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 V - The Later Pantheon of Babylonia

THE reign of Khammurabi is a convenient point at which to observe general changes in and later introductions to the pantheon of the Babylonian gods. The political alterations in the kingdom were reflected in the divine circle. Certain gods were relegated to the cold shades of obscurity, whilst new deities were adopted and others, hitherto regarded as negligible quantities, were exalted to the heights of heavenly omnipotence. The worship of Merodach first came into prominence in the days of Khammurabi. But his cult is so outstanding and important that it has been deemed better to deal with it in a separate and later chapter. Meanwhile we shall examine the nature of some of the gods who sprang into importance at or about the era of the great law-maker, and note changes which took place with regard to others.



NeboImage right: Nebo;
Son of Merodach, God of Wisdom, and the inventor of writing.
Photo W. A. Mansell and Co.

The popularity of Nebo was brought about through his association with Merodach. His chief seat of worship was at Borsippa, opposite to Babylon, and when the latter city became the seat of the imperial power the proximity of Borsippa greatly assisted the cult of Nebo. So close did the association between the deities of the two cities become that at length Nebo was regarded as the son of Merodach—a relationship that often implies that the so-called descendant of the elder god is a serious rival, or that his cult is nearly allied to the elder worship. Nebo had acquired something of a reputation as a god of wisdom, and probably this it was which permitted him to stand separately from Merodach without becoming absorbed in the cult of the great deity of Babylon. He was credited, like Ea, with the invention of writing, the province of all ‘wise’ gods, and he presided over that department of knowledge which interpreted the movements of the heavenly bodies. The priests of Nebo were famous as astrologers, and with the bookish king Assur-bani-pal, Nebo and his consort Tashmit were especial favourites as the patrons of writing. By the time that the worship of Merodach had become recognised at Babylon, the cult of Nebo at Borsippa was so securely rooted that even the proximity of the greatest god in the land failed to shake it.

Even after the Persian conquest the temple-school at Borsippa continued to flourish. But although Nebo thus ‘outlived’ many of the greater gods it is now almost impossible to trace his original significance as a deity. Whether solar or aqueous in his nature—and the latter appears more likely— he was during the period of Merodach’s ascendancy regarded as scribe of the gods, much as Thoth was the amanuensis of the Egyptian otherworld—that is to say, he wrote at the dictation of the higher deities. When the gods were assembled in the Chamber of Fates in Merodach’s temple at Babylon, he chronicled their speeches and deliberations and put them on record. Indeed he himself had a shrine in this temple of E-Sagila, or ‘the lofty house,’ which was known as E-Zila, or ‘the firm house.’ Once during the New Year festival Nebo was carried from Borsippa to Babylon to his father’s temple, and in compliment was escorted by Merodach part of the way back to his own shrine in the lesser city. It is strange to see how closely the cults of the two gods were interwoven. The Kings of Babylonia constantly invoke them together, their names and those of their temples are found in close proximity at every turn, and the symbols of the bow and the stylus or pen, respectively typical of the father and the son, are usually discovered in one and the same inscription. Even Merodach’s dragon, the symbol of his victory over the dark forces of chaos, is assigned to Nebo !


Nebo as Grain-God

But Nebo seems to have had also an agricultural side to his character. In many texts he is praised as the god “who opens up the subterranean sources in order to irrigate the fields,” and the withdrawal of his favour is followed by famine and distress. This seems to favour the idea of his watery nature. His name, ‘the proclaimer,’ does not assist us much in fixing his mythological significance, unless it was assigned to him in the role of herald of the gods.



Nebo’s consort was Tashmit. It is believed that Khammurabi, unsuccessful in suppressing the cult of Nebo, succeeded with that of his spouse. She seems to have been the same as a goddess Ealur who became amalgamated with Zarpanitum, the wife of Merodach. The name may mean, according to some, ‘the hearer,’ and to others a ‘revelation,’ and in view of the character of her wise husband, was perhaps one of the original designations of Merodach himself. Tashmit had therefore but little individuality. None the less she possessed considerable popularity. On a seal-impression dating somewhere between 3500-4500 b.c. there are outlined two figures, male and female, supposed to represent Nebo and Tashmit. The former has a wide-open mouth and the latter ears of extraordinary size. Both are holding wild animals by the horns, and the representation is thought to be typical of the strength or power of speech and silence.


Shamash and Khammurabi

We find that Khammurabi was very devoted to Shamash, the early type of sun-god. His improvements and restorations at Sippar and Larsa were extensive. The later Babylonian monarchs followed his example, and one of them,Mili-Shikhu (c. 1450 b.c.) even placed Shamash before Merodach in the pantheon ! The early connexion between Merodach and Shamash had probably much to do with the great popularity of the latter. That this was the case, so far at least as Khammurabi was concerned, is obvious from certain of his inscriptions, in which he alludes in the same sentence to Merodach and Shamash and to their close relationship. Khammurabi appears also to have been greatly attached to the cult of a goddess Innana or Ninni (‘lady’ or ‘great lady ’), who was evidently the consort of some male deity. He improved her temple at Hallabi and speaks of her as placing the reins of power in his hands. There was another goddess of the same name at Lagash whom Gudea worshipped as ‘ mistress of the world,’ but she does not seem to have been the same as the Innana of Hallabi, near Sippar, as she was a goddess of fertility and generation, of the ‘ mother goddess ’ type, and there do not appear to be any grounds for the assertion that the goddess of Hallabi can be equated with her.



HadadImage right: Hadad or Rimmon;
From Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria.
by Prof. Jastrow; (G. P. Putnam’s Sons.)

Ramman or Rimmon, identified with Hadad or Adad, is a deity of later type and introduction. Indeed Ramman may be merely a variant or subsidiary name, meaning as it does ‘the thunderer,’ quite a common title for several types of deities. The worship of Kadad was widespread in Syria and Palestine, and he was a god of storms or rains, whose symbol was the thunderbolt or the lightning which he holds in his grasp like a fiery sword. But he bears solar emblems upon his apparel, and seems to wear a solar crown. He does not, however,appear to have hadany centre of worship in Babylonia, and was probably a god of the Amorites, and becoming popular with the Babylonians, was later admitted into their pantheon. At Asshur in Assyria he was worshipped along with Anu, with whom he had a temple in common. This building, which was excavated in 1908, contains two shrines having but the one entrance, and the date of its foundation is referred so far back as b.c. 2400. There can be little doubt that the partnership of Hadad with Anu was a late one. Perhaps it was on Assyrian and not Babylonian soil that Hadad first entered from the alien world.

In many of his characteristics Hadad closely resembled En-lil. Like him he was designated ‘the great mountain,’ and seems to have been conceived of as almost a counterpart of the older god. It is peculiar that while in Assyria and Babylonia Hadad has many of the characteristics of a sun-god, in his old home in Syria he possessed those of a thunder-god who dwelt among the mountains of northern Palestine and Syria and spoke in thunder and wielded the lightning. But even in Assyria the stormy characteristics of Hadad are not altogether obscured. Hadad’s cult in Babylonia is probably not much older than the days of Khammurabi, in whose time the first inscriptional mention of him is made. His worship obtained a stronger hold in the times of the Kassite dynasty, for we find many of its monarchs incorporating his name with their own and altogether affording him a prominent place.


Hadad, Dada, David, and Dido

In a curious and interesting passage in his Hibbert Lectures,[1] Professor Sayce indicates resemblances between the name Hadad, Dada, the abbreviated form of the name of Abd-Hadad, who reigned at Hierapolis in the fourth century, Queen Dido of Carthage, and that of the Biblical David. Speaking of Hadad he says :

“He was, as I have said, the supreme Baal or Sun-god', whose worship extended southward from Carchemish to Edom and Palestine. At Damascus he was adored under the Assyrian name of Rimmon, and Zechariah (xii n) alludes to the cult of the compound Hadad-Rimmon in the close neighbourhood of the great Canaanitish fortress of Megiddo.

Coins bear the name of Abd-Hadad, ‘the servant of Hadad,’ who reigned in the fourth century at Hierapolis, the later successor of Carchemish, and, under the abbreviated form of Dada, Shalmaneser speaks of ‘the god Dada of Aleppo’ (Khalman). The abbreviated form was that current among the nations of the north ; in the south it was confounded with the Semite word which appears in Assyrian as dadu, ‘dear little child.’

This is the word which we have in Be-Dad or Ben-Dad, ‘the son of Dad,’ the father of the? Edo mite Hadad; we have it also in the David of the Old Testament. David, or Dod, as the word ought to be read, which is sometimes written Dodo with the vocalic suffix of the nominative, is the masculine corresponding to a Phoenician goddess whose name means ‘the beloved one,’ and who was called Dido by the writers of Rome.

Dido, in fact, was the consort of the Sun-god, conceived as Tammuz, ‘ the beloved son,’ and was the presiding deity of Carthage, whom legend confounded with Elissa, the foundress of the city. In the article I have alluded to above, I expressed my conviction that the names of Dodo and David pointed to a worship of the Sun-god, under the title of ‘the beloved one,’ in southern Canaan as well as in Phoenicia.

I had little idea at the time how soon my belief would be verified. Within the last year, the squeeze of the Moabite stone, now in the Louvre, has been subjected to a thorough examination by the German Professors Socin and Smend, with the result of correcting some of the received readings and of filling up some of the lacunae. One of the most important discoveries that have been thus made is that the Israelites of the northern kingdom worshipped a Dodo or Dod by the side of Yahveh, or rather that they adored the supreme God under the name of Dodo as well as under that of Yahveh.

Mesha, the Moabite king, in describing the victories which his god Chemosh had enabled him to gain over his Israelitish foes, tells us that he had carried away from Atarath ‘the arel (or altar) of Dodo and dragged it before Chemosh,’ and from Nebo ‘the arels (or altars) of Yahveh,’ which he likewise ‘dragged before Chemosh.’

Here the arel or ‘altar’ of Dodo is placed in parallelism with the arels of Yahveh ; and it is quite clear, therefore, that Dodo, like Yahveh, was a name under which the deity was worshipped by the people of the land. I have suggested that Dod or Dodo was an old title of the supreme God in the Jebusite Jerusalem, and that hence Isaiah (v i), when describing Jerusalem as the tower of the vineyard the Lord had planted in Israel, calls him Dod-i, ‘ my beloved.’

We can easily understand how a name of the kind, with such a signification, should have been transferred by popular affection from the Deity to the king of whom it is said that ‘all Israel and Judah loved him’ (I Sam. xviii 16).”


Ea in Later Times

Ea developed with the centuries, and about the epoch of Khammurabi appears to have achieved a high standard of godhead, probably because of the very considerable amount of theological moulding which he had received. In the later Babylonian period we find him described as the protagonist of mankind, the father of Merodach, and, along with Anu and Bel, a member of a great triad. The priests of Babylon were the sole mythographers of these days. This is in sharp contradistinction to the mythographers of Greece, who were nearly always philosophers and never priests. But they were mythographers in a secondary sense only, for they merely rearranged, re-edited, or otherwise altered already existing tales relating to the gods, usually with a view to the exaltation of a certain deity or to enable his story to fit in with those of other gods. It is only after a religion or mythological system has enjoyed a vogue more or less extended that the relationship of the gods towards one another becomes fixed.

The appointment of Merodach to the supreme position in the Babylonian pantheon naturally necessitated a rearrangement so far as the relationship of the other deities to him was concerned. This meant a re-shaping of myth and tradition generally for the purpose of ensuring consistency. The men fitted to accomplish such a task were to hand, for the age of Khammurabi was fertile in writers, scholastic and legal, who would be well equipped to carry out a change of the description indicated. Ea had not in the past enjoyed any very exalted sphere. But as the chief god of the important country in the neighbourhood of the Persian Gulf, the most ancient home of Babylonian culture, Ea would probably have exercised a great influence upon the antiquarian and historic sense of a man like Khammurabi. As the god of wisdom he would strongly appeal to a monarch whose whole career was marked by a love of justice and by sagacity and insight. From a local god of Eridu, Ea became a universal deity of wisdom and beneficence, the strong shield of man, and his benefactor by the gifts of harvest and water. Civilized and softer emotions must have begun to cluster around the cult of this kindly god who, when the angered deities resolved to destroy mankind, interceded for poor humanity and succeeded in preserving it from the divine wrath. As a god of medicine, too, Ea is humane and protective in character, and all the arts fall under his patronage. He is the culture-god of Babylon far excellence. He might not transcend Merodach, so he became his father. Thus did pagan theology succeed in merging the cults of deities which might otherwise have been serious rivals and mutually destructive.



Zu was a storm-god symbolized in the form of a bird. He may typify the advancing storm-cloud, which would have seemed to those of old as if hovering like a great bird above the land which it was about to strike. The North-American Indians possess such a mythological conception in the Thunder-bird, and it is probable that the great bird called roc, so well known to readers of the Arabian Nights , was a similar monster—perhaps the descendant of the Zu-bird. We remember how this enormous creature descended upon the ship in which Sindbad sailed and carried him off. Certain it is that we can trace the roc or rukh to the Persian simurgh, which is again referable to a more ancient Persian form, the amru or sinamru, the bird of immortality, and we may feel sure that what is found in ancient Persian lore has some foundation in Babylonian belief. The Zu-bird was evidently under the control of the sun, and his attempt to break away from the solar authority is related in the following legend.


The Legend of Zu

It is told of the god Zu that on one occasion ambition awaking in his’ breast caused him to cast envious eyes on the power and sovereignty of Bel, so that he determined to purloin the Tablets of Destiny, which were the tangible symbols of Bel’s greatness.

At this time, it may be recalled, the Tablets of Destiny had already an interesting history behind them. We are told in the creation legend how Apsu, the primeval, and Tiawath, chaos, the first parents of the gods, afterward conceived a hatred for their offspring, and how Tiawath, with her monster-brood of snakes and vipers, dragons and scorpion-men and raging hounds, made war on the hosts of heaven.

Her son Kingu she made captain of her hideous army—

To march before the forces, to lead the host,
To give the battle-signal, to advance to the attack,
To direct the battle, to control the fight.

To him she gave the Tablets of Destiny, laying them on his breast with the words :

“Thy command shall not be without avail, and the word of thy mouth shall be established.”

Through his possession of the divine tablets Kingu received the power of Anu, and was able to decree the fate of the gods. After several deities had refused the honour of becoming champion of heaven, Merodach was chosen. He succeeded at length in slaying Tiawath and destroying her evil host; and having vanquished Kingu, her captain, he took from him the Tablets of Destiny, which he sealed and laid on his own breast. It was this Merodach, or Marduk, who afterward became identified with Bel.

Now Zu, in his greed for power and dominion, was eager to obtain^the potent symbols. He beheld the honour and majesty of Bel, and from contemplation of these he turned to look upon the Tablets of Destiny, saying within himself :

“Lo, I will possess the tablets of the gods, and all things shall be subject unto me. The spirits of heaven shall bow before me, the oracles of the gods shall T^e in my hands. I shall wear the crown, symbol of sovereignty, and the robe, symbol of godhead, and then shall I rule over all the hosts of heaven.”

Thus inflamed, he sought the entrance to Bel’s hall, where he awaited the dawn of day. The text goes on :

Now when Bel was pouring out the clear water, (i.e. the light of day ?)
And his diadem was taken off and lay upon the throne,
(Zu) seized the Tablets of Destiny,
He took Bel’s dominion, the power of giving commands.
Then Zu fled away and hid himself in his mountain.

Bel was greatly enraged at the theft, and all the gods with him. Anu, lord of heaven, summoned about him his divine sons, and asked for a champion to recover the tablets. But though the god Ramman was chosen, and after him several other deities, they all refused to advance against Zu.

The end of the legend is unfortunately missing, but from a passage in another tale, the legend of Etana, we gather that it was the sun-god, Shamash, who eventually stormed the mountain-stronghold of Zu, and with his net succeeded in capturing the presumptuous deity.

This legend is of the Prometheus type, but whereas Prometheus (once a bird-god) steals fire from heaven for the behoof of mankind, Zu steals the Tablets of Destiny for his own. These must, of course, be regained if the sovereignty of heaven is duly to continue, and to make the tale circumstantial the sun-god is provided with a fowler’s net with which to capture the recalcitrant Zu-bird. Jastrow believes the myth to have been manufactured for the purpose of showing how the tablets of power were originally lost by the older Bel and gained by Merodach, but he has discounted the reference in the Etana legend relating to their recovery.



We find a good deal of confusion in later Babylonian religion as to whether the name ‘Bel’ is intended to designate the old god of that name or is merely a title for Merodach. Khammurabi certainly uses the name occasionally when speaking of Merodach, but at other times he quite as surely employs it for the older divinity, as for example when he couples the name with Anu. One of the Kassite kings, too, speaks of “Bel, the lord of lands,” meaning the old Bel, to whom they often gave preference over Merodach. They also preferred the old city of Nippur and its temple to Babylon, and perhaps made an attempt at one time to make Nippur the capital of their Empire.

Some authorities appear to think it strange that Bel should have existed at all as a deity after the elevation of Merodach to the highest rank in the pantheon. It was his association with Anu and Ea as one of a triad presiding over the heavens, the earth, and the deep which kept him in power. Moreover, the very fact that he was a member of such a triad proves that he was regarded as theologically essential to the well-being of the Babylonian religion as a whole. The manufacture or slow evolution of a trinity of this description is by no means brought about through popular processes. It is, indeed, the work of a school, of a college of priests. Strangely enough Khammurabi seems to have associated Anu and Bel together, but to have entirely omitted Ea from their companionship, and it has been thought that the conception of a trinity was subsequent to his epoch. The god of earth and the god of heaven typify respectively that which is above and that which is below, and are reminiscent of the Father-sky and Mother-earth of many primitive mythologies, and there is much to say for the theory that Ea, god of the deep, although he had existed long prior to any such grouping, was a later inclusion.


Image: Hall in Assyrian Palace (Restored);
From a drawing made on the spot by Sir Henry Layard


The Triad of Earth, Air, and Sea

The habit of invoking the great triad became almost a commonplace in later Babylonia. They nearly always take precedence in religious inscriptions, and we even find some monarchs stating that they hold their regal authority by favour of the trinity. Whenever a powerful curse has to be launched, one may be certain that the names of the gods of the elements will figure in it.



Dawkina was the consort of Ea, and was occasionally invoked along with him. She was a goddess of some antiquity, and, strangely enough for the mate of a water-god, she appears to have originally been connected in some manner with the earth. Therefore she was an elemental deity. In later times her attributes appear to have been inherited by Ishtar. According to some authorities Bel was the son of Ea and Dawkina, Bel in this case meaning Merodach. We find her name frequently alluded to in the Magical Texts, but her cult does not seem to have been very widespread.



We have already alluded to Anu’s position in the triad with Ea and Bel in later Babylonian times. When he stands alone we find him taking a more human guise than as the mere elemental god of earlier days. He is frequently mentioned in the texts apart from Ea and Bel, and is occasionally alluded to along with Ramman, the god of thunder and storms, who of course would naturally stand in close relationship with the sky. We also find him connected with Dagan of Biblical celebrity. But in this case Dagan appears to be the equivalent of Bel.

There is also a host of lesser deities, the majority of whom are no more than mere names. They do not seem to have achieved much popularity, or if they did it was an evanescent one. The names of some are indeed only mentioned once or twice, and so little is known concerning them as almost to leave us entirely in the dark regarding their natures or characteristics.

Footnotes and references:


Pp. 56 ff.

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