Peeps at Ancient Assyria - Jamse Baikie

The Gods and Their Temples

Like nearly all the peoples of the ancient world, the Assyrians and the Babylonians were very religious in their own way; and it is a way that ought to be very interesting to us, because, as you know, the Hebrews came originally from Babylonia, and a great many of the Babylonian ways of thinking and speaking about God are reflected in the Hebrew religion, and so have come to influence even our own thoughts about God at the present time. Some of the old legends are remarkably like some of the early parts of the Old Testament; and when we come to the story of the Flood, you will see that it is almost exactly the same, in its outline, as the story that is told in Genesis, though the details, of course, are different.

The one thing in which both Assyrians and Babylonians differed from the Hebrews very widely was the question of one God or many gods. As you know, the very first thing that a Hebrew was taught was the sentence, "Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is One!" No other gods were to be allowed beside Jehovah; nor were the Hebrews allowed to make any representations of God whatsoever. On the other hand, the Babylonians had a perfect crowd of gods. Anu the god of heaven, Ea the god of the deep, Enlil god of spirits, Marduk, or Bel-Marduk, who was originally the city-god of Babylon, but became at last the supreme god, Ishtar the goddess of love, Nergal the god of the dead, Allat the goddess of the underworld, and so on. And when the Assyrians set up for themselves, they converted all this troop of gods into Assyrian gods simply by making Ashur, their own national god, the commander-in-chief of the lot. Nearly every town of any importance had its own god; but latterly Marduk of Babylon came to be almost supreme, and even the greatest kings of Assyria never thought their empire secure until they had gone to the temple of Marduk at Babylon, which was then in their power, and "taken the hands of Bel," as they said.

[Illustration] from Peeps at Ancient Assyria by Jamse Baikie


So let me try to tell you shortly what the great temple of Bel, or Marduk, at Babylon was like. Long ago an old Greek traveler and historian, called Herodotus, paid a visit to Babylon, and he has left us a description of the temple of Belus, as he calls him. He tells us that the enclosure of the temple was a great square of 400 yards each way. In the midst of this square rose a huge tower, built in stages. The lower-most stage was a solid platform which raised the building up above the level of the plain. Then came stage after stage, each a little smaller than the one below it, till at last, on the seventh stage, the smallest and highest of all, stood the shrine of the great god. Each of these stages, as we learn from other sources, was painted a special color of its own—the first white, the second black, the third sky-blue, and so on. The seventh was gilded, or plated with gold, and in the shrine on its summit there stood nothing but a couch for the god to rest on, and a table, both of them of pure gold. A sloping roadway ran round the tower from stage to stage, so that the processions of priests could gradually climb up the great tower to the shrine on the top. Below the tower, on the one side, stood another temple, with a golden statue of Belus, and two altars for sacrifice.

During the last few years a German explorer, Dr. Koldewey, has been excavating the ruins of Babylon, and he has dug out what remains of this huge temple that Herodotus saw. Of course, only the lower parts of it are left; but there is enough to show us that the old Greek described very faithfully the actual appearance of the temple. The lower part of the great tower is there, with the sloping way leading up to it, and on the south side there is another great temple, just as Herodotus describes. The Babylonians called the tower Etemenanki, "the foundation-stone of heaven and earth," and the temple beside it they called Esagila, "the house of the high head." The German explorer does not think that the stories of the tower grew smaller the higher they were; but it seems impossible that such a building should have been built of brick in any other way.

We all remember from our very early days how men built the tower of Babel, "whose top may reach unto heaven." Well, this is the tower of Babel, and it was no small one. The foot of it measured about 300 feet in length on each side, and probably it was quite 300 feet or more in height. I suppose the idea of making it so high was just what the Bible says—that the worshippers might get nearer to heaven by it; and that the god might perhaps come down to the top of the tower and meet with men there, so that the tower would be a kind of stepping-stone between heaven and earth.

All over the land, wherever there was a town, there was a temple to the god of the town, and always one of the features of the temple was a tower like this of Babel, bigger or smaller according to the size and wealth of the city that built it and the fame of the city-god, but much the same as Etemenanki in general appearance. The Babylonians and Assyrians were great folks for religious services. It was they who started the idea of a Sabbath, and who gave us the name for it. You know how strictly the Sabbath used to be kept in our grandfathers' and great-grandfathers' days. Well, that was nothing compared to the strictness of the Sabbath in Mesopotamia. No work could be done at all on that day. Even the king had to be content with a cold dinner, for no cooking was allowed; and he could not change his clothes, or wear white, or drive in his chariot, or issue a decree. And, most extraordinary and most silly of all, even the doctor was not allowed to give medicine to the sick on the Sabbath. Of course it was from these old laws that the Jews took their ideas about the strictness of the Sabbath, and I think when they carried things to such a ridiculous excess it was time for Jesus to tell them that "the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath."

Every day in their temples they had sacrifices, just as the Jews had. These were of all kinds—oxen, sheep, kids, doves, where blood had to be shed; fruit, vegetables, bread, wine, and oil, in other cases. On special festival days, of which there was a great number, the ordinary sacrifices would be increased many times over. For their services they had prayer-books and hymn-books; and the curious thing was that the prayers and hymns were written, not in the language that they used every day, but in the old language of the people who inhabited the land long before. They considered that this old language—Sumerian they called it—was the only one worthy of being used in the service of the gods, and so they had to give a translation along with the hymns, and even directions as to how the difficult words should be pronounced. It seems very silly; but it is no worse than using Latin, as is sometimes done in services still.

One other thing I must tell you about the religion of these old folks before we go on to the stories of their gods, and that is what they thought about the other world to which the souls of men went after death. The Egyptians had rather cheery and happy ideas about the other world, though they had some wild and gloomy ideas too; but to the Babylonians and Assyrians it was all gloom together. Never had any people a more miserable and hopeless idea of the life after death than they. Heaven they had no thought of at all. Here is the description of the other world given in one of their stories, in which we are told how the goddess of love went down into the abode of the dead:

"Upon the Land of No return, the region of darkness,

Set Ishtar, the daughter of Sin, her mind:

Upon the House of Gloom, the seat of Irkalla,

Upon the house whose entrance has no exit.

Upon the path whose way hath no return,

Upon the house whose enterers are deprived of light,

Where dust is their nourishment, mud their food;

Light they see not, in darkness they dwell,

Clothed also like a bird, in a dress of feathers

Upon the door and the bolt the dust hath blown."

Can you imagine anything more uncomfortable and miserable? Now, it was from that old idea that the Hebrews took most of their thoughts about life after death, and their gloomy outlook upon the future, so that they talked of going down to the pit. And it was not till Jesus Christ had come and taught people that the other world was the Heavenly Father's House, that men really got away from this grim and gloomy Mesopotamian thought of it.