Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria

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Excavated Ruins of the Temple of E-Sagila. The two walls in the centre mark the entrance to the passage, a quarter of a mile long, which connected the Tower of Babel with this temple. Copyright by Underwood and Underwood, London.

Temples as Banks

It was perhaps typical of the race that its places of worship should gradually become great financial centres and the nuclei of trade and usury. Heavily endowed as they were by the kings of Babylonia[Pg 251] and Assyria, and boasting immense wealth in lands, subsidies, and slaves, they also had at their command an army of workmen and labourers. But their directors were also bankers and money-lenders, buyers and barterers of produce and manufactures of every kind, estate-agents and men of commerce generally. Sacred objects of every kind were on sale in the temple precincts, idols, votive offerings, amulets, and so forth. With what object did the priesthood of Babylonia pursue a commercial career? It could scarcely have been one in which personal gain bulked largely, as the impersonal temple swallowed up all the profit. The cost of upkeep of such shrines must have been enormous, and when we think of the gorgeous nature of their interiors, and the costly character of the rich vessels and altars with which they were equipped, we can marvel no longer at what appears a degrading and unnecessary commerce on the part of their priesthood.

Feasts and Festivals

Babylonian religious festivals were, as a rule, periods of jubilation and rejoicing. Each god had his own day of festival in the calendar. The first day of the year, or Zag-muku, was sacred to the goddess Bau. Gudea, who had made Nin-girsu his favourite, attempted to 'work him into' this festival by uniting him in marriage with Bau, and he offers her marriage gifts on New Year's Day. But later the Zag-muku was transformed into a festival to Merodach. The circumstance that it was celebrated in the first month of the year shows that it did not originally belong to Merodach, whose month was Marcheshuan, the eighth. But it is eloquent of his popularity that the great New Year's feast should have been dedicated[Pg 252] to him. It seems to have lasted for at least ten or twelve days. As has already been described, the union of Nabu and Merodach, father and son, was solemnly celebrated, Nabu piously paying a visit to his father's sanctuary. The other gods were supposed to assemble in spirit in Merodach's temple to witness the ceremony, and afterwards the priests of Merodach escorted the idol of Nabu back to its shrine, themselves carrying the image of their deity.

To behold this festival, which was celebrated with all possible magnificence, people flocked from all parts of Babylonia. The king, approaching the statue of the god, seized its hands in token of covenant, and in later times Assyrian monarchs, in order to legitimatize themselves as rulers of Babylonia, went through this ceremony, which came to be recognized as duly fulfilling their claims to sovereignty in the southern land; but whereas they went through the ceremony once only, the kings of Babylonia celebrated it annually with the intensest possible devotion.

The Chamber of Fates

On the eighth day of the festival all the gods were thought to assemble in Merodach's 'Chamber of Fates,' to hearken to Merodach's decree concerning the fates of men for the ensuing year. This remarkable apartment was regarded as the reproduction of the interior of the great mountain wherein the gods met in council, just as the zikkurat was thought to typify that mountain itself. It was situated in a special portion of the 'mountain' known as the Ubshu-Kenna, and among its sacred names is one which may be translated 'brilliant chamber,' which shows that it must have been lavishly decorated. Ubshu-Kenna (or Upshukki-naku)[Pg 253] must be carefully distinguished from the 'heaven' proper of the Babylonian gods. It is situated in the east, in the Mountain of the Sunrise, not far from the edge of the world, where it was bounded by the waters of the great deep. It is, in fact, the 'brilliant chamber' where the sun takes his rise.

Lamentation Rituals

On the occasion of any national or popular disaster, such as defeat in war, the appearance of a pestilence or an eclipse of the sun or moon, a certain formula of lamentation was gone through, which was thought to have the effect of lessening or averting the malign influence of evil powers, or the punitive measures of an angry god. This formula varied of course with the deity or demon who was considered to have caused the calamity. Many of these ancient lamentations are written in the Sumerian tongue, which witnesses to their great antiquity. From them it would seem that the Babylonians were of the opinion that if the people had in any way sinned, the gods averted their faces from them, and departing from their neighbourhood left them a prey to calamities of all kinds. A definite ritual accompanied these formulas, one of the provisions of which was fasting, and purification ceremonies of a very elaborate nature were also celebrated by the priests, probably in the hope of symbolically washing away the sin which had so offended the gods.

The formula most in use in these propitiatory ceremonies was that which obtained in the sacred city of Nippur, and particularly in the temple of E-Kur. The monotony of these laments is typical of ancient Semitic worship. They describe the[Pg 254] disasters that have occurred, and piteously beg that the gods may be appeased. Only now and again in perusing them does a bright line or a picturesque phrase capture the eye and fire the imagination. A paraphrase of one of them may well characterize the whole. The god En-lil, shepherd of the dark-headed people, is implored to return to his city. He is entreated by the various names of his godhead, such as 'lord of lands,' 'lord of the faithful word,' 'lord of self-created vision,' and so forth. Each separate part of the temple area is alluded to in the request that he will return—the great gate, the storehouse, and the other religious departments. A touching domestic picture is drawn of the deserted homes in the city; where the woman could say to her young husband, "My husband," where she could say to the young child, "My child," where the maiden could say, "My brother," where the little girl could say, "My father,"—there the little ones perish, there the great perish. In her banqueting-hall the wind holds revel, her streets are desolate.