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....

The constant fear of the demons in which the people passed their lives lent a somewhat sombre aspect to the religion of Babylonia and Assyria which crops out also in the methods devised for determining what the gods had in mind, and thus to be at least prepared for what the future had in store. Incantations which were resorted to when the evil had come and had manifested itself through disease and suffering correspond to curative medicine, into which, as we have seen, it shades over. Divination, as the endeavor to forestall coming evil, has its counterpart in a measure in preventive medicine.

Sickness and suffering were so common that the individual needs could not be overlooked. In the case of a general pestilence, to be sure, the anger of the gods manifested itself against the country as a whole, and in such cases the guilt attached itself primarily to the rulers upon whose good standing with the gods the general and public welfare depended, but when the demons confined their tortures to certain individuals, the latter would naturally repair to the temples or have the priests come to them, bring sacrifices and with the aid of the priests endeavor to rid themselves of the demons. Incantation rites thus played a considerable part in the religious life of the masses.

It was somewhat different when it came to divining the future. Foreknowledge of this kind was important before proceeding to war and at other crises affecting the general weal; and even when the signs were not deliberately sought out but obtruded themselves on one, as in the case of phenomena in the heavens or of extraordinary occurrences, the common belief was that the portent bore on public affairs rather than on the fate of the individual, always excepting the rulers and the members of the royal family whose welfare was so closely bound up with the general condition of the people and the country.

This applies more particularly to such cases where the sign revealing the intention of the gods had to be sought out, for divination methods are of two kinds, the one involving the interpretation of a sign which is looked for as an indication of the divine purpose, the other the explanation of a sign not of your seeking but which is obtruded on your notice. The chief example of the former method in Babylonia and Assyria is the system of divination for reading the future in the liver of a sacrificial sheep.

Before an impending battle, before laying the foundation of a temple or palace, before entering upon a treaty with some rival power and in the face of any crisis affecting the country, including even the outcome of sickness of the king or of a member of his family, the priests were directed to kill a sheep, which must be without blemish, to take out the liver and note carefully the shape of the lobes, the gall bladder and gall duct, the two appendices of the liver, and above all the markings on the liver of a freshly slaughtered sheep, due to the traces on the surface of the subsidiary ducts carrying the gall into the main duct and thence into the gall bladder, there to be purified and discharged into the duodenum.

Abnormal peculiarities were particularly noted, such as the unusual shape or size of any part of the liver, and on the general principle underlying all forms of divination that the unusual sign points to some unusual happening, the conclusion was drawn by an association of ideas suggested by the sign or by a record of what happened in the past on an occasion when the sign in question was observed, whether the prognostication was favorable or unfavorable.

Thus an enlarged gall bladder or an unusually large finger-shaped appendix attached to the upper lobe of the liver portended increase, prosperity, success, added strength. But the enlargement may be limited to one side, and in such a case the association of the right side as the favorable one, and of the left as the unfavorable one, would lead to a further differentiation, a sign being interpreted as favorable to you, or as favorable to the enemy and therefore unfavorable to you, according to the side on which the sign appeared.

It will easily be seen how by further ramifications, the field of observation could be extended almost indefinitely, and the possible interpretations correspondingly increased. Handbooks were prepared in which all possible and many impossible signs theoretically assumed were entered, together with the interpretations, such collections to serve as guides to the priests in determining the meaning of signs noted in the case of a called for inspection on any occasion.

The liver was chosen as the organ of divination, because of the widespread belief among people in a primitive and in a more advanced stage of culture which regarded the liver as the seat of life, [1] superinduced, no doubt, by the vast amount of blood always associated with life to be found in the livers of both men and animals. [2] The liver is the bloody organ par excellence, so that the Chinese speak of the liver as the "mother of blood".

Life was synonymous among the ancients with what we would call soul, and hence the liver was regarded as the seat of all manifestations of soul activity thought and all emotions alike. It is only gradually as a reflex of increasing anatomical knowledge that the differentiation takes place which popularly assigns thought to the brain, the higher emotions to the heart, and only the lower ones such as jealousy and anger to the liver. [3]

The liver was originally regarded as the one and only organ of life. Corresponding to this stage, the liver of the sacrificial animal, accepted by the deity to whom it was offered, would thus be regarded as a reflex of the mind of the god. Childish and naive as all this may seem to us, yet hepatoscopy is redeemed in a measure by the theory on which it rests; and it acquires a certain importance from a general cultural point of view because of its spread among other nations — the Hittites, Greeks and Romans — as a direct result of the extension of the sphere of Babylonian-Assyrian influence in the ancient world.

The same is even more the case in a second system of divination, elaborated by the Babylonian priests and which centred around the observation of the phenomena in the heavens. We have already had occasion [4] to touch upon the wide sway of astrology in the conceptions formed of the gods, whose seats under this sway were transferred to the heavens, quite independent of the powers of nature which they originally symbolized.

In contradistinction to hepatoscopy, where the sign is sought out as a means of securing an answer to the question as to the favorable or unfavorable disposition of the gods at a given moment, astrology represents a method of divination in which the sign is forced upon one's attention and calls for an interpretation.

The sun, moon, planets and stars are there and the constantly changing appearance of the heavens was brought into connection with the ceaseless vicissitudes in the fortunes of man here below. Once the step was taken of identifying planets and stars with gods, as sun and moon were gods, the further corollary followed that the movements in the heavens represented the activity of the gods, preparing the events that took place on earth.

Everything being dependent upon the gods and everything in nature and in the life of mankind being due to the gods, the theory arose in the schools of speculative thought of a correspondence between conditions to be observed in the heavens and phenomena on earth.

Astrology, or the interpretation of the signs in the heavens, thus takes its rise as an outcome of speculation of a comparatively advanced character in contrast to liver divination, which rests upon an essentially popular belief of the liver as the seat of life. The second method of divination thus stands on a far higher plane; it involves a careful observation of the movements of the sun and moon, far above the reach of the average mind, and to an even larger extent is this the case in endeavors to follow the slower and less conspicuous movements of the planets. The simplest form of astrology thus involves some astronomical knowledge, and it is not surprising to find that the endeavor to read the coming events in the heavens led from a pseudo-science to a real one, which in the later periods reached an astonishing degree of perfection.

So strong, however, was the hold which astrology acquired that even after the point had been reached of recognizing the laws presiding over the phenomena in the heavens, priests continued to conclude from conditions in the heavens what was to occur on earth ; and the priests of Babylonia were succeeded by the astronomers of Greece and the star-gazers of Borne, who applied and amplified the system of interpretation, evolved in the course of millenniums in the Euphrates Valley. Until the threshold of modern science astrology was cultivated as a discipline of genuine value throughout Europe, by the side of and in connection with astronomy.

The supposed correspondence between phenomena and movements in the heavens and occurrences here on earth was, however, not the only factor involved in Babylonian-Assyrian astrology.. The two chief gods in the heavens were the sun and the moon, the former recognized by experience as the regulator of the seasons, the latter a means of calculating time.

The movements of the sun and moon represent a constant transition, in the case of the sun from night to morning, in the case of the moon the regular succession of its four chief phases. This transition motif in the heavens had its parallel in the life of man, in the transition of the new life issuing out of the womb of the mother, the transition from childhood to adolescence marked by striking physical phenomena at the age of puberty, the transition from life to death.

The dependence of man upon the sun and moon being a fact too obvious to be overlooked, the transition periods in connection with these two bodies were carefully noted as furnishing an indication whether one could look forward to a favorable or unfavorable turn in the affairs of mankind.

Note was accordingly taken of the phenomena attending sunrise, whether the sun rose in a clear sky or enveloped in clouds ; and in addition, any striking conditions under which the sun appeared at any time, with a halo around it, or through atmospheric disturbances appearing paler or brighter than usual, and above all an eclipse of the sun or an obscuration under circumstances which seemed to suggest an eclipse. Association of ideas and the record of events that followed in the past upon the observation of certain striking phenomena in the sun, formed again the two chief principles involved in the interpretation.

The unusual because abnormal pointed to some occurrence out of the ordinary an eclipse or obscuration of the sun by a natural association portending some disaster bad crops, defeat in war, sickness in the royalfamily, destructive storms, inundations, pestilence, a plague of locusts or what not.

For the moon the scope of observation was still wider. Of the phases of the moon, the appearance of the new moon, the time of full-moon and the disappearance of the moon for a few days at the end of each lunar month represented the chief periods of transition. All three were marked with great significance.

The disappearance of the moon naturally aroused uneasiness. Popular myths arose, representing the cause of the disappearance as due to the capture of the moon by hostile powers; and great was the rejoicing when the new moon appeared.

The time of the disappearance as of the reappearance could only be approximately determined, and according as the disappearance took place on the 27th or 28th day, it presaged a different event. Similarly, in the absence of any exact astronomical calculation, the new moon might appear to be delayed, which was always looked upon as a bad omen.

The length of the lunar months varying somewhat in the calendar as fixed by the priests, the day on which the moon appeared to be full might be the 14th or 15th day, while through defective calculations it might appear not to be full till the 16th day, or as early as the 13th day. A too early or a belated appearance of the new moon or full moon was generally regarded as an evil omen, though under other attendant circumstances, the unfavorable sign might be converted into a favorable one.

Thirdly, we have the further extension of the scope of astrological divination by the identification of the great gods of the pantheon with the planets, Jupiter with Marduk, Mercury with Nabu, Mars with Nergal, Saturn with Ninib, and Venus with Ishtar. The conditions under which the planets appeared, whether bright or pale, their relative position to one another, to certain stars and to the moon, and such phenomena as the phases of Ishtar, were noted and interpretations recorded.

The ecliptic as the road along which the sun and the planets appeared to move was recognized, and a three-fold division set up corresponding to the threefold division of the universe. Adopting the terminology for the latter, the northern section of the ecliptic was assigned to Ea, the middle to Anu, and the southern to Enlil; and according to the position of any planet at any time, a further means of securing differentiating interpretations was obtained.

Various other devices, all of a more or less artificial character, were resorted to in order to build up a system of interpretation, as for example the parcelling out of the four directions, South, North, East and West among the four countries, Babylonia, Assyria, Elam and Amurru, and according as a phenomenon was observed on one side or the other of the moon or sun or of one of the planets, the interpretation was applied to the corresponding country.

Without entering into further details, suffice it to say that for obvious reasons astrology was a form of divination that bore almost exclusively on the public welfare 'the outcome of a military expedition, the crops, general prosperity or national catastrophes, the effects of storms, inundations, the invasion of the enemy, the sickness or death of the ruler, rebellion, change of the dynasty, and the like. The individual had a very minor share. Only the faint beginnings of an attempt to read in the stars the fate of the individual can be detected in Babylonian-Assyrian astrology.

That phase of the pseudo-science was taken up by the Greeks, who appear to have cultivated astronomy long before they came into contact with Babylonian-Assyrian astrology, and who, as we know, [5] took over the astrological system perfected in the Euphrates Valley and grafted it on to their own astronomy.

Lastly, the observation of atmospheric phenomena such as winds, storms, earthquakes, thunder and lightning and the movements and shapes of clouds was added as a supplement to astrology proper, as a fertile field for determining what the gods, who controlled these phenomena likewise, intended to bring to pass on earth.

The factor of fancy entered into this subdivision of divination even more largely, and according to the direction of the wind, the number of thunder claps, the character of the lightning, the fanciful figures of the clouds, and the conditions under which these and various other phenomena appeared, the interpretations, usually bearing on matters of public weal, varied.

Footnotes and references:


See an article by the writer, "The Liver as the Seat of the Soul", in Studies in the History of Religions, presented to C. H. Toy (New York, 1912), pp. 143-168.


One-sixth of the blood in the human body is to be found in the liver ; in the case of some animals the proportion is even larger.


The Babylonians and Assyrians advanced to the stage which saw in the heart the seat of the intellect, and the liver as merely the seat of the emotions, though of all emotions (see above, p. 215), but there are no indications that they ever recognized the function of the brain. Our term phrenology, derived from the Greek word for "midriff", is a survival of the period which placed the seat of thought below the diaphragm, and not in the head.


See above, p. 209.


See, for the proof, Jastrow, Religion Babyloniens und Assyriens, II, pp. 703, seq., and 744, seq., and the monograph of Bezold and Ball, Reflexe Astrologischer Keilinschriften 'bei Griechischen Schriftstellern (Heidelberg, 1911).

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