The Jones’ of Mesopotamia

THE COMMENTARY GAZETTE

Those who searched Antiquity:

So for nearly two thousand years has the haunting memory of the once-powerful city pervaded Christian literature, while its broken walls and ruined temples and palaces lay buried deep in desert sand. The history of the ancient land of which it was the capital survived in but meagre and fragmentary form, mingled with accumulated myths and legends. A slim volume contained all that could be derived from references in the Old Testament and the compilations of classical writers.

It is only within the past half-century that the wonderful story of early Eastern civilization has been gradually pieced together by excavators and linguists, who have thrust open the door of the past and probed the hidden secrets of long ages. We now know more about “the land of Babel” than did not only the Greeks and Romans, but even the Hebrew writers who foretold its destruction. Glimpses are being afforded us of its life and manners and customs for some thirty centuries before the captives of Judah uttered lamentations on the banks of its reedy canals. The sites of some of the ancient cities of Babylonia and Assyria were identified by European officials and travelers in the East early in the nineteenth century, and a few relics found their way to Europe. But before Sir A.H. Layard set to work as an excavator in the “forties”, “a case scarcely three feet square”, as he himself wrote, “enclosed all that remained not only of the great city of Nineveh, but of Babylon itself”.

Layard, the distinguished pioneer Assyriologist, was an Englishman of Huguenot descent, who was born in Paris. Through his mother he inherited a strain of Spanish blood. During his early boyhood he resided in Italy, and his education, which began there, was continued in schools in France, Switzerland, and England. He was a man of scholarly habits and fearless and independent character, a charming writer, and an accomplished fine-art critic; withal he was a great traveler, a strenuous politician, and an able diplomatist. In 1845, while sojourning in the East, he undertook the exploration of ancient Assyrian cities. He first set to work at Kalkhi, the Biblical Calah. Three years previously M.P.C. Botta, the French consul at Mosul, had begun to investigate the Nineveh mounds; but these he abandoned for a mound near Khorsabad which proved to be the site of the city erected by “Sargon the Later”, who is referred to by Isaiah. The relics discovered by Botta and his successor, Victor Place, are preserved in the Louvre.

At Kalkhi and Nineveh Layard uncovered the palaces of some of the most famous Assyrian Emperors, including the Biblical Shalmaneser and Esarhaddon, and obtained the colossi, bas reliefs, and other treasures of antiquity which formed the nucleus of the British Museum’s unrivalled Assyrian collection. He also conducted diggings at Babylon and Niffer (Nippur). His work was continued by his assistant, Hormuzd Rassam, a native Christian of Mosul, near Nineveh. Rassam studied for a time at Oxford.

The discoveries made by Layard and Botta stimulated others to follow their example. In the “fifties” Mr. W.K. Loftus engaged in excavations at Larsa and Erech, where important discoveries were made of ancient buildings, ornaments, tablets, sarcophagus graves, and pot burials, while Mr. J.E. Taylor operated at Ur, the seat of the moon cult and the birthplace of Abraham, and at Eridu, which is generally regarded as the cradle of early Babylonian (Sumerian) civilization.

In 1854 Sir Henry Rawlinson superintended diggings at Birs Nimrud (Borsippa, near Babylon), and excavated relics of the Biblical Nebuchadrezzar. This notable archaeologist began his career in the East as an officer in the Bombay army. He distinguished himself as a political agent and diplomatist. While resident at Baghdad, he devoted his leisure time to cuneiform studies. One of his remarkable feats was the copying of the famous trilingual rock inscription of Darius the Great on a mountain cliff at Behistun, in Persian Kurdistan. This work was carried out at great personal risk, for the cliff is 1700 feet high and the sculptures and inscriptions are situated about 300 feet from the ground.

Darius was the first monarch of his line to make use of the Persian cuneiform script, which in this case he utilized in conjunction with the older and more complicated Assyro-Babylonian alphabetic and syllabic characters to record a portion of the history of his reign. Rawlinson’s translation of the famous inscription was an important contribution towards the decipherment of the cuneiform writings of Assyria and Babylonia.

Twelve years of brilliant Mesopotamian discovery concluded in 1854, and further excavations had to be suspended until the “seventies” on account of the unsettled political conditions of the ancient land and the difficulties experienced in dealing with Turkish officials. During the interval, however, archaeologists and philologists were kept fully engaged studying the large amount of material which had been accumulated. Sir Henry Rawlinson began the issue of his monumental work “The Cuneiform Inscriptions of Western Asia” on behalf of the British Museum.

Goodspeed refers to the early archaeological work as the “Heroic Period” of research, and says that the “Modern Scientific Period” began with Mr. George Smith’s expedition to Nineveh in 1873.

 George Smith, like Henry Schliemann, the pioneer investigator of pre-Hellenic culture, was a self-educated man of humble origin. He was born at Chelsea in 1840. At fourteen he was apprenticed to an engraver. He was a youth of studious habits and great originality, and interested himself intensely in the discoveries which had been made by Layard and other explorers. At the British Museum, which he visited regularly to pore over the Assyrian inscriptions, he attracted the attention of Sir Henry Rawlinson. So greatly impressed was Sir Henry by the young man’s enthusiasm and remarkable intelligence that he allowed him the use of his private room and provided casts and squeezes of inscriptions to assist him in his studies. Smith made rapid progress. His earliest discovery was the date of the payment of tribute by Jehu, King of Israel, to the Assyrian Emperor Shalmaneser.

Sir Henry availed himself of the young investigator’s assistance in producing the third volume of “The Cuneiform Inscriptions”.

In 1867 Smith received an appointment in the Assyriology Department of the British Museum, and a few years later became famous throughout Christendom as the translator of fragments of the Babylonian Deluge Legend from tablets sent to London by Rassam. Sir Edwin Arnold, the poet and Orientalist, was at the time editor of the “Daily Telegraph”, and performed a memorable service to modern scholarship by dispatching Smith, on behalf of his paper, to Nineveh to search for other fragments of the Ancient Babylonian epic. Rassam had obtained the tablets from the great library of the cultured Emperor Ashur-bani-pal, “the great and noble Asnapper” of the Bible, who took delight, as he himself recorded, in “The wisdom of Ea,” the art of song, the treasures of science.

This royal patron of learning included in his library collection, copies and translations of tablets from Babylonia. Some of these were then over 2000 years old. The Babylonian literary relics were, indeed, of as great antiquity to Ashur-bani-pal as that monarch’s relics are to us.

The Emperor invoked Nebo, god of wisdom and learning, to bless his “books”, praying:

    Forever, O Nebo, King of all heaven and earth, Look gladly upon this Library Of Ashur-bani-pal, his (thy) shepherd, reverencer of thy divinity.

Mr. George Smith’s expedition to Nineveh in 1873 was exceedingly fruitful of results. More tablets were discovered and translated. In the following year he returned to the ancient Assyrian city on behalf of the British Museum, and added further by his scholarly achievements to his own reputation and the world’s knowledge of antiquity. His last expedition was made early in 1876; on his homeward journey he was stricken down with fever, and on 19th August he died at Aleppo in his thirty-sixth year. So was a brilliant career brought to an untimely end.

Rassam was engaged to continue Smith’s great work, and between 1877 and 1882 made many notable discoveries in Assyria and Babylonia, including the bronze doors of a Shalmaneser temple, the sun temple at Sippar; the palace of the Biblical Nebuchadrezzar, which was famous for its “hanging gardens”; a cylinder of Nabonidus, King of Babylon; and about fifty thousand tablets.

M. de Sarzec, the French consul at Bassorah, began in 1877 excavations at the ancient Sumerian city of Lagash (Shirpula), and continued them until 1900. He found thousands of tablets, many has reliefs, votive statuettes, which worshippers apparently pinned on sacred shrines, the famous silver vase of King Entemena, statues of King Gudea, and various other treasures which are now in the Louvre.

The pioneer work achieved by British and French excavators stimulated interest all over the world. An expedition was sent out from the United States by the University of Pennsylvania, and began to operate at Nippur in 1888. The Germans, who have displayed great activity in the domain of philological research, are at present represented by an exploring party which is conducting the systematic exploration of the ruins of Babylon. Even the Turkish Government has encouraged research work, and its excavators have accumulated a fine collection of antiquities at Constantinople. Among the archaeologists and linguists of various nationalities who are devoting themselves to the study of ancient Assyrian and Babylonian records and literature, and gradually unfolding the story of ancient Eastern civilization, those of our own country occupy a prominent position. One of the most interesting discoveries of recent years has been new fragments of the Creation Legend by L.W. King of the British Museum, whose scholarly work, “The Seven Tablets of Creation”, is the standard work on the subject.

The archaeological work conducted in Persia, Asia Minor, Palestine, Cyprus, Crete, the Aegean, and Egypt has thrown, and is throwing, much light on the relations between the various civilizations of antiquity. In addition to the Hittite discoveries, with which the name of Professor Sayce will ever be associated as a pioneer, we now hear much of the hitherto unknown civilizations of Mitanni and Urartu (ancient Armenia), which contributed to the shaping of ancient history. The Biblical narratives of the rise and decline of the Hebrew kingdoms have also been greatly elucidated.

In this volume, which deals mainly with the intellectual life of the Mesopotamian peoples, a historical narrative has been provided as an appropriate setting for the myths and legends. In this connection the reader must be reminded that the chronology of the early period is still uncertain. The approximate dates which are given, however, are those now generally adopted by most European and American authorities. Early Babylonian history of the Sumerian period begins sometime prior to 3000 B.C; Sargon of Akkad flourished about 2650 B.C., and Hammurabi not long before or after 2000 B.C. The inflated system of dating which places Mena of Egypt as far back as 5500 B.C. and Sargon at about 3800 B.C. has been abandoned by the majority of prominent archaeologists, the exceptions including Professor Flinders Petrie. Recent discoveries appear to support the new chronological system. “There is a growing conviction”, writes Mr. Hawes, “that Cretan evidence, especially in the eastern part of the island, favours the minimum (Berlin) system of Egyptian chronology, according to which the Sixth (Egyptian) Dynasty began at c. 2540 B.C. and the Twelfth at c. 2000 B.C. Petrie dates the beginning of the Twelfth Dynasty at c. 3400 B.C.

To students of comparative folklore and mythology the myths and legends of Babylonia present many features of engrossing interest. They are of great antiquity, yet not a few seem curiously familiar. We must not conclude, however, that because a European legend may bear resemblances to one translated from a cuneiform tablet it is necessarily of Babylonian origin. Certain beliefs, and the myths which were based upon them, are older than even the civilization of the Tigro-Euphrates valley. They belong, it would appear, to a stock of common inheritance from an uncertain cultural center of immense antiquity. The problem involved has been referred to by Professor Frazer in the “Golden Bough”. Commenting on the similarities presented by certain ancient festivals in various countries, he suggests that they may be due to “a remarkable homogeneity of civilization throughout Southern Europe and Western Asia in prehistoric times. How far”, he adds, “such homogeneity of civilization may be taken as evidence of homogeneity of race is a question for the ethnologist.”

In Chapter I the reader is introduced to the ethnological problem, and it is shown that the results of modern research tend to establish a remote racial connection between the Sumerians of Babylonia, the prehistoric Egyptians, and the Neolithic (Late Stone Age) inhabitants of Europe, as well as the southern Persians and the “Aryans” of India.

Comparative notes are provided in dealing with the customs, religious beliefs, and myths and legends of the Mesopotamian peoples to assist the student towards the elucidation and partial restoration of certain literary fragments from the cuneiform tablets. Of special interest in this connection are the resemblances between some of the Indian and Babylonian myths. The writer has drawn upon that “great storehouse” of ancient legends, the voluminous Indian epic, the “Mahabharata”, and it is shown that there are undoubted links between the Garuda eagle myths and those of the Sumerian Zu bird and the Etana eagle, while similar stories remain attached to the memories of “Sargon of Akkad” and the Indian hero Karna, and of Semiramis (who was Queen Sammu-ramat of Assyria) and Shakuntala. The Indian god Varuna and the Sumerian Ea are also found to have much in common, and it seems undoubted that the Manu fish and flood myth is a direct Babylonian inheritance, like the Yuga (Ages of the Universe) doctrine and the system of calculation associated with it. It is of interest to note, too, that a portion of the Gilgamesh epic survives in the “Ramayana” story of the monkey god Hanuman’s search for the lost princess Sita; other relics of similar character suggest that both the Gilgamesh and Hanuman narratives are derived in part from a very ancient myth. Gilgamesh also figures in Indian mythology as Yama, the first man, who explored the way to the Paradise called “The Land of Ancestors”, and over which he subsequently presided as a god. Other Babylonian myths link with those found in Egypt, Greece, Scandinavia, Iceland, and the British Isles and Ireland. The Sargon myth, for instance, resembles closely the myth of Scyld (Sceaf), the patriarch, in the “Beowulf” epic, and both appear to be variations of the Tammuz-Adonis story. Tammuz also resembles in one of his phases the Celtic hero Diarmid, who was slain by the “green boar” of the Earth Mother, as was Adonis by the boar form of Ares, the Greek war god.

In approaching the study of these linking myths it would be as rash to conclude that all resemblances are due to homogeneity of race as to assume that folklore and mythology are devoid of ethnological elements. Due consideration must be given to the widespread influence exercised by cultural contact. We must recognize also that the human mind has ever shown a tendency to arrive quite independently at similar conclusions, when confronted by similar problems, in various parts of the world.

But while many remarkable resemblances may be detected between the beliefs and myths and customs of widely separated peoples, it cannot be overlooked that pronounced and striking differences remain to be accounted for. Human experiences varied in localities because all sections of humanity were not confronted in ancient times by the same problems in their everyday lives. Some peoples, for instance, experienced no great difficulties regarding the food supply, which might be provided for them by nature in lavish abundance; others were compelled to wage a fierce and constant conflict against hostile forces in inhospitable environments with purpose to secure adequate sustenance and their need of enjoyment. Various habits of life had to be adopted in various parts of the world, and these produced various habits of thought. Consequently, we find that behind all systems of primitive religion lies the formative background of natural phenomena.

A mythology reflects the geography, the fauna and flora, and the climatic conditions of the area in which it took definite and permanent shape.

 In Babylonia, as elsewhere, we expect, therefore, to find a mythology which has strictly local characteristics–one which mirrors river and valley scenery, the habits of life of the people, and also the various stages of progress in the civilization from its earliest beginnings. Traces of primitive thought–survivals from remotest antiquity-should also remain in evidence. As a matter of fact Babylonian mythology fulfils our expectations in this regard to the highest degree.

Herodotus said that Egypt was the gift of the Nile: similarly Babylonia may be regarded as the gift of the Tigris and Euphrates–those great shifting and flooding rivers which for long ages had been carrying down from the Armenian Highlands vast quantities of mud to thrust back the waters of the Persian Gulf and form a country capable of being utilized for human habitation. The most typical Babylonian deity was Ea, the god of the fertilizing and creative waters.

He was depicted clad in the skin of a fish, as gods in other geographical areas were depicted wearing the skins of animals which were regarded as ancestors, or hostile demons that had to be propitiated. Originally Ea appears to have been a fish-the incarnation of the spirit of, or life principle in, the Euphrates River. His center of worship was at Eridu, an ancient seaport, where apparently the prehistoric Babylonians (the Sumerians) first began to utilize the dried-up beds of shifting streams to irrigate the soil. One of the several creation myths is reminiscent of those early experiences which produced early local beliefs: O thou River, who didst create all things, When the great gods dug thee out, They set prosperity upon thy banks, Within thee Ea, the king of the Deep, created his dwelling.

The Sumerians observed that the land was brought into existence by means of the obstructing reeds, which caused mud to accumulate. When their minds began to be exercised regarding the origin of life, they conceived that the first human beings were created by a similar process:

    Marduk (son of Ea) laid a reed upon the face of the waters, He formed dust and poured it out beside the reed … He formed mankind.

Author: Donald A. Mackenzie

CONTRIBUTOR: Staff

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