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...
THE comparative value of the religions of Babylonia and Assyria is very high, as they represent Semitic polytheism in evolution, and in a state of prosperity, though hardly in decay. They are, in fact, typical of Semitic religion as a whole, and as the Semitic race initiated no less than three of the great religious systems of the world— Judaism, Christianity, and Mohammedanism—they are well worth careful study on the part of those who desire to specialize in religious science. It is, however, for a variety of reasons, inevitable that we should compare them most frequently with the religion of Israel, the faith that in general most resembled them, although a wide cleavage existed between the ethics of that system and their moral outlook. That notwithstanding, there was direct contact between the Babylonian and Jewish religions for a prolonged period, and the influence thus absorbed was quickened by racial relationship.
Ere we deal with these purely Semitic and racial resemblances which are so important for the proper comprehension of Biblical history and religious science in general, let us briefly compare the faith of Babylonia and Assyria with some of the great religious systems of the world. It perhaps more closely resembles the composite general Egyptian religious idea (one cannot speak of an Egyptian religion) than any other. But whereas in Egypt the deities had been almost universally evolved from nome or province-patrons, totemic or otherwise, a number often coalesced in one form, the gods of Chaldea were usually city- or district-gods, showing much less of the nature of the departmental deity in their construction than the divinities of Egypt. The Egyptian god-type was more exact and explicit. We have seldom much difficulty in discovering the nature of an Egyptian god. We have frequently, however, immense trouble in finding out for what a Mesopotamian deity stands. The Babylon-Assy-rian idea of godhead appears to have been principally astral, terrestrial, or aquatic—that is, most Babylonian-Assyrian deities are connected either with the heavenly bodies, the earth, or the waters. It is only as an afterthought that they become gods of justice, of letters, of the underworld. This statement must of course be taken as meaning that their connexion with abstract qualities is much more loose than in the case of the Egyptian gods—that their departmental character is secondary to their original character as gods of nature. There is only one exception to this, and that is to be found in the department of war, to which certain of them appear to have been relegated at an early period and later to have become identified with it very closely indeed.
In one circumstance the Babylonian-Assyrian religion closely resembled the Egyptian, and that was the lasting effect wrought upon it by priestly cults and theological schools. Just as the priests of Thebes and Memphis and On moulded the varying cults of Egypt, added to their mythology, and read into them ethical significance, so did the priests of Nippur and Erech mould and form the faith of Babylon. We have plenty of evidence for such a statement, and nowhere perhaps was theological thought so rife in the ancient world as in Babylonia and Egypt.
There are also points of contact with the great mythological system of Greece, that system which was so much a mythology that it could scarcely be called a religion. That Greece borrowed largely from Mesopotamia is not to be doubted, but we find the Hellenic departmental deities very explicit indeed in their nature. Pallas, for example, stands for wisdom, Poseidon for the sea, Ares for war, and so forth. One god usually possesses one attribute, and although Zeus has a number of minor attributes we do not find him combining in his one person so many as does Merodach. As has been said, it would seem that the departmental character of many Babylonian gods was purely accidental or fortuitous. The formula seems to run—take a local or city god, probably derived from totemic sources or perhaps of animistic origin, and, having conquered much surrounding territory, exalt him to the position of the god of a large region, which, being incorporated again with a still larger empire, leaves him only a local status. This status he cannot hold in a pantheon where each member must possess a specific attribute, therefore it becomes necessary to impose upon him some quality by which he can be specially recognized. Sometimes that quality is suitable to his character, in fact it may be indicated by it, but at other times it is merely arbitrary. Why, for example, should Ishtar have been made a goddess of war by the Assyrians ?
This bestowal of departmental characteristics upon the gods of Babylonia and Assyria was contemporary with the erection of these countries into empires. No pantheon can exist on high without a political reflex in the world below. Like the granting of most departmental offices in religious systems, these changes took place at a comparatively late date in the evolution of Semitic religion. Whenever we find the departmental deities of a religious system more or less sharply outlined as to their duties and status we may premise two things: first, that temporal power has been acquired by the race which conceived them, and secondly that this power is of comparatively recent origin.
When we speak of departmental deities of a country like Babylonia or Egypt we must bear in mind that these lands knew so many dynasties and had such an extended history that their religious systems must from first to last have experienced the most profound changes. In Egypt, for example, religious phenomena altered slowly and by imperceptible degrees. The changes experienced in the course of fifty centuries of religious evolution must have made the cults of Egypt exhibit very different conditions at the close of their development from, let us say, those seen midway in their evolutionary course. We have seen how the Babylonian and Assyrian faiths altered in the course of generations, but withal there appears to have been, something more strongly conservative in the nature of Semitic religion than in any other. Probably in no other land did the same ritual and the same religious practices obtain over so long a period as in Babylonia, where the national life was much stronger and much more centralized than in Egypt, and where, if rival cults did exist, they were all subservient to one, as was by no means the case in the land of the Nile.
Teutonic and Celtic Comparisons
Compared with the great Germanic religion the Babylonian offers few points of resemblance. In the faith of the Teutons departmental deities were the rule rather than the exception ; in fact in no mythic system are the gods so associated with departments as in the Teutonic, and this despite the fact that no definite empire was ruled by Teutonic tribes. (Was the Teutonic system the remains of a religious aristocracy which had hived off from some centre of political power ?) Nor do the Semitic religions have much in common with the Celtic so far as their basis of polity is concerned, although numerous valiant attempts have been made by antiquarian gentlemen, of the type so common half a century ago and not yet defunct, to prove Babylonian influence upon Celtic faith and story. Thus we have been told that the Celtic Bile was as certainly allied to the Semitic Bel as the Roman Mars was to the Greek Ares, and this of course through Phoenician influence, the people jof Tyre and Sidon having been traced to Ireland as colonists. These ‘ theories ’ are, of course, not worth the paper they are printed upon, any more than is the supposition that the Scottish-Celtic festival of Beltane has any connexion with the Babylonian Bel. It was, in fact, presided over by the god Bile, a Celtic deity who has on other counts been confounded with the Babylonian god.
Babylonian Religion Typically Animistic
We learn, then, from the comparison of the Babylonian religion with that of other ancient races one circumstance of outstanding importance, that is, if the Babylonian gods were so perfunctorily attached to departments expressive of their functions and were so closely bound to the elements that they must have had an elemental origin, that they were indeed originally spirits of the earth, the air, and the water. This, of course, is no new conclusion, only the circumstance that the Babylonian gods were not strictly departmental, that they have only a slight hold upon their offices, assists in proving the correctness of the theory of their elemental origin. It is also of interest to the student of comparative religion as indicating to him a mythological system in which the majority of the gods are certainly of elemental origin as opposed to totemic or fetishistic origin. Of the spiritistic nature of the Babylonian pantheon small doubt remains. To the Semite, in whom imagination and matter-of-fact are so strongly combined, animistic influences would be sure to appeal most strongly. It stands to primitive reason that if man is gifted with life so is everything else, and this conviction gives imagination full play. We do not discover these animistic influences so strongly entrenched in ancient Egypt. The Osirian cult is certainly animistic to a degree, but the various totemic cults which rivalled it and which it at last embraced held their own for many a day.
Image: A Royal Hunt; (See page 310)
Photo W.A. Mansell and Go.
A Mother-Goddess Theory
One outstanding feature of Babylonian religion is the worship of the great earth-mother. This is a universal religious phase, but in few systems do we find it so prominent as in Babylonia and indeed in the whole Mesopotamian tract. Efforts have been made to show that in Mesopotamia there encountered one another two streams of people of opposing worship, one worshipping a male, and the other a female deity. With those who worshipped the man-god—hunters and warriors with whom women were considered more as beasts of burden than anything else—man was the superior being. The other people who worshipped the woman-god were not necessarily more civilized ; the origin of their adoration may have been a scarcity of women in the tribe. Where these two streams fused the worship of an androgyne, or man-woman god, is said to have resulted. But were there peoples who specifically and separately worshipped male and female deities ? If certainty can be approached in debating such matters, these deities would assuredly be animistic, and a people who worship animistic gods do not worship one god or one sex, but scores of spirit-gods of both sexes. Wherever we find a mother-earth, too, we are almost certain to discover a father-sky. The cult of the great mother-goddess was of rather later origin. All localities and all regions in the Semitic world possessed such a deity and it was the fusion of these in one that produced Ishtar or Astarte, who was probably also the ‘ Diana of the Ephesians.’ Perhaps the best parallel to this Semitic worship of the earth-mother is to be found in the mythology of the ancient Mexican races, where each pueblo, or city-state, possessed its earth-mother, several of whom were finally merged, after the conquest of their worshippers, in the great earth-mother of Mexico.
Babylonian Influence on Jewish Religion
But Babylonian-Assyrian religion is chiefly of interest to the student of comparative religion in that it casts a flood of light upon that wonderful Jewish faith with which the history of our own is so closely identified.
Professor Sayce writes :
“ There was one nation at all events which has exercised, and still exercises, a considerable influence upon our own thought and life, and which had been brought into close contact with the religion and culture of Babylonia at a critical epoch in its history. The influence of Jewish religion upon Christianity, and consequently upon the races that have been moulded by Christianity, has been lasting and profound. Now Jewish religion was intimately bound up with Jewish history, more intimately perhaps than has been the case with any other great religion of the world. It took its colouring from the events that marked the political life of the Hebrew people ; it developed in unison with their struggles and successes, their trials and disappointments. Its great devotional utterance, the Book of Psalms, is national, not individual; the individual in it has merged his own aspirations and sufferings into those of the whole community.
The course of Jewish prophecy is equally stamped with the impress of the national fortunes. It grows clearer and more catholic as the intercourse of the Jewish people with those around them becomes wider; and the lesson is taught at last that the God of the Jews is the God also of the whole world. Now the chosen instruments for enforcing this lesson, as we are expressly told, were the Assyrian and Babylonian. The Assyrian was the rod of God’s anger, while the Babylonish exile was the bitter punishment meted out to Judah for its sins. The captives who returned again to their own land came back with changed hearts and purified minds ; from henceforth Jerusalem was to be the unrivalled dwelling-place of ‘the righteous nation which keepeth the truth.’
“Apart, therefore, from any influence which the old religious beliefs of Babylonia may have had upon the Greeks, and which, as we shall see, was not so wholly wanting as was formerly imagined, their contact with the religious conceptions of the Jewish exiles must, to say the least, have produced an effect which it is well worth our while to study. Hitherto the traditional view has been that this effect exhibited itself wholly on the antagonistic side; the Jews carried nothing away from the land of their captivity except an intense hatred of idolatry, more especially Babylonian, as well as of the beliefs and practices associated therewith.”
Professor Ignatius Goldziher, of Budapest, has enlightened us, in a passage in his Mythology among the Hebrews , as to the great influence wielded by Babylonian upon Jewish religion.
He says :
“ The receptive tendency of the Hebrew manifested itself again prominently during the Babylonian Captivity. Here first they gained an opportunity of forming for themselves a complete and harmonious conception of the world. The influence of Canaanitish civilization could not then be particularly powerful on the Hebrews; for that civilization, the highest point of which was attained by the Phoenicians, was quite dwarfed by the mental activity exhibited in the monuments of the Babylonian and Assyrian Empire, which we are now able to admire in all their grandeur. There the Hebrews found more to receive than some few civil, political, and religious institutions.
The extensive and manifold literature which they found there could not but act on a receptive mind as a powerful stimulus ; for it is not to be imagined that the nation then dragged into captivity lived so long in the Babylonian-Assyrian Empire without gaining any knowledge of its intellectual treasures.
Schrader’s latest publications on Assyrian poetry have enabled us to establish a striking similarity between both the course of ideas and the poetical form of a considerable portion of the Old Testament, especially of the Psalms, and those of this newly-discovered Assyrian poetry. It would be a great mistake to account for this similarity by reference to a common Semitic origin in primeval times ; for we can only resort to that in cases which do not go beyond the most primitive elements of intellectual life and ideas of the world, or designations of things of the external world.
Conceptions of a higher and more complicated kind, as well as aesthetic points, can certainly not be carried off into the mists of a prehistoric age. It is much better to keep to more real and tangible ground, and to suppose those points of contact between Hebrew and Assyrian poetry which are revealed by Schrader’s, Lenormant’s, and George Smith’s publications, to form part of the contributions made by the highly civilized Babylonians and Assyrians to the Hebrews in the course of the important period of the Captivity.
“We see from this that the intellect of Babylon and Assyria exerted a more than passing influence on that of the Hebrews, not merely touching it, but entering deep into it and leaving its own impress upon it. The Assyrian poetry of the kind just mentioned stands in the same relation to that of the Hebrews as does the plain narrative texts of the Hebrews, and as does the sacrificial Tablet of Marseilles to the Hebrews’ beginnings of a sacerdotal constitution. The Babylonian and Assyrian influence is of course much more extensive, pregnant, and noteworthy.”
“We can no longer take the first eleven or twelve chapters of Genesis as a whole and treat them as a monotheistic redaction of the Babylonian myths. . . . The Biblical accounts are not mere transcriptions . . . and the gaps between them presuppose much assimilation and 'transformation, much time, and probably many intermediaries to boot. . . . If the relationship of the Biblical narratives to the Chaldean legends is in many respects less intimate than was thought, it now appears to be more general.
The Creation, and the Flood in particular, are still the most obvious points of resemblance ; but the story of Adam and Eve, the earthly paradise, the food of life, the explanation of death,—all of which have sometimes been sought where they were not to be found,—are now found where there was no thought of seeking them. . . .
The Biblical texts have no literary dependence upon the Babylonian texts ; they do not even stand to them in a relation of direct dependence in the case of the special traditions they exhibit : but they rest on a similar—we might say a common—foundation, of Chaldean origin, whose antiquity cannot be even approximately estimated. . . .
On the other hand, it appears certain that the period of Assyrian dominance, and the Captivity, quickened the recollection of the old traditions and supplemented them by fresh materials easy to graft on the ancient stem. . . . We may well believe that the metamorphosis was complete in the oral tradition of the people before the legend was embodied in the Biblical narrative.”
The influence of the Babylonian religion upon other Semitic cults is worthy of notice, although its effect upon the Jewish faith was more marked than on any other Semitic form of belief. Yet still through conquest and other causes it undoubtedly exercised a strong influence upon the surrounding peoples, especially those of related stock. We must regard the whole of Asia Minor, or at least its most civilized portion, as peopled by races of diverse origin who yet possessed a general culture in common. Some of those races, if we be permitted to employ rather time-worn ethnological labels, were ‘Semitic’ like the Assyrians and Hebrews, others were of the ‘Ural-Altaic’ or ‘Armenoid’ type, like the Hittites, whilst still others, like the Philistines, appear to have been of ‘Aryan’ race, resembling the Greeks and Goths. But all these different races had embraced a common culture, their architecture, pottery, weapons, crafts, and laws seem to have come from a common source, and lastly their religious systems were markedly alike.
We find a people called the Canaanites as the first historic dwellers in the countries now known as Syria and Palestine. We do not know whether the name Canaan originated with the land or the race, but the name £ Canaanites ’ is now used as a general designation of the pre-Israelite inhabitants of Palestine. These people were probably neolithic in origin and appeared to have been Semitic. In any case they spoke a language very much akin to Hebrew. They exercised a strong influence upon Egypt about 1400 B.C., and thousands of them settled in that country as slaves or officials. They invaded Babylonia at an early date under the name of Amorites, and many of the personal names of Babylonian kings during the Hammurabi dynasty seem to be Amorite in origin. From the Egyptian records it seems pretty clear that as early as 2500 B.C. they had invaded Palestine, had exterminated the inhabitants, and that this invasion synchronized with that of Babylonia. Their religion seems to have been markedly Semitic in type but of the earlier variety, that is, animism was just beginning to emerge into polytheism. The gods were not called by their personal names, but rather by their attributes. The general name for ‘god’ was ‘el’ which was used also by the Hebrews, and which we find in such names as Jezebel, Elkanah, and perhaps in the modern Arabic ‘Allah.’ But this word was not employed by the Canaanites in a monotheistic sense, it was generic and denoted the particular divinity who dwelt in a certain place. It was indeed the word ‘god ’—a god, any god, but not the God. But such a god having a sanctuary or presiding over a community was known as ‘Ba’al’ This might apply to any supernatural being from fetish to full-fledged deity, and only meant that the spirit or divinity had established a relation with a particular holy place.
Image right: Elijah prevailing over the Priests of Baal.
We also find amongst the Canaanitish deities Shamash, the sun-god so widely worshipped in Babylonia, Sin the moon-god, Hadad or Rimmon, and Uru, god of light, whose name is found in Uru-Salim or Jerusalem. Dagon, too, is held by some authorities to have been purely an Amorite divinity. The worship of animals was also general, and bulls, horses, and serpents were represented as deities. There were also an immense number of nameless gods or spirits presiding over all sorts of physical objects, and these were known as ba’alim. They were the resultants of animistic ideas. The early inhabitants of Canaan were also ancestor-worshippers like many other primitive people, and they seem to have shown a marked preference for the cult of the dead.
But many of their departmental deities were either identical with or strongly resembled the gods of the Babylonians. Ashtart was of course Ishtar. In the mounds of Palestine large numbers of terra cotta plaques bearing her effigy are found. She is often depicted on these with a tall head-dress, necklace, anklets, and girdle quite in the Babylonian style. But other representations of her reveal Egyptian, Cypriote, and Hittite influences, and this goes to show that in all probability the great mother-goddess of Babylon and Asia Minor was compounded of various early types fused into one. To confine ourselves to those deities who are more closely connected with the Babylonian religion, we find the name of Ninib translated by the Canaanites as En-Mashti, and it has been thought that Ninib was a god of the West who had migrated to Babylonia. The name of Nebo, the Babylonian patron of Borsippa, who also acted as scribe to the gods, appears in that of the town of Nebo in Moab in Judea, and that Canaanites were conversant with the name of Nergal, the war-god, is proved by a sealed cylinder of Canaanitish workmanship which bears the inscription, Atanaheli, son of Habsi servant of Nergal.” Resheph also appears to have been known to the Canaanites.
The Gods of the Phoenicians
The Phoenicians who were the lineal descendants of the Canaanites adopted many of the deities of Babylonia. Like the early deities of that great empire, the Phoenician gods were associated either with the earth, the waters, or the air. Some of these in later times held sway over more than one element. Thus the god Melkarth of Tyre had both a celestial and a marine aspect, and Baal and Ashtart assumed celestial attributes in addition to their earthly one. The Phoenicians described their gods in general as alonim , much as the Israelites in early times must have described theirs, for we find in the first chapters of Genesis the word elohim employed. Both then went back to the singular form el, the common Semitic name for ‘god’ adding to it the Semitic plural ending im.
The god of a locality or shrine was known as its ‘ba’al,’ and, as in early times, this did not apply to any particular deity. Although their gods all had names, yet still they were merely the ba-alim of Tyre, the chief of whom was Melkarth, whose name signifies merely ‘ king ’ or patron of the city. Perhaps one of their most venerated gods was Ba’al-Hamman, who was also worshipped in Carthage, a Phoenician colony. One of the most strongly marked characteristics of the Phoenician religion was the unvarying addition of a female to every male god. Ashtart or Ishtar was quite as popular in modern Phoenicia as she has been in ancient Canaan. It must be borne in mind that Tyre and Sidon were closely in touch with Assyria, and that their ships probably carried Assyrian commerce far and wide throughout the Mediterranean, exchanging Syrian goods for Egyptian, Cyprian, and Hellenic. Ashtart or Ishtar had temples at Sidon and Askelon, and Phoenician mariners seem to have carried her worship as far as Cyprus and even Sicily. Indeed it was probably through their agency that she was introduced into the Greek world, but there were Greek colonies on the shores of Asia Minor at an early date, and these may have transferred her cult to the people of their own race in the Greek motherland.
Another goddess specially honoured at Carthage was Tanith, who was also called the ‘Countenance of Ba’al.’ Eshmun, the god of vital force and healing, seems to have been worshipped especially at Sidon but also at Carthage. Melkarth, the patron deity of Tyre, the Greeks equated with their Heracles; Reshef, the lightning god, was of Syrian origin, and was identified by the Greeks with Apollo. The Phoenicians were also prone to fuse their gods one with another, so that we have such combinations as Eshmun-Melkarth, Melkarth-Reshef, and so forth. Phoenician religion was also strongly influenced by Egyptian ideas, and Plutarch has put it on record that when Isis journeyed to Byblus she was called Astarte. Certain Phoenician settlers at Piraeus, the port of Athens, worshipped the Assyrian god Nergal, and many of their proper names are compounded of the names of Babylon deities. The worship of Moloch was also popular in Phoenicia, where he was called Melk (‘King’), and to him, as to the Moloch of the other Semitic peoples, infants were offered up in sacrifice. The Phoenicians likewise adopted the custom of burning the chief god of the city in effigy or in the person of a human representative at Tyre and Carthage. (See remarks on Hamman, pages 142-144; and on Sardanapalus, pages 31-34.)
We know very little concerning Phoenician myth. We cannot credit what is written by Philo of Byblus concerning it, as he professed that he had used as his authority the writings of one Sanchuniathon, an ancient Phoenician sage, who, he says, derived his information from inscribed stones in Phoenician temples. All of Philo that remains (and thus all of Sanchuniathon) is preserved in the works of Eusebius. It would seem, however, to be unfair to regard Eusebius as the inventor of Sanchuniathon. As we have already remarked in the paragraphs dealing with the legend of Oannes or Ea, several of the myths he quotes as coming from the Phoenician sage are manifestly of Babylonian origin.
Like all Semites the Phoenicians closely identified themselves with their gods, in whom, if inscriptions can be believed, they seemed to find a great deal of comfort. They were assiduous devotees of their several cults, and as prone to sacrifice as were their cousins of Babylonia. Probably, too, their voyages and mercantile ventures made them firm believers in the efficacy of divination, and it cannot be doubted that the trade of the seer in ancient Tyre or Sidon must have been a flourishing one indeed.
The Carthaginian Religion
Very little is known concerning the religion of the Semites of Carthage, those colonists from Phoenicia who settled on the north-western shores of Africa at an early date, and this is probably owing to the circumstance that the jealousy of their Roman conquerors ordained that all records pertaining to them should so far as possible be blotted out. In Virgil’s JEneid we find Queen Dido of Carthage worshipping and sacrificing to the gods of Rome, but whether this error is due to Roman lack of imagination or otherwise it would be difficult to say. Carthaginian religion was strongly influenced by Assyrian belief. The chief gods worshipped in Carthage were Baal-ammon or Moloch, Tanit, goddess of the heavens and the moon, Ashtart or Ishtar, and Eshmun, the patron deity of the city. The cult of Tammuz-Adonis was also greatly in vogue, as was that of the god Patechus, a repulsive monster who may have been of Eygptian origin. The Tyrian Melkarth, too, was widely worshipped. We also encounter in inscriptions the names of deities concerning whom we know nothing, such as Rabbat Umma, 4 the Great Mother,5 Illat, Sakon, and Tsaphon.
About the beginning of the third century B.C. the intimate relations between the Carthaginians and the Greeks of Sicily favoured the introduction of a Hellenic element into the Punic religion, and there was reciprocal borrowing on the part of the Greeks. In the forum of Carthage was a temple to Apollo containing a colossal statue which was later removed to Rome, and on one occasion the Carthaginian worshippers of Apollo actually sent offerings to Delphi. We also find their goddess Tanit compared with the Greek Demeter. Her symbol is a crescent moon, and in her temple at Carthage was preserved a famous veil which was regarded as the palladium or ‘mascot’ of the city, its luck-bringer. Inscriptions to Tanit and Baal-ammon abound, and as these are usually found in conjunction it is only reasonable to suppose that these two deities are worshipped together. Tanit was, in fact, frequently alluded to as ‘The Countenance of Baal,’ whose name we find in those of the Carthaginian heroes, Hannibal and Hasdrubal. The Carthaginian Baal-ammon is represented as an old man with ram5s horns on his forehead, and that animal was frequently portrayed along with him. He also holds a scythe. At Carthage children were sacrificed to him, and their bodies were placed in the arms of a colossal bronze statue which represented him. When they grew tired they slipped through the embrace of the god into a furnace below amid the excited cries of the fanatical worshippers. Even Roman severity could not put an end to these horrors, which persisted in secret until a relatively late date.
It is strange to think that after the fall of Carthage the goddess Tanit became identified with Dido by the new Roman colonists of the city. Virgil had celebrated her misfortunes, and a public Dido cult grew up, the colonists even claiming to have discovered the very house from which she had watched the departure of iEneas.
It is not unlikely that through the agency of the Phoenicians some fragments of the Babylonian religion may have penetrated even to our own shores. We know that they traded for tin with the ancient inhabitants of Cornwall and the Scilly Isles, and some writers believe they have philology on their side when they try to show that several Cornish names are of Phoenician origin. For example, the name Marazion appears to mean in Semitic ‘Hill by the Sea,’ and Polgarth, say some, owes its second syllable to the Phoenician word for ‘city.’ But it will not do to be dogmatic regarding these names, which may after all be explicable from Cornish or other sources.
We see then that the Semitic religion travelled over a considerably wide area, that beginning in all probability in Arabia it spread itself through Mesopotamia northward as far as Lake Van, and southward through the Sinaitic peninsula into Egypt and the north of Africa. It is strange to observe that the later Semitic religion of Mohammed followed almost precisely the same course, and that its early progress westward halted almost on the very site of ancient Carthage ; that when it overflowed into Spain its disciples were acting precisely as Carthaginian Hannibal had done long before, and that it was beaten back by European effort in almost exactly the same way
Robertson Smith in his valuable work, The Religion of the Semites, mentions that in his view Semitic religion does not differ so fundamentally from the other types of world religion as many writers on the subject appear to think. But the longer one considers it the greater do the barriers between Semitic and other religions appear and the more clearly marked their lines of demarcation. The prolonged isolation to which the Semitic peoples seem to have been subjected appears to have greatly affected their manner of religious thought. They are in truth a ‘ peculiar people,’ practical yet mystical, strongly of the world yet finding their chief solace in those things which are not of the world.
The materials for a complete inquiry into the history of Semitic religion are lacking, and we must perforce fill up the gaps which are many by comparative methods. But in this we are greatly assisted by the numerous manifestations of Semitic faith which, including as it does Babylonian, Assyrian, Canaanitish, Phoenician, Arabian, and Mohammedan cults, provides us with rich comparative material.
The Religion of Zoroaster
The faith which immediately supplanted that of ancient Babylonia and Assyria could not fail to draw considerably from it. This was the Zoroastrian faith, the religion of the Persians introduced by the reformer Zarathustra, the earliest form of Zoroaster’s name as given in the Avesta. Uncertainty hangs over the date and place of his birth. The Greeks spoke of him as belonging to a remote age, but modern scholars assign the period of his life to the latter half of the seventh and early sixth century b.c. It seems certain that he was not a Persian, but a Mede or a Bactrian, either supposition being supported by indications of one kind or another. From the whole tenor of the Gathas, the most ancient part of the Avesta , we are led, says Dr. Haug, their translator, to feel that he was a man of extraordinary stamp acting a grand part on the stage of his country’s history. Zarathustra speaks of himself as a messenger from God sent to bring the people the blessing of civilization and to destroy idolatry. Many legends grew up around his memory, of miraculous signs at his birth, of his precocious wisdom, whereby even as a child he confounded the Magi, of his being borne up to the highest heaven and there receiving the word of life from Deity itself, together with the revelation of all secrets of the future. He retired as a young man from the world to spend long years of contemplation before he began his teaching at thirty, and he lived to the age of seventy-seven. The religion he taught was the national religion of the Persians from the time of the Achaemenidas, who dethroned Cyaxares’ son, 558 B.C., to the middle of the seventh century A.D. It declined after Alexander’s conquest under the Seleucidae and the succeeding dynasty of the Arsacidae, but was revived by the Sassanian rulers and flourished for the four centuries A.D. 226-651. Then followed the Mohammedan conquest, accompanied by persecution, before which the faithful followers of Zarathustra fled to India, where they are now represented by their descendants, the Parsis of Bombay.
The religious belief taught by Zarathustra is based on the dual conception of a good principle, Ahura Mazda, and an evil principle, Anra Mainyu, and the leading idea of his teaching is the constant conflict between the two, which must continue until the end of the period ordained by Ahura Mazda for the duration of the world, when evil will be finally overcome ; until then the god’s power is to some degree limited, as evil still withstands him. Zarathustra’s doctrine was essentially practical and ethical; it was not in abstract contemplation, or in separation from the world, that man was to look for spiritual deliverance, but in active charity, in deeds of usefulness, in kindness to animals, in everything that could help to make the world a well-ordered place to live in, in courage and all uprightness. To build a bridge or dig a canal was to help to lessen the power of evil. As Reinach has concisely expressed it, “a life thoroughly occupied was a perpetual exorcism.”
The two figures of Ahura Mazda and Anra Mainyu, the one with his attendant archangels and angels, and the other with his arch-demons and demons, or Divs, compose the Zarathustrian celestial hierarchy, as represented in the earlier sacred writings ; in the later ones other figures are introduced into the pantheon. The sacred writings that have been preserved are of different periods, and outside the range of Zarathustra’s moral system of religion there are traces in them of revivals of an older primitive nature worship, and of the beliefs of an early nomadic shepherd life, as, for instance, the sacredness in which cow and dog are held, as well as reminiscences of general Indo-Germanic myths.
Ahura Mazda was the creator of the universe for the duration of which he fixed a certain term. It seems uncertain whether the Persians pictured the world as round or flat, but according to their idea it was divided into seven zones, of which the central one was the actual habitable earth. Between these zones and enveloping the whole was the great abyss of waters. Between earth and heaven rose the celestial mountain whence all the rivers upon earth had their source, and on which was deposited the Haoma.
The central feature of Zoroastrian ritual was the worship of fire, an old-established worship which had existed before Zoroaster’s time. In the oldest period images were forbidden, and holy rites could be performed without temples, portable fire-altars being in use. Temples were, however, built in quite early times, and within these was the sanctuary from which all light was excluded, and where the sacred fire was kept alight, which could only be approached by the priest with covered hands and mouth. The Persians carried the fear of defilement to an extreme, and had even more elaborate regulations than most Easterns concerning methods of purification and avoidance of defilement, both as regards personal contamination or that of the sacred elements of earth, fire, and water. Even hair and nails could not be cut without special directions as to how to deal with the separated portions. But this perpetual and exhausting state of caution and protective effort against contact with defiling objects and rigorous system of purification had an ultimate concern with the great struggle going on between good and evil. Death and everything that partook of death, or had any power of injury, were works of the arch-enemy.
It was owing to the fear of contaminating the three elements named above that the Persians neither buried nor cremated their dead, and looked upon it as a criminal act to throw a corpse into the water. The old mode of disposing of the dead was similar to that now practised by the Parsis of Bombay, who carry the body to one of the Towers of Silence. So the Persians exposed the corpse, till one or other devouring agent, birds of prey or the elements, had reduced it to a skeleton. As regards man himself he was thought to be a reasonable being of free will with conscience, soul, and a guardian spirit or prototype of himself who dwelt above, called a Fravashi—his own character, indeed, put into a spiritual body, almost identical with the amei-malghen or spiritual nymphs of the Araucanian Indians of Chile. He had the choice of good and evil, and consequently suffered the due punishment of sin. For the first three days after death the soul of the dead was supposed to hover about its earthly abode.
During this time friends and relatives performed their funerary rites, their prayers and offerings becoming more earnest and abundant as the hour drew nigh when the soul was bound to start on its journey to the beyond. This was at the beginning of the fourth day, when Sraosha carried it aloft, assailed on the way by demons desirous of obtaining possession of his burden. On earth everything was being done to keep the evil spirits in check, fires lighted as particularly effective against the powers of darkness. And, thus assisted, Sraosha arrived safely with his charge at the bridge that spanned the space between earth and heaven. Here at the entrance to the ‘accountants’ bridge’ the soul’s account was cast up by Mithra and Rashnu ; the latter weighed its good and evil deeds, and even if the good deeds turned the scale, the soul had still to undergo immediate penance for its transgression, so strict was the justice meted out to each. Now the bridge may be crossed, and a further automatic kind of verdict is given, for to those fit for heaven the bridge appears a wide and easy way; to the unfortunate ones doomed to destruction it seems but of a hair’s breadth, and stepping on to it they straightway fall into the yawning gulf beneath.
The blessed ones are met at heaven’s gate by a radiant figure, who leads them through the antechambers that finally open into the everlasting light of the celestial abode. This is the triumph of the individual soul; but there is ‘a far-off divine event’ awaiting, which will be heralded by signs and wonders. For 3000 years previous to it there are alternate intervals of overpowering evil and conquering peace. At last the great dragon is let loose and the evil time comes, but Mazda sends a man to slay it. Then the saviour Saoshyant is born of a virgin. The dead arise, the sheep and goats are divided, and there is lamentation on the earth. The mountains dissolve and flood the earth with molten metal, a devouring agent of destruction to the wicked, but from which the good take no hurt. The spiritual powers have now to battle it out. Mazda and Sraosha overcome Ahriman and the dragon, and “then age, decay, and death are done away, and in their place are everlasting growth and life.”
And, lastly, what of the ethics of ancient Babylon and Assyria ? On the whole the moral standard of these countries was not by any means so exalted as our own, although the religious outlook was not a low one. To begin with, the character of Babylonian myth was a great deal purer than that of Hellenic or Scandinavian myth. The gods of Babylonia appear to be more dignified than those of the Greeks or Norsemen, for example. They do not descend to the same puerilities, and their record is immeasurably cleaner. This may have something to do with the very great body of ritual connected with the Babylonian religion, for when a people is so hedged in by religious custom as were the ancient Chaldeans, so threatened on every side by taboo, the mere thought of wrongdoing and the consequence thereof is sufficient to deter them from acting otherwise than reasonably. In course of time sin becomes so ugly and repulsive in the light of punishment that the moral' code receives a tremendous impulse.
There is no doubt that the Babylonians devoutly believed that their gods demanded rigid adherence to the moral code. It was generally thought that misfortune and illness were the consequences of moral transgression. But the Babylonians did not believe that the cardinal sins alone were heinous, for they included in transgression such misdemeanours as maliciousness, fraud, unworthy ambitions, and injurious teaching.
Footnotes and references:
Hibbert Lectures, pp. 38 ff. (by permission of Messrs Williams and Norgate).