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Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria

Page: 55

These tales were the mythical correlates of certain ritualistic practices designed to bring about the change of seasons, and other natural phenomena, by means of sympathetic magic. The burden of a great duty falls upon the shoulders of primitive man; with his rites and spells and magic arts he must assist the universe in its course. His esoteric plays, typifying the mysterious fact of growth, are necessary to ensure the sprouting of the corn; his charms and incantations are essential even for the[Pg 134] rising of the sun; lacking the guarantee of science that one season shall follow another in its proper order, he goes through an elaborate performance symbolizing the decay and revival of vegetation, believing that only thus can the natural order be maintained. Through the force of sympathetic magic he sees his puny efforts related to the mighty results which follow them.

This, then, is the origin of the ritual of the Tammuz festival, which may conceivably have had an existence prior to that of the myth itself. The representation of the death and resurrection of the god, whether in myth or ritual, had undoubtedly a seasonal significance, wherefore the date of his festival varied in the different localities. In Babylonia it was celebrated in June, thus showing that the deity was slain by the fierce heat of the sun, burning up all the springtide vegetation. Ishtar's sojourn in Hades would thus occupy the arid months of summer. In other and more temperate climes winter would be regarded as the enemy of Tammuz. An interesting account of the Tammuz festival is that given by an Arabic author writing in the tenth century, and quoted by Sir James Frazer in his Golden Bough. "Tammuz (July). In the middle of this month is the festival of el-Bûgât, that is, of the weeping women, and this is the Ta-uz festival, which is celebrated in honour of the god Ta-uz. The women bewail him, because his lord slew him so cruelly, ground his bones in a mill, and then scattered them to the wind. The women (during this festival) eat nothing which has been ground in a mill, but limit their diet to steeped wheat, sweet vetches, dates, raisins, and the like." The material for this description was furnished by the Syrians of Harran. Of[Pg 135] the curious legend attaching to the mourning rites more will be said later.

Lamentations for Tammuz

Characteristic of the Tammuz ritual are the lamentations, of which several series are still extant. In later times it appears that a different cause was assigned for the weeping of the "wailing men and wailing women." They no longer mourned the death of Tammuz, but the departure of Ishtar into the netherworld, and so the legend of her journey to Aralu came to be recited in the temples. Sir James Frazer suggests that the ritualistic counterpart of the Tammuz-Ishtar myth may have included the pouring of water over an effigy of the god, the practice corresponding to the pouring of the water of life over him in order to bring him back to life. If this indeed formed a part of the Tammuz ritual we may take it that it was intended as a rain-charm.

Likewise the Adonia festival of the Greeks symbolized the death and resurrection of Adonis. This feast occupied two days; on the first day, images of Adonis and Aphrodite were made and laid each on a silver couch; on the second day, these images were cast by the women into the sea, together with 'Adonis gardens,' as they were called—pots filled with earth in which cut flowers were stuck. It is believed that this rite was meant to signify the revival of vegetation under the influence of rain. The persons engaged in it indulged in such lamentations as were uttered by the worshippers of Tammuz in Babylonia, tore their hair, and beat their breasts. The festival of Adonis fell in the summer-time at Alexandria and Athens, in the spring at Byblus, while in Phœnicia it occurred in the season when the[Pg 136] river Nahr Ibrahim (formerly called Adonis) bore down from the mountains of Lebanon the red earth in which the devout saw the blood of the slain Adonis. Golden boxes of myrrh were employed at the Adonia festival, incense was burned, and pigs were sacrificed. Pigs were sacrificed also to Osiris, whose cult, as has been shown, had much in common with that of Tammuz and Adonis. The Egyptian god was cast by his enemies into the waters of the Nile; and it may be that this myth too had a ritualistic counterpart, designed as a charm to produce rain.


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