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Lecture 1: Introductory

It is now fourteen years ago since I delivered a course of lectures for the Hibbert Trustees on the religion of the ancient Babylonians. The subject at that time was almost untouched; even such materials as were then accessible had been hardly noticed, and no attempt had been made to analyse or reduce them to order, much less to draw up a systematic account of ancient Babylonian religion. It was necessary to lay the very foundations of the study before it could be undertaken, to fix the characteristic features of the Babylonian faith and the lines along which it had developed, and, above all, to distinguish the different elements of which it was composed. The published texts did not suffice for such a work; they needed to be supplemented from that great mass of unpublished cuneiform documents with which the rooms of our museums are filled. My lectures were necessarily provisional and preliminary only, and I had to content myself with erecting a scaffold on which others might build. The time had not yet come for writing a systematic description of Babylonian religion, and of the phases through which it passed during the long centuries of its existence.

Nor has the time come yet. The best proof of this is the unsatisfactory nature of the attempts that have recently been made to accomplish the task. Our evidence is still too scanty and imperfect, the gaps in it are too numerous, to make anything of the sort possible. Our knowledge of the religious beliefs of Babylonia and Assyria is at best only piecemeal. Now and again we have inscriptions which illustrate the belief of a particular epoch or of a particular class, or which throw light on a particular side of the official or popular religions; but such rays of light are intermittent, and they penetrate the darkness only to be succeeded by a deeper obscurity than before. All we can hope to do is to discover the leading conceptions which underlay the religion of Babylonia in its various forms, to determine and distinguish the chief elements that went to create it, and to picture those aspects of it on which our documentary materials cast the most light. But anything like a systematic description of Babylonian religion will for many years to come be altogether out of the question; it must wait until the buried libraries of Chaldæa have been excavated, and all their contents studied. We are but at the beginning of discoveries, and the belief that our present conclusions are final is the belief of ignorance.

As I pointed out in my Hibbert Lectures, the first endeavour of the student of ancient Babylonian religion must be to distinguish between the Semitic and non-Semitic elements embodied in it. And before we can do this we must also distinguish between the Semitic and non-Semitic elements in our sources of information. This was the principal task to which I applied myself, and the failure to recognise the necessity of it has been the main cause of the little progress that has been made in the study of the subject. Since I wrote the means for undertaking the task with success have been multiplied; thanks to the excavations of the French and American explorers, the pre-Semitic world of Babylonia has been opened out to us in a way of which we could not have dreamed; and numberless texts have been found which belong to the early days of Sumerian or non-Semitic culture. We are no longer confined to the editions of Sumerian texts made in later times by Semitic scribes; we now have before us the actual inscriptions which were engraved when Sumerian princes still ruled the land, and the Sumerian language was still spoken by their subjects. We can read in them the names of the gods they worshipped, and the prayers which they offered to the spirits of heaven. The materials are at last at hand for determining in some measure what is Sumerian and what is Semitic, and what again may be regarded as a mixture or amalgamation of both.

But though the materials are at hand, it will be long before they can all be examined, much less thoroughly criticised. I cannot emphasise too strongly the provisional and imperfect character of our present knowledge of Babylonian literature. Thousands of tablets are lying in the museums of Europe and America, which it will take years of hard work on the part of many students to copy and read. At Tello,1 M. de Sarzec found a library of more than 30,000 tablets, which go back to the days of the priest-king Gudea; and the great temple of Bel at Nippur in Northern Babylonia has yielded five times as many more to the American excavators. Other excavations by natives or Turkish officials have at the same time brought to light multitudinous tablets from other ancient sites,—from Jokha, near the Shatt el-Hai, and from the ruins of the temple of Nebo at Borsippa. It is true that a large proportion of these tablets are contracts and similar business documents, but they contain much that is of importance not only for the social history of Babylonia, but for its religious history as well. Meanwhile the vast number of texts which have come from the mounds of Nineveh and Sippara is still but imperfectly known; it is only within the last three years that the catalogue of the Kouyunjik collection of tablets, which have been in the British Museum for almost half a century, has been at last completed in five portly volumes; and there still remain the numberless tablets from Babylonia which line the Museum shelves. And even of what has been catalogued there is much which has not yet been fully copied or examined. The British Museum, moreover, is no longer the sole repository of Babylonian literature. The Louvre, the Berlin Museum, and the American University of Pennsylvania, are equally filled with the clay tablets of the Babylonian scribes; while the collection in the Museum of Constantinople far exceeds those which have been formed elsewhere. Even private individuals have their collections of larger or less extent; that of Lord Amherst of Hackney, for example, would have made the fortune of one of the great museums of the world but a few years ago.

It is evident that it will be long before more than a fraction of this vast and ever-accumulating literature can be adequately studied. And what adds to the difficulty is that it is still increasing year by year. At present there are as many as three exploring expeditions in Babylonia. M. de Sarzec's successor on behalf of the French Government is still carrying on work at Tello, the ancient Lagas, which was begun as far back as 1877; the Americans are continuing their excavations at Nippur, where, ever since 1888, they have been excavating for the first time on a thoroughly systematic and scientific plan; and now the Germans have commenced work at Babylon itself, and have already fixed the site of the temple of Bel-Merodach and of that palace of Nebuchadrezzar in which Alexander the Great died.2 Even while I am writing, the news has come of the discovery of a great library at Nippur, which seems to have been buried under the ruins of the building in which it was kept as far back as the Abrahamic age. The mounds in which it has been found lie to the south-west of the great temple of Bel. Already nearly 20,000 tablets have been rescued from it, and it is calculated that at least 130,000 are yet to be disinterred. The tablets lie in order upon the clay shelves on which they were arranged in the days of Khammurabi, the Amraphel of Genesis;3 and, so far as they have been examined by Professor Hilprecht, it would appear that they relate to all the various branches of knowledge which were known and studied at the time. History, chronology, religion and literature, philology and law, are all alike represented in them. When we remember that the catastrophe which overwhelmed them occurred more than two thousand years before the Christian era, we may well ask what new and unexpected information the future has in store for us, and hesitate about coming to conclusions which the discovery of to-morrow may overthrow. We know but a tithe of what the monuments of Babylonia have yet to reveal to us, and much that we seem to know to-day will be profoundly modified by the knowledge we shall hereafter possess.

The imperfection of his materials places the student of Babylonian religion at a greater disadvantage than the student of Babylonian history or social life. The facts once obtained in the field of history or of social life remain permanently secured; the theories based upon them may have to be changed, but the facts themselves have been acquired by science once for all. But a religious fact is to a large extent a matter of interpretation, and the interpretation depends upon the amount of the evidence at our disposal as well as upon the character of the evidence itself. Moreover, the history of religion is a history of spiritual and intellectual development; it deals with ideas and dogmas which shift and change with the process of the ages, and take as it were the colour of each succeeding century. The history of religion transports us out of what German metaphysicians would call the “objective” world into the “subjective” world of thought and belief; it is not sufficient to know the literal meaning of its technical terms, or the mere order and arrangement of its rites and ceremonies; we have to discover what were the religious conceptions that were connected with the terms, and the dogmas that underlay the performance of a particular rite. A mere barren list of divine names and titles, or even the assurance that theology had identified certain gods with one another, will not carry us very far; at most they are but the dry bones of a theological system, which must be made to live before they can tell us what that system actually was.

The study of ancient Babylonian religion is thus beset with many difficulties. Our materials are imperfect, and yet at the same time are perpetually growing; the religious system to which they relate is a combination of two widely different forms of faith, characteristic of two entirely different races; and before we can understand it properly, we must separate the elements of which it consists, and assign to each their chronological position. The very fact, however, that religious texts are usually of immemorial antiquity, and that changes inevitably pass over them as they are handed down in successive editions, makes such a task peculiarly difficult. Nevertheless it is a task which must be undertaken before we have the right to draw a conclusion from the texts with which we deal. We must first know whether they are originally Sumerian or Semitic, or whether they belong to the age when Sumerian and Semitic were fused in one; whether, again, they are composite or the products of a single author and epoch; whether, lastly, they have been glossed and interpolated, and their primitive meaning transformed. We must have a chronology for our documents as well as an ethnology, and beware of transforming Sumerian into Semitic, or Semitic into Sumerian, or of interpreting the creations of one age as if they were the creations of another. The critical examination of the texts must precede every attempt to write an account of Babylonian religion, if the account is to be of permanent value.

Unfortunately we have nothing in Babylonia that corresponds with the Pyramid texts of Egypt. We have no body of doctrine which, in its existing form, is coeval with the early days of the monarchy, and can accordingly be compared with the religious belief and the religious books of a later time. The Pyramid texts have enabled us to penetrate behind the classical age of Egyptian religion, and so trace the development of many of the dogmas which distinguished the faith of later epochs; it is possible that similarly early records of the official creed may yet be discovered in Babylonia; but up to the present nothing of the sort has been found. We are confined there to the texts which have passed through the hands of countless editors and scribes, or else to such references to religious beliefs and worship as can be extracted from the inscriptions of kings and priests. The sacred books of Babylonia are known to us only in the form which they finally assumed. The Babylonian religion with which we are acquainted is that official theology in which the older Sumerian and Semitic elements were combined together and worked into an elaborate system. To distinguish the elements one from the other, and discover the beliefs and conceptions which underlie them, is a task of infinite labour and complexity. But it is a task which cannot be shirked if we would even begin to understand the nature of Babylonian religion, and the fundamental ideas upon which it rested. We must analyse and reconstruct, must compare and classify and piece together as best we may, the fragments of belief and practice that have come down to us. Above all, we must beware of confusing the old with the new, of confounding Sumerian with Semitic, or of ascribing to an earlier epoch the conceptions of a later time.

The picture will be at most but a blurred and mutilated one. But its main outlines can be fixed, and with the progress of discovery and research they will be more and more filled in. And the importance of the picture lies in the fact that Babylonian religion exercised a profound influence not only over the lands immediately adjoining the Babylonian plain, but over the whole of Western Asia as well. Long before the days of Abraham, Canaan was a Babylonian province, obeying Babylonian law, reading Babylonian books, and writing in Babylonian characters. Along with Babylonian culture necessarily came also the religion of Babylonia and the theological or cosmogonic dogmas which accompanied it. Abraham himself was born in a Babylonian city, and the religion of his descendants was nurtured in an atmosphere of Babylonian thought. The Mosaic Law shows almost as clear evidences of Babylonian influence as do the earlier chapters of Genesis.

Recent discoveries have gone far towards lifting the veil that has hitherto covered the beginnings of Babylonian history. We have been carried back to a time when the Edin or “plain” of Babylonia was still in great measure a marsh, and the waters of the Persian Gulf extended 120 miles farther inland than they do to-day. If we take the rate at which the land has grown since the days of Alexander the Great as a basis of measurement, this would have been from eight to nine thousand years ago. At this time there were already two great sanctuaries in the country, around each of which a settlement or city had sprung up. One of these was Nippur in the north, the modern Niffer; the other was Eridu, “the good city,”4 now marked by the mounds of Nowâwis or Abu-Shahrain, which stood on what was then the shore of the Persian Gulf. Now its site is more than a hundred miles distant from the sea. But it was once the seaport of Babylonia, whose inhabitants caught fish in the waters of the Gulf or traded with the populations of the Arabian coast. Nippur, on the other hand, was inland and agricultural. It was the primitive centre of those engineering works which gradually converted the pestiferous marshes of Babylonia into a fruitful plain, watered by canals and rivers, and protected from inundation by lofty dykes. While Eridu looked seaward, Nippur looked landward, and the influences that emanated from each were accordingly diverse from the very outset.

As I pointed out in my Hibbert Lectures, Babylon must have been a colony of Eridu. Its tutelary god was a son of Ea of Eridu, and had been worshipped at Eridu long before his cult was carried northward to Babylon. Dr. Peters has since suggested that Ur was similarly a colony of Nippur. The moon-god of Ur was the son of the god of Nippur, and though Ur lay but a few miles from Eridu, it was an inland and not a maritime town. It stood on the desert plateau to the west of the Euphrates, overlooking the Babylonian plain, which at the time of its foundation had doubtless not as yet been reclaimed. But its situation exposed it to Arabian influences. Unlike the other great cities of Babylonia, it was in Arabia rather than in Babylonia, and its population from the outset must have contained a considerable Arabian element. Semitic settlers from Southern Arabia and Canaan occupied it, and it was known to them as Uru, “the city” par excellence.5

Nippur and Eridu were already old when Ur first rose to fame. They were both great sanctuaries rather than the capitals of secular kingdoms. The god of Nippur was El-lil, “the lord of the ghost-world,”6 the ruler of the spirits, whose abode was beneath the earth, or in the air by which we are surrounded. He was the master of spells and incantations, of the magical formulæ which enabled those who knew them to keep the evil spirits at bay, or to turn their malice against an enemy. Nippur was peculiarly the home of the darker side of Babylonian religion; the teaching and influences that emanated from it regarded the spirit-world as a world of night and darkness, peopled by beings that were, for the most part, hostile to man. The lil or ghost belonged to the realm of the dead rather than to that of the living, and the female lilîtu was the ancestress of that Lilith whom the Jewish Rabbis made a vampire under the form of a beautiful woman, who lived on the blood of the children she slew at night.

Eridu, on the contrary, was the seat of the Chaldæan god of culture. Ea, whose home was in the deep, among the waters of the Persian Gulf, had there his temple, and it was there that he had taught the first inhabitants of Babylonia all the elements of civilisation, writing down for them the laws they should obey, the moral code they should follow, and the healing spells that prevented disease and death. He was the author of all the arts of life, the all-wise god who knew the things that benefited man; and his son and minister Aśari, who interpreted his will to his worshippers, received the title of him “who does good to mankind.” While El-lil of Nippur was the lord and creator of the spirit-world, Ea was the lord and creator of men. He had made man, like a potter, out of the clay, and to him, therefore, man continued to look for guidance and help.

The character of Ea was doubtless coloured by the position of his city. The myth which spoke of him as rising each morning out of the Persian Gulf to bring the elements of culture to his people, clearly points to that maritime intercourse with the coasts of Southern Arabia which seems to have had a good deal to do with the early civilisation of Babylonia. Foreign ideas made their way into the country, trade brought culture in its train, and it may be that the Semites, who exercised so profound an influence upon Babylonia, first entered it through the port of Eridu. However this may be, it was at Eridu that the garden of the Babylonian Eden was placed; here was “the centre of the earth”; here, too, the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates were poured out on either side from vases held by the god.7

Until Eridu, however, is excavated with the same systematic care as Nippur, we must be content to derive our knowledge of it and of its influence upon the primitive culture and religion of Babylonia from the records which have been found elsewhere. That its sanctuary was at least as old as that of Nippur, we may gather from the fact that it was founded before the coast-line had receded from the spot on which it stood. Its early relations to Nippur must be left to the future to disclose.

That neither Nippur nor Eridu should have been the seat of a secular kingdom, is not so strange as at first sight it appears to be. The priesthood of each must have been too numerous and powerful to surrender its rights to a single pontiff, or to allow such a pontiff to wrest from it its authority in civil affairs. It is difficult for a king to establish himself where a theocratic oligarchy holds absolute sway, and the reverence in which the temples and worship of El-lil and Ea were held would have prevented the success of any attempt of the kind. It was their sanctuaries which made Babylonia a holy land, wherein all who could were buried after death. Like Abydos in Egypt, Nippur or Eridu continued to be a sanctuary, governed by its own hierarchy and enjoying its own independent existence, while secular kingdoms grew up at its side.8

Like Egypt, Babylonia was originally divided into several independent States. From time to time one of these became predominant, and obliged the other States to acknowledge its supremacy. But the centre of power shifted frequently, and it took many centuries before the government became thoroughly centralised. The earlier dynasties which claimed rule over the whole country had at times to defend their claims by force of arms.

Like Egypt, too, Babylonia fell naturally into two halves, Akkad in the north and Sumer in the south. The recollection of the fact was preserved in the imperial title of “king of Akkad and Sumer,” which thus corresponds with the Egyptian title of “king of Upper and Lower Egypt.” But whereas in Egypt the conquering race moved from south to north, causing the name of Upper Egypt to come first in the royal title, in Babylonia it was the Semites of the northern half who imposed their yoke upon the south. Akkad accordingly takes precedence of Sumer.

I have said that the veil which has so long covered the early history of the country is beginning at last to be lifted. Rays of light are beginning to struggle through the darkness, and we can at last form some idea of the process which made Babylonia what it was in later historical times. When the light first breaks upon it, the leading kingdom, at all events in the north, is Kis. Here a Semitic dynasty seems to have established itself at an early period, and we hear of wars carried on by it with its southern neighbours. Towards the south, Lagas, the modern Tello, became the chief State under its high priests, who made themselves kings. But Lagas, like all the other petty kingdoms of the country, had at length to submit to a Semitic power which grew up in the north, and, after unifying Babylonia, created an empire that extended to the shores of the Mediterranean. This was the empire of Sargon of Akkad, and his son Naram-Sin, whose date is fixed by the native annalists at B.C. 3800, and whose importance for the history of religion and culture throughout Western Asia can hardly be overestimated.

Palestine and Syria—the land of the Amorites, as the Babylonians called them—became a Babylonian province; and a portion of a cadastral survey for the purposes of taxation has come down to us, from which we learn that it had been placed under a governor who bears the Canaanitish name of Uru-Malik (Urimelech).9 Naram-Sin carried his arms even into Magan, the Sinaitic Peninsula, where he wrested from the Egyptians the coveted mines of copper and malachite. Susa had long been a Babylonian dependency; and as Mesopotamia, including the later Assyria, also obeyed Babylonian rule, the whole of Western Asia became Babylonian or, to use the words of Sargon's Annals, “all countries were formed together into one (empire).” Intercourse was kept up between one part of the empire and the other by means of high roads, along which the imperial post travelled frequently. Some of the letters carried by it, with the clay seals which served as stamps, are now in the museum of the Louvre.10

How long the empire of Sargon lasted is still uncertain. But from that day onward the kings who claimed supreme authority in Babylonia itself also claimed authority in Syria; and from time to time they succeeded in enforcing their claim. Erech and Ur now appear upon the scene, and more than one imperial dynasty had its capital at Ur. When the last of these fell, Babylonia passed for a while into a state of decay and anarchy, a dynasty of South Arabian or Canaanitish origin established itself at Babylon; while Elamite princes seized Larsa, and compelled the southern half of the country to pay them tribute. A deliverer finally arose, in the person of Khammurabi or Ammurapi, of the Arabian dynasty; he drove the Elamites out of Babylonia, defeated Arioch of Larsa, captured his capital, and once more united Babylonia under a single head, with its centre at Babylon. From henceforth Babylon remained the capital of the monarchy, and the sacred city of Western Asia. The national revival was accompanied by a literary revival as well. Poets and writers arose whose works became classical; new copies and editions were made of ancient books, and the theology of Babylonia was finally systematised. Under Khammurabi and his immediate successors we may place the consummation of that gradual process of development which had reduced the discordant elements of Babylonian society and religion into a single harmonious system.

This theological system, however, cannot be understood, unless we bear in mind that, as in Egypt so too in Babylonia, there was originally a number of small independent principalities, each with its tutelary deity and special sanctuary. The head of the State was the patesi, or high priest of the god, his vicar and representative upon earth, and the interpreter of the divine commands to men. At the outset, therefore, Babylonian government was essentially theocratic; and this theocratic character clung to it to the last. It was this which made Babylon a sacred city, whose priests had the power of conferring the right to rule upon whom they would, like the Pope in the Middle Ages. Though the high priest became in time a king, he never divested himself of his sacerdotal mantle, or forgot that he was the adopted son of his god.11

The tutelary gods followed the fortunes of the cities over whose destinies they watched. The rise of a city to power meant the supremacy also of the divinity to whom it was dedicated; its decay involved his decline. The gods of the subject cities were the vassals of the deity of the dominant State; when the kings of Ur were supreme in Babylonia, the moon-god of Ur was supreme as well. Similarly the rise of Babylon brought with it the supremacy of Merodach, the god of Babylon, who henceforward became the Bel or “Lord” of the whole pantheon.

A god who had once occupied so exalted a position could not, however, be easily deposed. Babylonian history preserved the memory of the ruling dynasties whose suzerainty had been acknowledged throughout the country, and Babylonian religion equally remembered the gods whose servants and representatives they had been. A god who had once been supreme over Babylonia could not again occupy a lower seat; it was necessary to find a place for him by the side of the younger deity, whose position was merely that of a chief among his peers. When Babylon became the capital, the older seats of empire still claimed equality with her, and the priestly hierarchies of Ur or Erech or Sippara still accounted themselves the equals of her priesthood. The ancient sanctuaries survived, with their cults unimpaired and their traditions still venerated; and the reverence paid to the sanctuary and its ministers was reflected back upon the god.

Hence it was that at the head of the official faith there stood a group of supreme gods, each with his rank and powers definitely fixed, and each worshipped in some one of the great cities of the kingdom. But the system of which they formed part was necessarily of artificial origin. It was the work of a theological school, such as was made possible by the existence of the primeval sanctuaries of Nippur and Eridu. Without these latter the organisation of Babylonian religion would have been imperfect or impossible. But from the earliest days of Babylonian civilisation, Nippur and Eridu had alike exercised a unifying influence on the diverse and discordant elements of which the population was composed; they were centres, not only of religion, but of culture as well, and this culture was essentially religious. For unnumbered centuries the gods of Nippur and Eridu were acknowledged as supreme by all the inhabitants of the country, whatever might be their race or the particular local divinities they adored, and the religious teaching of the priests of Nippur and Eridu was accepted as the inspired utterances of heaven. When Babylon became at length the capital of a united monarchy under an Arabian dynasty, the ancient gods of Nippur and Eridu yielded to its parvenu deity only under protest; despite the fact that the city of Merodach had been the leader in the national war of independence, Merodach himself had to be identified with the son of Ea of Eridu, and the title of Bel which he wrested from El-lil of Nippur was never acknowledged at Nippur itself. There at least the old “Lord of the ghost-world” still remained for his worshippers the “Lord” of all the gods.

The title had been given him by the Semites, though the sanctuary in which he was worshipped was of Sumerian or non-Semitic foundation. The fact introduces us to the last point on which I wish to touch in the present lecture. The population of Babylonia was not homogeneous. The Chaldæan historian Berossos tells us how, at the beginning of the world, races of various origin were gathered together in it; and the statement has been fully confirmed by the monuments. Two main races were represented in the country. One of these, usually termed Sumerian, spoke an agglutinative language, and came, perhaps, from the mountainous regions of Elam; the other were the Semites, whose first home was, I believe, in Arabia. The Sumerians were the first in the land. To them were due the elements of Babylonian civilisation; they were the first to drain the marshes and cultivate the soil, to build the temples and cities, and to invent—or at all events to develop—that system of pictorial writing out of which the cuneiform characters gradually arose. They were, too, the first to carry the culture they had created among the neighbouring populations of Western Asia. The result was that their language and script spread far and wide; wherever proto-Chaldæan civilisation extended, the proto-Chaldæan language went with it. And along with the language and literature there went also the theology of primitive Babylonia. The names of the Sumerian divinities made their way into other lands, and the dialects of the Semitic tribes were profoundly affected by the forms of Sumerian speech. The earliest civilisation of Western Asia was Sumerian.

But a time came when the Sumerian was supplanted by the Semite. It was in Northern Babylonia that the Semite first predominated. Here the empire of Sargon of Akkad grew up, and the cuneiform syllabary became an imperfect means for expressing the sounds of a Semitic language. From Northern Babylonia Semitic influences passed into the south, a mixed Semitic and Sumerian population came into existence, and the Babylonians of history were born. The mixed population necessarily had a mixed language, and a composite culture produced a composite theology. To disentangle the elements of this theology is the first and most pressing task of its historian; but it is a task full of difficulties, which the native theologians themselves not unfrequently failed to overcome.

The union of Sumerian and Semite created the Babylonian with whom we have to deal, just as the union of Kelt and Teuton has created the Englishman of to-day. Other races, it is true, settled in his country in subsequent ages, but their influence was comparatively slight and transitory. At one time non-Semitic Elamites from the east overran both Babylonia and the district of Susa, which up to that time had been a Babylonian province, and founded a dynasty at Babylon which lasted for nearly six hundred years. But, like the Hyksos dynasties in Egypt, it made but little permanent impression upon the people; in character and religion they remained what they were before. Nor did the irruption of Bedâwin tribes and other more pure-blooded representatives of the Semitic race have a greater effect. They were rather influenced by the Babylonians than the Babylonians by them. Their own culture was inferior, and Babylonia was their teacher in the arts and comforts of life. The wild Bedâwin, who tended the flocks of their Babylonian masters, the Amorite merchants from Canaan, who formed trading settlements in the Babylonian cities, even the South Arabian princes who headed the national revolt against Elamite supremacy and made Babylon the capital of their kingdom, were all alike absorbed into the Babylonian race. They became the children of Babylonian civilisation, and, along with the culture, they adopted the language of the Babylonian people. The mixed race which had produced the civilisation of Babylonia, was destined to retain its individuality unimpaired down to the day when Europe took the place of Asia in the history of the civilised world.

But the fact of the mixture must never be lost sight of. Without it, Babylonian religion, like the Babylonian system of writing, would be a hopeless puzzle. We could, indeed, draw up long lists of obscure deities with unmeaning names, and enumerate the titles which the inscriptions give them, but any attempt to trace their history or discover the religious ideas of which they are the expression, would be impossible. We must know what is Semitic and what is Sumerian, or what is due to a combination of the two elements, before we can penetrate to the heart of the old Babylonian theology, and ascertain the principles on which it rests. The native writers themselves were aware of this, and fully realised the fact that Sumerian conceptions of the godhead formed the background of the official faith. But their uncritical efforts to solve the problem of the origin of their religion have added only to the complication of it. Just as the English lexicographers of a past generation found a Greek or Latin derivation for the Teutonic words of our language, so the scholars of Babylonia discovered Sumerian etymologies for Semitic words and divine names, or else assimilated them to other words of a different origin. Thus the Semitic word Sabattu, “Sabbath,” is derived from the Sumerian sa, “heart,” and bat, “to cease” or “rest,” and interpreted as “a day of rest for the heart”; while pardêśu, “paradise,” is explained as the par or “domain of the god Eśu.”12 In many cases it is as yet impossible to tell whether a native etymology really rests on a fact of history, or is the invention of learned pedantry or popular etymologising. Marduk or Merodach, for instance, is variously derived from the Sumerian Amar-utuki, “the heifer of the sun-spirit”; and the Semitic Mar-Eridugga, “the son of the city Eridu.”13 The first etymology is certainly false; our present materials do not allow us to speak so positively in regard to the second. All we can say about it is that it is unlikely in the extreme.

And yet a good deal turns upon the true origin of the name of the patron god of Babylon. If it is Semitic, the foundation of the city and of the temple around which it was built would presumably belong to Semitic days, and the development of the cult of the god would be Semitic from the first. The identification of Merodach, moreover, with Aśari the son of Ea of Eridu, would receive substantial support; the “son of Eridu” would naturally be the son of the god of Eridu, and we should have to see in Babylon a colony from the old seaport of the Babylonian plain.

The divergent etymologies, however, assigned to the name of Merodach by the theologians of Babylonia show that they were quite as much in the dark as we are in regard to its origin and significance. Its derivation had been already lost in the night of time; the worship of the god and the building of his sanctuary went back to ages too remote for the memory of man. And yet Merodach was one of the youngest gods in the Babylonian pantheon. By the side of Ea of Eridu or El-lil of Nippur he was but a child, the offspring of a later day; and even when he became supreme in Babylonia, the fact that he was so was still remembered. If it is difficult to trace the earliest lineaments of Merodach, how much more difficult must it be to trace those of the older gods!

The theology of Babylonia, as it is known to us, is thus an artificial product. It combines two wholly different forms of faith and religious conception. One of these was overlaid by the other at a very early period in the history of the people, and the theological beliefs of Sumer received a Semitic interpretation. This natural process of combination and assimilation was followed by an artificial attempt to weld the whole into a consistent and uniform shape. An artificial system took the place of natural growth, and the punning etymologies which accompanied it were but an illustration of the principles that underlay its methods. If we would successfully analyse the theology which has come down to us, we must, as it were, get behind it and discover the elements of which it was composed. We must separate and distinguish Sumerian and Semitic, must trace the influences they exerted upon one another, and, above all, must detect and discard the misinterpretations and accretions of the later systematic theology. For such an undertaking, it is true, our materials are still miserably scanty, and, with imperfect materials, the results also can be imperfect only. But all pioneering work is necessarily imperfect, and for many a day to come the history of Babylonian religion must be left to the pioneer. Year by year, indeed, the materials are increasing, and it may be that a discovery will yet be made, like that of the Pyramid texts in Egypt, which will reveal to us the inner religious thought and belief of Babylonia in those distant ages, when Nippur and Eridu, and not as yet Babylon, were the theological centres of the land. Even now we possess inscriptions of the Sumerian epoch, which tell us the names of the gods who were worshipped by the kings of the pre-Semitic age, and throw light on the religious ideas which animated them, and the religious ritual which they observed. But such inscriptions are still comparatively few, their translation is full of difficulties, and the references contained in them to the theology of the time are scanty and unsatisfactory. And the most important of them—those of the high priests of Tello—belong to an epoch when the Semite had been for many centuries in the land, influencing and being influenced by his Sumerian neighbours. Though Lagas was still Sumerian, its overlord was the Semitic king of Ur.14

You must not, therefore, expect either so complete or so detailed an account of Babylonian religion as that which it is now possible to give of the religion of Egypt. There are no pictures from the walls of tombs, no bas-reliefs from the temples, to help us; we have to depend almost wholly on the literature that has come down to us, mutilated and only half examined as it is. Our efforts to interpret it are without the assistance of pictorial representations such as are at the disposal of the Egyptologist; they rest upon philology alone, and the element of uncertainty in them is therefore considerable.

The advances made in our knowledge of Babylonian religion, since I lectured upon it some fifteen years ago, are consequently not so great as the inexperienced student might be tempted to believe. There are some things to be added, there is more to be corrected, but the main facts and principles which I then tried to place before the world of scholars remain intact. In some cases confirmation has come of suggestions which seemed only possible or probable; in other cases others have worked with greater success and better materials upon the foundations which I laid. If, therefore, the progress made during the past few years may appear disappointing, there is no reason for surprise; the fault lies not with the Assyriologist, but with the materials with which he has to deal. The labourer is ready, but the harvest is not yet ripe.

  • 1.

    Also written Telloḥ, on the assumption that the second syllable represents loḥ, “a tablet.” But the native pronunciation is Tello.

  • 2.

    The palace is represented by the mound called El-Qasr, the temple by that called Tell Ἀmrân ibn Ἀli.

  • 3.

    The name of Khammu-rabi or Ammu-rabi is written Ammu-rapi in Harper, Letters, iii. p. 257, No. 255 (K 552), as was first noticed by Dr. Pinches (see the Proc. of the Society of Biblical Archæology, May 1901, p. 191); Dr. Lindl suggests that the final -l of the Hebrew form is derived from the title ilu, “god,” so often given to the king. Professor Hommel further points out that the character be with which the final syllable of the royal name is sometimes written also had the value of pil.

  • 4.

    Eridû is a Semitised abbreviation of the Sumerian Eri-dugga, “good city.”

  • 5.

    Years ago I pointed out that uru was one of the words which (along with what it signified) was borrowed by the Semites from their Sumerian neighbours or predecessors (Transactions of Society of Biblical Archæology, i. 2, pp. 304, 305).

  • 6.

    Literally, “the lord of the ghost(s),” “the ghost-lord.” The name has been so misunderstood and misinterpreted, that it is necessary to enter into some details in regard to it, though the facts ought to be known even to the beginner in Assyriology. The Sumerian lilla or lil meant a “ghost,” “spirit,” or “spook,” and was borrowed by the Semites under the form of lilû, from which the feminine lilîtu was formed in order to represent the female lil whom the Sumerians called Kiel lilla, “handmaid of (the male) lil.” Lilîtu is the Hebrew Lîlîth (Isa. xxxiv. 14). In the lexical tablets the lil is explained as “a breath of wind” (saru), or more exactly as a zaqiqu, or “dust-cloud” (not, of course, “a fog,” as it has sometimes been translated, in defiance alike of common sense and of modern Arab beliefs). When the spirit of Ea-bani rose from the ground, it naturally took the form of a “dust-cloud”; at other times, when the spirits appeared in the air, they revealed their presence by a draught of cold “wind.”

  • 7.

    See Pinches, “Certain Inscriptions and Records referring to Babylonia and Elam,” in the Journal of the Victoria Institute, xxix. p. 44: “between the mouths of the rivers on both sides.”

  • 8.

    It is significant that although the antediluvian kings enumerated by Berossos must have belonged to Eridu, as is shown by their connection with the Oannes-gods who rose from the Persian Gulf, they are not kings of Eridu, but of Pantibibla and Larankha (which seems to have been the Surippak of the cuneiform texts).

  • 9.

    Thureau-Dangin, in the Revue Sémitique.

  • 10.

    Heuzey, “Sceaux inédits des rois d' Agadé,” in the Revue d' Assyriologie, iv. 1, pp. 1–12

  • 11.

    It is to this adoption by the god that the phrase met with in early Sumerian texts—“the king (or the man) the son of his god”—probably refers, though it may possibly have eventually come to be synonymous with “pious man.” Professor Hommel compares Hebrew names like Ben-Ammi, “the son of (the god) Ammi.”

  • 12.

    A. H. 83–1–18, 1866, Rev. v., published by Pinches in the Proceedings of the Society of Biblical Archæology, xviii. 8 (1896), and explained by him, p. 255. I should myself prefer to render Par-Eśu “the land of the offspring of the god Eśu” (or Esau).

  • 13.

    See my Hibbert Lectures, p. 107, note.

  • 14.

    This at least was the case in the time of Gudea, to whom we owe all the more important theological references found in the Tello texts.