BABYLONIAN AND ASSYRIAN LITERATURE
Written by Archibald Henry Sayce and originally published in 1894
Aids to the reading of the texts. The origin of the cuneiform system of writing has been already described, as well as its chief peculiarities. We must now say something about the causes which have led to our being able to read an ordinary Assyrian text almost as easily as a page of the Old Testament.
- The ‘determinatives’ have already been mentioned which define so many words and names.
- The ideographs often prove a great assistance, as words of unknown meaning interchange with ideographs the signification of which is already known.
- The fact that the characters express syllables gives us the precise pronunciation of the words, and so enables us to read them with a certainty which is impossible in Hebrew or Phoenician where the vowels are not denoted in writing.
- Assyrian is a Semitic language, and the Semitic languages are as closely related to one another as are the Romanic languages (French, Italian, Spanish, &c.) in modern Europe. Consequently most of the words and grammatical forms found in Assyrian recur in one or other of the Semitic idioms.
- But above all, the Assyrian scribes themselves have provided us with the most abundant materials for interpreting the inscriptions.
The libraries. The amount of Assyro-Babylonian literature already known is very large. If all the texts at present in the museums of Europe and America could be published, they would rival in extent the books of the Old Testament. Most of the texts are on tablets of clay and have come from the libraries of Nineveh and Babylonia. Every great Babylonian city had at least one library, and the Assyrian kings established other libraries in their own country in imitation of those of Babylonia. About two-thirds of the library of Nineveh, which was largely the creation of Assur-bani-pal, is now in the British Museum. Scribes were kept constantly at work there copying and re-editing old texts, and sometimes writing new ones. A considerable proportion of the texts was brought from Babylonia: a colophon attached to each tablet usually states from what library the text had originally come. The texts were carefully edited; when there was a lacuna in the original the scribe tells us so, and whether it was old or recent; also if the Babylonian character were one which he did not recognize he confesses that he could not read it. Besides the clay tablets, the libraries contained papyri which have now perished.
Varieties of literature. The texts related to all the branches of knowledge studied at the time. Astronomy and astrology, mathematics, geography, medicine, law, history, religion, and mythology, private and public correspondence, mercantile transactions, political documents, the pseudo-science of omens, lists of beasts, birds, vegetables, and stones, are all represented in it, and last, but not least, philology. The necessity of translating and explaining the Sumerian texts doubtless gave philology so prominent a place. Under the head of philology come interlinear and parallel translations of Sumerian documents, together with commentaries and exercises, reading-books and grammars of the two languages, endless lists of characters with their phonetic values and significations, and numerous vocabularies partly bilingual, partly containing catalogues of Semitic synonyms. The decipherer thus has at his command a most elaborate system for learning the Assyrian and Sumerian languages compiled by the Assyrians themselves. Time after time the signification of a new word is given by its synonym or synonyms in the lexical lists, and words of uncertain meaning in Hebrew have more than once been settled by means of their Assyrian equivalents.
The texts autotypes. The cuneiform texts further possess an advantage of which the student of the Old and New Testament Scriptures might well be envious. They are the autotypes of the scribes who wrote them for the libraries in the ruins of which they have been found. The texts have never passed through the hands of later copyists little acquainted with the language in which they were composed. The corruptions of the text, such as they are, go back to the scribes of Assur-bani-pal or Nebuchadrezzar, in some cases to the scribes even of the pre-Semitic period.
Astronomy. The great work on astronomy and astrology in seventy-two chapters or books was originally compiled for the library of Sargon of Accad. It contained chapters on the eclipses or conjunction of the sun and moon, on the planets, the fixed stars, and the comets, and proves that observations of the heavens had been made for a long while previous to its composition. The path of the sun through the signs of the Zodiac had already been mapped out: in fact the Zodiacal Signs owe their origin to the astronomers of Babylonia. At the time they were first named the vernal equinox began with Taurus.
Mathematics. Among the mathematical treatises may be mentioned tables of cube and square roots from the library of Senkereh. The Babylonian system of notation resembled that of the Romans, but by an ingenious application of the sexagesimal system high numbers could be expressed in a very small number of figures.
Medicine and law. The standard work on medicine was voluminous like that on astronomy. It contained a vast number of prescriptions for different diseases, which read very much like modern ones. Law occupied a large space in Babylonian and Assyrian life, and codes of law, which protected the slave as well as the woman, went back to Sumerian times. A considerable part of the law was based on cases which had already been decided by the judges. The judges were appointed by the king, and, at all events in a later age, were under a president. Important cases were heard before several judges at once; thus a case which was tried at Babylon in B.C. 547 was heard before six judges and registered by their two clerks.
History and mythology. Historical documents are numerous and include the lists of Assyrian eponyms, after whom the successive years were named, as well as of the dynasties of kings and the number of years each king reigned. Religious literature, however, was still more largely represented. As has been stated, a considerable portion of it consisted of hymns to the gods, psalms, and ritual texts. But there were also lists of the multitudinous deities and their temples, and more especially religious myths and legends. One of these described the visit of the goddess Istar to Hades in search of her dead husband Tammuz, the Sun-god, and told how she left some of her adornment at each of its seven gates, until at last she stood stripped and bare before the mistress of the Underworld, where the waters of life gush forth. In another the adventures of the first man Adapa are related, and how he was summoned to heaven to answer the charge of having broken the wings of the south-wind. We possess two fragments of this myth, the earlier part being written on a broken tablet which was found in the library of Nineveh, while the latter part of it has been found on one of the cuneiform documents discovered at Tel el-Amarna in Egypt, where it had been copied for Egyptian or Canaanite students some eight centuries before the library of Nineveh was in existence.
The Chaldaean epic and the Deluge. One of the most famous of the legends is the Chaldaean account of the Deluge, which was discovered by George Smith in 1872. Its close resemblance to the Biblical account of the same event is well known. It embodied at least two earlier versions of the story, and in its present form is inserted as an episode in the great Epic of the Babylonian hero Gilgames. The Epic was composed by a certain Sin-liqi-unnini in twelve books, and was arranged on an astronomical principle, the subject of each book corresponding with the name of a Zodiacal sign. Thus the account of the Deluge is introduced into the eleventh book, which answers to Aquarius the eleventh sign of the Zodiac.
Gilgames, it was said, was the fated child of whom it had been prophesied that he would slay his grandfather. Though his mother had been confined in a tower, he was nevertheless born and conveyed to safety on the wings of an eagle. When grown to man’s estate he saved Erech from the enemy and made it the seat of his dominion. He overthrew Khumbaba the tyrant of the forest of cedars, and found a friend and guide in the satyr Ea-bani. The goddess Istar wooed him in marriage, but he reproached her with the woes she had already brought on her hapless lovers and scorned her beauty. In revenge she besought Anu, her father, to create a winged bull, which should attack the hero. Gilgames, however, slew the bull and returned in triumph to Erech with his spoils. But misfortune fell upon him. Ea-bani was killed by the bite of a gad-fly, his soul rising up from the ground to the heaven of heroes, and Gilgames himself was smitten with a sore disease. To heal it he sailed beyond the mouth of the Euphrates and the river of death, and here conversed with Xisuthrus, the Chaldaean Noah, who, like Enoch, had been translated without seeing death. Xisuthrus told him the story of the Deluge, and instructed him how to cure his malady.
Epic of the Creation. The Assyrian Epic of the Creation, the discovery of which was also due to George Smith, has already been alluded to. Its parallelism with the account of the Creation, in the first chapter of Genesis, was noticed from the first. The first tablet opens with a description of the deep or watery chaos, while the fifth tablet describes the appointment of the heavenly bodies for signs and for seasons, and in the seventh comes an account of the creation of the animals. The second and third tablets, however, and possibly the fourth, were occupied with the story of the struggle between Tiamat the dragon of darkness, and Merodach the Sun-god, which finds its echo in the Apocalypse (Rev. xii. 7-9). Out of the skin of Tiamat, Merodach formed the firmament which ‘divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above it.’ Other accounts of the Creation existed, which differed essentially from that of the Epic. Thus there was one that was written for the Library of Kutha and described an imperfect creation which foreshadowed as it were the present one. Mr. Pinches, again, has discovered a Sumerian legend of the origin of things which seems to have been current at Eridu. But in the Epic a considerable number of the older cosmological legends were embodied and combined, and a gloss of materialistic philosophy put upon them. It is this gloss which makes it difficult to believe that the Epic can be of much antiquity. The materials of which it is composed doubtless go back to an early period, but in its present form it belongs to an age when the deities of the old faith were resolved into philosophical abstractions and the forces of nature. At present, at all events, we have no reasons for thinking that it is earlier than the time of the Second Assyrian Empire.