Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria

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[Pg 332] that the later Semitic religion of Mohammed followed almost precisely the same course, and that its early progress westward halted almost on the very site of ancient Carthage; that when it overflowed into Spain its disciples were acting precisely as Carthaginian Hannibal had done long before, and that it was beaten back by European effort in almost exactly the same way.

Robertson Smith in his valuable work, The Religion of the Semites, mentions that in his view Semitic religion does not differ so fundamentally from the other types of world religion as many writers on the subject appear to think. But the longer one considers it the greater do the barriers between Semitic and other religions appear and the more clearly marked their lines of demarcation. The prolonged isolation to which the Semitic peoples seem to have been subjected appears to have greatly affected their manner of religious thought. They are in truth a 'peculiar people,' practical yet mystical, strongly of the world yet finding their chief solace in those things which are not of the world.

The materials for a complete inquiry into the history of Semitic religion are lacking, and we must perforce fill up the gaps which are many by comparative methods. But in this we are greatly assisted by the numerous manifestations of Semitic faith which, including as it does Babylonian, Assyrian, Canaanitish, Phœnician, Arabian, and Mohammedan cults, provides us with rich comparative material.

The Religion of Zoroaster

The faith which immediately supplanted that of ancient Babylonia and Assyria could not fail to draw considerably from it. This was the Zoroastrian[Pg 333] faith, the religion of the Persians introduced by the reformer Zarathustra, the earliest form of Zoroaster's name as given in the Avesta. Uncertainty hangs over the date and place of his birth. The Greeks spoke of him as belonging to a remote age, but modern scholars assign the period of his life to the latter half of the seventh and early sixth century B.C. It seems certain that he was not a Persian, but a Mede or a Bactrian, either supposition being supported by indications of one kind or another. From the whole tenor of the Gathas, the most ancient part of the Avesta, we are led, says Dr. Haug, their translator, to feel that he was a man of extraordinary stamp acting a grand part on the stage of his country's history. Zarathustra speaks of himself as a messenger from God sent to bring the people the blessing of civilization and to destroy idolatry. Many legends grew up around his memory, of miraculous signs at his birth, of his precocious wisdom, whereby even as a child he confounded the Magi, of his being borne up to the highest heaven and there receiving the word of life from Deity itself, together with the revelation of all secrets of the future. He retired as a young man from the world to spend long years of contemplation before he began his teaching at thirty, and he lived to the age of seventy-seven. The religion he taught was the national religion of the Persians from the time of the Achæmenidæ, who dethroned Cyaxares' son, 558 B.C., to the middle of the seventh century A.D. It declined after Alexander's conquest under the Seleucidæ and the succeeding dynasty of the Arsacidæ, but was revived by the Sassanian rulers and flourished for the four centuries A.D. 226-651. Then followed the Mohammedan conquest, accompanied by persecution, before which the faithful followers of Zarathustra[Pg 334] fled to India, where they are now represented by their descendants, the Parsis of Bombay.

The religious belief taught by Zarathustra is based on the dual conception of a good principle, Ahura Mazda, and an evil principle, Anra Mainyu, and the leading idea of his teaching is the constant conflict between the two, which must continue until the end of the period ordained by Ahura Mazda for the duration of the world, when evil will be finally overcome; until then the god's power is to some degree limited, as evil still withstands him. Zarathustra's doctrine was essentially practical and ethical; it was not in abstract contemplation, or in separation from the world, that man was to look for spiritual deliverance, but in active charity, in deeds of usefulness, in kindness to animals, in everything that could help to make the world a well-ordered place to live in, in courage and all uprightness. To build a bridge or dig a canal was to help to lessen the power of evil. As Reinach has concisely expressed it, "a life thoroughly occupied was a perpetual exorcism."

The two figures of Ahura Mazda and Anra Mainyu, the one with his attendant archangels and angels, and the other with his arch-demons and demons, or Divs, compose the Zarathustrian celestial hierarchy, as represented in the earlier sacred writings; in the later ones other figures are introduced into the pantheon. The sacred writings that have been preserved are of different periods, and outside the range of Zarathustra's moral system of religion there are traces in them of revivals of an older primitive nature worship, and of the beliefs of an early nomadic shepherd life, as, for instance, the sacredness in which cow and dog are held, as well as reminiscences of general Indo-Germanic myths.

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Ahura Mazda was the creator of the universe for the duration of which he fixed a certain term. It seems uncertain whether the Persians pictured the world as round or flat, but according to their idea it was divided into seven zones, of which the central one was the actual habitable earth. Between these zones and enveloping the whole was the great abyss of waters. Between earth and heaven rose the celestial mountain whence all the rivers upon earth had their source, and on which was deposited the Haoma.

The central feature of Zoroastrian ritual was the worship of fire, an old-established worship which had existed before Zoroaster's time. In the oldest period images were forbidden, and holy rites could be performed without temples, portable fire-altars being in use. Temples were, however, built in quite early times, and within these was the sanctuary from which all light was excluded, and where the sacred fire was kept alight, which could only be approached by the priest with covered hands and mouth. The Persians carried the fear of defilement to an extreme, and had even more elaborate regulations than most Easterns concerning methods of purification and avoidance of defilement, both as regards personal contamination or that of the sacred elements of earth, fire, and water. Even hair and nails could not be cut without special directions as to how to deal with the separated portions. But this perpetual and exhausting state of caution and protective effort against contact with defiling objects and rigorous system of purification had an ultimate concern with the great struggle going on between good and evil. Death and everything that partook of death, or had any power of injury, were works of the arch-enemy.

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It was owing to the fear of contaminating the three elements named above that the Persians neither buried nor cremated their dead, and looked upon it as a criminal act to throw a corpse into the water. The old mode of disposing of the dead was similar to that now practised by the Parsis of Bombay, who carry the body to one of the Towers of Silence. So the Persians exposed the corpse, till one or other devouring agent, birds of prey or the elements, had reduced it to a skeleton. As regards man himself he was thought to be a reasonable being of free will with conscience, soul, and a guardian spirit or prototype of himself who dwelt above, called a Fravashi—his own character, indeed, put into a spiritual body, almost identical with the amei-malghen or spiritual nymphs of the Araucanian Indians of Chile. He had the choice of good and evil, and consequently suffered the due punishment of sin. For the first three days after death the soul of the dead was supposed to hover about its earthly abode.

During this time friends and relatives performed their funerary rites, their prayers and offerings becoming more earnest and abundant as the hour drew nigh when the soul was bound to start on its journey to the beyond. This was at the beginning of the fourth day, when Sraosha carried it aloft, assailed on the way by demons desirous of obtaining possession of his burden. On earth everything was being done to keep the evil spirits in check, fires lighted as particularly effective against the powers of darkness. And, thus assisted, Sraosha arrived safely with his charge at the bridge that spanned the space between earth and heaven. Here at the entrance to the 'accountants' bridge' the soul's[Pg 337] account was cast up by Mithra and Rashnu; the latter weighed its good and evil deeds, and even if the good deeds turned the scale, the soul had still to undergo immediate penance for its transgression, so strict was the justice meted out to each. Now the bridge may be crossed, and a further automatic kind of verdict is given, for to those fit for heaven the bridge appears a wide and easy way; to the unfortunate ones doomed to destruction it seems but of a hair's breadth, and stepping on to it they straightway fall into the yawning gulf beneath. The blessed ones are met at heaven's gate by a radiant figure, who leads them through the ante-chambers that finally open into the everlasting light of the celestial abode. This is the triumph of the individual soul; but there is 'a far-off divine event' awaiting, which will be heralded by signs and wonders. For 3000 years previous to it there are alternate intervals of overpowering evil and conquering peace. At last the great dragon is let loose and the evil time comes, but Mazda sends a man to slay it. Then the saviour Saoshyant is born of a virgin. The dead arise, the sheep and goats are divided, and there is lamentation on the earth. The mountains dissolve and flood the earth with molten metal, a devouring agent of destruction to the wicked, but from which the good take no hurt. The spiritual powers have now to battle it out. Mazda and Sraosha overcome Ahriman and the dragon, and "then age, decay, and death are done away, and in their place are everlasting growth and life."