Peeps at Ancient Assyria - Jamse Baikie

Legends of the Gods

Now let me try to tell you some of the stories which were handed down in these lands from the very earliest days, and became part of the religion of both Babylonians and Assyrians. First comes the story of the beginning of all things and the way in which the world and the heavens came into being.

In the beginning, says the legend, the heavens were unnamed, and the earth bore no name; but the ocean was the mother of all things, and brought forth everything that existed. Not even the gods had come into being, and nothing had been decided as to how things should be arranged. Then at last the great gods were born, among them Anu, the god of heaven, and Ea, the god of the deep, and Bel, or Marduk, the creator. But the dragon or demon of the deep, Tiamat, the mother of disorder, rebelled against the very idea of gods and their rule, and resolved, with her allies, to make war upon them and destroy them. So she gathered together all the powers of evil and prepared them for the fight. She created all kinds of evil monsters—giant serpents, sharp of tooth, armed with stings, having their whole bodies filled with poison; dragons, shining with a terrible light, and of enormous size; fierce, raging dogs; serpent-men, fish-men, and scorpion-men; and with this hideous army she set forth to attack the throne of the gods.

The gods were greatly disturbed, and not a little frightened, over this threat to their dominion. First of all Anu, the god of heaven, went out to stop Tiamat, the dragon, in her course; but at the sight of her dreadful visage his heart failed him, and he fled. Then Ea, the god of the deep, went out, and fared no better than his predecessor. Then the assembly of the gods, in terror, sent out Marduk as their champion. Like a true son of the East, as he was, he made a bargain with the other gods before he would take on the task of delivering them, and made them promise that if he bound Tiamat and saved them, they would all be subject to his authority. They willingly agreed, and when the formal challenge to war had been sent, the whole company of the gods celebrated the occasion by getting royally drunk.

"They ate bread, they drank wine.

The sweet wine took away their senses.

They became drunk, and their bodies swelled up."

Then Marduk prepared himself for the fight. He mounted his chariot, which was drawn by four fiery horses, and with the thunderbolt in his hand he drove to meet the dragon, while the seven winds followed behind him. At last he came in sight of Tiamat, and the god and the demon stood face to face. Then he challenged her to combat.

"Stand up! I and thou, come let us fight."

When the dragon heard the challenge, she shrieked wild and loud, and advanced to the conflict. As the two met, Tiamat opened her mouth to spit out her incantations against her enemy; but Marduk took advantage of her movement. He drove the wind into her open mouth so that she could not close it. Then he hurled her down and plunged his spear of lightning into her, tearing through her heart, and trampled upon her carcass.

The defeat of the dragon terrified her army of monsters. They all turned to flee, but Marduk was too swift for them. He captured them all, and put them into his great net; while, most important of all, he tore from one of them the tablets of fate and fastened them on his own breast, so that henceforth the fate of all things lies with the gods. Then Marduk took the dead body of the dragon. He split it into two, as one splits a gutted fish, and the one half of the body he fixed as a covering for the heavens, fastening it with a bolt, and setting a watchman, so that the waters above the firmament should not come down. Then from the other half of the body he fashioned the earth. He set up the stars in constellations, and divided the year into months, and he fastened large gates at each side of heaven, secured with bolts; and out of one of these gates the sun goes in the morning, and into the other he returns at night. Then, having given rules to the moon for the ordering of the night, and created plants and animals, he created man. Little wonder that, after such a piece of work, the great gods all gathered round him and praised him, and that mankind in particular was enjoined never to forget Marduk,

"Who created mankind out of kindness to them,

The merciful one, with whom is the power of giving life.

May his deeds remain and never be forgotten

By humanity, created by his hands."

Such is the Mesopotamian story of the Creation. Our next legend takes us on a little further, to a time when men, as in the Bible story, have become wicked, and when the gods resolve to destroy them by a flood. You remember how, when Gilgamesh asked his ancestor Ut-napishtim how it came about that he was immortal like the gods while all other men must needs die, Ut-napishtim told him in answer the story of the Flood. Now this is the tale Ut-napishtim told: "I will reveal to thee, O Gilgamesh," he said, "the hidden word, and the decision of the gods will I declare unto thee." The city of Shurippak, on the Euphrates, where he dwelt, had grown wicked, and the gods decided to bring a rainstorm upon it. But the god Ea had mercy upon his servant Ut-napishtim, and when he left the council of the gods he came to the hut where Ut-napishtim dwelt and spoke to him in a vision. Thus he spake:

"O reed-hut, reed-hut! O wall, wall!

O reed-hut, hear! O wall, understand!

Thou man of Shurippak, son of Ubara-tutu,

Pull down thy house, build a ship,

Forsake thy possessions, take heed for thy life!

And bring up living seed of every kind into the ship.

As for the ship which thou shalt build.

Well planned must be its dimensions,

Its breadth and its length shall bear proportion each to each,

And thou shalt launch it on the ocean."

Then Ut-napishtim promised to do as the god commanded him, but asked how he was to explain his action to his townsfolk; and Ea ordered him to warn them that he was going down to the deep to dwell with Ea, his lord, because destruction was coming.

"Over you a rainstorm will come—

Men, birds, and beasts will perish."

So Ut-napishtim built his ship as Ea had commanded. It was a great square box, 180 feet broad and the same in height, and it contained 63 rooms. Like Noah's Ark, it was coated with pitch both outside and in, and well provided with all kinds of stores. Then he loaded it with all his household goods and made his family go on board, and drove in beasts of all kinds; but he remained outside himself, watching for the first sign of the coming storm.

"When the time came

For the lord of the whirlwind to rain down destruction,

I gazed at the earth. I was terrified at its sight,

I entered the ship, and closed the door."

Then came the storm.

"Upon the first appearance of the dawn.

There arose from the horizon dark clouds.

Within which Ramman caused his thunder to resound."

The destroying gods came marching at the head of their battalions of storm clouds; thunder, lightning, whirlwind and rain were let loose upon the earth, and for seven days there was nothing but wild turmoil and destruction. Men were appalled, so that they forgot all natural affections; and even the gods, who had brought on all the mischief, were affrighted at what they had done.

"Brother does not look after brother,

Men care not for one another. In the heavens

Even the gods are terrified at the storm.

They take refuge in the highest heaven.

The gods cowered like dogs at the edge of the heavens."

Now when the mischief was beyond repair, the gods began to feel that they had gone too far. Ishtar, the goddess of love, and the mother goddess of mankind, blamed herself bitterly for having consented to the destruction of her own creatures; and all the other gods, except Bel, who remained hard-hearted, sat down and wept along with her; but they could do nothing to help. On the seventh day the storm died down, and Ut-napishtim ventured to look out. There was nothing but a wide desolation of muddy water on every hand, and he sat down dumbfounded and wept.

In another twenty-four hours, however, the waters began to go back, and an island appeared. It was the top of the mountain "Nisir," which means "protection" or "salvation," and here the great ship grounded and remained fast. For six days she remained in the same position, and on the morning of the seventh Ut-napishtim thought it was time to find out whether he could venture to leave his ark. First, he sent out a dove, which flew about but could find no resting-place, and so returned. Next he sent out a swallow, but it fared no better than the dove. Then he sent out a raven, which found that the waters had decreased, and waded cautiously about in the mud, but did not return. So Ut-napishtim saw that it was now safe to leave his ship, and he made a great sacrifice of sweet-smelling woods and incense upon the top of the mountain.

[Illustration] from Peeps at Ancient Assyria by Jamse Baikie


The gods, who in these ancient stories are by no means very dignified folks, were attracted at once by the fine smell of the sacrifice, and gathered "like flies," as the story rudely says, around it. Ishtar swore solemnly that she could never forget these days, and said that Bel alone of all the gods should have no share of the sacrifice, because the destruction of mankind was his work. Bel, however, had no intention of being shut out. He came in great indignation to ask who had spoiled his plan and saved some of the hated mortals from destruction; but Ea made a long speech, telling him how foolish he had been, and telling him that a flood was the very last thing he should have brought upon the earth. Anything—lions, tigers, famine, or pestilence—would have been better than a flood. So at last even Bel came to his senses, and, seeing that he could not make a better of it, decided that since Ut-napishtim and his wife had thus been saved, they must now be made immortal, like the gods, and must henceforth dwell apart from all other men. So it was done, and the immortal man and wife were sent to dwell far off at the meeting-place of the rivers, where Gilgamesh found them.

Such, then, is the story of the Babylonian Noah and his Ark and the Flood. As you cannot have helped seeing, it bears a very close resemblance indeed to the story of Noah and the Flood in the Bible. In fact, there can be no doubt that both of these stories are really different forms of an old story telling of some great disaster which overwhelmed the land between the rivers in very ancient days, long before the Hebrews had separated, under Abraham, from the Chaldeans.

The last story that I have to tell you about the gods takes us down to that most uncomfortable home of the dead that Gilgamesh wanted to learn about, and tells us what happened to a great goddess when she went down there in search of her husband. It is a story that you find in all kinds of different forms among the ancient European nations. Sometimes it is called the story of Venus and Adonis. Then in another form it is the story of Ceres and Proserpine, or, as the Greeks called them, Demeter and Persephone. And in another form still it is the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. But always, whatever form it may take, it tells of someone going down into the dark underworld, and someone else going to bring the loved one back again to light and happiness. And all the stories are just parables, which put in a fanciful way the early poetical ideas of men about the seasons. When the loved one goes down into the shades, that is the waning of the year, the falling of the leaf, and the coming of winter. Then when the rescuer goes down to bring the lost one back again, and all life comes to a standstill on earth, that is the dead season of winter, when nothing grows. And when the wanderers return to light and life again, that is the return of spring, with the coming of the buds and the blossoms, and the nesting of birds, and all the brightness after the gloom.

Now this story of Ishtar in the underworld is just another of these stories of the seasons; but its great importance is that it shows us what these ancient peoples of Mesopotamia thought about the world beyond death. Ishtar, the goddess of love—who, as you can see from the other stories you have read, was rather a changeable lady, though a very great and powerful one—was married to another divine being named Tammuz. After a while she grew tired of her husband, and destroyed him, but before long her heart repented of the evil she had done, and she resolved to go down to the underworld in search of her lost husband. So she set out for the Land of Aralu, the Land of Noreturn, where Allat, the goddess of the dead, and her husband Nergal, the god of the dead, reign over their gloomy kingdom and their miserable, shadowy subjects.

Now, when Ishtar came to the gate of the Land of No-return, behold! it was barred and bolted. Therefore she lifted up her voice and called to the watchman at the gate: "Ho, warder! Open! Open thy gate that I may enter. If thou dost not open, I will smash the door, and break the bolt, and force open the portals, and I will raise up the dead and let them loose to devour the living, until the dead are far more in number than the living." The poor watchman, in a great state of anxiety, terrified to let her in for fear of the anger of Allat, and terrified to keep her out, tried to pacify her by telling her that he would go and mention her name to Queen Allat. And when Allat heard of the coming of Ishtar she was grieved in her heart, because she knew that as long as Ishtar was in the underworld there must be death on earth. "I must weep," she said, "for the husbands who must leave their wives, and for the wives who are torn from their husbands, and for the children who are snatched away before their time." But she could not deny entrance to the great goddess.

Therefore she spake to the Warder of the Gate. "Go, watchman, open thy gate. Deal with her according to the ancient laws." Then the watchman opened the gate and bowed low before the Lady of Heaven. "Enter," he said, "O mistress, welcome to the nether world. The Lady of the Land of No-return greets thee." Then he led Ishtar through the first gate; but as she passed he stretched forth his hand and plucked the great crown from her head. In anger she turned upon him: "Why, O warder, dost thou dare to remove the great crown from my head? But the warder answered: "Enter, O Lady; such are the laws of Allat."

Then they passed in silence to the second gate, and as the goddess set her foot across its threshold, he took from her her earrings; and, as they passed gate after gate, her necklace, her robe, her girdle of precious stones were stripped from her one by one. And ever she asked the same question, and ever the warder answered grimly, "Enter, Lady; such are the laws of Allat." Then at length as she passed the seventh gate, her last garment was taken away from her, and stripped and bare Ishtar entered into the presence of Queen Allat, and stood before her throne. And Allat arose in anger, and bade her messenger, Namtar, smite Queen Ishtar with loathly disease in all parts of her body.

Meanwhile on earth all things mourned by reason of the absence of Ishtar. No plants sprang forth, no children were born, fertility of all kinds ceased, and all the world was bare and dead. Therefore the gods took counsel together how they might bring the life-giver back to earth again; and Ea, the all-wise, created a messenger, Uddushu-namir, and bade him go down to the kingdom of the dead to bring Ishtar back to earth. And he gave him words of power by which the seven gates would open to him, and bade him speak before Queen Allat the name of the great gods, and command her in their name to grant the waters of life unto Ishtar.

So it befell that Uddushu-namir came before Allat and called upon the name of the great gods. And it came to pass that when Allat heard him she was much displeased; for she knew that she might not resist the request of the great gods. Therefore in her wrath she smote upon her breast and bit her fingers. Then she arose and cursed Uddushu-namir with a terrible curse; yet in spite of her cursing the order of the great gods had to be obeyed. So Allat spake unto Namtar her messenger: "Go, Namtat, break the prison, smash the threshold, and destroy the door-posts. Bring forth the goddess and place her on a golden throne; and sprinkle her with the waters of life, and take her from me that I may be rid of her."

So it was done as Allat had commanded. The waters of life were poured over Ishtar, and her disease was taken away. Then, as she passed each gate, her garments and her jewels were given back to her one by one, until at the last her great crown was set upon her head once more, and Queen Ishtar came back to earth again in all her beauty. Then did the earth yield her increase as before, and the wilderness did bring forth and bud, and the desert rejoiced and blossomed as the rose.

Curiously enough, this story of Ishtar and Tammuz became a great favorite, not only with the Babylonians and Assyrians, but with the Jews as well. In the prophecy written by Ezekiel, he tells us of a vision that he had of all the evil things that were being done by the Jews, and the abominations that were allowed even in the Temple. And among them he tells us that in the north porch of the Temple there sat women weeping for Tammuz—no doubt taking part in some religious ceremony connected with this old story of Ishtar and her journey to the underworld in search of her lost husband.

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Such, then, were the lands, the homes, the customs, and some of the beliefs of one of the greatest peoples that the old world ever knew. Very wonderful the men of Assyria were—brave, strong, skillful in many crafts and wise in many ways. And yet, somehow I don't think that anyone, even of those who have studied and admired them most, ever liked them. You can't help liking the old Egyptian, with his cheery, laughter-loving nature; but the Assyrian is forbidding and stern as his own beliefs about his gods. Yet he did his work, too. One of the great prophets of Israel once said that the Assyrian was God's axe and saw to shape the nations to the great divine purpose; and I think we may just leave it at that. He did the rough-hewing of the world in those early days, and he did it roughly and cruelly, as such work is apt to be done; but no doubt he had his own place and his own importance in the advance of the human race, and though we may not love him, we cannot forget that, after all, we owe him no small debt.