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Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria

Page: 37

Igigi as spirits of heaven. So, at least, are they designated in an inscription of Rammannirari I. The grouping evidently survived from animistic times, when perhaps the spirits which are embraced in these two classes were the only 'gods' of the Babylonians or Sumerians, and from whose ranks some of the great gods of future times may have been evolved. In any case they belong to a very early period in the Babylonian religion and play no unimportant part in it almost to the end. The god Anu, the most ancient of the Babylonian deities, was regarded as the father of both companies, but other gods make use of their services. They do not appear to be well disposed to humanity. The Assyrian kings were wont to invoke them when they desired to inculcate a fear of their majesty in the people, and from this it may be inferred that they were objects of peculiar fear to the lower orders of the population—for the people often cling to the elder cults and the elder pantheons despite the innovations of ecclesiastical politicians, or the religious eccentricities of kings. There can, however, be no doubt as to the truly animistic character of early Babylonian religion. Thus in the early inscriptions one reads of the spirits of various kinds of diseases, the spirit of the south wind, the spirits of[Pg 91] the mist, and so forth. The bit-ili or sacred stones marking the residence of a god were probably a link between the fetish and the idol, remaining even after the fully developed idol had been evolved.

Was Babylonian Religion Semitic in Type?

It has already been stated that the religion of ancient Babylon was probably greatly influenced by those non-Semitic people whom the Semitic Babylonians found occupying the country when they entered it. The question then arises (and it is one of high importance), how far did the religion of ancient Babylonia and Assyria partake of the character of that group of religions which has been called 'Semitic.' The classical pronouncement upon this phase of the subject is probably that of the late Professor Robertson Smith, who in his Religion of the Semites (p. 13) says[1]: "The preponderating opinion of Assyriologists is to the effect that the civilization of Assyria and Babylonia was not purely Semitic, and that the ancient population of these parts contained a large pre-Semitic element, whose influence is especially to be recognized in religion and in the sacred literature of the cuneiform records. If this be so, it is plain that the cuneiform material must be used with caution in our enquiry into the type of traditional religion characteristic of the ancient Semites. That Babylonia is the best starting-point for a comparative study of the sacred beliefs and practices of the Semitic peoples, is an idea which has lately had some vogue, and which at first sight appears plausible on account of the great antiquity of the monumental evidence. But, in matters of this sort, ancient and primitive are not[Pg 92] synonymous terms; and we must not look for the most primitive form of Semitic faith in a region where society was not primitive. In Babylonia, it would seem, society and religion alike were based on a fusion of two races, and so were not primitive but complex. Moreover, the official system of Babylonian and Assyrian religion, as it is known to us from priestly texts and public inscriptions, bears clear marks of being something more than a popular traditional faith; it has been artificially moulded by priestcraft and statecraft in much the same way as the official religion of Egypt; that is to say, it is in great measure an artificial combination, for imperial purposes, of elements drawn from a number of local worships. In all probability the actual religion of the masses was always much simpler than the official system; and in later times it would seem that, both in religion and in race, Assyria was little different from the adjacent Aram├Žan countries. These remarks are not meant to throw doubt on the great importance of cuneiform studies for the history of Semitic religion; the monumental data are valuable for comparison with what we know of the faith and worship of other Semitic peoples, and peculiarly valuable because, in religion as in other matters, the civilization of the Euphrates-Tigris valley exercised a great historical influence on a large part of the Semitic field."

Totemism in Babylonian Religion

Signs of totemism are not wanting in the Babylonian as in other religious systems. Many of the gods are pictured as riding upon the backs of certain animals, an almost certain indication that at one time they had themselves possessed the form of the[Pg 93] animal they bestrode. Religious conservatism would probably not tolerate the immediate abolition of the totem-shape, so this means was taken of gradually 'shelving' it. But some gods retained animal form until comparatively late times. Thus the sun-god of Kis had the form of an eagle, and we find that Ishtar took as lovers a horse, an eagle, and a lion—surely gods who were represented in equine, aquiline, and leonine forms. The fish-form of Oannes, the god of wisdom, is certainly a relic of totemism. Some of the old ideographic representations of the names of the gods are eloquent of a totemic connexion. Thus the name of Ea, the god of the deep, is expressed by an ideograph which signifies 'antelope.' Ea is spoken of as 'the antelope of the deep,' 'the lusty antelope,' and so forth. He was also, as a water-god, connected with the serpent, a universal symbol of the flowing stream. The strange god Uz, probably an Akkadian survival, was worshipped under the form of a goat. The sun-god of Nippur, Adar, was connected with the pig, and was called 'lord of the swine.' Merodach may have been a bull-god. In early astronomical literature we find him alluded to as 'the bull of light.' The storm-god Zu, as is seen by his myth, retained his bird-like form. Another name of the storm-bird was Lugalbanda, patron god of the city of Marad, near Sippara. Like Prometheus—also once a bird-god, as is proved by many analogous myths—he stole the sacred fire from heaven for the service and mental illumination of man.


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