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Study Resources :: Dictionaries :: Babylonia and Assyria, Religion Of

Dictionaries :: Babylonia and Assyria, Religion Of

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Below are articles from the following dictionary:
International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia

Babylonia and Assyria, Religion Of:


1. First Period

2. Second Period

3. Third Period




1. Enlil, Ellil

2. Anu

3. Ea

4. Sin

5. Shamash

6. Ishtar

7. Marduk (Old Testament Merodach)

8. Nabu (Old Testament Nebo)

9. Nergal, the city god of Kutu (Old Testament Guthah)

10. Ninib

11. Ramman

12. Tammuz

13. Asshur



1. Maqlu

2. Shurpu






I. Definition.

The religion of Babylonia and Assyria is that system of belief in higher things with which the peoples of the Tigris and Euphrates valley strove to put themselves into relations, in order to live their lives. The discoveries of the past century have supplied us with a mass of information concerning this faith from which we have been able to secure a greater knowledge of it than of any other ancient oriental religion, except that of Israel. Yet the information which is thus come into our hands is embarrassing because of its very richness, and it will doubtless be a long time before it is possible to speak with certainty concerning many of the problems which now confront us. Progress in the interpretation of the literature is however so rapid that we may now give a much more intelligible account of this religion than could have been secured even so recently as five years ago.

For purposes of convenience, the religion of Babylonia and Assyria may be grouped into three great periods.

1. First Period:

The first of these periods extends from the earliest times, about 3500 BC, down to the union of the Babylonian states under Hammurabi, about 2000 BC.

2. Second Period:

The second period extends to the rise of the Chaldean empire under Nabopolassar, 625 BC, and

3. Third Period:

The third period embraces the brief history of this Chaldean or neo-Babylonian empire under Cyrus, 538 BC.

The Assyrian religion belongs to the second period, though it extends even into the third period, for Nineveh did not fall until 607 BC.

II. The Sources.

The primary sources of our knowledge of this religion are to be found in the distinctively religious texts, such as hymns, prayers, priestly rituals and liturgies, and in the vast mass of magical and incantation literature. The major part of this religious literature which has come down to us dates from the reign of Ashurbanipal (668-625 BC) though much of it is quite clearly either copied from or based upon much older material. If, however, we relied for our picture of the Babylonian and Assyrian religion exclusively upon these religious texts, we should secure a distorted and in some places an indefinite view. We must add to these in order to perfect the picture practically the whole of the literature of these two peoples.

The inscriptions upon which the kings handed down to posterity an account of their great deeds contain lists of gods whom they invoked, and these must be taken into consideration. The laws also have in large measure a religious basis, and the business inscriptions frequently invoke deities at the end. The records of the astronomers, the state dispatches of kings, the reports of general officers from the field, the handbooks of medicine, all these and many other divisions of a vast literature contribute each its share of religious material. Furthermore, as the religion was not only the faith of the king, but also the faith of the state itself, the progress of the commonwealth to greater power oftentimes carried some local god into a new relationship to other gods, or the decadence of the commonwealth deprived a god of some of his powers or attributes, so that even the distinctively political inscriptions have importance in helping us to reconstruct the ancient literature.

III. The History.

The origin of the Babylonian religion is hid from our eyes in those ancient days of which we know little and can never hope to know much. In the earliest documents which have come down to us written in the Sumerian language, there are found Semitic words or constructions or both. It seems now to be definitely determined that a Sumerian people whose origin is unknown inhabited Babylonia before the coming of the Semites, whose original home was in Arabia. Of the Sumerian faith before a union was formed with the Semites, we know very little indeed. But we may perhaps safely say that among that ancient people, beneath the belief in gods there lay deep in their consciousness the belief in animism. They thought that every object, animate or inanimate, had a zi or spirit. The word seems originally to have meant life. Life manifests itself to us as motion; everything which moves has life. The power of motion separates the animate from the inanimate. All that moves possesses life, the motionless is lifeless or dead.

Besides this belief in animism, the early Sumerians seem to have believed in ghosts that were related to the world of the dead as the zi was related to the world of the living. The lil or ghost was a night demon of baleful influence upon men, and only to be cast out by many incantations. The lil was attended by a serving-maid (ardat lili, "maid of night") which in the later Semitic development was transformed into the feminine lilitu. It is most curious and interesting that this ghost demon of the Sumerians lived on through all the history of the Babylonian religion, and is mentioned even in one of the Old Testament prophets (Isa 34:14; Hebrew Lillith, translated "night monster"). The origin of the Semitic religion brought by the ancient Semitic people and united with this Sumerian faith is also lost in the past.

It seems to be quite clear that the gods and the religious ideas which these Semites brought with them from the desert had very little if any importance for the religion which they afterward professed in Babylonia. Some of the names of their gods and images of these they very probably brought with them, but the important thing, it must always be remembered, about the gods is not the names but the attributes which were ascribed to them, and these must have been completely changed during the long history which follows their first contact with the Sumerians. From the Sumerians there flowed a great stream of religious ideas, subject indeed to modifications from time to time down the succeeding centuries. In our study of the pantheon we shall see from time to time how the gods changed their places and how the ideas concerning them were modified by political and other movements. In the very earliest times, besides these ideas of spirits and ghosts, we find also numbers of local gods. Every center of human habitati on had its special patron deity and this deity is always associated with some great natural phenomenon. It was natural that the sun and moon should be made prominent among these gods, but other natural objects and forces were personified and deified, streams, stones and many others.

Our chief source of information concerning the gods of the first period of religious development before the days of Hammurabi is found in the historical inscriptions of the early kings and rulers. Many of these describe offerings of temples and treasures made to the gods, and all of them are religious in tone and filled with ascriptions of praise to the gods. From these early texts Professor Jastrow has extricated the names of the following deities, gods and goddesses. I reproduce his list as the best yet made, but keep in mind that some of the readings are doubtful and some were certainly otherwise read by the Babylonians or Sumerians, though we do not now know how they ought to be read. The progress of Assyrian research is continually providing corrected readings for words hitherto known to us only in ideograms. It is quite to be expected that many of these strange, not to say grotesque, names will some day prove to be quite simple, and easy to utter: En-lil (Ellil, Bel) Belit, Nin-khar-sag, Nin-gir-su, wh o also appears as Dun-gur, Bau, Ga-tum-dug, Nin-dindug, Ea, Nin-a-gal, Gal- dim-zu-ab, Nin-ki, Damgal-nun-na, Nergal, Shamash, A or Malkatu, the wife of Shamash, Nannar, or Sin, Nin-Urum, Innanna, Nana, Anunit, Nina, Ishtar, Anu, Nindar-a, Gal-alim, Nin-shakh, Dun-shagga, Lugalbanda, with a consort Nin-sun, Dumu-zi-zu- ab, Dumu-zi, Lugal-Erim, Nin-e-gal and Ningal, Nin-gish-zi-da, Dun-pa-uddu, Nin-mar, Pa-sag, Nidaba, Ku(?)-anna, Shid, Nin- agid-kha-du, Ninshul-li, En-gubarra, Im-mi-khu(?), Ur-du-zi, Kadi, Nu-ku-sir-da, Ma-ma, Za-ma-ma, Za-za-ru, Impa-ud-du, Ur- e-nun-ta-ud-du-a, Khi-gir-nunna, Khi-shagga, Gur-mu, Zar-mu, Dagan, Damu, Lama, Nesu, Nun-gal, An-makh, Nin-si-na, Nin-asu. In this list great gods and goddesses and all kinds of minor deities are gathered together, and the list looks and sounds hopeless. But these are local deities, and some of them are mere duplications. Nearly every place in early times would have a sun-god or a moon-god or both, and in the political development of the country the moon-god of the conquering city displaced or absorbed the moon-god of the conquered. When we have eliminated these gods, who have practically disappeared, there remains a comparatively small number of gods who outrank all the others.

In the room of some of these gods that disappeared, others, especially in Assyria, found places. There was, however, a strong tendency to diminish the number of the gods. They are in early days mentioned by the score, but as time goes on many of these vanish away and only the few remain. As Jastrow has pointed out, Shalmaneser II (859-825 BC) had only eleven gods in his pantheon: Ashur, Anu, Bel, Ea, Sin, Shamash, Ninib, Nergal, Nusku, Belit and Ishtar. Sennacherib (704-681 BC) usually mentions only eight; namely, Ashur, Sin, Shamash, Bel (that is, Marduk), Nabu, Nergal, Ishtar of Nineveh and Ishtar of Arbela. But we must not lay much emphasis upon the smallness of this number, for in his building inscriptions at the end he invokes twenty-five deities, and even though some of these are duplicates of other gods, as Jastrow correctly explains, nevertheless the entire list is considerably increased over the eight above mentioned. In the late Babylonian period the worship seems chiefly devoted to Marduk, Nabu, Sin, Shamash and Ishtar. Often there seem little faint indications of a further step forward. Some of the hymns addressed to Shamash seem almost upon the verge of exalting him in such a way as to exclude the other deities, but the step is never taken. The Babylonians, with all their wonderful gifts, were never able to conceive of one god, of one god alone, of one god whose very existence makes logically impossible the existence of any other deity. Monotheism transcends the spiritual grasp of the Babylonian mind.

Amid all this company of gods, amid all these speculations and combinations, we must keep our minds clear, and fasten our eyes upon the one significant fact that stands out above all others. It is that the Babylonians were not able to rise above polytheism; that beyond them, far beyond them, lay that great series of thoughts about God that ascribe to him aloneness, to which we may add the great spiritual ideas which today may roughly be grouped under ethical monotheism. Here and there great thinkers in Babylonia grasped after higher ideas, and were able only to attain to a sort of pantheism of a speculative kind. A personal god, righteous and holy, who loved righteousness. and hated sin, this was not given to them to conceive.

The character of the gods changed indeed as the people who revered them changed. The Babylonians who built vast temples and composed many inscriptions emphasizing the works of peace rather than of war, naturally conceived their deities in a manner different from the Assyrians whose powers were chiefly devoted to conquests in war, but neither the Babylonians nor the Assyrians arose to any such heights as distinguish the Hebrew book of Psalms. As the influence of the Babylonians and Assyrians waned, their go ds declined in power, and none of them survived the onrush of Greek civilization in the period of Alexander.

IV. The Pantheon.

The chief gods of the Babylonian and Assyrian pantheon may now be characterized in turn.

1. Enlil, Ellil:

In the earliest times known to us the greatest of the gods is the god of Nippur whose name in the Sumerian texts is Enlil or Ellil. In the Semitic pantheon of later times he was identified with the god Bel, and it is as Belhe has been chiefly known. During the whole of the first epoch of Babylonian history up to the period of Hammurabi, he is the Lord of the World and the King of the Land. He was originally the hero of the Flood story, but in the form in which it has come down to us Marduk of Babylon has deprived him of these honors. In Nippur was his chief temple, called E-kur or "mountain house." It was built and rebuilt by the kings of Babylonia again and again from the days of Sargon I (3800 BC) onward, and no less than twenty kings are known to us who pride themselves on their work of rebuilding this one temple. He is saluted as "the Great Lord, the command of whose mouth cannot be altered and whose grace is steadfast." He would seem, judging from the name of his temple and from some of his attributes, to have been originally a god of the mountains where he must have had his original dwelling-place.

2. Anu:

The name of the god Anu was interpreted as meaning heaven, corresponding to the Sumerian word ana, "heaven," and he came thus to be regarded as the god of heaven as over against Enlil who was the god of earth, and Ea who was the god of the waters. Anu appears first among the great gods in an inscription of Lugalsaggi, and in somewhat later times he made his way to the top of the earliest triad which consists of Ann, Enlil and Ea. His chief seat of worship was Uruk, but in the Assyrian period he was associated with the god Adad in a temple in the city of Asshur. In the myths and epics he fills an important role as the disposer of all events, but he cannot be thought of as quite equal in rank with Enlil in spite of his position in the heavens. Antu or Anatu is mentioned as the wife of Ann, but hers is a colorless figure, and she may probably be regarded as little else than a grammatical invention owing to the desire of the Semites to associate the feminine with the masculine in their languages.

3. Ea:

The reading of the name of the god Ea still remains uncertain. It may perhaps have been Ae, as the Greek Aos would seem to indicate. His chief city of worship was Eridu, which in the earliest period was situated on the Persian Gulf, near the mouths of the Euphrates and the Tigris. His temple was there called E-absu, which means "house of the deeps," interpreted also as "house of wisdom." He must have been a god of great importance in early times, but was left behind by the growing influence of Ellil and in a later period retained honor chiefly because he was assumed to be the. father of the god Marduk, and so was reverenced by the people of the city of Babylon. As the lord of wisdom he filled a great role in exorcisms down to the very last, and was believed to be the god who was most ready to respond to human need in direful circumstances. Ea's wife is called Damkina.

4. Sin:

Sin was the city god of Urn (Ur of the Chaldeans in the Old Testament). He was originally a local god who came early to a lofty position in the canon because he seems always to have been identified with the moon, and in Babylon the moon was always of more importance than the sun because of its use in the calendar. His temple was called E-kishshirgal, i.e. "house of light." His worship was widespread, for at a very early date he had a shrine at Harran in Mesopotamia. His wife is called Ningal, the Great Lady, the Queen, and his name probably appears in Mt. Sinai. He is addressed in hymns of great beauty and was regarded as a most kindly god.

5. Shamash:

The Sun-god, Shamash, ranks next after Sin in the second or later triad, and there can be no doubt that he was from the beginning associated with the sun in the heavens. His seats of worship were Larsa in southern Babylonia and Sippar in northern Babylonia in both of which his temple was called E-bab-bar, "shining house." He also is honored in magnificent hymns in which he is saluted as the enemy and the avenger of evil, but as the benignant furtherer of all good, especially of that which concerns the races of men. All legislation is ascribed to him as the supreme judge in heaven. To him the Babylonians also ascribe similar powers in war to those which the Egyptians accorded to Re. From some of the texts one might have supposed that he would have come to the top of the triad, but this appears not to have been the case, and his influence extended rather in the direction of influencing minor local deities who were judged to be characterized by attributes similar to those ascribed to him in the greater hymns.

6. Ishtar:

The origin and the meaning of the name of the goddess Ishtar are still disputed, but of her rank there can be no doubt. In the very earliest inscriptions known to us she does not seem to have been associated with the planet Venus as she is in later times. She seems rather to have been a goddess of fruitfulness and of love, and in her temple at Uruk temple- prostitution was a feature. In the mythological literature she occupies a high place as the goddess of war and of the chase. Because of this later identification she became the chief goddess of the warlike Assyrians. Little by little she absorbed all the other goddesses and her name became the general word for goddess. Her chief seats of worhip were Uruk in southern Babylonia, where she was worshipped in earliest times under the name of Nana, and Akkad in northern Babylonia, where she was called Anunitu, and Nineveh and Arbela in Assyria. Some of the hymns addressed to her are among the noblest products of Babylonian and Assyrian religion and reach a considerable ethical position. This development of a sexual goddess into a goddess who severely judged the sins of men is one of the strangest phenomena in the history of this religion.

7. Marduk:

Marduk (in the Old Testament Merodach) is the city-god of Babylon where his temple was called E-sagila ("lofty house") and its tower E-teme nanki ("house of the foundation of heaven and earth"). His wife is Sarpanitu, and, as we have already seen, his father was Ea, and in later days Nabu was considered his son. The city of Babylon in the earliest period was insignificant in importance compared with Nippur and Eridu, and this city-god could not therefore lay claim to a position comparable with the gods of these cities, but after Hammurabi had made Babylon the chief city of all Babylonia its god rapidly increased in importance until he absorbed the attributes of the earlier gods and displaced them in the great myths. The speculative philosophers of the neo-Babylonian period went so far as to identify all the earlier gods with him, elevating his worship into a sort of henotheism. His proper name in the later periods was gradually displaced by the appellativc Belu "lord," so that finally he was commonly spoken of as Bel, and his consort was called Belit. He shares with Ishtar and Shamash the honor of having some of the finest hymns, which have come down to us, sung to his name.

8. Nabu:

Nabu (in the Old Testament Nebo) was the city-god of Bor-sippa. His name is clearly Semitic, and means "speaker" or "announcer." In earlier times he seems to have been a more important god than Marduk and was worshipped as the god of vegetation. His temple in Borsippa bore the name E-zida ("perpetual house") with the tower E-uriminanki ("house of the seven rulers of heaven and earth"). In later times he was identified with the planet Mercury.

9. Nergal:

Nergal, the city-god of Kutu (in the Old Testament Cuthah), was the god of the underworld and his wife Eresh-kigal was the sovereign lady of the under-world. He was also the god of plague and of fever, and in later days was associated with the planet Mars, though scholars who are attached to the astral theory (see below) think that he was identified at an earlier date with Saturn. For this view no certain proof has yet been produced.

10. Ninib:

Unfortunately the correct pronunciation of the name of the god Ninib has not yet been secured. He seems originally to have been a god of vegetation, but in the later philosophical period was associated with the planet Saturn, called Kaitaann (Kewan, Chiun, Am 5:26 the King James Version, the English Revised Version). As a god of vegetation he becomes also a god of healing and his wife Gula was the chief patroness of physicians. He comes also to be regarded as a mighty hero in war, and, in this capacity generally, he fills a great role in the Assyrian religion.

11. Ramman:

Ramman is the god of storms and thunder among the Babylonians and in the Assyrian pantheon he is usually called Adad. This form of the name is doubtless connected with the Aramaic god Hadad. In the Sumerian period his name seems to have been Ishkur. His wife is called Shala.

12. Tammuz:

The name Tammuz is derived from the Sumerian Dumuzi-zuab ("real child of the water depths"). He is a god of vegetation which is revived by the rains of the spring. Tammuz never became one of the great gods of the pantheon, but his popularity far exceeded that of the many gods who were regarded as greater than he. His worship is associated with that of Ishtar whose paramour he was, and the beautiful story of the descent of Ishtar to Hades was written to describe Ishtar's pursuit of him to the depths of the under-world seeking to bring him up again. His disappearance in the under-world is associated with the disappearance of vegetation under the midsummer heat which revives again when the rain comes and the god appears once more on the earth. The cult of Tammuz survived the decay of Babylonian and Assyrian civilization and made its way into the western world. It was similar in some respects to that of Osiris in Egypt, but was not so beautiful or so humane.

13. Asshur:

The supreme god of Assyria, Asshur, was originally the local god of the city which bears the same name. During the whole of Assyrian history his chief role is as the god of war, but the speculative philosophers of Assyria absorbed into him many of the characteristics of Ellil and Marduk, going even so far as to ascribe to him the chief place in the conflict with the sea monster Tiamat in the creation epoch.

V. Hymns and Prayers.

The religious literature of the Babylonians and Assyrians culminated in a great series of hymns to the gods. These have come down to us from almost all periods of the religious history of the people. Some of them go back to the days of the old city- kingdoms and others were composed during the reign of Nabonidus when the fall of Babylon at the hands of Cyrus was imminent. The greatest number of those that have come down to us are dedicated to Shamash, the Sun-god, but many of the finest, as we have already seen, were composed in honor of Sin, the Moon-god. None of these reached monotheism. All are polytheistic, with perhaps tendencies in the direction of pantheism or henotheism. This incapacity to reach monotheism may have been partially due to the influence of the local city whose tendency was always to hold tightly to the honor of the local god. Babylonia might struggle never so hard to lift Marduk to high and still higher position, but in spite of all its efforts he remains to the very end of the days only one god among many. And even the greatest of the Babylonian kings, Nebuchadrezzar and Nabonidus, continued to pay honor to Shamash in Sippar, whose temple they continually rebuilt and adorned with ever greater magnificence. Better than any description of the hymns is a specimen adequately to show their quality. Here are some lines taken from an ancient Sumerian hymn to the Moon-god which had been copied and preserved with an Assyrian translation in the library of Ashurbanipal: + O Lord, chief of the gods, who alone art exalted on earth and in heaven, Father Nannar, Lord, Anshar, chief of the gods, Father Nannar, Lord, great Ann, chief of the gods, Father Nannar, Lord, Sin, chief of the gods, Father Nanbar, Lord of Ur, chief of the gods, Father Nannar, Lord of E-gish-shir-gal, chief of the gods, Father Nannar, Lord of the veil, brilliant one, chief of the gods, Father Nannar, whose rule is perfect, chief of the gods, Father Nannar, who does march in great majesty, chief of the gods, O strong, young bull, with strong horns, perfect in muscles, with beard of lapis lazuli color, full of glory and perfection, Self-created, full of developed fruit, beautiful to look upon, in whose being one cannot sufficiently sate himself; Mother womb, begetter of all things, who has taken up his exalted habitation among living creatures; O merciful, gracious father, in whose hand rests the life of the whole world, O Lord, thy divinity is full of awe, like the far-off heaven and the broad ocean. O creator of the land, founder of sanctuaries, proclaimer of their names, O father, begetter of gods and men, who dost build dwellings and establish offerings, Who dost call to lordship, dost bestow the scepter, determinest destinies for far-off days. -Much of this is full of fine religious feeling, and the exaltation of Sin sounds as though the poet could scarcely acknowledge any other god, but the proof that other gods were invoked in the same terms and by the same kings is plentiful.

Some of these hymns are connected with magical and incantation literature, for they serve to introduce passages which are intended to drive away evil demons. A very few of them on the other hand rise to very lofty conceptions in which the god is praised as a judge of righteousness. A few lines from the greatest of all the hymns addressed to Shamash, the Sun-god, will make this plain:

COLUMN II + Who plans evil-his horn thou dost destroy, 40 Whoever in fixing boundaries annuls rights. The unjust judge thou restrainest with force. Whoever accepts a bribe, who does not judge justly-on him thou imposest sin. But he who does not accept a bribe, who has a care for the oppressed, To him Shamash is gracious, his life he prolongs. 45 The judge who renders a just decision Shall end in a palace, the place of princes shall be his dwelling. -COLUMN III + The seed of those who act unjustly shall not flourish. What their mouth declares in thy presence Thou shalt burn it up, what they purpose wilt thou annul. 15 Thou knowest their transgressions: the declaration of the wicked thou dost cast aside. Everyone, wherever he may be, is in thy care. Thou directest their judgments, the imprisoned dost thou liberate. Thou hearest, O Shamash, petition, prayer, and appeal. Humility, prostration, petitioning, and reverence. 20 With loud voice the unfortunate one cries to thee. The weak, the exhausted, the oppressed, the lowly, Mother, wife, maid appeal to thee. He who is removed from his family, he that dwelleth far from his city. -There is in this hymn no suggestion of magic or sorcery. We cannot but feel how close this poet came to an appreciation of the Sun-god as a judge of men on an ethical basis. How near he was to passing through the vale into a larger religious life!

The prayers are on the whole upon a lower plane, though some of them, notably those of Nebuchadrezzar, reach lofty conceptions. The following may serve as a sufficient example:

O eternal ruler, lord of all being, grant that the name of the king that thou lovest, whose. name thou hast proclaimed. may flourish as seems pleasing to thee. Lead him in the right way. I am the prince that obeys thee, the creature of thy hand. Thou hast created me, and hast entrusted to me dominion over mankind. According to thy mercy, O Lord, which thou bestowest upon all, may thy supreme rule be merciful! The worship of thy divinity implant in my heart! Grant me what seems good to thee, for thou art he that hast fashioned my life.

VI. Magic:

Next in importance to the gods in the Babylonian religion are the demons who had the power to afflict men with manifold diseases of body or mind. A large part of the religion seems to have been given up to an agonized struggle against these demons, and the gods were everywhere approached by prayer to assist men against these demons. An immense mass of incantations, supposed to have the power of driving the demons out, has come down to us. The use of these incantations lay chiefly in the hands of the priests who attached great importance to specific words or sets of words. The test of time was supposed to have shown that certain words were efficacious in certain instances. If in any case the result was not secured, it could only be ascribed to the use of the wrong formula; hence there grew up a great desire to preserve exactly the words which in some cases had brought healing. Later these incantations were gathered into groups or rituals classified according to purpose or use. Of the rituals which have come down to us, the following are the most important:

1. Maqlu:

Maqlu, i.e. "burning," so called because there are in it many symbolic burnings of images or witches. This series is used in the delivering of sufferers from witches or sorcerers.

2. Shurpu:

Shurpu is another word for burning, and this series also deals much in symbolic burnings and for the same purposes as the former. In these incantations we make the acquaintance of a large number of strange demons such as the rabisu, a demon that springs unawares on its victims; the labartu, which attacks women and children; and the lilu and the lilitu, to which reference has been made before, and the utuku, a strong demon.

These incantations are for the most part a wretched jargon without meaning, and a sad commentary on the low position occupied by the religion which has attained such noble heights as that represented in the hymns and prayers. It is strange that the higher forms of religion were not able to drive out the lower, but these incantations continued to be carefully copied and used down to the very end of the Babylonian commonwealth.

VII. The Last Things.

In Babylonia, the great question of all the ages-"If a man die shall he live again?"-was asked and an attempt made to answer it. The answer was usually sad and depressing. After death the souls of men were supposed to continue in existence. It can hardly be called life. The place to which they have gone is called the "land of no return." There they lived in dark rooms amid the dust and the bats covered with a garment of feathers, and under the dominion of Nergal and Ereshkigal. When the soul arrived among the dead he had to pass judgment before the judges of the dead, the Annunaki, but little has been preserved for us concerning the manner of this judgment. There seems to have been at times an idea that it might be possible for the dead to return again to life, for in this underworld there was the water of life, which was used when the god Tammuz returned again to earth. The Babylonians seem not to have attached so much importance to this after-existence as did the Egyptians, but they did practice burial and not cremation, and placed often with the dead articles which might be used in his future existence. In earlier times the dead were buried in their own houses, and among the rich this custom seems to have prevailed until the very latest times. For others the custom of burying in an acropolis was adopted, and near the city of Kutha was an acropolis which was especially famous. In the future world there seem to have been distinctions made among the dead. Those who fell in battle seem to have had special favor. They received fresh water to drink, while those who had no posterity to put offerings at their graves suffered sore and many deprivations. It is to be hoped that later discoveries of religious texts may shed more light upon this phase of the religion which is still obscure.

VIII. Myths and Epics:

In ancient religions the myth fills a very important place, serving many of the functions of dogma in modern religions. These myths have come down to us associated usually with epics, or made a part of ancient stories which belong to the library of Ashurbanipal. Most of them have been copied from earlier Babylonian originals, which go back in origin to the wonderful period of intellectual and political development which began with Hammurabi. The most interesting of those which have been preserved for us are the story of Adapa and the sto ry of Gilgames. This same divine being Adapa, son of Ea, was employed in Ea's temple at Eridu supplying the ritual bread and water. One day, while fishing in the sea, the south wind swept sharply upon him, overturned his boat, and he fell into the sea, the "house of the fishes." Angered by his misfortune, he broke the wings of the south wind, and for seven days it was unable to bring the comfort of the sea coolness over the hot land. And Anu said: +" Why has the south wind for seven days not blown over the land?" His messenger Ilabrat answered him: "My Lord, Adapa, the son of Ea, hath broken the wing of The south wind." -Then Anu ordered the culprit brought before him, and before he departed to this ordeal Ea gave him instructions. He is to go up to the gatekeepers of heaven, Tammuz and Gish-zida, clad in mourning garb to excite their sympathy. When they ask why he is thus attired he is to tell them that his mourning is for two gods of earth who have disappeared (that is, themselves), and then they will intercede for him. Furthermore, he is cautioned not to eat the food or drink the water that will be set before him, for Ea fears that food and water of death will be set before him to destroy him. But exactly the opposite happened. Tammuz and Gish-zida prevailed in pleading, and Anu said: "Bring for him food of life that he may eat it." They brought him food of life, but he did not eat. They brought him water of life, but he did not drink. They brought him a garment; he put it on. They brought him oil; he anointed himself with it.

Adapa had obeyed Ea literally, and by so doing had missed the priceless boon of immortality. Some of the motives in this beautiful myth are similar to those found in Gen. Food of life seems to belong to the same category as the tree of life in Gen. The Babylonian doctrine was that man, though of Divine origin, did not share in the Divine attribute of immortality. In the Ge story Adam lost immortality because he desired to become like God. Adapa, on the other hand, was already endowed with knowledge and wisdom and failed of immortality, not because he was disobedient like Adam, but because he was obedient to Ea his creator. The legend would seem to be the Babylonian attempt to explain death.

The greatest of all the Babylonian epics is the story of Gilgames, for in it the greatest of the myths seem to pour into one great stream of epic. It was written upon twelve big tablets in the library of Ashurbanipal, some of which have been badly broken. It was, however, copied from earlier tablets which go back to the First Dynasty of Babylon. The whole story is interesting and important, but its greatest significance lies in the eleventh tablet which contains a description of the great flood and is curiously parallel to the Flood story in the Book of Gen.

IX. The Astral Theory of the Universe:

We have now passed in review the main features of the Babylonian and Assyrian religion. We have come all the way from a primitive animism to a higher organized polytheism with much theological speculation ending in a hope for existence after death, and we must now ask whether there is any great organizing idea which will bring all this religion and speculation into one great comprehensive system. A theory has been propounded which owes its exposition generally to Profes sor Hugo Winckler of the University of Berlin, who in a series of volumes and pamphlets has attempted to prove that the whole of the serious thinking and writing in the realm of religion among both the Babylonians and Assyrians rests down upon a Weltanschauung, a theory of the universe. This theory of Winckler's has found acceptance and propagation at the hands of Dr. Alfred Jeremias, and portions of it have been accepted by other scholars. The doctrine is extremely complicated and even those who accept it in part decline it in other parts and the exposition of it is difficult. In the form which it takes in the writings of Winckler and Jeremias, it has been still further complicated quite recently by sundry alterations which make it still more difficult. Most of these can only be regarded as efforts to shield theory from criticisms which have been successful in pointing out its weakness.

According to Winckler and Jeremias, the Babylonians conceived of the cosmos as divided primarily into a heavenly and an earthly world, each of which is further subdivided into three parts. The heavenly world consists of

(1) the northern ocean;

(2) the zodiac;

(3) the heavenly ocean;

while the earthly world consists of

(1) the heaven, i.e. the air above the earth;

(2) the earth itself;

(3) the waters beneath the earth.

These great subdivisions were ruled by the gods Anu in the heaven above, Bel in the earth and air, and Ea in the waters beneath. More important than these is the zodiac, the twelve heavenly figures which span the heavens and through which the moon passes every month, the sun once a year, and the five great planets which are visible to the naked eye have their courses. These moving stars serve as the interpreters of the Divine will while the fixed stars, so says Jeremias, are related thereto as the commentary written on the margin of the Book of Rev. The rulers of the zodiac are Sin, Shamash and Ishtar, and according to the law of correspondence, the Divine power manifested in them is identical with the power of Anu, Bel and Ea. The zodiac represents the world-cycle in the year, and also in the world-year, one of these gods may represent the total Divine power which reveals itself in the cycle. By the side of these three, Sin, Shamash and Ishtar, which represent respectively the moon, sun and Venus, there are arranged Marduk which is Jupiter, Nabu which is Mercury, Ninib which is Mars, and Nergal which is Saturn, these being the planets known to the ancients. Now upon these foundations, according to Winckler, and his school, the ancient priests of Babylonia built a closely knit and carefully thought-out world-system of an astral character, and this world-system forms the kernel of the ancient and oriental conception of the universe. This conception of the universe as a double-sided principle is of tremendous importance. First, the heavenly world with its three divisions corresponds exactly to the earthly world with its three divisions. Everything on earth corresponds to its counterpart in heaven. The heavens are a mirror of earth, and in them the gods reveal their will and purpose. Everything which has happened is only an earthly copy of the heavenly original. It is still written in the heavens above and still to be read there. All the myths and all the legends, not only of Babylonia, but of all the rest of the ancient world, are to be interpreted in accordance with this theory; nothing even in history is to be understood otherwise. "An oriental history without consideration of the world era is unthinkable. The stars rule the changes of the times" (Jeremias). The consequences of this theory are so overpowering that it is difficult to deal with it in fairness to its authors and in justice to the enormous labor and knowledge which they have put upon it.

It is impossible within the reasonable limits which are here imposed to discuss theory in detail, and for our purpose it will be sufficient to say that to the great majority of modern scholars who have carefully considered it in its details it seems to lack evidence sufficient to support so enormous a structure. That an astrological structure similar at least to this actually did arise in the Hellenistic period is not here disputed. The sole dispute is as to the antiquity of it. Now it does not appear that Winckler and Jeremias have been able to produce proof, first, that the Babylonians had enough knowledge of astronomy before the 7th century BC to have constructed such a system; and in the second place, there is no evidence that all the Babylonian gods had an astral character in the earlier period. On the contrary, there seems, as we have already attempted to show in the discussion of the pantheon, to be good reason to believe that many of the deities had no relation whatever to the stars in early times, but were rather gods of vegetation or of water or of other natural forces visible in earthly manifestations. The theory indeed may be said to have broken down by its own weight, for Winckler and Jeremias attempted to show that this theory of the universe spread to Israel, to the Greeks and to the Romans, and that it affords the only satisfactory explanation of the religion and of the history of the entire ancient world. An attempt has been made similar to previous abortive efforts to unlock all the doors of the ancient past with one key (see an interesting example cited in Rogers, Religion of Babylonia and Assyria, 224-25). Instead of gaining adherence in recent times, theory would appear to have lost, and even those who have given a tentative adherence to its claims, cautiously qualify the extent of their submission.

X. The Relations with the Religion of Israel:

No question concerning the religion of Babylonia and Assyria is of so great interest and importance to students of the Bible as the question of the relation between this religion and the faith of Yahweh, as professed by Israel. It seems now to be clearly demonstrated that the religion of Israel has borrowed various literary materials from its more ancient neighbor. The stories of creation and of the flood, both of them, as far as the literary contents are concerned, certainly rest upon Babylonian originals. This dependence has, however, been exaggerated by some scholars into an attempt to demonstrate that Israel took these materials bodily, whereas the close shifting and comparison to which they have been subjected in the past few years would seem to demonstrate beyond peradventure that Israel stamped whatever she borrowed with her own genius and wove an entirely new fabric. Israel used these ancient narratives as a vehicle for a higher and purer religious faith. The material was borrowed, the spirit belonged to Israel, and the spirit was Divine. Words and literary materials were secured from Babylonia, but the religious and spiritual came from Israel and from Israel's God. The word Sabbath is Babylonian indeed, but the great social and religious institution which it represents in Israel is not Babylonian but distinctively Hebrew. The Divine name Yahweh appears among other peoples, passes over into Babylonia and afterward is used by Israel, but the spiritual God who bears the name in Israel is no Babylonian or Kenite deity. The Babylonians, during all their history and in all their speculations, never conceived a god like unto Him. He belongs to the Hebrews alone.

The gods of Babylonia are connected, as we have seen, with primitive animism or they are merely local deities. The God of Israel, on the other hand, is a God revealed in history. He brought Israel out of Egypt. He is continually made known to His people through the prophets as a God revealed in history. His religion is not developed out of Babylonian polytheism which existed as polytheism in the earliest periods and endured as polytheism unto the end. The religion of Israel, on the other hand, though some of its material origins are humble, moved steadily onward and upward until the great monotheistic idea found universal acceptance in Israel. The religions of Philistia and Phoenicia, Moab, and of Edom, were subject to the same play of influences from Babylonia and Egypt, but no larger faith developed out of them. In Israel alone ethical monotheism arose, and ethical monotheism has no roots in Babylonia. The study of the religion of Babylonia is indeed of the highest importance for the understanding of Israel's faith, but it is of less importance than some modern scholars have attempted to demonstrate.


L. W. King. Babylonian Religion and Mythology, London. 1899; M. Jastrow. Jr., The Religion of Babylonia and Assyria, Boston, 1898 (completely revised by the author and translated into German under the title Die Religion Babyloniens und Assyriens, Giessen, appearing in parts, and soon to be completed. This is the standard book on the subject); Rogers, The Religion of Babylonia and Assyria, Especially in Its Relation to Israel, New York, 1908; Hermann Schneider. Kultur und Denken der Babylonier und Juden, Leipzig, 1910; R. P. Dhorme, La religion assyrio-babylonienne, Paris. 1910. Detailed literature on the separate phases of the religion will be found in these books.

Written by Robert W. Rogers


The Blue Letter Bible ministry and the BLB Institute hold to the historical, conservative Christian faith, which includes a firm belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. Since the text and audio content provided by BLB represent a range of evangelical traditions, all of the ideas and principles conveyed in the resource materials are not necessarily affirmed, in total, by this ministry.


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