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Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria

Page: 133

Ere we deal with these purely Semitic and racial resemblances which are so important for the proper comprehension of Biblical history and religious science in general, let us briefly compare the faith of Babylonia and Assyria with some of the great religious systems of the world. It perhaps more closely resembles the composite general Egyptian religious idea (one cannot speak of an Egyptian religion) than any other. But whereas in Egypt the deities had been almost universally evolved from nome or province-patrons, totemic or otherwise, a number often coalesced in one form, the gods of[Pg 314] Chaldea were usually city- or district-gods, showing much less of the nature of the departmental deity in their construction than the divinities of Egypt. The Egyptian god-type was more exact and explicit. We have seldom much difficulty in discovering the nature of an Egyptian god. We have frequently, however, immense trouble in finding out for what a Mesopotamian deity stands. The Babylon-Assyrian idea of godhead appears to have been principally astral, terrestrial, or aquatic—that is, most Babylonian-Assyrian deities are connected either with the heavenly bodies, the earth, or the waters. It is only as an afterthought that they become gods of justice, of letters, of the underworld. This statement must of course be taken as meaning that their connexion with abstract qualities is much more loose than in the case of the Egyptian gods—that their departmental character is secondary to their original character as gods of nature. There is only one exception to this, and that is to be found in the department of war, to which certain of them appear to have been relegated at an early period and later to have become identified with it very closely indeed.

In one circumstance the Babylonian-Assyrian religion closely resembled the Egyptian, and that was the lasting effect wrought upon it by priestly cults and theological schools. Just as the priests of Thebes and Memphis and On moulded the varying cults of Egypt, added to their mythology, and read into them ethical significance, so did the priests of Nippur and Erech mould and form the faith of Babylon. We have plenty of evidence for such a statement, and nowhere perhaps was theological thought so rife in the ancient world as in Babylonia and Egypt.

There are also points of contact with the great[Pg 315] mythological system of Greece, that system which was so much a mythology that it could scarcely be called a religion. That Greece borrowed largely from Mesopotamia is not to be doubted, but we find the Hellenic departmental deities very explicit indeed in their nature. Pallas, for example, stands for wisdom, Poseidon for the sea, Ares for war, and so forth. One god usually possesses one attribute, and although Zeus has a number of minor attributes we do not find him combining in his one person so many as does Merodach. As has been said, it would seem that the departmental character of many Babylonian gods was purely accidental or fortuitous. The formula seems to run—take a local or city god, probably derived from totemic sources or perhaps of animistic origin, and, having conquered much surrounding territory, exalt him to the position of the god of a large region, which, being incorporated again with a still larger empire, leaves him only a local status. This status he cannot hold in a pantheon where each member must possess a specific attribute, therefore it becomes necessary to impose upon him some quality by which he can be specially recognized. Sometimes that quality is suitable to his character, in fact it may be indicated by it, but at other times it is merely arbitrary. Why, for example, should Ishtar have been made a goddess of war by the Assyrians?


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