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 three systems of divination which we have analyzed all entered directly into the religious life of the people and illustrate some of the religious practises which were maintained, like the incantation rituals, throughout all periods. The longing to pierce the unknown future, to pull aside the veil which separates us from a knowledge of coming events, is so strong in man as to have all the force of an innate quality an instinct of which he himself only gradually becomes fully conscious.

It plays an unusually prominent part in the religion of Babylonia and Assyria, indeed so prominent as to justify us in asserting that by the side of the ever present fear of the demons, the significance attached to omens was the most conspicuous outward manifestation of the religious spirit of the people taken as a whole.

This conclusion is strengthened by the knowledge that we now have of other forms of divination, such as pouring a few drops of oil into a basin of water, and according to the action of the oil in forming rings and bubbles that sink and rise and the directions in which they spread, conclusions were drawn of a more or less specific character, and suggested by a more or less artificial association of ideas with the action of the oil bearing either on public affairs or on private matters, according to the questions asked of the diviners, to which they were expected to give an answer. [1]

Within the other category of involuntary divination where the sign is obtruded on your notice, falls the importance attached to dreams, the interpretation of which formed in fact one of the most important functions of the Babylonian-Assyrian priests acting as diviners. References to dreams are frequent both in the older and later inscriptions of Babylonian and Assyrian rulers. [2]

A majestic figure reaching from earth to heaven appears to Ghidea in a dream ; it turns out to be the god Ningirsu. A female figure also rises up with a tablet and a stylus who is the goddess Nisaba.

The sun mounting up from the earth is explained to be the god of vegetation, Ningishzida. Various utensils and building material and an ass to carry burdens which the ruler sees in his dream leave no doubt as to the interpretation of the vision. It is the order to Gudea to build a temple according to the plan drawn on a tablet by a second male figure appearing to him, and who turns out to be the god Nin-dub. The interpretation is given to the ruler in this instance by the goddess Nina as whose son he designates himself.

Ordinarily, however, it is to a priest to whom rulers and people go to learn the meaning of dreams, in the belief that dreams are omens or signs sent by the gods as a means of indicating what is about to happen ; and even in Gudea 's case we may safely assume that the interpretation ascribed to the goddess directly was furnished to him through the mediation of the priests. At the other end of Babylonian history, we find Nebuchadnezzar and a goddess appearing to Nabonnedos, the last king of Babylonia, in dreams to explain certain strange signs that had lately been reported. In the inscriptions of Ashurbanapal, the great king of Assyria, there are several references to dreams.

The goddess Ishtar rises before him and encourages the king to give battle. A diviner has a dream in which he sees certain ominous words written on the moon. The priests made compilations of all kinds of phenomena that might appear to people in dreams with the interpretations added, and no doubt the endeavor was made also in these handbooks to be prepared for all emergencies.

If one dreams of carrying dates on one's head, it meant distress, if vegetables that things will go well, if salt that he will suffer some injury, if a mountain that he will have no rival. If one dreams that one is flying away, it is a prognostication that good fortune will take wings; if he descends into the earth and sees dead persons, it is an indication of approaching death. Eating figs and drinking wine in a dream are good omens ; dust, clay and pitch are bad signs, and so on ad infinitum.

The movements and actions of animals formed another fertile field of divination. Among the animals, snakes and serpents, dogs, cows, sheep, goats, gazelles, falcons, mice, horses, pigs, foxes, eagles, chickens, swallows, fishes and various insects occur in lists of such omens preserved for us.

Seeing a snake on getting up in the morning on New Year's Day was interpreted as an indication of approaching death; if the snake falls on a man, it means severe sickness or serious misfortune ; if it falls behind a man, the omen was a good one ; if it falls on the right side, that he will be seized by a demon of sickness, whereas on the left side the omen was partly favorable, partly unfavorable. The interpretations vary again according to the month and the day of the month on which the incident occurs, so that once more the field is enlarged to almost limitless proportions.

A white dog entering a palace means siege of a city ; a yellow dog, that the palace will escape disaster; a dog of mixed colors, that the enemy will plunder the palace. Dogs barking at the gates prognosticate a pestilence, mad dogs the destruction of the city, howling dogs the overthrow of the city.

A falcon flying into a man's house means that his wife will die ; if the falcon carries off something from a man's house, that the man will die of a lingering disease ; if a bird builds its nest and lays its young in a man's house, at the entrance or in the court, the omen is unfavorable.

These examples will suffice to illustrate the general character of the collections as well as the nature of the interpretations, based in part upon the same association of ideas which we encountered in the case of the other systems of divination, and in part no doubt on the record of what happened in the past when the sign in question was observed. In addition we must always allow a large leeway for fancy and the purely arbitrary factor, as well as the "academic" character of very many of the omens registered which probably never occurred, and are entered merely through the desire of the priests to be prepared for all possibilities and impossibilities.

Footnotes and references:


For details see Jastrow, Religion Babyloniens und Assyrians, II, pp. 749-775.


See examples in Jastrow, Religion Babyloniens und Assyriens, II, p. 955-958.

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