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 III - Early Babylonian Religion

The Beginnings of Babylonian Religion

THE true beginning of a religion is that epoch in its history when it succeeds, by reason of local or national circumstances and environment and by racial genius, in raising itself from those purely animistic influences which are characteristic of early faith and from which all great religions have emerged, if they have not been able entirely to free themselves from associations which by reason of their antiquity and the hold they achieve on the mind of humanity are particularly difficult to cast off. Thus a sense of nationality and the attainment of a high standard of righteousness assisted in shaping Jewish religion. The necessity for military efficiency and therefore of sacrifice to the gods was moulding a real if terrible religion in ancient Mexico when the invading Spaniards ended the hideous masque of tragedy. Insight and meditation lent an air of ethical exaltation to the Vedic religion of India. Thus in a manner peculiarly its own, and according to the trend of its particular genius, did each race evolve a suitable religion from an original animistic basis.

If we are to discover the foundations of any system or cult, however, if we are to excavate the soil religious as we would the soil archaeological in the hope of coming upon the basis of any particular faith, we must undertake the work in a manner as thorough as that of the antiquary who, pick in hand, delves his way to the lowest foundations of palace or temple. The earliest Babylonian religious ideas— that is, subsequent to the entrance of that people into the country watered by the Tigris and Euphrates —were undoubtedly coloured by those of the non-Semitic Sumerians whom they found in the country. They adopted the alphabet of that race, and this affords strong presumptive evidence that the immigrant Semites, as an unlettered people, would naturally accept much if not all of the religion of the more cultured folk whom they found in possession of the soil.

There is no necessity in this place to outline the nature of animistic belief at any length. This has been done in so many other volumes of this series and in such detail that it is sufficient to state here succinctly that animism is a condition of thought or belief in which man considers everything in the universe along with himself to be the possessor of ‘soul,’ ‘spirit,’ or at least volition. Thus, the wind, water, animals, the heavenly bodies, all live, move, and have their being, and because of his fear of or admiration for them, man placates or adores them until at length he almost unconsciously exalts them into a condition of godhead. Have we any reason to think that the ancient Semites of Babylonia regarded the universe as peopled by gods or godlings of such a type ? The proofs that they did so are not a few.


Spirits and Gods

Spirits swarmed in ancient Babylonia, as the reader will observe when he comes to peruse the chapter dealing with the magical ideas of the race. And here it is important to note that the determinative or symbolic written sign for ‘ spirit ’ is the same as that for ‘god.’ Thus the god and the spirit must in Babylonia have had a common descent. The manner in which we can distinguish between a god and a spirit, however, is simple. Lists of the ‘official’ gods are provided in the historical texts, whereas spirits and demons are not included therein. But this is not to say that no attempt had been made to systematize the belief in spirits in Babylonia, for just as the great gods of the universe were apportioned their several offices, so were the spirits allotted almost exactly similar powers. Thus the Annunaki were perhaps regarded as the spirits of earth and the Igigi as spirits of heaven. So, at least, are they designated in an inscription of Rammannirari I. The grouping evidently survived from animistic times, when perhaps the spirits which are embraced in these two classes were the only ‘ gods ’ of the Babylonians or Sumerians, and from whose ranks some of the great gods of future times may have been evolved. In any case they belong to a very early period in the Babylonian religion and play no unimportant part in it almost to the end. The god Anu, the most ancient of the Babylonian deities, was regarded as the father of both companies, but other gods make use of their services. They do not appear to be well disposed to humanity. The Assyrian kings were wont to invoke them when they desired to inculcate a fear of their majesty in the people, and from this it maybe inferred that they were objects of peculiar fear to the lower orders of the population—for the people often cling to the elder cults and the elder pantheons despite the innovations of ecclesiastical politicians, or the religious eccentricities of kings. There can, however, be no doubt as to the truly animistic character of early Babylonian religion. Thus in the early inscriptions one reads of the spirits of various kinds of diseases, the spirit of the south wind, the spirits of the mist, and so forth. The bit-ili or sacred stones marking the residence of a god were probably a link between the fetish and the idol, remaining even after the fully developed idol had been evolved.


Was Babylonian Religion Semitic in Type ?

It has already been stated that the religion of ancient Babylon was probably greatly influenced by those non-Semitic people whom the Semitic Babylonians found occupying the country when they entered it. The question then arises (and it is one of high importance), how far did the religion of ancient Babylonia and Assyria partake of the character of that group of religions which has been called ‘Semitic.’

The classical pronouncement upon this phase of the subject is probably that of the late Professor Robertson Smith, who in his Religion of the Semites (p. 13) says[1]:

“The preponderating opinion of Assyriologists is to the effect that the civilization of Assyria and Babylonia was not purely Semitic, and that the ancient population of these parts contained a large pre-Semitic element, whose influence is especially to be recognized in religion and in the sacred literature of the cuneiform records. If this be so, it is plain that the cuneiform material must be used with caution in our enquiry into the type of traditional religion characteristic of the ancient Semites. That Babylonia is the best starting-point for a comparative study of the sacred beliefs and practices of the Semitic peoples, is an idea which has lately had some vogue, and which at first sight appears plausible on account of the great antiquity of the monumental evidence. But, in matters of this sort, ancient and primitive are not synonymous terms ; and we must not look for the most primitive form of Semitic faith in a region where society was not primitive. In Babylonia, it would seem, society and religion alike were based on a fusion of two races, and so were not primitive but complex. Moreover, the official system of Babylonian and Assyrian religion, as it is known to us from priestly texts and public inscriptions, bears clear marks of being something more than a popular traditional faith; it has been artificially moulded by priestcraft and statecraft in much the same way as the official religion of Egypt; that is to say, it is in great measure an artificial combination, for imperial purposes, of elements drawn from a number of local worships. In all probability the actual religion of the masses was always much simpler than the official system; and in later times it would seem that, both in religion and in race, Assyria was little different from the adjacent Aramaean countries. These remarks are not meant to throw doubt on the great importance of cuneiform studies for the history of Semitic religion ; the monumental data are valuable for comparison with what we know of the faith and worship of other Semitic peoples, and peculiarly valuable because, in religion as in other matters, the civilization of the Euphrates-Tigris valley exercised a great historical influence on a large part of the Semitic field.”


Totemism in Babylonian Religion

Signs of totemism are not wanting in the Babylonian as in other religious systems. Many of the gods are pictured as riding upon the backs of certain animals, an almost certain indication that at one time they had themselves possessed the form of the animal they bestrode. Religious conservatism would probably not tolerate the immediate abolition of the totem-shape, so this means was taken of gradually ‘shelving’ it. But some gods retained animal form until comparatively late times. Thus the sun-god of Kis had the form of an eagle, and we find that Ishtar took as lovers a horse, an eagle, and a lion— surely gods who were represented in equine, aquiline, and leonine forms. The fish-form of Oannes, the god of wisdom, is certainly a relic of totemism. Some of the old ideographic representations of the names of the gods are eloquent of a totemic connexion. Thus the name of Ea, the god of the deep, is expressed by an ideograph which signifies ‘antelope.’ Ea is spoken of as ‘the antelope of the deep,’ ‘the lusty antelope,’ and so forth. He was also, as a water-god, connected with the serpent, a universal symbol of the flowing stream. The strange god Uz, probably an Akkadian survival, was worshipped under the form of a goat. The sun-god of Nippur, Adar, was connected with the pig, and was called ‘lord of the swine.’ Merodach may have been a bull-god. In early astronomical literature we find him alluded to as ‘the bull of light.’ The storm-god Zu, as is seen by his myth, retained his birdlike form. Another name of the storm-bird was Lugal-banda, patron god of the city of Marad, near Sippara. Like Prometheus—also once a bird-god, as is proved by many analogous myths—he stole the sacred fire from heaven for the service and mental illumination of man.


The Great Gods

Image: Types of En-lil, the Chief God of Nippur, and of his Consort, Nin-lil.
From Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria, by Professor Morris Jastrow.
By permission of Messrs G. P. Putnam's Sons

In the phase in which it becomes first known to us, Babylonian religion is neither Semitic nor Akkadian, but Semitic-Akkadian : that is, the elements of both religious forms are so intermingled in it that they cannot be distinguished one from another; but very little that is trustworthy can be advanced concerning this shadowy time. Each petty state (and these were numerous in early Babylonia) possessed its own tutelar deity, and he again had command over a number of lesser gods. When all those pantheons were added together, as was the case in later days, they afforded the spectacle of perhaps the largest assembly of gods known to any religion. The most outstanding of these tribal divinities, as they might justly be called, were Merodach, who was worshipped at Babylon ; Sha-mash, who was adored at Sippar; Sin, the moon-god, who ruled at Ur; Anu, who held sway over Erech and Der; Ea, the Oannes of legend, whose city was Eridu ; Bel, who ruled at Nippur, or Niffur ; Nergal of Cuthah; and Ishtar, who was goddess of Nineveh. The peoples of the several provinces identified their prominent gods one with another, and indeed when Assyria rose to rivalry with Babylonia, its chief divinity, Asshur, was naturally identified with Merodach.

In the chapter on cosmology we have seen how Merodach gained the lordship of heaven. It has been shown that the rise of this god to power was comparatively recent. Prior to the days of Khammurabi a rather different pantheon from that described in later inscriptions held sway. In those more primitive days the principal gods appear to have been Bel or En-lil, Belit or Nin-lil his queen, Nin-girsu, Ea, Nergal, Shamash, Sin, Anu, and other lesser divinities. There is indeed a sharp distinction between the pre- and post-Khammurabic types of religion. Attempts had been made to form a pantheon before Khammurabi’s day, but his exaltation of Merodach, the patron of Babylon, to the head of the Babylonian pantheon was destined to destroy these. A glance at the condition of the great gods before the days of Khammurabi will assist us to understand their later developments.



Bel, or, to give him his earlier name, En-lil, is spoken of in very early inscriptions, especially in those of Nippur; of which city he was the tutelar deity. He was described as the ‘ lord of the lower world,’ and much effort seems to have been made to reach a definite conception of his position and attributes. His name had also been translated ‘lord of mist.’ The title ‘Bel’ had been given to Merodach by Tiglath-pileser I about 1200 B.C., after which he was referred to as ‘the older Bel.’ The chief seat of his worship was at Nippur, where the name of his temple, E-Kur or ‘mountain-house,’ came to be applied to a sanctuary all over Babylonia. He was also addressed as the ‘lord of the storm’ and as the ‘great mountain,’ and his consort. Nin-lil is also alluded to as ‘lady of the mountain.’

Jastrow rightly concludes that

“there are substantial reasons for assuming that his original city was on the top of some mountain, as is so generally the case of storm-deities. . . . There being no mountains in the Euphrates valley, however, the conclusion is warranted that En-lil was the god of a people whose home was in a mountainous region and who brought their god with them when they came to the Euphrates valley.”[2]

En-lil is undoubtedly of the class of tempest-deities who dwell on mountain peaks. No text appears to have been found which alludes to him as of a red colour. The flashing of the lightning through the clouds which veil the mountain summits usually generates a belief in the mind of primitive man that the god who is concealed by the screen of vapour is red in hue and quick in movement. The second tablet of a text known as the ‘crying storm’ alludes to En-lil as a storm-god.

Addressing him it says :

“Spirit that overcomes no evildoing, spirit that has no mother, spirit that has no wife, spirit that has no sister, spirit that has no brother, that knows no abiding place, the evil-slaying spirit that devastates the fold, that wrecks the stall, that sweeps away son and mother like a reed. As a huge deluge it tears away dwellings, consumes the provisions of the home, smites mankind everywhere, and wickedly drowns the harvests of the land.

Devoted temples it devastates, devoted men it afflicts, him that clothes himself in a robe of majesty the spirit lays low with cold, him of wide pasture lands with hunger it lays low. When En-lil, the lord of lands, cries out at sunset the dreadful word goes forth unto the spacious shrine, ‘Destroy.’”

Nippur, the city of En-lil, was of Sumerian origin, so we must connect the earliest cult of En-lil with the Sumerian aborigines. Many of his lesser names point to such a conclusion. But he greatly outgrew all local circumstances, and among other things he appears to have been a god who fostered vegetation. Some authorities appear to be of opinion that because En-lil was regarded as a god of vegetation the change was owing to his removal from a mountainous region to a more level neighbourhood. The truth is, it would be difficult to discover a god who wielded the powers of the wind and rain who was not a patron of agriculture, but as he sends beneficent rains, so also may he destroy and devastate, as we have seen from the foregoing text. The noise of the storm was spoken of as his ‘word.’ Probably, too, because he was a very old god he was regarded in some localities as a creator of the world. The great winged bullfof Assyrian art may well often represent En-lil: |-no symbol could better typify the tempest which the Babylonians regarded as rushing and rioting unrestrained over country and city, overturning even tower and temple with its violence, and tumbling the wretched reed huts of the lower caste into the dust.

The word lil which occurs in the name En-lil, signifies a ‘demon,’ and En-lil may therefore mean the ‘chief-demon.’ This shows the very early, animistic nature of the god. There appear to be other traditions of him as a war-god, but these are so obscure as scarcely to be worth notice. In the trinity which consisted of Bel, Ea, and Anu, he is regarded as the ‘god of the earth,’ that is, the earth is his sphere, and he is at times addressed as ‘Bel, the lord of the lands.’

We find the ‘word’ of the wind or storm-god alluded to in the Popol Vuh of the Kiches of Central America, where Hurakan (the deity from whose name we probably get our word 4 hurricane ’) sweeps over the face of the primeval deep, voicing his commands.


Bel and the Dragon

The picturesque legend of Bel and the Dragon which appears in the Apocrypha, and which was at one time appended to the Book of Daniel, shows us the manner in which Bel was worshipped at Babylon, and how he was supposed to take human shape, devour food, and behave very much as a man might. The legend states that the Babylonians lavished every day upon the idol of Bel twelve great measures of fine flour, and forty sheep, and six vessels of wine. King Cyrus of Persia, who had overthrown the Babylonian kingdom, went daily to worship Bel, and asked Daniel why he did not do likewise. The prophet replied that his religion did not permit him to worship idols, but rather the living God who had created the heavens and the earth.

“Then said Cyrus : ‘Thinkest thou not that Bel is the living God ? Seest thou not how much he eateth and drinketh every day ?’

“Then Daniel smiled and said, ‘O King, be not deceived, for he is but clay within and brass without, and can never eat or drink anything.’

“Cyrus was exceeding wroth, and calling for his priests said to them, ‘If ye tell me not who this is that devoureth these expenses ye shall die, but if ye can show me that Bel devours them Daniel shall die, for he hath spoken blasphemy against Bel; ’”

and to this Daniel cheerfully agreed.

It would have been surprising had not the provisions vanished, because we are told that the priests of Bel were threescore and ten in number and had numerous wives and children. So Cyrus and Daniel betook themselves to the temple of Bel, and the priests asked them to bless the meat and wine before Bel, and to shut the door fast and seal it with the King’s own signet, stating that if they came on the morrow they would find that Bel had eaten up all of the provisions.

But they had taken good care to protect themselves, for they had made a secret entrance underneath the great table in the temple which they used constantly, so that they might consume the good things that were set before the idol.

And Cyrus did as the priests asked, setting the meat and wine before the statue of Bel, but Daniel commanded his servants to bring ashes, which they strewed throughout the temple in the presence of the King ; then they went out and shut the door and sealed it with the King’s signet.

And in the night time the priests with their wives and families entered the temple by the secret way and speedily consumed the provisions.

In the morning Cyrus and Daniel betook themselves to the temple, and the King broke the seals and opened the door, and when he perceived that all the provisions had vanished he called out with a loud voice,

“Great art thou, O Bel, and with thee is no deceit at all.”

But Daniel laughed, and barring the King’s way into the temple requested him to look at the pavement and mark well whose footsteps he saw there.

And Cyrus replied,

“I see the footsteps of men, women, and children.”

He at once called the priests, who when they saw that their stratagem had been discovered showed him the secret way into the temple ; and in his rage Cyrus slew them and delivered Bel into Daniel’s power. The prophet speedily destroyed the idol and the temple which sheltered it.

Now in that temple was a great dragon worshipped by the people of Babylon, and the King said to Daniel:

“Wilt thou also say that this is of brass, for behold ! he liveth, he eateth and drinketh, therefore shouldest thou worship him !”

But Daniel shook his head and said to Cyrus :

“Give me leave, O King, and I will slay this dragon without sword or staff.”

Then Daniel took pitch and fat and hair and boiled them all together, and shaped them into great pieces. These he placed in the dragon’s mouth, and shortly the dragon burst asunder.

Now the people of Babylon became greatly incensed at these doings and clamoured to Cyrus, asking him to deliver Daniel up to them, or else they would destroy him and all belonging to him. And, continues the legend, Cyrus being afraid for his crown delivered Daniel to the people, who cast him into a lions’ den where he remained for six days. Seven lions were in the den and their food was removed from them so that they might be the fiercer, and the Apocrypha story, which differs considerably from that given in the sixth chapter of the Book of Daniel, states that the angel of the Lord took up a certain prophet called Habbacuc, who was about to carry a mess of pottage to certain reapers, and taking him by the hair of the head, conveyed him all the way from Palestine to Babylon along with the food, which he set at Daniel’s feet. Daniel partook of the meal, and Habbacuc was conveyed back to Palestine in the same manner as that in which he had come.

And on the seventh day Cyrus came to the den to mourn for Daniel, and when he looked in Daniel was there. So impressed was Cyrus with the power of Daniel’s God that he resolved to worship Him in future, and seizing those who had been instrumental in casting the Hebrew prophet into the den, he thrust them before the lions, and they were devoured in a moment.




Beltis, or Nin-lil, the wife of En-lil, shared his authority over Nippur, where she had a temple which went back in antiquity to the First Dynasty of Ur. As has been said, she was also called the ‘lady of the mountain,’ and as such she had a sanctuary at Girsu, a quarter of Lagash. In certain inscriptions she is described as ‘the mother of the gods.’ The name Beltis meant ‘lady,’ and as such was accorded to her as being ‘the’ lady, but it was afterwards given to many other goddesses.



The Temple of Bel

In 1876 Mr George Smith discovered a Babylonian text giving a remarkable account of the temple of Bel at Babylon. This temple, the wonder of Babylon, was founded while that city was still a place of no very great importance, but its fabric lasted until the days of Herodotus and Strabo, who have furnished us with accounts of it. The former states that it consisted of eight stages or towers one above another, forming a pyramid, the holy of holies being placed upon the highest stage of all, the height of the entire building being about 600 feet—a very questionable dimension.

In the cuneiform tablet the measurements of the outer court are given as 1156 feet in length and 900 feet in breadth. An adjoining court, that of Ishtar and Zamama, was 1056 feet by 450 feet, and had six gates which admitted worshippers to the temple— the grand gate, the gate of the rising sun looking eastward, the great gate, the gate of the Colossi, flanked by enormous figures, the canal gate, and the gate of the tower-view.

A walled space, platform or birut, orientated so as to face the four cardinal points, is next described. Inside this stood a building the name of which is indecipherable. It was connected in some manner with the Ziggurat or great tower, around the base of which were ranged the temples of the principal gods, all of which faced one or other of the four chief points of the compass.

On the eastern side of the group stood a large temple 117 feet by 67 feet broad, containing no less than sixteen shrines, the principal of which were sacred to Nebo, the son of Bel, and his wife Tashmit. To the north were temples to Ea and Nusku, the first 142 feet long by 50 feet broad and the second a square 58 feet either way. To the south was a shrine to Bel and Anu 117 feet by 50 feet.

The purpose of the buildings on the western side of the great tower is only to be conjectured. It is known, however, that the couch of Bel and his throne of gold alluded to by Herodotus were housed in one or other of the buildings on this śide. The couch is said to have measured 15 feet by 6 feet 8 inches.

In the centre towered the great Ziggurat, rising stage upon stage, its sides facing the cardinal points. The first stage was 300 feet square and 110 feet high and was ornamented with buttresses. The second was 260 feet square and 60 feet high, the third 200 feet square and 20 feet high up to the seventh stage, which was 80 feet long, 70 feet broad, and 50 feet high. The entire height of the Ziggurat was thus 300 feet, exactly equal to the breadth of the base, or only half the height attributed to it by Herodotus.

Regarding the possible site of this temple Mr Smith says :

“The only ruin now existing at or near Babylon which can be supposed to represent the temple of Belus is the mound and enclosure of Bābil, the ruins corresponding fairly with the account of these structures in the Greek authors and in the inscription. The sides of the building face the cardinal points, like those in the inscription ; the remains of the two sides of the enclosure now existing indicate a circumference about equal to the Greek measurement, and slightly in excess of that in the inscription ; but it must be remembered that the exact length of the Babylonian measures is not known, and there are different opinions even as to the length of the Greek stade, while the present remains of the wall require careful measurement to determine more exactly their length and the dimensions they indicate. On the other side of the Euphrates stands a ruin, Birs Nimrud, also consisting of an enclosure, various temples, and a temple-tower ; but this represents the site of the temple of Nebo at Borsippa, and its angles, instead of its sides, face the cardinal points, while not a single one of its known dimensions agrees with the corresponding point in the inscription. The mound of Bābil, which is already identified by the best authorities with the temple of Belus, consists now of the lower stage of the tower and the ruins of the buildings round it.”[3]

Yet Herodotus’ account of the temple of Bel was not wholly false. He says :

“ It had gates of brass, and was two stadia every way, being quadrangular ; in the middle of the temple a solid tower was built, a stadium in height and breadth, and on this tower was placed another, and another still on this, to the number of eight towers in all. The ascent was on the outside, and was made by a winding passage round all the towers ; and about half up the ascent there is a landing and seats for rest, where those ascending may repose; and in the highest tower there is a large temple, and in the temple a large bed well furnished, and beside it a golden table ; but there is no statue erected in it; and by night no one lodges in it, except a single woman of the country, whom the god has selected from the rest, as say the Chaldceans, who are the priests of this god.”

An inscription was discovered and translated by Sir H. C. Rawlinson, in which King Nebuchadrezzar boasts of having repaired and completed this tower in honour of his god Merodach. “ Behold now the building named ‘The Stages of the Seven Spheres,’” which was the wonder of Borsippa, had been built by a former king. He had completed forty-two ammas (of the height), but he did not finish its head. From the lapse of time it had become ruined; they had not taken care of the exits of the waters, so the rain and wet had penetrated into the brickwork; the casing of burnt brick had bulged out, and the terraces of crude brick lay scattered in heaps. Then Merodach, my great lord, inclined my heart to repair the building. I did not change its site, nor did I destroy the foundation platform ; but in a fortunate month, and on an auspicious day, I undertook the rebuilding of the crude brick terraces and the burnt brick casing (of the temple). I strengthened its foundations, and I placed a titular record in the parts that I had rebuilt. I set my hand to build it up, and to finish its summit. As it had been in former days, thus I exalted its head.”



Nergal was the patron god of Cuthah, eastward from Babylon. He was a god of extremely ancient origin, and indeed the first inscription which alludes to him is dated about 2700 B.C. He is mentioned in the Old Testament (2 Kings xvii 30) as an idol whom the Babylonians who re-peopled Israel brought with them. He seems to have had a close connexion with the nether world, indeed he is practically the head of its pantheon. He appears to have been a god of gloom and death, and his name may signify c the lord of the great dwelling place,’ that is, the grave. His city, Cuthah, may possibly have been renowned as a burial-place. We find him associated with pestilence and famine, but he has also a solar significance. He is indeed the sun in its malevolent form, fierce and destroying, for in myth the sun can be evil as well as good. We thus find the solar power depicted as a fierce warrior slaying his thousands and tens of thousands. Again it is quite possible for a solar deity to have an underworld connexion, seeing that the sun is supposed to travel through that gloomy region during the night. We thus see how Nergal could combine so many seemingly conflicting attributes. As god of the dead he has a host of demons at his command, and it may be these who do his behests in spreading pestilence and war. Where he goes violent death follows in his wake. At times he is called the ‘god of fire,’ the ‘raging king,’ ‘he who burns,’ and the ‘violent one,’ and he is identified with the fierceness of flame. In this respect he is not at all unlike the Scandinavian Loki who typifies the malevolence of fire.



Dibarra was probably a variant of Nergal, in his guise as solar destroyer. Concerning him a strange myth is recounted as follows :

“The sons of Babylon were as birds and thou their falconer. In a net thou didst catch them, enclose them, and destroy them, 0 warrior Dibarra. Leaving the city, thou didst pass to the outside, taking on the form of a lion, thou didst enter the palace. The people saw thee and drew their weapons.”

So spoke Ishum, the faithful attendant of Dibarra, by way of beginning an account of the havoc wrought in the valley of Euphrates by the war- and plague-god. “Spare no one,” is the gist of his commands to his satellites. “Have neither fear nor pity. Kill the young as well as the old and rob Babylon of all its treasures.”

Accordingly against the first city a large army was dispatched to carry out these instructions, and the battle with bow and sword was begun, a strife which ended so disastrously for the soldiers and inhabitants that their blood flowed “like torrents of water through the city’s highways.” This defeat the great lord Merodach was compelled to witness, powerless to help or avert it. Enraged at his helplessness and overcome with fury, he cursed his enemies until he is said to have lost consciousness because of his grief.

From this scene of devastation Dibarra turned his attention to Erech, appointing others of his host to mete out to this city the fate of Babylon. Ishtar, goddess of Erech, saw her devoted city exposed to plunder, pillage, and bloodshed, and had to endure the agony of inactivity experienced by Merodach. Nothing she could do or say would stay the violence of Dibarra’s vengeance.

“O warrior Dibarra, thou dost dispatch the just, thou dost dispatch the unjust; who sins against thee thou dost dispatch, and the one who does not sin against thee thou dost dispatch.”

These words were used by Ishum, Dibarra’s servant, in a subsequent address to the god of war. He knew his lord’s craving for battle and bloodshed was still unappeased, and he himself was planning a war more terrible than any he had yet conducted, a conflict not only world-wide but which was to embrace heaven itself. So in order to gain Dibarra’s consent to the hideous destruction he anticipated, he continued to pander to his war-like tendencies.

Said he :

“The brightness of Shul-panddu I will destroy, the root of the tree I will tear out that it no longer blossom. Against the dwelling of the king of gods I will proceed.”

To all of which the warrior-god listened with growing pleasure, until fired by his myrmidon’s words he cried out in sudden fierce resolve

“Sea-coast against sea-coast,
Subartu against Subartu,
Assyrian against Assyrian,
Elamite against Elamite,
Cassite against Cassite,
Sutaean against Sutaean,
Kuthean against Kuthean,
Lullubite against Lullubite,
country against country,
house against house,
man against man.

Brother is to show no mercy towards brother; they shall kill one another.”

“Go, Ishum,” he added later,

“carry out the word thou hast spoken in accordance with thy desire.”

And with alacrity Ishum obeyed,

“directing his countenance to the mountain of Khi-khi. This, with the help of the god Sibi, a warrior unequalled, he attacked and destroyed all the vineyards in the forest of Khashur, and finally the city of Inmarmaon. These last atrocious acts roused Ea, the god of humanity, and filled him with wrath,”

though what attitude he adopted towards Dibarra is not known.

“Listen all of you to my words, because of sin did I formerly plan evil, my heart was enraged and I swept peoples away.”

This was Dibarra’s defence when eventually he was propitiated and all the gods were gathered together in council with him. Ishum at this point changing his tactics urged on Dibarra the necessity for pacifying the gods he had incensed.

“Appease,” said he,

“the gods of the land who are angry. May fruits and corn flourish, may mountains and seas bring their produce.”

As he had listened to Ishum before, Dibarra listened again, and the council of the gods was closed by his promising prosperity and protection to those who would fittingly honour him.

“He who glorifies my name will rule the world. Who proclaims the glory of my power will be without rival. The singer who sings of my deeds will not die through pestilence, to kings and nobles his words will be pleasing. The writer who preserves them will escape from the grasp of the enemy, in the temple where the people proclaim my name, I will open his ear. In the house where this tablet is set up, though war may rage and the god Sibi work havoc, sword and pestilence will not touch him —he will dwell in safety. Let this song resound for ever and endure for eternity. Let all lands hear it and proclaim my power. Let the inhabitants of all places learn to glorify my name.”



Shamash, god of the sun, was one of the most popular deities of the Babylonian and Assyrian pantheon. We find him mentioned first in the reign of E-Anna-Tum, or about 4200 b.c. He is called the son of Sin, the moon-god, which perhaps has reference to the fact that the solar calendar succeeded the lunar in Babylonia as in practically all civilizations of any advancement. The inscriptions give due prominence to his status as a great lord of light, and in them he is called the ‘illuminator of the regions,’ ‘lord of living creatures,’ ‘gracious one of the lands,’ and so forth. He is supposed to throw open the gates of the morning and raise his head over the horizon, lighting up the heaven and earth with his beams. The knowledge of justice and injustice and the virtue of righteousness were attributed to him, and he was regarded as a judge between good and evil, for as the light of the sun penetrates everywhere, and nothing can be hidden from its beams, it is not strange that it should stand as the symbol for justice. Shamash appears at the head of the inscription which bears the laws of Khammurabi, and here he stands as the symbol for justice. The towns at which he was principally worshipped were Sippar and Larsa, where his sanctuary was known as E-Babbara, or the ‘shining house.’ Larsa was probably the older of the two centres, but from the times of Sargon, Sippar became the more important, and in the days of Khammurabi ranked immediately after Babylon. In fact it appears to have threatened the supremacy of the capital to some extent, and Nabonidus, the last King of Babylon, as we shall remember, offended Merodach and his priests by his too eager notice of Shamash. During the whole course of Babylonian history, however, Shamash retained his popularity, and was perhaps the only sun-god who was not absorbed by Merodach. One finds the same phenomenon in ancient Mexico, where various solar deities did not succeed in displacing or absorbing Totec, the ancient god of the sun far excellence. But Shamash succeeded in absorbing many small local sun-gods, and indeed we find his name used as that of the sun throughout Semitic lands. There were several solar deities, such as Nergal, and Ninib, whom Shamash did not absorb, probably for the reason that they typify various phases of the sun. There is reason to believe that in ancient times even Shamash was not an entirely beneficent solar deity, but, like Nergal, could figure as a warrior on occasion. But in later times he was regarded as the god who brings light and life upon all created things, and upon whom depends everything in nature from man to vegetable. His consort was Aa, who was worshipped at Sippar along with him. Her cult seems to have been one of great antiquity, but she does not appear to have any distinctive character of her own. She was supposed to receive the sun upon his setting, and from this circumstance it has been argued she perhaps represents the ‘double sun,’ from the magnified disk which he presents at sunset; but this explanation is perhaps rather too much on allegorical lines. Jastrow thinks that she may have been evolved from the sun-god of a city on the other side of the Euphrates from Sippar.

“Such an amalgamation of two originally male deities into a combination of male and female, strange as it may seem to us,” he says,

“is in keeping with the lack of sharp distinction between male and female in the oldest forms of Semitic religions. In the old cuneiform writing the same sign is used to indicate ‘lord’ or ‘lady ’ when attached to deities. Ishtar appears amongst the Semites both as male and female. Sex was primarily a question of strength ; the stronger god was viewed as masculine, the weaker as feminine.”



Ea was the third of the great Babylonian triad of gods, which consisted of Anu, En-lil, and himself. He was a god of the waters, and like Anu is called the ‘ father of the gods.’ As a god of the abyss he appears to have been also a deity of wisdom and occult power, thus allegorically associated with the idea of depth or profundity. He was the father of Merodach, who consulted him on the most important matters connected with his kingship of the gods. Indeed he was consulted by individuals of all classes who desired light to be thrown upon their crafts or businesses. Thus he was the god of artisans in general—blacksmiths, stone-cutters, sailors, and artificers of every kind. He was also the patron of prophets and seers. As the abyss is the place where the seeds of everything were supposed to fructify, so he appears to have fostered reproduction of every description. He was supposed to dwell beside Anu, who inhabited the pole of the ecliptic. The site of his chief temple was at Eridu, which at one time stood, before the waters receded, upon the shore of the Persian Gulf. We have seen already that Ea, under his Greek name of Oannes, was supposed to bring knowledge and culture to the people of Eridu. There are many confusing myths connected with him, and he seems in some measure to enter into the Babylonian myth of the deluge.

Alexander Polyhistor, Apollodorus, and Eusebius, copying from Berossus, state that he rose from the sea upon his civilizing mission, and Abydenus says that in the time of Daon, the shepherd king of the city of Panti-biblon (meaning the ‘city where books were gathered together’),

“Annedatus appeared again from the Eruthrean sea, in the same form as those who had showed themselves before, having the shape of a fish blended with that of a man. Then reigned Aedorachus' of Pantibiblon for the term of eighteen sari. In his days there appeared another personage from the sea of Eruthra, like those above, having the same complicated form between fish and man : his name was Odacon.”

From remarks by Apollodorus it would seem that these beings were messengers from Oannes, but the whole passages are very obscure.

The chief extract from the fragments of Berossus concerning Oannes states that:

“In the first year there made its appearance from a part of the Eruthrean sea, which bordered upon Babylonia, an animal endowed with reason, who was called Oannes. According to the accounts of Apollodorus the whole body of the animal was like that of a fish; and had under a fish’s head another head, and also feet below, similar to those of a man, subjoined to the fish’s tail.

His speech, too, was articulate and human ; and there was a representation of him to be seen in the time of Berossus. This Being in the daytime used to converse with men ; but took no food at that season ; and he gave them an insight into letters and science, and every kind of art. He taught them to construct houses, to found temples, to compile laws, and explained to them the principles of geometrical knowledge.

He made them distinguish the seeds of the earth, and showed them how to collect fruits ; in short, he instructed them in everything which could tend to soften manners and humanize mankind. From that time, so universal were his instructions, nothing material has been added by way of improvement. When the sun set, it was the custom of this Being to plunge again into the sea, and abide all the night in the deep.”

After this there appeared other creatures like Oannes, of which Berossus promises to give an account when he comes to the history of the kings.

The Writings of Oannes

“Moreover,” says Polyhistor, “Oannes wrote concerning the generation of mankind; of their different ways of life, and of civil polity ; and the following is the purport of what he said :

“‘There was nothing but darkness, and an abyss of water, wherein resided most hideous beings, which were produced of a twofold principle. Men appeared with two wings, some with four, and with two faces. They had one body, but two heads ; the one of a man, the other of a woman. They were likewise in their several organs both male and female. Other human figures were to be seen with the legs and horns of goats. Some had horses’ feet : others had the limbs of a horse behind ; but before were fashioned like men, resembling hippocentaurs. Bulls likewise bred there with the heads of men ; and dogs with fourfold bodies, and the tails of fishes.

Also horses with the heads of dogs : men too, and other animals, with the heads and bodies of horses, and the tails of fishes. In short, there were creatures with the limbs of every species of animals. Add to these, fishes, reptiles, serpents, with other wonderful animals ; which assumed each other’s shape and countenance. Of all these were preserved delineations in the temple of Belus at Babylon. The person, who was supposed to have presided over them, had the name of Omorca. This in the Chaldaic language is Thalath ; which the Greeks express tha «- lassa , the sea : but according to the most probable theory, it is equivalent to selene , the moon. All things being in this situation, Belus came, and cut the woman-creature asunder : and out of one half of her he formed the earth, and of the other half the heavens. At the same time he destroyed the animals in the abyss.

All this, Berossus said,[4] was an allegorical description of nature. For the whole universe consisting of moisture, and, animals being continuaHy generated therein, the Deity (Belus) above-mentioned cut off his own head, upon which the other gods mixed the blood, as it gushed out, with the earth, and from this men were formed. On this account it is, that they are rational, and partake of divine knowledge.

This Belus, whom men call Dis, divided the darkness, and separated the heavens from the earth ; and reduced the universe to order. But the animals so lately created, not being able to bear the prevalence of light, died. Belus upon this, seeing a vast space quite uninhabited, though by nature very fruitful, ordered one of the gods to take off his head; and when it was taken off, they were to mix the blood with the soil of the earth ; and from thence to form other men and animals, which should be capable of bearing the light. Belus also formed the stars, and the sun, and moon, together with the five planets.’”

This myth, related by Ea or Oannes regarding the creation of the world, bears a very close relation to that of Merodach and Tiawath, told in Chapter II. It is not often that one finds a fish-god acting as a culture hero, although we find in Mexican myth a certain deity alluded to as the “old fish-god of our flesh.” Allegorical mythology would have seen in Ea a hero arriving from another clime in a wave-tossed vessel, who had landed on the shores of the Persian Gulf, and had instructed the rude inhabitants thereof in the culture of a higher civilization. There is very little doubt that Ea has a close connexion in some manner with the Noah legend of the deluge. For example, a Sumerian text exists in which it would seem as if the ship of Ea was described, as the timbers of which its various parts were constructed are mentioned, and the refugees it saved consisted of Ea himself, Dawkina his wife, Merodach, and Inesh, the pilot of Eridu, along with Nin-igi-nagir-sir.

Of course it would seem natural to the Babylonians to regard the Persian Gulf as the great abyss whence all things emanated. As Jastrow very justly remarks :

“In the word of Ea, of a character more spiritual than that of En-lil, he commands, and what he plans comes into existence—a wholly beneficent power he blesses the fields and heals mankind. His most striking trait is his love of humanity. In conflicts between the gods and mankind, he is invariably on the side of the latter. When the gods, at the instance of En-lil as the ‘god of storms,’ decide to bring on a deluge to sweep away mankind, it is Ea who reveals the secret to his favourite, Ut-Napishtim (Noah), who saves himself, his family, and his belongings on a ship that he is instructed to build.”[5]

The waters personified by him are not those of the turbulent and treacherous ocean, but those of irrigating streams and commerce-carrying canals. He is thus very different from the god En-lil, the ‘ lord of heaven ’ who possesses so many attributes of destruction. Ea in his benevolent way thwarts the purpose of the riotous god of tempest, which greatly enrages En-lil, and it has been thought that this myth suggests the rivalry which perhaps at one time existed between the two religious centres of Eridu and Nippur, cities of Ea and En-lil respectively. In an eloquent manner Ea implores En-lil not to precipitate another deluge, and begs that instead of such wholesale destruction man may be punished by sending lions and jackals, or by famines or pestilences. En-lil hearkens to his speech, his heart is touched, and he blesses Utnapishtim and his wife. If this myth is a piece of priestcraft, it argues better relations between the ecclesiastical authorities at Eridu and Nippur. Ea had many other names, the chief of which, Nin-a-gal, meaning ‘ god of great strength,’ alluded to his patronage of the smith’s art. He was also called En-ki, which describes him as ‘ lord of the earth ’ through which his waters meandered. In such a country as Babylonia earth and water are closely associated, as under that soil water is always to be found at a distance of a few feet: thus the interior of the earth is the domain of Ea.


The Story of Adapa and the South Wind

Here is the story of Adapa, the son of Ea, who, but for his obedience to his father’s command, might have attained deification and immortality.

One day when Adapa was out in his boat fishing the South Wind blew with sudden and malicious violence, upsetting the boat and flinging the fisherman into the sea. When he succeeded in reaching the shore Adapa vowed vengeance against the South Wind, which had used him so cruelly.

“Shutu, thou demon,” he cried,

“I will stretch forth my hand and break thy wings. Thou shalt not go unpunished for this outrage !”

The hideous monster laughed as she soared in the air above him, flapping her huge wings about her ungainly body. Adapa in his fury leapt at her, seized her wings, and broke them, so that she was no longer able to fly over the broad earth. Then he went his way, and related to his father what he had done.

Seven days passed by, and Anu, the lord of heaven, waited for the coming of the South Wind. But Shutu came not; the rains and the floods were delayed, and Anu grew impatient.

He summoned to him his minister Ilabrat.

“Wherefore doth Shutu neglect her duty ?” he asked.

“What hath chanced that she travels not afield ?”

Ilabrat bowed low as he made answer :

“Listen, O Anu, and I will tell thee why Shutu flieth not abroad. Ea, lord of the deep and creator of all things, hath a son named Adapa, who hath crushed and broken the wings of thy servant Shutu, so that she is no more able to fly.”

“If this be true,” said Anu,

“summon the youth before me, and let him answer for his crime.”

“Be it so, O Anu !”

When Adapa received the summons to appear in heaven he trembled greatly. It was no light thing to answer to the great gods for the ill-usage of their servant, the demon Shutu. Nevertheless he began to make preparations for his journey, and ere he set out his father Ea instructed him as to how he should comport himself in the assembly of the gods.

“Wrap thyself not in a vesture of gold, 0 my son, but clothe thee in the garments of the dead. At the gates of heaven thou wilt find Tammuz and Gish-zida guarding the way. Salute the twain with due respect, I charge thee, baring thy head and showing all deference to them. If thou dost find favour in their eyes they will speak well of thee before Anu. And when thou standest within the precincts of heaven, don the garment that is given thee to wear, and anoint thy head with the oil that is brought thee. But when the gods offer thee food and drink, touch them not; for the food will be the ‘Meat of Death’ and the drink the ‘Water of Death’ ; let neither pass within thy lips. Go now, my son, and remember these my instructions. Bear thyself with humility, and all will be well.”

Adapa bade his father farewell and set out on his journey to heaven. He found all as his father had predicted ; Tammuz and Gishzida received him at the portals of the divine dwelling, and so humble was Adapa’s attitude that they were moved with compassion towards him. They led him into the presence of Anu, and he bowed low before the great god.

“I am come in answer to thy summons,” said he. Have mercy upon me, O thou Most High ! ”

Anu frowned upon him.

“It is said of thee,” he made answer,

“that thou hast broken the wings of Shutu, the South Wind. What manner of man art thou, who darest destroy Shutu in thy wrath ? Knowest thou not that the people suffer for lack of nourishment; that the herb droopeth, and the cattle lie parched on the scorching ground ? Tell me why hast thou done this thing ? ”

“I was out on the sea fishing,” said Adapa,

“and the South Wind blew violently, upsetting my boat and casting me into the water. Therefore I seized her wings and broke them. And lo ! I am come to seek thy pardon.”

Then Tammuz and Gishzida, the deities whose favour Adapa had won at the gates of heaven, stepped forth and knelt at the feet of their king.

“Be merciful, O Anu ! Adapa hath been sorely tried, and now is he truly humble and repentant. Let his treatment of Shutu be forgotten.”

Anu listened to the words of Tammuz and Gishzida, and his wrath was turned away.

“Rise, Adapa,” he said kindly ;

“thy looks please me well. Thou hast seen the interior of this our kingdom, and now must thou remain in heaven for ever, and we will make thee a god like unto us. What sayest thou, son of Ea ?”

Adapa bowed low before the king of the gods and thanked him for his pardon and for his promise of godhead.

Anu therefore commanded that a feast be made, and that the ‘Meat of Life’ and the ‘Water of Life’ I; be placed before Adapa, for only by eating and drinking of these could he attain immortality.

But when the feast was spread Adapa refused to partake of the repast, for he remembered his father’s injunctions on this point.

So he sat in silence at the table of the gods, whereupon Anu exclaimed :

“What now, Adapa ? Why dost thou not eat or drink ? Except thou taste of the food and water set before thee thou canst not hope to live for ever.”

Adapa perceived that he had offended his divine host, so he hastened to explain.

“Be not wroth, most mighty Anu. It is because my lord Ea hath so commanded that I break not bread nor drink water at thy table. Turn not thy countenance from me, I beseech thee.”

Anu frowned.

“Is it that Ea feared I should seek thy life by offering thee deadly food ? Truly he that knoweth so much, and hath schooled thee in so many different arts, is for once put to shame !”

Adapa would have spoken, but the lord of heaven silenced him.

“Peace !” he said ; then to his attendants—

“Bring forth a garment that he may clothe himself, and oil bring also to anoint his head.”

When the King’s command had been carried out Adapa robed himself in the heavenly garment and anointed his head with the oil. Then he addressed Anu thus :

“O Anu, I salute thee ! The privilege of godhead must I indeed forego, but never shall I forget the honour that thou wouldst have conferred upon me. Ēver in my heart shall I keep the words thou hast spoken, and the memory of thy kindness shall I ever retain. Blame me not exceedingly, I pray thee. My lord Ea awaiteth my return.”

“Truly,” said Anu,

“I censure not thy decision. Be it even as thou wilt. Go, my son, and peace go with thee !”

And thus Adapa returned to the abode of Ea, lord of the dead, and there for many years he lived in peace and happiness.



Along with En-lil and Ea, Anu makes up the universal triad. He is called the ‘father of the gods,’ but appears to be descended from still older deities. His name is seldom discovered in the inscriptions prior to the time of Khammurabi, but such notices as occur of him seem to have already fixed his position as a ruler of the sky. His cult was specially associated with the city of Erech. It is probable that in the earliest days he had been the original Sumerian sky-father, as his name is merely a form of the Sumerian word for ‘heaven.’ This idea is assisted by the manner in which his name is originally written in the inscriptions, as the symbol signifying it is usually that employed for ‘heaven.’ It is plain, therefore, that Anu was once regarded as the expanse of heaven itself, just as are the ‘sky-fathers’ of numerous primitive peoples. Several writers who deal with Anu appear to be of the opinion that a god of the heavens is an ‘abstraction.’

“Popular fancy,” says Jastrow,

“deals with realities and with personified powers whose workings are seen and felt. It would as little, therefore, have evolved the idea that there was a power to be identified with the heavens as a whole, of which the azure sky is a symbol, as it would personify the earth as a whole, or the bodies of waters as a whole. It is only necessary to state the implications involved to recognize that the conception of a triad of gods corresponding to three theoretical divisions of the universe is a bit of learned speculation. It smacks of the school. The conception of a god of heaven fits in moreover with the comparatively advanced period when the seats of the gods were placed in the skies and the gods identified with the stars.”[6]

A merely superficial acquaintance with the nature of animism and the sky-myths of primitive and barbarian peoples would lead us to the conclusion that the opposite is the case. In Egyptian, Polynesian, and North American Indian myth the sky itself is directly personalized. Egyptian mythological illustration depicts the sky in female form, for in Egyptian myth the sky is the mother and the earth the father of everything. Lang has shown that the sky-father is frequently personalized as a “magnified non-natural man” among races which possess no theological schools. We do not say that the arrangement of Anu, Ea, and En-lil into a triad is not “a bit of learned speculation,” but to state that early animism did not first personalize the sky and the earth and the sea is rash in the extreme. When Deucalion and Pyrrha in the Greek myth asked the gods how they might best replenish the earth with the human race, they were instructed to cast “the bones of their mother” behind them, and these bones they interpreted as the stones and rocks and acted accordingly. So would primitive man all the world over have interpreted this advice, for universally he believes the very soil upon which he walks to be the great mother which produced his ancestors, out of whose dust or clay they were formed, and who still nourishes and preserves him.

Jastrow proceeds to state that

“Anu was originally the personification of some definite power of nature, and everything points to this power having been the sun in the heavens. Starting from this point of view we quite understand how the great illuminer of heaven should have been identified with the heavens in an artificially devised theological system, just as En-lil became in this system the designation of the earth and of the region above the earth viewed as a whole.”[7]

The very fact that in the earliest times Anu was identified with the expanse of the sky itself, and that the symbol used to denote him meant 4 heaven,’ is against this supposition. Again, the theory suffers from lack of analogy. In what other mythology is there to be found a sky-god who at one time possessed a solar significance ? The converse might be the case. Some sky-gods have attained the solar connexion because of their rule over the entire expanse of the heavens, just as they have attained the power of wielding lightning and the wind. But we are at a loss to recall any deity originally of distinctive solar attributes who later took the position of a sky-god.

Anu was regarded as head of the triad and the father of En-lil. We are told that the goddess Aruru first shaped man in the image of Anu, who must thus have attained an anthropomorphic condition. He appears also to have been regarded as the conqueror of primeval chaos. His consort was Anatu, probably a later feminine form of himself.



Ishtar was undoubtedly a goddess of Semitic origin and symbolized the fertility of the earth. She was the great mother’ who fostered all vegetation and agriculture. It is probable that her cult originated at Erech, and in the course of centuries and under many nominal changes dispersed itself throughout the length and breadth of western Asia and even into Greece and Egypt. It is probable that a number of lesser goddesses, such as Nana and Anunit, may have become merged in the conception of this divinity, and that lesser local deities of the same character as herself may have taken her name and assisted to swell her reputation. She is frequently addressed as ‘mother of the gods,’ and indeed the name ‘Ishtar ’ became a generic designation for ‘goddess.’ But these were later honours. When her cult centred at Erech, it appears to have speedily blossomed out in many directions, and, as has been said, lesser cults probably eagerly identified themselves with that of the great earth-mother, so that in time her worship became more than a Babylonian cult. Indeed, wherever people of Semitic speech were to be found, there was the worship of Ishtar. As Ashteroth, or Astarte, she was known to Canaanites, Phoenicians, and Greeks, and there is some likelihood that the cult of Aphrodite had also its beginnings in that of Ishtar. We shall enquire later whether she can be the Esther of the Scriptures. Astrologically she was identified with the planet Venus, but so numerous were the attributes surrounding her taken from other goddesses with which she had become identified that they threatened to overshadow her real character, which was that of the great and fertile mother. More especially did her identification with Nin-lil, the consort of En-lil, the storm-god, threaten to alter her real nature, as in this guise she was regarded as a goddess of war. It is seldom that a goddess of fertility or love achieves such a distinction. Gods possessing an agricultural significance are nearly always war-gods, but that is because they bring the fertilizing thunder-clouds and therefore possess the lightning arrow or spear. But Ishtar is specifically a goddess of the class of Persephone or Isis, and her identification with battle must be regarded as purely accidental. In later times in Assyria she was conceived as the consort of Asshur, head of the Assyrian pantheon, in days when a god or goddess who did not breathe war was of little use to a people like the Assyrians, who were constantly employed in hostilities, and this circumstance naturally heightened her reputation as a warlike divinity. But it is at present her original character with which we are occupied, indeed in some texts we find that, so far from being able to protect herself, Ishtar and her property are made the prey of the savage En-lil, the storm-god. “His word sent me forth,” she complains; “as often as it comes to me it casts me prostrate upon my face. The unconsecrated foe entered my courts, placed his unwashed hands upon me, and caused me to tremble. Putting forth his hand he smote me with fear. He tore away my robe and clothed his wife therein : he stripped off my jewels and placed them upon his daughter. Like a quivering dove upon a beam I sat. Like a fleeing bird from my cranny swiftly I passed. From my temple like a bird they caused me to fly.” Such is the plaint of Ishtar, who in this case appears to be quite helpless before the enemy.

The myth which best illustrates her character is that which speaks of her journey to Aralu, the underworld.

Image 1) Ishtar, the Mother-goddess;
Image 2) Ishtar as the Goddess of War;
Image 3) Ishtar, the Goddess of Love
From Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria, by Professor Morris Jastrow
By permission of Messrs G. P. Putnam's Sons


The Descent of Ishtar into Hades

The poem, which in its existing form consists of 137 lines in cuneiform characters, appears to be incomplete. We are not told therein what was the purpose of the goddess in journeying to the ‘House of No-return,’ but we gather from various legends and from the concluding portion of the poem itself that she went thither in search of her bridegroom Tammuz, the sun-god of Eridu. The importance of the myth of Ishtar and Tammuz lies partly in the fact that, travelling westwards to Greece by way of Phoenicia, it furnished a groundwork for classic myths of the Adonis-Attis type, which still provide mythologists with matter for endless speculation. The mythological significance of the poem and the persons it mentions will be dealt with later ; the theories concerning the primitive status of Tammuz and Ishtar are numerous and distinct, more than one of them being sufficiently plausible to call for a careful scrutiny. Consideration of the myth may therefore be deferred till we have glanced at the Babylonian story itself and some of its principal variants and analogues.


Tammuz and Ishtar

The myth of Tammuz is one of high antiquity, dating possibly from 4000 b.c. or even earlier. Both Tammuz and Ishtar were originally non-Semitic, the name of the former deity being derived from the Akkadian Dumu-zi, ‘son of life,’ or ‘the only son,’ perhaps a contraction of Dumu-zi-apsu, ‘offspring of the spirit of the deep,’ as Professor Sayce indicates. The ‘spirit of the deep’ is, of course, the water-god Ea, and Tammuz apparently typifies the sun, though he is not, as will presently be seen, a simple solar deity, but a god who unites in himself the attributes of various departmental divinities. An ancient Akkadian hymn addresses Tammuz as “Shepherd and lord, husband of Ishtar the lady of heaven, lord of the under-world, lord of the shepherd’s seat; ” as grain which lies unwatered in the meadow, which beareth no green blade ; as a sapling planted in a waterless place ; as a sapling torn out by the root. Professor Sayce identifies him with that Daonus, or Daos, whom Berossus states to have been the sixth king of Babylonia during the mythical period. Tammuz is the shepherd of the sky, and his flocks and herds, like those of St Ilya in Slavonic folk-lore, are the cloud-cattle and the fleecy vapours of the heavens.

Ishtar has from an early period been associated with Tammuz as his consort, as she has, indeed, with Merodach and Assur and other deities. Yet she is by no means a mere reflection of the male divinity, but has a distinct individuality of her own, differing in this from all other Babylonian goddesses and betraying her non-Semitic origin. The widespread character of the worship of Ishtar is remarkable. None of the Babylonian or Assyrian deities were adopted into the pantheons of so many alien races. From the Persian Gulf to^ the pillars of Hercules she was adored as the great mother of all living. She has been identified with Dawkina, wife of Ea, and is therefore mother of Tammuz as well as his consort. This dual relationship may account for that which appears in later myths among the Greeks, where Smyrna, mother of Adonis, is also his sister. Ishtar was regarded sometimes as the daughter of the sky-god Anu, and sometimes as the child of Sin, the lunar deity. Her worship in Babylonia was universal, and in time displaced that of Tammuz himself. The love of Ishtar for Tammuz represents the wooing of the sun-god of spring-time by the goddess of fertility ; the god is slain by the relentless heat of summer, and there is little doubt that Ishtar enters Aralu in search of her youthful husband.

The poem we are about to consider briefly deals with a part only of the myth— the story of Ishtar’s descent into Aralu. It opens thus :

“To the land of No-return, the region of darkness, Ishtar, the daughter of Sin, turned her ear, even Ishtar, the daughter of Sin, turned her ear, to the abode of darkness, the dwelling of Irkalla, to the house whose enterer goes not forth, to the road whence the wayfarer never returns, to the house whose inhabitants see no light, to the region where dust is their bread and their food mud ; they see no light, they dwell in darkness, they are clothed, like the birds, in a garment of feathers. On the door and the bolt hath the dust fallen.”

The moral contained in this passage is a gloomy one for mortal man ; he who enters the dread precincts of Aralu.goes not forth, he is doomed to remain for ever in the enveloping darkness, his sustenance mud and dust. The mention of the dust which lies “on door and bolt” strikes a peculiarly bleak and dreary note ; like other primitive races the ancient Babylonians painted the other world not definitely as a place of reward or punishment, but rather as a weak reflection of the earth-world, a region of darkness and passive misery which must have offered a singularly uninviting prospect to a vigorous human being. The garment of feathers is somewhat puzzling. Why should the dead wear a garment of feathers ? Unless it be that the sun-god, identified in some of his aspects with the eagle, descends into the underworld in a dress of feathers, and that therefore mortals who follow him must appear in the nether regions in similar guise. The description above quoted of the Babylonian Hades tallies with that given in dream to Eabani by the temple-maiden Ukhut (Gilgamesh epic, tablet VII).


At the Gates of Aralu

Coming to the gate of Aralu, Ishtar assumes a menacing aspect, and threatens to break down the door and shatter its bolts and bars if she be not admitted straightway. The keeper of the gate endeavours to soothe the irate deity, and goes to announce her presence to Eresh-ki-gal (Allatu), the mistress of Hades. From hip words it would appear that Ishtar has journeyed thither in search of the waters of life, wherewith to restore her husband Tammuz to life. Allatu receives the news of her sister’s advent with a bitter tirade, but nevertheless instructs the keeper to admit her, which he proceeds to do.

Ishtar on entering the sombre domains is obliged to pass through seven gates, at each of which she is relieved of some article of dress or adornment (evidently in accordance with the ancient custom of Aralu), till at last she stands entirely unclad. At the first gate the keeper takes from her “the mighty crown of her head” ; at the second her earrings are taken ; at the third her necklace ; at the fourth the ornaments of her breast; at the fifth her jewelled girdle ; at the sixth her bracelets ; and at the seventh the cincture of her body.

The goddess does not part with these save under protest, but the keeper of the gate answers all her queries with the words :

“Enter, O lady, it is the command of Allatu.”

The divine wayfarer at length appears before the goddess of the underworld, who shows her scant courtesy, bidding the plague-demon, Namtar, smite her from head to foot with disease—in her eyes, side, feet, heart, and head.

During the time that Ishtar is confined within the bounds of Aralu all fertility on the earth is suspended, both in the animal and vegetable kingdoms. Knowledge of this disastrous state of affairs is conveyed to the gods by their messenger, Pap-sukal, who first tells the story to Shamash, the sun-god. Shamash weeps as he bears the matter before Ea and Sin, gods of the earth and the moon respectively; but Ea, to remedy the sterility of the earth, creates a being called Ashushu-namir, whom he dispatches to the underworld to demand the release of Ishtar. Allatu is greatly enraged when the demand is made “in the name of the great gods,” and curses Ashushu-namir with a terrible curse, condemning him to dwell in the darkness of a dungeon, with the garbage of the city for his food. Nevertheless she cannot resist the power of the conjuration, wherefore she bids Namtar, the plague-demon, release the Annunaki, or earth-spirits, and place them on a golden throne, and pour the waters of life over Ishtar. Namtar obeys ; in the words of the poem he “smote the firmly-built palace, he shattered the threshold which bore up the stones of light, he bade the spirits of earth come forth, on a throne of gold did he seat them, over Ishtar he poured the waters of life and brought her along.” Ishtar is then led through the seven gates of Arula, receiving at each the article of attire whereof she had there been deprived. Finally she emerges into the earth-world, which resumes its normal course. Then follow a few lines addressed to Ishtar, perhaps by the plague-demon or by the keeper of the gates. “If she (Allatu) hath not given thee that for which the ransom is paid her, return to her for Tammuz, the bridegroom of thy youth. Pour over him pure waters and precious oil. Put on him a purple robe, and a ring of crystal on his hand. Let Samkhat (the goddess of joy) enter the liver. ...” These lines indicate with sufficient clearness that Ishtar descended into Hades in order to obtain the waters of life and thus revive her bridegroom Tammuz. The poem does not relate whether or not her errand was successful, but we are left to conjecture that it was. There still remain a few lines of the poem, not, however, continuing the narrative, but forming a sort of epilogue, addressed, it may be, to the hearers of the tale. Mention is made in this portion of mourners, “wailing men and wailing women,” of a funeral pyre and the burning of incense, evidently in honour of the god Tammuz.


Ishtar and Persephone

As has been indicated already, the myth of Tammuz and Ishtar furnished the groundwork for certain myths of classic Greece and Rome. The Phoenician Astarte (Ashtoreth), a development of Ishtar, became in time the Aphrodite of the Greeks, a deity who plays a part in the Adonis legend analogous to that of Ishtar in the Tammuz story. The name Adonis itself is derived from Adoni (‘ my lord ’), the word with which the Phoenician worshippers of Tammuz hailed the setting sun. The myth of Adonis is perhaps the most nearly related of any to that of Tammuz, since its chief characters are acknowledged counterparts of those in the Babylonian legend, while the tale of Ishtar’s descent into Hades may be regarded as a sequel to the Greek story, or rather to an early Babylonian variant thereof. Briefly outlined, the story runs as follows : Adonis was the fruit of an unnatural union between the Syrian king Theias and his daughter Smyrna (Myrrha). Theias pursued the princess, intending to take her life for the crime, but the pity of the gods turned her into a tree from which, at the end of ten months, Adonis was born. It is said that a boar rent open the tree-trunk with its tusk, and thus enabled the divine infant to see the light. Aphrodite, charmed with the beauty of the child, gave him into the care of Persephone, who was so enamoured of her charge that she afterwards refused to give him up. The goddesses appealed to Zeus, who decreed that Adonis should spend six months of each year with Aphrodite and six with Persephone in the underworld; or, according to another version, four months were to be passed with Aphrodite and four with Persephone, while the remaining four were to be at his own disposal. He was afterwards slain by a boar sent against him by Artemis (herself, by the way, a development of Ishtar). It may be remarked that Aphrodite, who figures, like Ishtar, as the goddess of love and beauty, is also closely associated with the nether regions, perhaps because she was identified with the Babylonian goddess in her journey to Hades in search of her spouse.

Akin to Adonis is the god Attis, who likewise, according to one version of his myth, is slain by a boar. After his death he becomes a pine-tree, and from his blood violets spring. He is beloved of Cybele, the mother-goddess, who laments his untimely end.

In the Adonis legend there is evidence of some overlapping. Persephone, or Proserpine, who here corresponds to the Allatu of the Babylonian variant, figures in another well-known myth as the prototype of Tammuz. When she is carried off to the nether-world by Pluto, her mother, Ceres, will not suffer the corn to grow while her daughter remains a prisoner. Like Ishtar in search of her spouse, the mother-goddess seeks her child with weeping and lamentation. Through the eating of a pomegranate seed, Proserpine is finally obliged to pass four (or six) months of every year with her dark captor, as his consort.

Another myth which has affinities with the tale of Tammuz and Ishtar is the Egyptian one which deals with the quest of Isis. The god Osiris is slain through the machinations of his brother Set (who, being identified elsewhere with a black hog, recalls the boar which slew Adonis and Attis), and his body, enclosed in a chest, is cast into the Nile. Afterwards the chest is thrown up by the waves, and round it springs miraculously a tamarisk tree. Meanwhile Isis, wife and sister to Osiris, travels hither and thither in search of his remains, which in due time she finds. However, the chest is stolen from her by Set, who, taking therefrom the body of Osiris, tears the corpse into fourteen pieces, which he scatters broadcast through the land. Isis still pursues her quest, till she has found all the portions and buried them.

These tales were the mythical correlates of certain ritualistic practices designed to bring about the change of seasons, and other natural phenomena, by means of sympathetic magic. The burden of a great duty falls upon the shoulders of primitive man; with his rites and spells and magic arts he must assist the universe in its course. His esoteric plays, typifying the mysterious fact of growth, are necessary to ensure the sprouting of the corn ; his charms and incantations are essential even for the rising of the sun ; lacking the guarantee of science that one season shall follow another in its proper order, he goes through an elaborate performance symbolizing the decay and revival of vegetation, believing that only thus can the natural order be maintained. Through the force of sympathetic magic he sees his puny efforts related to the mighty results which follow them.

This, then, is the origin of the ritual of the Tammuz festival, which may conceivably have had an existence prior to that of the myth itself. The representation of the death and resurrection of the god, whether in myth or ritual, had undoubtedly a seasonal significance, wherefore the date of his festival varied in the different localities. In Babylonia it was celebrated in June, thus showing that the deity was slain by the fierce heat of the sun, burning up all the springtide vegetation. Ishtar’s sojourn in Hades would thus occupy the arid months of summer. In other and more temperate climes winter would be regarded as the enemy of Tammuz. An interesting account of the Tammuz festival is that given by an Arabic author writing in the tenth century, and quoted by Sir James Frazer in his Golden Bough. “Tammuz (July). In the middle of this month is the festival of el-Būgāt, that is, of the weeping women, and this is the Ta-uz festival, which is celebrated in honour of the god Ta-uz. The women bewail him, because his lord slew him so cruelly, ground his bones in a mill, and then scattered them to the wind. The women (during this festival) eat nothing which has been ground in a mill, but limit their diet to steeped wheat, sweet vetches, dates, raisins, and the like.” The material for this description was furnished by the Syrians of Harran. Of the curious legend attaching to the mourning rites more will be said later.


Lamentations for Tammuz

Characteristic of the Tammuz ritual are the lamentations, of which several series are still extant. In later times it appears that a different cause was assigned for the weeping of the “wailing men and wailing women.” They no longer mourned the death of Tammuz, but the departure of Ishtar into the netherworld, and so the legend of her journey to Aralu came to be recited in the temples. Sir James Frazer suggests that the ritualistic counterpart of the Tammuz-Ishtar myth may have included the pouring of water over an effigy of the god, the practice corresponding to the pouring of the water of life over him in order to bring him back to life. If this indeed formed a part of the Tammuz ritual we may take it that it was intended as a rain-charm.

Likewise the Adonia festival of the Greeks symbolized the death and resurrection of Adonis. This feast occupied two days; on the first day, images of Adonis and Aphrodite were made and laid each on a silver couch ; on the second day, these images were cast by the women into the sea, together with ‘ Adonis gardens,’ as they were called—pots filled with earth in which cut flowers were stuck. It is believed that this rite was meant to signify the revival of vegetation under the influence of rain. The persons engaged in it indulged in such lamentations as were uttered by the worshippers of Tammuz in Babylonia, tore their hair, and beat their breasts. The festival of Adonis fell in the summer-time at Alexandria and Athens, in the spring at Byblus, while in Phoenicia it occurred in the season when the river Nahr Ibrahim (formerly called Adonis) bore down from the mountains of Lebanon the red earth in which the devout saw the blood of the slain Adonis. Golden boxes of myrrh were employed at the Adonia festival, incense was burned, and pigs were sacrificed. Pigs were sacrificed also to Osiris, whose cult, as has been shown, had much in common with that of Tammuz and Adonis. The Egyptian god was cast by his enemies into the waters of the Nile ; and it may be that this myth too had a ritualistic counterpart, designed as a charm to produce rain.

It has been indicated already that the elucidations of the myth of Ishtar’s journey to Aralu are many and divergent. The variants above enumerated serve each to cast light on the other, and from a comparison of these we may suceeed in arriving at a satisfactory conclusion. To begin with, however, it must be remembered that when the cult of any deity has reached a fairly advanced stage it is impossible to assign to him any one department of nature, to say that he is a sun-god, a rain-god, a corn-god, for he may possess the attributes of all of these. In giving any god a departmental designation we are striving to express his primitive or predominant characteristics merely.


An Allegorical Interpretation of the Myth

Image: The Mother-goddess Ishtar
Evelyn Paul

A truly allegorical elucidation of the myth of Ishtar’s descent into Hades would depict Ishtar, as the goddess of fertility, seeking in the underworld for her husband, the sun-god, slain by the icy breath of winter. During her sojourn in the nether regions all fertility ceases on the earth, to be resumed only when she returns as the joyful bride of the springtide sun. The surrender of her clothing and jewels at the seven gates of Aralu represents the gradual decay of vegetation on the earth, and the resumption of her garments the growing beauty and verdure which mark her return. Another hypothesis identifies Ishtar with Dawkina, goddess of the earth, wife of Ea and therefore mother as well as consort of Tammuz. According to this view Ishtar represents not the fertility of the earth, but the earth itself, deprived of its adornments of flowers and leafage by the approach of winter, or variously, by the burning heat of summer. The waters of life, with which she sprinkles and restores her husband,[8] are the revivifying rains which give to the sun-god his youthful vigour and glory. Against this view it has been urged (e.g. by Sir James Frazer) that “there is nothing in the sun’s annual course within the temperate and tropical zones to suggest that he is dead for half or a third of the year, and alive for the other half or two-thirds.”

Alternatively it is suggested that Tammuz is a god of vegetation, and that Ishtar doubles the role. The slaying of Tammuz and the journey of Ishtar would thus represent two distinct myths, each typifying the decay and subsequent revival of vegetation. Other instances may be recalled in which two myths of the same class have become fused into one. This view, then, presents some elements of probability; not only Tammuz but most of his variants appear to possess a vegetable significance, while the Ishtar type is open to interpretation on the same lines. Thus Adonis is associated with the myrrh-tree, from whose trunk he was born, and Osiris with the tamarisk, used in the ritual connected with his cult, while Attis after his death became a pine-tree. Tammuz himself was conceived of as dwelling in theTmidst of a great world-tree, whose roots extended down to the underworld, while its branches reached to the heavens. This tree appears to have been the cedar, for which the ancient Babylonians had an especial reverence. One feature which leads us to identify the deities of this class, both male and female, with gods of vegetation is their association with the moon. Osiris is regarded, and with much reason, as a moon-god; in one of her aspects Aphrodite is a lunar deity, while a like significance belongs to Proserpine and to the Phoenician Ashtoreth. Ishtar herself, it is true, was never identified with the moon, which in Babylonia was a male divinity; yet she was associated with him as his daughter. Among primitive peoples the moon is believed to exercise a powerful influence on vegetation, and indeed on all manner of growth and productivity. The association of a god with the moon therefore argues for him also a connexion with vegetation and fertility. It may be remarked, in passing, that a lunar significance has been attached by some authorities to the story of Ishtar’s descent into Hades, and to kindred myths. It is held that the sojourn of the goddess in Aralu typifies a lunar eclipse, or perhaps the period between the waning of the old moon and the appearance of the new. But, as has been said, the ancient Babylonians saw in the luminary of night a male deity, so that any lunar characteristics pertaining to Ishtar must be regarded as of merely secondary importance.


Ishtar, Tammuz, and Vegetation

If it be granted, then, that Ishtar and Tammuz are deities of vegetation, it is possible still further to narrow their sphere by associating them particularly with the corn. Adonis and Aphrodite are connected with the growth of the crops. Ceres, who forbids the corn to spring while her daughter is in the realm of Pluto, is undoubtedly a corn-mother, and Proserpine evidently partakes of the same nature. Osiris was the culture-deity who introduced corn into Egypt. A representation of him in the temple of Isis at Philas depicts corn-stalks growing out of his dead body—the body of Osiris (the grain) is torn to pieces, scattered through the land, and the pieces buried (or planted) in the earth, when the corn sprouts from it. Moreover, Tammuz himself was cruelly disposed of by his lord, who “ground his bones in a mill, and then scattered them to the wind”—plainly a type of the treatment meted out to the corn. An Arabic writer relates that Tammuz was cruelly killed several times, but that he always came to life again, a story which recalls Robert Burns’ John Barleycorn , itself perhaps based on mythical matter.

May not these examples suggest an elucidation on animistic lines ? Deities of the Tammuz type appear to symbolize the corn-grain and nothing more— cut down, bruised and beaten, buried in the earth, and finally springing to renewed life. Who, then, are the goddesses, likewise identified with the corn, who seek in the underworld for lover or child, endeavouring with tears to ransom the corn from the dark earth ? Are they not the primitive corn-spirits, the indwelling animistic spirits of the standing grain, doomed at the harvest to wander disconsolately through the earth till the sprouting of the corn once more gives them an opportunity to materialize ?

The stories of the mutilation and dispersion of the bodies of Tammuz and Osiris, and of the many deaths of the former god, furnish a basis for yet another explanation of the’ Tammuz myth. Sir James Frazer brings forward the theory that the ‘Lamentations’ of the ancient Babylonians were intended not for mourning for the decay of vegetation, but to bewail the cruel treatment of the grain at harvest-time, and cites in this connexion the ballad of John Barleycorn , which, we are told, was based on an early English poem, probably itself of mythological origin.

It is, however, most likely that the myth of Tammuz and Ishtar is of a composite nature, as has already been indicated. Possibly a myth of the sun-god and earth-goddess has been superimposed on the early groundwork of the corn-spirit seeking the corn. It would certainly seem that Ishtar in her descent into Aralu typified the earth, shorn of her covering of vegetation. Then in time she might come to symbolize the vegetation itself, or the fertility which produced it, and so would gain new attributes, and new elements would enter into the myths concerning her. Only by regarding her as a composite deity is it possible to reach an understanding of the principles underlying these myths.


Ishtar and Esther

We have already questioned whether the Scripture story of Esther is in some manner connected with the goddess Ishtar. Writing of the Jewish feast of Purim, Sir James Frazer says (Golden Bough , vol. iii, p. 153) :

“ From the absence of all notice of Purim in the older books of the Bible, we may fairly conclude that the festival was instituted! or imported at a comparatively late date among the Jews. The same conclusion is supported by the Book of Esther itself, which was manifestly written to explain the origin of the feast and. to suggest motives for its observance. For, according to the author of the book, the festival was established to commemorate the deliverance of the Jews from a great danger which threatened them in Persia under the reign of King Xerxes. Thus the opinion of modern scholars that the feast of Purim, as celebrated by the Jews, was of late date and Oriental origin, is borne out by the tradition of the Jews themselves. An examination of that tradition and of the mode of celebrating the feast renders it probable that Purim is nothing but a more or less disguised form of the Babylonian festival of the Sacaea or Zakmuk. . . . But further, when we examine the narrative which professes to account for the institution of Purim, we discover in it not only the strongest traces of Babylonian origin, but also certain singular analogies to those very features of the Sacaean festival with which we are here more immediately concerned. The Book of Esther turns upon the fortunes of two men, the vizier Haman and the despised Jew Mordecai, at the court of a Persian king. Mordecai, we are told, had given mortal offence to the vizier, who accordingly prepares a tall gallows on which he hopes to see his enemy hanged, while he himself expects to receive the highest mark of the King’s favour by being allowed to wear the royal crown and the royal robes, and thus attired to parade the streets, mounted on the King’s own horse and attended by one of the noblest princes, who should proclaim to the multitude his temporary exaltation and glory. But the artful intrigues of the wicked vizier miscarried and resulted in precisely the opposite of what he had hoped and expected ; for the royal honours which he had looked for fell to his rival Mordecai, and he himself was hanged on the gallows which he had made ready for his foe. In this story we seem to detect a reminiscence, more or less confused, of the Zoganes of the Sacaea, in other words, of the custom of investing a private man with the insignia of royalty for a few days, and then putting him to death on the gallows or the cross. . . .

“A strong confirmation of this view is furnished by a philological analysis of the names of the four personages. It seems to be now generally recognised by Biblical scholars that the name Mordecai, which has no meaning in Hebrew, is nothing but a slightly altered form of Marduk or Merodach, the name of the chief god of Babylon, whose great festival was the Zakmuk; and further, it is generally admitted that Esther in like manner is equivalent to Ishtar, the great Babylonian goddess whom the Greeks called Astarte, and who is more familiar to English readers as Ashtaroth. The derivation of the names of Haman and Vashti is less certain, but some high authorities are disposed to accept the view of Jensen that Haman is identical with Humman or Homman, the national god of the Elamites, and that Vashti is in like manner an Elamite deity, probably a goddess whose name appears in inscriptions.”


Lang on the Esther Story

Commenting on this theory, Lang in his Magic and Religion (p. 161) says :

“ The name Mordecai resembles Marduk, Esther is like Ishtar, Haman is like Humman, the Elamite god, and there is a divine name in the inscriptions, read as resembling ‘ Vashti,’ and probably the name of an Elamite goddess. Thus the human characters in Esther are in peril of merging in Babylonian and Elamite gods. But, lest that should occur, we ought also to remember that Mordecai was the real name of a real historical Jew of the Captivity, one of the companions of Nehemiah in the return from exile to Jerusalem. Again, Esther appears to me to be the crown-name of the Jewish wife of Xerxes, in the Book of Esther : ‘Hadassah, that is Esther.’

In the Biblical story she conceals her Jewish descent. Hadassah, says Noldeke, ‘is no mere invention of the writer of Esther.’ Hadassah is said to mean ‘myrtle bough,’ and girls are still called Myrtle. Esther appears to have been an assumed name, after a royal mixed marriage. Now if a real historical Jew might be named Mordecai, which we know to be the case, a Jewess, whether in fact, or in this Book of Esther, which, says Dr. Jastrow, ‘has of course some historical basis,’ might be styled Esther. . . .

But, if Mordecai be, as it is, an historical name of a real Jew of the period, while Esther may be, and probably is, a name which a Jewess might bear, it is not ascertained that Vashti really is the name of an Elamite goddess. Yet Vashti is quite essential as a goddess to Mr. Frazer’s argument.

‘The derivation,’ he says,

‘of the names of Haman and Vashti is less certain, but some high authorities are disposed to accept the view of Jensen that Haman is identical with Humman or Homman, the national god of the Elamites, and that Vashti is in like manner an Elamite deity, probably a goddess whose name appears in inscriptions.’”

It is thus seen that the facts regarding these names make such an explanation as is advanced by Sir James Frazer rather a hazardous one. Haman, according to his theory, would represent the dying god, whilst Mordecai would play the part of the rerisen god of vegetation. Lang puts forward a countertheory, and that is that Haman or Humman was a conquering god of the Elamites, which accounts for him having been whipped and hanged in derision. This Humman was, he thinks, possibly an Elamite god of vegetation.



Girsu was a part of the city of Lagash, and the name Nin-Girsu means ‘Lord of Girsu.’ Gods frequently had lordship over a city quarter, one of the best-known instances of this being that of Huitzi-lopochtli, who ruled over that part of the city of Tenochtitlan, called Mexico, which afterwards gave its name to the entire community. Girsu had originally been a city itself and had become merged into Lagash, so its god was probably of ancient origin. Nin-Girsu is frequently alluded to as ‘the warrior of Bel’—he who broke through the hostile ranks to aid the worshippers of the great god of the netherworld. Like many combatant deities, however, he presided over local agriculture, and in this connexion he was known as Shul-gur, ‘Lord of the corn heaps.’ He is even identified with Tammuz.



In ancient inscriptions, especially those of Gudea, Urbau, and Uru-kagina, the goddess Bau is alluded to as the great mother of mankind, who restores the sick to health. She is called ‘chief daughter of Anu,’ and seems to play the part of a fate to some extent. She has also an agricultural side to her character. Gudea was especially devoted to her, and has left it on record that she “filled him with eloquence.” Her temple was at Uru-Azagga, a quarter of Lagash, and as the goddess of that neighbourhood she would, of course, have come into close contact with Nin-Girsu. Indeed she is spoken of as his consort, and when Uru-Azagga became part of Lagash, Bau was promoted as tutelar goddess of that city and designated ‘Mother of Lagash.’ She has been identified with the primeval watery depths, the primitive chaos, and this identification has been founded on the similarity between the name Bau and the Hebrew bohu , the word for ‘chaos,’ but proof is wanting to support the conjecture. A closely allied form of her seems to be Ga-tum-dug, a goddess who has probably a common origin with Bau, and who certainly is in some manner connected with water—perhaps with the clouds.



Nannar was the moon-god of Ur, the city whence came Abram, and with that place he was connected much as was Shamash with Sippar—that is to say, Ur was his chief but not his only centre of adoration. Why he came to have his principal seat at Ur it would be difficult to say. The name Ur signifies 4 light,’ so it may be that a shrine dedicated to Nannar existed upon the site of this city and constituted its nucleus. In Babylonian mythology the sun was regarded as the offspring of the moon, and it is easy to see how this conception arose in the minds of a race prone to astronomical study. In all civilizations the lunar method of computing time precedes the solar. The phases of the moon are regarded as more trustworthy and more easily followed than the more obscure changes of the brighter luminary, therefore a greater degree of importance was attached to the moon in very early times than to the sun. The moon is usually represented on Babylonian cylinders as bearing a crescent upon his head and wearing a long, flowing beard described as of the colour of lapis-lazuli—much the same shade as his beams possess in warmer latitudes. Nannar was frequently alluded to as ‘the heifer of Anu,’ because of the horn which the moon displays at a certain phase. Many monarchs appear to have delighted in the upkeep and restoration of his temple, among them Nur-Ramman and Sin-iddina.


Nannar in Decay

Image right: Assyrian Rock Sculpture
From The Monuments of Nineveh, by Sir Henry Layard

But, as happens to many gods, Nannar became confounded with some earthly hero—was even alluded to as a satrap of Babylonia under the Median monarch Artaios—a personage unknown to history. Ctesias hands down to us a very circumstantial tale concerning him as follows :[9]

“There was a Persian of the name of Parsondes, in the service of the king of the Medes, an eager huntsman, and an active warrior on foot and in the chariot, distinguished in council and in the field, and of influence with the king. Parsondes often urged the king to make him satrap of Babylon in the place of Nannaros, who wore women’s clothes and ornaments, but the king always put the petition aside, for it could not be granted without breaking the promise which his ancestor had made to Belesys. Nannaros discovered the intentions of Parsondes, and sought to secure himself against them, and to take vengeance.

He promised great rewards to the cooks who were in the train of the king, if they succeeded in seizing Parsondes and giving him up. One day, Parsondes in the heat of the chase strayed far from the king. He had already killed many boars and deer, when the pursuit of a wild ass carried him to a great distance. At last he came upon the cooks, who were occupied in preparations for the king’s table. Being thirsty, Parsondes asked for wine ; they gave it, took care of his horse, and invited him to take food—an invitation agreeable to Parsondes, who had been hunting the whole day.

He bade them send the ass which he had captured to the king, and tell his own servants where he was. Then he ate of the various kinds of food set before him, and drank abundantly of the excellent wine, and at last asked for his horse in order to return to the king. But they brought beautiful women to him, and urged him to remain for the night.

He agreed, and as soon as, overcome by hunting, wine, and love, he had fallen into a deep sleep, the cooks bound him and brought him to Nannaros. Nannaros reproached Parsondes with calling him an effeminate man, and seeking to obtain his satrapy ; he had the king to thank that the satrapy granted to his ancestors had not been taken from him. Parsondes replied that he considered himself more worthy of the office, because he was more manly and more useful to the king. But Nannaros swore by Bel and Mylitta that Parsondes should be softer and whiter than a woman, called for the eunuch who was over the female players, and bade him shave the body of Parsondes and bathe and anoint him every day, put women’s clothes on him, plait his hair after the manner of women, paint his face, and place him among the women who played the guitar and sang, that he might learn their arts.

This was done, and soon Parsondes played and sang better at the table of Nannaros than any of the women. Meanwhile the king of the Medes had caused search to be made everywhere for Parsondes ; and since he could nowhere be found, and nothing could be heard of him, he believed that a lion or some other wild animal had killed him when out hunting, and lamented for his loss. Parsondes had lived for seven years as a woman in Babylon, when Nannaros caused a eunuch to be scourged and grievously maltreated.

This eunuch Parsondes induced by large presents to retire to Media and tell the king the misfortune which had come upon him. Then the king sent a message commanding Nannaros to give up Parsondes. Nannaros declared that he had never seen him. But the king sent a second messenger, with orders to put Nannaros to death if he did not surrender Parsondes. Nannaros entertained the messenger of the king ; and when the meal was brought, 150 women entered, of whom some played the guitar, while others blew the flute. At the end of the meal, Nannaros asked the king’s envoy which of all the women was the most beautiful and had played best. The envoy pointed to Parsondes.

Nannaros laughed long and said, ‘That is the person whom you seek,’ and released Parsondes, who on the next day returned home with the envoy to the king in a chariot. The king was astonished at the sight of him, and asked why he had not avoided such disgrace by death.

Parsondes answered,

‘In order that I might see you again and by you execute vengeance on Nannaros, which could never have been mine had I taken my life.’

The king promised him that his hope should be realized, as soon as he came to Babylon. But when he came there, Nannaros defended himself on the ground that Parsondes, though in no way injured by him, had maligned him, and sought to obtain the satrapy over Babylonia.

The king pointed out that he had made himself judge in his own cause, and had imposed a punishment of a degrading character ; in ten days he would pronounce judgment upon him for his conduct. In terror, Nannaros hastened to Mitraphernes, the eunuch of greatest influence with the king, and promised him the most liberal rewards, 10 talents of gold and 100 talents of silver, 10 golden and 200 silver bowls, if he could induce the king to spare his life and retain him in the satrapy of Babylonia.

He was prepared to give the king 100 talents of gold, 1000 talents of silver, 100 golden and 300 silver bowls, and costly robes, with other gifts ; Parsondes also should receive 100 talents of silver and costly robes. After many entreaties, Mitraphernes persuaded the king not to order the execution of Nannaros, as he had not killed Parsondes, but to exact from him the compensation which he was prepared to pay Parsondes and the king.

Nannaros in gratitude threw himself at the feet of the king; but Parsondes said,

‘Cursed be the man who first brought gold among men ; for the sake of gold I have been made a mockery to the Babylonians.’”

It is impossible to say what the mythological meaning hidden in this tale may portend. We have the moon-god attempting to feminize an unfortunate enemy. Does this mean that Parsondes came under the influence of the moon-god—that is, that he became a lunatic ?


Aralu, or Eres-ki-Gal

The deities of the underworld, of the region of the dead, are usually of later origin than those of the heavens.[10] They are frequently the gods of an older and discredited religion, and are relegated to the ‘cold shades of opposition,’ dwelling there just as the dead are supposed to ‘dwell’ in the grave. A legend exists regarding Aralu which was discovered among other texts at Tel-el-Amarna. The story goes that the gods once gave a feast to which they invited Aralu, apologizing at the same time that they were unable to go down to her and regretting that she could not ascend to them. In their dilemma they requested her to send a messenger to bring to her the viands which fell to her share. She complied with the request, and when the messenger arrived all the gods stood up to do him honour for his mistress’s sake—all save Nergal. The messenger acquainted Aralu with this slight, and greatly enraged she sent him back to the dwelling of the gods to ask that the delinquent might be delivered into her hands so that she might slay him. The gods after some discussion requested the messenger to take back him who had offended the dark goddess, and in order that the envoy might the more easily discover him, all the gods were gathered together. But Nergal remained in the background. His absence was discovered, however, and he was despatched to the gloomy realm of Aralu. But he had no mind to taste death. Indeed Aralu found the tables turned, for Nergal, seizing her by the hair, dragged her from her throne and prepared to cut off her head. She begged to be allowed to speak, and upon her request being granted, she offered herself as a wife to her conqueror, along with the dominions over which she held sway. Nergal assented to her proposals and they were wed.

Nergal is the sun which passes through the gloomy underworld at night just as does Osiris, and in this character he has to conquer the powers of death and the grave. It is rare, however, to find the sun-hero allying himself by marriage to one of the infernal powers, although in the Central American Popol Vuh one of the explorers to the underworld weds the daughter of one of its overlords, and Persephone, the corn-goddess, is forced to become the spouse of the lord of Hades.



Dagon, alluded to in the Scriptures, was, like Oannes, a fish-god. Besides being worshipped in Erech and its neighbourhood, he was adored in Palestine and on occasion among the Hebrews themselves. But it was in the extreme south of Palestine that his worship attained its chief importance. He had temples at Ashdod and Gaza, and perhaps his worship travelled westward along with that of Ishtar. Both were worshipped at Erech, and where the cult of the one penetrated it is likely that there would be found the rites of the other.

Dagon his name ; sea-monster, upward man
And downward fish,

as Milton expresses it, affords one of the most dramatic instances in the Old Testament of the downfall of a usurping idol.

“And the Philistines took the ark of God, and brought it from Eben-ezer unto Ashdod.

“When the Philistines took the ark of God, they brought it into the house of Dagon, and set it by Dagon.

“And when they of Ashdod arose early on the morrow, behold, Dagon was fallen upon his face to the earth before the ark of the Lord. And they took Dagon, and set him in his place again.

“And when they arose early on the morrow morning, behold, Dagon was fallen upon his face to the ground before the ark of the Lord ; and the head of Dagon and both the palms of his hands were cut off upon the threshold ; only the stump of Dagon was left to him.

“Therefore neither the priests of Dagon, nor any that come into Dagon’s house, tread on the threshold of Dagon in Ashdod unto this day.

“But the hand of the Lord was heavy upon them of Ashdod, and he destroyed them, and smote them with emerods, even Ashdod and the coasts thereof.

“And when the men of Ashdod saw that it was so, they said, The ark of the God of Israel shall not abide with us : for his hand is sore upon us and upon Dagon our god.”

Thus in the Bible story only the ‘stump’ or fish’s tail of Dagon was left to him. In some of the Ninevite sculptures of this deity, the head of the fish forms a kind of mitre on the head of the man, while the body of the fish appears as a cloak or cape over his shoulders and back. This is a sure sign to the mythological student that a god so adorned is in process of quitting the animal for the human form.[11]


Nirig, or Enu-Restu

This deity is alluded to in an inscription as “the eldest of the gods.” He was especially favoured by the Kings of Assyria, and we find his name entering into the composition of several of their texts. In a certain poem he is called the “son of Bel,” and is described as being made “in the likeness of Anu.” He rides, it is said, against the gods of his enemies in a chariot of lapis-lazuli, and his onset is full of the fury of the tempest. Bel, his father, commands him to set forth for the temple of Bel at Nippur. Here Nusku, the messenger of Bel, meets him, bestows a gift upon him, and humbly requests that he will not disturb the god Bel, his father, in his dwelling-place, nor terrify the earth-gods. It would appear from this passage that Nirig was on the point of taking the place of Bel, his father, but that he ever did so is improbable. As a deity of storm he is also a god of war, but he was the seed-scatterer upon the mountains, therefore he had also an agricultural significance. It is strange that in Babylonia tempest-gods possess the same functions and attributes— those of war and agriculture—as do rain or thunder, or rain-thunder, or wind and rain deities elsewhere— a circumstance which is eloquent of the power of climatic conditions in the manufacture of myth. In Mesopotamia fierce sand-storms must have given the people the idea of a savage and intractable deity, destructive rather than beneficent, as many hymns and kindred texts witness.

We have now briefly examined the elder gods of the Babylonian pantheon. Other, and in some cases more imposing, gods were yet to be adopted by the Babylonians, as we shall see in the following chapters.

Footnotes and references:


The passage is quoted by kind permission of Messrs A. & C. Black.


Religious Belief in Babylonia and Assyria, p. 69.


Athenceum, Feb. 12, 1876.


Polyhistor is still speaking. The passage is somewhat obscure, and of course relates to the myth of Merodach and Tiawath—Bel representing Merodach, and “the woman-creature” Tiawath.


Religious Belief in Babylonia and Assyria, p. 88.


Religious Belief in Babylonia and Assyria, p. 81.


Religious Belief in Babylonia and Assyria, p. 82.


Elsewhere Ishtar herself is sprinkled. See p. 130.


Translation from Prof. Sayce’s Hibbert Lectures, p. 157.


These deities of the underworld must not be confounded with the gods of the abyss referred to at great length in Chapter II. The first group are gods of the dead, the second gods of the primeval waters.


In sacrifice, too, the totemic or symbolic animal of the god is often flayed and the skin worn by the priest, who in this manner personates the god. In ancient Mexico the priests of Centeotl wore the skin of a woman sacrificed annually to that goddess.

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