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SUMERIAN CIVILIZATION

 

 

 



           
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.


 
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.


 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 Aššur-bani-âpli 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.


 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 Šamaš for the
sun-god, with Kittu and Mêšaru (“justice and righteousness”) his
attendants; Nabú (“the teacher” = Nebo) with his consort Tašmêtu (“the
hearer”); Addu, Adad, or Dadu, and Rammanu, Ramimu, or Ragimu = Hadad
or Rimmon (“the thunderer”); Bêl and Bêltu (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 Aššur in Assyria, about 2000
B.C. or earlier.


 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.



 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 Aššur, 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.


 
Assyria went to her downfall at the end of the seventh century before
Christ worshipping her national god Aššur, whose cult did not cease
with the destruction of her national independence. In fact, the city
of Aššur, 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.


 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.


 
Summary
Of An Article By
THEOPHILUS G. PINCHES,
L.L.D


(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”)

 

 

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