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 XI - The Mythological Monsters and Animals of Chaldea

TIAWATH was not the only monster known to Babylonian mythology. But she is sometimes likened to or confounded with the serpent of darkness with which she had originally no connexion whatever. This being was, however, like Tiawath, the offspring of the great deep and the enemy of the divine powers. We are told in the second verse of Genesis that “the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep,” and therefore resembling the abyss of Babylonian myth. We are also informed that the serpent was esteemed as “more subtle than other beast of the field,” and this, it has been pointed out by Professor Sayce, was probably because it was associated by the author or authors of Genesis with Ea, the god of waters and of wisdom. To Babylonian geographers as to the Greeks, the ocean was a coiling, snake-like thing, which was often alluded to as the great serpent, and this soon came to be considered as the source of all evil and misfortune. The ancients, and especially the ancient Semites, with the exception of the Phoenicians, appear to have regarded it with dread and loathing. The serpent appears to have been called Aibu, c the enemy.’ We can see how the serpent of darkness, the offspring of chaos and confusion, became also the Hebrew symbol for mischief. He was first the source of physical and next the source of moral evil.


Winged Bulls

The winged bulls so closely identified with ancient Chaldean mythology were probably associated with Merodach. These may have represented the original totemic forms of the gods in question, but we must not confound the bull forms of Merodach and Ea with those winged bulls which guarded the entrances to the temples. These, to perpetrate a double ‘bull,’ were not bulls at all but divine beings, the gods or genii of the holy places. The human head attached to them indicated that the creature was endowed with humanity and the bull-like body symbolized strength. When the Babylonian translated the word ‘bull’ from the Akkadian tongue he usually rendered it ‘hero’ or ‘strong one.’ It is thought that the bull forms of Ea and Merodach must have originated at Eridu, for both of these deities were connected with the city. The Babylonians regarded the sky-country as a double of the plain in which they dwelt, and they believed that the gods as planets ploughed their way across the azure fields of air. Thus the sun was the ‘Bull of Light,’ and Jupiter, the nearest of the planets to the ecliptic, was known as the ‘Planet of the Bull of Light.’


The Dog in Babylonia

Strangely enough the dog was classed by the Babylonians as a monster animal and one to be despised and avoided. In a prayer against the powers of evil we read,

“From the dog, the snake, the scorpion, the reptile, and whatever is baleful . . . may Merodach preserve us.”

We find that although the Babylonians possessed an excellent breed of dog they were not fond of depicting them either in painting or bas-relief. Dogs are seen illustrated in a bas-relief of Assur-bani-pal, and five clay figures of dogs now in the British Museum represent hounds which belonged to that monarch. The names of these animals are very amusing, and appear to indicate that those who bestowed them must have suffered from a complete lack of the humorous sense, or else have been blessed with an overflow of it.

Translated, the names are :

  • ‘He-ran-and-barked,’
  • ‘The-Producer-of-Mischief,’
  • ‘The-Biter-of-his-foes,’
  • ‘The-Judge-of-his-companions,’
  • and ‘The-Seizer-of-enemies.’

How well these names would fit certain dogs we all know or have known ! Here is good evidence from the buried centuries that dog nature like human nature has not changed a whit.

But why should the dog, fellow-hunter with early man and the companion of civilized humanity, have been regarded as evil ? Professor Sayce considers that the four dogs of Merodach “were not always sent on errands of mercy, and that originally they had been devastating winds.”


A Dog Legend

The fragment of a legend exists which does not exhibit the dog in any very favourable light.

Once there was a shepherd who was tormented by the constant assaults of dogs upon his flocks. He prayed to Ea for protection, and the great god of wisdom sent his son Merodach to reassure the shepherd.

“Ea has heard thee,” said Merodach.

“When the great dogs assault thee, then, O shepherd, seize them from behind and lay them down, hold them and overcome them. Strike their heads, pierce their breasts. They are gone ; never may they return. With the wind may they go, with the storm above it ! Take their road and cut off their going. Seize their mouths, seize their mouths, seize their weapons ! Seize their teeth, and make them ascend, by the command of Ea, the lord of wisdom ; by the command of Merodach, the lord of revelation.”[1]


Gazelle and Goat Gods

The gazelle or antelope was a mythological animal in Babylonia so far as it represented Ea, who is entitled ‘the princely gazelle ’ and ‘the gazelle who gives the earth.’ But this animal was also appropriated to Mul-lil, the god of Nippur, who was specially called the ‘gazelle god.’ It is likely, therefore, that this animal had been worshipped totemically at Nippur. Scores of early cylinders represent it being offered in sacrifice to a god, and bas-reliefs and other carvings show it reposing in the arms of various deities. The goat, too, seems to have been peculiarly sacred, and formed one of the signs of the zodiac. A god called Uz has for his name the Akkadian word for goat. Mr Hormuzd Rassam found a sculptured stone tablet in a temple of the sun-god at Sippara on which was an inscription to Sin, Shamash, and Ishtar, as being “set as companions at the approach to the deep in sight of the god Uz.” This god Uz is depicted as sitting on a throne watching the revolution of the solar disc, which is placed upon a table and .'made to revolve by means of a rope or string. He is clad in a robe of goat-skin.


The Goat Cult

This cult of the goat appears to be of very ancient origin, and the strange thing is that it seems to have found its way into mediaeval and even into modern magic and pseudo-religion. There is very little doubt that it is the Baphomet of the knights-templai and the Sabbatic goat of the witchcraft of the Middle Ages. It seems almost certain that when the Crusaders sojourned in Asia-Minor they came into contact with the remains of the old Babylonian cult. When Philip the Fair of France arraigned them on a charge of heresy a great deal of curious evidence was extorted from them regarding the worship of an idol that they kept in their lodges. The real character of this they seemed unable to explain. It was said which the image was made in the likeness of ‘ Baphomet,’ which name was said to be a corruption of Mahomet, the general Christian name at that period for a pagan idol, although others give a Greek derivation for the word. This figure was often described as possessing a goat’s head and horns. That, too, the Sabbatic goat of the Middle Ages was of Eastern and probably Babylonian origin is scarcely to be doubted. At the witch orgies in France and elsewhere those who were afterwards brought to book for their sorceries declared that Satan appeared to them in the shape of a goat and that they worshipped him in this form. The Sabbatic meetings during the fifteenth century in the wood of Moffiaines, near Arras, had as their centre a goat-demon with a human countenance, and a like fiend was adored in Germany and in Scotland. From all this it is clear that the Sabbatic goat must have had some connexion with the East. Eliphas Levi drew a picture of the Baphomet or Sabbatic goat to accompany one of his occult works, and strangely enough the symbols that he adorns it with are peculiarly Oriental—moreover the sun-disc figures in the drawing. Now Levi knew nothing of Babylonian mythology, although he was moderately versed in the mythology of^modern occultism, and it would seem that if he drew his information from modern or mediaeval sources that these must have been in direct line from Babylonian lore.

Adar, the sun-god of Nippur, was in the same manner connected with the pig, which may have been the totem of the city he ruled over ; and many other gods had attendant animals or birds, like the sun-god of Kis, whose symbol was the eagle.

Those monsters who had composed the host of Tiawath were supposed, after the defeat and destruction of their commandress, to have been hurled like Satan and his angels into the abyss beneath. We read of their confusion in four tablets of the creation epic. This legend seems to be the original source of the belief that those who rebelled against high heaven were thrust into outer darkness.

In the Book of Enoch we read of a ‘great abyss’ regarding which an angel said to the prophet,

“This is a place of the consummation of heaven and earth,”

and again, in a later chapter,

“These are of the stars who have transgressed the command of God, the Highest, and are bound here till 10,000 worlds, the number of the days of their sins, shall have consummated . . . this is the prison of the angels, and here they are held to eternity.”

Eleven great monsters are spoken of by Babylonian myth as comprising the host of Tiawath, besides many lesser forms having the heads of men and the bodies of birds. Strangely enough we find these monsters figuring in a legend concerning an early Babylonian king.


The Invasion of the Monsters

The tablets upon which this legend was impressed were at first known as ‘the Cuthaean legend of creation ’—a misnomer, for this legend does not give an account of the creation of the world at all, but deals with the invasion of Babylonia by a race of monsters who were descended from the gods, and who waged war against the legendary king of the period for three years. The King tells the story himself. Unfortunately the first portions of both tablets containing the story are missing, and we plunge right away into a description of the dread beings who came upon the people of Babylonia in their multitudes. We are told that they preferred muddy water to clear water. These creatures, says the King, were without moral sense, glorying in their power, and slaughtering those whom they took captives. They had the bodies of birds and some of them had the faces of ravens. They had evidently been fostered by the gods in some inaccessible region, and, multiplying greatly, they came like a storm-cloud on the land, 360,000 in number. Their king was called Benini, their mother Melili, and their leader Memangab, who had six subordinates. The King, perplexed, knew not what to do. He was afraid that if he gave them battle he might in some way offend the gods, but at last through his priests he addressed the divine beings and made offerings of lambs in sacrifice to them. He received a favourable answer and decided to give battle to the invaders, against whom he sent an army of 120,000 men, but not one of these returned alive. Again he sent 90,000 warriors to meet them, but the same fate overtook these, and in the third year he despatched an army of nearly 70,000 troops, all of whom perished to a man. Then the unfortunate monarch broke down, and, groaning aloud, cried out that he had brought misfortune and destruction upon his realm.

Nevertheless, rising from his lethargy of despair, he stated his intention to go forth against the enemy in his own person, saying,

“The pride of this people of the night I will curse with death and destruction, with fear, terror, and famine, and with misery of every kind.”

Before setting out to meet the foe he made offerings to the gods. The manner in which he overcame the invaders is by no means clear from the text, but it would seem that he annihilated them by means of a deluge. In the last portion of the legend the King exhorts his successors not to lose heart when in great peril but to take courage from his example.

He inscribed a tablet with his advice, which he placed in the shrine of Nergal in the city of Cuthah.

“Strengthen thy wall,” he said,

“fill thy cisterns with water, bring in thy treasure-chests and thy corn and thy silver and all thy possessions.”

He also advises those of his descendants who are faced by similar conditions not to expose themselves needlessly to the enemy.

It was thought at one time that this legend applied to the circumstances of the creation, and that the speaker was the god Nergal, who was waging war against the brood of Tiawath. It was believed that, according to local conditions at Cuthah, Nergal would have taken the place of Merodach, but it has now been made clear that although the tablet was intended to be placed in the shrine of Nergal, the speaker was in reality an early Babylonian king.


The Eagle

Image right: Eagle-headed Mythological Being;
In the Louvre.
Photo W. A. Mansell and Co.

As we have seen, the eagle was perhaps regarded as a symbol of the Sun-god. A Babylonian fable tells how he quarrelled with the serpent and incurred the reptile’s hatred. Feeling hungry he resolved to eat the serpent’s young, and communicated his intention to his own family. One of his children advised him not to devour the serpent’s brood, because if he did so he would incur the enmity of the god Shamash. But the eagle did not hearken to his offspring, and swooping down from heaven sought out the serpent’s nest and devoured his young. On his arrival at home the serpent discovered his loss, and at once repaired in great indignation to Shamash, to whom he appealed for justice.

His nest, he told the god, was set in a tree, and the eagle had swooped upon it, destroying it with his mighty wings and devouring the little serpents as they fell from it.

“Help, O Shamash !” cried the serpent. “Thy net is like unto the broad earth, thy snare is like unto the distant heaven in wideness. Who can escape thee ?”

Shamash hearkening to his appeal, described to him how he might succeed in obtaining vengeance upon the eagle.

“Take the road,” said he,

“and go into the mountain and hide thyself in the dead body of a wild ox. Tear open its body, and all the birds of heaven shall swoop down upon it. The eagle shall come with the rest, and when he seeks for the best parts of the carcase, do thou seize him by his wing, tear off his wings, his pinions, and his claws, pull him in pieces and cast him into a pit. There may he die a death from hunger and thirst.”

The serpent did as Shamash had bidden him. He soon came upon the body of a wild ox, into which he glided after opening up the carcase. Shortly afterwards he heard the beating of the wings of numberless birds, all of which swooped down and ate of the flesh. But the eagle suspected the purpose of the serpent and did not come with the rest, until greed and hunger prompted him to share in the feast.

“Come,” said he to his children,

“let us swoop down and let us also eat of the flesh of this wild ox.”

Now the young eagle who had before dissuaded his father from devouring the serpent’s young, again begged him to desist from his purpose.

“Have a care, O my father,” he said,

“for I am certain that the serpent lurks in yonder carcase for the purpose of destroying you.”

But the eagle did not hearken to the warning of his child, but swooped on to the carcase of the wild ox. He so far obeyed the injunctions of his offspring, however, as closely to examine the dead ox for the purpose of discovering whether any trap lurked near it. Satisfied that all was well he commenced to feed upon it, when suddenly the serpent seized upon him and held him fast. The eagle at once began to plead for mercy, but the enraged reptile told him that an appeal to Shamash was irrevocable, and that if he did not punish the king of birds he himself would be punished by the god, and despite the eagle’s further protests he tore off his wings and pinions, pulled him to pieces, and finally cast him into a pit, where he perished miserably as the god had decreed.

Footnotes and references:


Sayce, Hibbert Lectures, p. 288 (by permission of Messrs Williams and Norgate).

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