Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria
The popularity of Nebo was brought about through his association with Merodach. His chief seat of worship was at Borsippa, opposite to Babylon, and when the latter city became the seat of the imperial power the proximity of Borsippa greatly assisted the cult of Nebo. So close did the association between the deities of the two cities become that at length Nebo was regarded as the son of Merodach—a relationship that often implies that the so-called descendant of the elder god is a serious rival, or that his cult is nearly allied to the elder worship. Nebo had acquired something of a reputation as a god of wisdom, and probably this it was which permitted him to stand[Pg 185] separately from Merodach without becoming absorbed in the cult of the great deity of Babylon. He was credited, like Ea, with the invention of writing, the province of all 'wise' gods, and he presided over that department of knowledge which interpreted the movements of the heavenly bodies. The priests of Nebo were famous as astrologers, and with the bookish king Assur-bani-pal, Nebo and his consort Tashmit were especial favourites as the patrons of writing. By the time that the worship of Merodach had become recognised at Babylon, the cult of Nebo at Borsippa was so securely rooted that even the proximity of the greatest god in the land failed to shake it.
Even after the Persian conquest the temple-school at Borsippa continued to flourish. But although Nebo thus 'outlived' many of the greater gods it is now almost impossible to trace his original significance as a deity. Whether solar or aqueous in his nature—and the latter appears more likely—he was during the period of Merodach's ascendancy regarded as scribe of the gods, much as Thoth was the amanuensis of the Egyptian otherworld—that is to say, he wrote at the dictation of the higher deities. When the gods were assembled in the Chamber of Fates in Merodach's temple at Babylon, he chronicled their speeches and deliberations and put them on record. Indeed he himself had a shrine in this temple of E-Sagila, or 'the lofty house,' which was known as E-Zila, or 'the firm house.' Once during the New Year festival Nebo was carried from Borsippa to Babylon to his father's temple, and in compliment was escorted by Merodach part of the way back to his own shrine in the lesser city. It is strange to see how closely the cults of the two gods were interwoven. The Kings of Babylonia constantly invoke them[Pg 186] together, their names and those of their temples are found in close proximity at every turn, and the symbols of the bow and the stylus or pen, respectively typical of the father and the son, are usually discovered in one and the same inscription. Even Merodach's dragon, the symbol of his victory over the dark forces of chaos, is assigned to Nebo!
But Nebo seems to have had also an agricultural side to his character. In many texts he is praised as the god "who opens up the subterranean sources in order to irrigate the fields," and the withdrawal of his favour is followed by famine and distress. This seems to favour the idea of his watery nature. His name, 'the proclaimer,' does not assist us much in fixing his mythological significance, unless it was assigned to him in the rôle of herald of the gods.
Nebo's consort was Tashmit. It is believed that Khammurabi, unsuccessful in suppressing the cult of Nebo, succeeded with that of his spouse. She seems to have been the same as a goddess Ealur who became amalgamated with Zarpanitum, the wife of Merodach. The name may mean, according to some, 'the hearer,' and to others a 'revelation,' and in view of the character of her wise husband, was perhaps one of the original designations of Merodach himself. Tashmit had therefore but little individuality. None the less she possessed considerable popularity. On a seal-impression dating somewhere between 3500-4500 B.C. there are outlined two figures, male and female, supposed to represent Nebo and Tashmit. The former has a wide-open[Pg 187] mouth and the latter ears of extraordinary size. Both are holding wild animals by the horns, and the representation is thought to be typical of the strength or power of speech and silence.
We find that Khammurabi was very devoted to Shamash, the early type of sun-god. His improvements and restorations at Sippar and Larsa were extensive. The later Babylonian monarchs followed his example, and one of them, Mili-Shikhu (c. 1450 B.C.) even placed Shamash before Merodach in the pantheon! The early connexion between Merodach and Shamash had probably much to do with the great popularity of the latter. That this was the case, so far at least as Khammurabi was concerned, is obvious from certain of his inscriptions, in which he alludes in the same sentence to Merodach and Shamash and to their close relationship. Khammurabi appears also to have been greatly attached to the cult of a goddess Innana or Ninni ('lady' or 'great lady'), who was evidently the consort of some male deity. He improved her temple at Hallabi and speaks of her as placing the reins of power in his hands. There was another goddess of the same name at Lagash whom Gudea worshipped as 'mistress of the world,' but she does not seem to have been the same as the Innana of Hallabi, near Sippar, as she was a goddess of fertility and generation, of the 'mother goddess' type, and there do not appear to be any grounds for the assertion that the goddess of Hallabi can be equated with her.