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....

A third system of divination that flourished in Babylonia and Assyria and, like the two others, made its influence widely felt in antiquity was the interpretation of abnormalities of all kinds in the ease of infants and the young of animals, observed at the time of birth.

The new life issuing so mysteriously out of the mother marked a transition to which all the greater importance was attached because of the profound impression made by the mystery of life in general. This system falls, as does astrology, in the class of omens which are forced on one's attention not deliberately sought out, as in the case of hepatoscopy.

The observation of birthsigns shares, however, with hepatoscopy its bearing on the fate of the individual as well as on the public welfare, and indeed to a greater extent than is the case in divination through the liver of the sacrificial animal, resorted to, as we have seen, chiefly for public and official purposes.

The house in which an infant with anomalous features is born or the stall in which an animal deviating in one way or the other from normal conditions makes its appearance were supposed to be directly affected by the unusual phenomenon, but in many eases an alternative interpretation is offered, bearing on public affairs, while in the event of an extraordinary deviation such as the birth of an unusually large litter, or so rare an occurrence as triplets or four or even five infants born to a woman, or the birth of some monstrous creature, the sign was an ominous one for the whole country primarily, if not exclusively.

The range of anomalies recorded in the compilations of the diviners and in official reports is exceedingly large and, as more texts come to light, reaches proportions almost too large to be controlled.

In general the deviation from the normal was regarded as an evil omen, though there are not infrequent exceptions. The distinction between the right as the favorable side and the left as the unfavorable one, is introduced as a basis for varying interpretations. Thus, if a lamb is born with the right ear lacking, it signifies that "the rule of the king will come to an end", "confusion in the land", "loss of cattle" and the like, whereas the lack of the left ear prognosticates corresponding misfortunes to the enemy and his country, and is therefore favorable to Babylonia and Assyria.

Again, two ears appearing on the right side and none on the left is an unfavorable sign, whereas two ears on the left and none on the right is unfavorable for the enemy and therefore favorable for you. In the enumeration of anomalies we must again take into account the factor of fancy and the desire to make the collections complete so as to be prepared for all emergencies.

Many of the entries are therefore purely "academic". [1]

The factor of fancy manifests itself in these handbooks of the Babylonian-Assyrian diviners in a form which is especially interesting, because of the explanation it affords for the widespread belief in antiquity in hybrid creatures such as satyrs, mermaids, fauns, harpies, sphinxes, winged serpents and the many fabulous monsters of mythology and folk-lore.

We have long lists of the young of animals having the features or parts of the body of another animal. Instead, however, of being recorded as a mere resemblance, an ewe giving birth to a lamb having a head which suggests that of a lion, or of a dog, an ass, of a fox or a gazelle, or ears or eyes which suggest those of another animal, it is stated that the ewe has given birth to a lion, dog, ass, fox gazelle, as the case may be.

In the same way, since it often happens that the face of an infant suggests a bird, a dog, a pig, a lamb, or what not, the fancied resemblance leads to the statement that a woman has given birth to the animal in question, which thus becomes an omen, the interpretation of which varies according to the ideas associated with the particular animal.

A lion suggests power and enlargement, and therefore a lamb or an infant with a lion-like face points to increase and prosperity in the land and to the growing strength of the ruler, and is also a favorable sign for the stall or house in which such a creature is born.


The Tree of Life with Assyrian King and with winged creature as guardian and fertilizer of the Tree — Symmetrically repeated

Favorable ideas, though of a different order, are associated with the lamb, pig, ox and ass, whereas with the dog as an unclean animal in the ancient as well as in the modern Orient, the association of ideas was unfavorable, and similarly with the serpent, wild cow and certain other animals, the interpretation refers to some misfortune, either of a public or private character, and occasionally of both.

This feature of a fancied resemblance between one animal and another and between an infant and some animal was the starting-point which led, through the further play of the imagination, to the belief in hybrid creatures and all kinds of monstrosities. The case of an infant being born with feet united so as to suggest the tail of a fish is actually recorded in our lists of birth-signs, and from such an anomaly to the belief in mermaids and tritons, half human and half fish, is only a small step, rendered still more credible by the representation in art which convents the resemblance to a fish tail into a real tail.

Since we have the direct proof [2] of the spread of the Babylonian-Assyrian system of divination from birth-omens, as of the two other systems above discussed, to Asia Minor, Greece and Rome, there is every reason to believe that we are justified in tracing back to this system the belief in fabulous beings of all kinds, though it may of course be admitted that there are also other factors involved.

We find this belief in Babylonia and Assyria, where we encounter in the ancient art hippocentaurs as well as bulls and eagles with human faces, and in the Assyrian art the winged monsters with human faces and the bodies of bulls or winged human figures with eagle faces. The process once begun would naturally lead to all kinds of ramifications and combinations.

Footnotes and references:


See, for details, Jastrow, Babylonian-Assyrian Birth-omens and their Cultural Significance (Giessen, 1914).


Given in the author's monograph on Babylonian-Assyrian Birth-omens, pp. 50-64. See also Plate XXXII, Fig. 2; Plate XXXIII; Plate LII and Plate LXXIV for hybrid figures.

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