Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria

Page: 142

Babylonian Ethics

And, lastly, what of the ethics of ancient Babylon and Assyria? On the whole the moral standard[Pg 338] of these countries was not by any means so exalted as our own, although the religious outlook was not a low one. To begin with, the character of Babylonian myth was a great deal purer than that of Hellenic or Scandinavian myth. The gods of Babylonia appear to be more dignified than those of the Greeks or Norsemen, for example. They do not descend to the same puerilities, and their record is immeasurably cleaner. This may have something to do with the very great body of ritual connected with the Babylonian religion, for when a people is so hedged in by religious custom as were the ancient Chaldeans, so threatened on every side by taboo, the mere thought of wrongdoing and the consequence thereof is sufficient to deter them from acting otherwise than reasonably. In course of time sin becomes so ugly and repulsive in the light of punishment that the moral code receives a tremendous impulse.

There is no doubt that the Babylonians devoutly believed that their gods demanded rigid adherence to the moral code. It was generally thought that misfortune and illness were the consequences of moral transgression. But the Babylonians did not believe that the cardinal sins alone were heinous, for they included in transgression such misdemeanours as maliciousness, fraud, unworthy ambitions, and injurious teaching.

[1] Hibbert Lectures, pp. 38 ff. (by permission of Messrs Williams and Norgate).

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In no land has excavation assisted history so greatly as in Mesopotamia. In Egypt, although spade-work has widened our knowledge of life and religion in the Nile country, most of what we know of these subjects has been gleaned from temples and pyramids, rock-tombs and mastabas, for the proper examination of which little or no digging was necessary, and generally speaking it may be said that excavation in Egypt has furnished us with a greater insight into the earlier periods of Egyptian progress, its 'prehistoric' life. But in the Babylonian-Assyrian region, practically every discovery has been due to strenuous labour with pick and spade; our knowledge of Chaldea in its hey-day has literally been dug up piece by piece.

The honour of beginning the great task of unearthing the buried cities of Mesopotamia belongs to M. Botta, who was French consul at Mosul in 1842. Moved by the belief that many of the great sand-covered mounds which are so conspicuous a feature of the Mesopotamian landscape probably concealed ruins of a vanished civilization, Botta commenced to excavate the large mound of Kouyunjik, which is situated close to the village where he resided. But he found little to reward his labours, and he does not seem to have gone about the business of excavation in a very workmanlike manner. His attention was called by an intelligent native to the mounds of Khorsabad, the site of ancient Nineveh, and he dispatched a party of workmen to the spot. Soon his perseverance was rewarded by the discovery of some sculptures, and[Pg 340] recognizing the superior importance of Khorsabad for archæological purposes, he transferred his establishment to that village and resolved to devote himself to a thorough investigation of the site.