A question that still remains to be considered as to the origin of the cuneiform writing of Mesopotamia, may properly be introduced in connection with this account of the excavations and decipherment, though it is needless to enter into it in detail.

The “Persian” style of wedge-writing is a direct derivative of the Babylonian, introduced in the times of the Achaemenians, and it is nothing but a simplification in form and principle of the more cumbersome and complicated Babylonian. Instead of a combination of as many as ten and fifteen wedges to make one sign, we have in the Persian never more than five, and frequently only three; and instead of writing words by syllables, sounds alone were employed, and the syllabary of several hundred signs reduced to forty-two, while the ideographic style was practically abolished.

The second style of cuneiform, generally known as Median or Susian, [13] is again only a slight modification of the “Persian.” Besides these three, there is a fourth language (spoken in the northwestern district of Mesopotamia between the Euphrates and the Orontes), known as “Mitanni,” the exact status of which has not been clearly ascertained, but which has been adapted to cuneiform characters. A fifth variety, found on tablets from Cappadocia, represents again a modification of the ordinary writing met with in Babylonia. In the inscriptions of Mitanni, the writing is a mixture of ideographs and syllables, just as in Mesopotamia, while the so-called “Cappadocian” tablets are written in a corrupt Babylonian, corresponding in degree to the “corrupt” forms that the signs take on. In Mesopotamia itself, quite a number of styles exist, some due to local influences, others the result of changes that took place in the course of time. In the oldest period known, that is from 4000 to 3000 B.C., the writing is linear rather than wedge-shaped. The linear writing is the modification that the original pictures underwent in being adapted for engraving on stone; the wedges are the modification natural to the use of clay, though when once the wedges became the standard method, the greater frequency with which clay as against stone came to be used, led to an imitation of the wedges by those who cut out the characters on stone. In consequence, there developed two varieties of wedge-writing: the one that may be termed lapidary, used for the stone inscriptions, the official historical records, and such legal documents as were prepared with especial care; the other cursive, occurring only on legal and commercial clay tablets, and becoming more frequent as we approach the latest period of Babylonian writing, which extends to within a few decades of our era. In Assyria, finally, a special variety of cuneiform developed that is easily distinguished from the Babylonian by its greater neatness and the more vertical position of the wedges.

The origin of all the styles and varieties of cuneiform writing is, therefore, to be sought in Mesopotamia; and within Mesopotamia, in that part of it where culture begins–the extreme south; but beyond saying that the writing is a direct development from picture writing, there is little of any definite character that can be maintained. We do not know when the writing originated, we only know that in the oldest inscriptions it is already fully developed.

We do not know who originated it; nor can the question be as yet definitely answered, whether those who originated it spoke the Babylonian language, or whether they were Semites at all. Until about fifteen years ago, it was generally supposed that the cuneiform writing was without doubt the invention of a non-Semitic race inhabiting Babylonia at an early age, from whom the Semitic Babylonians adopted it, together with the culture that this non-Semitic race had produced. These inventors, called Sumerians by some and Akkadians by others, and Sumero-Akkadians by a third group of scholars, it was supposed, used the “cuneiform” as a picture or ‘ideographic’ script exclusively; and the language they spoke being agglutinative and largely monosyllabic in character, it was possible for them to stop short at this point of development. The Babylonians however, in order to adapt the writing to their language, did not content themselves with the ‘picture’ method, but using the non-Semitic equivalent for their own words, employed the former as syllables, while retaining, at the same time, the sign as an ideograph. To make this clearer by an example, the numeral ‘1’ would represent the word ‘one’ in their own language, while the non-Semitic word for ‘one,’ which let us suppose was ““ash”,” they used as the phonetic value of the sign, in writing a word in which this sound occurred, as “e.g.”, “ash-es”. Since each sign, in Sumero-Akkadian as well as in Babylonian, represented some general idea, it could stand for an entire series of words, grouped about this idea and associated with it, ‘day,’ for example, being used for ‘light,’ ‘brilliancy,’ ‘pure,’ and so forth. The variety of syllabic and ideographic values which the cuneiform characters show could thus be accounted for.

This theory, however, tempting as it is by its simplicity, cannot be accepted in this unqualified form. Advancing knowledge has made it certain that the ancient civilization, including the religion, is Semitic in character. The assumption therefore of a purely non-Semitic culture for southern Babylonia is untenable. Secondly, even in the oldest inscriptions found, there occur Semitic words and Semitic constructions which prove that the inscriptions were composed by Semites. As long, therefore, as no traces of purely non-Semitic inscription are found, we cannot go beyond the Semites in seeking for the origin of the culture in this region. In view of this, the theory first advanced by Prof. Joseph Halevy of Paris, and now supported by the most eminent of German Assyriologists, Prof. Friedrich Delitzsch, which claims that the cuneiform writing is Semitic in origin, needs to be most carefully considered. There is much that speaks in favor of this theory, much that may more easily be accounted for by it, than by the opposite one, which was originally proposed by the distinguished Nestor of cuneiform studies, Jules Oppert, and which is with some modifications still held by the majority of scholars.[14] The question is one which cannot be answered by an appeal to philology alone. This is the fundamental error of the advocates of the Sumero-Akkadian theory, who appear to overlook the fact that the testimony of archaeological and anthropological research must be confirmatory of a philological hypothesis before it can be accepted as an indisputable fact.[15] The time however has not yet come for these two sciences to pronounce their verdict definitely, though it may be added that the supposition of a variety of races once inhabiting Southern Mesopotamia finds support in what we know from the pre-historic researches of anthropologists.

Again, it is not to be denied that the theory of the Semitic origin of the cuneiform writing encounters obstacles that cannot easily be set aside. While it seeks to explain the syllabic values of the signs on the general principle that they represent elements of Babylonian words, truncated in this fashion in order to answer to the growing need for phonetic writing of words for which no ideographs existed, it is difficult to imagine, as Halevy’s theory demands, that the “ideographic” style, as found chiefly in religious texts, is the deliberate invention of priests in their desire to produce a method of conveying their ideas that would be regarded as a mystery by the laity, and be successfully concealed from the latter. Here again the theory borders on the domain of archaeology, and philology alone will not help us out of the difficulty. An impartial verdict of the present state of the problem might be summed up as follows:

1. It is generally admitted that all the literature of Babylonia, including the oldest and even that written in the “ideographic” style, whether we term it “Sumero-Akkadian” or “hieratic,” is the work of the Semitic settlers of Mesopotamia.

2. The culture, including the religion of Babylonia, is likewise a Semitic production, and since Assyria received its culture from Babylonia, the same remark holds good for entire Mesopotamia.

3. The cuneiform syllabary is largely Semitic in character. The ideas expressed by the ideographic values of the signs give no evidence of having been produced in non-Semitic surroundings; and, whatever the origin of the system may be, it has been so shaped by the Babylonians, so thoroughly adapted to their purposes, that it is to all practical purposes Semitic.

4. Approached from the theoretical side, there remains, after making full allowance for the Semitic elements in the system, a residuum that has not yet found a satisfactory explanation, either by those who favor the non-Semitic theory or by those who hold the opposite view.

5. Pending further light to be thrown upon this question, through the expected additions to our knowledge of the archaeology and of the anthropological conditions of ancient prehistoric Mesopotamia, philological research must content itself with an acknowledgment of its inability to reach a conclusion that will appeal so forcibly to all minds, as to place the solution of the problem beyond dispute.

6. There is a presumption in favor of assuming a mixture of races in Southern Mesopotamia at an early day, and a possibility, therefore, that the earliest form of picture writing in this region, from which the Babylonian cuneiform is derived, may have been “used” by a non-Semitic population, and that traces of this are still apparent in the developed system after the important step had been taken, marked by the advance from picture to phonetic writing.

The important consideration for our purpose is, that the religious conceptions and practices as they are reflected in the literary sources now at our command, are distinctly Babylonian. With this we may rest content, and, leaving theories aside, there will be no necessity in an exposition of the religion of the Babylonians and Assyrians to differentiate or to attempt to differentiate between Semitic and so-called non-Semitic elements. Local conditions and the long period covered by the development and history of the religion in question, are the factors that suffice to account for the mixed and in many respects complicated phenomena which this religion presents.

Having set forth the sources at our command for the study of the Babylonian-Assyrian religion, and having indicated the manner in which these sources have been made available for our purposes, we are prepared to take the next step that will fit us for an understanding of the religious practices that prevailed in Mesopotamia,–a consideration of the land and of its people, together with a general account of the history of the latter.


[13] The most recent investigations show it to have been a ‘Turanian’ language. See Weissbach, “Achaemeniden Inschriften sweiter Art”, Leipzig, 1893.

[14] Besides Delitzsch, however, there are others, as Pognon, Jaeger, Guyard, McCurdy and Brinton, who side with Halevy.

[15] See now Dr. Brinton’s paper, “The Protohistoric Ethnography of Western Asia” (“Proceed. Amer. Philos. Soc.”, 1895), especially pp. 18-22.

SOURCE: Handbooks On The History Of Religions: Volume II: The Religion Of Babylonia And Assyria; EDITED BY : MORRIS JASTROW, Jr., PH.D. “Professor of Semitic Languages in the University of Pennsylvania”


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