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 IX - The Priesthood, Cult, and Temples

AT an early period in Babylonian history the priesthood and kingship were blended in one office, and it is not until after several centuries from the beginnings of Babylonian history as we know it that the two offices were separated. Indeed, long afterward the monarchs of Babylonia and Assyria appear to have taken especial pleasure in styling themselves the priests of such and such a deity, and in all likelihood they personally officiated at the altars of the gods on occasions of high religious sanctity. The priesthood in general was called shangu, which may mean ‘ sacrificer,’ and there is little doubt that at first, as among other peoples, the Babylonian priest was practically a medicine-man. It was his business to secure people from the attacks of the evil demons who caused disease and the wiles of witches, and to forecast the future and discover the will and intentions of the gods. It is quite clear how such an official as this came to be known as the ‘sacrificer,’ for it would seem that the best way to find favour with the gods was to make offerings to them through an accredited intermediary. Indeed the early priesthood of Babylonia appears to have been as much magical as religious, and we read of the makhkhu, or soothsayer, the mushelu , or necromancer, the asipu , or sorcerer, and the mashmashu, or charmer, whose especial functions are probably outlined in their several titles.

But as civilization proceeded and theological opinion took shape, religious ceremonial began to take the place of what was little better than sorcery. It has been said that magic is an attempt to force the hands of the gods, to overawe them, whereas religion is an appeal to their protective instincts. Now when the feeling began to obtain that there was such a quality as justice in the universe, and when the idea of just gods had an acceptance among the people through the instruction of thinking theologians, the more vulgar practices of the sorcerer-priests fell out of favour with the upper classes, if not with the populace, and a more imposing ceremonial took the place of mere incantation. Besides, being founded on the idea of mercy as opposed to mere power, religion has invariably recommended itself, politically speaking, to the class of mind which makes for immediate and practical progress as apart from that which seeks to encourage mere speculation. As the ritual grew the necessity for new branches of the priesthood was discovered. At the head of the priestly organization was the shangan-makhu , and each class of priests had its chief as well. The priests were a caste, — that is, it is probable that the right to enter the priesthood was vested in certain families, but many young men were educated by the priests who did not in after life exercise their functions, but who became scribes or lawyers.

As in the case of most primitive religions, the day of the priest was carefully subdivided. It was made up of three watches, and the night was divided into a similar number of watches. Three relays of priests thus officiated through the day and three through the night.

Priestesses were also known in Babylonia, and many references are made in the texts to the ‘sacred women.’ Some of these were exorcisers, and others, like the Greek pythonesses, presided at oracular shrines. The cult of Ishtar in especial had many attendant priestesses, and these were of several classes.



Like the other Semitic peoples the Babylonians attached great importance to the question of sacrifices. Professor Robertson Smith has put it on record in his Religion of the Semites , that sacrifice among that race was regarded as a meal shared between the worshipper and the deity. This view of sacrifice is almost world-wide among peoples in the higher stages of barbarism if not in those of savagery.

There is no source from which we can definitely discover the exact manner of Babylonian and Assyrian sacrifices. As civilization advanced what was intended for the god almost invariably went for the use of the temple. Certain parts of the animal which were not fit to eat were burned to the glory of the deity. The blood of the animal may, however, have been regarded as more directly pleasing to the gods, and was probably poured out upon the altar. This practice is distinctly of magical origin. The wizard believes that the dead, demons, and supernatural beings in general have a special desire for blood, and we remember Homer’s vivid description of how, when the trench was cut and the blood of the victims poured therein, the shadowy presentments of the dead flocked about it and devoured the steam arising from the sacrifice. In some cults blood alone is offered to the gods, and perhaps the most striking instance of this is afforded by the religion of ancient Mexico, in which blood was regarded as the pabulum or food of the gods, and the body of the victim as the ceremonial corpse of the deity to be eaten by his worshippers.


The Temples of Babylonia and Assyria

Image right 1: Zikkurats of the Anu-Adad at Ashur,
Image right 2: Stage-tower at Samarra;
From Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria, by Professor Morris Jastrow.
By permission of. Messrs G P Putnam's Sons

The temple-building phase is characteristic of Babylonian religion from an early stage. More than 3000 years before the final extinction of the cult we find places of worship being raised in the Euphrates Valley. Even in later times these Babylonian structures would appear to have been built for practical rather than aesthetic purposes, and in the early part of the temple-building epoch they were of the crudest description, mere rude structures of brick, without an attempt at architectural elaboration. An early ideal was to reproduce in miniature the ‘mountain of all lands’—Khursag-kurkura, the birthplace of the gods—and to this end the temple was erected on a mountain-like heap of earth. To the primitive one-storied building other stories came to be added, till in pursuit of a general ideal of height they came to be veritable Towers of Babel, aspiring to reach to heaven. These zikkurats , or staged towers, as they have been called, were built of brick, and were quadrangular in form, their four sides facing north, south, east, and west respectively. Their sombre and unlovely appearance was relieved to some extent by the use of brilliant colourings, but in neither form nor colour need we look for any particular artistic interest, nor any especial religious or other symbolism, though attempts have been made both in later Babylonian and in our own times to find astrological interpretations of these. By and by the zikkurat 'came to be more of a ‘high-place’ than a temple, the altars and sanctuary proper being disposed about its base.

With this development of the temple area a new phase was inaugurated. Huge courts were built, supported by brick columns, and enclosing all the various buildings connected with the cult of the deity to whom the temple was dedicated. These courts, which were for the most part open to the sky, covered a large area—as much, perhaps, as ten or twelve acres in some cases. Brick was still the material employed in their structure, though wood was used for gateways and for roofs for the smaller temples. As time went on they became more richly decorated, precious metals and woods were imported for their adornment, and draperies and coloured bricks were employed with more or less aesthetic intent. In some Assyrian temples stone columns were employed. The interior of the temple proper consisted of a central hall, a ‘holy of holies,’ wherein was set the statue of the god in whose honour the sanctuary was built, and an assembly-room where the gods of the pantheon met.

The temples of Babylonia resemble very closely those of ancient Mexico and Central America, for just as the Chaldean temple was evolved from the idea of the ‘ holy hill,’ so was the Mexican teocalli , or ‘house of God.’ Originating probably in a rude mound of earth, the temple in both countries came through the march of civilization under the influence of architecture proper. In America there are still extant many links in the chain of evolution between the rude earth-mound and the carven teocalli, but in the case of Babylonia we have only inference to support the theory of such a development. This inference is, however, of a very powerful character. Commencing probably with a one-story structure, we find both the Mexican and Babylonian ‘ high places ’ developing a second, then a third, fourth, fifth, and even sixth stage in the case of Babylonia, and sometimes a fourth in the case of Mexico.

A sharp distinction must be drawn between the Egyptian pyramid and the temples of Babylonia and Assyria. The pyramid of the Nile country was undoubtedly developed from the grave-mound, the cairn. It is the burial-place of a monarch, and has nothing whatever to do with religious worship. The zikkurats of Babylonia and the teocallis of Mexico, as their names imply, were unquestionably religious in origin, and had nothing whatsoever to do with burial.

But one essential difference there was between them, and that is, that whereas in Mexico the teocallis seldom possessed interiors, this was very frequently the case with the temples of Babylonia. It is true that the Mexican temples had attached to them buildings called teopan , but these appear to have been dwelling-places for the various grades of priests. In Babylonia, on the other hand, another description of residence arose. This was the temple proper, apart from the zikkurat or tower. Most Babylonian cities had a definite religious quarter, and excavations have made us familiar to some extent with the plan and appearance of these. Perhaps the best known example is that at Nippur, the extent of which appears to have been about sixteen acres. A large court was lined with brick columns, and when excavated was found to have supported a wooden roof. Close to this was the building in which the temple records were kept. The people gathered for worship in a second court of sixty wooden columns with supports and capitals of metal, and there, in a basin specially built for the purpose, they made their ablutions before offering up sacrifice. At the eastern end of this courtyard was placed a tent containing the ark. This kind of courtyard may be said to be characteristic of the Semitic worship, as there was undoubtedly such a structure in most Hebrew temples. This court of columns was surrounded by chambers which probably served the purpose of administrative offices and perhaps dwellings for the priests and attendants, or booths for the sale of sacrificial offerings. The training college for the younger priests was also within the temple area, as were the astronomical observatories, and around these gathered the learned of the district, just as they did in the temple at Jerusalem to dispute concerning religious matters and to split theological hairs. The Babylonian priests were also the lawyers of their period, and the courts of justice were probably hard by the temple.

Many of these religious areas, as, for example, those at Babylon, Nippur, Sippar, and Ur, must have been so extensive as to have constituted what were in reality sacred cities. The whole was enclosed by a containing wall, and even the several divisions of the temple buildings were also surrounded by lesser walls. The material of which these edifices were built was the universal one of brick. In early days sun-dried brick was employed, but as its use resulted in the crumbling and speedy destruction of most of the edifices composed of it, kiln-dried bricks were substituted for it, and as these were often glazed their durability was much enhanced. The cement used to hold these together was common bitumen, found in great quantities in Babylonia, and the roof was usually built of wood, cedars from Lebanon being a favourite material for carpentering.

From the restoration plans with which several explorers have furnished us we can judge how stately and striking the interior of many of the Babylonian temples must have been. The enamelled bricks, the highly-polished woodwork, the brilliant precious stones, the gold and silver inlaid on the walls and ceilings must indeed have dazzled the beholder. The Semites were prone to the use of bright colours, and as it was the aim of the architects to outshine the sun itself in their interiors, we can judge of the effect. Draperies and rugs were probably also lavishly used. The wooden gates were overlaid with bronze in high relief. Passing through them the worshipper must have been deeply affected by the wonderful play of colour and shadow combined in the interior. The vastness of length and height would inspire him with deep awe, and the curtain screening the holy of holies would be for him the boundary betwixt the human and the divine. Behind this curtain was probably the statue of the god, and the chamber which contained this was known as the papakhu , which means ‘shut off.’ In all probability no one had access to it but the king and high religious officials. It was indeed the holy of holies. A stone tablet found at Sippar represents the god Shamash seated in such a chamber. He is sitting on a low throne, and before him is an altar containing a symbol of the sun-god. A monarch and priest stand before him. The decoration of such a chamber was lavish in the extreme, the floors, walls, and ceiling being inlaid with precious stones, and in some cases, as that of Merodach in the temple of Babylon, the statue and the altar in front of it were of solid gold.


The Great Temple-Builders

The history of temple-building in Babylonia begins at an early date. We find Sargon and Naram-sin calling themselves ‘Builder of the Temple of En-lil in Nippur.’ Gudea was probably the first potentate to achieve great results in temple-building. Kham-murabi was also active as a builder of sanctuaries. But besides planning the erection of new temples, the kings of Babylonia and Assyria appear to have been zealous in the restoration and improvement of the older temples in the land. Restoration was frequently necessary because of the fact that many of the older shrines had been built of sun-dried brick, which had not the same lasting power as the glazed brick dried in kilns used in later times.

The Assyrian conquerors of Babylonia considered it their policy as well as their pleasure to restore many of the ancient shrines of the land they had subdued, and in doing so they frequently allude in their records to the age of the temple on which they are at work, sometimes providing us with a clue to the date of its foundation. In this way we can trace the history of some of these ancient buildings over a space of more than 3000 years. Such a sanctuary must have appeared to the Assyrian monarch who rebuilt it, as an edifice erected in the days of Solomon would seem to us. Thus in the times of the later Assyrian kings some of the older temples would have behind them a record as ancient as that of the temple at Jerusalem to-day!

The Assyrian restorers of these ancient fanes refer piously to their original builders. They carefully unearthed the old foundation-stones, which they preserved, and clung tenaciously to the ritual which had been celebrated in the temples of Babylonia from very early times.

There are many long lists of temples in existence, and, assuming that each god possessed his own shrine, hundreds of temples must have been scattered over the length and breadth of the northern and southern lands. These were probably much more numerous in Babylonia, which was older, and whose people exhibited a greater religious feeling.


The Temple of E-Kur

The oldest known temple in Babylonia was that of E-Kur at Nippur, sacred to En-lil. It was probably founded somewhere about 4000 B.C., or even at an earlier date. Before the time of Sargon we find the rulers of Nippur embellishing the temple there. The climate of the place necessitated frequent repairs, and by reason of occasional popular revolutions the fabric received considerable damage. We find Urbau about 2700 B.C. building a zikkurat in the temple area at Nippur, and a few centuries afterward Bur-sin repairing this zikkurat and adding a new shrine. E-Kur saw numerous political changes, and when foreign dynasties ruled the land its importance waned somewhat. But later alien rulers shrewdly saw the advantage of restoring its rather tarnished splendour, and we find several kings of the Kassite dynasty (c. 1400 b.c.) so far honouring it as to place within its confines a votive object from Elam, which had originally been placed in the temple of Ishtar at Erech, whence it had been removed by an Elamite conqueror about 900 years before. This was almost as remarkable as if the Stone of Destiny, the Lia Fail, in Westminster Abbey were to be restored to its original seat in Ireland.

The temple at Nippur was at this time dedicated to Bel before that deity was ousted by Merodach. Almost every one of the Kassite rulers made more or less costly additions to the temple at Nippur, and from their several inscriptions we can follow its history down to Assyrian times. About the twelfth century b.c. E-Kur yielded its supremacy to E-Sagila. It was sacked and partially destroyed, until later restored by Assyrian monarchs, who conscientiously re-decorated it and erected many new buildings within its area. But during the new Babylonian period it was once more sacked by order of southern rulers, and at the end of the seventh century B.C. its history comes to a close. Its site, however, did not lose its sanctity, for it was used as a cemetery and partially inhabited till the twelfth century A.D.


The Brilliant House

This outline of the history of E-Kur will serve for that of many other Babylonian temples. The temple of Shamash at Sippar, which was known as E-babbara, or the 4 Brilliant House,’ can be traced back as far as the days of Naram-Sin. This was also restored by monarchs of the Kassite dynasty, but the nomadic tribes, who ever threatened the peace of Babylonia, made an inroad, scattered the priesthood, and destroyed the great idol of Shamash. It was nearly 500 years after this that the 4 Brilliant House ’ was restored to its former glory by Nabu-baliddin. Nebuchadrezzar rebuilt portions of the temple, as did the last King of Babylonia, Nabonidus, who scandalized the priests of Babylon by his preference for the worship of Shamash.


Ur, the Moon-City

We shall remember that one of the principal centres of the cult of the moon was at Ur, the city whence came Abram the Patriarch, and it is probable that he was originally a moon-worshipper. Another such centre of lunar adoration was Harran. These places were regarded as especially sacrosanct, as the moon-cult was more ancient than that of the sun, and was therefore looked upon with a greater degree of veneration. Both of these cities possessed temples to Sin, the moon-god, and in them astrology and stellar observation were enthusiastically carried on. Harran was more than once overrun by the fierce nomadic tribes of the desert, but its prestige survived even their destructive tendencies.

The temple of E-anna at Erech, dedicated to Ishtar, was one of the most famous sanctuaries in Babylonia. It is alluded to in one of the creation legends, as were also the temples at Nippur, as ‘The bright house of the gods.’


The Twin Temples

Image right: Excavated Ruins of the Temple of E-Sagila;
The two walls in the centre mark the entrance to the passage, a quarter of a mile long, which connected the Tower of Babel with this temple.
Copyright by Underwood and Underwood, London

The temple of Merodach at E-Sagila and that of Nabu at E-Zida were inseparably associated, for a visit to one practically necessitated a visit to both. An original rivalry between the gods had ended in a species of amalgamation, and together they may be said to have symbolized the national religion of Babylonia. Indeed so great was their influence that it can scarcely be over-estimated. The theological thought of the country emanated from the schools which clustered around them, and they were the great literary centres of Babylonia, and thus the progenitors of Assyrian culture.


Temples as Banks

It was perhaps typical of the race that its places of worship should gradually become great financial centres and the nuclei of trade and usury. Heavily endowed as they were by the kings of Babylonia and Assyria, and boasting immense wealth in lands, subsidies, and slaves, they also had at their command an army of workmen and labourers. But their directors were also bankers and money-lenders, buyers and barterers of produce and manufactures of every kind, estate-agents and men of commerce generally. Sacred objects of every kind were on sale in the temple precincts, idols, votive offerings, amulets, and so forth. With what object did the priesthood of Babylonia pursue a commercial career ? It could scarcely have been one in which personal gain bulked largely, as the impersonal temple swallowed up all the profit. The cost of upkeep of such shrines must have been enormous, and when we think of the gorgeous nature of their interiors, and the costly character of the rich vessels and altars with which they were equipped, we can marvel no longer at what appears a degrading and unnecessary commerce on the part of their priesthood.


Feasts and Festivals

Babylonian religious festivals were, as a rule, periods of jubilation and rejoicing. Each god had his own day of festival in the calendar. The first day of the year, or Zag-muku, was sacred to the goddess Bau. Gudea, who had made Nin-girsu his favourite, attempted to ‘work him into’ this festival by uniting him in marriage with Bau, and he offers her marriage gifts on New Year’s Day. But later the Zag-muku was transformed into a festival to Merodach. The circumstance that it was celebrated in the first month of the year shows that it did not originally belong to Merodach, whose month was Marcheshuan, the eighth. But it is eloquent of his popularity that the great New Year’s feast should have been dedicated to him. It seems to have lasted for at least ten or twelve days. As has already been described, the union of Nabu and Merodach, father and son, was solemnly celebrated, Nabu piously paying a visit to his father’s sanctuary. The other gods were supposed to assemble in spirit in Merodach’s temple to witness the ceremony, and afterwards the priests of Merodach escorted the idol of Nabu back to its shrine, themselves carrying the image of their deity.

To behold this festival, which was celebrated with all possible magnificence, people flocked from all parts of Babylonia. The king, approaching the statue of the god, seized its hands in token of covenant, and in later times Assyrian monarchs, in order to legitimatize themselves as rulers of Babylonia, went through this ceremony, which came to be recognized as duly fulfilling their claims to sovereignty in the southern land; but whereas they went through the ceremony once only, the kings of Babylonia celebrated it annually with the intensest possible devotion.


The Chamber of Fates

On the eighth day of the festival all the gods were thought to assemble in Merodach’s ‘ Chamber of Fates,’ to hearken to Merodach’s decree concerning the fates of men for the ensuing year. This remarkable apartment was regarded as the reproduction of the interior of the great mountain wherein the gods met in council, just as the zikkurat was thought to typify that mountain itself. It was situated in a special portion of the ‘mountain’ known as the Ubshu-Kenna , and among its sacred names is one which may be translated ‘brilliant chamber,’ which shows that it must have been lavishly decorated. Ubshu-Kenna (or Upshukkinaku) must be carefully distinguished from the ‘heaven’ proper of the Babylonian gods. It is situated in the east, in the Mountain of the Sunrise, not far from the edge of the world, where it was bounded by the waters of the great deep. It is, in fact, the ‘brilliant chamber’ where the sun takes his rise.


Lamentation Rituals

On the occasion of any national or popular disaster, such as defeat in war, the appearance of a pestilence or an eclipse of the sun or moon, a certain formula of lamentation was gone through, which was thought to have the effect of lessening or averting the malign influence of evil powers, or the punitive measures of an angry god. This formula varied of course with the deity or demon who was considered to have caused the calamity. Many of these ancient lamentations are written in the Sumerian tongue, which witnesses to their great antiquity. From them it would seem that the Babylonians were of the opinion that if the people had in any way sinned, the gods averted their faces from them, and departing from their neighbourhood left them a prey to calamities of all kinds. A definite ritual accompanied these formulas, one of the provisions of which was fasting, and purification ceremonies of a very elaborate nature were also celebrated by the priests, probably in the hope of symbolically washing away the sin which had so offended the gods.

The formula most in use in these propitiatory ceremonies was that which obtained in the sacred city of Nippur, and particularly in the temple of E-Kur. The monotony of these laments is typical of ancient Semitic worship. They describe the disasters that have occurred, and piteously beg that the gods may be appeased. Only now and again in perusing them does a bright line or a picturesque phrase capture the eye and fire the imagination. A paraphrase of one of them may well characterize the whole. The god En-lil, shepherd of the darkheaded people, is implored to return to his city. He is entreated by the various names of his godhead, such as ‘lord of lands,’ ‘lord of the faithful word,’ ‘lord of self-created vision,’ and so forth. Each separate part of the temple area is alluded to in the request that he will return—the great gate, the storehouse, and the other religious departments.

A touching domestic picture is drawn of the deserted homes in the city; where the woman could say to her young husband, “My husband,” where she could say to the young child, “My child,” where the maiden could say, “My brother,” where the little girl could say, “My father,”—there the little ones perish, there the great perish. In her banqueting-hall the wind holds revel, her streets are desolate.

From some of the texts it would appear that the suppliants were ignorant of the sin they had committed, and many so-called 4penitential psalms ’ are extant in which the stricken one appeals fervently to the gods to release him from the burden of his unknown sin. He weeps, and he is unable to restrain himself. He laments earnestly, and begs through the priest for the divine mercy. These appeals always end in the same way—that is, in the pious hope that the heart and liver of the god may be appeased. With the Babylonians, as with the modern Armenians, to whom they are perhaps related, the liver was regarded as the seat of the emotions.

Occasionally a higher intellectual and ethical plane is reached by these prayers. “Men,” says one of them,

“are blind : which of them knows anything ? They do not even know good from evil.”

The god is fervently petitioned not to cast his servant off. He is in a deep morass, and he earnestly prays that the deity may take him by the hand, may change his sin to grace, and permit the wind to carry off his transgressions.


The Terror of Eclipse

The terror of eclipse of the sun or moon was a very real one to the ancient Babylonians. The tablet with the history of the seven evil gods or spirits, though much mutilated, gives us a hint of the attack made by them upon the moon. They dwelt in the lower part of heaven, and were rebellious in heart. Shaped like leopards, serpents, and angry beasts of prey, they went from city to city on the wings of an evil wind, destroying and smiting. And into the heaven of Anu they burst, but Bel and Ea took counsel, and set Sin the moon, Shamash the sun, and Ishtar the planet Venus in the lower part of heaven to govern and control it along with Anu. No sooner had this been accomplished than the seven evil spirits fiercely attacked the moon-god.

But Bel saw the peril of Sin, and said to his attendant, the god Nusku,

“Carry word of this thing to the ocean, to the god Ea.”

Ea heard the message, and called his son, the god Merodach.

“Go, my son Merodach,” quoth he,

“enter into the shining Sin, who in heaven is greatly beset, and expel his enemies from heaven.”

It is impossible to decipher the context from the mutilated remains of the tablets, but we may take it for granted that the pious efforts of Merodach were rewarded with success.

An eclipse to most primitive peoples means that the sun- or moon-god has either met with disaster or has withdrawn his face from his worshippers. The monthly waning of the moon made the ancients believe that it would be entirely blotted out unless the god was pacified. Thus if no eclipse took place it was considered that the efforts of priests and people had prevailed ; otherwise they were held to have failed, and panic ruled supreme. In a certain prayer Sin is adjured not to withhold his face from his people. The day of the monthly disappearance of the moon is called a day of distress, but a season of jubilee followed upon the advent of the new moon next day.

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