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 VIII - Babylonian Star-worship

ANCIENT Chaldea was undoubtedly the birth place of that mysterious science of astrology which was destined to exert such influence upon the European mind during the Middle Ages, and which indeed has not yet ceased to amuse the curious and flatter the hopes of the credulous. Whether any people more primitive than the Akkadians had studied the movements of the stars it would indeed be extremely difficult to say. This the Akkadians or Babylonians were probably the first to attempt. The plain of Mesopotamia is peculiarly suited to the study of the movements of the stars. It is level for the most part, and there are few mountains around which moisture can collect to obscure the sky. Moreover the climate greatly assists such observations.

Like most primitive people the Babylonians originally believed the stars to be pictures drawn on the heavens. At a later epoch they were described as the ‘writing of heaven’; the sky was supposed to be a great vault, and the movements observed by these ancient astronomers were thought to be on the part of the stars alone. Of course it would be noticed at an early stage that some of the stars seemed fixed while others moved about. Lines were drawn between the various stars and planets, and the figures which resulted from these were regarded as omens. Again, certain groups or constellations were connected with such lines which led them to be identified with various animals, and in this we may observe the influence of animism. The Babylonian zodiac was, with the exception of the sign of Merodach, identified with the eleven monsters forming the host of Tiawath. Thus it would seem that the zodiacal system as a whole originated in Babylonia. The knowledge of the Chaldean astronomers appears to have been considerable, and it is likely that they were familiar with most of the constellations known to the later Greeks.


Legend of the Origin of Star-Worship and Idolatry

The following legend is told regarding the origin of astrology by Maimonides, the famous Jewish rabbi and friend of Averroes, in his commentary on the Mischnah :

“ In the days of Enos, the son of Seth, the sons of Adam erred with great error : and the council of the wise men of that age became brutish ; and Enos himself was of them that erred. And their error was this : they said,—Forasmuch as God hath created these stars and spheres to govern the world , and hath set them on high, and hath imparted honour unto them, and they are ministers that minister before Him, it is meet that men should laud and glorify and give them honour. For this is the will of God that we laud and magnify whomsoever He magni-fieth and honoureth, even as a king would honour them that stand before him. And this is the honour of the king himself. When this thing was come up into their hearts they began to build temples unto the stars, and to offer sacrifice unto them, and to laud and magnify them with words, and to worship before them, that they might, in their evil opinion, obtain favour of their Creator.

And this was the root of idolatry; for in process of time there stood up false prophets among the sons of Adam, which said, that God had commanded them and said unto them,—

Worship such a star, or all the stars, and do sacrifice unto them thus and thus ; and build a temple for it, and make an image of it, that all the people, women and children, may worship it. And the false prophet showed them the image which he had feigned out of his own heart, and said that it was the image of that star which was made known to him by prophecy. And they began after this manner to make images in temples, and under trees, and on the tops of mountains and hills, and assembled together and worshipped them ; and this thing was spread through all the world to serve images, with services different one from another, and to sacrifice unto and worship them. So, in process of time, the glorious and fearful Name was forgotten out of the mouth of all living, and out of their knowledge, and they acknowledged Him not.

And there was found on earth no people that knew aught, save images of wood and stone, and temples of stone which they had been trained up from their childhood to worship and serve, and to swear by their names ; and the wise men that were among them, the priests and such like, thought that there was no God save the stars and spheres, for whose sake, and in whose likeness , they had made these images ; but as for the Rock Everlasting, there was no man that did acknowledge Him or know Him save a few persons in the world, as Enoch, Methusaleh, Noah, Shem, and Heber. And in this way did the world work and converse, till that pillar of the world, Abram our father, was born.”


Speculations of the Chaldeans

To arrive at a proper comprehension of Babylonian religious doctrines it is necessary to understand the nature of the astrological speculations of the ancient Chaldeans. They recognized at an early period that eternal and unchangeable laws underlay planetary motion, and seem to have been able to forecast eclipses. Soon also did they begin to identify the several heavenly bodies with the gods. Thus the path of the sun was known as the ‘way of Anu,’ and the course of the moon and planets they determined with reference to the sun’s ecliptic or pathway. It is strange, too, that they should have employed the same ideograph for the word ‘star’ and the word ‘god,’ the only difference being that in the case of a god they repeated the sign three times. If the sun and moon under animistic law are regarded as gods, it stands to reason that the stars and planets must also be looked upon as lesser deities. Indeed, poets still use such an expression regarding them as ‘the host of heaven,’ and we frequently encounter in classical authors the statement that the stars in their courses fought for such and such a person. This is tantamount to saying that the stars possess volition, and even although omens were looked for out of their movements, it may have been believed that these were the outcome of volition on the part of the stars themselves as deities or deific individuals. Again we can see how the idea that the gods reside in ‘heaven’ —that is, the sky—arose from early astrological conceptions. The gods were identified in many cases with the stars, therefore it is only natural to suppose that they resided in the sky-region. It is, indeed, one of the most difficult matters for even an intelligent and enlightened man in our enlightened age to dissociate the idea of God from a residence in the sky or ‘somewhere up there.’

The idea of space, too, must have assisted in such a conception as the residence of the gods in the upper regions of air. The earth would not be large enough for them, but the boundless vault above would afford them plenty of space in which to dwell. Again, the sun and moon being gods, it would be only natural for the other deities to dwell beside them, that is, in the ‘heaven of Anu,’ as the Babylonians called the sky. It has been suggested that the conception of a pantheon dwelling in the sky originated in theological processes forwarded by a school or priesthood, but there is no reason to suppose that this was so, and the possibilities are easily covered by the circumstances of the animistic theory.


Planets identified with Gods

Jupiter, the largest of the planets, was identified with Merodach, head of the Babylonian pantheon. We find him exercising control over the other stars in the creation story under the name Nibir. Ishtar was identified with Venus, Saturn with Ninib, Mars with Nergal, Mercury with Nabu. It is more than strange that gods with certain attributes should have become attached to certain planets in more countries than one, and this illustrates the deep and lasting influence which Semitic religious thought exercised over the Hellenic and Roman theological systems. The connexion is too obvious and too exact not to be the result of close association. There are, indeed, hundreds of proofs to support such a theory. Who can suppose, for example, that Aphrodite is any other than Ishtar ? The Romans identified their goddess Diana with the patroness of Ephesus. There are, indeed, traces of direct relations of the Greek goddess with the moon, and she was also, like Ishtar, connected with the lower world and the sea. The Greeks had numerous and flourishing colonies in Asia Minor in remote times, and these probably assisted in the dissemination of Asiatic and especially Babylonian lore.

The sun was regarded as the shepherd of the stars, and Nergal, the god of destruction and the underworld, as the ‘ chief sheep,’ probably because the ruddy nature of his light rendered him a most conspicuous object. Anu is the Pole Star of the ecliptic, Bel the Pole Star of the equator, while Ea, in the southern heavens, was identified with a star in the constellation Argo. Fixed stars were probably selected for them because of their permanent and elemental nature. The sun they represented as riding in a chariot drawn by horses, and we frequently notice that the figure representing the luminary on Greek vases and other remains wears the Phrygian cap, a typically Asiatic and non-Hellenic head-dress, thus assisting proof that the idea of the sun as a charioteer possibly originated in Babylonia. Lunar worship, or at least computation of time by the phases of the moon, frequently precedes the solar cult, and we find traces in Babylonian religion of the former high rank of the moon-god. The moon, for example, is not one of the flock of sheep under guidance of the sun. The very fact that the calendar was regulated by her movements was sufficient to prevent this. Like the Red Indians and other primitive folk, the Babylonians possessed agricultural titles for each month, but these periods were also under the direct patronage of some god or gods. Thus the first month, Nizan, is sacred to Anu and Bel; and the second, Iyar, to Ea. Siwan is devoted to Sin, and as we approach the summer season the solar gods are apportioned to various months. The sixth month is sacred to Ishtar, and' the seventh to Shamash, great god of the sun. Merodach rules over the eighth, and Nergal over the ninth month. The tenth, curiously enough, is sacred to a variant of Nabu, to Anu, and to Ishtar. The eleventh month, very suitably, to Ramman, the god of storms, and the last month, Adar, falling within the rainy season, is presided over by the seven evil spirits.

None of the goddesses received stellar honours. The names of the months were probably quite popular in origin.

Thus we find that

  • the first month was known as the ‘month of the Sanctuary,’
  • the third as the ‘period of brick-making,’
  • the fifth as the ‘fiery month,’
  • the sixth as the ‘month of the mission of Ishtar,’ referring to her descent into the realms of Allatu.
  • The fourth month was designated ‘scattering seed,’
  • the eighth that of the opening of dams,
  • and the ninth was entitled ‘copious fertility,’
  • while the eleventh was known as ‘destructive rain.’

We find in this early star-worship of the ancient Babylonians the common origin of religion and science. Just as magic partakes in some measure of the nature of real science (for some authorities hold that it is pseudo-scientific in origin) so does religion, or perhaps more correctly speaking, early science is very closely identified with religion. Thus we may believe that the religious interest in their early astronomy spurred the ancient star-gazers of Babylonia to acquire more knowledge concerning the motions of those stars and planets which they believed to be deities. We find the gods so closely connected with ancient Chaldean astronomy as to be absolutely identified with it in every way. A number was assigned to each of the chief gods, which would seem to show that they were connected in some way with mathematical science. Thus Ishtar’s number is fifteen ; that of Sin, her father, is exactly double that. Anu takes sixty, and Bel and Ea represent fifty and forty. Ramman is identified with ten.

It would be idle in this place to attempt further to outline astrological science in Babylonia, concerning which our knowledge is vague and scanty. Much remains to be done in the way of research before anything more definite can be written about it, and many years may pass before the workers in this sphere are rewarded by the discovery of texts bearing on Chaldean star-lore.

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