The Religion of Babylonia and Assyria


By Theophilus G. Pinches, LL.D.

First Published 1906 by Archibald Constable & Co. Ltd.




Lecturer in Assyrian at University College, London,
Author of “The Old Testament in the Light of the
Records of Assyria and Babylonia”; “The Bronze
Ornaments of the Palace Gates of Balewat” etc. etc.





Position, and Period.

The religion of the Babylonians and Assyrians was the polytheistic
faith professed by the peoples inhabiting the Tigris and Euphrates
valleys from what may be regarded as the dawn of history until the
Christian era began, or, at least, until the inhabitants were brought
under the influence of Christianity. The chronological period covered
may be roughly estimated at about 5000 years. The belief of the
people, at the end of that time, being Babylonian heathenism leavened
with Judaism, the country was probably ripe for the reception of the
new faith. Christianity, however, by no means replaced the earlier
polytheism, as is evidenced by the fact, that the worship of Nebo and
the gods associated with him continued until the fourth century of the
Christian era.

By whom followed.

It was the faith of two distinct peoples–the Sumero-Akkadians, and
the Assyro-Babylonians. In what country it had its beginnings is
unknown–it comes before us, even at the earliest period, as a faith
already well-developed, and from that fact, as well as from the names
of the numerous deities, it is clear that it began with the former
race–the Sumero-Akkadians–who spoke a non-Semitic language largely
affected by phonetic decay, and in which the grammatical forms had in
certain cases become confused to such an extent that those who study
it ask themselves whether the people who spoke it were able to
understand each other without recourse to devices such as the “tones”
to which the Chinese resort. With few exceptions, the names of the
gods which the inscriptions reveal to us are all derived from this
non-Semitic language, which furnishes us with satisfactory etymologies
for such names as Merodach, Nergal, Sin, and the divinities mentioned
in Berosus and Damascius, as well as those of hundreds of deities
revealed to us by the tablets and slabs of Babylonia and Assyria.

The documents.

Outside the inscriptions of Babylonia and Assyria, there is but little
bearing upon the religion of those countries, the most important
fragment being the extracts from Berosus and Damascius referred to
above. Among the Babylonian and Assyrian remains, however, we have an
extensive and valuable mass of material, dating from the fourth or
fifth millennium before Christ until the disappearance of the
Babylonian system of writing about the beginning of the Christian era.
The earlier inscriptions are mostly of the nature of records, and give
information about the deities and the religion of the people in the
course of descriptions of the building and rebuilding of temples, the
making of offerings, the performance of ceremonies, etc. Purely
religious inscriptions are found near the end of the third millennium
before Christ, and occur in considerable numbers, either in the
original Sumerian text, or in translations, or both, until about the
third century before Christ. Among the more recent inscriptions–those
from the library of the Assyrian king Assur-bani-apli and the later
Babylonian temple archives,–there are many lists of deities, with
numerous identifications with each other and with the heavenly bodies,
and explanations of their natures. It is needless to say that all this
material is of enormous value for the study of the religion of the
Babylonians and Assyrians, and enables us to reconstruct at first hand
their mythological system, and note the changes which took place in
the course of their long national existence. Many interesting and
entertaining legends illustrate and supplement the information given
by the bilingual lists of gods, the bilingual incantations and hymns,
and the references contained in the historical and other documents. A
trilingual list of gods enables us also to recognise, in some cases,
the dialectic forms of their names.

The importance of the subject.

Of equal antiquity with the religion of Egypt, that of Babylonia and
Assyria possesses some marked differences as to its development.
Beginning among the non-Semitic Sumero-Akkadian population, it
maintained for a long time its uninterrupted development, affected
mainly by influences from within, namely, the homogeneous local cults
which acted and reacted upon each other. The religious systems of
other nations did not greatly affect the development of the early
non-Semitic religious system of Babylonia. A time at last came,
however, when the influence of the Semitic inhabitants of Babylonia
and Assyria was not to be gainsaid, and from that moment, the
development of their religion took another turn. In all probably this
augmentation of Semitic religious influence was due to the increased
numbers of the Semitic population, and at the same period the Sumero-
Akkadian language began to give way to the Semitic idiom which they
spoke. When at last the Semitic Babylonian language came to be used
for official documents, we find that, although the non-Semitic divine
names are in the main preserved, a certain number of them have been
displaced by the Semitic equivalent names, such as Samas for the
sun-god, with Kittu and Mesaru (“justice and righteousness”) his
attendants; Nabu (“the teacher” = Nebo) with his consort Tasmetu (“the
hearer”); Addu, Adad, or Dadu, and Rammanu, Ramimu, or Ragimu = Hadad
or Rimmon (“the thunderer”); Bel and Beltu (Beltis = “the lord” and
“the lady” /par excellence/), with some others of inferior rank. In
place of the chief divinity of each state at the head of each separate
pantheon, the tendency was to make Merodach, the god of the capital
city Babylon, the head of the pantheon, and he seems to have been
universally accepted in Babylonia, like Assur in Assyria, about 2000
B.C. or earlier.

The uniting of two pantheons.

We thus find two pantheons, the Sumero-Akkadian with its many gods,
and the Semitic Babylonian with its comparatively few, united, and
forming one apparently homogeneous whole. But the creed had taken a
fresh tendency. It was no longer a series of small, and to a certain
extent antagonistic, pantheons composed of the chief god, his consort,
attendants, children, and servants, but a pantheon of considerable
extent, containing all the elements of the primitive but smaller
pantheons, with a number of great gods who had raised Merodach to be
their king.

In Assyria.

Whilst accepting the religion of Babylonia, Assyria nevertheless kept
herself distinct from her southern neighbour by a very simple device,
by placing at the head of the pantheon the god Assur, who became for
her the chief of the gods, and at the same time the emblem of her
distinct national aspirations–for Assyria had no intention whatever
of casting in her lot with her southern neighbour. Nevertheless,
Assyria possessed, along with the language of Babylonia, all the
literature of that country–indeed, it is from the libraries of her
kings that we obtain the best copies of the Babylonian religious
texts, treasured and preserved by her with all the veneration of which
her religious mind was capable,–and the religious fervour of the
Oriental in most cases leaves that of the European, or at least of the
ordinary Briton, far behind.

The later period in Assyria.

Assyria went to her downfall at the end of the seventh century before
Christ worshipping her national god Assur, whose cult did not cease
with the destruction of her national independence. In fact, the city
of Assur, the centre of that worship, continued to exist for a
considerable period; but for the history of the religion of Assyria,
as preserved there, we wait for the result of the excavations being
carried on by the Germans, should they be fortunate enough to obtain
texts belonging to the period following the fall of Nineveh.

In Babylonia.

Babylonia, on the other hand, continued the even tenor of her way.
More successful at the end of her independent political career than
her northern rival had been, she retained her faith, and remained the
unswerving worshipper of Merodach, the great god of Babylon, to whom
her priests attributed yet greater powers, and with whom all the other
gods were to all appearance identified. This tendency to monotheism,
however, never reached the culminating point–never became absolute–
except, naturally, in the minds of those who, dissociating themselves,
for philosophical reasons, from the superstitious teaching of the
priests of Babylonia, decided for themselves that there was but one
God, and worshipped Him. That orthodox Jews at that period may have
found, in consequence of this monotheistic tendency, converts, is not
by any means improbable–indeed, the names met with during the later
period imply that converts to Judaism were made.

The picture presented by the study.

Thus we see, from the various inscriptions, both Babylonian and
Assyrian–the former of an extremely early period–the growth and
development, with at least one branching off, of one of the most
important religious systems of the ancient world. It is not so
important for modern religion as the development of the beliefs of the
Hebrews, but as the creed of the people from which the Hebrew nation
sprang, and from which, therefore, it had its beginnings, both
corporeal and spiritual, it is such as no student of modern religious
systems can afford to neglect. Its legends, and therefore its
teachings, as will be seen in these pages, ultimately permeated the
Semitic West, and may in some cases even had penetrated Europe, not
only through heathen Greece, but also through the early Christians,
who, being so many centuries nearer the time of the
Assyro-Babylonians, and also nearer the territory which they anciently
occupied, than we are, were far better acquainted than the people of
the present day with the legends and ideas which they possessed.



The Sumero-Akkadians and the Semites.

For the history of the development of the religion of the Babylonians
and Assyrians much naturally depends upon the composition of the
population of early Babylonia. There is hardly any doubt that the
Sumero-Akkadians were non-Semites of a fairly pure race, but the
country of their origin is still unknown, though a certain
relationship with the Mongolian and Turkish nationalities, probably
reaching back many centuries–perhaps thousands of years–before the
earliest accepted date, may be regarded as equally likely. Equally
uncertain is the date of the entry of the Semites, whose language
ultimately displaced the non-Semitic Sumero-Akkadian idioms, and
whose kings finally ruled over the land. During the third millennium
before Christ Semites, bearing Semitic names, and called Amorites,
appear, and probably formed the last considerable stratum of tribes of
that race which entered the land. The name Martu, the Sumero-Akkadian
equivalent of Amurru, “Amorite”, is of frequent occurrence also before
this period. The eastern Mediterranean coast district, including
Palestine and the neighbouring tracts, was known by the Babylonians
and Assyrians as the land of the Amorites, a term which stood for the
West in general even when these regions no longer bore that name. The
Babylonians maintained their claim to sovereignty over that part as
long as they possessed the power to do so, and naturally exercised
considerable influence there. The existence in Palestine, Syria, and
the neighbouring states, of creeds containing the names of many
Babylonian divinities is therefore not to be wondered at, and the
presence of West Semitic divinities in the religion of the Babylonians
need not cause us any surprise.

The Babylonian script and its evidence.

In consequence of the determinative prefix for a god or a goddess
being, in the oldest form, a picture of an eight-rayed star, it has
been assumed that Assyro-Babylonian mythology is, either wholly or
partly, astral in origin. This, however, is by no means certain, the
character for “star” in the inscriptions being a combination of three
such pictures, and not a single sign. The probability therefore is,
that the use of the single star to indicate the name of a divinity
arises merely from the fact that the character in question stands for
/ana/, “heaven.” Deities were evidently thus distinguished by the
Babylonians because they regarded them as inhabitants of the realms
above–indeed, the heavens being the place where the stars are seen, a
picture of a star was the only way of indicating heavenly things. That
the gods of the Babylonians were in many cases identified with the
stars and planets is certain, but these identifications seem to have
taken place at a comparatively late date. An exception has naturally
to be made in the case of the sun and moon, but the god Merodach, if
he be, as seems certain, a deified Babylonian king, must have been
identified with the stars which bear his name after his worshippers
began to pay him divine honours as the supreme deity, and naturally
what is true for him may also be so for the other gods whom they
worshipped. The identification of some of the deities with stars or
planets is, moreover, impossible, and if Ea, the god of the deep, and
Anu, the god of the heavens, have their representatives among the
heavenly bodies, this is probably the result of later development.[*] [*] If there be any historical foundation for the statement that
Merodach arranged the sun, the moon, the planets, and the stars,
assigning to them their proper places and duties–a tradition
which would make him the founder of the science of astronomy
during his life upon earth–this, too, would tend to the
probability that the origin of the gods of the Babylonians was not
astral, as has been suggested, but that their identification with
the heavenly bodies was introduced during the period of his reign.

Ancestor and hero-worship. The deification of kings.

Though there is no proof that ancestor-worship in general prevailed at
any time in Babylonia, it would seem that the worship of heroes and
prominent men was common, at least in early times. The tenth chapter
of Genesis tells us of the story of Nimrod, who cannot be any other
than the Merodach of the Assyro-Babylonian inscriptions; and other
examples, occurring in semi-mythological times, are /En-we-dur-an-ki/,
the Greek Edoreschos, and /Gilgames/, the Greek Gilgamos, though
Aelian’s story of the latter does not fit in with the account as given
by the inscriptions. In later times, the divine prefix is found before
the names of many a Babylonian ruler–Sargon of Agade,[*] Dungi of Ur
(about 2500 B.C.), Rim-Sin or Eri-Aku (Arioch of Ellasar, about 2100
B.C.), and others. It was doubtless a kind of flattery to deify and
pay these rulers divine honours during their lifetime, and on account
of this, it is very probable that their godhood was utterly forgotten,
in the case of those who were strictly historical, after their death.
The deification of the kings of Babylonia and Assyria is probably due
to the fact, that they were regarded as the representatives of God
upon earth, and being his chief priests as well as his offspring (the
personal names show that it was a common thing to regard children as
the gifts of the gods whom their father worshipped), the divine
fatherhood thus attributed to them naturally could, in the case of
those of royal rank, give them a real claim to divine birth and
honours. An exception is the deification of the Babylonian Noah,
Ut-napistim, who, as the legend of the Flood relates, was raised and
made one of the gods by Aa or Ea, for his faithfulness after the great
catastrophe, when he and his wife were translated to the “remote place
at the mouth of the rivers.” The hero Gilgames, on the other hand, was
half divine by birth, though it is not exactly known through whom his
divinity came.

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