The civilization of Babylonia and Assyria

Its remains, language, history, religion, commerce, law, art, and literature

by Morris Jastrow | 1915 | 168,585 words

This work attempts to present a study of the unprecedented civilizations that flourished in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley many thousands of years ago. Spreading northward into present-day Turkey and Iran, the land known by the Greeks as Mesopotamia flourished until just before the Christian era....

IN the course of discussion of the views held of the gods and goddesses, the general features of the religion have been revealed, as well as the relation of religious beliefs to the course taken by the political fortunes of Babylonia and Assyria.

A close interdependence between the position of the gods and the changing political conditions in the Euphrates Valley, needs to be kept in mind as the most important factor, leading to a divorce in the conception of the gods from the animistic starting-point as the personification of some specific power or manifestation of nature.

We have seen how in the case of such figures as Enlil, Marduk and Ashur this process resulted in a tendency towards the unification of all such manifestations in a single deity. A spiritual impulse is thus given to the view of divine government of the universe, the significance of which is not diminished by the limitation pointed out and which prevented the rise of a genuine monotheism in Babylonia and Assyria.

As a reflex of the higher point of view such members of the pantheon as Shamash, the sun-god, Sin, the moon-god, Ea, the water-god, Nabu, originally the god of Borsippa, Nusku, the fire-god, and Ishtar, the mother-goddess rise far beyond the original animistic level, and become in a measure symbols of the beneficent influence exerted by the powers of nature on man. Ethical traits such as mercy, justice, love, forbearance are superimposed on the original attributes of strength and violence, at times to such an extent as to obscure the older aspects.

As a result of this tendency towards giving the personifications of powers of nature an ethical import, we find increasing prominence given to the thought that the gods send sickness, suffering, misfortune, drought, pestilence and national catastrophes of a larger character, defeat in battle and invasions of the country, as a consequence of misdeeds, primarily on the part of the rulers who stand nearer to the gods than the ordinary individual.

To be sure, the misdeeds grouped together under the general designation of sins, may be either of a genuinely ethical character or purely ceremonial neglect or even ritualistic errors. While this decided limitation in the ethics of Babylonia and Assyria which clings to the religion down to the latest period must be given due consideration, nevertheless it marks a decided step forward to recognize that the displeasure or anger'of the gods as shown by the punishments sent by them is not aroused without some good cause, good naturally from the limited point of view here emphasized.

All misfortunes are looked upon as punishments from angry deities, and the punishment itself is the natural and necessary consequence of sin. The obvious corollary is that the gods are on the whole and ordinarily favorably disposed towards mankind. Some are more merciful by nature than others, some like, the god Ea are in a special sense the protectors of man, revealing to him even the secret counsels of the gods, some like Ishtar bewail catastrophes sent against mankind by angered deities, but all are open to appeals and, it might even be said, prone to mercy and inclined to be forgiving.

A second factor of fundamental importance for our estimate of the religion of Babylonia and Assyria is the recognition of the part taken by the endeavors on the part of the priests to systematize the current religious beliefs, with the result of building up a theological system of no small proportions. The most prominent outcome of this endeavor was the theory of a threefold division of the universe with the assignment of a deity in control of each. The setting up of this triad which may be traced back to the old Babylonian period marks a further step in (the dissociation of the gods from their original limitations.

Ami, Enlil and Ea become symbols of divine government of the universe, and similarly, though not to the same extent, the second triad, Shamash, Sin and Adad, sum up the chief manifestations of divine power in so far as it affects mankind the sun, the moon and atmospheric phenomena, while the addition of a further figure in the case of both triads, Ninlil [1] for the first, and Ishtar for the second, symbolizes the female element which combines with the male to bring about the renewal of nature and the reproduction of animal and human life. While the theoretical constructions perfected in the temple schools no doubt exercised a decided influence on popular beliefs, yet it is natural to find that the masses clung to the traditional animistic conceptions of the local deities.

To the people, the head of the pantheon, whether Enlil, Marduk or Ashur, remained the local divine patron; and so in the other centres, Shamash, Ea, Sin, Nsfbu, Nergal as the case may be, remained on the level of personifications of powers of nature, attached as protecting spirits to the locality in question.

The larger and higher point of view comes to the fore in the hymns and prayers which are distinctly the product of the priests of the temple schools, but the very circumstance that they are in most cases attached as introductions to pure incantation formulas, the popular basis of which is just as evident as is the more scholastic character of the hymns, shows that the consequences of the expansion in the conceptions of the gods were not drawn when it came to the actual cult.

Footnotes and references:


Or Nin-kharsag another designation of the consort of Enlil. See above, p. 202.

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