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Lecture 5: Sumerian and Semitic Conceptions of the Divine: Assur and Monotheism

IN the preceding lectures I have assumed that the conception of the deity which we find in the later historical monuments of Babylonia and Assyria was of Semitic origin, differing radically from that formed of the godhead by the earlier Sumerian population. But it will doubtless be asked what basis there is for such an assumption; why may we not suppose that the later conception has developed naturally and without any violent break from older beliefs which were equally Semitic? Why, in short, must we regard the animism which underlay the religion of Babylonia as Sumerian, and not rather as the earliest form of Semitic faith?

The first and most obvious answer to the question would be, the fact that the older names of the superhuman beings who became the gods of the later creed are not Semitic, but Sumerian. En-lil of Nippur is the Sumerian En-lila, “lord of the ghost(s)”; when he becomes a Semitic god he receives the Semitic title of Bilu, Baal, “the lord.” And the further fact that in many cases the Sumerian name continued to be used in Semitic times, sometimes slightly changed, sometimes adapted to the needs of Semitic grammar, proves not only that the Sumerian preceded the Semitic, but also that the Sumerian cult on its literary and philological side was assimilated by the Semitic settlers in Babylonia. The gods and goddesses of Babylonia were Sumerian before they were Semitic; though they wear a Semitic dress, we have to seek their ancestry outside the Semitic world of ideas.

As we know them, they are clothed in human form. The deities whose figures are found on the seal-cylinders of Babylonia or engraved on the walls of the Assyrian palaces are all alike in “the likeness of man.” Bel-Merodach is as much a man as the king whom he adopted as his son; the sun-god who rises between the twin mountains of the dawn steps forth as a human giant to run his course; and Istar is a woman in mind and thought as well as in outward form. There are no animal gods in Babylonia, no monstrous combinations of man and beast such as meet us in the theology of Egypt. Not but that such combinations were known to the Babylonians. But they belonged to the primeval world of chaos; they were the brood of Tiamât, the dragon of lawlessness and night, the demons who had been banished into outer darkness beyond the world of light and of god-fearing men. Like the devils of medieval belief, they were the divine beings of an alien faith which the gods of the new-comers had exiled to the limbo of a dead past. Even the subterranean Hades of Semitic Babylonia recognised them not. The gods worshipped by the Semite were Baalim or “Lords,” like the men whom they protected, and whose creators they were believed to be.

Wherever the pure Semite is found, this belief in the anthropomorphic character of the deity is found also. Perhaps it is connected with that distinguishing characteristic of his grammar which divides the world into the masculine and the feminine, the male and the female. At any rate the Semite made his god in the likeness of men, and taught, conversely, that men had been made in the likeness of the gods. The two beliefs are but the counter sides of the same shield; the theomorphic man implies an anthropomorphic god. The god, in fact, was but an amplified man with amplified human powers; his shape was human, so too were his passions and his thoughts. Even the life that was in man was itself the breath of the god. That man was not immortal like the gods, was but an accident; he had failed to eat of the food of immortality or to drink of the waters of life, and death therefore reigned in this lower world. The gods themselves might die; Tammuz, the spouse of Istar, had been slain by the boar's tusk of angry summer, and carried into the realm of Hades,1 and the temple of Merodach at Babylon was also known as his tomb. As the gods were born, so could they die; they could marry also and beget children, and they needed meat and drink like the sons of men. Indeed, the world of the gods was a duplicate and counterpart of the world of mankind. On “the mountain of the world,” the Babylonian Olympos, the supreme god held his court; around him were ranged his subjects and servants, for there were servants in heaven as there were on earth; celestial armies went forth at his bidding, and there were wars among the gods as among men. Even theft was not unknown among them; a legend tells us, for instance, how the god Zu stole the tablets of destiny which were hung like the Urim and Thummim on the breast of “father Bel,” and therewith acquired for awhile the right and power to control the fate of the universe. As far back as we can trace the history of Semitic religion, whether in Babylonia, in Canaan, or in Arabia, its fundamental conception is always the same; the gods are human, and men are divine.

It is not surprising, therefore, that as soon as the Semitic element becomes paramount in Babylonia, the king becomes a god. At Babylon he was made the adopted son of Bel-Merodach by taking the hand of the deity, and thereby became himself a Bel, a ruler of “the people of Bel” over whom he was henceforth to exercise undisputed lordship. In earlier days, Sargon of Akkad, the founder of the first Semitic empire in Western Asia, and his son Naram-Sin, were explicitly deified. Naram-Sin is even addressed as “the god of Akkad”;2 and a seal-cylinder found by Gen. di Cesnola in Cyprus describes its owner as “the servant of the god Naram-Sin.”3 The title of “god” is assumed by the Semitic successors of Sargon, to whatever city or dynasty they belonged; even the Sumerian princes in Southern Babylonia followed the example of their Semitic suzerains, and Gudea, the high priest of Lagas, built temples to his own godhead, where for long centimes his cult continued to be observed, and sacrifices and offerings to be made to him.4 The occupation of Babylonia by the Arab or Canaanite dynasty to which Amraphel belonged, made no difference in the divine honours paid to the king; he still assumed the title of “god,” and his subjects adored him by the side of Bel. But a change came with the conquest of Babylonia by Kassite hordes from the mountains of Elam; the foreign kings ceased to be divine, and the title of “god” is given to them no more. As the doctrine of the divine right of kings passed away in England with the Stuarts, so too the belief in the divinity of the king disappeared in Babylonia with the fall of the Semitic dynasties. Nothing could show more plainly its essentially Semitic origin, and the little hold it possessed upon the non-Semitic part of the population. The king was a god only so long as he was a Semite, or subject to Semitic influence and supremacy.

The apotheosis of the king is thus coeval with the rise of Semitic domination in Babylonia. In the older Sumerian epoch we look in vain for any traces of it. Man was not yet divine, for the gods were not yet human. There was as yet no Semitic Bel, and En-lil of Nippur was but a “lord of ghost(s).”

But we have better testimony to the fact than the ghosts of Nippur. Behind the human figures of the Semitic gods the primitively pictorial character of the cuneiform signs enables us to discern the lineaments of figures that belong to a wholly different sphere of religious thought. They are the figures not of men, but of brute beasts. The name of En-lil was denoted by a composite sign which represented the word elim, “a ram”;5 that of Ea by the ideograph which stood for dara, “the antelope.”6 En-lil, accordingly, was once a ram; Ea, an antelope. There are other deities which reveal their first shapes in similar fashion. The wife of Hadad, for example, was Azaga-śuga, “the milch-goat” of En-lil, from whom the primitive Sumerian shepherd derived his milk.7 Merodach himself, or rather his Sumerian prototype at Eridu, was once Asari-elim, “the princely ram”;8 a striking title when we remember that Osiris, too, was addressed in Egypt as Ati, “the prince,” and identified with the ram of Mendes. Even Zu, the divine thief who stole the tablets of destiny, was the storm-bird, the forefather alike of the roc of the Arabian Nights and of the Chinese storm-bird, “which, in flying, obscures the sun, and of whose quills the water-tuns are made.”

In many cases, however, the original forms of the Babylonian divinities survived only in the animals upon whose backs they were depicted as standing, or with whom the gem-cutter associated them on seals.9 Now and again an attempt was made to combine them with the human figure. Thus Ea is at times represented as clothed in the skin of a fish, a fitting symbol of the relation between the newer and older religions of Babylonia and the antagonistic views of the godhead entertained by the races that dwelt there. At other times the animal form is relegated to that great company of demons and inferior spirits amongst whom room was found for the multitudinous ghosts of Sumerian belief. Where it is not altogether excluded from the world of gods and men, it exists only as the humble retainer of one of the human gods. As Merodach was accompanied by his four divine dogs, so Ea was attended by sacred bulls. They guarded the approach to the “field” and “house of Eden,” like the colossal figures, with bull-like bodies and the heads of men, that guarded the gates of the palace or temple. They were, in fact, the cherubim who forbade approach to the tree of life (or knowledge),—that sacred palm which an old Babylonian hymn tells us was planted beside the pathway of Ea in Eridu, where the god had his house in the centre of the earth, pouring from his hands the waters of fertility that flowed down in the twofold streams of the Tigris and Euphrates.10 In later art, however, the bull-like form disappeared, and the guardians of the sacred tree were represented in human shape, but with the heads of eagles. The change of form was due to the same striving to humanise the superhuman beings of Sumerian belief as that which had given a man's head to the colossal bulls; where the divine being had become a god in the Semitic sense of the word, all traces of his bestial origin were swept away; where he remained as it were only on the margin of the divine world, the bestial element was thrust as far as possible out of sight, and combined with the features of a man. The cherub was allowed to retain his bull's body or his eagle's head, but it was on condition that he never rose to the rank of a god, and that human members were combined with his animal form.

The secondary creatures of the divine world of the Babylonians thus resembled, in outward form, the gods of Egypt. But whereas in Egypt it was the gods themselves who joined the head of the beast to the body of the man, in Babylonia it was only the semi-divine spirits and monsters of the popular creed who were thus partly bestial and partly human. The official theology could not banish them altogether; they became accordingly the servants and followers of the gods, or else the rabble-host of Tiamât, the impersonation of chaos and sin. Like the devils and angels of medieval belief, they were included among the three hundred spirits of heaven and the six hundred spirits of earth.11 The spirits of heaven formed “the hosts” of which the supreme deity was lord, and whom he led into battle against his foes; Nebo was the minister and lieutenant of Merodach and “the hosts of the heaven and earth,” therefore it was his duty to muster and drill.12 The Anunna-ki or “spirits of earth” had their habitation in the subterranean world of Hades, where they sat on a throne of gold guarding the waters of life, while the Igigi or angels dwelt rather with the gods in the heaven of light and blissfulness. It was on this account that Assur-nazir-pal calls Nin-ip “the champion of the Igigi,” and that elsewhere the god receives the title of “chief of the angels.” But it was only in the later ages of Babylonian religion, when the Semitic conception of divinity had become predominant, that a distinction was made between the spirits of the earth and the air. It was only for the Semites that there were spirits of the underworld and angels of heaven; the Sumerian had known no difference between them; they were all alike Anunnas or spirits, and Nin-ip had been lord, not of the Igigi alone, but of the Anunna-ki as well.13 He had, in fact, been one of them himself; he was the minister and attendant of En-lil, and it was never forgotten that, like the Anunna-ki, he was the “offspring of Ê-kur,” the name at once of the temple of Nippur and of the underground world of Hades, Sometimes he is said to have sprung from Ê-sarra, “the house of the (spirit)-hosts.” He had been a ghost in Nippur before he was transformed into a Semitic god.

But he had been a ghost who was associated with the dawn, and he thus became identified in the early Semitic age with the rising sun. His solar character raised him to the rank of a Baal, and, consequently, of a god. His older attributes, however, still clung to him. He was a sun-god who had risen out of the earth and of the darkness of night, and in him, therefore, the darker and more violent side of the sun-god was reflected.14 He became essentially a god of war, and as such a special favourite of the Assyrian kings. He it was who carried destruction over the earth at the time of the Deluge, while the Anunna-ki followed him with their blazing torches; and he is the brother of En-nugi, the god from whose hands there is no escape. With the spread of solar worship, the solar features of Nin-ip naturally grew more marked. At times he was the god of the noonday as well as of the dawn, for it was at noon that the rays of the sun were fiercest and most deadly to man; at times he was assimilated to his fellow sun-god Merodach, and made a son of Ea. The syncretic epoch of Babylonian religion had truly arrived when Ea and En-lil were thus interchanged, and the teaching of Nippur and Eridu united in the solar cult!

But we have glimpses of a time when Nin-ip was not yet a god in human form, much less a solar Baal. His name is a title merely, and originally denoted the sexless spirit, who was indifferently “lord” and “lady of the veil.”15

The veil was worn in sign of mourning, for the head was covered in sleep and death. Like the cloak which enfolded the shade of Samuel, it symbolised the denizen of the underworld. At first it would seem to have been merely a veil that covered the head and face, like the keffîya of the modern Arab; in course of time it was extended to the cloak in which the sleeper or the dead man could be wrapped. But in either case it was a symbol of the world below, and as such became in the Semitic age the garment of the mourner. The god who was “lord of the veil” must once have dwelt beneath the earth, and been himself one of those spirits of darkness whose faces were veiled from the sight of the living.

Nin-ip, then, must have been one of the Anunna-ki, a spirit of the earth and the land of Hades, before he assumed the form of a Semitic Baal, and clothed himself with the attributes of the sun-god. And the shape in which he appeared to his worshippers was that of a swine. We are told that Nin-ip was one with Nin-sakh, “the lord of the swine”16 and the servant of El-lil, who was adored at Lagas in Sumerian days, and to whom a temple was erected even at Erech. That the swine should be connected with the underground world of the dead, is not surprising. We find the same connection in Keltic mythology. There, too, the swine are the cattle of Hades, and it was from the subterranean fields of Hades that they were transported by Pryderi to the earth above.17 The swine turns up the ground in his search for food; even to-day he is used to hunt for truffles, and primitive man saw in his action an attempt to communicate with the spirits of the underworld.18

From the earth-spirit with the veiled face, who incarnated himself in the swine, the distance is great to the solar hero and warrior god of the Semitic age. In fact, the distance is too great to be spanned by any natural process of evolution. It is a distance in kind and not in degree. It presupposes fundamentally different conceptions of religion, animism on the one side and anthropomorphic gods on the other. If we are to listen to fashionable theories of the origin of religion, we start in the one case with the fetish, in the other case with the worship of ancestors. The difference is racial: wherever we find the Semite, in all periods of his history, his gods are human and not made in the form of the beast.

But the Semite, though he moulded the later religion of Babylonia, could not transform it altogether. The Sumerian element in the population was never extirpated, and it is probable that if we knew more of the religion of the people as opposed to the official theology, we should find that it remained comparatively little affected by Semitic influence. The witchcraft and necromancy that flourished is a proof of this; even the State religion was compelled to recognise it, and, like Brahmanism in the presence of the native cults of India, to lend it its sanction and control. It is instructive to observe what a contrast there was in this respect between the official religion of Babylonia and that of the more purely Semitic Israelites. Witchcraft and necromancy were practised also in Israel, but there they were forbidden by the law and suppressed by the head of the State. In Babylonia, however, the local deities were for the most part of Sumerian origin, and in spite of their Semitic colouring and dress not unfrequently retained their old Sumerian names. Babylonian religion could not wholly repudiate its origin and parentage; the superstructure might be Semitic, but its basis was Sumerian. Like the Sumerian words which had been adopted into the language, the names of the gods remained to testify to the fact that the people and their religion were alike mixed. And with the names went early beliefs and legends, fragments of folk-lore and ritual which had descended from a non-Semitic past. The official creed found a niche for each of them as best it could, but the assimilation was never more than partial, and from time to time we meet with practices and conceptions which are alien to the official faith.

There were many expedients for getting rid of the multitudinous spirits of the ancient creed who had not been transmuted into Semitic deities. They might, as we have seen, be herded together in the indistinguishable crowd of spirits of heaven and earth that formed the angel-hosts of the gods of light, or else be transformed into demons in the train of Tiamât, the impersonation of chaos. Some of them might be set apart as the special servants and messengers of the gods, and occupy the place of archangels in the celestial hierarchy. But it was also possible to call in the aid of cosmology, and turn them into elemental powers representing successive stages in the history of creation. They thus continued to belong to that inchoate period of Babylonian religion when as yet the Semitic gods had not come into existence, and at the same time they could be identified with those gods in the exercise of their creative power. In the language of later metaphysic, they thus became the successive thoughts of the creator realising themselves in the successive acts of the creation, Like the æons of Gnosticism which emanate one from the other as the realised thoughts of God. The idea is doubtless a late one, and belongs to an age of philosophy; but it represents an attempt to grapple with the difficulties presented by the opposing Sumerian and Semitic elements in Babylonian religion, and to reconcile them together. It presupposes that identification of one god with another which the solar cult and the Semitic conception of the goddess had made possible, and so takes us one step further in the direction of monotheism. The divine or superhuman beings of the Sumerian creed are not merely identified with a particular god, but are even transformed into the male and female principles which his government of the world or the act of creation compels him to exhibit in concrete form.19

Before Babylonian theosophy could arrive thus far, two things were necessary. The gods had to be arranged in a divine hierarchy, and the identification of one with the other had to become possible. The hierarchical arrangement followed from the Semitic conception of divinity. If Baal were a counterpart of the human father, there would be a divine family and a divine court modelled on the pattern of those of his worshippers. The god would have not only his wife and children, but his slaves and ministers as well. The deities of heaven would thus fall into orderly groups of higher and lower rank; the higher gods would tend to separate themselves more and more from those of subordinate degree, and the latter to sink into the position of second-rate intelligences, who stood midway between the gods and men, and depended on “the great gods” for their offices and existence.

The conception of a divine messenger or angel who carried the orders of the higher god from heaven to earth and interpreted his will to men, goes back to an early period in the history of Babylonian religion. We can trace it to the time when the Sumerian first began to be affected by Semitic influence. The sukkal or “angel”-minister plays a prominent part in primitive Babylonian theology, but it is noticeable that he is usually a son of the god whose messages he conveys to gods and men. Aśari or Merodach is at once the son and the minister of Ea; Nin-ip, of En-lil, The fact points to an age when Sumerian animism had already been succeeded by Semitic Baalism; the spirit or ghost had become a god in human shape, who begat children and required an envoy.

When Merodach became the god of Babylon, and with the rise of his city to political power entered the circle of the supreme gods, he in his turn needed a messenger. The latter was found in the god of the neighbouring city of Borsippa. The growth of Babylon was accompanied by the decay of Borsippa, which in time was reduced to a mere suburb of the rival town. The god of the suburb was necessarily annexed by the god of the city which had absorbed it, and as necessarily became his follower and servant. Khammurabi, to whom Babylon owed its position and influence, even transferred the ancient temple of the god of Borsippa to the god of Babylon, and included him among the inferior deities to whom chapels were erected in the great sanctuary of Merodach.20 But the god of Borsippa had once been as independent and supreme in his own city as Merodach was at Babylon. He had been addressed as “the maker” of the universe and the irrigator of the fields, and the origin of the cuneiform, system of writing was ascribed to him. The Semites called him the Nabium or “Prophet,” and it was under this title of Nabium or Nebo that he became the minister of Merodach. The name was appropriate in his twofold character of interpreter of the will of Bel and patron of literature, and was carried by Babylonian conquest into the distant West. There Moses died in Moab on the summit of Mount Nebo, and cities bearing the name stood within the borders of Reuben and Judah.

It was doubtless the association of Nebo with Merodach that caused him, like Thoth in Egypt, to become the patron of literature and the god of the scribes. The culture-god was as it were divided into two; while Merodach retained the functions peculiar to a Semitic Baal, Nebo watched over the library and school, and encouraged the study of the script which had been invented by him. The older claims of Ea fell into the background and were forgotten; it was no longer the god of Eridu, but Nebo, who had written the first book, and instructed mankind in the elements of culture. The marshal's staff, which Nebo had wielded as organiser of “the hosts of heaven and earth,” now became the rod of the scribe, and a consort was created for him in the person of Tasmit or “Hearing.” In Assyria, where the worship of Assur prevented any development of that of his rival Merodach, Nebo became a special favourite of the literary class, who derived their knowledge and inspiration from Babylon. Assur-bani-pal never wearies of telling us how Nebo and Tasmit had “made broad his ears and enlightened his eyes,” so that he had collected and republished the books and tablets of the kings who had gone before him.

As minister of Merodach, Nebo passed into the solar circle. In Egypt he would have been absorbed by the more influential god, but in Babylonia the Semitic conception of Merodach as a Baal who required his minister and envoy like an earthly king, stood in the way of any such identification. He consequently retained his personality, and it was another god who was identified with him. This was Nusku, once the fire which blazed up into flame and purified the sacrifice. With the spread of the solar cult Nusku became a local sun-god, and was regarded as the god of the burning sun of noon. In Sumerian days, however, while he was still the spirit of the fire, he had been necessarily the servant and associate of En-lil; and when En-lil became the Semitic Bel of Nippur, Nusku followed his fortunes and was made his messenger. After this his identification with Nebo was easy. Nebo, too, was the messenger and interpreter of Bel, though it was the younger Bel of Babylon who had supplanted the older Bel of Nippur. As Bel-Merodach took the place of En-lil, so too did Nebo take the place of Nusku. The priests of Babylon knew of one Bel only, and the minister of Bel must be one and the same whether his name were Nusku or Nebo. That Nusku had originally been an independent deity was, however, never forgotten. The past history and religion of the country could not be ignored, and the priesthood were forced to erect a separate shrine to Nusku within the precincts of the temple of Nebo itself. Only thus could they be certain that the god would not avenge himself for being defrauded of his dues.

The history of Nebo is an instructive illustration of the successive changes that passed over the religion of Babylonia. We first have the ghost of Sumerian times, who becomes the god of a special city in the days when Semitic influence began to make itself felt Then the god is transformed into a Semitic Baal, and with the political rise of the neighbouring city of Babylon is degraded into an attendant and retainer of the mightier god. As interpreter of the will of the culture-god he deprives Ea of his ancient prerogatives, and his title of “Prophet” becomes his name. Henceforth he is a purely Semitic divinity, and a wife is found for him in the shadowy abstraction “Hearing.” Under the influences of the solar cult, he is identified with the ancient Sumerian fire-spirit who had himself become a sun-god, and eventually he is adopted in Assyria as the patron of the learned class, and the divine representative of Babylonian learning.

But the history of Nebo also illustrates one of the directions in which the striving after a monotheistic faith displayed itself. Not only was a separate god, Nusku, amalgamated with Nebo, Nebo himself, while still keeping his independent personality, sank into a subordinate position which may be compared with that of an archangel in Christian belief. Babylonian religion came to distinguish between a limited number of “great gods” and the inferior deities who formed their court. Indeed, it went even further than this. From the days of Khammurabi onward there was a tendency to exalt Bel-Merodach at the expense of all his brother gods. The development of Babylonian religion, in fact, went hand in hand with that of the Babylonian State. The foundation of an empire had made the Babylonian familiar with the conception of a supreme sovereign, under whom there were vassal kings, and under them again a dependent nobility. The same conception was extended to the celestial hierarchy. Here, too, Bel-Merodach sat supreme, while the other gods “bowed reverently before him,” retaining, indeed, their ancestral rights and power within the limits of their respective sanctuaries, but acknowledging the supremacy of the one sovereign Bel. It was no longer in honour of En-lil that the inhabitants of Babylonia were called “the people of Bel,” but because they were all alike the children and adorers of Bel of Babylon.

But Babylonian religion never advanced further. It is true that the tablet published by Dr. Pinches, to which I have already alluded in the last lecture, identifies the chief gods of the pantheon with Merodach in his various phases and functions; it is also true that Nabonidos, the last Babylonian king, shocked the consciences and violated the rights of the local priesthoods by bringing the images of their gods into the central sanctuary; but such speculations and efforts remained isolated and without effect. It was otherwise, however, in Assyria. There the deities for the most part, like the culture and language, had been imported from the south; there were no time-honoured temples and venerable traditions to contend against; and, above all, there was a national god who represented the State rather than a Semitic Baal, and was therefore a symbol of the unity which bound the State together.

The supreme god of Assyria was Assur; the other gods were of Babylonian origin. And in the name of Assur we have the name of the country itself and its primitive capital. Assur, in short, was the deified city of Assur, the divine State which from the days of its successful revolt from Babylonia was predominantly military, with all the union and discipline of a military organisation. Such at least was the view taken of the god in the historical age of Assyria, though some modern scholars have doubted whether, like Nineveh, which derived its name from the goddess Ninâ, it was not originally rather the city that took its name from the god than the god from the city.

Such doubts, however, are set at rest by an examination of the proper names found in the Babylonian contracts of the early Semitic period, more especially in those of the age of Khammurabi. Many of them are compounded with the names of cities which are treated as deities, and are preceded by the prefix of divinity. Thus we have Sumu-Upi (Bu. 91–5–9. 2182. 16), like ´Sumu-Rakh or Sumu-Râ and Samuel, as well as Upi-rabi (Bu. 91–5–9. 377. 25), where the deified Upi or Opis plays exactly the same part as the deified rivers Euphrates and Tigris in other similarly compounded names. Between the deified city and the deified river no distinction was drawn. Both alike were impersonations of the god. So too in the second tablet of the Surpu series (WAI. iv. 59. 35, 38), Eridu and Babylon are invoked to deliver the sick man by the side of Ea and Merodach and various other gods, as well as certain of the stars. Between the ordinary gods of Babylonia and the deified city no distinction is made.21

Had the city taken its name from the god, it would be difficult to find a satisfactory etymology for it. The spelling of the name is against our connecting it with the word asiru, “he who blesses” or “consecrates,” from which the Assyrian asirtu, “sanctuary,” is derived, like the name of the Canaanitish goddess Ashêrah.22 On the other hand, the native Assyrian etymology is as inadmissible as the endeavours of our eighteenth century lexicographers to find Greek or Latin derivations for Anglo-Saxon words. The Assyrian scribes saw in Assur merely the old elemental deity Ansar, “the firmament,” who was himself nothing more than the Sumerian spirit of the “heavenly host.” It is wisest not to imitate them, but, as in the case of Merodach and Istar, to leave the origin of the name Assur unexplained.

The kings of Assyria were originally high priests of Assur. In other parts of the Semitic world the high priest similarly preceded the king. The father-in-law of Moses was high priest of Midian, and the high priests of Saba in Southern Arabia developed into kings.23 There were high priests also in Babylonia, who took their titles not only from the gods they served, but also from the cities over which they ruled. The peculiarity in the case of Assyria, however, was that there the god and the city were one and the same. When, therefore, the high priest of Assur assumed the title of king, he still retained his priestly functions under another title. He was priest, but no longer high priest. Assyria was a monarchy, not a theocracy; it was founded on military force, not on priestly influence. The king accordingly was not a representative and vicegerent of the god, like a Babylonian prince; he represented the god Assur only because he represented the city of Assur. It was through the city of Assur that the god manifested himself as it were to men.

One of the consequences of this fact was that Assur was a national as opposed to a merely local god. Wherever the power of the city extended, there the power of the god necessarily extended as well. When Assur became the capital of a kingdom, the whole land which owned its authority received its name and accepted the supremacy of its god. The local cults made way for the national cults; it was not only in Assur itself that the god had his temple; wherever a city called itself Assyrian, the worship of Assur held the first place. There were no old sanctuaries and cults to displace, as in Babylonia; the deities who were adored in the cities of Assyria were of Babylonian origin, like Ninâ and Istar; and when once Assyria had achieved its independence, and realised that it had a national life of its own, they were unable to maintain themselves against the national god.

This national god had given his people their freedom and right to rule. He it was who had led their armies to victory, and had vanquished the hostile deities of Babylonia. He was thus identified with the army to which Assyria owed its existence, and with the king who was its leader in war. Wherever the army went or the king established himself, Assur went also. He lost, therefore, the last relics of his association with a particular locality, and became the god of the whole people. From every point of view he was national and not local.

Freed from the limitations of locality, he was consequently freed from the limitations of form. Bel-Merodach was necessarily human in form, with all the limitations of humanity; it was only where his image was that he could be present in visible shape. But Assur was not confined to the human image that represented him. He could also be represented by a symbol, and where the symbol was he was too. The symbol was a standard, on which an archer was depicted rising from a winged sun. It was carried with the armies of Assyria from place to place, like the ark in which the Israelites of the age of Samuel saw a symbol of the presence of their national God. The winged sun refers us to Egypt; so too does the standard on which the emblem of Assur was borne. The Asiatic conquests of the Eighteenth Dynasty had brought Egypt and Assyria into contact; the Assyrian king paid tribute to the Pharaoh, and doubtless depended on him for support against Babylonia. It was the period when Assyria was first feeling itself an independent nation; the authority of Babylonia had been shaken off, and the god of Babylon had been supplanted by Assur. We need not be surprised, therefore, if Assur consented to borrow from Egypt the symbol which henceforth distinguished him from the Babylonian gods, and with the symbol went the theological ideas of which it was the expression.

These theological ideas were already deeply tinctured by the theories of the solar cult. The winged solar disc is evidence that Assur was assimilated to Amon-Ra of Egypt. But the assimilation stopped there. The Assyrians were too purely Semitic even to comprehend the nebulous pantheism of the Egyptian solar school; Assur remained an anthropomorphic god, with very definite attributes and sharply-cut features. The archer who rises above the disc of the sun significantly indicates the contrast between the theology of Egypt and Assyria. Above the sun-god is the human warrior, the lord of hosts, the god of battles, the divine leader of the armies of Assur. There was no room in the practical Assyrian mind for a formless divinity, with its infinite transformations and elusive shape. The Assyrian needed a soldier's god, at once human and clearly defined.

Nevertheless this human god was recognised as one with the sun-god. Or rather, perhaps, the sun was regarded as his visible manifestation, the mark or symbol under which he displayed himself. Assur was thus essentially a Semitic Baal, but a warlike Baal, who was the god of a nation and not of a particular place.

Where the nation and its army were, accordingly, their god was as well. And when Assyria claimed to rule the whole civilised world, the power and authority of its god became world-wide. It was in his name that the Assyrian troops went forth to fight, and it was “through trust in” him that they gained their victories. Those who resisted them were his enemies, those who submitted were incorporated into his empire, and became his subjects and worshippers. All other gods had to yield to him; he was not only paramount over them, but to worship them instead of him was an act of impiety. The sacrifice might continue to be made to them and the prayer offered, but it was on condition that the first-fruits of both sacrifice and prayer were given to Assur.

This, however, was not all. Assur was not only jealous of other gods, there was no goddess who could share with him his power. In the eyes of the Assyrian people he was wifeless, like Yahveh of Israel or Chemosh of Moab. It is true that some Assyriologists, with more zeal than knowledge, have found for him a wife, but they are not agreed as to who she was. Sometimes we have been told it was Serua, sometimes Istar, sometimes Belit. The very fact that such a difference of opinion exists is sufficient to condemn the whole supposition. It is based on the pedantry of certain of the Assyrian scribes, who, educated in the literature and religion of Babylonia, were naturally anxious to fit their national god into the Babylonian system of theology. The gods of Babylonia had each his wife; they were each the head of a divine family, and consequently the chief god of Assyria must be the same. But it was difficult to find for him a female consort. Once or twice the help of the grammar is invoked, and the feminine Assurit is made to take her place by the side of Assur. But she was too evidently an artificial creation, and accordingly Belit was borrowed from Bel-Merodach, or Nin-lil from Bel of Nippur, and boldly claimed as the wife of Assur. But this too was acceptable neither to Babylonians nor to Assyrians, and, as a last resource, Istar, the virgin goddess, was transformed into a married wife. It might have been thought that the idea, once started, would have met with ready acceptance; for Istar was the goddess of Nineveh, as Assur was of the older capital which was superseded by Nineveh in the later days of the Assyrian empire. That it did not do so is a proof how firmly rooted was the wifelessness of Assur in the Assyrian mind; he was no Babylonian Bel who needed a helpmeet, but a warrior's god, who entered the battle wifeless and alone.

I can but repeat again of him what I said years ago in my Hibbert Lectures: “Assur consequently differs from the Babylonian gods, not only in the less narrowly local character that belongs to him, but also in his solitary nature. He is ‘king of all the gods’ in a sense in which none of the deities of Babylonia were. He is like the king of Assyria himself, brooking no rival, allowing neither wife nor son to share in the honours which he claims for himself alone. He is essentially a jealous god, and as such sends forth his Assyrian adorers to destroy his unbelieving foes. Wifeless, childless, he is mightier than the Babylonian Baalim; less kindly, perhaps, less near to his worshippers than they were, but more awe-inspiring and more powerful. We can, in fact, trace in him all the lineaments upon which, under other conditions, there might have been built up as pure a faith as that of the God of Israel.” That none such was ever built, may be accepted as a sign and token that between the Semites of Assyria and those of Israel there lay a difference which no theories of evolution are able to explain.

  • 1.

    The origin and nature of Tammuz have been investigated in my Hibbert Lectures, pp. 220–245, and need not be repeated here. He was primarily a Zi or spirit worshipped at Eridu, where he was known as “the Son of the Spirit of the Deep,” i.e. Ea. He was, in fact, the primitive sun-god of Eridu, though his character underwent strange transformations in the course of his identification with Nin-girśu (Inguriśa) and other gods. But Tammuz was a sun-god who spent half his annual life in the underworld, or, according to another view, as fellow-warder with Nin-gis-zida of the gates of heaven. Hence he pastures his cattle in the fields beyond the river Khubur, the ocean-stream that encircles the earth, on the road to the land of the dead (Craig, Religious Texts, i. p. 17). On the other hand, he was also said to dwell in the midst of the cosmic temple of Ea at Eridu, between the Tigris and Euphrates (WAI. iv. 15. 58–59). It is possible, though not yet proved, that in Tammuz two deities have been combined together, the sun-god and the vegetation of the spring which the young sun of the year brings into existence. However this may be, in Tammuz and Nin-gis-zida I see the Babylonian prototypes of the two pillars Jachin and Boaz erected by Solomon in front of the temple (1 Kings vii. 21). Nin-gis-zida means “the lord of the upright post” (bil itsi kêni in Semitic Babylonian), and thus corresponds with Jachin.

  • 2.

    Thureau-Dangin in the Recueil de Travaux relatifs à la Philologie et à l' Archéologie égyptiennes et assyriennes, xix. pp. 185–187.

  • 3.

    Published and translated by me in the Transactions of the Society of Biblical Archæology, v. (1877) p. 441, where I pointed out for the first time that the early Babylonian kings were deified.

  • 4.

    Scheil in the Recueil de Travaux, xviii. p. 71, xxi. p. 27.

  • 5.

    See Brünnow, Classified List, No. 8883.

  • 6.

    WAI. ii. 55. 27, iv. 25. 40. Dara, Semitic turakhu, is shown to be “an antelope” by the figure of an antelope, ending in a fish, which is stated to represent Ea on a boundary-stone from Susa published in de Morgan's Délégation en Perse, vol. i., and explained by Seheil in the Recueil de Travaux, xxiii. pp. 96, 97. The figure is accompanied by the symbol of Ea, a weapon which terminates in the head of a ram.

  • 7.

    WAI. iii. 68. 12–14. See my Hibbert Lectures, p. 286. For “the cow” Bau, see above, p. 148. Nergal or Allamu was originally the gazelle (Brünnow, Classified List, Nos. 1906, 1907).

  • 8.

    WAI. ii. 18. 57, 55. 69, iv. 3. 25.

  • 9.

    Thus the monkey is associated with Nu-gidda, “the dwarf,” who in his turn accompanies the moon-god.

  • 10.

    The last line of this hymn (WAI. iv. 15. 52 sqq.), of which I have given a translation in my Hibbert Lectures, p. 238, has been discovered by Dr. Pinches, and published by him in the Journal of Transactions of the Victoria Institute, xxix. p. 44.

  • 11.

    In Reisner, “Sumerisch-babylonische Hymnen nach Thontafeln griechischer Zeit,” in the Mittheilungen aus den orientalischen Sammlungen, x. p. 135, 25–32, and p. 139, 151–158, we read, “the great gods are 50; the gods of destiny are 7; the Anunnaki of heaven are 300; the Anunnaki of earth are 600.”

  • 12.

    Hence he is called by Nebuchadrezzar pakid kissat samê u irtsitim, “marshaller of the hosts of heaven and earth” (WAI. i. 51. 13).

  • 13.

    For the Anunna-ki and Igigi, see above, p. 344.

  • 14.

    The solar character of Nin-ip was first pointed out by myself in the Transactions of the Society of Biblical Archæology, ii. (1873) p. 246, and again in my Hibbert Lectures, pp. 152, 153. He was probably called Bêr in Assyrian, but the Cilician Nineps shows that he was also known by his Sumerian title of Nin-ip. See my paper in the Proc. SBA. xx. 7, pp. 261, 262.

  • 15.

    The ideograph denotes the keffîya, corresponding both to the veil and to the turban. In its earliest pictorial form it represents a veil covering both the head and face, and leaving only the hair at the back of the head visible. It was usually termed uras, a word borrowed by Semitic Babylonian under the form of urasu, which in its turn created the verb arâsu, “to veil,” and the word aristu, “a cloak.” The keffîya was also known in Sumerian as mutra, Semitic mutru, from which the Greek μίτρα was borrowed. The mitra properly signified the Oriental turban; but as no such head-dress was worn by the Greeks, it is already used by Homer for the girdle of the waist. Besides the value of uras, the ideograph also had the value of dara (in Assyrian nibittu and iśkhu, “a veil”). It is possible that the actual pronunciation of the name Nin-ip was In-dar.

  • 16.

    WAI. ii. 57. 39.

  • 17.

    Gwydion induced Pryderi by stratagem to give some of them to him, and so carried them from Dyved to North Wales; Rhys, Hibbert Lectures on Celtic Heathendom, pp. 242–244.

  • 18.

    Cf. WAI. ii. 19. 49b, “the spirits of the earth I made grope like swine in the hollows.”

  • 19.

    See, for example, WAI. ii. 54. 3 Obv. 4–14, 4. 37–45.

  • 20.

    There is no reason for holding that the temple of Ê-Zida rebuilt by Khammurabi at Borsippa, was any other than the old Ê-Zida which was dedicated to Nebo.

  • 21.

    For names like Sippar-sadî, Sippar-saduni, Upê-semi, and Upê-natsir, see Pinches, Revue de l' Histoire des Religions, xliii. p. 277.

  • 22.

    Support may be found for this etymology in the common title of Assur as “the good god,” which is written ideographically an-dugga. But even if the Assyrians believed that this was the proper signification of the name of their god, it does not follow that they were right; and since the characters representing the title could be read AN-SAR, it is possibly only a play on the supposed connection of the name with the Sumerian Ansar. The latter appears as Assoros in Damascius. Perhaps Assur (originally Asur) is merely asurru, “a wall.”

  • 23.

    Glaser, Skizze der Geschichte Arabiens (1889), pp. 64–74.