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....

To complete the general survey of the religion of Babylonia and Assyria, it remains for us to summarize the organization of the temples and to add some indications of the festal occasions on which special rites were observed in honor of the gods, and the manner in which on such occasions they were approached.

We have already indicated, in connection with the discussion of the chief figures in the pantheon, the tendency to group around the cult of the patron deity of an important centre the worship of other gods, and we have seen that this tendency goes hand in hand with the political expansion of such a centre, but that the centre is apt to retain a considerable portion at least of its religious prestige even after the political decline has set in.

The force of tradition, playing so effective a part in religion everywhere, would help to maintain rituals and practices once established, even if the conditions giving rise to such rituals and practices no longer prevailed. Confining ourselves to the larger centres and to those best known to us, like Nippur, Lagash, Uruk, Ur, Kish, Eridu, Sippar, Babylon and Borsippa in the south, and Ashur, Calah and Nineveh in the north, we note the gradual extension of the area within which the main temple stood to become a more or less extensive sacred quarter.

So in Nippur E-kur, the name of Enlil's sanctuary, becomes such a designation to include the temples and shrines erected to the numerous deities grouped around Enlil and brought into a relationship of subserviency to their master, as his sons, daughters, servants, body-guard, ministers and officials. Similarly in Babylon, E-sagila, as the name of Marduk's temple, grows to be a spacious quarter with numerous sanctuaries, large and small, to Nabu, Ninmakh (or Ishtar), Shamash, Ea, Nergal, Ninib to name only the most important.

The general arrangement of these temples, as we shall have occasion to see in more detail in the chapter on the architecture and art, [1] was in all cases the same, following an ancient prototype which provided an outer and an inner court of almost parallel dimensions, with a corridor leading from the inner court to the innermost smaller chamber, reserved for the priests and the rulers and in which, enclosed in a niche, the image of the.deity in whose honor the temple was erected stood.

Grouped around the three divisions was a series of rooms, varying in number according to the size and importance of the edifice, for the accommodation of the priests and for the administration of the temple, while in the case of the largest centres, special buildings were erected as store-houses for the temple possessions, stables for the animals, and dwellings for the numerous attendants and officials incident to the growing complications of the larger temple organizations. A feature of the main temple in every centre that was never lacking was a stage-tower, consisting of from two to seven stories, and placed either behind or at the side of the temple proper. [2]

Corresponding to the growth of the temples, we find the organization of the cult extending its scope; and with this extension, the steadily increasing power and authority of the priests. In the small beginnings of the Euphratean cities, the priestly and secular functions no doubt rested in one and the same person.

The ruler of a city or district, as we have seen, [3] was regarded as the representative of the deity. As such he stood in a special relation to the deity, acting as a mediator between the latter and the people, while upon his good standing with the god, the general welfare of the people depended. On the very ancient monument of Ur-Nina [4] we find the ruler himself offering the libation to the god, though behind him stands an attendant who is probably a priest to assist in carrying out the rite.

As early, however, as the days of Gudea (c. 2450 B.C.) the ruler himself is led into the presence of the deity through the mediation of a priest. Gudea is so depicted on seal cylinders and other monuments, and presumably therefore the marked differentiation between priest and ruler thus illustrated was at the time an established custom of long standing.

The mediatorship may, indeed, be set down as the chief prerogative of the priest in Babylonia and Assyria. With this as a starting-point, his other functions as sacrificer, as exerciser, as inspector of the liver for the purpose of ascertaining the disposition of the deity, as astrologer and as diviner in general, interpreting birth-signs, dreams, and furnishing the answer as to the meaning of all kinds of occurrences that deviated from the normal or that in any way aroused attention, may be derived.

The people could proceed as far as the inner court of the temples, where an altar stood, but beyond that the priests alone could venture, and the rulers only if accompanied by a priest who as the privileged servitor of the deity had access to the divine presence.

Intercession is thus a distinguishing function of the priest, as a corollary to his role as mediator.

The growth of the temple organizations along the lines above set forth naturally resulted in a differentiation of priestly functions. Besides a number of general names for priest, such as sJiangu, enu, "votary" and ummdnu (expert), with gradations of rank as indicated by the title shangu makliTihu, "high priest", we find over thirty classes of priests recorded in the material at our disposal.

The "exerciser" (mashmashu or dsMpu) is separated from the "diviner" (baru, literally "inspector"), and these two from the "singer" (zammeru), "anointer" 54 (pashishu), and "musician" (Ualu, lallaru, naru, etc.) and from the "snake charmers" (mushlakhkhu) , who formed a class by themselves and perhaps had other functions than the name suggests. Each of these had numerous subdivisions such as "libationist" (ramku, nisakku), "anointer" (pashishu), [5] "dream interpreter" and "oracle" (sha'ilu) and others such as urigallu, and the abkallu, abarakUu, whose exact functions still escape us. [6]

Women also took a large part as priestesses of one kind or another in the temple service [7] as singers, "howlers" (chanting the lamentations), musicians, exercisers and furnishing oracles. We find also several classes of holy women leading a secluded life in special homes which would correspond to our cloisters and nunneries, and who were regarded as constituting in a measure the harem of the god to whose service they were dedicated.

Some of these were "sacred prostitutes", and it is in connection with this class of priestesses that rites were practised in the temples which, while probably regarded as purely symbolical to promote fertility among mankind and in the animal world, were unmistakably obscene, or at least degenerated into obscene rites.

In addition to the purely religious duties in connection with the temple service, the priests were also the scribes, the judges and the teachers of the people all three functions following naturally from the religious point of view involved in writing, in legal decisions and in knowledge in general.

The tradition once established, the priests continued to act as the official scribes in the case of the thousands upon thousands of legal and commercial documents that have come down to us from all periods, though, to be sure, in later days we occasionally come across a scribe who does not appear to have been a temple official.

The gods are the law givers, as all decisions are originally divine oracles furnished by their representatives, the priests. We have an interesting trace of this point of view among the Hebrews in the phrase "to go before God", used in the oldest legal code of the Pentateuch. [8] The word for law in Hebrew, lord, has its equivalent in the Babylonian terfu which means "oracle", that is, a divine decision.

Hammurapi places as the headpiece of the monument containing the laws of the country, [9] an effigy of himself in an attitude of adoration before Shamash, "the judge", as the ultimate source of the laws. Down to the latest days of the Babylonian and Assyrian kingdoms, the temples were also the law courts, and in the large centres, no doubt, special quarters were provided for the numerous offices and officials required to carry out this part of the temple service, which grew to large proportions with the spread of commercial activity and increasing business complications incident thereto.

Respect for law thus deriving its sanction from the religion marks rulers and people alike ; and even those kings who appeared to be most ambitious to extend their power and authority, whose cruelty to enemies and conquered nations knew no bounds, who openly boast of the ravages they committed in fierce warfare, bow before the majesty of the law and emphasize the care with which they protected the rights of their subjects.

The temples themselves had their own business affairs which in the case of the larger centres assumed the proportions of extensive commercial establishments. As the organization of the priesthood became more complicated, there was much work which had to be done for the temples. The needs of the priests and of the temple service had to be attended to. Contracts were given out for garments to be made, for temple property to be tilled and improved, for necessary repairs and for new edifices to be erected.

A feature of the temple organization in both Babylonia and Assyria which throws a less favorable light on the religion was the gradual increase in their land holdings, and the accumulation of large resources with the help of which the priests themselves became important factors in the commercial activity of the country. We find the temples in the large centres engaged in renting out lands and houses, in all manner of barter and exchange, in lending large and small sums on interest, and in entering directly on the customary 'Commercial enterprises.

At certain periods, the temples in fact assume somewhat the aspect of national banks, without, however, ever becoming financial monopolies. In the later days of the Babylonian monarchy we find priestly factions arising, who help to bring about the internal dissensions which made Babylon fall such an easy prey before the army of Cyrus. [10]

The religion of Babylonia and Assyria, however, survives the political downfall of both the north and the south, and well on through the period of Greek domination following upon Persian control, we find the temples in the old centres still the object of veneration and worship, to which the new rulers come to share with the people in the homage to the ancient gods. From the earliest to the latest period the priests continued to act as the teachers of the people. With the art of writing in the hands of the priests, the secrets of the gods could be unlocked by them only.

The mysterious art naturally formed the basis of an education which the priests alone could impart. On the tablets all the extant knowledge was recorded, and to the tablets the wisdom and experience of the past was committed. Only through the handbooks was it possible to acquire the details of the various rituals and to carry out the requirements without danger of missteps.

To provide for the uninterrupted continuance of religious tradition and its expression in the cult, the priests of the coming generation had to be trained by the present one. In all the larger temples and no doubt in the smaller ones as well, schools were established by the priests to hand down to their successors the wisdom of the ages as recorded in the compilations and collections which each large temple made in response to practical needs, though only in so far as these needs dictated. For the benefit of the pupils, lists of the signs used in the script were prepared with their values as syllables and as words.

Grammatical paradigms both for the Sumerian and the Akkadian texts were drawn up, exercises in the use of the phrases and terms occurring in the hymns, incantations, omens, and in legal and historical texts were worked out in almost bewildering profusion, and texts edited with commentaries to explain difficult or obscure passages. Much of the Babylonian literature has thus come down to us in the form of school editions; and this applies also to mathematical tablets, chronological and geographical lists and medical prescriptions for which long lists of trees, plants, herbs and stones served as supplements, just as lists of all kinds of animals, of vessels of all kinds were prepared as aids for instruction in the omen literature.

There followed instruction in the temple service in all its ramifications, and for this purpose the scribes of each temple had committed to writing all the necessary details and had preserved from one generation to the other the incantation rituals, the hymns and prayers, the omen collections and also as supplements, closely bound up with the cult and the current beliefs, the myths and fables and miscellaneous productions of the past.

The larger the centre, the larger naturally the official and school archives. The sciences that were evolved out of the cult, such as astronomy and mathematics in connection with astrology, medicine and botany as an outcome of the incantation rituals were likewise in the hands of the priests and remained so till a very late period.The temple schools thus continued to be the intellectual centres of the country, and no doubt these schools furnished the incentive to the cultivation of the fine arts as well. The priest as scribe and as judge leads to the priest as teacher. In this threefold capacity he dominated the entire civilization unfolded in the course of millenniums.

Footnotes and references:


Chap VII. See also Plate XXXVIII.


See p. 374 seq. on the special significance of these towers.


Above, p. 127 and Plate XLVI.


See above, p. 255 and below p. 468.


Perhaps, however, the one who merely prepares the ointment.


See the full list with discussion in Prank, Studies zur Babylonischen Religion (Strassburg, 1911), I, pp. 1-37.


See Prank, ib., pp. 47-50.


Exodus 21, 6. The rendering "judge" in the English version embodies the later interpretation.


Plate XXXIV. 18


See above, p. 184.

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