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....

Lastly, a few words as to the belief of the Babylonians and Assyrians regarding the fate of man after death has set in. In common with all peoples of antiquity, Babylonians and Assyrians believed in the continuation of conscious existence in some form in the grave. As an heritage of the limited mental horizon of primitive culture, they could not conceive of life once begun coming to an absolute standstill.

The analogy between sleep and death, and the constant renewal of life in nature after its apparent extinction reinforced the popular conception that the dead, though condemned to inactivity, yet retained consciousness. The fate of the dead was, however, a sad and gloomy one. Earth burial being the prevailing method of disposing of the dead among both Sumerians and Akkadians, the dead were pictured as huddled together in a great cave under the ground to which the name Aralu was given.

In poetic compositions [1] this dwelling place is at times spoken of as a city and again as a palace, but the conception loses none of its gloomy aspects by such terms. In Aralu the dead lie, like prisoners, bound hand and foot, unable to move, doomed to perpetual inactivity, subject to pangs of hunger and thirst unless their needs are provided for by surviving relatives through food and drink placed on the graves. The method of burial remained at all times exceedingly simple. In earlier days it appears to have been customary to bury the dead naked in the ground, in later days to cover them with reed mats, or to enclose them in large earthen jars or barrels and to place them in subterranean vaults of a simple construction.

No doubt, in the case of the rulers and of the high officials more elaborate methods of burial were introduced, but in striking contrast to conditions in Egypt, we find little care bestowed on the preservation of the body. Libations and sacrifices were offered to the dead, pots and jars with food were placed near them in the vaults, and in later periods models of objects needed by them, as well as ornaments, trinkets, and perhaps toys for the children.

There was a special pantheon for the dead presided over originally by a cruel goddess, Ereshkigal or Allatu, to whom afterwards Nergal, the grim god of mid-summer, associated with sickness and death, is assigned as a consort. The pair act as prison keepers, assisted by a host of demons, headed by Namtar, the demon of pestilence, in keeping the dead confined within the gloomy hollow, portrayed as dark and dusty.

The faint beginnings of a timid reaction against this primitive conception are to be seen in tales of favorites of the gods to whom a happier future is accorded. So the hero who escapes from the deluge is removed to a land at the confluence of streams, and there enjoys a genuine immortality like that of the gods. [2]

Another hero, Gilgamesh, [3] described as two thirds god and one third man, may in one version have also been accorded this boon,. but in the composite story of his achievements which became current as the national epic of Babylonia, he is pictured as fearing death like the rest of mankind.

His companion, Eabani, who is associated with him in some of his deeds of prowess is obliged to submit to the "law of the earth" as it is called, and from the tomb sends Gilgamesh a message describing the state of the dead in the nether world. The last word on the subject is therefore a note of despair, an injunction to enjoy life as long as it lasts, for after death all joys cease. [4]

That under the circumstances th'e ethics of the Babylonians and Assyrians were nevertheless of a relatively high order, as seen in the laws, the regulations of the courts, in the methods of business, in the family relationships, and even in the attitude of the kings towards their subjects speaks well for the wholesome influence exerted by the religion. [5]

No doubt the constant fear of the demons acted as an impelling motive in inducing the people to maintain favorable relations with the gods, paying tribute to them by sacrifices and gifts, seeking out their shrines to obtain directions through the priests for proper conduct, taking the necessary steps to ascertain the meaning of signs sent by the gods, imploring their forgiveness when divine anger had manifested itself in one way or another, but apart from all purely material motives there must have been a serious realization of the obligations resting upon ruler and people alike to regulate their lives according to fixed standards which, with due recognition of their limitations, must yet have been of a high order.

The gods, as we have seen, were pictured as on the whole kindly disposed toward mankind, acting from motives of justice tempered with mercy.

Such conceptions must have reacted favorably on the disposition of the masses to carry out in their own lives the example set by the divine rulers from whom they believed all blessings to flow. The hope of obtaining these blessings, which were in the main of a purely materialistic order long life, plenty of offspring, ease, comfort and joy were no doubt the mainspring of conduct, as they still dominate the general ethics of the masses at the present time; but such is the complicated and contradictory nature of man that ideals may spring up from a materialistic foundation.

This was the case in the civilization of Babylonia and Assyria. When Hammurapi, the great and rather ruthless conqueror, declares as his highest ambition to be remembered as a "father to his people", [6] we can no longer doubt the sway exercised by religious conceptions and by ethical aims, quite independent of the material rewards to be expected by following the standards of right and justice.

Footnotes and references:


See p. 454, and for further details Chapter IV on "Hebrew and Babylonian Views of Life after Death", in Jastrow, Hebrew and Babylonian Traditions (New York, 1914).


See p. 452.


See Chapter XXIII of the author 's Religion of Babylonia and Assyria (Boston, 1898).


See pp. 461-463.


Further details in Chapter V, "Hebrew and Babylonian Ethics", in the author's Hebrew and Babylonian Traditions (New York, 1914), and Chapter VI, "Ethics and Life after Death", in the author's Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria (New York, 1911). See also "Maxims of Conduct", pp. 464-465.


In the Introduction to his famous code. 

Like what you read? Consider supporting this website: