NOTES ON ASSYRIAN RELIGION AND MYTHOLOGY

By William St. Chad Boscawen

[Extracted from TSBA, 6, pp. 535-42.]

Read 4th July, 1876



The Assyrians were, as we are told in Genesis x, 2, a colony from the mother-land of Babylon, "Out of that land went Assur." The date of this migration is as yet uncertain, but it was probably in about the 19th century B.C. The Assyrians, it is evident, did not leave their southern home and form the colony round Assur, until they had developed a considerable state of civilisation, a large amount of which was borrowed from the Accadians, the ruling class of southern Babylonia, a people of the Turanian family, who had been the first to leave the primitive cradle of the human race in Ararat or "Urdhu," the district of "mountain of the world," and to pass southwards, following the course of the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, most probably the former of these, as we find the Amardi or Proto-Media tribes, who speak a language akin to the Accadian, and the Elamite or people of Susania, all dwelling to the east of both the Euphrates and the Tigris. The Semitic branch appears rather to have followed the course of the Euphrates for some distance, and there, probably enticed by the pasturage of the Arabian plains, to have formed the early Semitic kingdoms of Southern Arabia, though these kingdoms were probably not formed until a much later period than those of Babylonia, the Semitic preferring rather the free life of the nomad to that of the cramped citizen. With the Turanian or Cushite branch there appear to have passed down some Semitic families, for in the early contract tablets we meet with Semitic names, both as parties to the contracts and as witnesses. The Semite [p.536] even at that early period appears to have been equally shrewd and active as to the arrangements and practices of both commerce and usury.

For many centuries the rulers and dominant class in the land were Accadian, their royal brick legends being written in that language; but still the Semites appear to have possessed some power, because we find legends at an early period written in Semitic, as though they were sufficiently powerful to require to have a special proclamation written for them, and, as I have stated, their names appear in trade transactions of the time.1

But about 2000 B.C. we find a change in the land: a great influx of Semites into the land, a Semitic dynasty on the throne under Sargon of Agane. The cause of this influx of Semites is as yet unexplained, owing to there being so few monuments of the period, the site of Agane, the Mound of Akkm-Kuf, in the region of Sippra, being as yet untouched. This invasion, and conquest of Babylon was one of the great points in the history of the civilisation of the human race, and one to which even we, in these days of enlightenment, owe something. In this dynasty took place the fusion of the Turanian and Semitic religions of Western Asia, the eldest child of whom was the religion of Assyria, the religion of Abraham before the call, and one which there is little doubt had great influence on his mind, and on the minds of those who were the founders of the worship of the "one true God."

The religion of man begins with himself, and may be said to be due to two peculiar instincts which are possessed by man alone, and which raise him above the level of the brute creation. They are: I. The instinct of causation; that is, the application of the method of induction in striving to find a cause for every effect. II. The pursuit of an ideal of perfection.

The first of these is by far the most powerful, and is the first to act in course of the religious development of the human being. Man, by the process of induction, traces back [p.537] every act, and every effect of which he is the cause to an indwelling spirit, which we call will. This primitive process of reasoning is that which produces the first religious system in Babylonia. The primitive Accadian highlander, in his mountain home, traced all his actions to one source, the indwelling spirit, which he called tsi or zi, or life. This life is rendered in the bilingual texts by napistu, a feminine abstract from napisu, life, breath, the Heb. [Heb.], Having applied this process of reasoning to his own acts, man proceeds to apply it to the acts of others, beings and objects both animate and inanimate. Each tree, each animal, the running river, the tempest-driven cloud, each owed its being, its actions, its motion, to the indwelling zi or life spirit. Probably the application of this process of reasoning to inanimate objects was a secondary one, but not in any way an unnatural one. With this process man had reared the first stage of religious development, viz., that which is known as "fetichis" worship. It is a process of reasoning not extinct even now. The child who attributes to her doll the same cravings of hunger and thirst she feels herself, who chastises her toy for some supposed wrong act, or rewards it for some good one, is in reality applying exactly the same process of reasoning as is applied by the fetich worshipper in his first steps in religious development.

Gradually, as man rises in the social scale, and his intellectual powers become more fully developed, this process of reasoning is carried a step further, a dualism is introduced, a division between the spirits of objects which are beneficial to him and those which are hurtful. The fierce storm which blows down his tent and extinguishes his fire is to the fetish worshipper the dwelling of an evil spirit, its zi is hostile to him; the river that flows by his camp and supplies him with fish for food and water for himself and his cattle, is possessed of a good, and kind spirit, and any usual phenomenon connected with it which may affect him in an evil way is attributed, not to an evil spirit, but to its anger at some act of the man's, and must needs be atoned for. It is in this stage of development that religions become so much influenced by local elements, both natural and physical. What is worshipped [p.538] as good by one race may be considered evil by another. With the introduction of this dualism of good and evil spirits there arose a dualistic priesthood: those who dealt entirely with the good spirits, invoking their aid against the evil one, and those who dealt with the evil ones, calling down their curses upon the enemies of those who consulted them.

The former of these were the more powerful, and the recognised priesthood of Babylonia in the primitive period, and out of them developed the more definite priesthood. Of the latter class, the sorcerers and witches, we gain much curious information from the tablets relating to witchcraft published in the fourth volume of the "Cuneiform Inscriptions of Western Asia."

As I have previously stated, about 2000 B.C., in the time of Sargon I of Agane, a religious reformation took place, caused by the fusion of the two religious systems of the Accadians and that of the Semites, whose religion appears to have resembled that of the authors of the Hymiritic inscriptions. We find such deities as Sin (the moon), Shamas (the sun), and Shalman (the Saviour), appearing in the inscriptions of Babylonia. These deities also appear in the Hymiritic inscriptions. In this system, which now became the established religion of Babylonia, we find the old spirits of the fetish systems re-organised; those that had been worshipped as spirits of the earth, of heaven, and of various other abstract and concrete objects, became deities or Hi, gods, in the place of zi, or spirit of fetich, whilst the remainder of the spirits were divided into two great bodiesthe Iggi or spirits of heaven, the angels, and the Anunnaki or spirits of earth, who were only invoked collectively, and were regarded as the children of the greater gods, and were the subjects of the two great gods, Anu the god of heaven, the Assyrian Zeus, and Hea, the lord of the abyss, the Assyrian Phaos or Poseidon.

As an illustration of these two systems of worship, I will now give translations of two litanies; the first one of the old religio-magic system, the second one of the late Assyrian and Semitic period.

[p.539]

(1) W.A.I., Vol. IV, Plate 1, Col. IT, 10.

1. From the curse. Oh Spirit of Heaven protect thou, Oh! Spirit of Earth protect thou.
2. Oh Spirit of the Lord of Lands protect thou.
3. Oh Spirit of the Lady of Lands protect thou.
4. Oh Spirit of the Lord of the Stars protect thou.
5. Oh Spirit of the Lady of the Stars protect thou.
6. Oh Spirit of the Lord of the Holy Mound protect thou.
7. Oh Spirit of the Lady of the Holy Mound protect thou.
8. Oh Spirit of the Lord of the Light of Life protect thou.
9. Oh Spirit of the Lady of the Light of Life protect thou.

In each case here the word for spirit was tsi or zi, and so foreign was the fetich conception to the Assyrian, that we find the words variously rendered, king "sarru," or ilu god, or even nisu man.2

At the end of the tablet of prayers against sins we meet with the following curious litany, which is an example of the fully developed religion.

1. May Bel (pardon), the king my creator.
2. May Bellis queen of Bit Zida (?) pardon.
3. May Bit Zida pardon my fault.
4. May Hea pardon. May Davkina pardon.
5. May Hea Lord of Chaos pardon.
6. May the Abyss the House of Wisdom pardon.
7. Zuge3 pardon; the watery deep may it pardon.
8. Merodach king of the angels may he pardon.
9. May Zerat-banit the queen of Bit Saggal pardon.
10. May Bit Saggal and Babylon the abode of the great gods pardon.

[p.540]

11. May Nabu and Nana pardon in Bit Zida (the Temple of Life).
12. May Tasmit the great Lady pardon.
13. May the Judge the throned one in Bit Saggal pardon.
14. The Stars of the South, the Stars of the North, the Stars of the East, the Stars of the West, may they pardon.
15. The four quarters may cleanse him and may they pardon his sin.
16. Istar of Erech the Blessed may she pardon.
17. Beltis of Bit-Anna may she pardon. May Bit Anna pardon.
18. Annuit of Agane may she pardon.
19. May Agane pardon.

Col. IV.

20. Mil Khisa, Lady of Dwellings, may she pardon.
21. Si-duri, the goddess of wisdom, may she pardon
22. the fault of his life.
23. Dibbara, the great Dibbara, the powerful Dibbara, may he pardon.4
24. Laz (the wife of Lubara), Hani and Kussu the thunder may he pardon.
25. Tar zir-na (the kmg of the desert) may he pardon.
26. May Sarakhu pardon.
27. Sulpa-Uddu then might may he pardon.
28. ...............
29. The Star of the bow, the Star of Stars the propitious Star of Heaven may it pardon.
30. Nanudu, may he pardon.
31. May Papsukal and Istar pardon.
31. His god or his goddess
32. in the days of sin may they cleanse him
33. whoever he be.

[p.541]

This tablet, which is the second of a series relating to the treatment of penitents, and is very curious, it being a species of Assyrian litany in which almost every god and goddess is invoked by his or her title to pardon the sinner. It resembles in some respects those curious litanies found in the Zend-Avesta. It is most important to the mythology, as it gives us the titles and relations of several unknown deities.

In the early portion of the tablet we meet with the following curious rules of time of prayer, and I am sure that if the Assyrians kept to these rules, they must have done little else but pray, and would have had but scant time left for warlike expeditions and other duties. The passage reads:

1. Pray thou. Pray thou!
2. Before the couch pray!
3. Before the throne pray!
4. Before the canopy pray!
5. Before the nadni, the dwelling of lofty head, pray!
6. Before the light of dawn pray!
7. Before the fire pray!
8. Before the dawn pray!
9. By the tablets and books pray!
10. By the fire and pray!
11. By the hearth pray!
12. By the threshold pray!
13. By the side of the foundation pray!
14. By the side of the well (pool) pray!
15. By the side of the river (canal) pray!
16. By the side of the boat pray! In riding in the boat pray! In leaving the boat pray!
17. At the rising of the sun pray!
18. At the setting of the sun pray!
19. To the gods of heaven through the altars of the earth pray!
20. By the altar of god or goddess pray!
21. In leaving or entering the city pray!
22. In leaving or entering the great gate pray!

[p.542]

23. In leaving or entering the house pray!
24. In the street pray!
25. In the temple pray!
26. On the road pray!

The foregoing examples are but fragments selected from my note book, but in submitting them to the members of this Society, I felt that to many who might wish to contrast the religion of Assyria with the Hebrew, they might form interesting notes. I hope at some future time to give a translation of several more of these inscriptions, which ought certainly to find a place in the Transactions of the Society of Biblical Archaeology.


NOTES

1 The bilingual text of Khammu-ragas, and a Semitic tablet of same king, both about B.C. 1650.
2 See M. Lenormant's notes on this in "Chaldean Magic," published since this paper.
3 The void of procreative nature.
4 A series of legends relating to this hero have been discovered by the late Mr. Gr. Smith, and are published in his "Chaldean Genesis."