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 XV - The Twilight of the Gods

WITH the fall of the Assyrian empire in 606 B.C., Babylonia once more regained her national status. This meant that her national god Merodach was no longer subservient to the Assyrian Asshur in a political sense, and regained his place as sole head of the Babylonian pantheon.

Great must have been the satisfaction of the people of Babylon when, this comparatively mild tyranny removed, they could worship their own gods in their own way, free from the humiliating remembrance that their northern neighbours regarded all Babylonian sacred things as appanages of the Assyrian empire. Nabopolasser and Nebuchadrezzar, his successor, gave effect to these changes, and the latter king placed Nabu on a footing of equality with Merodach. Was this the cause of his punishment ? Was it because he had offended in a religious sense that he had to undergo the terrible infliction of which we read in the Scriptures ? The priesthood of Merodach must have possessed immense and practically unlimited power in Babylon, and we may feel sure that any such interference with their newfound privilege, as is here suggested, would have met with speedy punishment. Was the wretched monarch led to believe that an enchantment had been cast upon him, and that he had been transformed into animal shape at the command of an outraged deity ? We cannot say. The cause of his misfortune must for ever remain one of the mysteries of the ancient world.

The unfortunate Nabonidus, too, attempted to replace the cults of Merodach and Nabu by that of Shamash. And that hastened his doom, for the priests became his bitter enemies, and when the Persian Cyrns entered the gates of Babylon as a conqueror he was hailed as the saviour of Merodach’s honour.

The last native kings of Babylonia were great temple-builders, and this policy they continued until the end. Indeed in the time of Nebuchadrezzar there was a revival of ancient and half-forgotten cults, and many local gods were exalted to a pitch of popularity hitherto unknown.


The Conquering Cyrus

Then in 539 B.C. came the conquering Cyrus, and the period of the decay of the Babylonian religion began. The victor merely upheld the cults of Merodach and Nabu for reasons of policy, and when in turn the Greeks ruled over Babylonia they followed the Persian lead in this respect. By the defeat of the Persian Darius at the battle of Arbela (331 B.C.) the way to Babylon was left open to the mighty Alexander the Great. This was the beginning of the end. The old religion dragged out a broken existence until about the beginning of the Christian era, then slowly but surely vanished beneath the attacks of Hellenic scepticism, Christian propaganda, and pagan caprice.

That a faith so virile, so ancient, so entrenched in the love of a people as that of Babylonia should fall into an oblivion so profound as to be totally forgotten for nearly nineteen centuries is a solemn and impressive reminder of the evanescent character of human affairs. They were men of their hands, these ancient Mesopotamians, great theologians, great builders, great soldiers. Yet their mighty works, their living faith left ‘not a wrack behind’ save mounds of rubbish which, when excavated by the modern antiquary, were found to contain a few poor vestiges of the splendour that was Babylon and the pomps of the city of Asshur. Does there not reside in this a great lesson for modernity ? Must our civilization, our faith, all that is ours and that we have raised—must these things, too, fade into the shadows of unremembrance as did the civilization of Mesopotamia ?


A Great Lesson

The answer to such a question depends upon ourselves—upon each and every one of us. If we quit ourselves as civilized men, striving and ever striving to refine and purify our lives, our conduct, our intellectual outlook, to spiritualize our faith, then though the things of our hands may be dust, the works of our minds, of our souls shall not vanish, but shall remain in the consciousness of our descendants so long as human memory lasts. The faith of ancient Babylon went under because it was built rather on the worship of frail and bestial gods than the love of truth,—gods many of whom were devils in disguise, but devils no whit worse than our fiends of ambition, of greed, of pugnacity, of unsympathy. Through the worship of such gods Babylon came to oblivion. Let us contemplate the colossal wreck of that mighty work of man, and as we gaze over the gulf of a score of centuries to where its “cloud-capp’d towers and gorgeous palaces” glitter in the mirage of legend, let us brace ourselves for the struggle which humanity has yet to wage with darkness, with disease, with superstition. But while we remember her fall with sadness, let us think generously and kindly of her dead mightiness, of the ancient effort she made, striving after her lights, of her picturesque and many-coloured life, and, not least, of her achievements—the invention of those symbols by which the words of man can be transferred to his brother across the silent ocean of time.

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