Written by Archibald Henry Sayce and originally published in 1894
The religions of Babylonia and Assyria. The religion of Assyria was borrowed from that of Babylonia. The deities worshipped in the two countries were the same, as also were the ritual and the religious beliefs of the people. Almost the only difference observable in the religion of the two kingdoms was that whereas Bel-Merodach was the supreme god of Babylon, Assur, the impersonation of the old capital, was the supreme god of Assyria.
Differences between Babylonian and Assyrian religion. But the different characters of the two populations were reflected in their religious conceptions. The Assyrians were a nation of warriors, the Babylonians of traders, agriculturists, and scribes. Assur is accordingly ‘a man of war’; it was in reliance upon him that the Assyrian armies marched into foreign lands, and compelled their inhabitants to acknowledge him. Not to believe in Assur was a crime, since Assur represented Assyria. Assur, too, admitted no rival at his side: wifeless and childless he stood alone. Once or twice, indeed, an Assyrian scribe ascribes to him a wife or a child, but this is in imitation of Babylonian usage and the belief never took root in Assyria.
Bel-Merodach, on the contrary, was a god of mercy. He is ‘the merciful one’ who hearkens to those that call upon him and who ‘raises the dead to life’ through trust in his power. Belat, or Beltis, ‘the lady,’ stood at his side, a reflection of himself, and the gods were his children who recognized him as their father and creator.
Sumerian religion Shamanistic. Babylonian religion was a compound of Sumerian and Semitic elements. Sumerian religion had originally been ‘Shamanistic’ in character. That is to say it had no conception of deities or priests in the usual sense of the words. Each object or force of nature was believed to have its zi or ‘life’ like men and beasts; the zi was a sort of vital principle which caused the arrow to fly, the knife to wound, or the stars to move through the heaven. A personality was given to it, and it thus became what we may term a spirit. With these spirits, accordingly, the sky and earth were peopled; they were in fact as multitudinous as the objects and forces of nature to which they owed their birth. Necessarily the greater number of them were harmful, if not always at any rate at certain times and in certain places. Magical charms alone could protect man from their malevolence or bring down their blessing upon him, and these magical charms and ceremonies were known only to a particular class of persons. To such sorcerer-priests the name of ‘shamans’ has been assigned, the form of religion represented by them being termed ‘Shamanistic.’
Two centres of Babylonian religion. In prehistoric times two great religious centres existed in Babylonia, from which two divergent streams of religious influence flowed over the country. One of these was Nipur in the north, the other Eridu in the south. Nipur was the seat of Shamanism, and its patron deity in later days still retained the title of Mul-lil or El-lil, ‘the lord of the ghost-world.’ Eridu, on the other hand, was brought by its trade and situation into contact with foreign culture. It thus became the source of a higher and more spiritual form of faith. The spirit of the water, who had been its special object of adoration, became the culture-god Ea, the lord of the abyss, who is called Oannes in the Greek history of Bêrôssos and was believed to have been the author of Babylonian culture. To him its laws, its arts, and its sciences were alike traced back. Through his wisdom his son Asari-mulu-dugga, ‘Asari who benefits mankind,’ was enabled to cure the diseases and troubles of men, and teach them how to avoid evil. His teachings were embodied in writing, and so a sacred book grew up, half Bible, half Ritual, which contained hymns to the gods as well as rubrics for the performance of the ceremonies accompanying their recitation.
Under the influence of Eridu the religion of Babylonia ceased to be so purely Shamanistic as it once had been. Certain of the spirits tended to take rank above their fellows and thus to pass into gods. How long this process of development lasted we do not know.
Semitic Influence. But a time came when the Semites entered the country and were brought into close contact, hostile or peaceable, with its Sumerian inhabitants. The result was a fusion of Sumerian and Semitic religious ideas. An official religion came into existence which consisted of a Semitic form of faith grafted upon a Sumerian root.
The religion of the Semite was essentially different from that of the Sumerian. The primary object of his worship was the Baal, Bel, or ‘Lord,’ who revealed himself in the sun. Each tribe and each locality had its own Baal; when the tribes coalesced or when the same tribe occupied more than one locality the various Baals were regarded as so many forms of the supreme God.
Each Baal was the father of a family. At his side stood his wife, a colourless reflection of himself, as the wife was of the husband in the Semitic family on earth. Like the father of the family on earth, Baal too in heaven had his children.
Where the religions of the Semite and the Sumerian met and combined, the Sumerian spirits who had emerged above the rest like Ea of Eridu or El-lil of Nipur, were assimilated to the Semitic Baalim. El-lil, in fact, was known throughout the Semitic period as Bel of Nipur. Wherever it was possible a solar character was given to them; in other cases the general characteristics of the Semitic deity were attached to the old Sumerian divinity. The great body of the spirits which had fallen into the background was grouped together as the 300 spirits of heaven (Igigi) and the 600 spirits of earth (Anunnaki).
The goddess Istar. In one instance, however, it was the Semite rather than the Sumerian who was affected by the contact between the two forms of faith. The spirit of the evening star became the goddess Istar, who retained her independent position by the side of the male deities. While the other goddesses were absorbed in the persons of their divine consorts like the wife in the Semitic family, Istar, having no consort, remained like the wife in the Sumerian family on a footing of equality with the man. When the name and worship of Istar were passed on to the Semitic peoples of the West, the anomaly led to more than one change in her character. In southern Arabia and Moab she was identified with a male deity; in Canaan her name received the feminine suffix -th (Ashtoreth), and she thus became in large measure an ordinary Semitic goddess.
Bel-Merodach. After the rise of Babylon as the capital of the kingdom, its patron-god Merodach became the supreme Baal or Bel of Babylonia. He had already been identified with Asari-mulu-dugga, the son of Ea, and the attributes of the latter were accordingly transferred to the new Bel. It was to him that the great temple of Ê-Saggil was erected in Babylon, while the interpreter of his will to men, Nebo, the divine ‘prophet,’ had his temple Ê-Zida in the neighbouring suburb of Borsippa. At Nipur a god whose name has been variously read Uras, Nin-ip, Bar and Adar, but the true pronunciation of which is still unknown, stood in much the same relation to El-lil that Nebo did to Merodach. He was, however, regarded as a solar warrior instead of as a prophet.
Other deities. Nergal was worshipped in Kutha and its cemeteries; Samas, ‘the Sun,’ at Sippara; Sin, ‘the Moon,’ at Ur and Harran; Anu, ‘the Sky,’ at Erech, where he was associated with Istar. Along with Ea and Bel of Nipur, Anu formed a triad which represented in the official religion the three elementary deities of the sea, the earth, and the heavens. The sea, however, was rather the primordial ‘deep’ out of which all things arose than the sea of the actual world, while ‘the heaven of Anu’ was beyond the visible sky, and Bel was the prince of the air and the underworld.
Sacred books and ritual. Along with the growth of the official religion went the growth and completion of the Chaldaean Bible and Prayer-book. The festivals of the gods were numerous; the ceremonies to be performed by the priests were more numerous still. The ceremonies were usually accompanied by the recitation of one or more hymns; these hymns were written in Sumerian, which had now become the sacred language of Chaldaea just as Latin is the sacred language of the Roman Church, and since Sumerian was no longer understood by the majority of the people they were provided with interlinear translations into Semitic Babylonian. From time to time the pronunciation of the old Sumerian words was indicated, for just as it was needful that the inspired words should be handed down without the slightest alteration, so also was it needful that they should be pronounced aright. An error even in pronunciation was supposed to invalidate the ceremony. Among the hymns is a collection of penitential psalms of which the following lines will give some idea:
‘O lord, my sins are many, my transgressions are great!
O my god, my sins are many, my transgressions are great!
O my goddess, my sins are many, my transgressions are great!
The lord in the wrath of his heart has regarded me;
God in the fierceness of his heart has revealed himself to me.
The goddess has been violent against me, and has put me to grief.
I sought for help and none took my hand;
I wept and none stood at my side;
I cried aloud and there was none that heard me.
To my god, the merciful one, I turn myself, I utter my prayer.
O my god, seven times seven are my transgressions: forgive my sins!’
The Priests. The existence of a hierarchy of gods, of a Bible, and of a Prayer-book implies the existence of a priesthood. The sorcerer of prehistoric times became the priest of later Babylonia. The priests were distinguished into several classes. At the head came the High-priest who was often the monarch; in Assyria indeed this was commonly the case. Subordinate to him were other high-priests, and under them again the ‘anointers’ (who cleansed the sacred vessels of the sanctuary), the priests of Istar and the ‘elders.’ By the side of them stood the ‘prophets’ (asipi) under a ‘chief.’ The prophets could predict the future and were consulted on matters of state. We hear of armies being accompanied by them into the field, and when Assur-bani-pal suppressed the revolt of the Babylonians ‘by the command of the prophets,’ he says, ‘I purified their shrines and cleansed their chief places of prayer. The angry gods and wrathful goddesses I soothed with supplications and penitential psalms. I restored and established in peace their daily sacrifices which they had discontinued.’
The Temples. The temples were provided with towers which served for the observation of the stars, and stood within large courts. In the shrine was a ‘mercy-seat’ whereon the god ‘seated himself’ on certain occasions. At Balawât near Nineveh the mercy-seat had the form of a coffer or ark, in which two written tables of stone were placed. In front of it stood the altar approached by steps. In the court was a ‘sea’ or large basin of water, which like that of Solomon was, in one case at all events, supported on bulls of bronze. The images of the gods were almost invariably of human form.
Astro-theology. The prominence given to the study of astronomy had much to do with giving Babylonian religion an astral character. The stars were worshipped; Istar herself was originally the evening star, and most of the principal deities were identified with the planets and chief fixed stars. The importance of the stars for the regulation of the calendar, moreover, kept them constantly before the eyes of the priests. But whether Babylonian astrotheology was not really primitive or whether it went back to the pre-Semitic period we do not yet know.
Sacrifices and offerings. Sacrifices were offered to the stars, as to the other divinities. Besides the sacrifices, offerings were also made of meal, dates, oil, and wine. The sacrifices and offerings must have been numerous since in the larger temples there was not only ‘the daily sacrifice’ but also constant services both by day and night. On the great festivals, moreover, there were services of a special character, as also when days of thanksgiving or humiliation were ordained. The sacrifices and offerings were provided partly by endowments, partly by voluntary gifts (sometimes called kurbanni, the Hebrew korban), partly by obligatory contributions, the most important of which were the ‘tithes.’
The Sabbath. Besides the festivals of the gods there was a sabattu or ‘Sabbath,’ observed on the 9th, 14th, 19th, 21st, and 28th day of the month, on which various kinds of work were forbidden to be done. Food even was not allowed to be cooked, or medicine to be taken. The sabattu is described as ‘a day of rest for the heart,’ and a ‘free-will offering’ had to be made in the night of it.
Monotheistic tendency. Among the educated classes religious feeling seems to have been fervent, and at times the language used approaches that of monotheism. Thus in an early hymn to the Moon-god which was composed in the city of Ur, we read:—
‘Father, long-suffering and full of forgiveness, whose hand upholds the life of all mankind!
First-born, omnipotent, whose heart is immensity, and there is none who may fathom it!
In heaven, who is supreme? Thou alone, thou art supreme!
On earth, who is supreme? Thou alone, thou art supreme!’
So, again, Nebuchadrezzar prays as follows to Bel-Merodach:
‘O prince, thou art from everlasting, lord of all that exists, for the king whom thou lovest, whom thou callest by name, as it seems good to thee, thou guidest his name aright, thou watchest over him in the path of righteousness. I, the prince who obeys thee, am the work of thy hands; thou hast created me and hast entrusted to me the sovereignty over multitudes of men, according to thy goodness, O lord, which thou hast made to pass over them all. Let me love thy supreme lordship, let the fear of thy divinity exist in my heart, and give what seemeth good to thee, since thou maintainest my life.’
The future life. The mass of the people, however, were sunk in the grossest superstition, and the future to which they looked forward was sufficiently dreary. Hades lay beneath the earth, where the spirits of the dead flitted about like bats in darkness with dust only for their food. A happier lot was reserved for the few, and a prayer is made for an Assyrian king that after death he should ascend to ‘the land of the silver sky.’
Cosmology. In early Sumerian days the heaven was believed to rest on the peak of ‘the mountain of the world,’ in the far north-east, where the gods had their habitations (cf. Isa. xiv. 13), while an ocean or ‘deep’ encircled the earth which rested upon its surface. With the progress of knowledge truer ideas of geography came to prevail. The later cosmogony is represented in the first tablet of the Creation story where the old gods are resolved into cosmical elements. The ‘deep’ is said to have been ‘the generator’ of the heavens and the earth, ‘Mummu-Tiamat’ (the chaos of the sea) being ‘the mother of them all…. At that time the gods had not appeared… Then the [great] gods were created, Lakhmu and Lakhamu issued forth the first.’ Next came the creation of An-sar and Ki-sar, ‘the upper’ and ‘lower firmament,’ who in their turn gave birth to Anu, Ea, and Bel. The struggle between Merodach, the god of light and order, with Tiamat, the dragon of darkness, chaos, and evil, occupied a prominent place in the Epic of the Creation. Along with Tiamat there were ranged in battle the evil creatures of night and destruction, most of whom had composite forms. The belief in them had been inherited from the age of Shamanism, and they were regarded as the products of a first and imperfect creation. Some of them came to symbolize the powers of darkness, others were transported to the skies, certain of the allies of Tiamat being the Zodiacal animals, while out of the skin of Tiamat Merodach constructed the heaven itself. In the Epic Tiamat is identified with the source of the fountains of the great deep.