Myths of Babylonia and Assyria

Page: 66

For ten long centuries Sumer and Akkad flourished and prospered ere we meet with the great Hammurabi, whose name has now become almost as familiar as that of Julius Caesar. But our knowledge of the leading historical events of this vast period is exceedingly fragmentary. The Sumerians were not like the later Assyrians or their Egyptian contemporaries--a people with a passion for history. When inscriptions were composed and cut on stone, or impressed upon clay tablets and bricks, the kings selected as a general rule to record pious deeds rather than to celebrate their victories and conquests. Indeed, the average monarch had a temperament resembling that of Keats, who declared:

The silver flow
Of Hero's tears, the swoon of Imogen,
Fair Pastorella in the bandits' den,
Are things to brood on with more ardency
Than the death day of empires.

The Sumerian king was emotionally religious as the great English poet was emotionally poetical. The tears of Ishtar for Tammuz, and the afflictions endured by the goddess imprisoned in Hades, to which she had descended for love of her slain husband, seemed to have concerned the royal recorder to a greater degree than the memories of political upheavals and the social changes which passed over the land, like the seasons which alternately brought greenness and gold, barrenness and flood.

City chronicles, as a rule, are but indices of obscure events, to which meagre references were sometimes also made on mace heads, vases, tablets, stelae, and sculptured monoliths. Consequently, present-day excavators and students have often reason to be grateful that the habit likewise obtained of inscribing on bricks in buildings and the stone sockets of doors the names of kings and others. These records render obscure periods faintly articulate, and are indispensable for comparative purposes. Historical clues are also obtained from lists of year names. Each city king named a year in celebration of a great event--his own succession to the throne, the erection of a new temple or of a city wall, or, mayhap, the defeat of an invading army from a rival state. Sometimes, too, a monarch gave the name of his father in an official inscription, or happily mentioned several ancestors. Another may be found to have made an illuminating statement regarding a predecessor, who centuries previously erected the particular temple that he himself has piously restored. A reckoning of this kind, however, cannot always be regarded as absolutely correct. It must be compared with and tested by other records, for in these ancient days calculations were not unfrequently based on doubtful inscriptions, or mere oral traditions, perhaps. Nor can implicit trust be placed on every reference to historical events, for the memoried deeds of great rulers were not always unassociated with persistent and cumulative myths. It must be recognized, therefore, that even portions of the data which had of late been sifted and systematized by Oriental scholars in Europe, may yet have to be subjected to revision. Many interesting and important discoveries, which will throw fresh light on this fascinating early period, remain to be made in that ancient and deserted land, which still lies under the curse of the Hebrew prophet, who exclaimed: "Babylon, the glory of kingdoms, the beauty of the Chaldees' excellency, shall be as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah. It shall never be inhabited; neither shall the Arabian pitch tent there; neither shall the shepherds make their fold there. But wild beasts of the desert shall lie there; and their houses shall be full of doleful creatures; and owls shall dwell there, and satyrs shall dance there. And the wild beasts of the islands shall cry in their desolate houses and dragons in their pleasant palaces."[146]