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 XII - Tales of the Babylonian and Assyrian Kings

THE tales of the Babylonian and Assyrian kings which we present in this chapter are of value because they are taken at first hand from their own historical accounts of the great events which occurred during their several reigns. On a first examination these tablets appear dry and uninteresting, but when studied more closely and patiently they will be found to contain matter as absorbing as that in the most exciting annals of any country. Let us take for example the wonderful inscriptions of Tiglath-pileser II (950 b.c.) which refer to his various conquests, and which were discovered by George Smith at Nimrud in the temple of Nebo.

Image right: Capture of Sarrapanu by Tiglath-Pileser II.
Evelyn Paul

Tiglath commences with the usual Oriental flourish of trumpets. He styles himself the powerful warrior who, in the service of Asshur, has trampled upon his haters, swept over them like a flood, and reduced them to shadows. He has marched, he says, from the sea to the land of the rising sun, and from the sea of the setting sun to Egypt. He enumerates the countless lands that he has conquered. The cities Sarrapanu and Malilatu among others he took by storm and captured the inhabitants to the number of 150,000 men, women, and children, all of whom he sent to Assyria. Much tribute he received from the people of the conquered lands—gold, silver, precious stones, rare woods, and cattle. His custom seems to have been to make his successful generals rulers of the cities he conquered, and it is noticeable that upon a victory he invariably sacrificed to the gods. His methods appear to have been drastic in the extreme. Irritated at the defiance of the people of Sarrapanu he reduced it to a heap of earth, and crucified King Nabu-Usabi in front of the gate of his city. Not content with this vengeance, Tiglath carried off his wealth, his furniture, his wife, his son, his daughters, and lastly his gods, so that no trace of the wretched monarch’s kingdom should remain. It is noticeable that throughout these campaigns Tiglath invariably sent the prisoners to Assyria, which shows at least that he considered human life as relatively sacred. Probably these captive people were reduced to slavery. The races of the neighbouring desert, too, came and prostrated themselves before the Assyrian hero, kissing his feet and bringing him tribute carried by sailors.

Tiglath then begins to boast about his gorgeous new residence with all the vulgarity of a nouveau riche. He says that his house was decorated like a Syrian palace for his glory. He built gates of ivory with planks of cedar, and seems to have had his prisoners, the conquered kings of Syria, on exhibition in the palace precincts. At the gates were gigantic lions and bulls of clever workmanship which he describes as “cunning, beautiful, valuable,” and this place he called ‘The Palaces of Rejoicing.’

In a fragment which relates the circumstances of his Eastern expeditions he tells how he built a city called Humur, and how he excavated the neighbouring river Patti, which had been filled up in the past, and along its bed led refreshing waters into certain of the cities he had conquered. He complains in one text that Sarduri, the King of Ararat, revolted against him along with others, but Tiglath captured his camp and Sarduri had perforce to escape upon a mare. Into the rugged mountains he rode by night and sought safety on their peaks. Later he took refuge with his warriors in the city of Turuspa. After a siege Tiglath succeeded in reducing the place. Afterwards he destroyed the land of Ararat, and made it a desert over an area of about 450 miles. Tiglath dedicated Sarduri’s couch to Ishtar, and carried off his royal riding carriage, his seal, his necklace, his royal chariot, his mace, and lastly a ‘great ship,’ though we are not told how he accomplished this last feat.


Poet or Braggart ?

It is strange to notice the inflated manner in which Tiglath speaks in these descriptions. He talks about people, races, and rulers ‘sinning’ against him as if he were a god, but it must be remembered that he, like other Assyrian monarchs, regarded himself as the representative of the gods upon earth. But though his language is at times boastful and absurd, yet on other occasions it is extremely beautiful and even poetic.

In speaking of the tribute he received from various monarchs he says that he obtained from them

“clothing of wool and linen, violet wool, royal treasures, the skins of sheep with fleece dyed in shining purple, birds of the sky with feathers of shining violet, horses, camels, and she-camels with their young ones.”

He appears, too, to have been in conflict with a Queen of Sheba or Saba, one Samsi, whom he sent as a prisoner to Syria with her gods and all her possessions.

The Autobiography of Assur-bani-pal

In a former chapter we outlined the mythical Jiistory of Assur-bani-pal or Sardanapalus, and in this place may briefly review the story of his life as told in his inscriptions. He commences by stating that he is the child of Asshur and Beltis, but he evidently intends to convey that he is their son in a spiritual sense only, for he hastens to tell us that he is the “son of the great King of Riduti” (Esar-haddon). He proceeds to tell of his triumphal progress throughout Egypt, whose kings he made tributary to him.

“Then,” he remarks in a hurt manner,

“the good I did to them they despised and their hearts devised evil. Seditious words they spoke and took evil counsel among themselves.”

In short, the kings of Egypt had entered into an alliance to free themselves from the yoke of Assur-bani-pal, but his generals heard of the plot and captured several of the ringleaders in the midst of their work. They seized the royal conspirators and bound them in fetters of iron. The Assyrian generals then fell upon the populations of the revolting cities and cut off their inhabitants to a man, but they brought the rulers of Egypt to Nineveh into the presence of Assur-bani-pal. To do him justice that monarch treated Necho, who is described as 6 King of Memphis and Sars,’ with the utmost consideration, granting him a new covenant and placing upon him costly garments and ornaments of gold, bracelets of gold, a steel sword with a sheath of gold ; with chariots, mules, and horses.


Dream of Gyges

Continuing, Assur-bani-pal recounts how Gyges, King of Lydia, a remote place of which his fathers had not heard the name, was granted a dream concerning the kingdom of Assyria by the god Asshur. Gyges was greatly impressed by the dream and sent to Assur-bani-pal to request his friendship, but having once sent an envoy to the Assyrian court Assur-bani-pal seemed to think that he should continue to do so regularly, and when he failed in this attention the Assyrian king prayed to Asshur to compass his discomfiture. Shortly afterwards the unhappy Gyges was overthrown by the Cimmerians, against whom Assur-bani-pal had often assisted him.

Assur-bani-pal then plaintively recounts how Saul-mugina, his younger brother, conspired against him. This brother he had made King of Babylon, and after occupying the throne of that country for some time he set on foot a conspiracy to throw off the Assyrian yoke. A seer told Assur-bani-pal that he had had a dream in which the god Sin spoke to him, saying that he would overthrow and destroy Saulmugina and his fellow-conspirators. Assur-bani-pal marched against his brother, whom he overthrew. The people of Babylon, overtaken by famine, were forced to devour their own children, and in their agony they attacked Saulmugina and burned him to death with his goods, his treasures, and his wives. As we have before pointed out, this tale strangely enough closely resembles the legend concerning Assur-bani-pal himself. Swift was the vengeance of the Assyrian king upon those who remained. He cut out the tongues of some, while others were thrown into pits to be eaten by dogs, bears, and eagles. Then after fixing a tribute and setting governors over them he returned to Assyria. It is noticeable that Assur-bani-pal distinctly states that he ‘fixed upon’ the Babylonians the gods of Assyria, and this seems to show that Assyrian deities existed in contradistinction to those of Babylonia.

In one expedition into the land of Elam, Assur-bani-pal had a dream sent by Ishtar to assure him that the crossing of the river Itite, which was in high flood, could be accomplished by his army in perfect safety. The warriors easily negotiated the crossing and inflicted great losses upon the enemy. Among other things they dragged the idol of Susinay from its sacred grove, and he remarks that it had never been beheld by any man in Elam. This with other idols he carried off to Assyria. He broke the winged lions which flanked the gates of the temple, dried up the drinking wells, and for a month and a day swept Elam to its utmost extent, so that neither man nor oxen nor trees could be found in it—nothing but the wild ass, the serpent, and the beast of the desert. The King goes on to say that the goddess Nana, who had dwelt in Elam for over 1600 years, had been desecrated by so doing.

“That country,” he declares,

“was a place not suited to her. The return of her divinity she had trusted to me. 4 Assur-bani-pal,5 she said, ‘ bring me out from the midst of wicked Elam and cause me to enter the temple of Anna.’”

The goddess then took the road to the temple of Anna at Erech, where the King raised to her an enduring sanctuary. Those chiefs who had trusted the Elamites now felt afflicted at heart and began to despair, and one of them, like Saul, begged his own armour-bearer to slay him, master and man killing each other. Assur-bani-pal refused to give his corpse burial, and cutting off its head hung it round the neck of Nabu-Quati-Zabat, one of the followers of Saulmugina, his rebellious brother.

In another text Assur-bani-pal recounts in grandiloquent language how he built the temples of Asshur and Merodach.

“The great gods in their assembly my glorious renown have heard, and over the kings who dwell in palaces, the glory of my name they have raised and have exalted my kingdom.


Assur-bani-pal as Architect

“The temples of Assyria and Babylonia which Esar-haddon, King of Assyria, had begun, their foundations he had built, but had not finished their tops ; anew I built them : I finished their tops.

“Sadi-rabu-matati (the great mountain of the earth), the temple of the god Assur my lord, completely I finished. Its chamber walls I adorned with gold and silver, great columns in it I fixed, and in its gate the productions of land and sea I placed. The god Assur into Sadi-rabu-matati I brought, and I raised him an everlasting sanctuary.

“Saggal, the temple of Merodach, lord of the gods, I built, I completed its decorations ; Bel and Beltis, the divinities of Babylon and Ea, the divine judge from the temple of ... I brought out, and placed them in the city of Babylon. Its noble sanctuary a great . . . with fifty talents of . . . its brickwork I finished, and raised over it. I caused to make a ceiling of sycamore, durable wood, beautiful as the stars of heaven, adorned with beaten gold. Over Merodach the great lord I rejoiced in heart, I did his will. A noble chariot, the carriage of Merodach, ruler of the gods, lord of lords, in gold, silver, and precious stones, I finished its workmanship. To Merodach, king of the whole of heaven and earth, destroyer of my enemies, as a gift I gave it.

“A couch of sycamore wood, for the sanctuary, covered with precious stones as ornaments, as the resting couch of Bel and Beltis, givers of favour, makers of friendship, skilfully I constructed. In the gate . . . the seat of Zirat-banit, which adorned the wall, I placed.

“Four bulls of silver, powerful, guarding my royal threshold, in the gate of the rising sun, in the greatest gate, in the gate of the temple Sidda, which is in the midst of Borsippa, I set up.”[1]


A ‘Likeable’ Monarch

Esar-haddon, the father of Assur-bani-pal, has been called “the most likeable” of the Assyrian kings. He did not press his military conquests for the mere sake of glory, but in general for the maintenance of his own territory. He is notable as the restorer of Babu and the reviver of its culture. He showed much clemency to political offenders, and his court was the centre of literary activity. Assur-bani-pal, his son, speaks warmly of the sound education he received at his father’s court, and to that education and its enlightening influences we now owe the priceless series of cylinders and inscriptions found in his library. He does not seem to have been able to control his rather turbulent neighbours, and he was actually weak enough (from the Assyrian point of view) to return the gods of the kingdom of Aribi after he had led them captive to Assyria. He seems to have been good-natured, enlightened, and easy-going, and if he did not boast so loudly as his son he had probably greater reason to do so.

One of the descendants of Assur-bani-pal, Bel-zakir-iskun, speaks of his restoration of certain temples, especially that of Nebo, and plaintively adds :

“In after days, in the time of the kings my sons . . . When this house decays and becomes old who repairs its ruin and restores its decay ? May he who does so see my name written on this inscrip-. tion. May he enclose it in a receptacle, pour out a libation, and write my name with his own ; but whoever defaces the writing of my name may the gods not establish him. May they curse and destroy his seed from the land.”

This is the last royal inscription of any length written in Assyria, and its almost prophetic terms seem to suggest that he who framed them must have foreseen the downfall of the civilization he represented. Does not the inscription almost foreshadow Shelley’s wondrous sonnet on ‘Ozymandias’ ?

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said : Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear :
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings :
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair !”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

The Fatal Eclipse

Image right: The Fatal Eclipse; (June 15, 763 B.C.);
M. Dovaston, R.B.A.
By permission of Messrs Hutchinson and Co.

The reign of Assur-Dan III (773-764 B.C.) supplies us with a picturesque incident. This Assyrian monarch had marched several times into Syria, and had fought the Chaldeans in Babylonia. Numerous were his tributary states and widespread his power. But disaster crept slowly upon him, and although he made repeated efforts to stave it off, these were quite in vain. Insurrection followed insurrection, and it would seem that the priests of Babylon, considering themselves slighted, joined the malcontent party and assisted to foment discord. At the critical juncture of the fortunes of Assur-Dan there happened an eclipse of the sun, and as the black shadow crept over Nineveh and the King lay upon his couch and watched the gradual blotting out of the sunlight, he felt that his doom was upon him. After this direful portent he appears to have resisted no longer, but to have resigned himself to his fate. Within the year he was slain, and his rebel son, Adad-Narari IV; sat upon his murdered father’s throne. But Nemesis followed upon the parricide’s footsteps, for he in turn found a rebel in his son, and the land was smitten with a terrible pestilence.

Image right: Shalmaneser I pouring out the Dust of a Conquered City;
Ambrose Dudley.
By permission of Messrs Hutchinson and Co.

Shalmaneser I (c . 1270) was cast in a martial and heroic mould, and an epic might arise from the legends of his conquests and military exploits. In his time Assyria possessed a superabundant population which required an outlet, and this the monarch deemed it his duty to supply. After conquering the provinces of Mitani to the west of the Euphrates, he attacked Babylonia, and so fiercely did he deal with his southern neighbours that we find him actually gathering the dust of their conquered cities and casting it to the four winds of heaven. Surely a more extreme manner of dealing summarily with a conquered enemy has never been recorded!

Although the life of the Babylonian or Assyrian king was lived in the full glare of publicity, he had not to encounter the same criticism as regards his actions that present-day monarchs must face, for the moral code of the peoples of Mesopotamia was fundamentally different from that which obtains at the present time. As the monarch was regarded as the vicegerent of the gods upon earth, it therefore followed that he could do no wrong. Submission to his will was complete. In the hands of a race of men who wielded this power unwisely it could have been nothing else but disastrous to both prince and people. But on the whole it may be said that the kings of this race bore themselves worthily according to their lights. If their sense of dignity at times amounted to bombast, that was because they were so full of their sense of delegated duty from above. There is every reason to believe that before entering upon their kingly state they had to undergo a most rigorous education, consisting of instruction upon religious subjects, some history, and the inculcation of moral precepts. On the other hand they were by no means mere puppets, for we find them initiating campaigns, presiding over courts of law, and framing the laws themselves and generally guiding the trend of the national policy. As a whole they were a strong and determined race, wise as well as warlike, and by no means unmindful of the requirements of their people. But with them the gods were first, and their reading of the initial duty of a king seems to have been the building of temples and the celebration of religious ceremonies of which a gorgeous and prolonged ritual was the especial feature.


A Royal ‘Day’

A sketch of a day in the life of an Assyrian or Babylonian king may assist the reader to visualize the habits of royalty in a distant era. The ceremonies of robing and ablution upon rising would necessitate the attendance of numerous special officials, and, the morning repast over, a private religious ceremony would follow. The business of the court would supervene. Perhaps an embassy from Elam or Egypt would occupy the early hours of the morning, failing which the dictation of letters to the governors of provinces and cities or to distant potentates would be overtaken. As a scholar himself the King would probably carefully scrutinize these productions. A visit might then be paid to a temple in course of construction, where the architect would describe the progress of the building operations, and the King would watch the slow rising of shrine and tower ; or, perhaps, the afternoon would be set apart for the pleasures of the chase. Leashes of great dogs, not unlike those of the Danish boar-hound breed, would be gathered at a certain point, and setting out in a light but strong chariot, the King would soon arrive at that point where the beaters had assured themselves of the presence of gazelles, wild asses, or even lions. Matters would, of course, be so arranged that the chief glories of the day should be left with royalty. It is not clear whether the King was accompanied by his courtiers in the chase, as was the case in the Middle Ages, or if he was merely attended by professional huntsmen. Be that as it may, when the ceremony of pouring libations over the dead game came to be celebrated, we find no one except the King, the harpers, and professional huntsmen present, for the kings of this virile and warlike race did not disdain to face the lion unattended and armed with nothing but bow and arrows and a short falchion. Unless the inscriptions which they have left on record are altogether mendacious we must believe that many an Assyrian king risked his life in close combat with lions. Great risk attends lion-hunting when the sportsman is armed with modern weapons of precision, but the risk attending a personal encounter with these savage animals when the hunter is armed with the most rudimentary weapons seems appalling, according to modern civilized ideas.

Or again the afternoon might be occupied by a great ceremonial religious function, the laying of the foundation-stone of a temple, the opening of a religious edifice, or the celebration of a festival. The King,- attended by a glittering retinue of courtiers and priests, would be carried in a litter to the place of celebration where hymns to the god in whose honour the function was held were sung to the accompaniment of harps and other instruments, libations to the god were poured out, sacrifices offered up, and prayers made for continued protection.

The private life of an Assyrian or Babylonian king was probably not of a very comfortable order, surrounded as he was by sycophantic officials, spies in the pay of his enemies, schemers and office-seekers of all descriptions. As in most Oriental countries, the harem was the centre of intrigue and political unrest. Its occupants were usually princesses from foreign countries who had probably received injunctions on leaving their native lands to gain as much ascendancy over the monarch as possible for the purpose of swaying him in matters political. Many of these alliances were supposed to be made in the hope of maintaining peaceful relations between Mesopotamia and the surrounding countries, but there is little doubt that the numerous wives of a Mesopotamian king were only too often little better than spies whose office it was to report periodically to their relatives the condition of things in Babylon or Nineveh.

Image: The Marriage Market;
From the painting by Edwin Long, R.A.
By permission of the Fine Art Society, Ltd.

Slaves swarmed in the palaces, and these occupied a rather higher status than in some other countries. A slave who possessed good attainments and who was skilled in weaving, the making of unguents or preserves, was regarded as an asset. The slaves were a caste, but the laws regarding them were exact and not inhumane. They were usually sold by auction in the market-places of the large towns. A strange custom, too, is said by Herodotus to have obtained among the Babylonians in connexion with marriage. Every marriageable woman obtained a husband in the following manner : The most beautiful girls of marriageable age were put up to auction, and the large sums realized by their sale were given to the plainer young women as dowries, who, thus furnished with plentiful means, readily found husbands. The life of a Mesopotamian king was so hedged around by ceremonial as to leave little time for private pleasures. These, as in the case of Assur-bani-pal, sometimes took the form of literary or antiquarian amusements, but the more general form of relaxation seems to have been feasts or banquets at which the tables were well supplied with delicacies obtained from distant as well as neighbouring regions. Dancing and music, both furnished by a professional class, followed the repast, and during the evening the King might consult his soothsayers or astrologers as to some portent that had been related to him, or some dream he had experienced.

The royal lines of Mesopotamia seem to have been composed of men grave, sedate, and conscious of the authority which reposed in them. But few weaklings sat upon the thrones of Babylonia or Assyria, and those who did were not infrequently swept aside to make room for better men.

Footnotes and references:


George Smith’s translation. See his Assyrian Discoveries, p. 355 ff. 306

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