Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria

by Lewis Spence | 1917 | 108,912 words

Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, is a book that includes explanations of Babylonian and Assyrian legends and myths as well as the myths themselves. Lewis Spence, in the Preface, describes his purpose in writing the book as providing the reader with "the treasures of romance latent in the subject, the peculiar richness of which has...

Chapter I - Babylonia and Assyria in History and Legend

TO our fathers until well-nigh a century ago Babylon was no more than a mighty name— a gigantic skeleton whose ribs protruded here and there from the sands of Syria in colossal ruin of tower and temple. But now the grey shroud which hid from view the remains of the glow and glitter of her ancient splendour has to some extent been withdrawn, and through the labours of a band of scholars and explorers whose lives and work must be classed as among the most romantic passages in the history of human effort we are now enabled to view the wondrous panorama of human civilization as it evolved in the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates.

The name ‘Babylon’ carries with it the sound of a deep, mysterious spell, such a conjuration as might be uttered in the recesses of secret temples. It awakens a thousand echoes in the imagination. It holds a music richer than that of Egypt. Babylon, Babylon—the sonorous charm of the word is as a line from some great epic. It falls on the ear of the historian like distant thunder. Behind the grandeur of Rome and the beauty of Greece it looms as a great and thick darkness over which flash at intervals streams of uncertain light as half-forgotten kings and priests, conquerors and tyrants, demigods and mighty builders pass through the gloom from obscurity to obscurity—sometimes in the full glare of historical recognition, but more often in the half-light and partially relieved dusk of uncertainty. Other shapes, again, move like ghosts in complete and utter darkness, and these are by far the most numerous of all.

But the spirit of Babylon is no soft and alluring thing eloquent of Oriental wonders or charged with the delicious fascination of the East. Rather is it a thing stark and strong, informed with fate and epical in its intense recognition of destiny. In Babylonian history there are but two figures of moment—the soldier and the priest. We are dealing with a race austere and stern, a race of rigorous religious devotees and conquerors, the Romans of the East—but not an unimaginative race, for the Babylonians and Assyrians came of that stock which gave to the world its greatest religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Mohammedanism, a race not without the sense of mystery and science, for Babylon was the mother of astrology and magic, and established the beginnings of the study of the stars; and, lastly, of commerce, for the first true financial operations and the first houses of exchange were founded in the shadows of her temples and palaces.

The boundaries of the land where the races of Babylonia and Assyria evolved one of the most remarkable and original civilizations in the world’s history are the two mighty rivers of Western Asia, the Tigris and Euphrates, Assyria being identical with the more northerly and mountainous portion, and Babylonia with the southerly part, which inclined to be flat and marshy. Both tracts of country were inhabited by people of the same race, save that the Assyrians had acquired the characteristics of a population dwelling in a hilly country and had become to some extent intermingled with Hittite and Amorite elements. But both were branches of an ancient Semitic stock, the epoch of whose entrance into the land it is impossible to fix. In the oldest inscriptions discovered we find those Semitic immigrants at strife with the indigenous people of the country, the Akkadians, with whom they were subsequently to mingle and whose beliefs and magical and occult conceptions especially they were afterward to incorporate with their own.


The Akkadians

Who, then, were the Akkadians whom the Babylonian Semites came to displace but with whom they finally mingled ? Great and bitter has been the controversy which has raged around the racial affinities of this people. Some have held that they were themselves of Semitic stock, others that they were of a race more nearly approaching the Mongol, the Lapp, and the Basque. In such a book as this, the object of which is to present an account of the Babylonian mythology, it is unnecessary to follow the protagonists of either theory into the dark recesses whither the conflict has led them. But the probability is that the Akkadians, who are usually represented upon their monuments as a beardless people with oblique eyes, were connected with that great Mongolian family which has thrown out tentacles from its original home in central Asia to the frozen regions of the Arctic, the north of Europe, the Turkish Empire, aye, and perhaps to America itself! Akkadian in its linguistic features and especially in its grammatical structure shows a resemblance to the Ural-Altaic group of languages which embraces Turkish and Finnish, and this is in itself good evidence that the people who spoke it belonged to that ethnic division. But the question is a thorny one, and pages, nay, volumes might be occupied in presenting the arguments for and against such a belief.

It was from the Akkadians, however, that the Babylonian Semites received the germs of their culture; indeed it may be avowed that this aboriginal people carried them well on the way toward civilization. Not only did they instruct the Semitic newcomers in the arts of writing and reading, but they strongly biased their religious beliefs, and so inspired them with the idea of the sanctity of their own faith that the later Babylonian priesthood preserved the old Akkadian tongue among them as a sacred language, just as the Roman priesthood has retained the use of the dead Latin speech. Indeed, the proper pronunciation of Akkadian was an absolute necessity to the successful performance of religious ritual, and it is passing strange to observe that the Babylonian priests composed new religious texts in a species of dog-Akkadian, just as the monks of the Middle Ages composed their writings in dog-Latin ! —with such zeal have the religious in all ages clung to the cult of the ancient, the mystic and halfforgotten thing unknown to the vulgar.

When we first encounter Babylonian civilization we find it grouped round about two nuclei, Nippur in the North and Eridu in the South. The first had grown up around a sanctuary of the god En-lil, who held sway over the ghostly animistic spirits which at his bidding might pose as the friends or enemies of men. A more ‘civilized’ deity held sway at Eridu,' which was the home of Ea, or Oannes, the god of light and wisdom, who exercised his knowledge of the healing art^for the benefit of his votaries. From the waters of the Persian Gulf, whence he rose each morning, he brought knowledge of all manner of crafts and trades, arts and industries, for the behoof of his infant city, even the mystic and difficult art of impressing written characters on clay. It is a beautiful picture which we have from the old legend of this sea-born wisdom daily enlightening the life of the little white city near the waters. The Semites possessed a deep and almost instinctive love of wisdom. In the writings attributed to Solomon and in the rich and wondrous Psalms of David— those deep mines of song and sagacity—we find the glories of wisdom again and again extolled. Even yet there are few peoples among whom the love of scholarship, erudition, and religious wisdom is more cultivated for its own sake than with the Jews.

These rather different cultures of the North and South, working toward a common centre, met and fused at a period prior to the commencement of history, and we even find the city of Ur, whence Abram came, a near neighbour of Eridu, colonized by Nippur ! The culture of Eridu prevailed nevertheless, and its mightiest offshoot was the ultimate centre of Euphratean civilization—Babylon itself. The first founders of the city were undoubtedly of Sumerian stock—the expression ‘Sumerian’ being that in vogue among modern scholars for the-older ‘Akkadian,’ and therefore interchangeable with it.


The Semite Conquerors

It was probably about the time of the juncture of the civilizations of Eridu and Nippur that the Semites entered the country. There are indications which lead to the belief that, as in the case of the Semitic immigrants in Egypt, they came originally from Arabia. The Semite readily accepted the Sumerian civilization which he found flourishing in the valley of the Euphrates, and adapted the Sumerian system of writing to his own language, in what manner will be indicated later. But the Sumerians themselves were not above borrowing from the rich Semitic tongue, and many of the earliest Sumerian texts we encounter are strongly Semitized. But although the Semites appear to have filtered into Sumerian territory by way of Eridu and Ur, the first definite notices we have of their presence within it are in the monuments of the more northern portion of that territory, in what is known as Akkad, in the neighbourhood of Bagdad, where they founded a small kingdom in much the same manner as the Jutes founded the kingdom of Kent. The earliest monuments, however, come from Lagash, the modern Tel-lo, some thirty miles north of Ur, and recount the dealings of the high-priest of that place with other neighbouring dignitaries. The priests of Lagash became kings, and their conquests extended beyond the confines of Babylonia to Elam on the east, and southward to the Persian Gulf.


A Babylonian Conqueror

Image right: Assault on a City; From a bas-relief representing the Campaigns of Sennacherib Photo W. A. Mansell and Cc.

But the first great Semitic empire in Babylonia was that founded by the famous Sargon of Akkad. As is the case with many popular heroes and monarchs whose deeds are remembered in song and story— for example, Perseus, CEdipus, Cyrus, Romulus, and our own King Arthur—the early years of Sargon were passed in obscurity. Sargon is, in fact, one of the ‘fatal children.’ He was, legend stated, born in concealment and sent adrift, like Moses, in an ark of bulrushes on the waters of the Euphrates, whence he was rescued and brought up by one Akki, a husbandman. But the time of his recognition at length arrived, and he received the crown of Babylonia. His foreign conquests were extensive. On four successive occasions he invaded Syria and Palestine, which he succeeded in welding into a single empire with Babylonia. Pressing his victories to the margin of the Mediterranean, he erected upon its shores statues of himself as an earnest of his conquests. He also overcame Elam and northern Mesopotamia and quelled a rebellion of some magnitude in his own dominions. His son, Naram-Sin, claimed for himself the title of “King of the Four Zones,” and enlarged the empire left him by his father, penetrating even into Arabia. A monument unearthed by J. de Morgan at Susa depicts him triumphing over the conquered Elamites. He is seen passing his spear through the prostrate body of a warrior whose hands are upraised as if pleading for quarter. His head-dress is ornamented with the horns emblematic of divinity, for the early Babylonian kings were the direct vicegerents of the gods on earth.

Even at this comparatively early time (c . 3800 b.c.) the resources of the country had been well exploited by its Semitic conquerors, and their absorption of the Sumerian civilization had permitted them to make very considerable progress in the enlightened arts. Some of their work in bas-relief, and even in the lesser if equally difficult craft of gem-cutting, is among the finest efforts of Babylonian art. Nor were they deficient in more utilitarian fields. They constructed roads through the most important portions of the empire, along which a service of posts carried messages at stated intervals, the letters conveyed by these being stamped or franked by clay seals, bearing the name of Sargon.


The First Library in Babylonia

Sargon is also famous as the first founder of a Babylonian library. This library appears to have contained works of a most surprising nature, having regard to the period at which it was instituted. One of these was entitled The Observations of Bel , and consisted of no less than seventy-two books dealing with astronomical matters of considerable complexity ; it registered and described the appearances of comets, conjunctions of the sun and moon, and the phases of the planet Venus, besides recording many eclipses. This wonderful book was long afterward translated into Greek by the Babylonian historian Berossus, and it demonstrates the great antiquity of Babylonian astronomical science even at this very early epoch. Another famous work contained in the library of Sargon dealt with omens, the manner of casting them, and their interpretation—a very important side-issue of Babylonian magico-religious practice.

Among the conquests of this great monarch, whose splendour shines through the shadows of antiquity like the distant flash of arms on a misty day, was the fair island of Cyprus. Even imagination reels at the well-authenticated assertion that five thousand seven hundred years ago the keels of a Babylonian conqueror cut the waves of the Mediterranean and landed upon the shores of flowery Cyprus stern Semitic warriors, who, loading themselves with loot, erected statues of their royal leader and returned with their booty. In a Cyprian temple De Cesnola discovered, down in the lowest vaults, a haematite cylinder which described its owner as a servant of Naram-Sin, the son of Sargon, so that a certain degree of communication must have been kept up between Babylonia and the distant island, just as early Egypt and Crete were bound to each other by ties of culture and commerce.



But the empire which Sargon had founded was doomed to precipitate ruin. The seat of power was diverted southward to Ur. In the reign of Dungi, one of the monarchs who ruled from this southern sphere, a great vassal of the throne, Gudea, stands out as one of the most remarkable characters in early Babylonian antiquity. This Gudea (c. 2700 B.C.) was high-priest of Lagash, a city perhaps thirty miles north of Ur, and was famous as a patron of the architectural and allied arts. He ransacked western Asia for building materials. Arabia supplied him with copper for ornamentation, the Amames mountains with cedar-wood, the quarries of Lebanon with stone, while the deserts adjacent to Palestine furnished him with rich stones of all kinds for use in decorative work, and districts on the shores of the Persian Gulf with timber for ordinary building purposes. His architectural ability is vouched for by a plan of his palace, measured to scale, which is carved upon the lap of one of his statues in the Louvre.

There is no intention in this sketch to follow minutely the events in the history of Babylonia and Assyria. The purpose is to depict and describe the circumstances, deeds, and times of its most outstanding figures, its most typical and characteristic rulers. By following this plan we hope to be better able to present the reader with a more faithful and genuine picture of the civilization the myths of which we are about to peruse, than if we squandered space and time in the description of the reigns of kings during whose tenure of the throne no event of importance is recorded.


Khammurabi the Great

Image right: Basalt Stele engraved with the Text of Khammurabi’s Code of Laws;
The scene represents the King receiving the Laws from Shamash, the Sun-god.
Photo W. A. Mansell and Co.

Like that which preceded it, the dynasty of Ur fell, and Arabian or Canaanite invaders usurped the royal power in much the same manner as the Shepherd Kings seized the sovereignty of Egypt. A subsequent foreign yoke, that of Elam, was thrown off by Kham-murabi, perhaps the most celebrated and most popularly famous name in Babylonian history. This brilliant, wise, and politic monarch did not content himself with merely expelling the hated Elamites, but advanced to further conquest with such success that in the thirty-second year of his reign (2338 b.c.) he had formed Babylonia into a single monarchy with the capital at Babylon itself. Under the fostering care of Khammurabi, Babylonian art and literature unfolded and blossomed with a luxuriance surprising to contemplate at this distance of time. It is astonishing, too, to note how completely he succeeded in welding into one homogeneous whole the various elements of the empire he carved out for himself. So surely did he unify his conquests that the Babylonian power as he left it survived undivided for nearly fifteen hundred years. The welfare of his subjects of all races was constantly his care. No one satisfied of the justice of his cause feared to approach him. The legal code which he formulated and which remains as his greatest claim to the applause of posterity is a monument of wisdom and equity. If Sargon is to be regarded as the Arthur of Babylonian history surely Khammurabi is its Alfred. The circumstances of the lives of the two monarchs present a decidedly similar picture. Both had in their early years to free their country from a foreign yoke, both instituted a legal code, were patrons of letters and assiduous in their attention to the wants of their subjects.

If a great people has frequently evolved a legal code of sterling merit there are cases on record where such an institution has served to make a people great, and it is probably no injustice to the Semites of Babylonia to say of them that the code of Khammurabi made them what they were. A copy of this world-famous code was found at Susa by J. de Morgan, and is now in the Louvre.

What the Babylonian chronologists called ‘ the First Dynasty of Babylon ’ fell in its turn, and it is claimed that a Sumerian line of eleven kings took its place. Their sway lasted for 368 years—a statement which is obviously open to question. These were themselves overthrown and a Kassite dynasty from the mountains of Elam was founded by Kandis (c . 1780 B.C.) which lasted for nearly six centuries. These alien monarchs failed to retain their hold on much of the Asiatic and Syrian territory which had paid tribute to Babylon and the suzerainty of Palestine was likewise lost to them. It was at this epoch, too, that the high-priests of Asshur in the north took the title of king, but they appear to have been subservient to Babylon in some degree. Assyria grew gradually in power. Its people were hardier and more warlike than the art-loving and . religious folk of Babylon, and little by little they encroached upon the weakness of the southern kingdom until at length an affair of tragic proportions entitled them to direct interference in Babylonian politics.


A Court Murder

The circumstances which necessitated this intervention are not unlike those of the assassination of King Alexander of Serbia and Draga, his Queen, that happened 3000 years later. The Kassite king of Babylonia had married the daughter of Assur-yuballidh of Assyria. But the match did not meet with the approval of the Kassite faction at court, which murdered the bridegroom-king. This atrocious act met with swift vengeance at the hands of Assur-yuballidh of Assyria, the bride’s father, a monarch of active and statesmanlike qualities, the author of the celebrated series of letters to Amen-hetep IV of Egypt, unearthed at Tel-el-Amarna. He led a punitive army into Babylonia, hurled from the throne the pretender placed there by the Kassite faction, and replaced him with a scion of the legitimate royal stock. This king, Burna-buryas, reigned for over twenty years, and upon his decease the Assyrians, still nominally the vassals of the Babylonian Crown, declared themselves independent of it. Not content with such a revolutionary measure, under Shalmaneser I (1300 B.C.) they laid claim to the suzerainty of the Tigris-Euphrates region, and extended their conquests even to the boundaries of far Cappadocia, the Hittites and numerous other confederacies submitting to their yoke. Shalmaneser’s son, Tukulti-in-Aristi, took the city of Babylon, slew its king, Bitilyasu, and thus completely shattered the claim of the older state to supremacy. He had reigned in Babylon for some seven years when he was faced by a popular revolt, which seems to have been headed by his own son, Assur-nazir-pal, who slew him and placed Hadad-nadin-akhi on the throne. This king conquered and killed the Assyrian monarch of his time, Bel-kudur-uzur, the last of the old Assyrian royal line, whose death necessitated the institution of a new dynasty, the fifth monarch of which was the famous Tiglath-pileser I.



Tiglath-pileser, or Tukulti-pal-E-sana, to confer on him his full Assyrian title, came to the throne about 1120 B.C., and soon commenced the career of active conquest which was to render his name one of the most famous in the warlike annals of Assyria. Campaigns in the Upper Euphrates against alien immigrants who had settled there were followed by the conquest of the Hittites of Subarti, in Assyrian territory. Pressing northward toward Lake Van in the Kurdish country he subsequently turned his arms westward and overran Malatia. Cappadocia and the Aramaeans of Northern Syria next felt the force of his arms, and he penetrated on this occasion even to the sources of the Tigris. He left behind him the character of a great warrior, a great hunter, and a great builder, restoring the semi-ruinous temples of Asshur and Hadad or Rimmon in the city of Asshur.

It is not until the reign of Assur-nazir-pal III (c . 883 b.c.) that we are once more enabled to take up the thread of Assyrian history with any degree of certainty. In this reign artistic development appears to have proceeded apace; but it cannot be said of Assur-nazir-pal that in him culture went hand in hand with, humanity, the records of his cruelties being long and revolting. His successor, Shalmaneser II, possessed an insatiable thirst for military glory, and during his reign of thirty-five years overthrew a great confederacy of Syrian chiefs which included Ahab, King of Israel. He was disturbed during the latter part of his reign by the rebellion of his eldest son. But his second son, Samsi-Rammon, came to his father’s assistance, and his faithful adherence secured him the succession to the throne in 824 B.C.


Semiramis the Great

It was probably in the reign of this monarch that the queen known in legend as Semiramis lived. It would have been wonderful indeed had the magic of her name not been connected with romance by the Oriental imagination. Semiramis ! The name sparkles and scintillates with gems of legend and song. Myth, magic, and music encircle it and sweep round it as fairy seas surround some island paradise. It is a central rose in the chaplet of legend, it has been enshrined in music perhaps the most divine and melodious which the songful soul of Italy has ever conceived—yet not more beauteous than itself. Let us introduce into the iron chain of Assyrian history the golden link of the legend of this Helen of the East, and having heard the fictions of her greatness let us attempt to remove the veils which hide her real personality from view and look upon her as she was—Sammuramat the Babylonian, queen and favourite of Samsi-Rammon, who crushed the assembled armies of Media and Chaldea, and whose glories are engraved upon a column which, setting forth the tale of her conquests, describes her in all simplicity as “A woman of the palace of Samsi-Rammon, King of the World.”

Legend says that Ninus, King of Assyria, having conquered the Babylonians, proceeded toward Armenia with the object of reducing the people of that country. But its politic king, Barsanes, unable to meet him by armed force, made a voluntary submission, accompanied by presents of such magnificence that Ninus was placated. But, insatiable in his desire for conquest, he turned his eyes to Media, which he speedily subdued. His next ambition was to bring under his rule the territory between the Tanais and the Nile. This great task occupied him for no less than seventeen years, by which time all Asia had submitted to him, with the single exception of Bactria, which still maintained its independence. Having laid the foundations of the city of Nineveh, he resolved to proceed against the Bactrians. His army was of dimensions truly mythical, for he was said to be accompanied by 7,000,000 of infantrymen, 2,000,000 of horse-soldiers, with the addition of 200,000 chariots equipped with scythes.

It was during this campaign, says Diodorus Siculus, that Ninus first beheld Semiramis. Her precise legendary or mythical origin is obscure. Some writers aver that she was the daughter of the fish-goddess Ataryatis, or Derketo, and Oannes, the Babylonian god of wisdom, who has already been alluded to. Ataryatis was a goddess of Ascalon in Syria, and after birth her daughter Semiramis was miraculously fed by doves until she was found by one Simmas, the royal shepherd, who brought her up and married her to Onnes, or Menon, one of Ninus’s generals. He fell by his own hand, and Ninus thereupon took Semiramis to wife, having profoundly admired her ever since her conduct at the capture of Bactria, where she had greatly distinguished herself. Not long afterward Ninus died, leaving a son called Ninyas. During her son’s minority Semiramis assumed the regency, and the first great work she undertook was the interment of her husband, whom she buried with great splendour, and raised over him a mound of earth no less than a mile and a quarter high and proportionally wide, after which she built Babylon. This city being finished, she made an expedition into Media ; and wherever she went left memorials of her power and munificence. She erected vast structures, forming lakes and laying out gardens of great extent, particularly in Chaonia and Ecbatana. In short, she levelled hills, and raised mounds of an immense height, which retained her name for ages. After this she invaded Egypt and conquered Ethiopia, with the greater part of Libya ; and having accomplished her wish, and there being no enemy to cope with her, excepting the kingdom of India, she resolved to direct her forces toward that quarter. She had an army of 3,000,000 foot, 500,000 horse, and 100,000 chariots. For the passing of rivers and engaging the enemy by water she had procured 2000 ships, to be so constructed as to be taken to pieces for the advantage of carriage : which ships were built in Bactria by men from Phoenicia, Syria, and Cyprus. With these she fought a naval engagement with Strabrobates, King of India, and at the first encounter sunk a thousand of his ships. After this she built a bridge over the river Indus, and penetrated into the heart of the country. Here Strabrobates engaged her. Being deceived by the numerous appearance of her elephants, he at first gave way, for being deficient in those animals she had procured the hides of 3000 black oxen, which, being properly sewn and stuffed with straw, presented the appearance of so many elephants. All this was done so naturally that even the real elephants of the Indian king were deceived. But the stratagem was at last discovered, and Semiramis was obliged to retreat, after having lost a great part of her army. Soon after this she resigned the government to her son Ninyas, and died. According to some writers, she was slain by his hand.

It was through the researches of Professor Lehmann-Haupt of Berlin that the true personal significance of Semiramis was recovered. Until the year 1910 the legends of Diodorus and others were held to have been completely disproved and Semiramis was regarded as a purely mythical figure. Old Bryant in his Antient Mythology , published at the beginning of last century, proves the legendary status of Semiramis to his own satisfaction.

He says :

“It must be confessed that the generality of historians have represented Semiramis as a woman, and they describe her as a great princess who reigned in Babylon ; but there are writers who from their situation had opportunities of better intelligence, and by those she is mentioned as a deity. The Syrians, says Athenagoras, worshipped Semiramis, and adds that she was esteemed the daughter of Dercatus and the same as the Suria Dea. . . .

Semiramis was said to have been born at Ascalon because Atargatus was there worshipped under the name of Dagon, and the same memorials were preserved there as at Hierapolis and Babylon. These memorials related to a history of which the dove was the principal type. It was upon the same account that she was said to have been changed to a dove because they found her always depicted and worshipped under that form. . . .

From the above I think it is plain that Semiramis was an emblem and that the name was a compound of Sama-ramas, or ramis, and it signified ‘the divine token,’ a type of providence, and as a military ensign, (for as such it was used) it may with some latitude be interpreted ‘the standard of the most High.’ It consisted of the figure of a dove, which was probably encircled with the iris, as those two emblems were often represented together. All who went under that standard, or who paid any deference to that emblem, were styled Semarim or Samorim. It was a title conferred upon all who had this device for their national insigne.”

There is much more of this sort of thing, typical of the mythic science of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It is easy to see how myth became busy with the name of the Assyrian Queen, whose exploits undoubtedly aroused the enthusiasm not only of the Assyrians themselves but of the peoples surrounding them. Just as any great work in ancient Britain was ascribed to the agency of Merlin or Arthur, so such monuments as could not otherwise be accounted for were attributed to Semiramis. Western Asia is monumentally eloquent of her name, and even the Behistun inscriptions of Darius have been placed to her credit. Herodotus states that one of the gates of Babylon was called after her, and that she raised the artificial banks that confined the river Euphrates. Her fame lasted until well into the Middle Ages', and the Armenians called the district round Lake Van, Shamiramagerd.

There is very little doubt that her fame became mingled with that of the goddess Ishtar : she possesses the same Venus-like attributes, the dove is her emblem, and her story became so inextricably intertwined with that of the Babylonian goddess that she ultimately became a variant of her. The story of Semiramis is a triumphant vindication of the manner in which by certain mythical processes a human being can attain the rank of a god or goddess, for Semiramis was originally very real indeed. A column discovered in 1909 describes her as “a woman of the palace of Samsi-rammon, King of the World, King of Assyria, King of the Four Quarters of the World.”

This dedication indicates that Semiramis, or, to give her her Assyrian title, Sammuramat, evidently possessed an immense influence over her husband, Samsi-rammon, and that perhaps as queen-mother that influence lasted for more than one reign, so that the legend that after a regency of forty-two years she delivered up the kingdom to her son, Ninyas, may have some foundation in fact. She seems to have made war against the Medes and Chaldeans. The story that on relinquishing her power she turned into a dove and disappeared may mean that her name, Sammuramat, was easily connected with the Assyrian summat , the word for £ dove ’; and for a person of her subsequent legendary fame the mythical connexion with Ishtar is easily accounted for.


The Second Assyrian Empire

Image right: Sennacherib receiving Tribute; From the Palace at Nineveh.
Photo W. A. Mansell and Co.

What is known as the Second Assyrian Empire commenced with the reign of Tiglath-pileser III, who organized a great scheme of provincial government. This plan appears to have been the first forecast of the feudal system, for each province paid a fixed tribute and provided a military contingent.

Great efforts were made to render the army as irresistible as possible with, the object of imposing an Assyrian supremacy upon the entire known world. Tiglath overran Armenia, defeated the Medes and Hittites, seized the seaports of Phoenicia and the trade routes connecting them with the centres of Assyrian commerce, and finally conquered Babylon, where in 729 b.c. he was invested with the sovereignty of 4 Asia.’ Two years later he died, but his successor, Shalmaneser IV, carried on the policy he had initiated. He had, however, only five years of life in which, to do so, for at the end of that period the usurping general Sargon, who laid claim to be a descendant of Sargon the Great of Akkad, seized the royal power of Babylon. He was murdered in 705 B.C., and his son Sennacherib, of Biblical fame, appears to have been unable to carry on affairs with the prudence or ability of his father. He outraged the religious feelings of the people by razing to the ground the city of Babylon, because of the revolt of the citizens. The campaign he made against Hezekiah, King of Judah, was marked by a complete failure. Hezekiah had allied himself with the Philistine princes of Ascalon and Ekron, but when he saw his Egyptian allies beaten at the battle of Eltekeh he endeavoured to buy off the invaders by numerous presents, though without success. The wonderful deliverance of Jerusalem from the forces of Sennacherib, recorded in Scripture, and sung by Byron in his Hebrew Melodies, appears to have a good foundation in fact. It seems that the Assyrian army was attacked and almost decimated by plague, which obliged Sennacherib to return to Nineveh, but it is not likely that the phenomenon occurred in the watch of a night. Sennacherib was eventually murdered by his two sons, who, the deed accomplished, fled to Armenia. Of all the Assyrian monarchs he was perhaps the most pompous and the least fitted to rule. The great palace at Nineveh and the great wall of that city, eight miles in circumference, were built at his command.

His son and successor, Esar-haddon, initiated his reign by sending back the sacred image of Merodach to its shrine at Babylon, which city he restored. He was solemnly declared king in the restored temple of Merodach, and during his reign both Babylonia and Assyria enjoyed quiet and contentment. War with Egypt broke out in 670 B.C., and the Egyptians were thrice defeated with heavy loss. The Assyrians entered Memphis and instituted a protectorate over part of the country. Two years later Egypt revolted, and while marching to quell the outbreak Esarhaddon died on the road—his fate resembling that of Edward I, who died while on his way to overcome the Scottish people, then in rebellion against his usurpation.


Sardanapalus the Splendid

Esar-haddon was succeeded by Assur-bani-pal, known to Greek legend as Sardanapalus. How far the legendary description of him squares with the historical it is difficult to say. The former states that he was the last king of Assyria, and the thirtieth in succession from Ninyas. Effeminate and corrupt, he seems to have been a perfect example of the roi faineant. The populace of the conquered provinces, disgusted with his extravagances, revolted, and an army led by Arbaces, satrap of Medea, and Belesys, a Babylonian priest, surrounded him in Nineveh and threatened his life. Sardanapalus, however, throwing off his sloth, made such a vigorous defence that for two years the issue was in doubt. The river Tigris at this juncture overflowed and undermined part of the city wall, thus permitting ingress to the hostile army. Sardanapalus, seeing that resistance was hopeless, collected his wives and treasures in his palace and then set it on fire, so that all perished.

Image right: The Death of Sardanapalus; L. Chalon.
Copyright, Braun and Co.

It is a strange coincidence that the fate which legend ascribes to Sardanapalus was probably that which really overtook the brother of Assur-bani-pal, Samas-sum-yukin. It is likely that the self-immolation of Sardanapalus is merely a legendary statement of a rite well known to Semitic religion, which was practised at Tarsus down to the time of Dio Chrysostom, and the memory of which survives in other Greek legends, especially those of Heracles-Melcarth and Queen Dido. At Tarsus an annual festival was held and a pyre erected upon which the local Heracles or Baal was burned in effigy. This annual commemoration of the death of the god in fire probably had its origin in the older rite in which an actual man or sacred animal was burned as representing the deity. The Golden Bough[1] contains an instructive passage concerning the myth of Sardanapalus.

Sir James Frazer writes :

“There seems to be no doubt that the name Sardanapalus is only the Greek way of representing Ashurbanapal, the name of the greatest and nearly the last King of Assyria. But the records of the real monarch which have come to light within recent years give little support to the fables that attached to his name in classical tradition. For they prove that, far from being the effeminate weakling he seemed to the Greeks of a later age, he was a warlike and enlightened monarch, who carried the arms of Assyria to distant lands and fostered at home the growth of science and letters. Still, though the historical reality of King Ashurbanapal is as well attested as that of Alexander or Charlemagne, it would be no wonder if myths gathered, like clouds, around the great figure that loomed large in the stormy sunset of Assyrian glory.

Now the two features that stand out most prominently in the legends of Sardanapalus are his extravagant debauchery and his violent death in the flames of a great pyre, on which he burned himself and his concubines to save them from falling into the hands of his victorious enemies. It is said that the womanish king, with painted face and arrayed in female attire, passed his days in the seclusion of the harem, spinning purple wool among his concubines and wallowing in sensual delights ; and that in the epitaph which he caused to be carved on his tomb he recorded that all the days of his life he ate and drank and toyed, remembering that life is short and full of trouble, that fortune is uncertain, and that others would soon enjoy the good things which he must leave behind.

These traits bear little resemblance to the portrait of Ashurbanapal either in life or death ; for after a brilliant career of conquest the Assyrian king died in old age, at the height of human ambition, with peace at home and triumph abroad, the admiration of his subjects and the terror of his foes. But if the traditional characteristics of Sardanapalus harmonize but ill with what we know of the real monarch of that name, they fit well enough with all that we know or can conjecture of the mock kings who led a short life and a merry during the revelry of the Sacsea, the Asiatic equivalent of the Saturnalia.

We can hardly doubt that for the most part such men, with death staring them in the face at the end of a few days, sought to drown care and deaden fear by plunging madly into all the fleeting joys that still offered themselves under the sun. When their brief pleasures and sharp sufferings were over, and their bones or ashes mingled with the dust, what more natural that on their tomb—those mounds in which the people saw, not untruly, the graves of the lovers of Semiramis—there should be carved some such lines as those which tradition placed in the mouth of the great Assyrian king, to remind the heedless passer-by of the shortness and vanity of life ? ”

According to Sir James Frazer, then, the real Sardanapalus may have been one of those mock kings who led a short but merry existence before a sacrifice ended their convivial career. We have analogous instances in the sacrifice of Sandan at Tarsus and that of the representative of the Mexican god, Tezcatlipoca. The legend of Sardanapalus is thus a distorted reminiscence of the death of a magnificent king sacrificed in name of a god.

When the real Assur-bani-pal succeeded Esarhaddon as King of Assyria, his brother Samas-sum-yukin was created Viceroy of Babylonia, but shortly after he claimed the kingship itself, revived the old Sumerian language as the official tongue of the Babylonian court, and initiated a revolt which shook the Assyrian empire from one end to the other. A great struggle ensued between the northern and southern powers, and at last Babylon was forced to surrender through starvation, and Samus-sum-yukin was put to death.

Assur-bani-pal, like Sardanapalus, his legendary counterpart, found himself surrounded by enemies. Having conquered Elam as well as Babylonia, he had to face the inroads of hordes of Scythians, who poured over his frontiers. He succeeded in defeating and slaying one of their chiefs, Dugdamme, whom in an inscription he calls a “limb of Satan,” but shortly after this he died himself. His empire was already in a state of decay, and had not long to stand.


The First Great Library

Image right: The Library of King Assur-bani-pal at Nineveh;
Fernand Le Quesne.
By permission of Messrs Hutchinson and Co.

But if Assur-bani-pal was effeminate and lax in government, he was the first great patron of literature. It is to his magnificent library at Nineveh that we owe practically all that we have preserved of the literature that was produced in Babylonia. He saw that the southern part of his empire was far more intellectual and cultured than Assyria, and he despatched numerous scribes to the temple schools of the south, where they copied extensively from their archives every description of literary curiosity— hymns, legends, medical prescriptions, myths and rituals were all included in the great library at Nineveh. These through the labours of Layard and Rassam have been restored to us. It is a most extraordinary instance of antiquarian zeal in an epoch which we regard as not far distant from the beginnings of verifiable history. Nearly twenty thousand fragments of brick, bearing the results of Assur-bani-pal’s researches, are housed in the British Museum, and this probably represents only a portion of his entire collection. Political motives have been attributed to Assur-bani-pal in thus bringing together such a great library. It has been argued that he desired to make Assyria the centre of the religious influence of the empire. This would derogate greatly from the view that sees in him a king solely fired with the idea of preserving and retaining all that was best in ancient Babylonian literature in the north as well as in the south, and having beside him for his own personal use those records which many circumstances prove he was extremely desirous of obtaining. Thus we find him sending officials on special missions to obtain copies of certain works. It is also significant that Assur-bani-pal placed his collection in a library and not in a temple—a fact which, discounts the theory that his collection of literature had a religious-political basis.


The Last Kings of Assyria

After the death of Assur-bani-pal the Scythians succeeded in penetrating into Assyria, through which they pushed their way as far as the borders of Egypt, and the remains of the Assyrian army took refuge in Nineveh. The end was now near at hand. The last King of Assyria was probably Sin-sar-iskin, the Sarakos of the Greeks, who reigned for some years and who even tells us through the medium of inscriptions that he intended to restore the ruined temples of his land. War broke out with Babylonia, however, and Cyaxares, the Scythian King of Ecbatana, came to the assistance of the Babylonians. Nineveh was captured by the Scythians, sacked and destroyed, and the Assyrian empire was at an end.



Image right: Daniel interprets the Dream of Nebuchadrezzar.
Evelyn Paul

But strangely enough the older seat of power, Babylon, still flourished to some extent. By superhuman exertions, Nebuchadrezzar II (or Nebuchadnezzar), who reigned' for forty-three years, sent the standard of Babylonia far and wide through the known world. In 567 b.c. he invaded Egypt. In one of his campaigns he marched against Jerusalem and put its king, Jehoiakim, to death, but the king whom the Babylonian monarch set up in his place was deposed and the royal power vested in Zedekiah. Zedekiah revolted in 558 b.c. and once more Jerusalem was taken and destroyed, the principal inhabitants were carried captive to Babylon, and the city was reduced to a condition of insignificance. This, the first exile of the Jews, lasted for seventy years. The story of this captivity and of Nebuchadrezzar’s treatment of the Jewish exiles is graphically told in the Book of Daniel, whom the Babylonians called Belteshazzar. Daniel refused to eat the meat of the Babylonians, probably because it was not prepared according to Jewish rite. He and his companions ate pulse and drank water, and fared upon it better than the Babylonians on strong meats and wines. The King, hearing of this circumstance, sent for them and found them much better informed than all his magicians and astrologers. Nebuchadrezzar dreamed dreams, and informed the Babylonian astrologers that if they were unable to interpret them they would be cut to pieces and their houses destroyed, whereas did they interpret the visions they would be held in high esteem. They answered that if the King would tell them his dream they would show the interpretation thereof; but the King said that if they were wise men in truth they would know the dream without requiring to be told it, and upon some of the astrologers of the court replying that the request was unreasonable, he was greatly incensed and ordered all of them to be slain. But in a vision of the night the secret was revealed to Daniel, who begged that the wise men of Babylon be not destroyed, and going to a court official he offered to interpret the dream. He told the King that in his dream he had beheld a great image, whose brightness and form were terrible. The head of this image was of fine gold, the breast and arms of silver, and the other parts of brass, excepting the legs which were of iron, and the feet which were partly of that metal and partly of clay. But a stone was cast at it which smote the image upon its feet and it brake into pieces and the wind swept away the remnants. The stone that had smitten it became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.

Then Daniel proceeded to the interpretation. The King, he said, represented the golden head of the image ; the silver an inferior kingdom which would rise after Nebuchadrezzar’s death ; and a third of brass which should bear rule over all the earth. The fourth dynasty from Nebuchadrezzar would be as strong as iron, but since the toes of the image’s feet were partly of iron and partly of clay, so should that kingdom be partly strong and partly broken. Nebuchadrezzar was so awed with the interpretation that he fell upon his face and worshipped Daniel, telling him how greatly he honoured the God who could have revealed such secrets to him ; and he set him as ruler over the whole province of Babylon, and made him chief of the governors over all the wise men of that kingdom.

But Daniel’s three companions—Shadrach, Me-shach, and Abednego—refused to worship a golden image which the King had set up, and he commanded that they should be cast into a fiery furnace, through which they passed unharmed.

This circumstance still more turned the heart of Nebuchadrezzar in the direction of the God of Israel. A second dream which he had, he begged Daniel to interpret. He said he had seen a tree in the midst of the earth of more than natural height, which flourished and was exceedingly strong, so that it reached to heaven. So abundant was the fruit of this tree that it provided meat for the whole earth, and so ample its foliage that the beasts of the field had shadow under it, and the fowls of the air dwelt in its midst.

A spirit descended from heaven and called aloud, demanding that the tree should be cut down and its leaves and fruit scattered, but that its roots should be left in the earth surrounded by a band of iron and brass. Then, ordering that the tree should be treated as if it were a man, the voice of the spirit continued to ask that it should be wet with the dew of heaven, and that its portion should be with the beasts in the grass of the earth.

“Let his heart be changed from a man’s,” said the voice,

“and let a beast’s heart be given him ; and let seven times pass over him.”

Then was Daniel greatly troubled. He kept silence for a space until the King begged him to take heart and speak. The tree, he announced, represented Nebuchadrezzar himself, and what had happened to it in the vision would come to pass regarding the great King of Babylon. He would be driven from among men and his dwelling would be with the beasts of the field. He would be made to eat grass as oxen and be wet with the dew of heaven, and seven times would pass over him, till he knew and recognized that the Most High ruled in the kingdom of man and gave it to whomsoever he desired.

Image right: Grant of Privileges to Ritti-Marduk, a famous
Babylonian Captain, by Nebuchadrezzar I.
Photo W. A, Mansell and Co.

Twelve months after this Nebuchadrezzar was in the midst of his palace at Babylon, boasting of what he had accomplished during his reign, when a voice from heaven spake, saying :

“O King Nebuchadrezzar, to thee it is spoken, the kingdom is departed from thee,”

and straightway was Nebuchadrezzar driven from man and he did eat grass as an ox and his body was wet with the dew of heaven, till his hair was grown like eagle’s feathers and his nails like bird’s claws.

At the termination of his time of trial Nebuchadrezzar lifted his eyes to heaven, and praising the Most High admitted his domination over the whole earth. Thus was the punishment of the boaster completed.

It has been stated with some show of probability that the judgment upon Nebuchadrezzar was connected with that weird disease known as lycan-thropy, from the Greek words lukos, a wolf, and anthropos , a man. It develops as a kind of hysteria and is characterized by a belief on the part of the victim that he has become an animal. There are, too, cravings for strange food, and the afflicted person runs about on all fours. Among primitive peoples such a seizure is ascribed to supernatural agency, and garlic or onion—the common scourge of vampires—is held to the nostrils.


The Last of the Babylonian Kings

Nabonidus (555-539 b.c.) was the last of the Babylonian kings—a man of a very religious disposition and of antiquarian tastes. He desired to restore the temple of the moon-god at Harran and to restore such of the images of the gods as had been removed to the ancient shrines. But first he  desired to find out whether this procedure would meet with the approval of the god Merodach. To this end he consulted the augurs, who opened the liver of a sheep and drew thence favourable omens. But on another occasion he aroused the hostility of the god and incidentally of the priests of E-Sagila by preferring the sun-god to the great Bel of Babylon. He tells us in an inscription that when restoring the temple of Shamash at Sippar he had great difficulty in unearthing the old foundation-stone, and that, when at last it was unearthed, he trembled with awe as he read thereon the name of Naram-sin, who, he says, ruled 3200 years before him. But destiny lay in wait for him, for Cyrus the Persian invaded Babylonia in 538 b.c., and after defeating the native army at Opis he pressed on to Babylon, which he entered without striking a blow. Nabonidus was in hiding, but his place of concealment was discovered. Cyrus, pretending to be the avenger of Bel-Merodach for the slights the unhappy Nabonidus had put upon the god, had won over the people, who were exceedingly wroth with their monarch for attempting to remove many images of the gods from the provinces to the capital. Cyrus placed himself upon the throne of Babylon and about a year before his death (529 b.c.) transferred the regal power to his son, Cambyses. Assyrian-Babylonian history here ceases and is merged into Persian. Babylonia recovered its independence after the death of Darius. A king styling himself Nebuchadrezzar III arose, who reigned for about a year (521-520 b.c.), at the end of which time the Persians once more returned as conquerors. A second revolt in 514 b.c. caused the partial destruction of the walls, and finally the great city of Babylon became little better than a quarry out of which the newer city of Seleucia and other towns were built.


The History of Berossus

It will be of interest to examine at least one of the ancient authorities upon Babylonian history. Berossus, a priest of Bel at Babylon, who lived about 250 b.c., compiled from native documents a history of his country, which he published in Greek. His writings have perished, but extracts from them have been preserved by Josephus and Eusebius. There is a good deal of myth in Berossus’ work, especially when he deals with the question of cosmology, the story of the deluge, and so forth ; also the ‘ facts ’ which he places before us as history cannot be reconciled with those inscribed on the monuments. He seems indeed to have arranged his history so that it should exactly fill the assumed period of 36,000 years, beginning with the creation of man and ending with the conquest of Babylon by Alexander the Great. Berossus tells of a certain Sisuthrus,[2] whose history will be recounted in full in another chapter. He then relates a legend of the advent of the fish-man or fish-god, Oannes, from the waters of the Persian Gulf. Indeed he alludes to three beings of this type, who, one after another, appeared to instruct the Babylonians in arts and letters.


Berossus’ Account of the Deluge

More important is his account of the deluge. There is more than one Babylonian version of the deluge : that which is to be found in the Gilgamesh Epic is given in the chapter dealing with that poem. As Berossus’ account is quite as important, we shall give it in his own words before commenting upon it :

“ After the death of Ardates, his son (Sisuthrus) succeeded and reigned eighteen sari. In his time happened the great deluge; the history of which is given in this manner. The Deity, Cronus, appeared to him in a vision; and gave him notice, that upon the fifteenth day of the month Dsesius there would be a flood, by which mankind would be destroyed. He therefore enjoined him to commit to writing a history of the beginning, procedure, and final conclusion of all things, down to the present term ; and to bury these accounts securely in the City of the Sun at Sippara. He then ordered Sisuthrus to build a vessel, and to take with him into it his friends and relations; and trust himself to the deep. The latter implicitly obeyed : and having conveyed on board every thing necessary to sustain life, he took in also all species of animals, that either fly, or rove upon the surface of the earth.

Having asked the Deity whither he was to go, he was answered, To the gods : upon which he offered up a prayer for the good of mankind. Thus he obeyed the divine admonition : and the vessel, which he built, was five stadia in length, and in breadth two. Into this he put every thing which he had got ready ; and last of all conveyed into it his wife, children, and friends. After the flood had been upon the earth, and was in time abated, Sisuthrus sent out some birds from the vessel; which not finding any food, nor any place to rest their feet, returned to him again. After an interval of some days ; he sent them forth a second time : and they now returned with their feet tinged with mud.

He made trial a third time with these birds : but they returned to him no more : from whence he formed a judgment, that the surface of the earth was now above the waters. Having therefore made an opening in the vessel, and finding upon looking out, that the vessel was driven to the side of a mountain, he immediately quitted it, being attended with his wife, children, and the pilot. Sisuthrus immediately paid his adoration to the earth : and having constructed an altar, offered sacrifices to the gods. These things being duly performed, both Sisuthrus, and those who came out of the vessel with him, disappeared. They, who remained in the vessel, finding that the others did not return, came out with many lamentations and called continually on the name of Sisuthrus.

Him they saw no more ; but they could distinguish his voice in the air, and could hear him admonish them to pay due regard to the gods ; and likewise inform them, that it was upon account of his piety that he was translated to live with the gods ; that his wife and children, with the pilot, had obtained the same honour. To this he added, that he would have them make the best of their way to Babylonia, and search for the writings at Sippara, which were to be made known to all mankind. The place where these things happened was in Armenia. The remainder having heard these words, offered sacrifices to the gods; and, taking a circuit, journeyed towards Babylonia.”

Berossus adds, that the remains of the vessel were to be seen in his time upon one of the Corcyrean mountains in Armenia ; and that people used to scrape off the bitumen, with which it had been outwardly coated, and made use of it by way of an antidote for poison or amulet. In this manner they returned to Babylon ; and having found the writings at Sippara, they set about building cities  and erecting temples; and Babylon was thus inhabited again.


Analogies with the Flood Myth

It is interesting to note that Sisuthrus, the hero of this deluge story, was also the tenth Babylonian king, just as Noah was the tenth patriarch. The birds sent out by Sisuthrus strongly recall the raven and dove despatched by Noah ; but there are several American myths which introduce this conception.

Birds and beasts in many cosmologies provide the nucleus of the new world which emerges from the waters which have engulfed the old. Perhaps it is the beaver or the musk-rat which dives into the abyss and brings up a piece of mud, which gradually grows into a spacious continent; but sometimes birds carry this nucleus in their beaks. In the myth under consideration they return with mud on their feet, which is obviously expressive of the same idea. Attempts have been made to show that a great difference exists between the Babylonian and Hebrew story. Undoubtedly the two stories have a common origin.

The first Babylonian version of the myth dates from about 2000 b.c. and its text is evidently derived from a still older tablet. It seems likely that this was in turn indebted to a still more archaic version, which probably recounted the earliest type of the myth. This perhaps related how the earth and its inhabitants were not to the liking of the Creator, and how he resolved to recreate the whole. The great ocean-dragon was therefore called in to submerge the world, after which the Creator re-moulded it and set the survivor and his family upon it as the ancestors of a new human race. It is possible also that the great sea-dragon, or serpent, which was slain by the Creator, may have flooded the earth with his blood as he expired : there is an Algonquin Indian myth to this effect. In an old cuneiform text, in fact, the year of the deluge is alluded to as “the year of the raging serpent.” The wise man who takes refuge in the ship or ark is warned by a dream of the forthcoming deluge. In some North American Indian myths he is warned by friendly animals. The mountain, too, as a place of refuge for the ark, is fairly common in myth.

We have dealt in Chapter II with the creation myth found in Berossus, and with this ends the part of his history which is of any importance.


Babylonian Archaeology

Until about the middle of the nineteenth century our knowledge of the history and antiquities of Babylonia and Assyria was extremely scanty. The deeply interesting series of excavations which unrolled the circumstances of these ancient civilizations before the almost incredulous eyes of learned Europe are described at length towards the close of this volume. Here we may say shortly that the labours of Layard and Botta at Nineveh convinced antiquaries that the remains of a great civilization awaited discovery. Layard’s excavation of the library of Assur-bani-pal was the first great step toward reconstructing the ancient life of the two kingdoms. He was followed by Oppert and Loftus, but the systematic excavation of the country was yet to be undertaken. This, as we shall see, was commenced by George Smith of the British Museum, but unfortunately he died on his way home from the East. His work at Nineveh was taken up by Mr Hormuzd Rassam, who succeeded in unearthing inscribed tables and bronze gates in bas-relief. A few years afterward Mr Rassam discovered the site of the temple of the sun-god of Sippara at Abu-habba to the south-west of Bagdad. An important find by de Sarzec was that of the diorite statues of Gudea, the Patesi or Ruler of Lagash, about 2700 B.C., the stone of which, according to the inscriptions upon them, had been brought from the Sinaitic peninsula. The university of Pennsylvania sent Mr J. H. Haynes in 1889 to excavate at Nippur, where he unearthed the remains of the great temple of En-lil, in the heart of which is a mound of bricks stamped with the names of Sargon of Akkad and his son, Naram-sin. The German expedition of 1899 explored the ruins of Babylon, the palace of Nebuchadrezzar, and the site of Asshur.


The Tower of Babel

Many attempts have been made to attach the legend of the confusion of tongues to certain ruined towers in Babylonia, especially to that of E-Sagila, the great temple of Merodach, and some remarks upon this most interesting tale may not be out of place at this point. The myth is not found in Babylonia itself, and in its best form may be discovered in Scripture. In the Bible story we are told that every region was of one tongue and mode of speech.

Image: Birs Nimrud, the Tower of Babel
From Nippur, or Exploration and Adventure on the Euphrates, by J. P. Peters.
By permission of Messrs G. P. Putnam’s Sons

As men journeyed westward from their original home in the East, they encountered a plain in the land of Shinar where they settled. In this region they commenced building operations, constructed a city, and laid the foundations of a tower, che summit of which they hoped would reach to heaven itself. It would appear that this edifice was constructed with the object of serving as a great landmark to the people so that they should not be scattered over the face of the earth, and the Lord came down to view the city and the tower, and he considered that as they were all of one language this gave them undue power, and that what they imagined to themselves under such conditions they would be able to achieve. So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence over the face of every region, and the building of the tower ceased and the name of it was called ‘Babel,’ because at that place the single language of the people was confounded. Of course it is merely the native name of Babylon, which translated means ‘gate of the god,’ and has no such etymology as the Scriptures pretend,—the Hebrews confusing their verb balal, ‘to confuse or confound,’ with the word babel. The story was no doubt suggested by one of the temple towers of Babylon. Over and over again we find in connexion with the Jewish religion that anything which savours of presumption or unnatural aspiration is strongly condemned. The ambitious effort of the Tower of Babel would thus seem abhorrent to the Hebrews of old. The strange thing is that these ancient towers or zikkurats, as the Babylonians called them, were intended to serve as a link between heaven and earth, just as does the minaret of the Mahommedan mosque.

The legend of the confusion of tongues is to be traced in other folk-lores than that of Babylon. It is found in Central America, where the story runs that Xelhua, one of the seven giants rescued from the deluge, built the great pyramid of Cholula in order to besiege heaven. The structure was, however, destroyed by the gods, who cast down fire upon it and confounded the language of its builders. Livingstone found some such myth among the African tribes around Lake Ngami, and certain Australian and Mongolian peoples possess a similar tradition.


Nimrod, the Mighty Hunter

It is strange that the dispersion of tribes at Babel should be connected with the name of Nimrod, who figures in Biblical as well as Babylonian tradition as a mighty hunter. Epiphanius states that from the very foundation of this city (Babylon) there commenced an immediate scene of conspiracy, sedition, and tyranny, which was carried on by Nimrod, the son of Chus the iEthiop. Around this dim legendary figure a great deal of learned controversy has raged. Before we examine his legendary and mythological significance, let us see what legend and Scripture say of him. In the Book of Genesis (chap. x, 8,  ff.) he is mentioned as “a mighty hunter before Yahweh : wherefore it is said, Even as Nimrod the mighty hunter before the Lord.” He was also the ruler of a great kingdom. “The beginning of his kingdom was Babel, and Erech, and Accad, and Calneh in the land of Shinar. Out of that land went forth Asshur” (that is, by compulsion of Nimrod) “and builded Nineveh,” and other great cities. In the Scriptures Nimrod is mentioned as a descendant of Ham, but this may arise from the reading of his father’s name as Cush , which in the Scriptures indicates a coloured race. The name may possibly be Cash and should relate to the Cassites.

It appears then that the sons of Cush or Chus, the Cassites, according to legend, did not partake of the general division of the human race after the fall of Babel, but under the leadership of Nimrod himself remained where they were. After the dispersion, Nimrod built Babylon and fortified the territory around it. It is also said that he built Nineveh and trespassed upon the land of Asshur, so that at last he forced Asshur to quit that territory.[3] The Greeks gave him the name of Nebrod or Nebros, and preserved or invented many tales concerning him and his apostasy, - and concerning the tower which he is supposed to have erected. He is described as a gigantic person of mighty bearing, and a contemner of everything divine ; his followers are represented as being equally presumptuous and overbearing. In fact he seems to have appeared to the Greeks very much like one of their own Titans.

Nimrod has been identified both with Merodach, the tutelar god of Babylon, and with Gilgamesh, the hero of the epic of that name, with Orion, and with others. The name, according to Petrie, has even been found in Egyptian documents of the XXII Dynasty as ‘Nemart.’

Nimrod seems to be one of those giants who rage against the gods, as do the Titans of Greek myth and the Jotunn of Scandinavian story. All are in fact earth-gods, the disorderly forces of nature, who were defeated by the deities who stood for law and order. The derivation of the name Nimrod may mean ‘ rebel.’ In all his later legends, for instance, those of them that are related by Philo in his De Gigantibus (a title which proves that Nimrod was connected with the giant race by tradition), he appears as treacherous and untrustworthy. The theory that he is Merodach has no real foundation either in scholarship or probability. As a matter of fact the Nimrod legend seems to be very much more archaic than any piece of tradition connected with Merodach, who indeed is a god of no very great antiquity.


Abram and Nimrod

Many Jewish legends bring Abram into relationship with Nimrod, the mythical King of Babylon. According to legend Abram was originally an idolater, and many stories are preserved respecting his conversion. Jewish legend states that the Father of the Faithful originally followed his father Terah’s occupation, which was that of making and selling images of clay; and that, when very young, he advised his father

“to leave his pernicious trade of idolatry by which he imposed on the world.”

The Jewish Rabbins relate that on one occasion, his father Terah having undertaken a considerable journey, the sale of the images devolved on him, and it happened that a man who pretended to be a purchaser asked him how old he was.

“Fifty years,” answered the Patriarch.

“Wretch that thou art,” said the man,

“for adoring at that age a thing which is only one day old!”

Abram was astonished; and the exclamation of the old man had such an effect upon him, that when a woman soon after brought some flour, as an offering to one of the idols, he took an axe and broke them to pieces, preserving only the largest one, into the hand of which he put the axe. Terah returned home and inquired what this havoc meant. Abram replied that the deities had quarrelled about an offering which a woman had brought, upon which the larger one had seized an axe and destroyed the others. Terah replied that he must be in jest, as it was impossible that inanimate statues could so act; and Abram immediately retorted on his father his own words, showing him the absurdity of worshipping false deities. But Terah, who does not appear to have been convinced, delivered Abram to Nimrod, who then dwelt in the Plain of Shinar, where Babylon was built.

Nimrod, having in vain exhorted Abram to worship fire, ordered him to be thrown into a burning furnace, exclaiming—

“Let your God come and take you out.”

As soon as Haran, Abram’s youngest brother, saw the fate of the Patriarch, he resolved to conform to Nimrod’s religion ; but when he saw his brother come out of the fire unhurt, he declared for the “God of Abram,” which caused him to be thrown in turn into the furnace, and he was consumed. A certain writer, however, narrates a different version of Haran’s death. He says that he endeavoured to snatch Terah’s idols from the flames, into which they had been thrown by Abram, and was burnt to death in consequence.


A Persian Version

The Persian Mussulmans allege that the Patriarch, who was born in Chaldea, after God had manifested himself to him, proceeded to Mecca, and built the celebrated Kaaba or temple there. When he returned home he publicly declared himself the Prophet of God, and specially announced it to Nimrod, King of Chaldea, who was a worshipper of fire. Abram met Nimrod at a town in Mesopotamia, called Urga, afterwards Caramit, and now Diarbekr, in which was a large temple consecrated to fire, and publicly entreated the King to renounce his idolatry and worship the true God. Nimrod consulted his wise men and inquired what punishment such a blasphemer deserved, and they advised that he should be consigned to the flames. A pile of wood was ordered to be prepared and Abram was placed upon it, but to their astonishment it would not kindle. Nimrod asked the priests the cause of this phenomenon, and they replied that an angel was constantly flying about the pile and preventing the wood from burning. The King asked how the angel could be driven away, and they replied that it could only be done by some dreadful rite. Their advice was followed, but the angel still persisted, and Nimrod at length banished Abram from his dominions.

The Mussulmans also relate that the King made war against the Patriarch, and when he was marching against him, he sent a person to him with this message —

“O Abram ! it is now time to fight; where is thy army ?”

Abram answered,

“It will come immediately;”

and immediately there appeared an immense sun-darkening cloud of gnats, which devoured Nimrod’s soldiers to the very bones.

Another tradition is preserved in the East, specially referring to the casting of Abram into a fiery furnace at Babylon by order of Nimrod, which seems to be a corrupted story of the deliverance of the three Hebrews recorded by Daniel— Nimrod merely substituted for Nebuchadrezzar, as no evidence exists that Abram ever was at Babylon.

“Nimrod,” it is said,

“in a dream saw a star rising above the horizon, the light of which eclipsed that of the sun.”

The soothsayers who were consulted foretold that a child was to be born in Babylon who shortly would become a great prince, and that he (Nimrod) had reason to fear him. Terrified at this answer, Nimrod gave orders to search for such an infant. Notwithstanding this precaution, however, Adna, the wife of Azar, one of Nimrod’s guards, hid her child in a cave, the mouth of which she diligently closed, and when she returned she told her husband that it had perished.

Adna, in the meantime, proceeded regularly to the cave to nurse the infant, but she always found him suckling the ends of his fingers, one of which furnished him milk and the other honey. This miracle surprised her, and as her anxiety for the child’s welfare was thus greatly relieved, and as she saw that Heaven had undertaken the care, she merely satisfied herself with visiting him from time to time. She soon perceived that he grew as much in three days as common children do in a month, so that fifteen moons had scarcely passed before he appeared as if he were fifteen years of age. Adna now told her husband, Azar, that the son of whom she had been delivered, and whom she had reported dead, was living, and that God had provided miraculously for his subsistence. Azar went immediately to the cave, where he found his son, and desired his mother to convey him to the city, as he was resolved to present him to Nimrod and place him about the court.

In the evening Adna brought him forth out of his den, and conducted him to a meadow where herds of cattle were feeding. This was a sight entirely new to the young Abram, who was inquisitive to learn their nature, and was informed by his mother of their names, uses, and qualities. Abram continued his inquiries and desired to know who produced the animals.

Adna told him that all things had their Lord and Creator.

“Who, then,” said he, “brought me into the world ?”

“I,” replied Adna.

“And who is your Lord ?” asked Abram.

She answered, “Azar.”

“Who is Azar’s Lord ?” She told him, Nimrod.

He showed an inclination to carry his inquiries farther, but she checked him, telling him that it was not convenient to search into other matters because of danger. At last he came to the city, the inhabitants of which he perceived deeply engaged in superstition and idolatry. After this he returned to his grotto.

One evening, as he was going to Babylon, he saw the stars shining, and among others Venus, which was adored by many.

He said within himself—

“Perhaps this is the God and Creator of the world ;”

but observing some time after that this star was set, he said—

“This certainly cannot be the Maker of the universe, for it is not possible he should be subject to such a change.”

Soon after he noticed the moon at full, and thought that this might possibly be the Author of all things ; but when he perceived this planet also sink beneath the horizon his opinion of it was the same as in the case of Venus. At length, near the city he saw a multitude adoring the rising sun, and he was tempted to follow their example, but having seen this luminary decline like the rest, he concluded that it was not his Creator, his Lord, and his God. Azar presented his son Abram to Nimrod, who was seated on a lofty throne, with a number of beautiful slaves of both sexes in attendance. Abram asked his father who was the person so much exalted above the rest.

Azar answered—

“The King Nimrod, whom these people acknowledge as their God.”

“It is impossible,” replied Abram,

“that he should be their God, since he is not so beautiful, and consequently not so perfect, as the generality of those about him.”

Abram now took an opportunity of conversing with his father about the unity of God, which afterwards drew him into great contests with the principal men of Nimrod’s court, who would by no means acquiesce in the truths he declared. Nimrod, informed of these disputes, commanded him, as we have already mentioned, to be thrown into a burning furnace, out of which he came without receiving the least hurt.


The ‘Babylonica’

Fragments of Babylonian history, or rather historical romance, occur in the writings of early authors other than Berossus. One of these is to be found in the Babylonica of Iamblichus, a work embracing no less than sixteen books, by a native of Chalchis in Ccele-Syria, who was much enamoured of the mysterious ancient life of Babylonia and Assyria, and who died about a.d. 333. All that remains of what is palpably a romance, which may have been founded upon historical probability, is an epitome of the Babylonica by Photius, which, still further condensed, is as follows :

Attracted by her beauty and relying on his own great power, Garmus, King of Babylon, decided to marry Sinonis, a maiden of surpassing beauty. She, however, was already in love with another, Rhodanes, and discouraged Garmus’ every advance. Her attachment became known to the King, but did not alter his determination, and to prevent the possibility of any attempt at flight on the part of the lovers, he appointed two eunuchs, Damas and Saca, to watch their movements. The penalty for negligence was loss of ears and nose, and that penalty the eunuchs suffered. In spite of their close vigilance the lovers escaped. Damas and Saca were, however, placed at the head of troops and despatched to recapture the fugitives. Their relentless search was not the lovers’ only anxiety, for in seeking refuge with some shepherds in a meadow, they encountered a demon—a satyr, which in the shape of a goat haunted that part of the country. This demon, to Sinonis’ horror, began to pay her all sorts of weird, fantastic attentions, and finally compelled her and Rhodanes to abandon the protection of the shepherds for the concealment offered by a cavern. Here they were discovered by Damas and his forces, and must have been captured but for the opportune arrival and attack of a swarm of poisonous bees which routed the eunuchs. When the runaways were alone again they tasted and ate some of the bees’ honey, and almost immediately lost consciousness. Later Damas again attacked the cavern, but finding the lovers still unconscious he and his troops left them there for dead.

In time, however, they recovered and continued their flight into the country. A man, who afterward poisoned his brother and accused them of the crime, offered them sanctuary. Only the suicide of this man saved them from serious trouble and probably recapture, and from his house they wandered into the company of a robber. Here again the troops of Damas came upon them and burned their dwelling to the ground. In desperation the fugitives masqueraded as the ghosts of the people the robber had murdered in his house. Their ruse succeeded and once again their pursuers were thrown off the scent. They next encountered the funeral of a young girl, and witnessed her apparent return to life almost at the door of the sepulchre. In this sepulchre Sinonis and Rhodanes slept that night, and once more were believed to be dead by Damas and his soldiers. Later, however, Sinonis tried to dispose of their grave clothes and was arrested in the act. Soracchus, the magistrate of the district, decided to send her to Babylon. In despair she and Rhodanes took some poison with which they had provided themselves against such an emergency. This had been anticipated by their guards, however, with the result that a sleeping draught had been substituted for the poison, and some time later the lovers to their amazement awoke to find themselves in the vicinity of Babylon. Overcome by such a succession of misfortunes, Sinonis stabbed herself, though not fatally. Soracchus, on learning this, was moved to compassion, and consented to the escape of his prisoners.

Image right: The Murder of Setapo.
Evelyn Paul

After this the lovers embarked on a new series of adventures even more thrilling than those which had gone before. The Temple of Venus (Ishtar), situated on an island of the Euphrates, was their first destination after escaping from the captivity of Soracchus. Here Sinonis’ wound was healed, and afterward they sought refuge with a cottager, whose daughter consented to dispose of some trinkets belonging to Sinonis. In doing so the girl was mistaken for Sinonis, and news that Sinonis had been seen in the neighbourhood was sent at once to Garmus. While selling the trinkets the cottage girl had become so alarmed by the suspicious questions and manner of the purchasers that she hurried home with all possible speed. On her way back her curiosity was excited by sounds of a great disturbance issuing from a house hard by, and on entering she was appalled to discover a man in the very act of taking his life after murdering his mistress. Terrified and sprinkled with blood she sped back to her father’s house. On hearing the girl’s story, Sinonis realised that the safety of herself and Rhodanes lay only in flight. They prepared at once to go, but before starting Rhodanes kissed the peasant girl. Sinonis, discovering what he had done by the blood on his lips, became furious with jealousy. In a transport of rage she tried to stab the girl, and on being prevented rushed to the house of Setapo, a wealthy Babylonian of evil repute. Setapo welcomed her only too cordially. At first Sinonis pretended to meet his mood, but as time went by she relented of her treatment of Rhodanes and began to cast about for some means of escape. As the evening wore on she plied Setapo with wine until he was intoxicated, then during the night she murdered him, and in the first early dawn left the house. The slaves of Setapo pursued and overtook her, however, and committed her to custody to answer for her crime.

All Babylon rejoiced with its king over the news of Sinonis’ discovery. So great was Garmus’ delight that he commanded that all the prisoners throughout his dominions should be released, and in this general boon Sinonis shared. Meanwhile the dog of Rhodanes had scented out the house in which the peasant girl had witnessed the suicide of the lover who had murdered his mistress, and while the animal was devouring the remains of the woman the father of Sinonis arrived at the same house.

Thinking the mutilated body was that of his daughter he buried it, and on the tomb he placed the inscription :

“Here lies the beautiful Sinonis.”

Some days later Rhodanes passed that way, and on reading the inscription added to it,

“And also the beautiful Rhodanes.”

In his grief he would have stabbed himself had not the peasant girl who had been the cause of Sinonis5 jealousy prevented him by telling him who in reality was buried there.

During these adventures Soracchus had been imprisoned for allowing the lovers to escape, and this, added to the threat of further punishment, induced him to help the Babylonian officers to trace Rhodanes. So in a short time Rhodanes was prisoner once again, and by the command of Garmus was nailed to a cross. In sight of him the King danced delirious with revengeful joy, and while he was so engaged a messenger arrived with the news that Sinonis was about to be espoused by the King of Syria, into whose dominions she had escaped. Rhodanes was taken down from the cross and put in command of the Babylonian army. This seeming change of fortune was really dictated by the treachery of Garmus, as certain inferior officers were commanded by Garmus to slay Rhodanes should he defeat the Syrians, and to bring Sinonis alive to Babylon. Rhodanes won a sweeping victory and also regained the affection and trust of Sinonis. The officers of Garmus, instead of obeying his command, proclaimed the victor king, and all ended auspiciously for the lovers.


Cuneiform Writing

The manner in which the ancient cuneiform writing of Babylonia and Assyria was deciphered and restored to the world of science and letters may be regarded as a great triumph of human reason. The name ‘cuneiform’ is most appropriate, for each character or sign is composed of a wedge or combination of wedges. It is written, as most Oriental languages from left to right. The cuneiform script was first noticed by a European at such a relatively early period as the year A.D. 1470, when Josaphat Barbaro, a Venetian traveller, observed it cut on the platform of Rachmet in Persia. Another Italian, Pietro della Valle, passing that way in 1621, copied a few of the signs, which he sent back to Italy, and Sir John Chardin accurately reproduced an inscription found at Persepolis in 1711. It was obvious that three separate languages were written in this script, and these have since been found to be Persian, Babylonian, and Susian. In 1765 Niebuhr visited Persepolis, and in less than a month copied all the texts there, which were then ready for decipherment. Returning to Denmark he occupied himself with studying what he had set down at Persepolis, and divided the smaller inscriptions into three classes, which he described as Classes I, II, and III instead of into three languages. Discovering that Class I embraced only forty-two signs, he set these in order, and but little subsequent addition has had to be made to them. Deciding that the language of the signs was written in alphabetic characters, he found himself obliged to call a halt. But two other scholars were more fortunate than he. Tychsen hit upon a certain diagonal sign as that employed to separate words, and correctly identified the alphabetic signs for ‘a,’ ‘d,’ ‘u’ and ‘s.’ Mūnter of Copenhagen was more careful to verify his historical data than Tychsen had been, and was able to identify distinctly the authors of the inscriptions before him. He, too, independently identified the oblique wedge as a separative of words, and hit upon the significance of the sign for the letter ‘b.’ But after these achievements it seemed as if little more could be done. It must be remembered that up to this time no such assistance was vouchsafed the searchers as in the case of the Egyptian hieroglyphs, where a Greek inscription had been found side by side with an Egyptian one.



But a man of the greatest natural ingenuity was resolved to combat the difficulty presented by the cuneiform script. Georg Grotefend took up the task in the early years of the nineteenth century. Beginning with the assumption that the inscriptions represented three languages, and that one of these was ancient Persian, he took two of the inscriptions which he understood to be Persian, and placing them side by side found that certain signs were of frequent recurrence. This indicated to him the possibility that their contents were similar. A certain word appeared very frequently in the inscriptions, but it seemed to have two forms, a longer and a shorter, and this Grotefend, adopting a suggestion of Miinter’s, took to mean ‘king’ in the short form and ‘kings’ in the longer, the juxtaposition of the two signs thus being taken to signify ‘king of kings.’ In both the inscriptions studied by Grotefend he found that this expression ‘king of kings’ was followed by the same word, which he took to mean ‘great.’ But there were no definite facts to support these hypotheses. Turning to certain Sassanian inscriptions which had recently been deciphered, he found that the expression ‘great king, king of kings’ inevitably occurred, and this strengthened his opinion that it was present in the inscriptions he studied. If this was so, thought he, the two texts under his observation must have been set up by two different kings,for the names were not the same at the beginning. Moreover the name with which text No. I began appears in the third line of text No. II, following the word supposed to be ‘king,’ and another which might mean ‘son.’ Grotefend thus concluded that in the two inscriptions he had the names of a triad of rulers, son, father, and grandfather. Applying to the list of the Achasnenian dynasty in the attempt to find three names which would suit the conditions, he selected those of Xerxes, Darius, and Hystaspes. Supposing the name at the beginning of inscription I to be Darius, he thus considered himself to be justified in translating text I as “Darius, great king, king of kings, son of Hystaspes,” and text II as “Xerxes, great king, king of kings, son of Darius.” Considering that the Persian spelling of Darius would be Dar-heush, he applied the letters of that name to the letters of the cuneiform script. Subsequent investigation has shown that the name should have been read Daryavush, but Grotefend at least succeeded in discovering the letters for ‘ d,’ ‘a,’ ‘ r,’ and ‘sh.’

But this was practically the end of Grotefend’s discoveries. Burnouf, by a careful study of Persian geographical names, managed to decipher a large number of the characters of the Persian alphabet, and Professor Lassen of Bonn, by similar means, achieved a like end. These two independent achievements raised a fierce controversy as to priority of discovery, but Lassen’s system was the more perfect, as he found out that the ancient Persian signs were not entirely alphabetic but were partially syllabic— that is, that certain signs represented syllables instead of letters. This meant that Grotefend’s system, which had been almost vowelless, was now to a great extent filled in with the necessary vowels.



At this juncture a certain Major Henry Rawlinson, a servant of the East India Company, with a good knowledge of Persian, went to Persia for the purpose of assisting to organize the native army there. He was far away from books, and when he began to copy certain cuneiform texts it was because of deep personal interest. He was quite unaware of the strenuous toil which had been lavished upon them in Europe and worked quite independently of all assistance. The strange thing is that he laboured almost on the same lines as Grotefend had done. He saw almost at once that he had three languages to deal with, and being a man of great natural gifts he soon grouped the signs in a correct manner. Strangely enough he applied the very same names—those of Hystaspes, Darius, and Xerxes—to the texts as Grotefend had done, and found them answer in the same manner. Turning his attention to the inscription of Darius at Behistun, high up in the face of the living wall of rock there, Rawlinson succeeded in copying part of it at great personal risk. In 1838 he forwarded his translation of the first two paragraphs of the Persian text, containing the genealogy of Darius, to the Royal Asiatic Society of London. The feat made a tremendous sensation, and he was supplied with all the principal works on the subject and much correspondence from European scholars. He was, however, patience personified, and would not publish a work he had written on the subject because he thought it better to wait until he had verified his conclusions and perhaps made fresh discoveries. But in 1840 he was despatched to Afghanistan on a political mission and did not return to Bagdad for three years, and it was not until 1846 that he published a series of memoirs in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, in which he gave to the world a translation of the Persian text at Behistun. It was a marvellous achievement, for, unlike those who had been labouring on the subject in Europe, he was ignorant of the languages allied to Persian, yet he had surpassed all other scholars in his results.

But the deciphering of the second and third languages had yet to be attacked. In 1844 Wester-gaard, working on the lines of Grotefend, attacked the second language. He selected the names of Darius, Hystaspes, and Xerxes, and compared them with their equivalents in the Persian texts. By this means he discovered a number of signs and by their aid attempted to spell out the syllables or words. Judging the writing to be partly alphabetic and partly syllabic, he gave the name Median to the language. Morris, who had Rawlinson’s copy of the second transcription of the Behistun text to work upon, deciphered nearly all of it. Shortly after this the language was named Susian. The deciphering of the third of the three languages found at Persepolis was attacked by Lōwenstern, and by the Rev. Edward Hinks, an Irish clergyman. This language was Assyrian purely. Hinks was fearful of making blunders, and whilst he was engaged in f assuring himself that every step he took was not a false one, Longprieer published in 1847 a translation of the entire text. He was only able to read it by analogy with the other texts ; he could not provide the forms of the Assyrian words themselves. But Rawlinson once more came to the aid of the study, and it was shown that a large number of signs were ideographic. This paved the way for a band of others who by their united efforts succeeded in unravelling the complicated script.


Origin of Cuneiform

This peculiar system of writing originated in Babylonia, its inventors being the Sumerian or non-Semitic people who inhabited that country before its settlement by the Babylonians. It was developed from picture-writing, and indeed some of the more highly significant of the pictorial signs can still be faintly traced in their cuneiform equivalents. This early picture-writing was inscribed on stone, but eventually soft clay was adopted as a medium for the script, and it was found that straight lines impressed upon this medium tended to the shape of a wedge. The pictures therefore lost their original character and came to be mere conventional groups of wedges. The plural was represented by doubling the sign, and a term might be intensified by the addition of a certain stroke : thus the sign for ‘house,’ if four small strokes were added to it, would mean ‘great house,’ and so forth. The script was badly suited to the Assyrian language, as it had not been originally designed for a Semitic tongue. It consists of simple syllables made up of a vowel by itself or a vowel and a consonant, ideograms or signs which express an entire word, and closed syllables such as bit or bal. Again, many of the signs have more than one syllabic value, and they may be used as ideograms as well as phonetically. As in the Egyptian script, determinatives are employed to indicate the class to which the word belongs : thus, a certain sign is placed before the names of persons, another before territorial names, and a third before the names of gods and sacred beings. The date of the epoch in which this writing first began to be used was probably about 4500 b.c. and it persisted until the first century b.c. The Assyrians employed it from about 1500 b.c. until about the beginning of the sixth century b.c. This ancient form of writing was thus used first by the Sumerians, then by their Babylonian and Assyrian conquerors, then by those Persians who finally overthrew the Babylonian and Assyrian empire.


The Sacred Literature of Babylonia

The literature which this peculiar and individual script has brought down to us is chiefly religious, magical, epical, and legendary. The last three categories are dealt with elsewhere, so that it only falls here to consider the first class, the religious writings. These are usually composed in Semitic Babylonian without any trace of Akkadian influence, and it cannot be said that they display any especial natural eloquence or literary distinction. In an address to the sun-god, which begins nobly enough with a high apostrophe to the golden luminary of day, we find ourselves descending gradually into an atmosphere of almost ludicrous dullness. The person praying desires the sun-god to free him from the commonplace cares of family and domestic annoyances, enumerating spells against all of his relatives in order that they may not place their ‘ban’ upon him. In another, written in Akkadian, the penitent addresses Gubarra, Merodach, and other gods, desiring that they direct their eyes kindly upon him and that his supplication may reach them. Strangely enough the prayer fervently pleads that its utterance may do good to the gods ! that it may let their hearts rest, their livers be quieted, and gladden them like a father and a mother who have begotten children. This is not so strange when we come to consider the nature of these hymns, many of which come perilously near the border-line of pure magic—that is, they closely resemble spells. We find, too, that those which invoke the older deities such as Gibi the fire-god, are more magical in their trend than those addressed to the later gods when a higher sense of religious feeling had probably been evolved. Indeed, it does not seem too much to say that some of these early hymns may have served the purpose of later incantations. Most of those ‘ magical ’ hymns appear to have emanated from that extremely ancient seat of religion, Eridu, and are probably relics of the time when as yet magic and religion were scarcely differentiated in the priestly or the popular mind.


Hymn to Adar

A fine hymn to Adar describes the rumbling of the storm in the abyss, the ‘voice’ of the god :

The terror of the splendour of Anu in the midst of heaven.

The gods, it is said, urge Adar on, he descends like the deluge, the champion of the gods swoops down upon the hostile land. Nusku, the messenger of Mul-lil, receives Adar in the temple and addresses words of praise to him:

Thy chariot is as a voice of thunder.
To the lifting of thy hands is the shadow turned.
The spirits of the earth, the great gods, return to the winds.

Many of the hymns assist us to a better understanding of the precise nature of the gods, defining as they do their duties and offices and even occasionally describing their appearance.

Thus in a hymn to Nebo we note that he is alluded to as

  • “the supreme messenger who binds all things together,”
  • “the scribe of all that has a name,”
  • “the lifter up of the stylus supreme,”
  • “director of the world,”
  • “possessor of the reed of augury,”
  • “traverser of strange lands,”
  • “opener of wells,”
  • “fructifier of the corn,”
  • and “the god without whom the irrigated land and the canal are unwatered.”

It is from such texts that the mythol-ogist is enabled to piece together the true significance of many of the deities of ancient peoples.

A hymn to Nusku in his character of fire-god is also descriptive and picturesque.

He is alluded to as

  • “wise prince, the flame of heaven,”
  • “he who hurls down terror, whose clothing is splendour,”
  • “the forceful fire-god,”
  • “the exalter of the mountain peaks,”
  • and “the uplifter of the torch, the enlightener of darkness.”

Such descriptive hymns are the most valuable assets possible in the hands of the judicious student of myth or comparative religion.

Footnotes and references:


Vol. iii, p. 167. Second Edition. (By kind permission of Messrs Macmillan and Co.)




This passage has, however, been interpreted by some Biblical scholars to mean that “Nimrod went out of this land into Asshur” (or Assyria) “and built Nineveh.” See Bryant, Antient Mythology , vol. vi, pp. 191-2-3.

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