Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria

Page: 130

One of the descendants of Assur-bani-pal, Bel-zakir-iskun, speaks of his restoration of certain temples, especially that of Nebo, and plaintively adds: "In after days, in the time of the kings my sons ... When this house decays and becomes old who repairs its ruin and restores its decay? May he[Pg 307] who does so see my name written on this inscription. May he enclose it in a receptacle, pour out a libation, and write my name with his own; but whoever defaces the writing of my name may the gods not establish him. May they curse and destroy his seed from the land." This is the last royal inscription of any length written in Assyria, and its almost prophetic terms seem to suggest that he who framed them must have foreseen the downfall of the civilization he represented. Does not the inscription almost foreshadow Shelley's wondrous sonnet on 'Ozymandias'?

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

The Fatal Eclipse

The reign of Assur-Dan III (773-764 B.C.) supplies us with a picturesque incident. This Assyrian monarch had marched several times into Syria, and had fought the Chaldeans in Babylonia. Numerous were his tributary states and widespread his power. But disaster crept slowly upon him, and although he made repeated efforts to stave it off, these were quite in vain. Insurrection followed insurrection, and it would seem that the priests of[Pg 308] Babylon, considering themselves slighted, joined the malcontent party and assisted to foment discord. At the critical juncture of the fortunes of Assur-Dan there happened an eclipse of the sun, and as the black shadow crept over Nineveh and the King lay upon his couch and watched the gradual blotting out of the sunlight, he felt that his doom was upon him. After this direful portent he appears to have resisted no longer, but to have resigned himself to his fate. Within the year he was slain, and his rebel son, Adad-Narari IV, sat upon his murdered father's throne. But Nemesis followed upon the parricide's footsteps, for he in turn found a rebel in his son, and the land was smitten with a terrible pestilence.

Shalmaneser pouring out the Dust of a Conquered City.—Ambrose Dudley.—By permission of Messrs. Hutchinson and Co.

Shalmaneser I (c. 1270) was cast in a martial and heroic mould, and an epic might arise from the legends of his conquests and military exploits. In his time Assyria possessed a superabundant population which required an outlet, and this the monarch deemed it his duty to supply. After conquering the provinces of Mitani to the west of the Euphrates, he attacked Babylonia, and so fiercely did he deal with his southern neighbours that we find him actually gathering the dust of their conquered cities and casting it to the four winds of heaven. Surely a more extreme manner of dealing summarily with a conquered enemy has never been recorded!

Although the life of the Babylonian or Assyrian king was lived in the full glare of publicity, he had not to encounter the same criticism as regards his actions that present-day monarchs must face, for the moral code of the peoples of Mesopotamia was fundamentally different from that which obtains at the present time. As the monarch was regarded[Pg 309] as the vicegerent of the gods upon earth, it therefore followed that he could do no wrong. Submission to his will was complete. In the hands of a race of men who wielded this power unwisely it could have been nothing else but disastrous to both prince and people. But on the whole it may be said that the kings of this race bore themselves worthily according to their lights. If their sense of dignity at times amounted to bombast, that was because they were so full of their sense of delegated duty from above. There is every reason to believe that before entering upon their kingly state they had to undergo a most rigorous education, consisting of instruction upon religious subjects, some history, and the inculcation of moral precepts. On the other hand they were by no means mere puppets, for we find them initiating campaigns, presiding over courts of law, and framing the laws themselves and generally guiding the trend of the national policy. As a whole they were a strong and determined race, wise as well as warlike, and by no means unmindful of the requirements of their people. But with them the gods were first, and their reading of the initial duty of a king seems to have been the building of temples and the celebration of religious ceremonies of which a gorgeous and prolonged ritual was the especial feature.