Myths of Babylonia and Assyria
Page: 93The eagle figures in various mythologies, and appears to have been at one time worshipped as the god or goddess of fertility, and storm and lightning, as the bringer of children, and the deity who carried souls to Hades. It was also the symbol of royalty, because the earthly ruler represented the controlling deity. Nin-Girsu, the god of Lagash, who was identified with Tammuz, was depicted as a lion-headed eagle. Zeus, the Greek sky and air god, was attended by an eagle, and may, at one time, have been simply an eagle. In Egypt the place of the eagle is taken by Nekhebit, the vulture goddess whom the Greeks identified with "Eileithyia, the goddess of birth; she was usually represented as a vulture hovering over the king".
The double-headed eagle of the Hittites, which figures in the royal arms of Germany and Russia, appears to have symbolized the deity of whom the king was an incarnation or son. In Indian mythology Garuda, the eagle giant, which destroyed serpents like the Babylonian Etana eagle, issued from its egg like a flame of fire; its eyes flashed the lightning and its voice was the thunder. This bird is identified in a hymn with Agni, god of fire, who has the attributes of Tammuz and Mithra, with Brahma, the creator, with Indra, god of thunder and fertility, and with Yama, god of the dead, who carries off souls to Hades. It is also called "the steed-necked incarnation of Vishnu", the "Preserver" of the Hindu trinity who rode on its back. The hymn referred to lauds Garuda as "the bird of life, the presiding spirit of the animate and inanimate universe ... destroyer of all, creator of all". It burns all "as the sun in his anger burneth all creatures".
Birds were not only fates, from whose movements in flight omens were drawn, but also spirits of fertility. When the childless Indian sage Mandapala of the Mahabharata was refused admittance to heaven until a son was born to him, he "pondered deeply" and "came to know that of all creatures birds alone were blest with fecundity"; so he became a bird.
It is of interest, therefore, to find the Etana eagle figuring as a symbol of royalty at Rome. The deified Roman Emperor's waxen image was burned on a pyre after his death, and an eagle was let loose from the great pile to carry his soul to heaven. This custom was probably a relic of seasonal fire worship, which may have been introduced into Northern and Western Syria and Asia Minor by the mysterious Mitanni rulers, if it was not an archaic Babylonian custom associated with fire-and-water magical ceremonies, represented in the British Isles by May-Day and Midsummer fire-and-water festivals. Sandan, the mythical founder of Tarsus, was honoured each year at that city by burning a great bonfire, and he was identified with Hercules. Probably he was a form of Moloch and Melkarth. Doves were burned to Adonis. The burning of straw figures, representing gods of fertility, on May-Day bonfires may have been a fertility rite, and perhaps explains the use of straw birth-girdles.
According to the commentators of the Koran, Nimrod, the Babylonian king, who cast victims in his annual bonfires at Cuthah, died on the eighth day of the Tammuz month, which, according to the Syrian calendar, fell on 13th July. It is related that gnats entered Nimrod's brain, causing the membrane to grow larger. He suffered great pain, and to relieve it had his head beaten with a mallet. Although he lived for several hundred years, like other agricultural patriarchs, including the Tammuz of Berosus, it is possible that he was ultimately sacrificed and burned. The beating of Nimrod recalls the beating of the corn spirit of the agricultural legend utilized by Burns in his ballad of "John Barleycorn", which gives a jocular account of widespread ancient customs that are not yet quite extinct even in Scotland: