage, and become borrowed and adapted to the requirements of a language of a totally different family and genus. Indeed, Berosus, considering how slowly these changes took place when there was but little civilising friction, had more grounds for his statement than we imagined. With all this retrospective enlargement of the use of writing, we get a similar expansion of the tradition and history of these scribe castes, and even at this time we find them in existence and in power. In the collection of M. le Clerc of Paris is a seal, which bears the inscription —

" Sar-Ga-Ni, Sar Lukh, Agadhe, Ibni-Sarru, Dip-Sar Ardusu ? " —

"To Sargon, the good ? king of Akkad, Ibni-Sarru, the scribe, his servant."

This inscription, written in very archaic characters, is the oldest charter we at present have of the antiquity of the scribes of Chaldea. Another seal, which belongs to a little later date than this, is to be seen in the British Museum, and bears on it the inscription of " Debu, the recorder of the king . . . the scribe, his servant" (Figured in Tomkin's Life of Abraham, pi. 3). In the sister Empire of Egypt, the scribes were a caste of great antiquity, and holding high rank in the community ; and the description by Dr Brugsch of this class may assist us in an arrangement of the scribes of Babylonia. " Of a more peaceful character," he says, " was the much-praised office of Hir Shesta" which means " teacher of the secret," for they possessed all the hidden wisdom of those times.

Those learned in the secrets of the heavens looked upwards, and explained the ever-changing courses of the stars. This class find their counterpart in the numerous Lu-Aba, or "men of the month;" the " astronomers " of Chaldea, as Professor Sayce suggests, while the former class are represented by the officials who bear the titles of " He who opens the eyes," the instructor (,W. A. I., v. 13, 13), and others also who are called " Abgallu," counsellors, wise men, and perhaps the lawyer is represented by the official called Bel tcriti, "lord of laws," mentioned in the same tablet. The ordinary scribes bore the titles or name of " Sapri," scribes, or Dip-Sar ? " the tablet writer." There were other officials of this class — the librarian, who had charge of the tablets ; and the man who had charge of the papyri.

There were scribes attached to each law court and temple, and many hundreds of their names are found attached to the legal, commercial, and fiscal documents. We may conclude, therefore, that the scribe caste was a large and an ancient one in Chaldea. I may notice that there must have been attached to the Assyrian Court during the time of the Sargonides a body of scribes, who had attained a very high skill in caligraphy. The writing of some of the tablets and cylinders is so minute and so perfect as to be nearly equal to fine engraver's work.

I may quote, as examples of this work, the fragments of a cylinder of Sargon II. (b.c. 721), recording the expedition against Ashdod ; in the Daily Telegraph collection, also two tablets of a mythological character (K.G. case B), which are even finer and more minute work. It was this caste of brothers of the style who year by year, century by century, went labouring on, building up that grand temple of culture, the learning and wisdom of Chaldea, that glorious product of the combined mental efforts of the plodding, inventive Akkadian mind, and the receptive, poetic, and progressive mind of the Semite, which has done more for Western learning than we can estimate.

All this learning has for more than 6000 years lain buried beneath the desert sands; now opens it the treasure houses of its hidden secrets to the eyes of astonished posterity. There is an ancient Arab saying which seems to place vividly before us one lesson of this resurrection of the writings cf the past. It says : —

" There is no writer that shall not perish, but what his hand has written shall endure. Write nothing therefore but what will please thee when thou shalt see it on day of resurrection."

Little did the Chaldean scribe, who long years ago wrote on the plastic clay the glory of his king or the scandal of the bazaar, think that tens of centuries after, in a far-distant isle of the setting sun, his words would be read with eager interest by his fellow-men.

With so powerful a caste of scribes, there must naturally have been a large number of libraries. Indeed, every temple had its library, but of the chief libraries a few only are known to us.

The chief library of all Babylonia was that of the temple of Nebo at Borsippa. It was from this library that Assurbanipal took many of the inscriptions which he placed in his new public library at Nineveh, and the Ninivite library was named after its Babylonian prototype. There was also a library in the temple at Sippara dedicated to the Sun god.

There must have been a library containing a number of astronomical tablets here, as the library of Sargon of Agadhe or Akkad was placed here ; and it was to him the great work on astronomy in seventy tablet books was attributed.

In Kute or Kutha, the site of which is marked by the mound of Tel Ibrahim, was a library, and, judging from the Cutha Creation Tablet, it seems to have been a very ancient one, and taught somewhat differently on religious matters from other libraries. Ur and Erech had libraries, and at Larsa, the modern Senkereh, the Ellassar of Gen. xiv. 1, there were mathematicians, some of whose works are preserved to us. In the examination of so vast a library of learning as these tablets form, embracing every section of literature, it is difficult to know where to commence.

As, however, these mathematical and geographical tablets are among the oldest tablets of the series, I will briefly describe them. The most important are two lists of square and cube roots and a tablet of measures. These important documents were found at Larsa. The text is published in W. A. I,, vol. iv., pi. 40.

The table of square roots gives the roots and squares from 1-60, and that of cubes from 1-32. The scale adopted is that of units of 1-10, 60-600, 3600— the 60 being called the susu or sos ; 600 the neru or naros ; and 3600 the sar or sarros ; and, with this sexigesimal scale, most complicated problems could be worked.

For example, to express the square of 50, the scribe wrote what at first looked like 1.41.40, really representing 60x41+40 = 2500; and in the higher numbers, as, for example,

Chaldean Library Math3

the cube of ....

Square Roots:

1.40 (1 x 60 + 4) = 64, the square of 8
2.1 (2 x 60 + 1) = 121, the square of 11
3.45 (3 x 60 + 45) = 225, the square of 15
56.4 (56 x 60 + 4) = 3364, , the square of 58
58.1 (58 x 60 + 1) = 3481, the square of 59
1.... (60 x 60) = 3600, the square of 60

Cube Table:

1. 4 (1 x 60 + 4) = 64, the cube of 4.
2. 5 (2 x 60 + 5) = 125, the cube of 5
3.36 (3x60 + 36) = 216, the cube of 6

With the longer figures the third element of the scale comes in:

1.  8.16 (1 x 3600 + 8 x 60 + 16) = 4096 = the cube of 16
1.21.53 (1 x 3600 + 21 x 60 + 53) = 4913 = the cube of 17
8.16.31 (8 x 3600 + 16 x 60 + 31) = 29791 = the cube of 31
9.6.8 (9 x 3600 + 6 x 60 + 8) = 32768 = the cube of 32

This system may seem a little strange and cumbrous to us at first sight, but it is surprising how exactly it coincides with our every day numeration.

Chaldean Library Math2

Thus we write 61, which really stands for ......

In like manner we learn that in their expression of fractions they employed their scale of 60 as we employ ours of 10 in decimals.

Chaldean Library Math1

Thus we write ....... the unit of 60 being the understood denominator as we use 10 in decimals.

This same scale furnished their divisions of the measures of length, as in the table of measures given by the late Dy Lepius of Berlin, in his work, entitled, " Die Babylonische-Assyrischen Liingenmasse, Berlin, 1877, from which I have derived most of this information. Here we find —

  • 5 Uban (fingers) = 1 Kat (Hand).
  • 6 Kat = 1 Ammat or cubit,
  • 6 Ammat = 1 Kan (Reed).
  • 120 Kan = 1 Susu.
  • 30 Susu = 1 Kaspu.

In like manner we find the great circle of the heavens, the yearly round of the sun, divided into 00 X 6, or 360 days.

That they applied their mathematical skill to mensuration and surveying is shown in the carefully-drawn plan from Tel Lo, already referred to (Lect. I.), and a still more elaborate example is now in the British Museum, which represents the survey of a Babylonian estate, in which every dimension of each plot of land is figured as carefully as a modern survey, and the names of adjacent properties or boundaries given.

Chaldean Library Img1

Chaldeahas always been regarded as the birthplace of astronomy, so much so, that the word Chaldean has become almost a synonym for an astronomer or astrologer. Some of the writers among the classics ascribe a fabulous antiquity to Chaldean astronomy.

According to Epigenes, these observations had been carried back 720,000 years. Berosus says 470,000.

The Babylonians themselves attributed the codification of all astronomical knowledge, and its embodiment in a work, entitled Namar Beli, " The Illumination of Bel " to Sargon of Akkad, whose reign we see has to be placed at B.C. 3750 to 3800. There is a long inscription, an Assyrian copy of a Babylonian tablet, of this king's reign, describing his campaigns in Syria, Elam, &c, and each expedition is preceded by the omen which foretold its results.

I quote a few extracts from it (W. A. I. iv., 34, 1):—

" At the time when the moon in its whole mass and the under part is full, and above a clear sky, and behind makes it large and bright. Sargon, according to this omen, to the land of Martu (Syria) marched, the land of Martu he swept, and the four quarters his hand captured."

" When the moon is like a cloud, and the orb a horn has not, on the right of the orb opposition is made, and on the left against it the seven confront."

Sargon upon this omen —

"The inhabitants of his land, all of it, revolted against him, and in Akkad enclosed him. Sargon came forth, their bodies he smote, and their destruction he accomplished."

These divinations, by the way, and such consulting of the omens Ezekiel (xxi. 21, 22) refers to in the words —

" For the king of Babylon standeth at the parting of the way, at the head of two ways ; he hath made bright (or shaken) his arrows, he consulted the images (teraphim), he looked in the liver,"

were common occurrences before and during campaigns. Of this we have historical evidence of great interest. In about the year 1130 B.C., a prince named Nebuchadnezzar seized the throne of Babylon after a period of anarchy. During his reign a comet appeared, which is thus described by a Babylonian astronomer (W. A. I. iii., 52, 1): —

  1. The star rose, its rays were bright as the cUy.
  2. With its rays like a creeping thing, a scorpion, a tail it forms.
  3. The observation of the eyes was favourable,
  4. Pleasing the lord of this house, and all the land.
  5. At that time when even a lord there was not in all the land,
  6. Rebellion, sin, defection there was. A strong one is exalted
  7. the master of that house, and that king
  8. By right is established. Obedience and peace in the land are.
  9. These things from the (Star),
  10. The great star from the northern orbit
  11. To the southern orbit.
  12. In its extent like a creeping thing, a scorpion, a tail.
  13. It makes turning (upwards)
  14. In its position, in the abode
  15. Of Bel it tills.
  16. This is, according to the tablet
  17. When Xeb'uchadnezzar, the king, on the land of Elam seized.

As this tablet comes from the royal library at Nineveh, and was transcribed by order of Assur banipal, who reigned B.C. G04, it cannot be the Nebuchadnezzar the Great. Of this Elamite campaign we have historical record upon the stone memorial of this expedition, which is now exhibited in the Nimroud gallery of the British Museum.

On it Scorpion-saggitarius representing this comet is carved.

Later still we meet with a curious example of the influence of astrology on the kings of Assyria. In the year B.C. 673, when Esarhaddon was starting on his Egyptian campain, the following event is recorded in a tablet of the astronomical library (K. 2701): —

  1. The god Assur, in a dream, to the father of the king my lord, the just prince
  2. The king, the lord of kings, the heart of hearts (grandson) of the just prince
  3. Thou shalt restore the wisdom of the house of wisdom (Absie), and all the people
  4. When the father of the king my lord to the land of Egypt went,
  5. Into the grooves of Kharran, the dwelling of the god of the cedar tree, he went.
  6. The moon over the corn fields stood, having two crowns on his head (with a double halo round it),
  7. While Kusku (Evening Star) stood at his side. The father of the king my lord entered, and
  8. The crown on his (Assurbani pal's) head he placed, and the government of the countries he gave him.
  9. And when the road Egypt he took, the blessing of the countries followed him.

It is evident that this accidental aspect of the moon was construed by the court party into the means of forcing the king to settle the government of the country before leaving on a perilous expedition into Egypt. The opening lines of this tablet are very remarkable, as they seem to throw light upon the king's great work of founding a public library at Nineveh for the instruction of the people: "Thou shalt restore the wisdom of the house of wisdom, and all the people. . . ." It is unfortunate that the last few lines are lost. In the colophon attached to the tablets in the royal library we read that the king invokes Nebo and Tasmituv, who have opened his eyes and enlarged his ears (mind) to all the wisdom of the tablets which he has had copied and explained, that is translated, and placed in his palace for the instruction of his people.

This library, a large portion of the contents of which are now in the British Museum, was one of the most remarkable institutions in the world. Founded, as we know, from a purely political motive, it preserved to us learning, and wisdom, and records of remote history which might have been for ever lost had it not been for the enterprise of Assurbanipal.

The loss of the Alexandrian library is often bemoaned by Western scholars, but here in the terra cotta tablets of the library of Assurbanipal we have the editio 'prima of many of the choicest treasures of the Egyptian library. Every branch of literature finds a place on its shelves, and it is arranged in a manner so systematic and complete that it might well form an example to the curators of many a European library. Consisting of at least 100,000 tablet-books, we can see from the numbering and sectional arrangement there would be far less difficulty for the student to obtain his terra cotta tome in the Bibliotheque Nationale d'Assyrie than in many a modern public library.