The Chaldean account of Genesis

by George Smith | 1876 | 63,564 words

The Chaldean account of Genesis, containing the description of the creation, the fall of man, the deluge, the tower of Babel, the times of the patriarchs, and Nimrod; Babylonian fables, and legends of the gods; from the cuneiform inscriptions Author: Smith, George, 1840-1876 Subject: Bible; Mythology, Assyro-Babylonian; Creation Publisher: London ...

Chapter II - Babylonian And Assyrian Literature

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  • Babylonian literature.
  • Kouyunjik library.
  • Fragmentary condition.
  • Arrangement of tablets.
  • Subjects.
  • Dates.
  • Babylonian source of literature.
  • Literary period.
  • Babylonian Chronology.
  • Akkad.
  • Sumir.
  • Urukk, king of Ur.
  • Hammurabi.
  • Babylonian astrology.
  • War of Gods.
  • Izdubar legends.
  • Creation and fall.
  • Syllabaries and bilingual tablets.
  • Assyrian copies.
  • Difficulties as to date.
  • Mutilated condition.
  • Babylonian library.
  • Assyrian empire.
  • City of Assur.
  • Library at Calah.
  • Sargon of Assyria.
  • Sennacherib.
  • Removal of Library to Nineveh.
  • Assurbanipal or Sardanapalus.
  • His additions to library.
  • Description of contents.
  • Later Babylonian libraries.

Legends FlIN order to understand the position of these legends it is necessary to give some account of the wonderful literature of the Ancient Babylonians and their copyists, the Assyrians. The fragments of terra cotta tablets containing these legends were found in the debris which covers the palaces called the South West Palace and the North Palace at Kouyunjik; the former building being of the age of Sennacherib, the latter belonging to the time of Assurbanipal. The tablets, which are of all sizes, from one inch long to over a foot square, are nearly all in fragments, and in consequence of the changes which have taken place in the ruins the fragments of the same tablet are sometimes scattered widely apart. It appears from a consideration of the present positions of the fragments that they were originally in the upper chambers of the palace, and have fallen on the de struction of the building. In some of the lower chambers they lay covering the whole floor, in other cases they lay in groups or patches on the pavement, and there are occasional clusters of fragments at various heights in the earth which covers the build ings. The other fragments are scattered singly through all the upper earth which covers the floors and walls of the palace. Different fragments of the same tablets and cylinders are found in separate chambers which have no immediate connection with each other, showing that the present distribution of the fragments has nothing to do with the original position of the tablets.

A consideration of the inscriptions shows that these tablets have been arranged according to their subjects in various positions in the libraries. Stories or subjects were commenced on tablets and continued on other tablets of the same size and form, in some cases the number of tablets in a series and on a single subject amounting to over one hundred.

Each subject or series of tablets had a title, the title being formed by the first phrase or part of phrase in the subject. Thus, the series of Astrolo gical tablets, numbering over seventy tablets, bore the title u When the gods Aim, Elu," this being the commencement of the first tablet. At the end of every tablet in each series was written its number in the work, thus : u the first tablet of When the gods Anu, Elu," the second tablet of " When the gods Ami, Elu," &c. &c. ; and, further to preserve the proper position of each tablet, every one except the last in a series had at the end a catch phrase, consist ing of the first line of the following tablet. There were beside, catalogues of these documents written like them on clay tablets, and other small oval tablets with titles upon them, apparently labels for the various series of works. All these arrangements show the care taken with respect to literary matters. There were regular libraries or chambers, probably on the upper floors of the palaces, appointed for the store of the tablets, arid custodians or librarians to take charge of them. It is probable that all these regulations were of great antiquity, and were copied like the tablets from the Babylonians.

Judging from the fragments discovered, it appears probable that there were in the Royal Library at Nineveh over 10,000 inscribed tablets, including almost every subject in ancient literature.

In considering a subject like the present one it is a point of the utmost importance to define as closely as possible the date of our present copies of the legends, and the most probable period at which the original copies may have been inscribed. By far the greatest number of the tablets brought from Nineveh belong to the age of Assurbanipal, who reigned over Assyria B.C. 670, and every copy of the Genesis legends yet found was inscribed during his reign. The statements on the present tablets are conclusive on this point, and have not been called in question, but it is equally stated and acknowledged on all hands that these tablets are not the originals, but are only copies from earlier texts. It is unfortunate that the date of the original copies is never preserved, and thus a wide door is thrown open for difference of opinion on this point. The Assyrians acknowledge themselves that this literature was borrowed from Babylonian sources, and of course it is to Babylonia we have to look to ascertain the approximate dates of the original documents. The difficulty here is increased by the following considerations : it appears that at an early period in Babylonian history a great literary development took place, and numerous works were produced which embodied the prevailing myths, religion, and science of that day. Written many of them in a noble style of poetry, and appealing to the strongest feelings of the people on one side, or registering the highest efforts of their science on the other, these texts became the standards for Babylonian literature, and later generations were content to copy these writings instead of making new works for themselves. Clay, the material on which they were written, was everywhere abundant, copies were multiplied, and by the veneration in which they were held these texts fixed and stereotyped the style of Babylonian literature, and the language in which they were written remained the classical style in the country down to the Persian conquest. Thus it happens that texts of Rim-agu, Sargon, and Hammurabi, who were one thousand years before Nebuchad nezzar and Nabonidus, show the same language as the texts of these later kings, there being no sensible difference in style to match the long interval between them.

There is, however, reason to believe that, although the language of devotion and literature remained fixed, the speech of the bulk of the people was gradually modified ; and in the time of Assurbanipal, when the Assyrians copied the Genesis legends, the common speech of the day was in very different style. The private letters and despatches of this age which have been discovered differ widely from the language of the contemporary public documents and religious writings, showing the change the language had undergone since the style of these was fixed. We have a slightly similar case in England, where the language of devotion and the style of the Bible differ in several respects from those of the English of to-day.

These considerations show the difficulty of fixing the age of a document from its style, and the difficulty is further increased by the uncertainty which hangs over all Babylonian chronology.

Chronology is always a thorny subject, and dry and unsatisfactory to most persons beside; some notice must, however, be taken of it here, in order to show the reasons for the dates and epochs fixed upon for the Genesis legends.

In this case the later chronology is not in question, and it is best to start with the generally received date of about B.C. 1300 for the conquest of Babylonia by Tugultininip, king of Assyria. Before this date we have a period of about 250 years, during which a foreign race ruled at Babylon. Berosus calls these foreigners Arabs, but nothing is known as to their original home or race. It is supposed that this race came into Babylonia, or obtained dominion there under a king named Hammurabi, whose date is thus fixed about B.C. 1550. Many scholars do not agree to this, and consider Hammurabi much more ancient; no one, however, fixes him later than the sixteenth century B.C., so that the date B.C. 1550 may be accepted as the most moderate one possible for -the epoch of Hammurabi. The date of Hammurabi is of consequence in the question, because there is no evidence of these legends being written after his epoch.

This circumstance may be accounted for by the fact that during the period following the conquest of Hammurabi the government was in the hands of foreigners, and was much more centralized than it had been before, Babylon being, so far as we know, the sole capital, the great cities which had been centres of literature suffering a decline.

Before the time of Hammurabi, there ruled several races of kings, of whom we possess numerous monuments. These monarchs principally reigned at the cities of Ur, Karrak, Larsa, and Akkad. Their inscriptions do not determine the length of their rule, but they probably covered the period from B.C. 2000 to 1550. The name of the monarch in whose time we have the first satisfactory evidence of contemporary monuments is read Urukh, and in the present state of our researches he may be fixed B.C. 2000. It must, however, be remarked that many scholars place him at a much earlier date. From the time of Urukh to that of Hammurabi the title of honour principally taken by the kings is " King of Sumir and Akkad," that is, King of Lower and Upper Babylonia. It appears probable that previous to the reign of Urukh the two divisions of Sumir and Akkad were separate monarchies ; and it is therefore likely that any lite rature written before B.C. 2000 will show evidences of this division.

The rough outlines of Babylonian chronology at this period may be arranged as follows, always bear ing in mind that the different dates are the lowest we can fairly assume, and that several of them may be much more ancient :

Down to B.C. 2000 epoch of independent king doms in Babylonia ; the principal centre of activity being Akkad, a region on the Euphrates, somewhere between latitudes 32 and 33.
B.C. 2000. Era of Urukh, king of Ur, rise of Sumir, the southern part of the country, Ur the metropolis.
B.C. 1850. Era of Ismi-dagan, king of Karrak, Karrak the metropolis.
B.C. 1700. Rise of Larsa as metropolis.
B.C. 1600. Era of Sargon, king of Akkad; revival of the power of Akkad.
B.C. 1550. Era of Hammurabi, king of Babylon. Babylon the metropolis.

Although we cannot fix the dates of any monuments before the time of Urukh, B.C. 2000, it is quite certain that there were buildings and inscriptions before that date ; and there are two literary works which I should judge to be certainly older than this epoch, namely, the great Chaldean work on Astrology, and a legend which, for want of a better title, I call the Exploits of Lubara.

The Chaldean work, containing the bulk of their astrology, appears to belong to the northern half of the country, that is to Akkad, and always speaks of Akkad as a separate state, and implies it to be the leading state. It mentions besides, the kingdoms of Subartu, Martu, or Syria, Gutim or Goim, and Elam, and some parts, perhaps of later date than the body of the work, give also the kingdoms of Kassi, Kissati, or the peoples, Mtuk or Asmun, Sumir, Yamutbal, and Assan. In the body of the work there appear glosses, apparently later additions, mentioning kings of the period B.C. 2000 to 1850. I have not noticed any gloss containing a royal name later than the kings of Ur.

The work I have provisionally called " The Exploits of Lubara," and which also bears evidence of great antiquity, is a much shorter one, for while there are over seventy large tablets of the astrology, this, on the other hand, only contained five small tablets. This wdrk notices a large number of peoples or states, the principal being the people of the coast, Subartu, Assyria, Elam, Kassi, Sutu, Goim, Lullubu, Akkad ; the uniting of Sumir and Akkad, which was accomplished at least B.C. 2000, is not mentioned, but the notice of the Assyrians is rather an argument for a later date than I have chosen.

The Izdubar legends, containing the story of the Flood, and what I believe to be the history of Nimrod, were probably written in the south of the country, and at least as early as B.C. 2000. These legends were, however, traditions before they were committed to writing, and were common in some form to all the country. The story of the Creation and Fall belongs to the upper or Akkad division of the country, and may not have been committed to writing so early as the Izdubar legends; but even this is of great antiquity.

About the same time as the account of the Creation, a series of tablets on evil spirits, which contained a totally different tradition of the Creation, was probably written ; and there is a third account from the City of Cutha, closely agreeing in some respects with the account handed down by Berosus, which I should provisionally place about the same date. It seems, from the indications in the inscriptions, that there happened in the interval B.C. 2000 to 1850 a general collecting and development of the various traditions of the Creation, Flood, Tower of Babel, and other similar legends.

A little later, about B.C. 1600, a new set of astro logical tablets was written, together with a long work on terrestrial omens ; these appear to belong to the kingdom and period of Sargon, king of Akkad.

Some at least, and probably most of the syllabaries, bilingual .and explanatory tablets, grammars and vocabularies, belong to this period also; but a few are of later date.

In spite of the indications as to peculiarities of worship, names of states and capitals, historical allusions and other evidence, it may seem hazardous to many persons to fix the dates of original documents so high, when our only copies in many cases are Assyrian transcripts made in the reign of Assurbanipal, in the seventh century B.C.; but one or two con siderations may show that this is a perfectly reasonable view, and no other likely period can be found for the original composition of the documents unless we ascend to a greater antiquity. In the first place, it must be noticed that the Assyrians themselves state that the documents were copied from ancient Babylonian copies, and in some cases state that the old copies were partly illegible even in their day. Again, in one case there is actual proof of the antiquity of a text, an Assyrian copy of part of which is published in " Cuneiform Inscriptions," vol. ii. plate 54, Nos. 3 & 4. In a collection of tablets discovered by Mr. Loftus at Senkereh, belonging, according to the kings mentioned in it, to about B.C. 1600, is part of an ancient Babylonian copy of this very text, the Babylonian copy .being about one thousand years older than the Assyrian one.

It is, however, probable that most of the legends treated of in the present volume had existed as traditions in the country long before they were committed to writing, and some of these traditions, as embodied in the various works, exhibit great difference in details, showing that they had passed through many changes.

Taking the period of literary development in Babylonia as extending from B.C. 2000 to 1550, we may say, it roughly synchronizes with the period from Abraham to Moses, according to the ordinary chronology of our Bibles, and during this period it appears that traditions of the creation of the universe, and human history down to the time of Nimrod, existed parallel to, and in some points identical with, those given in the Book of Genesis.

Many of the documents embodying these traditions have been discovered in sadly mutilated condition, but there can be no doubt that future explorations will reveal more perfect copies, and numerous companion and explanatory texts, which will one day clear up the difficulties which now meet us at every step of their consideration.

So far as known contemporary inscriptions are concerned, we cannot consider our present researches and discoveries as anything like sufficient to give a fair view of the literature of Assyria and Babylonia, and, however numerous and important are the Genesis legends, they form but a small portion of the whole literature of the country.

It is generally considered that the earliest inscriptions of any importance which we now possess belong to the time of Urukh, king of Ur, whose age may be placed with great probability about two thousand years before the Christian era.

The principal inscriptions of this period consist of texts on bricks and on signet cylinders, and some of the latter may be of much greater antiquity. Passing down to the period of the kingdoms of Karrak, Larsa, and Akkad, we find a great accession of literary material, almost every class of writing being repre sented by contemporary specimens. It is certain that even then the inscribed clay tablets were not isolated, but already they were arranged in collections or libraries, and these collections were placed at some of the principal cities. From Senkerch and its neighbourhood have come our earliest specimens of these literary tablets, the following being some of the contents of this earliest known library:

  1. Mythological tablets, including lists of the gods, and their manifestations and titles.
  2. Grammatical works, lists of words, and explana tions.
  3. Mathematical works, calculations, tables, cube and square root, measures.
  4. Astronomy, astrology, and omens.
  5. Legends and short historical inscriptions.
  6. Historical cylinders, one of Kudur-mabuk, B.C. 1600 (the earliest known cylinder), being in the British Museum. ,
  7. Geographical tablets, and lists of towns and countries.
  8. Laws and law cases, sale and barter, wills and loans.

Such are the inscriptions from the libraries of the early inhabitants of Babylonia, and beside these there are numerous texts, only known to us through later copies, but which certainly had their origin as early as this period.

Passing down from this period, for some centuries we find only detached inscriptions, accompanied by evidence of the gradual shifting both of the political power and literary activity from Babylonia to Assyria.

In Assyria the first centre of Literature and seat of a library was the city of Assur (Kileh Shergat), and the earliest known tablets date about B.C. 1500.

Beyond the scanty records of some of the monarchs nothing of value remains of this library for several centuries, and the Assyrian literary works are only known from later copies.

A revival of the Assyrian empire began under Assur-nazir-pal, king of Assyria, who ascended the throne B.C. 885. He rebuilt the city of Calah (Nimroud), and this city became the seat of an Assyrian library. Tablets were procured from Babylonia by Shalmaneser, son of Assur-nazir-pal, B.C. 860, during the reign of Nabu-bal-idina, king of Babylon, and these were copied by the Assyrian scribes, and placed in the royal library. Vul-nirari, grandson of Shalma neser, B.C. 812, added to the Calah library, and had tablets written at Nineveh. Assurnirari, B.C. 755, continued the literary work, some mythological tablets being dated in his reign.

Tiglath Pileser, B.C. 745, enlarged the library, and placed in it various copies of historical inscriptions. It was, however, reserved for Sargon, who founded the last Assyrian dynasty, B.C. 722, to make the Assyrian royal library worthy of the empire. Early in his reign he appointed Nabu-suqub-gina principal librarian, and this officer set to work making new copies of all the standard works of the day. During the whole of his term of office copies of the great literary works were produced, the majority of the texts preserved belonging to the early period previous to B.C. 1600.

In the period which followed there was a general revival of all the ancient works which had escaped destruction, and the study of this early literature became a marked feature of the time.

Sennacherib, son of Sargon, B.C. 705, continued to add to his father s library at Calah, but late in his reign he removed the collection from that city to Nineveh, where from this time the national library remained until the fall of the empire.

Esarhaddon, son of Sennacherib, B.C. 681, further increased the national collection, most of his works being of a religious character.

Assurbanipal, son of Esarhaddon, the Sardanapalus of the Greeks, B.C. 673, was the greatest of the Assyrian sovereigns, and he is far more memorable on account of his magnificent patronage of learning than on account of the greatness of his empire or the extent of his wars.

Assurbanipal added more to the Assyrian royal library than all the kings who had gone before him, and it is to tablets written in his reign that we owe almost all our knowledge of the Babylonian myths and early history, beside many other important matters.

The agents of Assurbanipal sought everywhere for inscribed tablets, brought them to Nineveh, and copied them there ; thus the literary treasures of Babylon, Borsippa, Cutha, Akkad, Ur, Erech, Larsa, Nipur and various other cities were transferred to the Assyrian capital to enrich the great collection there.

The fragments brought over to Europe give us a good idea of this library and show the range of the subjects embraced by this collection of inscriptions. Among the different classes of texts, the Genesis stories and similar legends occupied a prominent place ; these, as they will be further described in the present volume, need only be mentioned here. Accompanying them we have a series of mythological tablets of various sorts, varying from legends of the gods, psalms, songs, prayers, and hymns, down to mere allusions and lists of names. Many of these texts take the form of charms to be used in sickness and for the expulsion of evil spirits ; some of them are of great antiquity, being at least as old as the creation and Izdubar legends. One fine series concerns the cure of witchcraft, a superstition fully believed in in those days. Izdubar is mentioned in one of these tablets as lord of the oaths or pledges of the world.

Some of the prayers were for use on special occasions, such as on starting on a campaign, on the occurrence of an eclipse, &c. Astronomy and Astrology were represented by various detached inscriptions and reports, but principally by the great work on these subjects covering over seventy tablets which was borrowed from the early Chaldeans, and many copies of which were in the Library of Assurbanipal. This work on Astrology and Astronomy was, as I have already stated, one of the most ancient texts in the Euphrates valley.

There were also numerous copies of a long work on Terrestrial omens, which appears to date from the time of Sargon, king of Akkad, about B.C. 1600. In this work everything in nature is supposed to portend some coming event.

There is a fragment of one Astrological tablet which professes to be copied from an original of the time of Izdubar.

Historical texts formed another section of the library, and these included numerous copies of inscriptions of early Babylonian kings; there were beside, chronological tablets with lists of kings and annual officers, inscriptions of various Assyrian monarchs, histories of the relations between Assyria and Babylonia, Elam, and Arabia, treaties, despatches, proclamations, and reports on the state of the empire and military affairs.

Natural history was represented by tables of animals ; mammals, birds, reptiles, fishes, insects, and plants, trees, grasses, reeds, and grains, earths, stones, &c. These lists are classified according to the sup posed nature and affinities of the various species, and show considerable advance in the sciences. Mathematics had a place in the library, there being pro blems, figures, and calculations ; but this branch of learning was not studied so fully as in Babylonia.

Grammar and Lexicography were better repre sented, there being many works on these subjects, including lists of the signs and explanations, declen sion of nouns, conjugation of verbs, examples of syntax, bilingual tables, explanatory lists, &c. All these tablets were copied from the Babylonians. In law and civil matters the library was also rich, and the tablets serve to show that the same laws and customs prevailed in Assyria as in Babylonia. There are codes of laws, law cases, sale, barter, loans, lists of property, lists of titles and trades, tribute, and taxes, &c.

In Geography the Assyrians were not very forward ; but there are lists of countries and their productions, of cities, rivers, mountains, and peoples.

Such are some of the principal contents of the great library from which we have obtained our copies of the Creation and Flood legends, most of the tablets were copied from early Babylonian inscriptions, the original copies of the works have in most cases disappeared ; but these remarkable inscriptions have preserved to us texts which show the wonderful advance made by the people of Chaldea before the time of Moses. Babylonian literature, which had been the parent of Assyrian writing, revived after the fall of Nineveh, and Nebuchadnezzar and his successors made Babylon the seat of a library rival ling that of Assurbanipal at Nineveh. Of this later development of Babylonian literature we know very little, explorations being still required to bring to light the texts of this epoch. Few fragments only, discovered by wandering Arabs or recovered by chance travellers, have yet turned up, but there is in them evidence enough to promise a rich reward to future excavators.

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