Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria

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[Pg 209] of Assyria still retained the right to call themselves 'priests of the god Asshur.' The entire faith in and dependence on their beloved deity on the part of these early Assyrian rulers is touching. They are his children and rely wholly upon him first for protection against their cruel enemies the Kassites and afterwards for the extension of their growing empire. No wonder that with such a faith to stimulate her Assyria became great. Faith in her tutelar god was, indeed, the secret of her greatness. The enemies of Assyria are 'the enemies of Asshur,' her soldiers are 'the warriors of Asshur,' and their weapons are 'the weapons of Asshur.' Before his face the enemies of Assyria tremble and are routed, he is consulted oracularly as to the making and conduct of war, and he is present on the battle-field. But the solitary nature of Asshur was remarkable. Originally he possessed 'neither kith nor kin,' neither wife nor child, and the unnaturalness of his splendid isolation appears to have struck the Assyrian scribes, who in an interesting prayer attempted to connect their divinity with the greater gods of Babylonia, to find him a wife, ministers, a court and messengers.

A prayer to Asshur, the king of the gods, ruler over heaven and earth,
the father who has created the gods, the supreme first-born of heaven and earth,
the supreme muttallu who inclines to counsel,
the giver of the sceptre and the throne.
To Nin-lil, the wife of Asshur, the begetter, the creatress of heaven and earth,
who by command of her mouth ...
To Sin, the lord of command, the uplifter of horns, the spectacle of heaven,
To the Sun-god, the great judge of the gods, who causes the lightning to issue forth,
[Pg 210] To Anu, the lord and prince, possessing the life of Asshur, the father of the great gods.
To Rammon, the minister of heaven and earth, the lord of the wind and the lightning of heaven.
To Ishtar, the queen of heaven and the stars, whose seat is exalted.
To Merodach, the prince of the gods, the interpreter of the spirits of heaven and earth.
To Adar, the son of Mul-lil the giant, the first-born ...
To Nebo, the messenger of Asshur (Ansar) ...
To Nergal, the lord of might and strength ...
To the god who marches in front, the first-born ...
To the seven gods, the warrior deities ...
the great gods, the lords of heaven and earth.

Asshur as Conqueror

An incident which well illustrated the popularity of the Assyrian belief in the conquering power of the national god is described in an account of the expedition of Sargon against Ashdod stamped on a clay cylinder of that monarch's reign. Sargon states that in his ninth expedition to the land beside the sea, to Philistia and Ashdod, to punish King Azuri of that city for his refusal to send tribute and for his evil deeds against Assyrian subjects, Sargon placed Ahimiti, nephew of Azuri, in his place and fixed the taxes. But the people of Ashdod revolted against the puppet Sargon had placed over them, and by acclamation raised one Yaran to the throne, and fortified their dominions. They and the surrounding peoples sought the aid of Egypt, which could not help them. For the honour of Asshur, Sargon then engaged in an expedition against the Hittites, and turned his attention to the state of affairs in Philistia (c. 711 B.C.), hearing which Yaran, for fear of Asshur, fled to Meroc on the borders of Egypt, where he hid ignominiously. Sargon besieged and[Pg 211] captured the city of Ashdod, with the gods, wives, children, and treasures of Yaran.

It is plain that this punitive expedition was undertaken for the personal honour of Asshur, that he was believed to accompany the troops in their campaign against the rebellious folk of Ashdod, and that victory was to be ascribed to him and to him alone. All tribute from conquered peoples became the property of Asshur, to whom it was offered by the Kings of Assyria. Even the great and proud monarchs of this warlike kingdom do not hesitate to affirm themselves the creatures of Asshur, by whom they live and breathe and by whose will they hold the royal authority, symbolized by the mighty bow conferred upon them by their divine master. That these haughty rulers were not without an element of affection as well as fear for the god they worshipped is seen from the circumstance that they frequently allude to themselves as the sons of Asshur, whose viceroys on earth they were. Asshur was, indeed, in later times the spirit of conquering Assyria personalized. We do not find him regarded as anything else than a war-god. We do not find him surrounded by any of the gentler attributes which distinguish non-militant deities, nor is it likely that his cult would have developed, had it lasted, into one distinguished for its humanizing influence or its ethical subtlety. It was the cult of a war-god pure and simple, and when Asshur was beaten at his own business of war he disappeared into the limbo of forgotten gods as rapidly as he had arisen.

Ishtar in Assyria

Next to Asshur in the affections of the Assyrian people stood Ishtar. As a goddess in Assyria she was[Pg 212] absolutely identical with the Babylonian Ishtar, her favourite shrines in the northern kingdom being Nineveh, Arbela, and the temple of Kidmuru, also in Nineveh. The Assyrians appear to have admitted her Babylonian origin, or at least to have confessed that theirs was originally a Babylonian Ishtar, for Tiglath-pileser I lays emphasis upon the circumstance that a shrine he raised to Ishtar in his capital is dedicated to 'the Assyrian Ishtar.' The date of this monarch is 1010 B.C., or near it, so that the above is a comparatively early allusion to Ishtar in Assyrian history. The Ishtars of Arbela and Kidmuru do not appear in Assyrian texts until the time of Esar-haddon (681 B.C.), thus the Ishtar of Nineveh was much the most venerable of the three. Arbela was evidently a religious centre of importance, and the theory has been advanced that it became the seat of a school of prophets connected with the worship of Ishtar. Jastrow in his Religion of Babylonia and Assyria (1898, p. 203), writing on this point, says, "It is quite possible, if not probable, that the three Ishtars are each of independent origin. The 'queen of Kidmuru,' indeed, I venture to think, is the indigenous Ishtar of Nineveh, who is obliged to yield her place to the so-called 'Assyrian Ishtar,' upon the transfer of the capital of Assyria to Nineveh, and henceforth is known by one of her epithets to distinguish her from her more formidable rival. The cult of Ishtar at Arbela is probably, too, of ancient date; but special circumstances that escape us appear to have led to a revival of interest in their cults during the period when Assyria reached the zenith of her power. The important point for us to bear in mind is that no essential distinctions between these three Ishtars were made by the Assyrians. Their traits and[Pg 213] epithets are similar, and for all practical purposes we have only one Ishtar in the northern empire."

Ishtar as a War-Goddess

Ishtar was frequently placed by the side of Asshur as a war-goddess. Ere she left the plains of Babylonia for the uplands of Assyria she had evinced certain bellicose propensities. In the Gilgamesh epic she appears as a deity of destructive and spiteful character, if not actually of warlike nature. But if the Babylonians regarded her first and foremost as the great mother-goddess, the Assyrians took but little notice of this side of her character. To them she was a veritable Valkyrie, and as the Assyrians grew more and more military so she became more the war-goddess and less the nature-mother of love and agriculture. She appeared in dreams to the war-loving Kings of Assyria, encouraging and heartening them with words of cheer to further military exploits. Fire was her raiment, and, as became a goddess of battle, her appearance was terrific. She consumed the enemies of Assur-bani-pal with flames. Still, strangely enough, in the religious texts, influenced probably by Babylonian sources, she was still to a great extent the mild and bountiful mother of nature. It is in the historical texts which ring with tales of conquest and the grandiloquent boastings of conquering monarchs that she appears as the leader of armies and the martial goddess who has slain her thousands and her tens of thousands. So has it ever been impossible for the priest and the soldier to possess the selfsame idea of godhead, and this is so in the modern no less than in the ancient world. Yet occasionally the stern Assyrian kings unbent, and it was probably in a brief interval of[Pg 214] peace that Assur-nazir-pal alluded to Ishtar as the lady who "loves him and his priesthood." Sennacherib also spoke of the goddess in similar terms. It is necessary to state that the name or title of Belit given to Ishtar does not signify that she is the wife or consort of Bel, but merely that she is a 'great lady,' for which the title 'Belit' is a generic term. If she is at times brought into close association with Asshur she is never regarded as his wife. She is not the consort of any god, but an independent goddess in her own right, standing alone, equal with Asshur and the dependant of no other divinity. But it was later only that she ranked with Asshur, and purely because of her military reputation.