Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria

Page: 132

The private life of an Assyrian or Babylonian king was probably not of a very comfortable order, surrounded as he was by sycophantic officials, spies in the pay of his enemies, schemers and office-seekers of all descriptions. As in most Oriental countries, the harem was the centre of intrigue and political unrest. Its occupants were usually princesses from foreign countries who had probably received injunctions on leaving their native lands to gain as much ascendancy over the monarch as possible for the purpose of swaying him in matters political. Many of these alliances were supposed to be made in the hope of maintaining peaceful relations between Mesopotamia and the surrounding countries, but there is little doubt that the numerous wives of a Mesopotamian king were only too often little better than spies whose office it was to report periodically to their relatives the condition of things in Babylon or Nineveh.

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Slaves swarmed in the palaces, and these occupied a rather higher status than in some other countries. A slave who possessed good attainments and who was skilled in weaving, the making of unguents or preserves, was regarded as an asset. The slaves were a caste, but the laws regarding them were exact and not inhumane. They were usually sold by auction in the market-places of the large towns. A strange custom, too, is said by Herodotus to have obtained among the Babylonians in connexion with marriage. Every marriageable woman obtained a husband in the following manner: The most beautiful girls of marriageable age were put up to auction, and the large sums realized by their sale were given to the plainer young women as dowries, who, thus furnished with plentiful means, readily found husbands. The life of a Mesopotamian king was so hedged around by ceremonial as to leave little time for private pleasures. These, as in the case of Assur-bani-pal, sometimes took the form of literary or antiquarian amusements, but the more general form of relaxation seems to have been feasts or banquets at which the tables were well supplied with delicacies obtained from distant as well as neighbouring regions. Dancing and music, both furnished by a professional class, followed the repast, and during the evening the King might consult his soothsayers or astrologers as to some portent that had been related to him, or some dream he had experienced.

The royal lines of Mesopotamia seem to have been composed of men grave, sedate, and conscious of the authority which reposed in them. But few weaklings sat upon the thrones of Babylonia or Assyria, and those who did were not infrequently swept aside to make room for better men.

[1] George Smith's translation. See his Assyrian Discoveries, p. 355 ff.

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The comparative value of the religions of Babylonia and Assyria is very high, as they represent Semitic polytheism in evolution, and in a state of prosperity, though hardly in decay. They are, in fact, typical of Semitic religion as a whole, and as the Semitic race initiated no less than three of the great religious systems of the world—Judaism, Christianity, and Mohammedanism—they are well worth careful study on the part of those who desire to specialize in religious science. It is, however, for a variety of reasons, inevitable that we should compare them most frequently with the religion of Israel, the faith that in general most resembled them, although a wide cleavage existed between the ethics of that system and their moral outlook. That notwithstanding, there was direct contact between the Babylonian and Jewish religions for a prolonged period, and the influence thus absorbed was quickened by racial relationship.