Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria
A Royal Hunt (See p. 310) — Photo W. A. Mansell and Co.
One outstanding feature of Babylonian religion is the worship of the great earth-mother. This is a universal religious phase, but in few systems do we find it so prominent as in Babylonia and indeed in the whole Mesopotamian tract. Efforts have been made to show that in Mesopotamia there encountered one another two streams of people of opposing worship, one worshipping a male, and the other a female deity. With those who worshipped the man-god—hunters and warriors with whom women were considered more as beasts of burden than anything else—man was the superior being.[Pg 319] The other people who worshipped the woman-god were not necessarily more civilized; the origin of their adoration may have been a scarcity of women in the tribe. Where these two streams fused the worship of an androgyne, or man-woman god, is said to have resulted. But were there peoples who specifically and separately worshipped male and female deities? If certainty can be approached in debating such matters, these deities would assuredly be animistic, and a people who worship animistic gods do not worship one god or one sex, but scores of spirit-gods of both sexes. Wherever we find a mother-earth, too, we are almost certain to discover a father-sky. The cult of the great mother-goddess was of rather later origin. All localities and all regions in the Semitic world possessed such a deity and it was the fusion of these in one that produced Ishtar or Astarte, who was probably also the 'Diana of the Ephesians.' Perhaps the best parallel to this Semitic worship of the earth-mother is to be found in the mythology of the ancient Mexican races, where each pueblo, or city-state, possessed its earth-mother, several of whom were finally merged, after the conquest of their worshippers, in the great earth-mother of Mexico.
But Babylonian-Assyrian religion is chiefly of interest to the student of comparative religion in that it casts a flood of light upon that wonderful Jewish faith with which the history of our own is so closely identified.
Professor Sayce writes:
"There was one nation at all events which has[Pg 320] exercised, and still exercises, a considerable influence upon our own thought and life, and which had been brought into close contact with the religion and culture of Babylonia at a critical epoch in its history. The influence of Jewish religion upon Christianity, and consequently upon the races that have been moulded by Christianity, has been lasting and profound. Now Jewish religion was intimately bound up with Jewish history, more intimately perhaps than has been the case with any other great religion of the world. It took its colouring from the events that marked the political life of the Hebrew people; it developed in unison with their struggles and successes, their trials and disappointments. Its great devotional utterance, the Book of Psalms, is national, not individual; the individual in it has merged his own aspirations and sufferings into those of the whole community. The course of Jewish prophecy is equally stamped with the impress of the national fortunes. It grows clearer and more catholic as the intercourse of the Jewish people with those around them becomes wider; and the lesson is taught at last that the God of the Jews is the God also of the whole world. Now the chosen instruments for enforcing this lesson, as we are expressly told, were the Assyrian and Babylonian. The Assyrian was the rod of God's anger, while the Babylonish exile was the bitter punishment meted out to Judah for its sins. The captives who returned again to their own land came back with changed hearts and purified minds; from henceforth Jerusalem was to be the unrivalled dwelling-place of 'the righteous nation which keepeth the truth.'