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Myths of Babylonia and Assyria

Page: 19

an age of barbarism. During its vast periods there were great discoveries and great inventions in various parts of Asia, Africa, and Europe. The Neoliths made pottery and bricks; we know that they invented the art of spinning, for spindle-whorls are found even in the Gezer caves to which we have referred, while in Egypt the pre-Dynastic dead were sometimes wrapped in finely woven linen: their deftly chipped flint implements are eloquent of artistic and mechanical skill, and undoubted mathematical ability must be credited to the makers of smoothly polished stone hammers which are so perfectly balanced that they revolve on a centre of gravity. In Egypt and Babylonia the soil was tilled and its fertility increased by irrigation. Wherever man waged a struggle with Nature he made rapid progress, and consequently we find that the earliest great civilizations were rooted in the little fields of the Neolithic farmers. Their mode of life necessitated a knowledge of Nature's laws; they had to take note of the seasons and measure time. So Egypt gave us the Calendar, and Babylonia the system of dividing the week into seven days, and the day into twelve double hours.

The agricultural life permitted large communities to live in river valleys, and these had to be governed by codes of laws; settled communities required peace and order for their progress and prosperity. All great civilizations have evolved from the habits and experiences of settled communities. Law and religion were closely associated, and the evidence afforded by the remains of stone circles and temples suggests that in the organization and division of labour the influence of religious teachers was pre-eminent. Early rulers, indeed, were priest-kings --incarnations of the deity who owned the land and measured out the span of human life.

We need not assume that Neolithic man led an idyllic existence; his triumphs were achieved by slow and gradual steps; his legal codes were, no doubt, written in blood and his institutions welded in the fires of adversity. But, disciplined by laws, which fostered humanitarian ideals, Neolithic man, especially of the Mediterranean race, had reached a comparatively high state of civilization long ages before the earliest traces of his activities can be obtained. When this type of mankind is portrayed in Ancient Sumeria, Ancient Egypt, and Ancient Crete we find that the faces are refined and intellectual and often quite modern in aspect. The skulls show that in the Late Stone Age the human brain was fully developed and that the racial types were fixed. In every country in Europe we still find the direct descendants of the ancient Mediterranean race, as well as the descendants of the less highly cultured conquerors who swept westward out of Asia at the dawn of the Bronze Age; and everywhere there are evidences of crossment of types in varying degrees. Even the influence of Neolithic intellectual life still remains. The comparative study of mythology and folk beliefs reveals that we have inherited certain modes of thought from our remote ancestors, who were the congeners of the Ancient Sumerians and the Ancient Egyptians. In this connection it is of interest, therefore, to refer to the social ideals of the early peoples who met and mingled on the southern plains of the Tigris and Euphrates, and especially the position occupied by women, which is engaging so much attention at the present day.

It would appear that among the Semites and other nomadic peoples woman was regarded as the helpmate rather than the companion and equal of man. The birth of a son was hailed with joy; it was "miserable to have a daughter", as a Hindu sage reflected; in various countries it was the custom to expose female children after birth and leave them to die. A wife had no rights other than those accorded to her by her husband, who exercised over her the power of life and death. Sons inherited family possessions; the daughters had no share allotted to them, and could be sold by fathers and brothers. Among the peoples who observed "male right", social life was reflected in the conception of controlling male deities, accompanied by shadowy goddesses who were often little else than figures of speech.

The Ancient Sumerians, on the other hand, like the Mediterranean peoples of Egypt and Crete, reverenced and exalted motherhood in social and religious life. Women were accorded a legal status and marriage laws were promulgated by the State. Wives could possess private property in their own right, as did the Babylonian Sarah, wife of Abraham, who owned the Egyptian slave Hagar.[26] A woman received from her parents a marriage dowry, and in the event of separation from her husband she could claim its full value. Some spinsters, or wives, were accustomed to enter into business partnerships with men or members of their own sex, and could sue and be sued in courts of law. Brothers and sisters were joint heirs of the family estate. Daughters might possess property over which their fathers exercised no control: they could also enter into legal agreements with their parents in business matters, when they had attained to years of discretion. Young women who took vows of celibacy and lived in religious institutions could yet make business investments, as surviving records show. There is only one instance of a Sumerian woman ascending the throne, like Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt. Women, therefore, were not rigidly excluded from official life. Dungi II, an early Sumerian king, appointed two of his daughters as rulers of conquered cities in Syria and Elam. Similarly Shishak, the Egyptian Pharaoh, handed over the city of Gezer, which he had subdued, to his daughter, Solomon's wife.[27] In the religious life of ancient Sumeria the female population exercised an undoubted influence, and in certain temples there were priestesses. The oldest hymns give indication of the respect shown to women by making reference to mixed assemblies as "females and males", just as present-day orators address themselves to "ladies and gentlemen". In the later Semitic adaptations of these productions, it is significant to note, this conventional reference was altered to "male and female". If influences, however, were at work to restrict the position of women they did not meet with much success, because when Hammurabi codified existing laws, the ancient rights of women received marked recognition.


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