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Myths of Babylonia and Assyria

Page: 37

Nergal, another solar deity, brought disease and pestilence, and, according to Jensen, all misfortunes due to excessive heat. He was the king of death, husband of Eresh-ki-gal, queen of Hades. As a war god he thirsted for human blood, and was depicted as a mighty lion. He was the chief deity of the city of Cuthah, which, Jastrow suggests, was situated beside a burial place of great repute, like the Egyptian Abydos.

The two great cities of the sun in ancient Babylonia were the Akkadian Sippar and the Sumerian Larsa. In these the sun god, Shamash or Babbar, was the patron deity. He was a god of Destiny, the lord of the living and the dead, and was exalted as the great Judge, the lawgiver, who upheld justice; he was the enemy of wrong, he loved righteousness and hated sin, he inspired his worshippers with rectitude and punished evildoers. The sun god also illumined the world, and his rays penetrated every quarter: he saw all things, and read the thoughts of men; nothing could be concealed from Shamash. One of his names was Mitra, like the god who was linked with Varuna in the Indian Rigveda. These twin deities, Mitra and Varuna, measured out the span of human life. They were the source of all heavenly gifts: they regulated sun and moon, the winds and waters, and the seasons.[68]

These did the gods establish in royal power over themselves, because they were wise and the children of wisdom, and because they excelled in power.--Prof. Arnold's trans. of Rigvedic Hymn.

Mitra and Varuna were protectors of hearth and home, and they chastised sinners. "In a striking passage of the Mahabharata" says Professor Moulton, "one in which Indian thought comes nearest to the conception of conscience, a kingly wrongdoer is reminded that the sun sees secret sin."[69]

In Persian mythology Mitra, as Mithra, is the patron of Truth, and "the Mediator" between heaven and earth[70]. This god was also worshipped by the military aristocracy of Mitanni, which held sway for a period over Assyria. In Roman times the worship of Mithra spread into Europe from Persia. Mithraic sculptures depict the deity as a corn god slaying the harvest bull; on one of the monuments "cornstalks instead of blood are seen issuing from the wound inflicted with the knife[71]". The Assyrian word "metru" signifies rain[70]. As a sky god Mitra may have been associated, like Varuna, with the waters above the firmament. Rain would therefore be gifted by him as a fertilizing deity. In the Babylonian Flood legend it is the sun god Shamash who "appointed the time" when the heavens were to "rain destruction" in the night, and commanded Pir-napishtim, "Enter into the midst of thy ship and shut thy door". The solar deity thus appears as a form of Anu, god of the sky and upper atmosphere, who controls the seasons and the various forces of nature. Other rival chiefs of city pantheons, whether lunar, atmospheric, earth, or water deities, were similarly regarded as the supreme deities who ruled the Universe, and decreed when man should receive benefits or suffer from their acts of vengeance.

It is possible that the close resemblances between Mithra and Mitra of the Aryan-speaking peoples of India and the Iranian plateau, and the sun god of the Babylonians--the Semitic Shamash, the Sumerian Utu--were due to early contact and cultural influence through the medium of Elam. As a solar and corn god, the Persian Mithra links with Tammuz, as a sky and atmospheric deity with Anu, and as a god of truth, righteousness, and law with Shamash. We seem to trace in the sublime Vedic hymns addressed by the Indian Aryans to Mitra and Varuna the impress of Babylonian religious thought:


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