Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria
Page: 27Origin of Cuneiform
This peculiar system of writing originated in Babylonia, its inventors being the Sumerian or non-Semitic people who inhabited that country before its settlement by the Babylonians. It was developed from picture-writing, and indeed some of the more highly significant of the pictorial signs can still be faintly traced in their cuneiform equivalents. This early picture-writing was inscribed on stone, but eventually soft clay was adopted as a medium for the script, and it was found that straight lines impressed upon this medium tended to the shape of a wedge. The pictures therefore lost their original character and came to be mere conventional groups of wedges. The plural was represented by doubling the sign, and a term might be intensified by the addition of a certain stroke: thus the sign for 'house,' if four small strokes were added to it, would mean 'great house,' and so forth. The script was badly suited to the Assyrian language, as it had not been originally designed for a Semitic tongue. It consists of simple syllables made up of a vowel by itself or a vowel and a consonant, ideograms or signs which express an entire word, and closed syllables such as bit or bal. Again, many of the signs have[Pg 67] more than one syllabic value, and they may be used as ideograms as well as phonetically. As in the Egyptian script, determinatives are employed to indicate the class to which the word belongs: thus, a certain sign is placed before the names of persons, another before territorial names, and a third before the names of gods and sacred beings. The date of the epoch in which this writing first began to be used was probably about 4500 B.C. and it persisted until the first century B.C. The Assyrians employed it from about 1500 B.C. until about the beginning of the sixth century B.C. This ancient form of writing was thus used first by the Sumerians, then by their Babylonian and Assyrian conquerors, then by those Persians who finally overthrew the Babylonian and Assyrian empire.
The literature which this peculiar and individual script has brought down to us is chiefly religious, magical, epical, and legendary. The last three categories are dealt with elsewhere, so that it only falls here to consider the first class, the religious writings. These are usually composed in Semitic Babylonian without any trace of Akkadian influence, and it cannot be said that they display any especial natural eloquence or literary distinction. In an address to the sun-god, which begins nobly enough with a high apostrophe to the golden luminary of day, we find ourselves descending gradually into an atmosphere of almost ludicrous dullness. The person praying desires the sun-god to free him from the commonplace cares of family and domestic annoyances, enumerating spells against all of his relatives in order that they may not place their 'ban' upon[Pg 68] him. In another, written in Akkadian, the penitent addresses Gubarra, Merodach, and other gods, desiring that they direct their eyes kindly upon him and that his supplication may reach them. Strangely enough the prayer fervently pleads that its utterance may do good to the gods! that it may let their hearts rest, their livers be quieted, and gladden them like a father and a mother who have begotten children. This is not so strange when we come to consider the nature of these hymns, many of which come perilously near the border-line of pure magic—that is, they closely resemble spells. We find, too, that those which invoke the older deities such as Gibi the fire-god, are more magical in their trend than those addressed to the later gods when a higher sense of religious feeling had probably been evolved. Indeed, it does not seem too much to say that some of these early hymns may have served the purpose of later incantations. Most of those 'magical' hymns appear to have emanated from that extremely ancient seat of religion, Eridu, and are probably relics of the time when as yet magic and religion were scarcely differentiated in the priestly or the popular mind.