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Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria

Page: 17

Analogies with the Flood Myth

It is interesting to note that Sisuthrus, the hero of this deluge story, was also the tenth Babylonian king, just as Noah was the tenth patriarch. The birds sent out by Sisuthrus strongly recall the raven and dove despatched by Noah; but there are several American myths which introduce this conception.

Birds and beasts in many cosmologies provide the nucleus of the new world which emerges from the waters which have engulfed the old. Perhaps it is the beaver or the musk-rat which dives into the abyss and brings up a piece of mud, which gradually grows into a spacious continent; but sometimes birds carry this nucleus in their beaks. In the myth under consideration they return with mud on their feet, which is obviously expressive of the same idea. Attempts have been made to show that a great difference exists between the Babylonian and Hebrew story. Undoubtedly the two stories have a common origin.

The first Babylonian version of the myth dates from about 2000 B.C. and its text is evidently derived from a still older tablet. It seems likely that this was in turn indebted to a still more archaic version, which probably recounted the earliest type of the myth. This perhaps related how the earth and its inhabitants were not to the liking of the Creator, and how he resolved to recreate the whole. The great ocean-dragon was therefore called in to submerge the world, after which the Creator re-moulded it and set the survivor and his family upon it as the[Pg 46] ancestors of a new human race. It is possible also that the great sea-dragon, or serpent, which was slain by the Creator, may have flooded the earth with his blood as he expired: there is an Algonquin Indian myth to this effect. In an old cuneiform text, in fact, the year of the deluge is alluded to as "the year of the raging serpent." The wise man who takes refuge in the ship or ark is warned by a dream of the forthcoming deluge. In some North American Indian myths he is warned by friendly animals. The mountain, too, as a place of refuge for the ark, is fairly common in myth.

We have dealt in Chapter II with the creation myth found in Berossus, and with this ends the part of his history which is of any importance.

Babylonian Archæology

Until about the middle of the nineteenth century our knowledge of the history and antiquities of Babylonia and Assyria was extremely scanty. The deeply interesting series of excavations which unrolled the circumstances of these ancient civilizations before the almost incredulous eyes of learned Europe are described at length towards the close of this volume. Here we may say shortly that the labours of Layard and Botta at Nineveh convinced antiquaries that the remains of a great civilization awaited discovery. Layard's excavation of the library of Assur-bani-pal was the first great step toward reconstructing the ancient life of the two kingdoms. He was followed by Oppert and Loftus, but the systematic excavation of the country was yet to be undertaken. This, as we shall see, was commenced by George Smith of the British Museum, but unfortunately he died on his way home from[Pg 47] the East. His work at Nineveh was taken up by Mr Hormuzd Rassam, who succeeded in unearthing inscribed tables and bronze gates in bas-relief. A few years afterward Mr Rassam discovered the site of the temple of the sun-god of Sippara at Abu-habba to the south-west of Bagdad. An important find by de Sarzec was that of the diorite statues of Gudea, the Patesi or Ruler of Lagash, about 2700 B.C., the stone of which, according to the inscriptions upon them, had been brought from the Sinaitic peninsula. The university of Pennsylvania sent Mr J.H. Haynes in 1889 to excavate at Nippur, where he unearthed the remains of the great temple of En-lil, in the heart of which is a mound of bricks stamped with the names of Sargon of Akkad and his son, Naram-sin. The German expedition of 1899 explored the ruins of Babylon, the palace of Nebuchadrezzar, and the site of Asshur.


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