Myths of Babylonia and Assyria, by Donald A. MacKenzie, , at sacred-texts.com
Decline and Fall of Sumerian Kingdoms--Elamites and Semites strive for Supremacy--Babylon's Walls, Gates, Streets, and Canals--The Hanging Gardens--Merodach's Great Temple--The Legal Code of Hammurabi--The Marriage Market--Position of Women--Marriage brought Freedom--Vestal Virgins--Breach of Promise and Divorce--Rights of Children--Female Publicans--The Land Laws--Doctors legislated out of Existence--Folk Cures--Spirits of Disease expelled by Magical Charms--The Legend of the Worm--"Touch Iron"--Curative Water--Magical Origin of Poetry and Music.
THE rise of Babylon inaugurated a new era in the history of Western Asia. Coincidentally the political power of the Sumerians came to an end. It had been paralysed by the Elamites, who, towards the close of the Dynasty of Isin, successfully overran the southern district and endeavoured to extend their sway over the whole valley. Two Elamite kings, Warad-Sin and his brother Rim-Sin, struggled with the rulers of Babylon for supremacy, and for a time it appeared as if the intruders from the East were to establish themselves permanently as a military aristocracy over Sumer and Akkad. But the Semites were strongly reinforced by new settlers of the same blended stock who swarmed from the land of the Arno-rites. Once again Arabia was pouring into Syria vast hordes of its surplus population, with the result that ethnic disturbances were constant and widespread. This migration is termed the Canaanitic or Amorite: it flowed into Mesopotamia and across Assyria, while it supplied
the "driving power" which secured the ascendancy of the Hammurabi Dynasty at Babylon. Indeed, the ruling family which came into prominence there is believed to have been of Canaanitic origin.
Once Babylon became the metropolis it retained its pre-eminence until the end. Many political changes took place during its long and chequered history, but no rival city in the south ever attained to its splendour and greatness. Whether its throne was occupied by Amorite or Kassite, Assyrian or Chaldean, it was invariably found to be the most effective centre of administration for the lower Tigro-Euphrates valley. Some of the Kassite monarchs, however, showed a preference for Nippur.
Of its early history little is known. It was over-shadowed in turn by Kish and Umma, Lagash and Erech, and may have been little better than a great village when Akkad rose into prominence. Sargon I, the royal gardener, appears to have interested himself in its development, for it was recorded that he cleared its trenches and strengthened its fortifications. The city occupied a strategic position, and probably assumed importance on that account as well as a trading and industrial centre. Considerable wealth had accumulated at Babylon when the Dynasty of Ur reached the zenith of its power. It is recorded that King Dungi plundered its famous "Temple of the High Head", E-sagila, which some identify with the Tower of Babel, so as to secure treasure for Ea's temple at Eridu, which he specially favoured. His vandalistic raid, like that of the Gutium, or men of Kutu, was remembered for long centuries afterwards, and the city god was invoked at the time to cut short his days.
No doubt, Hammurabi's Babylon closely resembled the later city so vividly described by Greek writers, although it was probably not of such great dimensions.
[paragraph continues] According to Herodotus, it occupied an exact square on the broad plain, and had a circumference of sixty of our miles. "While such is its size," the historian wrote, "in magnificence there is no other city that approaches to it." Its walls were eighty-seven feet thick and three hundred and fifty feet high, and each side of the square was fifteen miles in length. The whole city was surrounded by a deep, broad canal or moat, and the river Euphrates ran through it.
"Here", continued Herodotus, "I may not omit to tell the use to which the mould dug out of the great moat was turned, nor the manner in which the wall was wrought. As fast as they dug the moat the soil which they got from the cutting was made into bricks, and when a sufficient number were completed they baked the bricks in kilns. Then they set to building, and began with bricking the borders of the moat, after which they proceeded to construct the wall itself; using throughout for their cement hot bitumen, and interposing a layer of wattled reeds at every thirtieth course of the bricks. On the top, along the edges of the wall, they constructed buildings of a single chamber facing one another, leaving between them room for a four-horse chariot to turn. In the circuit of the wall are a hundred gates, all of brass, with brazen lintels and side posts." 1 These were the gates referred to by Isaiah when God called Cyrus:
I will loose the loins of kings, to open before him the two leaved gates; and the gates shall not be shut: I will go before thee, and make the crooked places straight; I will break in pieces the gates of brass, and cut in sunder the bars of iron. 2
The outer wall was the main defence of the city, but there was also an inner wall less thick but not much
inferior in strength. In addition, a fortress stood in each division of the city. The king's palace and the temple of Bel Merodach were surrounded by walls.
All the main streets were perfectly straight, and each crossed the city from gate to gate, a distance of fifteen miles, half of them being interrupted by the river, which had to be ferried. As there were twenty-five gates on each side of the outer wall, the great thoroughfares numbered fifty in all, and there were six hundred and seventy-six squares, each over two miles in circumference. From Herodotus we gather that the houses were three or four stories high, suggesting that the tenement system was not unknown, and according to Q. Curtius, nearly half of the area occupied by the city was taken up by gardens within the squares.
In Greek times Babylon was famous for the hanging or terraced gardens of the "new palace", which had been erected by Nebuchadnezzar II. These occupied a square which was more than a quarter of a mile in circumference. Great stone terraces, resting on arches, rose up like a giant stairway to a height of about three hundred and fifty feet, and the whole structure was strengthened by a surrounding wall over twenty feet in thickness. So deep were the layers of mould on each terrace that fruit trees were grown amidst the plants of luxuriant foliage and the brilliant Asian flowers. Water for irrigating the gardens was raised from the river by a mechanical contrivance to a great cistern situated on the highest terrace, and it was prevented from leaking out of the soil by layers of reeds and bitumen and sheets of lead. Spacious apartments, luxuriously furnished and decorated, were constructed in the spaces between the arches and were festooned by flowering creepers. A broad stairway ascended from terrace to terrace.
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NEBUCHADNEZZAR IN THE HANGING GARDENS
From the Painting by E. Wallcousins.
The old palace stood in a square nearly four miles in circumference, and was strongly protected by three walls, which were decorated by sculptures in low relief, representing battle scenes and scenes of the chase and royal ceremonies. Winged bulls with human heads guarded the main entrance.
Another architectural feature of the city was E-sagila, the temple of Bel Merodach, known to the Greeks as "Jupiter-Belus". The high wall which enclosed it had gates of solid brass. "In the middle of the precinct", wrote Herodotus, "there was a tower of solid masonry, a furlong in length and breadth, upon which was raised a second tower, and on that a third, and so on up to eight. The ascent to the top is on the outside, by a path which winds round all the towers. When one is about halfway up, one finds a resting-place and seats, where persons are wont to sit some time on their way to the summit. On the topmost tower there is a spacious temple, and inside the temple stands a couch of unusual size, richly adorned, with a golden table by its side. There is no statue of any kind set up in the place, nor is the chamber occupied of nights by anyone but a single native woman, who, as the Chaldæans, the priests of this god, affirm, is chosen for himself by the deity out of all the women of the land."
A woman who was the "wife of Amon" also slept in that god's temple at Thebes in Egypt. A similar custom was observed in Lycia.
"Below, in the same precinct," continued Herodotus, "there is a second temple, in which is a sitting figure of Jupiter, all of gold. Before the figure stands a large golden table, and the throne whereon it sits, and the base on which the throne is placed, are likewise of pure gold. . . . Outside the temple are two altars, one of solid gold, on which it is only lawful to offer sucklings;
the other, a common altar, but of great size, on which the full-grown animals are sacrificed. It is also on the great altar that the Chaldæans burn the frankincense, which is offered to the amount of a thousand talents' weight, every year, at the festival of the god. In the time of Cyrus there was likewise in this temple a figure of a man, twelve cubits high, entirely of solid gold. . . . Besides the ornaments which I have mentioned, there are a large number of private offerings in this holy precinct." 1
The city wall and river gates were closed every night, and when Babylon was besieged the people were able to feed themselves. The gardens and small farms were irrigated by canals, and canals also controlled the flow of the river Euphrates. A great dam had been formed above the town to store the surplus water during inundation and increase the supply when the river sank to its lowest.
In Hammurabi's time the river was crossed by ferry boats, but long ere the Greeks visited the city a great bridge had been constructed. So completely did the fierce Sennacherib destroy the city, that most of the existing ruins date from the period of Nebuchadnezzar II. 2
Our knowledge of the social life of Babylon and the territory under its control is derived chiefly from the Hammurabi Code of laws, of which an almost complete copy was discovered at Susa, towards the end of 1901, by the De Morgan expedition. The laws were inscribed on a stele of black diorite 7 ft. 3 in. high, with a circumference at the base of 6 ft. 2 in. and at the top of 5 ft. 4 in. This important relic of an ancient law-abiding people had been broken in three pieces, but when these
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STELE OF HAMMURABI, WITH ''CODE OF LAWS''
were joined together it was found that the text was not much impaired. On one side are twenty-eight columns and on the other sixteen. Originally there were in all nearly 4000 lines of inscriptions, but five columns, comprising about 300 lines, had been erased to give space, it is conjectured, for the name of the invader who carried the stele away, but unfortunately the record was never made.
On the upper part of the stele, which is now one of the treasures of the Louvre, Paris, King Hammurabi salutes, with his right hand reverently upraised, the sun god Shamash, seated on his throne, at the summit of E-sagila, by whom he is being presented with the stylus with which to inscribe the legal code. Both figures are heavily bearded, but have shaven lips and chins. The god wears a conical headdress and a flounced robe suspended from his left shoulder, while the king has assumed a round dome-shaped hat and a flowing garment which almost sweeps the ground.
It is gathered from the Code that there were three chief social grades--the aristocracy, which included land-owners, high officials and administrators; the freemen, who might be wealthy merchants or small landholders; and the slaves. The fines imposed for a given offence upon wealthy men were much heavier than those imposed upon the poor. Lawsuits were heard in courts. Witnesses were required to tell the truth, "affirming before the god what they knew", and perjurers were severely dealt with; a man who gave false evidence in connection with a capital charge was put to death. A strict watch was also kept over the judges, and if one was found to have willingly convicted a prisoner on insufficient evidence he was fined and degraded.
Theft was regarded as a heinous crime, and was invariably
punished by death. Thieves included those who made purchases from minors or slaves without the sanction of elders or trustees. Sometimes the accused was given the alternative of paying a fine, which might exceed by ten or even thirty fold the value of the article or animal he had appropriated. It was imperative that lost property should be restored. If the owner of an article of which he had been wrongfully deprived found it in possession of a man who declared that he had purchased it from another, evidence was taken in court. When it happened that the seller was proved to have been the thief, the capital penalty was imposed. On the other hand, the alleged purchaser was dealt with in like manner if he failed to prove his case. Compensation for property stolen by a brigand was paid by the temple, and the heirs of a man slain by a brigand within the city had to be compensated by the local authority.
Of special interest are the laws which relate to the position of women. In this connection reference may first he made to the marriage-by-auction custom, which Herodotus described as follows: "Once a year in each village the maidens of age to marry were collected all together into one place, while the men stood round them in a circle. Then a herald called up the damsels one by one, and offered them for sale. He began with the most beautiful. When she was sold for no small sum of money, he offered for sale the one who came next to her in beauty. All of them were sold to be wives. The richest of the Babylonians who wished to wed bid against each other for the loveliest maidens, while the humbler wife-seekers, who were indifferent about beauty, took the more homely damsels with marriage portions. For the custom was that when the herald had gone through the whole number of the beautiful
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THE BABYLONIAN MARRIAGE MARKET
From The Painting by Edwin Long, R.A., in the Royal Holloway College.
damsels, he should then call up the ugliest--a cripple, if there chanced to be one--and offer her to the men, asking who would agree to take her with the smallest marriage portion. And the man who offered to take the smallest sum had her assigned to him. The marriage portions were furnished by the money paid for, the beautiful damsels, and thus the fairer maidens portioned out the uglier. No one was allowed to give his daughter in marriage to the man of his choice, nor might anyone carry away the damsel whom he had purchased without finding bail really and truly to make her his wife; if, however, it turned out that they did not agree, the money might be paid back. All who liked might come, even from distant villages, and bid for the women." 1
This custom is mentioned by other writers, but it is impossible to ascertain at what period it became prevalent in Babylonia and by whom it was introduced. Herodotus understood that it obtained also in "the Illyrian tribe of the Eneti", which was reputed to have entered Italy with Antenor after the fall of Troy, and has been identified with the Venetians of later times. But the ethnic clue thus afforded is exceedingly vague. There is no direct reference to the custom in the Hammurabi Code, which reveals a curious blending of the principles of "Father right" and "Mother right". A girl was subject to her father's will; he could dispose of her as he thought best, and she always remained a member of his family; after marriage she was known as the daughter of so and so rather than the wife of so and so. But marriage brought her freedom and the rights of citizenship. The power vested in her father was never transferred to her husband.
A father had the right to select a suitable spouse for
his daughter, and she could not marry without his consent. That this law did not prevent "love matches" is made evident by the fact that provision was made in the Code for the marriage of a free woman with a male slave, part of whose estate in the event of his wife's death could be claimed by his master.
When a betrothal was arranged, the father fixed the "bride price", which was paid over before the contract could be concluded, and he also provided a dowry. The amount of the "bride price" might, however, be refunded to the young couple to give them a start in life. If, during the interval between betrothal and marriage, the man "looked upon another woman", and said to his father-in-law, "I will not marry your daughter", he forfeited the "bride price" for breach of promise of marriage.
A girl might also obtain a limited degree of freedom by taking vows of celibacy and becoming one of the vestal virgins, or nuns, who were attached to the temple of the sun god. She did not, however, live a life of entire seclusion. If she received her due proportion of her father's estate, she could make business investments within certain limits. She was not, for instance, allowed to own a wineshop, and if she even entered one she was burned at the stake. Once she took these vows she had to observe them until the end of her days. If she married, as she might do to obtain the legal status of a married woman and enjoy the privileges of that position, she denied her husband conjugal rites, but provided him with a concubine who might bear him children, as Sarah did to Abraham. These nuns must not be confused with the unmoral women who were associated with the temples of Ishtar and other love goddesses of shady repute.
The freedom secured by a married woman had its
legal limitations. If she became a widow, for instance, she could not remarry without the consent of a judge, to whom she was expected to show good cause for the step she proposed to take. Punishments for breaches of the marriage law were severe. Adultery was a capital crime; the guilty parties were bound together and thrown into the river. If it happened, however, that the wife of a prisoner went to reside with another man on account of poverty, she was acquitted and allowed to return to her husband after his release. In cases where no plea of poverty could be urged the erring women were drowned. The wife of a soldier who had been taken prisoner by an enemy was entitled to a third part of her husband's estate if her son was a minor, the remainder was held in trust. The husband could enter into possession of all his property again if he happened to return home.
Divorce was easily obtained. A husband might send his wife away either because she was childless or because he fell in love with another woman. Incompatibility of temperament was also recognized as sufficient reason for separation. A woman might hate her husband and wish to leave him. "If", the Code sets forth, "she is careful and is without blame, and is neglected by her husband who has deserted her", she can claim release from the marriage contract. But if she is found to have another lover, and is guilty of neglecting her duties, she is liable to be put to death.
A married woman possessed her own property. Indeed, the value of her marriage dowry was always vested in her. When, therefore, she divorced her husband, or was divorced by him, she was entitled to have her dowry refunded and to return to her father's house. Apparently she could claim maintenance from her father.
A woman could have only one husband, but a man could have more than one wife. He might marry a secondary wife, or concubine, because he was without offspring, but "the concubine", the Code lays down, "shall not rank with the wife". Another reason for second marriage recognized by law was a wife's state of health. In such circumstances a man could not divorce his sickly wife. He had to support her in his house as long as she lived.
Children were the heirs of their parents, but if a man during his lifetime gifted his property to his wife, and confirmed it on "a sealed tablet", the children could have no claim, and the widow was entitled to leave her estate to those of her children she preferred; but she could not will any portion of it to her brothers. In ordinary cases the children of a first marriage shared equally the estate of a father with those of a second marriage. If a slave bore children to her employer, their right to inheritance depended on whether or not the father had recognized them as his offspring during his lifetime. A father might legally disown his son if the young man was guilty of criminal practices.
The legal rights of a vestal virgin were set forth in detail. If she had received no dowry from her father when she took vows of celibacy, she could claim after his death one-third of the portion of a son. She could will her estate to anyone she favoured, but if she died intestate her brothers were her heirs. When, however, her estate consisted of fields or gardens allotted to her by her father, she could not disinherit her legal heirs. The fields or gardens might be worked during her lifetime by her brothers if they paid rent, or she might employ a manager on the "share system".
Vestal virgins and married women were protected
against the slanderer. Any man who "pointed the finger" against them unjustifiably was charged with the offence before a judge, who could sentence him to have his forehead branded. It was not difficult, therefore, in ancient Babylonia to discover the men who made malicious and unfounded statements regarding an innocent woman. Assaults on women were punished according to the victim's rank; even slaves were protected.
Women appear to have monopolized the drink traffic. At any rate, there is no reference to male wine sellers. A female publican had to conduct her business honestly, and was bound to accept a legal tender. If she refused corn and demanded silver, when the value of the silver by "grand weight" was below the price of corn, she was prosecuted and punished by being thrown into the water. Perhaps she was simply ducked. As much may be inferred from the fact that when she was found guilty of allowing rebels to meet in her house, she was put to death.
The land laws were strict and exacting. A tenant could be penalized for not cultivating his holding properly. The rent paid was a proportion of the crop, but the proportion could be fixed according to the average yield of a district, so that a careless or inefficient tenant had to bear the brunt of his neglect or want of skill. The punishment for allowing a field to lie fallow was to make a man hoe and sow it and then hand it over to his landlord, and this applied even to a man who leased unreclaimed land which he had contracted to cultivate. Damage done to fields by floods after the rent was paid was borne by the cultivator; but if it occurred before the corn was reaped the landlord's share was calculated in proportion to the amount of the yield which was recovered. Allowance was also made for poor harvests, when the
shortage was not due to the neglect of the tenant, but to other causes, and no interest was paid for borrowed money even if the farm suffered from the depredations of the tempest god; the moneylender had to share risks with borrowers. Tenants who neglected their dykes, however, were not exempted from their legal liabilities, and their whole estates could be sold to reimburse their creditors.
The industrious were protected against the careless. Men who were negligent about controlling the water supply, and caused floods by opening irrigation ditches which damaged the crops of their neighbours, had to pay for the losses sustained, the damages being estimated according to the average yield of a district. A tenant who allowed his sheep to stray on to a neighbour's pasture had to pay a heavy fine in corn at the harvest season, much in excess of the value of the grass cropped by his sheep. Gardeners were similarly subject to strict laws. All business contracts had to be conducted according to the provisions of the Code, and in every case it was necessary that a proper record should be made on clay tablets. As a rule a dishonest tenant or trader had to pay sixfold the value of the sum under dispute if the judge decided in court against his claim.
The law of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth was strictly observed in Babylonia. A freeman who destroyed an eye of a freeman had one of his own destroyed; if he broke a bone, he had a bone broken. Fines were imposed, however, when a slave was injured. For striking a gentleman, a commoner received sixty lashes, and the son who smote his father had his hands cut off. A slave might have his ears cut off for assaulting his master's son.
Doctors must have found their profession an extremely
risky one. No allowance was made for what is nowadays known as a "professional error". A doctor's hands were cut off if he opened a wound with a metal knife and his patient afterwards died, or if a man lost his eye as the result of an operation. A slave who died under a doctor's hands had to be replaced by a slave, and if a slave lost his eye, the doctor had to pay half the man's market value to the owner. Professional fees were fixed according to a patient's rank. Gentlemen had to pay five shekels of silver to a doctor who set a bone or restored diseased flesh, commoners three shekels, and masters for their slaves two shekels. There was also a scale of fees for treating domesticated animals, and it was not overgenerous. An unfortunate surgeon who undertook to treat an ox or ass suffering from a severe wound had to pay a quarter of its price to its owner if it happened to die. A shrewd farmer who was threatened with the loss of an animal must have been extremely anxious to engage the services of a surgeon.
It is not surprising, after reviewing this part of the Hammurabi Code, to find Herodotus stating bluntly that the Babylonians had no physicians. "When a man is ill", he wrote, "they lay him in the public square, and the passers-by come up to him, and if they have ever had his disease themselves, or have known anyone who has suffered from it, they give him advice, recommending him to do whatever they found good in their own case, or in the case known to them; and no one is allowed to pass the sick man in silence without asking him what his ailment is." One might imagine that Hammurabi had legislated the medical profession out of existence, were it not that letters have been found in the Assyrian library of Ashur-banipal which indicate that skilled physicians were held in high repute. It is improbable, however,
that they were numerous. The risks they ran in Babylonia may account for their ultimate disappearance in that country.
No doubt patients received some benefit from exposure in the streets in the sunlight and fresh air, and perhaps, too, from some of the old wives' remedies which were gratuitously prescribed by passers-by. In Egypt, where certain of the folk cures were recorded on papyri, quite effective treatment was occasionally given, although the "medicines" were exceedingly repugnant as a rule; ammonia, for instance, was taken with the organic substances found in farmyards. Elsewhere some wonderful instances of excellent folk cures have come to light, especially among isolated peoples, who have received them interwoven in their immemorial traditions. A medical man who has investigated this interesting subject in the Scottish Highlands has shown that "the simple observation of the people was the starting-point of our fuller knowledge, however complete we may esteem it to be". For dropsy and heart troubles, foxglove, broom tops, and juniper berries, which have reputations "as old as the hills", are "the most reliable medicines in our scientific armoury at the present time". These discoveries of the ancient folks have been "merely elaborated in later days". Ancient cures for indigestion are still in use. "Tar water, which was a remedy for chest troubles, especially for those of a consumptive nature, has endless imitations in our day"; it was also "the favourite remedy for skin diseases". No doubt the present inhabitants of Babylonia, who utilize bitumen as a germicide, are perpetuating an ancient folk custom.
This medical man who is being quoted adds: "The whole matter may be summed up, that we owe infinitely more to the simple nature study of our people in the
great affair of health than we owe to all the later science." 1
Herodotus, commenting on the custom of patients taking a census of folk cures in the streets, said it was one of the wisest institutions of the Babylonian people. It is to be regretted that he did not enter into details regarding the remedies which were in greatest favour in his day. His data would have been useful for comparative purposes.
So far as can be gathered from the clay tablets, faith cures were not unknown, and there was a good deal of quackery. If surgery declined, as a result of the severe restrictions which hampered progress in an honourable profession, magic flourished like tropical fungi. Indeed, the worker of spells was held in high repute, and his operations were in most cases allowed free play. There are only two paragraphs in the Hammurabi Code which deal with magical practices. It is set forth that if one man cursed another and the curse could not be justified, the perpetrator of it must suffer the death penalty. Provision was also made for discovering whether a spell had been legally imposed or not. The victim was expected to plunge himself in a holy river. If the river carried him away it was held as proved that he deserved his punishment, and "the layer of the spell" was given possession of the victim's house. A man who could swim was deemed to be innocent; he claimed the residence of "the layer of the spell", who was promptly put to death. With this interesting glimpse of ancient superstition the famous Code opens, and then strikes a modern note by detailing the punishments for perjury and the unjust administration of law in the courts.
The poor sufferers who gathered at street corners in Babylon to make mute appeal for cures believed that they were possessed by evil spirits. Germs of disease were depicted by lively imaginations as invisible demons, who derived nourishment from the human body. When a patient was wasted with disease, growing thinner and weaker and more bloodless day by day, it was believed that a merciless vampire was sucking his veins and devouring his flesh. It had therefore to be expelled by performing a magical ceremony and repeating a magical formula. The demon was either driven or enticed away.
A magician had to decide in the first place what particular demon was working evil. He then compelled its attention and obedience by detailing its attributes and methods of attack, and perhaps by naming it. Thereafter he suggested how it should next act by releasing a raven, so that it might soar towards the clouds like that bird, or by offering up a sacrifice which it received for nourishment and as compensation. Another popular method was to fashion a waxen figure of the patient and prevail upon the disease demon to enter it. The figure was then carried away to be thrown in the river or burned in a fire.
Occasionally a quite effective cure was included in the ceremony. As much is suggested by the magical treatment of toothache. First of all the magician identified the toothache demon as "the worm". Then he recited its history, which is as follows: After Anu created the heavens, the heavens created the earth, the earth created the rivers, the rivers created the canals, the canals created the marshes, and last of all the marshes created "the worm".
This display of knowledge compelled the worm to listen, and no doubt the patient was able to indicate to
what degree it gave evidence of its agitated mind. The magician continued:
One of the deities answered: "I will give thee dried bones and scented . . . wood"; but the hungry worm protested:
The magician provided food for "the worm", and the following is his recipe: "Mix beer, the plant sa-kil-bir, and oil together; put it on the tooth and repeat Incantation." No doubt this mixture soothed the pain, and the sufferer must have smiled gladly when the magician finished his incantation by exclaiming:
Headaches were no doubt much relieved when damp cloths were wrapped round a patient's head and scented wood was burned beside him, while the magician, in whom so much faith was reposed, droned out a mystical incantation. The curative water was drawn from the confluence of two streams and was sprinkled with much ceremony. In like manner the evil-eye curers, who still
operate in isolated districts in these islands, draw water from under bridges "over which the dead and the living pass", 1 and mutter charms and lustrate victims.
Headaches were much dreaded by the Babylonians. They were usually the first symptoms of fevers, and the demons who caused them were supposed to be blood-thirsty and exceedingly awesome. According to the charms, these invisible enemies of man were of the brood of Nergal. No house could be protected against them. They entered through keyholes and chinks of doors and windows; they crept like serpents and stank like mice; they had lolling tongues like hungry dogs.
Magicians baffled the demons by providing a charm. If a patient "touched iron"--meteoric iron, which was the "metal of heaven"--relief could be obtained. Or, perhaps, the sacred water would dispel the evil one; as the drops trickled from the patient's face, so would the fever spirit trickle away. When a pig was offered up in sacrifice as a substitute for a patient, the wicked spirit was commanded to depart and allow a kindly spirit to take its place--an indication that the Babylonians, like the Germanic peoples, believed that they were guarded by spirits who brought good luck.
The numerous incantations which were inscribed on clay tablets and treasured in libraries, do not throw much light on the progress of medical knowledge, for the genuine folk cures were regarded as of secondary importance, and were not as a rule recorded. But these metrical compositions are of special interest, in so far as they indicate how poetry originated and achieved wide-spread popularity among ancient peoples. Like the religious dance, the earliest poems were used for magical purposes. They were composed in the first place by men
and women who were supposed to be inspired in the literal sense; that is, possessed by spirits. Primitive man associated "spirit" with "breath", which was the "air of life", and identical with wind. The poetical magician drew in a "spirit", and thus received inspiration, as he stood on some sacred spot on the mountain summit, amidst forest solitudes, beside a whispering stream, or on the sounding shore. As Burns has sung:
[paragraph continues] Or, perhaps, the bard received inspiration by drinking magic water from the fountain called Hippocrene, or the skaldic mead which dripped from the moon.
The ancient poet did not sing for the mere love of singing: he knew nothing about "Art for Art's sake". His object in singing appears to have been intensely practical. The world was inhabited by countless hordes of spirits, which were believed to be ever exercising themselves to influence mankind. The spirits caused suffering; they slew victims; they brought misfortune; they were also the source of good or "luck". Man regarded spirits emotionally; he conjured them with emotion; he warded off their attacks with emotion; and his emotions were given rhythmical expression by means of metrical magical charms.
Poetic imagery had originally a magical significance; if the ocean was compared to a dragon, it was because it was supposed to be inhabited by a storm-causing dragon; the wind whispered because a spirit whispered in it.
[paragraph continues] Love lyrics were charms to compel the love god to wound or possess a maiden's heart--to fill it, as an Indian charm sets forth, with "the yearning of the Apsaras (fairies)"; satires conjured up evil spirits to injure a victim; and heroic narratives chanted at graves were statements made to the god of battle, so that he might award the mighty dead by transporting him to the Valhal of Odin or Swarga of Indra.
Similarly, music had magical origin as an imitation of the voices of spirits--of the piping birds who were "Fates", of the wind high and low, of the thunder roll, of the bellowing sea. So the god Pan piped on his reed bird-like notes, Indra blew his thunder horn, Thor used his hammer like a drumstick, Neptune imitated on his "wreathed horn" the voice of the deep, the Celtic oak god Dagda twanged his windy wooden harp, and Angus, the Celtic god of spring and love, came through budding forest ways with a silvern harp which had strings of gold, echoing the tuneful birds, the purling streams, the whispering winds, and the rustling of scented fir and blossoming thorn.
Modern-day poets and singers, who voice their moods and cast the spell of their moods over readers and audiences, are the representatives of ancient magicians who believed that moods were caused by the spirits which possessed them--the rhythmical wind spirits, those harpers of the forest and songsters of ocean.
The following quotations from Mr. R. C. Thompson's translations of Babylonian charms will serve to illustrate their poetic qualities:
Fever hath blown upon the man as the wind blast,
It hath smitten the man and humbled his pride. p. 239
Headache lieth like the stars of heaven in the desert and hath no praise;
Pain in the head and shivering like a scudding cloud turn unto the form of man.
Headache whose course like the dread windstorm none knoweth.
Headache roareth over the desert, blowing like the wind,
Flashing like lightning, it is loosed above and below,
It cutteth off him, who feareth not his god, like a reed . . .
From amid mountains it hath descended upon the land.
Headache . . . a rushing hag-demon,
Granting no rest, nor giving kindly sleep . . .
Whose shape is as the whirlwind.
Its appearance is as the darkening heavens,
And its face as the deep shadow of the forest.
Sickness . . . breaking the fingers as a rope of wind . . .
Flashing like a heavenly star, it cometh like the dew.
These early poets had no canons of Art, and there were no critics to disturb their meditations. Many singers had to sing and die ere a critic could find much to say. In ancient times, therefore, poets had their Golden Age--they were a law unto themselves. Even the "minors" were influential members of society.
219:1 Herodotus, book i, 179 (Rawlinson's translation).
219:2 Isaiah, xlv, I, 2.
222:1 Herodotus, book i, 181-3 (Rawlinson's translation).
222:2 History of Sumer and Akkad, L. W. King, p. 37.
225:1 Herodotus, book i, 196 (Rawlinson's translation).
233:1 Home Life of the Highlanders (Dr. Cameron Gillies on Medical Knowledge), pp. 85 et seq. Glasgow, 1911.
235:1 Translations by R. C. Thompson in The Devils and Spirits of Babylon, vol. i, pp. lxiii et seq.
236:1 Bridges which lead to graveyards.