Myths of Babylonia and Assyria
I am the sorcerer priest of Ea...To revive the ... sick manThe great lord Ea hath sent me;He hath added his pure spell to mine,He hath added his pure voice to mine,He hath added his pure spittle to mine.R.C. Thompson's Translation.
Saliva, like tears, had creative and therefore curative qualities; it also expelled and injured demons and brought good luck. Spitting ceremonies are referred to in the religious literature of Ancient Egypt. When the Eye of Ra was blinded by Set, Thoth spat in it to restore vision. The sun god Tum, who was linked with Ra as Ra-Tum, spat on the ground, and his saliva became the gods Shu and Tefnut. In the Underworld the devil serpent Apep was spat upon to curse it, as was also its waxen image which the priests fashioned.
Several African tribes spit to make compacts, declare friendship, and to curse.
Park, the explorer, refers in his Travels to his carriers spitting on a flat stone to ensure a good journey. Arabian holy men and descendants of Mohammed spit to cure diseases. Mohammed spat in the mouth of his grandson Hasen soon after birth. Theocritus, Sophocles, and Plutarch testify to the ancient Grecian customs of spitting to cure and to curse, and also to bless when children were named. Pliny has expressed belief in the efficacy of the fasting spittle for curing disease, and referred to the custom of spitting to avert witchcraft. In England, Scotland, and Ireland spitting customs are not yet obsolete. North of England boys used to talk of "spitting their sauls" (souls). When the Newcastle colliers held their earliest strikes they made compacts by spitting on a stone. There are still "spitting stones" in the north of Scotland. When bargains are made in rural districts, hands are spat upon before they are shaken. The first money taken each day by fishwives and other dealers is spat upon to ensure increased drawings. Brand, who refers to various spitting customs, quotes Scot's Discovery of Witchcraft regarding the saliva cure for king's evil, which is still, by the way, practised in the Hebrides. Like Pliny, Scot recommended ceremonial spitting as a charm against witchcraft. In China spitting to expel demons is a common practice. We still call a hasty person a "spitfire", and a calumniator a "spit-poison".
The life principle in trees, &c., as we have seen, was believed to have been derived from the tears of deities. In India sap was called the "blood of trees", and references to "bleeding trees" are still widespread and common. "Among the ancients", wrote Professor Robertson Smith, "blood is generally conceived as the principle or vehicle of life, and so the account often given of sacred waters is that the blood of the deity flows in them. Thus as Milton writes:
Smooth Adonis from his native rockRan purple to the sea, supposed with bloodOf Thammuz yearly wounded.Paradise Lost, i, 450.
The ruddy colour which the swollen river derived from the soil at a certain season was ascribed to the blood of the god, who received his death wound in Lebanon at that time of the year, and lay buried beside the sacred source."
In Babylonia the river was regarded as the source of the life blood and the seat of the soul. No doubt this theory was based on the fact that the human liver contains about a sixth of the blood in the body, the largest proportion required by any single organ. Jeremiah makes "Mother Jerusalem" exclaim: "My liver is poured upon the earth for the destruction of the daughter of my people", meaning that her life is spent with grief.
Inspiration was derived by drinking blood as well as by drinking intoxicating liquors--the mead of the gods. Indian magicians who drink the blood of the goat sacrificed to the goddess Kali, are believed to be temporarily possessed by her spirit, and thus enabled to prophesy. Malayan exorcists still expel demons while they suck the blood from a decapitated fowl.
Similar customs were prevalent in Ancient Greece. A woman who drank the blood of a sacrificed lamb or bull uttered prophetic sayings.
But while most Babylonians appear to have believed that the life principle was in blood, some were apparently of opinion that it was in breath--the air of life. A man died when he ceased to breathe; his spirit, therefore, it was argued, was identical with the atmosphere--the moving wind--and was accordingly derived from the atmospheric or wind god. When, in the Gilgamesh epic, the hero invokes the dead Ea-bani, the ghost rises up like a "breath of wind". A Babylonian charm runs:
The gods which seize on menCame forth from the grave;The evil wind gustsHave come forth from the grave,To demand payment of rites and the pouring out of libationsThey have come forth from the grave;All that is evil in their hosts, like a whirlwind,Hath come forth from the grave.
The Hebrew "nephesh ruach" and "neshamah" (in Arabic "ruh" and "nefs") pass from meaning "breath" to "spirit". In Egypt the god Khnumu was "Kneph" in his character as an atmospheric deity. The ascendancy of storm and wind gods in some Babylonian cities may have been due to the belief that they were the source of the "air of life". It is possible that this conception was popularized by the Semites. Inspiration was perhaps derived from these deities by burning incense, which, if we follow evidence obtained elsewhere, induced a prophetic trance. The gods were also invoked by incense. In the Flood legend the Babylonian Noah burned incense. "The gods smelled a sweet savour and gathered like flies over the sacrificer." In Egypt devotees who inhaled the breath of the Apis bull were enabled to prophesy.