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Lecture 8: The Myths and Epics

A LECTURE on the myths of Babylonia may perhaps seem out of place in a course, the subject of which is Babylonian religion. But religion has its mythology as well as its theology, and sometimes the mythology has had a good deal to do with moulding or even creating its theology. Moreover, the myths of Babylonia were intimately connected with its worship of the gods. They all related, so far as we know, to the gods and spirits, or else, to what Greek theology would have called heroes and demi-gods. They embody religious beliefs and practices; they contain allusions to local cults; above all, they not unfrequently reflect the popular conception of the divine.

Only we must beware of basing theological conclusions on their unsupported evidence. They have come to us in a literary form, and students of folk-lore know how little trustworthy, even for the purposes of the folk-lorist, a tale is which has undergone literary remodelling. It is difficult to distinguish in it what is peculiar to the individual author or the literary circle in which he moves, and what is really the belief of the people or the traditional heritage of the past. In fact, all mythology, whether literary or otherwise, suffers from the mixture within it of old and modern ideas. The old ideas may be preserved in it like the fossils in a geological formation, or they may have been coloured and explained away in accordance with the conceptions of a later age; but in either case they are mingled with the beliefs and notions of after generations, which our ignorance necessarily prevents us from separating with the requisite care. In dealing with the history of religion, therefore, we ought to treat the language of a literary myth with extreme caution, and refrain from drawing any far-reaching inferences from the statements we find in it.

This is more especially true of the literary epics of ancient Babylonia. They seem to have been numerous; at all events fragments of a good many have been saved for us out of the wreckage of the past. But they belong for the most part to the same period, the age of national revival which began with the reign of Khammurabi, and continued for several centuries after his death. It is possible that Sin-liqi-unnini, the author of the great Epic of Gilgames, was a contemporary of Abraham; the story of Adapa, the first man, was already in existence, and had become a standard classic, when the Tel el-Amarna letters were written in the fifteenth century B.C. Behind all these poems lay a long-preceding period in which the myths and legends they embody had taken shape and formed the subject of numberless literary works. The Epic of Gilgames is, for instance, but the final stage in the literary development of the tales and myths of which it is composed; older poems, or parts of poems, have been incorporated into it, and the elements of which it consists are multiform and of various origin. The story of the Deluge, which constitutes the eleventh book, has been foisted into it by an almost violent artifice, and represents a combination of more than one of its many versions which were in circulation in Babylonia. When the early libraries of the country have been explored, we shall know better than we do now how far the story in the form we have of it in the Epic is original, and how far the author has freely borrowed from his predecessors, using their language or combining their work.

As a rule, the subject of a Babylonian poem is either some single god or some single hero. When the god or hero is merely a central figure around whose adventures those of other gods or heroes are made to revolve, the poem becomes an Epic. It still retains its mythological shape, and the world in which it moves is a world of supernatural powers, a divine fairyland in which the gods play the part of men. But there is none of the dull and crass euhemerism which distinguishes the Egyptian tales of the gods. The gods do not become mere men with enlarged human powers; they remain divine, even though their actions are human and the stage on which they move is human also. It was the pantheism of the Egyptian, in conjunction with the deification of the Pharaoh, that made him rationalise the stories of his gods; in Babylonia there was no such temptation; each deity retained his individual character, and from the outset he had worn the likeness of a man. But it was a likeness only, behind which the divinity revealed itself, though the likeness necessarily caused the revelation to be made through individual features, clearly cut and sharply defined. Bel was no human king possessed of magical powers, who had once sat on the throne of Babylon; he remained the god who could, it is true, display himself at times to his faithful worshippers, but whose habitation was in the far-off heavens, from which he surveyed and regulated the actions of mankind. The gods of Babylonian mythology still belonged to heaven and not to earth, and its heroes are men and not humanised gods.

I have already referred to the story of the first man, Adapa, and his refusal of the gift of immortality. The story, as we have it, has received a theological colouring; like the narrative of the Fall in the Book of Genesis, it serves to explain why death has entered the world. Man was made in the likeness of the gods, and the question therefore naturally arose why, like them, he should not be immortal. The answer was given, at any rate by the priests of Eridu, in the legend of Adapa and his journey to the sky.

There was yet another story which illustrated the punishment of human presumption,—the attempt of man to be as a god,—and is thus a parallel to the story of the tower of Babel. It is the legend of Etana and the eagle, who tempts the hero to ascend with him to the highest heavens and there visit the abodes of the gods. Borne accordingly on the breast of the bird, Etana mounts upwards. At the end of two hours the earth looks to them like a mere mountain, the sea like a pool. Another four hours and “the sea has become like a gardener's ditch.” At last they reach “the heaven of Anu”; but even there they refuse to stay. Higher still they ascend to the heaven of Istar, so that the sea appears to them “like a small bread-basket.” But before they can reach their destination the destined penalty overtakes the presumptuous pair. The eagle's wings fail him, and he falls through space, and both he and his burden are dashed to the ground.

With this story of Etana there has been coupled a legend, or rather fable, of the eagle itself, which the mutilated state of our copies of it renders extremely obscure. The eagle had devoured the young of the serpent, who accordingly appealed to the sun-god, the judge of all things, for justice. By the sun-god's advice the serpent creeps into the carcase of a dead ox, and there, when the eagle comes to feed upon the putrifying flesh, seizes his enemy, strips him of his feathers, and leaves him to die of hunger and thirst. This must have happened after the fall of the eagle from heaven; and we may therefore conjecture that, while his human companion was killed, like Icarus, by the fall, the punishment of the eagle was deferred. But it came finally; not even the most powerful of the winged creation could venture with impunity into the heaven of the gods.

While the celestial seat of Istar was beyond the reach of man, Istar herself sought Tammuz, the bridegroom of her youth, in the underground realm of Hades, in the hope that she might give him to drink of the waters of life which gushed up under the throne of the spirits of the earth, and so bring him back once more to life and light. The poem which told of her descent into Hades was sung at the yearly festival of Tammuz by the women, who wept for his untimely death. Like Baldyr, the youngest and most beautiful of the gods, he was cut off in the flower of his youth, and taken from the earth to another world. But while the myth embodied in the poem, and illustrated by numberless engraved seals, makes him descend into Hades, the older belief of Eridu, where he had once been a water-spirit,—“the son of the spirit of the deep,”—transferred him to the heaven above, where, along with Nin-gis-zida, “the lord of the upright post,” he served as warder of the celestial gate. In my Hibbert Lectures I have dealt so fully with the story of Tammuz in the various forms it assumed, as well as with the myth of Istar's pursuit of him in the world below, that I need not dwell upon it now. All I need do is to insist upon the caution with which we should build upon it theories about the Babylonian's conception of the other world, and the existence he expected to lead after death.

The description of Hades with which the poem begins was borrowed from some older work. We meet with it again almost word for word in what is probably one of the books of the Epic of Gilgames. The fact illustrates the way in which the poets and epic-writers of Babylonia freely borrowed from older sources, and how the classical works of Chaldæa were built up out of earlier materials. Perhaps if reproached with plagiarism, their authors would have made the same answer as Vergil, that they had but picked out the pearls from the dunghill of their predecessors. At all events the description of Hades is striking, though it must be remembered that it represents only one of the many ideas that were entertained of it in Babylonia—

“To the land from which there is no return, the home of [darkness],

Istar, the daughter of Sin, [turned] her mind,

yea, the daughter of Sin set her mind [to go];

to the house of gloom, the dwelling of Irkalla,

to the house from which those who enter depart not,

the road from whose path there is no return;

to the house where they who enter are deprived of light;

a place where dust is their nourishment, clay their food;

the light they behold not, in thick darkness they dwell;

they are clad like bats in a garb of wings;

on door and bolt the dust is laid.”

Through the seven gates of the infernal regions did Istar descend, leaving at each some one of her adornments, until at last, stripped and helpless, she stood before the goddess of the underworld. There no mercy was shown her; the plague-demon was bidden to smite her with manifold diseases, and she was kept imprisoned in Hades like the ordinary dead. But while the goddess of love thus lay bound and buried, things in this tipper world fell into confusion. Neither men nor cattle produced offspring, and the gods in heaven took counsel what should be done. Ea accordingly created an androgyne, to whom the name was given “Bright is his light.” Before him the gates of Hades opened, and the darkness within them was lighted up. The infernal goddess was forced to obey the orders of heaven; and though she cursed the messenger with deadly imprecations, the spirits of the earth were seated on their golden throne while Istar was sprinkled with the water of life, and she then returned once more to the world of light.

Ereskigal, the goddess of Hades, forms the subject of yet another poem, fragments of which were found at Tel el-Amarna in Egypt, where the poem had been used as a text-book for the students of the Babylonian language and script. The poem recounts how she refused to come to a feast which the gods had prepared in heaven, and how Nergal invaded her dominions, broke through the gates that shut them in, and, seizing Ereskigal by the hair, dragged her from her throne. But she begged for mercy, and Nergal consented to be her husband, and to rule with her over the realm of the dead. The “tablet of wisdom” was transferred to him, and she became a Semitic Baalat, the mere reflection of her “lord.” The Sumerian “queen of Hades” gave place to a Semitic Bel.

The “tablet of wisdom” was distinct from the “tablets of destiny,” which gave their possessor a foreknowledge of the future course of events. The possession of the latter implied supreme rule over gods and men; it brought with it the right to be “Bel” in the fullest sense of the word. Like the Urim and Thummim, they were hung upon the breast; and in the Epic of the Creation, Tiamât is described as delivering them to her demon husband Kingu, who thereby became the acknowledged ruler of the world. The victory of Merodach over the powers of darkness transferred to him the mystic tablets; from henceforth he was the Bel who had made, and who directed, the existing universe; and once each year, at the New Year's festival, he sat enthroned above the mercy-seat in his temple at Babylon, declaring the destinies of the coining year. But before the tablets were given to Bel-Merodach of Babylon, they had belonged to the older Bel of Nippur and Dur-ili; and a myth told how Zu, the storm-bird, had stolen them while Bel was “pouring forth the pure water and mounting his throne” at the beginning of day. “I will take,” he had said, “the divine tablets of destiny, even I; the laws1 of all the gods will I decree; my throne will I establish and issue my commands, and direct all the angels (of heaven).” The thief flew with his spoil to Mount Sâbu; and Anu called in vain upon his brother gods to pursue and smite him, and recover the stolen treasure. It was only at last by the help of stratagem that the nest of Zu was found, and the tablets restored to Bel.

A myth of more transparent meaning is that which told of the ravages wrought in land after land by Urra, the Pestilence. The description of the plague-god reminds us of that angel of pestilence whom David saw with his hand stretched forth over Jerusalem. No moral considerations moved him; just and unjust, the sinner and the innocent, were alike involved in a common destruction. Babylon was the first to be smitten, then Erech; and Merodach and Istar mourned vainly over the ruin of their people. Then Isum, the angel-messenger of Urra, was sent on a longer mission. The pestilence spread over the whole civilised world; Syria and Assyria, Elamite and Bedâwin, Kurd and Akkadian equally suffered. The vineyards of Amanus and the Lebanon were rooted up, and those who cultivated them perished from the earth. For “unnumbered years” the scourge lasted, for Urra had “planned evil because of former wickedness,” and it was long before his rage was appeased, and the world returned to its normal state.

Similarly transparent is the story of the assault of the seven evil spirits upon the moon, resulting in its eclipse and threatened extinction. En-lil in despair sends his messenger, the fire-god, to Ea for advice and help, which are accordingly given, and the moon-god is saved. The poem, however, is of a much older date than those we have hitherto been considering. It goes back to the time when magic still held a foremost place in the official religion of Babylonia; when Aśari, the son of Ea, had not as yet become Bel-Merodach of Babylon; and when the cult of Ea had not been obscured by those of younger deities. In fact, it forms part of one of the incantation texts, and is described as the sixteenth book of the series on evil spirits. But the divine triads already make their appearance in it; Ea does not stand alone, but shares his powers with En-lil and Anu, while below them is the triad of Sin, Samas, and Istar. We may look upon the story as belonging to the age which saw the transformation of Sumerian animism into the syncretic State religion of later days; the Semitic gods are there, but they still retain in part the functions which distinguished them when they were “spirits” and nothing more.

Between the legend of the assault upon the moon-god and the Epic of Gilgames the distance is great. Centuries of thought and development intervene between them, and there is a difference not only in degree, but also in kind. While one reminds us of the legends of Lapps or Samoyeds, the other finds its parallel in the heroic tales of Greece. Gilgames is a hero in the Greek sense of the term; he is not a god, at least for the poet of the Epic, even though he lived like Achilles and Odysseus in days when the gods took part in visible form in the affairs of men. So far as we know, it is the masterpiece of Babylonian epical literature,—a proof that however deficient the pure-blooded Semite may have been in epical and mythological genius, the mixed race of Babylonia was in this respect the rival of the Greek. Like the story of the Trojan War, the story of Gilgames attracted to it epical and mythological elements from all sides, and became a veritable treasure-house of Babylonian mythology.

Its author divided it into twelve books. Long ago it was noticed that the arrangement has an astronomical basis, and that the adventures of the hero described in some at least of the books are made to correspond with the current names of the months of the year. Thus the love and revenge of Istar are the subject of the sixth book, answering to the name of the sixth month, that of “the mission of Istar”; while the episode of the Deluge is introduced into the eleventh book, where it fitly corresponds with the eleventh month Adar, “the month of the curse of rain.” It is true that the correspondence between the subject of the book and the name of the month cannot be traced in all cases, but it must be remembered that each month had many names, especially in the age of Khammurabi, and that the poet would have more especially in his mind the religious festivals which distinguished the months of the year. As was pointed out by Sir H. C. Rawlinson, he must have regarded Gilgames, if not as a solar hero, at all events as a representative of the sun-god. Not only is the Epic divided into twelve books, but in the seventh, when the summer solstice is passed and the year begins to wane, the hero is smitten with a sore disease. It is not until the twelfth and last book is reached, that, after bathing in the waters of the ocean which encircles the world, he is healed of his sickness, and restored once more to health and strength.

But the solar character of Gilgames did not originally belong to him. His name, like those of most of the Babylonian heroes, had come down from Sumerian times, when as yet the gods did not exist, and the world of living things was divided between “spirits” and men.2 And Gilgames was a man, the creation of the goddess Aruru, whose original birthplace seems to have been Marad, and of whom a tale was told which may be the prototype of that of Akrisios and Perseus.3 He was the Hêraklês of Babylonia, the embodiment of human strength, who saves his country from its foes, and destroys the monstrous beasts that infest it,—a mighty prince, though not an actual king. There is no reason why he should not have been like Cyrus, a historical personage round whose name and deeds myths afterwards gathered; an early inscription recording the restoration of the wall of Erech states that it had been originally built by the deified Gilgames.4

The Epic begins with a description of his rule at Erech, “the seat” of his power. Between him and the inhabitants of the city there seems to have been little goodwill. He had not left, they complained, the son to his father or the wife to her husband. It may be that the legend contains a germ of historical truth, and goes back to the days when Erech was still a battleground between Sumerian and Semite.5 At any rate the gods, we are told, heard the cry of the people, and Aruru was instructed to create a rival to Gilgames, who might overcome him in the contest of strength. The goddess accordingly kneaded clay with her hands, and made it in the form of Ea-bani, half-man and half-beast. His body was covered with hair; “he knew neither kin nor country”; “with the gazelles he ate the grass” of the field, and “satisfied his thirst with the cattle.” On the seals he is represented as a satyr with a goat's legs and human head.

Vainly “the Huntsman” endeavoured to capture him. Ea-bani broke through the nets that were laid for him; and it was only when one of the courtesans of Istar was sent to entice him that he yielded to the temptation, and left his gazelles and cattle to lie with her seven nights. When once more he turned back to them, they fled from him in terror; he had become a man, knowing good and evil, and between him and the brute beasts there was nothing more in common. He listened accordingly to the courtesan, and went with her to Erech, “the seat of Gilgames, the giant in strength, who like a wild ox is stronger than the strongest men.” There Gilgames had dreamed three dreams relating to him; and Ea-bani, on hearing the interpretation of them, gave up his design of wrestling with the hero, and became instead his fast friend and ally.

The third book of the Epic describes the expedition of the two heroes against the tyrant Khumbaba, whose home was in the cedar-forest of Elam. They found a way into its magical depths, gazing in wonder at the height of the trees, and beholding the mountain of the cedars, “the mystic” seat of the gods, the shrine of Irnini”; “before the mountain the cedars lifted up their luxuriant foliage; deep was their shadow and full of pleasaunce.” Khumbaba was overcome and slain; but Gilgames once more dreamed a dream, wherein the heavens thundered, the lightning flashed, and the earth shook, and which portended disaster to Ea-bani and his friend.

The sixth and following books describe how the dream was fulfilled. Istar saw and loved Gilgames in the strength of his manhood, and asked him to be her bridegroom. “If thou wilt be my husband,” she declared—

“I will let thee ride in a chariot of lapis-lazuli and gold,

thou shalt harness each day great mules (to thy yoke);

the odours of cedar shall enter our house …

Kings, lords, and princes [shall bow] at thy feet;

[the increase] of mountain and plain shall they bring thee in tribute.”

Gilgames, however, rejected the offer of the goddess in scorn, and taunted her with her fickleness and cruelty and the miserable end of all who had loved her in the past—

“Tammuz, the spouse of thy youth,

thou ordainest weeping for him year by year.

The bright-coloured, wood-pigeon didst thou love;

thou didst smite him and break his wings;

in the woods he sits and cries, ‘O my wings;’

Thou didst love a lion perfect in might;

seven times seven didst thou dig for him a pit

Thou didst love a horse, glorious in battle;

whip and spur and bridle didst thou decree for him.

Fourteen hours didst thou make him gallop;

weariness and thirst didst thou lay upon him;

for his mother, the goddess Silili, thou ordainest weeping.

Thou didst love the shepherd Tabulu,

who poured out the salt continually for thee;

day by day did he slay for thee the sucklings.

Thou didst smite him, and change him into a wolf.

His own shepherd-boys drove him away,

and his own dogs bit his flesh.

Thou didst love Isullanu, the gardener of thy father,

who was ever bringing thee fruit;

day by day he made bright thy dish:

thou didst lift thine eyes to him, and speak softly to him:

‘Isullanu mine, let us eat the gourds together;

put forth thine hand and touch one …’

Isullanu answered her:

‘Of me what requirest thou?

Has my mother not baked, have I not eaten,

that I should eat such food?

Thorns and thistles are hidden therein’ (?).

When thou didst hear these his words,

thou didst smite him, and change him into a column (?),

and didst plant him in the midst of [the garden?].”

Istar flew to her father Anu in heaven, and demanded from him vengeance upon Gilgames for the slight he had put upon her. Accordingly a monstrous bull was created, which ravaged the country, and threatened the life of Gilgames himself. But Gilgames was more than a match for the monster. With the help of Ea-bani the bull was slain, and its huge horns carried in triumph through the streets of Erech; while Istar stood in impotent rage on the walls of the city, lamenting the death of the bull, and calling on her harlot priestesses to weep over it with her.

But the death of “the divine bull” had evil consequences for the two heroes. The curse of Istar falls upon them; Gilgames himself is smitten with a grievous sickness, and Ea-bani dies after lingering in pain for full twelve days. Gilgames is inconsolable; vainly he protests against the law of death which carries away the strong equally with the weak, the hero equally with the common man. The ninth book thus begins—

“Gilgames for his friend Ea-bani

weeps bitterly and lies outstretched upon the ground.

‘Shall I not die like Ea-bani?

Grief has entered my body;

I fear death, and lie outstretched upon the ground.’”

Accordingly he determines to visit Xisuthros,6 the hero of the Deluge, who dwelt beyond the river of death, whither he had been translated without dying, and learn from him the secret of immortality.

The road was long and difficult; mortal man had never trodden it before. But there was divine blood in Gilgames; and as the Greek Hêraklês forced his way to Hades, so he too forced his way beyond the limits of our human world. First he had to pass the twin mountains of Mas, in the northern desert of Arabia, which guard the daily rising and setting of the sun, whose summit touches the “zenith of heaven,” while “their breast reaches downwards to Hades.” Men with the bodies of scorpions guarded the gateway of the sun, the horror of whose aspect was “awesome,” and whose look “was death.” But “the scorpion-man” and his “wife” recognised that the stranger was partly divine, and he was allowed to pass in safety through the open doors. Once beyond them he entered a region of thick darkness. For the space of twelve double hours he groped his way through this land without light, when suddenly he emerged from it into the bright light of day. Here grew a marvellous tree, whose fruit was the precious turquoise7 and lapis-lazuli, which hung from it like clusters of grapes.

At last Gilgames reached the shore of the ocean, which, like a serpent, encircles the earth. Here ´Siduri, or ´Sabitum “the lady of Saba,”8 sat upon “the throne of the sea.” But she locked the gate of her palace, and forbade him to cross the ocean; none had ever passed over it except the sun-god in his nightly voyage from west to east. Once more, however, the element of divinity that was in Gilgames prevailed; ´Sabitum acknowledged that he was more than a mere man, and allowed his right to seek his ancestor beyond the river of death. Arad-Ea, the pilot of Xisuthros, was summoned; trees were cut and fashioned into a boat, and for a month and fifteen days Gilgames and his pilot pursued their voyage over the sea. Then “on the third day” they entered “the waters of death.” The hero was bidden to cling to the rudder and to see that the deadly water did not touch his hand. Twelve strokes of the oar were needed before the rapids were safely passed, and the boat reached the shore that lay beyond the realm of death. Here Gilgames beheld Xisuthros “afar off” “at the mouth of the rivers.” At once he communicated to him the object of his journey: how and why had Xisuthros escaped the universal law of death? The answer is contained in the eleventh book of the Epic, which recounts the story of the great Deluge.

Ever since its discovery by George Smith in 1872, the Babylonian story of the Deluge, which has thus been introduced into the Epic of Gilgames, has attracted the special attention of both scholars and the public. On the one side it agrees with the story of the Deluge handed down to us by the copyists of the Chaldæan historian Berossos, and so is a witness to his trustworthiness; on the other side, its parallelism with the account of the Deluge in the Book of Genesis is at once striking and startling. But the version of the story embodied by Sin-liqi-unnini in his Epic was but one out of many that were current in Babylonia. We have a fragment of another which so closely resembles that of the Epic, as to have been long believed to form part of it; indeed, it is possible that it comes from a variant copy of the Epic itself. Fragments of another version have lately been found by Dr. Scheil in a Babylonian tablet which goes back to the reign of Ammi-zadok, the fourth successor of Khammurabi.9 Even the version contained in the Epic seems to be a combination of two earlier ones, or rather to be based upon at least two different versions of the legend. The story, in fact, must have been of immemorial antiquity in Babylonia; Xisuthros and his ship are depicted upon some of the earliest seals, and Babylonian chronology drew a sharp line of division between the kings who had reigned before and after the Flood. In the Epic Xisuthros is a native of Surippak on the Euphrates, but the story must originally have grown up at Eridu on the shores of the Persian Gulf. Like the story of the struggle with Tiamât, it typifies the contest between the anarchic elements of storm and flood and that peaceful expanse of water in which the fishermen of Eridu plied their trade, and out of which the culture-god had ascended. It is significant that up to the last it was En-lil of Nippur who was represented as sending the Flood that destroyed mankind, while Xisuthros was saved by Ea.

The Babylonian story of the Deluge has been so often translated and is so well known, that there is no need for me to repeat it here. It is sufficient to note that Xisuthros, like Noah, owed his preservation to his piety. In the final scene, when Bel (En-lil) is enraged that any one should have escaped from the destruction he had brought upon mankind, Ea pacifies him with the words: “Punish the sinner for his sins, punish the transgressor for his transgressions; be merciful that he be not [utterly] cut off, be long-suffering that he be not [rooted out].” The Deluge was a punishment for sin, and it was only just, therefore, that the righteous man should be saved.

The translation of Xisuthros with his wife to the paradise beyond the grave is evidently regarded by the author of the Epic as a further reward for his piety. But we may suspect that this was not its original cause. In the myth of Adapa, the first man, we find Anu laying down that the mortal who has penetrated into the secrets of the gods must receive the gift of immortality and become as one of the gods himself, and it would seem that the same idea inspired the belief in the translation of the second father of mankind. Xisuthros too had learned the secret counsels of the gods; with the help of Ea he had outwitted Bel, and it was therefore needful that the gift of immortality should be conferred on him, and that he should dwell like them in the land which death cannot reach.

True to his primeval character, En-lil of Nippur was the author of the Deluge. His ministers, Nin-ip, Nusku, and En-nugi, carry out his commands, while “the spirits of the earth lift up their torches.” But the poet of the Epic has spoilt the primitive symmetry of the picture by introducing the triad into it along with the storm-god Hadad of later times, and so making the destruction of mankind not the work of En-lil alone, but of the gods generally in common council. The result has been a want of coherence in the elements of the story; Istar10 consents to the death of the children she has borne, only to repent of it subsequently when she sees them filling the sea “like fish,” and to weep with the rest of the gods over the havoc that has been wrought. Perhaps Professor Jastrow is right in his suggestion that two separate versions of the story have been united together, in one of which it was the single city of Surippak and its inhabitants that were destroyed, while in the other the Deluge was universal. However that may be, Ea disclosed the determination of En-lil to his faithful servant, “the son of Ubara-Tutu.” According to one part of the story, the disclosure was made through a dream; according to another part, by a device similar to that which gave the Phrygian Midas his ass's ears. The god whispered the meditated deed of Bel and the means of escaping it to one of those reed-huts which stood by the shore of the Persian Gulf, and in which Xisuthros—despite the fact that he is called “a man of Surippak”—was born. The rustling reeds communicated to him the secret, and he in turn told his “lord Ea” that he had understood the message.

The ship was built, and by the advice of Ea the too-inquisitive inquirers were informed that the builder was transferring his allegiance from Bel, the lord of the land, to Ea, the god of the sea.11 All sorts of provisions were stored in it, together with “the seed of life,” each after its kind—“cattle of the field, wild beasts of the field, and the sons of the craftsmen.” Then the helm was placed in the hands of Buzur-Sadi-rabi, the steersman, the door of the ark was closed, and the storm broke upon the earth. For seven days and nights it raged; man and his works were swept away, and the ark alone survived with its living freight When at last Xisuthros opened his window and looked out, a desolate waste of waters was all that could be seen. Above it the lofty peak of the mountain of Nizir12 in the north-east finally appeared; here the ship grounded, and seven days afterwards Xisuthros sent forth a dove to see if the earth were dry. But the dove “went to and fro, and returned.” Next he sent forth a swallow, which returned also to the ark; and lastly a raven, which “ate, waded and croaked, and did not return.” So the Chaldæan Noah knew that the waters of the Flood had subsided: and accordingly he opened the door of the ark and let the animals within it depart towards “the four quarters of heaven.” Then he offered sacrifice on the summit of the mountain, setting beside it vases of smoking incense ranged “seven by seven.” The gods smelt the sweet savour of the offering, and rejoiced that there were men still left to prepare it for them. They gathered, we are told, “like flies above the offerer,” while Beltis lifted up “the bow that Anu had made.”

En-lil alone refused to be reconciled. He vented his wrath at the escape of Xisuthros and his family upon the Igigi or angels, who, as spirits, were more under his control than the gods. But Ea took the blame upon himself, and, after declaring that the righteous must not suffer with the guilty, persuaded Bel to promise that though he might send the wild beast, the famine, and the pestilence upon mankind, the earth should never again be visited by the waters of a flood. Then Bel entered the ship, blessed Xisuthros and his wife, and translated them to the other world.

After hearing the story, Gilgames fell into a deep sleep, which lasted six days and seven nights, while the wife of Xisuthros prepared magic food, which she placed at the head of the sleeper. When he awoke he ate it, and his sickness departed from him. But his skin was still covered with sores, and it was therefore necessary that he should bathe in the purifying waters of the ocean before the full strength and beauty of his youth came back to him.

Xisuthros now tells him of the plant of immortality which grows, covered with thorns, at the bottom of the ocean. The hero accordingly ties heavy stones to his feet, and dives for it; and though the thorns pierce his hands, he brings a branch of it to the surface, and prepares to carry it to the world of men. But the gift of immortality was not for men to possess. On his voyage home Gilgames stops awhile at a fountain of cool water, and while he bathes in it a serpent perceives the odour of the plant, and steals it away. Vainly the hero laments its loss, the plant that “changes age into youth” could never be brought to a world the law of which is death.

Man must die, hut what is the lot of the dead? This is the question which forms the burden of the twelfth and last book of the Epic. Gilgames wanders from temple to temple, asking the god of each if the earth has seized hold of Ea-bani, and if so, what is his fate below. But the gods are silent; they give neither answer nor sign. At last, however, he reaches the shrine of Nergal, the god of the dead, and Nergal causes the earth to open and the spirit of Ea-bani to ascend out of it like a cloud of dust. And then the answer is given. He who has friends to care for him will “lie on a couch and drink pure water”; the hero too—

“who is slain in battle, as you and I have seen,

his father and his mother support his head,

and his wife [weeps] over him.

But he whose body lies forsaken in the field, as thou and I have seen,

his ghost rests not in the earth.

He whose ghost has none to care for him, as thou and I have seen,

the garbage of the pot, the refuse of food,

which is thrown into the street, must he devour,”

With this dreary and materialistic picture of the other world the Epic comes to an end. It is a curious contrast to the life in the fields of Alu to which the Egyptian worshipper of Osiris looked forward; and there is little need to wonder that the mind and religious cult of the Babylonian should have been centred in the present life. The Hades in which he was called upon to believe was more dreary even than the Hades of the Homeric Greeks.

The Epic of Gilgames forces two questions upon our attention, both of which have been often discussed. The one is the relation of the story of the Deluge contained in it to the Biblical narrative of the Flood, the other is the relation of Gilgames himself to the Greek Hêraklês. From the outset it has been perceived that the connection between the Babylonian and Hebrew stories is very close, and that the Babylonian is the older of the two. The birds, for instance, sent out by Xisuthros are three instead of two, as in the Biblical narrative, though the number of times they were despatched is the same in both cases; and the ship of the Babylonian version has been replaced by an ark in the Old Testament account. In fact the Babylonian story has been modified in Palestine and under Western influences. In an inland country an ark was naturally substituted for a ship, more especially as the latter contained a house with window and door; even in Babylonia itself, in the processions of the gods, an ark came to take the place of the ship of primitive Eridu. The olive branch, again, with which the dove returned, according to the Book of Genesis, points to Palestine, where the olive grew; while the period of the rainfall has been transferred from Sebet or January and February, when the winter rains fall in Babylonia, to the “second month” of the Hebrew civil year, our October and November, when the “former rains” began in Canaan. Similarly, the subsidence of the waters is extended in the Hebrew narrative to the middle of the “seventh month,” when the “latter rains” of the Canaanitish spring are over.

But the most remarkable fact brought to light by a comparison of the Babylonian story with that of Genesis is, that the resemblances between them are not confined to one only of the two documents into which modern criticism has separated the Biblical narrative. It is not with the so-called Elohistic, or the so-called Yahvistic, account only that the agreement exists, but with both together as they are found at present combined, or supposed to be combined, in the Hebrew text.13 The fact throws grave doubt on the reality of the critical analysis. As I have said elsewhere:14 “Either the Babylonian poet had before him the present ‘redacted’ text of Genesis, or else the Elohist and Yahvist must have copied the Babylonian story upon the mutual understanding that the one should insert what the other omitted. There is no third alternative.”

The Palestinian colouring of the Biblical version of itself excludes the supposition that the story was borrowed by the Jews in the age of the Babylonian exile. Such a supposition, indeed, would be little in accordance with the feelings of hatred felt by the captives towards their Babylonian conquerors and the religious beliefs and traditions of the latter. But the discovery of the Tel el-Amarna tablets has shown that the culture and literature of Babylonia had made its way to Palestine and even to Egypt long before the Mosaic age. The great literary works of Chaldæa were already known and used as text-books in the West, and, like the story of the first man Adapa, a portion of which was found in Egypt, the story of the Deluge and the second founder of the human race must also have been known there. Gunkel has made it clear15 that the conceptions and beliefs which underlie the history of the Flood, and find their expression in the statement that “the fountains of the great deep” were broken up, are not only of Babylonian origin, but are also met with in the earliest fragments of Old Testament literature. Before the Israelites entered Canaan, the cosmological ideas of Babylonia had already made their way to it, and been adapted to the geographical conditions of “the land of the Amorites.”

The story of a deluge was known to Greece as well as to Palestine. There, too, it had been sent by Zeus as a punishment for the impiety of mankind; and Deukalion, the Greek Noah, saved himself and his family in a ship.16 The peak of Parnassos played the same part in the Greek legend that the mountain of Nizir played in the Babylonian; and the stones thrown on the ground by Deukalion which became men, remind us of the images of clay moulded by the goddess Mami in the mutilated Babylonian myth of Atarpi, which similarly become men and women.

But it is not so much with the episode of the Deluge as with the whole story of Gilgames and his adventures that Greek mythology claims connection. The desire of finding the biblical Nimrod in the cuneiform tablets long seduced Assyriologists into the impossible attempt to identify him with Gilgames; it is not, however, to the Biblical Nimrod, but to the Greek Hêraklês, that the Babylonian hero is related. The curious parallelism between the twelve labours of Hêraklês and the twelve adventures of Gilgames may be an accident; but it is no accident that Gilgames and Hêraklês should alike be heroes who are not kings, and that both alike should be tormented with a deadly distemper which destroyed the flesh. Khumbaba is the tyrant Geryon, the bull slain by Gilgames is the Kretan bull slain by Hêraklês, and the Nemæan lion reappears in the lion which Gilgames is so often represented on the seals as strangling to death. As Hêra persecuted Hêraklês, so Istar persecuted Gilgames; the journey of the Greek hero into Hades is paralleled by the journey of Gilgames beyond the waters of death; and the tree which he found on the shores of the sea with its fruit of precious stones is the magical tree of the Hesperides with its golden apples which grew in the midst of the western ocean.

It is true that there are many elements in the legend of Hêraklês which are not derived from Babylonia. But it is also true that, like the cosmogonies of Hesiod or the cosmological philosophy of Thales, there are also elements in it for which we must claim a Babylonian origin. Probably they made their way to Greek lands at the same time as the Cyprian cult of Aphroditê or the myth of Adônis, whose name indicates the road along which the culture of Babylonia had travelled. Recent archæological discoveries have revealed the fact that in the days when Canaan was a Babylonian province, a civilisation already existed in the Ægean, and that an active intercourse was carried on between Egypt and Asia on the one hand, and the islands and shores of the Mediterranean on the other, in which Krete took a leading share. Light is only just dawning on what until lately was the “prehistoric” past of the European peoples; before long a new world will doubtless be disclosed to us, such as that which the decipherment of the cuneiform texts has brought to light.

It is not only in the mythology of primitive Greece that we can trace the influence of the legends embodied in the Epic of Gilgames. The adventures of Gilgames in search of immortality form part of the story of that mythical Alexander who grew up in literature by the side of the Alexander of history. He too had to make his way through a land of thick darkness, and he too finally failed in his endeavour to secure the “waters of life.”17 Man is and must remain mortal; this is alike the teaching of the old poet of Chaldæa and of the romance which the contact of Eastern and Western thought called into existence in classical days.

  • 1.

    Terêti, the Heb. thôrâh. The laws which the gods have to obey are meant.

  • 2.

    Gilgames seems to mean “great father,” from gilga, “father,” and mes, i.e. mas, “great.”

  • 3.

    Hist, Anim. xii. 21. Sokkaros king of Babylonia, fearing that his daughter's son would dethrone and slay him, imprisoned her in a tower. Gilgamos, however, was born to her. By his grandfather's orders he was thrown from the tower, but saved by an eagle, which caught him upon its wings. Philologically it is possible to identify Sokkaros and Akris-jos.

  • 4.

    Hilprecht, The Babylonian Expedition of the University of Pennsylvania, i. 15. 26; Hommel in the Proc. SBA. xvi. pp. 13–15. The inscription is as follows; “The deified Abil-ili (?), father of the army of Erech, the son of Bel-semea, has restored the walls of Erech, which were built in old times by the deified Gilgames.”

  • 5.

    Professor Haupt, however, to whom we owe the “editio princeps” of the Epic of Gilgames, believes that the description of the siege of Erech does not belong to the Epic at all. He finds the beginning of it in the fragment K 2756 c, generally assigned to the third book of the poem. See his article on “The Beginning of the Babylonian Nimrod Epic” in the “Johns Hopkins Semitic Papers” (Journal of the American Oriental Society, xxii. 1 (1901)).

  • 6.

    As Berossos has told us what was the pronunciation of the name of the hero of the Chaldean Deluge, the disputes of modern Assyriologists as to whether it was Pir-napistim or the like are but labour lost. The true analysis of the name Xisuthros is still unknown, though it is possible, but not probable, that George Smith was right in seeing in it a metathesis of the title Adra-khasis applied to several of the early Babylonian heroes. Adra-khasis means “the very clever,” reminding us of “Mohammed the clever” in modern Egyptian folk-lore.

  • 7.

    ´Samtu, Heb. shohem (Gen. ii. 12).

  • 8.

    So Hommel, who is probably right in seeing in the word the name of Saba in Southern Arabia.

  • 9.

    Zimmern, indeed, has suggested that this latter text belongs to the legend of Atarpi, which, however, has unfortunately come down to us in so mutilated a condition that no certain interpretation of it is possible. The discoverer of the tablet is more probably right in connecting it with, the story of the Flood.

  • 10.

    Who here takes the place of Aruru.

  • 11.

    The words “I will no longer dwell in your city, and turn my face toward the ground of En-lil,” imply that Surippak was not far from Nippur.

  • 12.

    The mountain of Nizir was in the country called Lulubi or Luluwi by the Assyrians, Lulu in the Vannic inscriptions. In the bilingual inscription of Topzawa, Lulu is made the equivalent of the Assyrian Urardhu, the Hebrew Ararat.

  • 13.

    See my Early History of the Hebrews, p. 122 sqq.

  • 14.

    Loc. cit., p. 126.

  • 15.

    Schöpfung und Chaos in Urzeit und Endzeit (1895).

  • 16.

    It should be noticed that, as the voyage of Xisuthros lasted for a Babylonian week of seven nights, so the voyage of Deukalion lasted for a Greek week of nine days. Ogyges is but a local variant of Deukalion.

  • 17.

    See Meissner, Alexander und Gilgamos (1894).