Babylonian and Assyrian Religion


Babylonian TableThe development of the religion of Babylonia, so far as it can be traced with the material at hand, follows closely along the lines of the periods to be distinguished in the history of the Euphrates valley. Leaving aside the primitive phases of the religion as lying beyond the ken of historical investigation, we may note the sharp distinction to be made between the pre-Khammurabic age and the post-Khammurabic age. While the political movement represented by Khammurabi may have been proceeding for some time prior to the appearance of the great conqueror, the period of c. 2250 B.C., when the union of the Euphratean states was effected by Khammurabi, marks the beginning of a new epoch in the religion as well as in the political history of the Euphrates valley. Corresponding to the states into which we find the country divided before 2250 B.C., we have a various number of religious centres such as Nippur, Erech, Kutha (Cuthah), Ur, Sippara (Sippar), Shirgulla (Lagash), Eridu and Agade, in each of which some god was looked upon as the chief deity around whom there were gathered a number of minor deities and with whom there was invariably associated a female consort. The jurisdiction of this chief god was, however, limited to the political extent or control of the district in which the main seat of the cult of the deity in question lay. Mild attempts, to be sure, to group the chief deities associated with the most important religious and political centres into a regular pantheon were made—notably in Nippur and later in Ur—but such attempts lacked the enduring quality which attaches to Khammurabi’s avowed policy to raise Marduk—the patron deity of the future capital, Babylon—to the head of the entire Babylonian pantheon, as Babylon itself came to be recognized as the real centre of the entire Euphrates valley.

Associated with Marduk was his consort Sarpanit, and grouped around the pair as princes around a throne were the chief deities of the older centres, like Ea and Damkina of Eridu, Nebo and Tashmit of Borsippa, Nergal and Allatu of Kutha, Shamash and Ā of Sippar, Sin and Ningal of Ur, as well as pairs like Ramman (or Adad) and Shala whose central seat is unknown to us. In this process of accommodating ancient prerogatives to new conditions, it was inevitable that attributes belonging specifically to the one or the other of these gods should have been transferred to Marduk, who thus from being, originally, a solar deity becomes an eclectic power, taking on the traits of Bel, Ea, Shamash, Nergal, Adad and even Sin (the moon-god)—a kind of composite residuum of all the chief gods.

In the religious literature this process can be traced with perfect definiteness. The older incantations, associated with Ea, were re-edited so as to give to Marduk the supreme power over demons, witches and sorcerers: the hymns and lamentations composed for the cult of Bel, Shamash and of Adad were transformed into paeans and appeals to Marduk, while the ancient myths arising in the various religious and political centres underwent a similar process of adaptation to changed conditions, and as a consequence their original meaning was obscured by the endeavour to assign all mighty deeds and acts, originally symbolical of the change of seasons or of occurrences in nature, to the patron deity of Babylon—the supreme head of the entire Babylonian pantheon. Besides the chief deities and their consorts, various minor ones, representing likewise patron gods of less important localities and in most cases of a solar character were added at one time or the other to the court of Marduk, though there is also to be noted a tendency on the part of the chief solar deity, Shamash of Sippara, and for the chief moon-god to absorb the solar and lunar deities of less important sites, leading in the case of the solar gods to the differentiation of the functions of Shamash during the various seasons of the year and the various times of the day among these minor deities. In this way Ninib, whose chief seat appears to have been at Shirgulla (Lagash), became the sun-god of the springtime and of the morning, bringing joy and new life to the earth, while Nergal of Kutha was regarded as the sun of the summer solstice and of the noonday heat—the harbinger of suffering and death.

There were, however, two deities who appear to have retained an independent existence—Anu (q.v.), the god of heaven, and Ishtar (q.v.), the great mother-goddess, who symbolized fertility and vitality in general. There are some reasons for believing that the oldest seat, and possibly the original seat, of the Anu cult was in Erech, as it is there where the Ishtar cult that subsequently spread throughout Babylonia and Assyria took its rise. While Anu, with whom there was associated as a pale reflection a consort Antum, assigned to him under the influence of the widely prevalent view among the early Semites which conceived of gods always in pairs, remained more or less of an abstraction during the various periods of the Babylonian-Assyrian religion and taking little part in the active cult of the temples, his unique position as the chief god of the highest heavens was always recognized in the theological system developed by the priests, which found an expression in making him the first figure of a triad, consisting of Anu, Bel and Ea, among whom the priests divided the three divisions of the universe, the heavens, the earth with the atmosphere above it, and the watery expanse respectively.

Postponing the discussion of this triad, it is to be noted that the systematization of the pantheon after the days of Khammurabi did not seriously interfere with the independence of the goddess Ishtar. While frequently associated with Marduk, and still more closely with the chief god of Assyria, the god Assur (who occupies in the north the position accorded to Marduk in the south), so much so as to be sometimes spoken of as Assur’s consort—the lady or Belit par excellence—the belief that as the source of all life she stands apart never lost its hold upon the people and found an expression also in the system devised by the priests. By the side of the first triad, consisting of Anu, Bel and Ea—disconnected in this form entirely from all local associations—we encounter a second triad composed of Shamash, Sin and Ishtar. As the first triad symbolized the three divisions of the universe—the heavens, earth and the watery element—so the second represented the three great forces of nature—the sun, the moon and the life-giving power. According as the one or the other aspect of such a power is brought into the foreground, Ishtar becomes the mother of mankind, the fertile earth, the goddess of sexual love, and the creative force among animals, while at times she appears in hymns and myths as the general personification of nature.

We thus find in the post-Khammurabic period the pantheon assuming distinct shapes. The strong tendency towards concentrating in one deity—Marduk—the attributes of all others was offset by the natural desire to make the position of Marduk accord with the rank acquired by the secular rulers. As these emphasized their supremacy by grouping around them a court of loyal attendants dependent in rank and ready to do their master’s bidding, so the gods of the chief centres and those of the minor local cults formed a group around Marduk; and the larger the group the greater was the reflected glory of the chief figure. Hence throughout the subsequent periods of Babylonian history, and despite a decided progress towards a monotheistic conception of divine government of the universe, the recognition of a large number of gods and their consorts by the side of Marduk remained a firmly embedded doctrine in the Babylonian religion as it did in the Assyrian religion, with the important variation, however, of transferring the rôle of the head of the pantheon from Marduk to Assur. Originally the patron god of the city of Assur (q.v.), when this city became the centre of a growing and independent district, Assur was naturally advanced to the same position in the north that Marduk occupied in the south. The religious predominance of the city of Babylon served to maintain for Marduk recognition even on the part of the Assyrian rulers, who, on the political side likewise, conceded to Babylonia the form at least of an independent district even when, as kings of Assyria, they exercised absolute control over it. They appointed their sons or brothers governors of Babylonia, and in the long array of titles that the kings gave themselves, a special phrase was always set aside to indicate their mastery over Babylonia. “To take the hand of Bel-Marduk” was the ceremony of installation which Assyrian rulers recognized equally with Babylonians as an essential preliminary to exercising authority in the Euphrates valley. Marduk and Assur became rivals only when Babylonia gave the Assyrians trouble; and when in 689 B.C. Sennacherib, whose patience had been exhausted by the difficulties encountered in maintaining peace in the south, actually besieged and destroyed the city of Babylon, he removed the statue of Marduk to Nineveh as a symbol that the god’s rule had come to an end. His grandson Assur-bani-pal, with a view of re-establishing amicable relations, restored the statue to the temple E-Saggila in Babylon and performed the time-honoured ceremony of “taking the hand of Bel” as a symbol of his homage to the ancient head of the Babylonian pantheon.

But for the substitution of Assur for Marduk, the Assyrian pantheon was the same as that set up in the south, though some of the gods were endowed with attributes which differ slightly from those which mark the same gods in the south. The warlike nature of the Assyrians was reflected in their conceptions of the gods, who thus became little Assurs by the side of the great protector of arms, the big Assur. The cult and ritual in the north likewise followed the models set up in the south. The hymns composed for the temples of Babylonia were transferred to Assur, Calah, Harran, Arbela and Nineveh in the north; and the myths and legends also wandered to Assyria, where, to be sure, they underwent certain modifications. To all practical purposes, however, the religion of Assyria was identical with that practised in the south.

We thus obtain four periods in the development of the Babylonian-Assyrian religion: (1) the oldest period from c. 3500 B.C. to the time of Khammurabi (c. 2250 B.C.); (2) the post-Khammurabic period in Babylonia; (3) the Assyrian period (c. 2000 B.C.) to the destruction of Nineveh in 606 B.C.; (4) the neo-Babylonian period beginning with Nabopolassar (625-604 B.C.), the first independent ruler under whom Babylonia inaugurates a new though short-lived era of power and prosperity, which ends with Cyrus’s conquest of Babylon and Babylonia in 539 B.C., though since the religion proceeds on its undisturbed course for several centuries after the end of the political independence, we might legitimately carry this period to the Greek conquest of the Euphrates valley (331 B.C.), when new influences began to make themselves felt which gradually led to the extinction of the old cults.

In this long period of c. 3500 to c. 300 B.C., the changes introduced after the adjustment to the new conditions produced by Khammurabi’s union of the Euphratean states are of a minor character. As already indicated, the local cults in the important centres of the south and north maintained themselves despite the tendency towards centralization, and while the cults themselves varied according to the character of the gods worshipped in each centre, the general principles were the same and the rites differed in minor details rather than in essential variations. An important factor which thus served to maintain the rites in a more or less stable condition was the predominance of what may be called the astral theology as the theoretical substratum of the Babylonian religion, and which is equally pronounced in the religious system of Assyria. The essential feature of this astral theology is the assumption of a close link between the movements going on in the heavens and occurrences on earth, which led to identifying the gods and goddesses with heavenly bodies—planets and stars, besides sun and moon—and to assigning the seats of all the deities in the heavens. The personification of the two great luminaries—the sun and the moon—was the first step in the unfolding of this system, and this was followed by placing the other deities where Shamash and Sin had their seats. This process, which reached its culmination in the post-Khammurabic period, led to identifying the planet Jupiter with Marduk, Venus with Ishtar, Mars with Nergal, Mercury with Nebo, and Saturn with Ninib. The system represents a harmonious combination of two factors, one of popular origin, the other the outcome of speculation in the schools attached to the temples of Babylonia. The popular factor is the belief in the influence exerted by the movements of the heavenly bodies on occurrences on earth—a belief naturally suggested by the dependence of life, vegetation and guidance upon the two great luminaries. Starting with this belief the priests built up the theory of the close correspondence between occurrences on earth and phenomena in the heavens. The heavens presenting a constant change even to the superficial observer, the conclusion was drawn of a connexion between the changes and the ever-changing movement in the fate of individuals and of nature as well as in the appearance of nature.

To read the signs of the heavens was therefore to understand the meaning of occurrences on earth, and with this accomplished it was also possible to foretell what events were portended by the position and relationship to one another of sun, moon, planets and certain stars. Myths that symbolized changes in season or occurrences in nature were projected on the heavens, which were mapped out to correspond to the divisions of the earth. All the gods, great and small, had their places assigned to them in the heavens, and facts, including such as fell within the domain of political history, were interpreted in terms of astral theology. So completely did this system in the course of time sway men’s minds that the cult, from being an expression of animistic beliefs, took on the colour derived from the “astral” interpretation of occurrences and doctrines. It left its trace in incantations, omens and hymns, and it gave birth to astronomy, which was assiduously cultivated because a knowledge of the heavens was the very foundation of the system of belief unfolded by the priests of Babylonia and Assyria. “Chaldaean wisdom” became in the classical world the synonym of this science, which in its character was so essentially religious. The persistent prominence which astrology (q.v.) continued to enjoy down to the border line of the scientific movement of our own days, and which is directly traceable to the divination methods perfected in the Euphrates valley, is a tribute to the scope and influence attained by the astral theology of the Babylonian and Assyrian priests.

As an illustration of the manner in which the doctrines of the religion were made to conform to the all-pervading astral theory, it will be sufficient to refer to the modification undergone in this process of the view developed in a very early period which apportioned the control of the universe among the three gods Anu, Bel and Ea. Disassociating these gods from all local connexions, Anu became the power presiding over the heavens, to Bel was assigned the earth and the atmosphere immediately above it, while Ea ruled over the deep. With the transfer of all the gods to the heavens, and under the influence of the doctrine of the correspondence between the heavens and the earth, Anu, Bel and Ea became the three “ways” (as they are called) on the heavens. The “ways” appear in this instance to have been the designation of the ecliptic circle, which was divided into three sections or zones—a northern, a middle and a southern zone, Anu being assigned to the first, Bel to the second, and Ea to the third zone. The astral theology of the Babylonian-Assyrian religion, while thus bearing the ear-marks of a system devised by the priests, succeeded in assimilating the beliefs which represented the earlier attempts to systematize the more popular aspects of the religion, and in this way a unification of diverse elements was secured that led to interpreting the contents and the form of the religion in terms of the astral-theological system.

The most noteworthy outcome of this system in the realm of religious practice was, as already intimated, the growth of an elaborate and complicated method of divining the future by the observation of the phenomena in the heavens. It is significant that in the royal collection of cuneiform literature made by King Assur-bani-pal of Assyria (668-626 B.C.) and deposited in his palace at Nineveh, the omen collections connected with the astral theology of Babylonia and Assyria form the largest class. There are also indications that the extensive texts dealing with divination through the liver of sacrificial animals, which represents a more popular origin than divination through the observations of the heavens, based as it is on the primitive view which regarded the liver as the seat of life and of the soul, were brought into connexion with astral divination. Less influenced by the astral-theological system are the old incantation texts which were gathered together into series. In these series we can trace the attempt to gather the incantation formulae and prayers produced in different centres, and to make them conform to the tendency to centralize the cult in the worship of Marduk and his consort in the south, and of Assur and Ishtar in the north. Incantations originally addressed to Ea of Eridu, as the god of the watery element, and to Nusku, as the god of fire, were transferred to Marduk. This was done by making Ea confer on Marduk as his son the powers of the father, and by making Nusku a messenger between Ea and Marduk. At the same time, since the invoking of the divine powers was the essential element in the incantations, in order to make the magic formulae as effective as possible, a large number of the old local deities are introduced to add their power to the chief ones; and it is here that the astral system comes into play through the introduction of names of stars, as well as through assigning attributes to the gods which clearly reflect the conception that they have their seats in the heavens. The incantations pass over naturally into hymns and prayers. The connexion between the two is illustrated by the application of the term shiptu, “incantation,” to the direct appeals to the gods, as well as by the introduction, on the one hand, of genuine prayers into the incantations and by the addition, on the other hand, of incantations to prayers and hymns, pure and simple. In another division of the religious literature of Babylonia which is largely represented in Assur-bani-pal’s collection—the myths and legends—tales which originally symbolized the change of seasons, or in which historical occurrences are overcast with more or less copious admixture of legend and myth, were transferred to the heavens, and so it happens that creation myths, and the accounts of wanderings and adventures of heroes of the past, are referred to movements among the planets and stars as well as to occurrences or supposed occurrences on earth.

The ritual alone which accompanied divination practices and incantation formulae and was a chief factor in the celebration of festival days and of days set aside for one reason or the other to the worship of some god or goddess or group of deities, is free from traces of the astral theology. The more or less elaborate ceremonies prescribed for the occasions when the gods were approached are directly connected with the popular elements of the religion. Animal sacrifice, libations, ritualistic purification, sprinkling of water, and symbolical rites of all kinds accompanied by short prayers, represent a religious practice which in the Babylonian-Assyrian religion, as in all religions, is older than any theology and survives the changes which the theoretical substratum of the religion undergoes.

On the ethical side, the religion of Babylonia more particularly, and to a less extent that of Assyria, advances to noticeable conceptions of the qualities associated with the gods and goddesses and of the duties imposed on man. Shamash the sun-god was invested with justice as his chief trait, Marduk is portrayed as full of mercy and kindness, Ea is the protector of mankind who is grieved when, through a deception practised upon Adapa, humanity is deprived of immortality. The gods, to be sure, are easily aroused to anger, and in some of them the dire aspects predominated, but the view becomes more and more pronounced that there is some cause always for the divine wrath. Though, in accounting for the anger of the gods, no sharp distinction is made between moral offences and a ritualistic oversight or neglect, yet the stress laid in the hymns and prayers, as well as in the elaborate atonement ritual prescribed in order to appease the anger of the gods, on the need of being clean and pure in the sight of the higher powers, the inculcation of a proper aspect of humility, and above all the need of confessing one’s guilt and sins without any reserve—all this bears testimony to the strength which the ethical factor acquired in the domain of the religion.

This factor appears to less advantage in the unfolding of the views concerning life after death. Throughout all periods of Babylonian-Assyrian history, the conception prevailed of a large dark cavern below the earth, not far from the Apsu—the ocean encircling and flowing underneath the earth—in which all the dead were gathered and where they led a miserable existence of inactivity amid gloom and dust. Occasionally a favoured individual was permitted to escape from this general fate and placed in a pleasant island. It would appear also that the rulers were always singled out for divine grace, and in the earlier periods of the history, owing to the prevailing view that the rulers stood nearer to the gods than other mortals, the kings were deified after death, and in some instances divine honours were paid to them even during their lifetime.

The influence exerted by the Babylonian-Assyrian religion was particularly profound on the Semites, while the astral theology affected the ancient world in general, including the Greeks and Romans. The impetus to the purification of the old Semite religion to which the Hebrews for a long time clung in common with their fellows—the various branches of nomadic Arabs—was largely furnished by the remarkable civilization unfolded in the Euphrates valley and in many of the traditions, myths and legends embodied in the Old Testament; traces of direct borrowing from Babylonia may be discerned, while the indirect influences in the domain of the prophetical books, as also in the Psalms and in the so-called “Wisdom Literature,” are even more noteworthy. Even when we reach the New Testament period, we have not passed entirely beyond the sphere of Babylonian-Assyrian influences. In such a movement as early Christian gnosticism, Babylonian elements—modified, to be sure, and transformed—are largely present, while the growth of an apocalyptic literature is ascribed with apparent justice by many scholars to the recrudescence of views the ultimate source of which is to be found in the astral-theology of the Babylonian and Assyrian priests.

Bibliography.—Morris Jastrow, jun., Religion Babyloniens und Assyriens (Giessen, 1904), enlarged and re-written form of the author’s smaller Religion of Babylonia and Assyria (Boston, 1898); A. H. Sayce, The Religion of the Ancient Babylonians (Hibbert Lectures, London, 1887), now superseded by the same author’s Religions of Ancient Egypt and Babylonia (Gifford Lectures, Edinburgh, 1902); Friedrich Jeremias, Die Babylonier und Assyrer, in de la Saussaye’s Lehrbuch der Religionsgeschichte (3rd ed., Tübingen, 1905), vol. i.; L. W. King, Babylonian Religion and Mythology (London, 1899); T. G. Pinches, Religion of Babylonia and Assyria (London, 1906). Of special texts and monographs bearing on the religion may be mentioned various volumes in the new series of cuneiform texts from Babylonian tablets, &c., in the British Museum (London, 1901- ), especially parts v., xii., xv., xvii., xviii., xx. and xxi. and vol. iv. of the earlier series of Selections from the Miscellaneous Inscriptions of Western Asia, ed. by H. C. Rawlinson (2nd ed., London, 1891); H. Zimmern, Beiträge zur Kenntniss der babylonischen Religion (Leipzig, 1901); J. A. Craig, Assyrian and Babylonian Religious Texts (Leipzig, 1895-1897); L. W. King, The Seven Tablets of Creation (London, 1902); R. C. Thompson, The Reports of the Magicians and Astrologers of Nineveh and Babylon (London, 1900); A. Boissier, Documents assyriens relatifs aux présages (Paris, 1894-1897); and his Choix de textes relatifs à la divination assyro-babylonienne (Geneva, 1905-1906); Ch. Fossey, La Magie assyrienne (Paris, 1902); G. A. Reisner, Sumerisch-babylonische Hymnen (Berlin, 1896); L. W. King, Babylonian Magic and Sorcery (London, 1896); R. C. Thompson, Devils and Evil Spirits of Babylonia (London, 1903-1904); K. L. Tallqvist, Die assyrische Beschwörungsserie Maqlū (Leipzig, 1895); J. A. Knudtzon, Assyrische Gebete an den Sonnengott (Leipzig, 1893); Virolleaud, L’Astrologie chaldéenne (Paris, 1906- ); Craig, Astrological-Astronomical Texts (Leipzig, 1892); Martin, Textes religieux assyriens et babyloniens (Paris, 1900 and 1903); Paul Haupt, Das babylonische Nimrodepos (Leipzig, 1891); Friedrich Delitzsch, Das babylonische Weltschöpfungsepos (Leipzig, 1896); P. Jensen, “Assyrisch-babylonische Mythen und Epen,” in Schrader’s Keilinschriftliche Bibliothek, vol. vi. part 1 (Berlin, 1900); also his Das Nationalepos der Babylonier, &c. (Strassburg, 1906); H. Zimmern in vol. ii. of 3rd ed. of Schrader’s Keilinschriften und das Alte Testament (Berlin, 1903); Alfred Jeremias, Die babylonisch-assyrischen Vorstellungen von Leben nach dem Tode (Leipzig, 1887); and his Das Alte Testament im Lichte des Alten Orients (2nd ed., Leipzig, 1906-1907); and Babylonisches im Neuen Testament (Leipzig, 1905). On the religious literature of Babylonia and Assyria, see also chapters xv. to xxiv. in Jastrow’s work (German and English edition), Carl Bezold’s Ninive and Babylon (Bielefeld, 1905), chapters vi. to xii., and the same author’s monumental catalogue of the cuneiform tablets in the Kuyunjik collection of the British Museum (5 vols., London, 1889-1899).


Source: 1911 Encyclopedia.