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Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria

Page: 137

[Pg 321] upon the Greeks, and which, as we shall see, was not so wholly wanting as was formerly imagined, their contact with the religious conceptions of the Jewish exiles must, to say the least, have produced an effect which it is well worth our while to study. Hitherto the traditional view has been that this effect exhibited itself wholly on the antagonistic side; the Jews carried nothing away from the land of their captivity except an intense hatred of idolatry, more especially Babylonian, as well as of the beliefs and practices associated therewith."

Professor Ignatius Goldziher, of Budapest, has enlightened us, in a passage in his Mythology among the Hebrews, as to the great influence wielded by Babylonian upon Jewish religion. He says: "The receptive tendency of the Hebrew manifested itself again prominently during the Babylonian Captivity. Here first they gained an opportunity of forming for themselves a complete and harmonious conception of the world. The influence of Canaanitish civilization could not then be particularly powerful on the Hebrews; for that civilization, the highest point of which was attained by the Phœnicians, was quite dwarfed by the mental activity exhibited in the monuments of the Babylonian and Assyrian Empire, which we are now able to admire in all their grandeur. There the Hebrews found more to receive than some few civil, political, and religious institutions. The extensive and manifold literature which they found there could not but act on a receptive mind as a powerful stimulus; for it is not to be imagined that the nation then dragged into captivity lived so long in the Babylonian-Assyrian Empire without gaining any knowledge of its intellectual treasures. Schrader's latest publications on Assyrian poetry[Pg 322] have enabled us to establish a striking similarity between both the course of ideas and the poetical form of a considerable portion of the Old Testament, especially of the Psalms, and those of this newly-discovered Assyrian poetry. It would be a great mistake to account for this similarity by reference to a common Semitic origin in primeval times; for we can only resort to that in cases which do not go beyond the most primitive elements of intellectual life and ideas of the world, or designations of things of the external world. Conceptions of a higher and more complicated kind, as well as æsthetic points, can certainly not be carried off into the mists of a prehistoric age. It is much better to keep to more real and tangible ground, and to suppose those points of contact between Hebrew and Assyrian poetry which are revealed by Schrader's, Lenormant's, and George Smith's publications, to form part of the contributions made by the highly civilized Babylonians and Assyrians to the Hebrews in the course of the important period of the Captivity.

"We see from this that the intellect of Babylon and Assyria exerted a more than passing influence on that of the Hebrews, not merely touching it, but entering deep into it and leaving its own impress upon it. The Assyrian poetry of the kind just mentioned stands in the same relation to that of the Hebrews as does the plain narrative texts of the Hebrews, and as does the sacrificial Tablet of Marseilles to the Hebrews' beginnings of a sacerdotal constitution. The Babylonian and Assyrian influence is of course much more extensive, pregnant, and noteworthy."

The Abbé Loisy in a French work, Les myths babyloniens, et les premiers chapitres de la Genèse[Pg 323] (Paris, 1901), says a few things upon Jewish and Babylonian mythical relations worth translating:

"We can no longer take the first eleven or twelve chapters of Genesis as a whole and treat them as a monotheistic redaction of the Babylonian myths.... The Biblical accounts are not mere transcriptions ... and the gaps between them presuppose much assimilation and transformation, much time, and probably many intermediaries to boot.... If the relationship of the Biblical narratives to the Chaldean legends is in many respects less intimate than was thought, it now appears to be more general. The Creation, and the Flood in particular, are still the most obvious points of resemblance; but the story of Adam and Eve, the earthly paradise, the food of life, the explanation of death,—all of which have sometimes been sought where they were not to be found,—are now found where there was no thought of seeking them.... The Biblical texts have no literary dependence upon the Babylonian texts; they do not even stand to them in a relation of direct dependence in the case of the special traditions they exhibit: but they rest on a similar—we might say a common—foundation, of Chaldean origin, whose antiquity cannot be even approximately estimated.... On the other hand, it appears certain that the period of Assyrian dominance, and the Captivity, quickened the recollection of the old traditions and supplemented them by fresh materials easy to graft on the ancient stem.... We may well believe that the metamorphosis was complete in the oral tradition of the people before the legend was embodied in the Biblical narrative."

[Pg 324]

Babylonian Influence upon the other Semites

The influence of the Babylonian religion upon other Semitic cults is worthy of notice, although its effect upon the Jewish faith was more marked than on any other Semitic form of belief. Yet still through conquest and other causes it undoubtedly exercised a strong influence upon the surrounding peoples, especially those of related stock. We must regard the whole of Asia Minor, or at least its most civilized portion, as peopled by races of diverse origin who yet possessed a general culture in common. Some of those races, if we be permitted to employ rather time-worn ethnological labels, were 'Semitic,' like the Assyrians and Hebrews, others were of the 'Ural-Altaic' or 'Armenoid' type, like the Hittites, whilst still others, like the Philistines, appear to have been of 'Aryan' race, resembling the Greeks and Goths. But all these different races had embraced a common culture, their architecture, pottery, weapons, crafts, and laws seem to have come from a common source, and lastly their religious systems were markedly alike.

The Canaanites

We find a people called the Canaanites as the first historic dwellers in the countries now known as Syria and Palestine. We do not know whether the name Canaan originated with the land or the race, but the name 'Canaanites' is now used as a general designation of the pre-Israelite inhabitants of Palestine. These people were probably neolithic in origin and appeared to have been Semitic. In any case they spoke a language very much akin to Hebrew. They exercised a strong influence upon Egypt about 1400 B.C., and thousands of them settled in that[Pg 325] country as slaves or officials. They invaded Babylonia at an early date under the name of Amorites, and many of the personal names of Babylonian kings during the Hammurabi dynasty seem to be Amorite in origin. From the Egyptian records it seems pretty clear that as early as 2500 B.C. they had invaded Palestine, had exterminated the inhabitants, and that this invasion synchronized with that of Babylonia. Their religion seems to have been markedly Semitic in type but of the earlier variety, that is, animism was just beginning to emerge into polytheism. The gods were not called by their personal names, but rather by their attributes. The general name for 'god' was 'el,' which was used also by the Hebrews, and which we find in such names as Jezebel, Elkanah, and perhaps in the modern Arabic 'Allah.' But this word was not employed by the Canaanites in a monotheistic sense, it was generic and denoted the particular divinity who dwelt in a certain place. It was indeed the word 'god'—a god, any god, but not the God. But such a god having a sanctuary or presiding over a community was known as 'Ba'al.' This might apply to any supernatural being from fetish to full-fledged deity, and only meant that the spirit or divinity had established a relation with a particular holy place.

We also find amongst the Canaanitish deities Shamash, the sun-god so widely worshipped in Babylonia, Sin the moon-god, Hadad or Rimmon, and Uru, god of light, whose name is found in Uru-Salim or Jerusalem. Dagon, too, is held by some authorities to have been purely an Amorite divinity. The worship of animals was also general, and bulls, horses, and serpents were represented as deities. There were also an immense number of nameless[Pg 326] gods or spirits presiding over all sorts of physical objects, and these were known as ba'alim. They were the resultants of animistic ideas. The early inhabitants of Canaan were also ancestor-worshippers like many other primitive people, and they seem to have shown a marked preference for the cult of the dead.

But many of their departmental deities were either identical with or strongly resembled the gods of the Babylonians. Ashtart was of course Ishtar. In the mounds of Palestine large numbers of terra-cotta plaques bearing her effigy are found. She is often depicted on these with a tall head-dress, necklace, anklets, and girdle quite in the Babylonian style. But other representations of her reveal Egyptian, Cypriote, and Hittite influences, and this goes to show that in all probability the great mother-goddess of Babylon and Asia Minor was compounded of various early types fused into one. To confine ourselves to those deities who are more closely connected with the Babylonian religion, we find the name of Ninib translated by the Canaanites as En-Mashti, and it has been thought that Ninib was a god of the West who had migrated to Babylonia. The name of Nebo, the Babylonian patron of Borsippa, who also acted as scribe to the gods, appears in that of the town of Nebo in Moab in Judea, and that Canaanites were conversant with the name of Nergal, the war-god, is proved by a sealed cylinder of Canaanitish workmanship which bears the inscription, "Atanaheli, son of Habsi servant of Nergal." Resheph also appears to have been known to the Canaanites.



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