Myths of Babylonia and Assyria

Page: 148

Nimrod, the king of Babel (Babylon), in Shinar (Sumer), was, it would appear, a deified monarch who became ultimately identified with the national god of Babylonia. Professor Pinches has shown[298] that his name is a rendering of that of Merodach. In Sumerian Merodach was called Amaruduk or Amarudu, and in the Assyro-Babylonian language Marduk. By a process familiar to philologists the suffix "uk" was dropped and the rendering became Marad. The Hebrews added "ni" = "ni-marad", assimilating the name "to a certain extent to the 'niphal forms' of the Hebrew verbs and making a change", says Pinches, "in conformity with the genius of the Hebrew language".

Asshur, who went out of Nimrod's country to build Nineveh, was a son of Shem--a Semite, and so far as is known it was after the Semites achieved political supremacy in Akkad that the Assyrian colonies were formed. Asshur may have been a subject ruler who was deified and became the god of the city of Asshur, which probably gave its name to Assyria.

According to Herodotus, Nineveh was founded by King Ninus and Queen Semiramis. This lady was reputed to be the daughter of Derceto, the fish goddess, whom Pliny identified with Atargatis. Semiramis was actually an Assyrian queen of revered memory. She was deified and took the place of a goddess, apparently Nina, the prototype of Derceto. This Nina, perhaps a form of Damkina, wife of Ea, was the great mother of the Sumerian city of Nina, and there, and also at Lagash, received offerings of fish. She was one of the many goddesses of maternity absorbed by Ishtar. The Greek Ninus is regarded as a male form of her name; like Atargatis, she may have become a bisexual deity, if she was not always accompanied by a shadowy male form. Nineveh (Ninua) was probably founded or conquered by colonists from Nina or Lagash, and called after the fish goddess.

All the deities of Assyria were imported from Babylonia except, as some hold, Ashur, the national god.[299] The theory that Ashur was identical with the Aryo-Indian Asura and the Persian Ahura is not generally accepted. One theory is that he was an eponymous hero who became the city god of Asshur, although the early form of his name, Ashir, presents a difficulty in this connection. Asshur was the first capital of Assyria. Its city god may have become the national god on that account.

At an early period, perhaps a thousand years before Thothmes III battled with the Mitannians in northern Syria, an early wave of one of the peoples of Aryan speech may have occupied the Assyrian cities. Mr. Johns points out in this connection that the names of Ushpia, Kikia, and Adasi, who, according to Assyrian records, were early rulers in Asshur, "are neither Semitic nor Sumerian". An ancient name of the goddess of Nineveh was Shaushka, which compares with Shaushkash, the consort of Teshup, the Hittite-Mitanni hammer god. As many of the Mitannian names "are", according to Mr. Johns, "really Elamitic", he suggests an ethnic connection between the early conquerors of Assyria and the people of Elam.[300] Were the pre-Semitic Elamites originally speakers of an agglutinative language, like the Sumerians and present-day Basques, who were conquered in prehistoric times by a people of Aryan speech?

The possibility is urged by Mr. Johns's suggestion that Assyria may have been dominated in pre-Semitic times by the congeners of the Aryan military aristocracy of Mitanni. As has been shown, it was Semitized by the Amoritic migration which, about 2000 B.C., brought into prominence the Hammurabi Dynasty of Babylon.

A long list of kings with Semitic names held sway in the Assyrian cities during and after the Hammurabi Age. But not until well on in the Kassite period did any of them attain prominence in Western Asia. Then Ashur-bel-nish-eshu, King of Asshur, was strong enough to deal on equal terms with the Kassite ruler Kara-indash I, with whom he arranged a boundary treaty. He was a contemporary of Thothmes III of Egypt.

After Thothmes III had secured the predominance of Egypt in Syria and Palestine he recognized Assyria as an independent power, and supplied its king with Egyptian gold to assist him, no doubt, in strengthening his territory against their common enemy. Gifts were also sent from Assyria to Egypt to fan the flame of cordial relations.

The situation was full of peril for Saushatar, king of Mitanni. Deprived by Egypt of tribute-paying cities in Syria, his exchequer must have been sadly depleted. A standing army had to be maintained, for although Egypt made no attempt to encroach further on his territory, the Hittites were ever hovering on his north-western frontier, ready when opportunity offered to win back Cappadocia. Eastward, Assyria was threatening to become a dangerous rival. He had himself to pay tribute to Egypt, and Egypt was subsidizing his enemy. It was imperative on his part, therefore, to take action without delay. The power of Assyria had to be crippled; its revenues were required for the Mitannian exchequer. So Saushatar raided Assyria during the closing years of the reign of Thothmes III, or soon after his successor, Amenhotep II, ascended the Egyptian throne.

Nothing is known from contemporary records regarding this campaign; but it can be gathered from the references of a later period that the city of Asshur was captured and plundered; its king, Ashur-nadin-akhe, ceased corresponding and exchanging gifts with Egypt. That Nineveh also fell is made clear by the fact that a descendant of Saushatar (Tushratta) was able to send to a descendant of Thothmes III at Thebes (Amenhotep III) the image of Ishtar (Shaushka) of Nineveh. Apparently five successive Mitannian kings were overlords of Assyria during a period which cannot be estimated at much less than a hundred years.

Our knowledge regarding these events is derived chiefly from the Tell-el-Amarna letters, and the tablets found by Professor Hugo Winckler at Boghaz-Köi in Cappadocia, Asia Minor.

The Tell-el-Amarna letters were discovered among the ruins of the palace of the famous Egyptian Pharaoh, Akhenaton, of the Eighteenth Dynasty, who died about 1358 B.C. During the winter of 1887-8 an Egyptian woman was excavating soil for her garden, when she happened upon the cellar of Akhenaton's foreign office in which the official correspondence had been stored. The "letters" were baked clay tablets inscribed with cuneiform alphabetical signs in the Babylonian-Assyrian language, which, like French in modern times, was the language of international diplomacy for many centuries in Western Asia after the Hyksos period.