Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria

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Ea was 'the great magician of the gods'; his sway over the forces of nature was secured by the performance of magical rites, and his services were obtained by human beings who performed requisite ceremonies and repeated appropriate spells. Although he might be worshipped and propitiated in his temple at Eridu, he could also be conjured in mud huts. The latter, indeed, as in Mexico, appear to have been the oldest holy places.

The Legend of Ura

It is told that Ura, the dread demon of disease, once made up his mind to destroy mankind. But[Pg 269] Ishnu, his counsellor, appeased him so that he abandoned his intention, and he gave humanity a chance of escape. Whoever should praise Ura and magnify his name would, he said, rule the four quarters of the world, and should have none to oppose him. He should not die in pestilence, and his speech should bring him into favour with the great ones of the earth. Wherever a tablet with the song of Ura was set up, in that house there should be immunity from the pestilence.

As we read in the closing lines of the Gilgamesh epic, the dead were often left unburied in Babylonia, and the ghosts of those who were thus treated were, as in more modern times and climes, supposed to haunt the living until given proper sepulture. They roamed the streets and byways seeking for sustenance among the garbage in the gutters, and looking for haunted houses in which to dwell, denied as they were the shelter of the grave, which was regarded as the true 'home' of the dead. They frequently terrified children into madness or death, and bitterly mocked those in tribulation. They were, in fact, the outcasts of mortality, spiteful and venomous because they had not been properly treated. The modern race which most nearly approximates to the Babylonian in its treatment of and attitude to the dead seems to be the Burmese, who are extremely circumspect as to how they speak and act towards the inhabitants of the spirit-world, as they believe that disrespect or mockery will bring down upon them misfortune or disease. An infinite number of guardian spirits is included in the Burman demonological system. These dwell in their houses and are the tutelars of village communities, and even of clans. These are duly propitiated, at which[Pg 270] ceremonies rice, beer, and tea-salad are offered to them. Women are employed as exorcists for driving out the evil spirits.


Purification by water entered largely into Babylonian magic. The ceremony known as the 'Incantation of Eridu,' so frequently alluded to in Babylonian magical texts, was probably some form of purification by water, relating as it does to the home of Ea, the sea-god. Another ceremony prescribes the mingling of water from a pool 'that no hand hath touched,' with tamarisk, mastakal, ginger, alkali, and mixed wine. Therein must be placed a shining ring, and the mixture is then to be poured upon the patient. A root of saffron is then to be taken and pounded with pure salt and alkali and fat of the matku-bird brought from the mountains, and with this strange mixture the body of the patient is to be anointed.

The Chamber of the Priest-Magician

Let us attempt to describe the treatment of a case by a priest-physician-magician of Babylonia. The proceeding is rather a recondite one, but by the aid of imagination as well as the assistance of Babylonian representation we may construct a tolerably clear picture. The chamber of the sage is almost certain to be situated in some nook in one of those vast and imposing fanes which more closely resembled cities than mere temples. We draw the curtain and enter a rather darksome room. The atmosphere is pungent with chemic odours, and ranged on shelves disposed upon the tiled walls are numerous jars, great and small, containing the fearsome compounds[Pg 271] which the practitioner applies to the sufferings of Babylonian humanity. The asipu, shaven and austere, asks us what we desire of him, and in the rôle of Babylonian citizens we acquaint him with the fact that our lives are made miserable for us by a witch who sends upon us misfortune after misfortune, now the blight or some equally intractable and horrible disease, now an evil wind, now unspeakable enchantments which torment us unceasingly. In his capacity of physician the asipu examines our bodies, shrunken and exhausted with fever or rheumatism, and having prescribed for us, compounds the mixture with his own hands and enjoins us to its regular application. He mixes various ingredients in a stone mortar, whispering his spells the while, with many a prayer to Ea the beneficent and Merodach the all-powerful that we may be restored to health. Then he promises to visit us at our dwelling and gravely bids us adieu, after expressing the hope that we will graciously contribute to the upkeep of the house of religion to which he is attached.