Sacred Texts  Ancient Near East  Index  Previous  Next 
Buy this Book on Kindle

Myths of Babylonia and Assyria, by Donald A. MacKenzie, [1915], at

p. 417


The Age of Semiramis

Queen Sammu-rammat the original of Semiramis--"Mother-right" among "Mother Worshippers"--Sammu-rammat compared to Queen Tiy--Popularity of Goddess Cults--Temple Worship and Domestic Worship--Babylonian Cultural Influence in Assyria--Ethical Tendency in Shamash Worship--The Nebo Religious Revolt--Aton Revolt in Egypt--The Royal Assyrian Library--Fish Goddess of Babylonia in Assyria--The Semiramis and Shakuntala Stories--The Mock King and Queen--Dove Goddesses of Assyria, Phoenicia, and Cyprus--Ishtar's Dove Form--St. Valentine's Day beliefs--Sacred Doves of Cretans, Hittites, and Egyptians--Pigeon Lore in Great Britain and Ireland--Deities associated with various Animals--The Totemic Theory--Common Element in Ancient Goddess Cults--Influence of Agricultural Beliefs--Nebo a form of Ea--His Spouse Tashmit a Love Goddess and Interceder--Traditions of Famous Mother Deities--Adad-nirari IV the "Saviour" of Israel--Expansion of the Urartian Empire--Its Famous Kings--Decline and Fall of Assyria's Middle Empire Dynasty.

ONE of the most interesting figures in Mesopotamian history came into prominence during the Assyrian Middle Empire period. This was the famous Sammu-rammat, the Babylonian wife of an Assyrian ruler. Like Sargon of Akkad, Alexander the Great, and Dietrich von Bern, she made, by reason of her achievements and influence, a deep impression on the popular imagination, and as these monarchs became identified in tradition with gods of war and fertility, she had attached to her memory the myths associated with the mother goddess of love and battle who presided over the destinies of mankind. In her character as the legendary Semiramis of Greek literature, the Assyrian queen was reputed to have been the

p. 418

daughter of Derceto, the dove and fish goddess of Askalon, and to have departed from earth in bird form.

It is not quite certain whether Sammu-rammat was the wife of Shamshi-Adad VII or of his son, Adad-nirari IV. Before the former monarch reduced Babylonia to the status of an Assyrian province, he had signed a treaty of peace with its king, and it is suggested that it was confirmed by a matrimonial alliance. This treaty was repudiated by King Bau-akh-iddina, who was transported with his palace treasures to Assyria.

As Sammu-rammat was evidently a royal princess of Babylonia, it seems probable that her marriage was arranged with purpose to legitimatize the succession of the Assyrian overlords to the Babylonian throne. The principle of "mother right" was ever popular in those countries where the worship of the Great Mother was perpetuated if not in official at any rate in domestic religion. Not a few Egyptian Pharaohs reigned as husbands or as sons of royal ladies. Succession by the female line was also observed among the Hittites. When Hattusil II gave his daughter in marriage to Putakhi, king of the Amorites, he inserted a clause in the treaty of alliance "to the effect that the sovereignty over the Amorite should belong to the son and descendants of his daughter for evermore". 1

As queen or queen-mother, Sammu-rammat occupied as prominent a position in Assyria as did Queen Tiy of Egypt during the lifetime of her husband, Amenhotep III, and the early part of the reign of her son, Amenhotep IV (Akhenaton). The Tell-el-Amarna letters testify to Tiy's influence in the Egyptian "Foreign Office", and we know that at home she was joint ruler with her husband and took part with him in public ceremonials. During their reign a temple was erected to the mother goddess Mut,

p. 419

and beside it was formed a great lake on which sailed the "barque of Aton" in connection with mysterious religious ceremonials. After Akhenaton's religious revolt was inaugurated, the worship of Mut was discontinued and Tiy went into retirement. In Akhenaton's time the vulture symbol of the goddess Mut did not appear above the sculptured figures of royalty.

What connection the god Aton had with Mut during the period of the Tiy regime remains obscure. There is no evidence that Aton was first exalted as the son of the Great Mother goddess, although this is not improbable.

Queen Sammu-rammat of Assyria, like Tiy of Egypt, is associated with social and religious innovations. She was the first, and, indeed, the only Assyrian royal lady, to be referred to on equal terms with her royal husband in official inscriptions. In a dedication to the god Nebo, that deity is reputed to be the protector of "the life of Adad-nirari, king of the land of Ashur, his lord, and the life of Sammu-rammat, she of the palace, his lady". 1

During the reign of Adad-nirari IV the Assyrian Court radiated Babylonian culture and traditions. The king not only recorded his descent from the first Shalmaneser, but also claimed to be a descendant of Bel-kap-kapu, an earlier, but, to us, unknown, Babylonian monarch than "Sulili", i.e. Sumu-la-ilu, the great-great-grandfather of Hammurabi. Bel-kap-kapu was reputed to have been an over-lord of Assyria.

Apparently Adad-nirari desired to be regarded as the legitimate heir to the thrones of Assyria and Babylonia. His claim upon the latter country must have had a substantial basis. It is not too much to assume that he was a son of a princess of its ancient royal family. Sammu-rammat

p. 420

may therefore have been his mother. She could have been called his "wife" in the mythological sense, the king having become "husband of his mother". If such was the case, the royal pair probably posed as the high priest and high priestess of the ancient goddess cult--the incarnations of the Great Mother and the son who displaced his sire.

The worship of the Great Mother was the popular religion of the indigenous peoples of western Asia, including parts of Asia Minor, Egypt, and southern and western Europe. It appears to have been closely associated with agricultural rites practised among representative communities of the Mediterranean race. In Babylonia and Assyria the peoples of the goddess cult fused with the peoples of the god cult, but the prominence maintained by Ishtar, who absorbed many of the old mother deities, testifies to the persistence of immemorial habits of thought and antique religious ceremonials among the descendants of the earliest settlers in the Tigro-Euphrates valley. Merodach's spouse Zerpanitum was not a shadowy deity but a goddess who exercised as much influence as her divine husband. As Aruru she took part with him in the creation of mankind. In Asia Minor the mother goddess was overshadowed by the father god during the period of Hatti predominance, but her worship was revived after the early people along the coast and in the agricultural valleys were freed from the yoke of the father-god worshippers.

It must be recognized, in this connection, that an official religion was not always a full reflection of popular beliefs. In all the great civilizations of antiquity it was invariably a compromise between the beliefs of the military aristocracy and the masses of mingled peoples over whom they held sway. Temple worship had therefore a political

p. 421

aspect; it was intended, among other things, to strengthen the position of the ruling classes. But ancient deities could still be worshipped, and were worshipped, in homes and fields, in groves and on mountain tops, as the case might be. Jeremiah has testified to the persistence of the folk practices in connection with the worship of the mother goddess among the inhabitants of Palestine. Sacrificial fires were lit and cakes were baked and offered to the "Queen of Heaven" in the streets of Jerusalem and other cities. In Babylonia and Egypt domestic religious practices were never completely supplanted by temple ceremonies in which rulers took a prominent part. It was always possible, therefore, for usurpers to make popular appeal by reviving ancient and persistent forms of worship. As we have seen, Jehu of Israel, after stamping out Phœnician Baal worship, secured a strong following by giving official recognition to the cult of the golden calf.

It is not possible to set forth in detail, or with intimate knowledge, the various innovations which Sammu-rammat introduced, or with which she was credited, during the reigns of Adad-nirari IV (810-782 B.C.) and his father. No discovery has been made of documents like the Tell-el-Amarna "letters", which would shed light on the social and political life of this interesting period. But evidence is not awanting that Assyria was being suffused with Babylonian culture. Royal inscriptions record the triumphs of the army, but suppress the details of barbarities such as those which sully the annals of Ashur-natsir-pal, who had boys and girls burned on pyres and the heroes of small nations flayed alive. An ethical tendency becomes apparent in the exaltation of the Babylonian Shamash as an abstract deity who loved law and order, inspired the king with wisdom and ordained the

p. 422

destinies of mankind. He is invoked on equal terms with Ashur.

The prominence given to Nebo, the god of Borsippa, during the reign of Adad-nirari IV is highly significant. He appears in his later character as a god of culture and wisdom, the patron of scribes and artists, and the wise counsellor of the deities. He symbolized the intellectual life of the southern kingdom, which was more closely associated with religious ethics than that of war-loving Assyria.

A great temple was erected to Nebo at Kalkhi, and four statues of him were placed within it, two of which are now in the British Museum. On one of these was cut the inscription, from which we have quoted, lauding the exalted and wise deity and invoking him to protect Adad-nirari and the lady of the palace, Sammu-rammat, and closing with the exhortation, "Whoso cometh in after time, let him trust in Nebo and trust in no other god".

The priests of Ashur in the city of Asshur must have been as deeply stirred by this religious revolt at Kalkhi as were the priests of Amon when Akhenaton turned his back on Thebes and the national god to worship Aton in his new capital at Tell-el-Amarna.

It would appear that this sudden stream of Babylonian culture had begun to flow into Assyria as early as the reign of Shalmaneser III, and it may be that it was on account of that monarch's pro-Babylonian tendencies that his nobles and priests revolted against him. Shalmaneser established at Kalkhi a royal library which was stocked with the literature of the southern kingdom. During the reign of Adad-nirari IV this collection was greatly increased, and subsequent additions were made to it by his successors, and especially Ashur-nirari IV, the last monarch of the Middle Empire. The inscriptions of


STATUE OF NEBO<br> Dedicated by Adad-nirari IV, and the Queen, Sammu-rammat<br> (<i>British Museum</i>)<br> Photo. Mansell
Click to enlarge

Dedicated by Adad-nirari IV, and the Queen, Sammu-rammat
(British Museum)
Photo. Mansell


p. 423

Shamshi-Adad, son of Shalmaneser III, have literary qualities which distinguish them from those of his predecessors, and may be accounted for by the influence exercised by Babylonian scholars who migrated northward.

To the reign of Adad-nirari belongs also that important compilation the "Synchronistic History of Assyria and Babylonia", which deals with the relations of the two kingdoms and refers to contemporary events and rulers.

The legends of Semiramis indicate that Sammu-rammat was associated like Queen Tiy with the revival of mother worship. As we have said, she went down to tradition as the daughter of the fish goddess, Derceto. Pliny identified that deity with Atargatis of Hierapolis. 1

In Babylonia the fish goddess was Nina, a developed form of Damkina, spouse of Ea of Eridu. In the inscription on the Nebo statue, that god is referred to as the "son of Nudimmud" (Ea). Nina was the goddess who gave her name to Nineveh, and it is possible that Nebo may have been regarded as her son during the Semiramis period.

The story of Semiramis's birth is evidently of great antiquity. It seems to survive throughout Europe in the nursery tale of the "Babes in the Wood". A striking Indian parallel is afforded by the legend of Shakuntala, which may be first referred to for the purpose of comparative study. Shakuntala was the daughter of the rishi, Viswamitra, and Menaka, the Apsara (celestial fairy). Menaka gave birth to her child beside the sacred river Malini. "And she cast the new-born infant on the bank of that river and went away. And beholding the new-born infant lying in that forest destitute of human beings but abounding with lions and tigers, a number of vultures sat around to protect it from harm." A sage discovered

p. 424

the child and adopted her. "Because", he said, "she was surrounded by Shakuntas (birds), therefore hath she been named by me Shakuntala (bird protected)." 1

Semiramis was similarly deserted at birth by her Celestial mother. She was protected by doves, and her Assyrian name, Sammu-rammat, is believed to be derived from "Summat"--"dove", and to signify "the dove goddess loveth her". Simmas, the chief of royal shepherds, found the child and adopted her. She was of great beauty like Shakuntala, the maiden of "perfect symmetry", "sweet smiles", and "faultless features", with whom King Dushyanta fell in love and married in Gandharva fashion. 2

Semiramis became the wife of Onnes, governor of Nineveh, and one of the generals of its alleged founder, King Ninus. She accompanied her husband to Bactria on a military campaign, and is said to have instructed the king how that city should be taken. Ninus fell in love with Semiramis, and Onnes, who refused to give her up, went and hanged himself. The fair courtesan then became the wife of the king.

The story proceeds that Semiramis exercised so great an influence over the impressionable King Ninus, that she persuaded him to proclaim her Queen of Assyria for five days. She then ascended the throne decked in royal robes. On the first day she gave a great banquet, and on the second thrust Ninus into prison, or had him put to death. In this manner she secured the empire for herself. She reigned for over forty years.

Professor Frazer inclines to the view that the legend is a reminiscence of the custom of appointing a mock king and queen to whom the kingdom was yielded up for five


THE SHEPHERD FINDS THE BABE SEMIRAMIS<br> <i>From the Painting by E. Wallcousins</i>
Click to enlarge

From the Painting by E. Wallcousins


p. 425

days. Semiramis played the part of the mother goddess, and the priestly king died a violent death in the character of her divine lover. "The mounds of Semiramis which were pointed out all over Western Asia were said to have been the graves of her lovers whom she buried alive. . . . This tradition is one of the surest indications of the identity of the mythical Semiramis with the Babylonian goddess Ishtar or Astarte." 1 As we have seen, Ishtar and other mother goddesses had many lovers whom they deserted like La Belle Dame sans Merci (pp. 174-5).

As Queen of Assyria, Semiramis was said to have cut roads through mountainous districts and erected many buildings. According to one version of the legend she founded the city of Babylon. Herodotus, however, says in this connection: "Semiramis held the throne for five generations before the later princess (Nitocris). . . . She raised certain embankments, well worthy of inspection, in the plain near Babylon, to control the river (Euphrates), which, till then, used to overflow and flood the whole country round about." 2 Lucian, who associates the famous queen with "mighty works in Asia", states that she was reputed by some to be the builder of the ancient temple of Aphrodite in the Libanus, although others credited it to Cinyras, or Deukalion. 3 Several Median places bear her name, and according to ancient Armenian tradition she was the founder of Van, which was formerly called "Shamiramagerd". Strabo tells that unidentified mountains in Western Asia were named after Semiramis. 4 Indeed, many of the great works in the Tigro-Euphrates valley, not excepting the famous inscription of Darius, were credited to the legendary queen of Babylonia and

p. 426

[paragraph continues] Assyria. 1 She was the rival in tradition of the famous Sesostris of Egypt as a ruler, builder, and conqueror.

All the military expeditions of Semiramis were attended with success, except her invasion of India. She was supposed to have been defeated in the Punjab. After suffering this disaster she died, or abdicated the throne in favour of her son Ninyas. The most archaic form of the legend appears to be that she was turned into a dove and took flight to heaven in that form. After her death she was worshipped as a dove goddess like "Our Lady of Trees and Doves" in Cyprus, whose shrine at old Paphos was founded, Herodotus says, by Phœnician colonists from Askalon. 2 Fish and doves were sacred to Derceto (Attar), 3 who had a mermaid form. "I have beheld", says Lucian, "the image of Derceto in Phoenicia. A marvellous spectacle it is. One half is a woman, but the part which extends from thighs to feet terminates with the tail of a fish." 4

Derceto was supposed to have been a woman who threw herself in despair into a lake. After death she was adored as a goddess and her worshippers abstained from eating fish, except sacrificially. A golden image of a fish was suspended in her temple. Atargatis, who was identical with Derceto, was reputed in another form of the legend to have been born of an egg which the sacred fishes found in the Euphrates and thrust ashore (p. 28). The Greek Aphrodite was born of the froth of the sea and floated in a sea-shell. According to Hesiod,

                     The wafting waves
First bore her to Cythera the divine:
To wave-encircled Cyprus came she then,
And forth emerged, a goddess, in the charms p. 427
Of awful beauty. Where her delicate feet
Had pressed the sands, green herbage flowering sprang.
Her Aphrodite gods and mortals name,
The foam-born goddess; and her name is known
As Cytherea with the blooming wreath,
For that she touched Cythera's flowery coast;
And Cypris, for that on the Cyprian shore
She rose, amid the multitude of waves. Elton's translation.

The animals sacred to Aphrodite included the sparrow, the dove, the swan, the swallow, and the wryneck. 1 She presided over the month of April, and the myrtle, rose, poppy, and apple were sacred to her.

Some writers connect Semiramis, in her character as a dove goddess, with Media and the old Persian mother goddess Anaitis, and regard as arbitrary her identification with the fish goddess Derceto or Atargatis. The dove was certainly not a popular bird in the religious art of Babylonia and Assyria, but in one of the hymns translated by Professor Pinches Ishtar says, "Like a lonely dove I rest". In another the worshipper tries to touch Ishtar's heart by crying, "Like the dove I moan". A Sumerian psalmist makes a goddess (Gula, who presided over Larak, a part of Isin) lament over the city after it was captured by the enemy:

My temple E-aste, temple of Larak,
Larak the city which Bel Enlil gave, p. 428
Beneath are turned to strangeness, above are turned to strangeness,
With wailings on the lyre my dwelling-place is surrendered to the stranger,
The dove cots they wickedly seized, the doves they entrapped . . .
The ravens he (Enlil) caused to fly. 1

Apparently there were temple and household doves in Babylonia. The Egyptians had their household dove-cots in ancient as in modern times. Lane makes reference to the large pigeon houses in many villages. They are of archaic pattern, "with the walls slightly inclining inwards (like many of the ancient Egyptian buildings)", and are "constructed upon the roofs of the huts with crude brick, pottery, and mud. . . . Each pair of pigeons occupies a separate (earthen) pot." 2 It may be that the dove bulked more prominently in domestic than in official religion, and had a special seasonal significance. Ishtar appears to have had a dove form. In the Gilgamesh epic she is said to have loved the "brilliant Allalu bird" (the "bright-coloured wood pigeon", according to Sayce), and to have afterwards wounded it by breaking its wings. 3 She also loved the lion and the horse, and must therefore have assumed the forms of these animals. The goddess Bau, "she whose city is destroyed", laments in a Sumerian psalm:

Like a dove to its dwelling-place, how long to my dwelling-place will they pursue me,
To my sanctuary . . . the sacred place they pursue me . . .
My resting place, the brick walls of my city Isin, thou art destroyed;
My sanctuary, shrine of my temple Galmah, thou art destroyed.
                                            Langdon's translation.

p. 429

[paragraph continues] Here the goddess appears to be identified with the doves which rest on the walls and make their nests in the shrine. The Sumerian poets did not adorn their poems with meaningless picturesque imagery; their images were stern facts; they had a magical or religious significance like the imagery of magical incantations; the worshipper invoked the deity by naming his or her various attributes, forms, &c.

Of special interest are the references in Sumerian psalms to the ravens as well as the doves of goddesses. Throughout Asia and Europe ravens are birds of ill omen. In Scotland there still linger curious folk beliefs regarding the appearance of ravens and doves after death. Michael Scott, the great magician, when on his deathbed told his friends to place his body on a hillock. "Three ravens and three doves would be seen flying towards it. If the ravens were first the body was to be burned, but if the doves were first it was to receive Christian burial. The ravens were foremost, but in their hurry flew beyond their mark. So the devil, who had long been preparing a bed for Michael, was disappointed." 1

In Indian mythology Purusha, the chaos giant, first divided himself. "Hence were husband and wife produced." This couple then assumed various animal forms and thus "created every living pair whatsoever down to the ants". 2 Goddesses and fairies in the folk tales of many countries sometimes assume bird forms. The "Fates" appear to Damayanti in the Nala story as swans which carry love messages. 3

According to Aryo-Indian belief, birds were "blessed with fecundity". The Babylonian Etana eagle and the Egyptian vulture, as has been indicated, were deities of

p. 430

fertility. Throughout Europe birds, which were "Fates", mated, according to popular belief, on St. Valentine's Day in February, when lots were drawn for wives by rural folks. Another form of the old custom is referred to by the poet Gay:

Last Valentine, the day when birds of kind
Their paramours with mutual chirpings find,
I early rose . . .
Thee first I spied, and the first swain we see,
In spite of fortune, shall our true love be.

The dove appears to have been a sacred bird in various areas occupied by tribes of the Mediterranean race. Models of a shrine found in two royal graves at Mycenæ are surmounted by a pair of doves, suggesting twin goddesses like Isis and Nepthys of Egypt and Ishtar and Belitsheri of Babylonia. Doves and snakes were associated with the mother goddess of Crete, "typifying", according to one view, "her connection with air and earth. Although her character was distinctly beneficent and pacific, yet as Lady of the Wild Creatures she had a more fearful aspect, one that was often depicted on carved gems, where lions are her companions." 1 Discussing the attributes and symbols of this mother goddess, Professor Burrows says: "As the serpent, coming from the crevices of the earth, shows the possession of the tree or pillar from the underworld, so the dove, with which this goddess is also associated, shows its possession from the world of the sky". 2 Professor Robertson Smith has demonstrated that the dove was of great sanctity among the Semites. 3 It figures in Hittite sculptures and was probably connected with the goddess cult in Asia

p. 431

[paragraph continues] Minor. Although Egypt had no dove goddess, the bird was addressed by lovers--

I hear thy voice, O turtle dove--
  he dawn is all aglow
Weary am I with love, with love,
  Oh, whither shall I go? 1

[paragraph continues] Pigeons, as indicated, are in Egypt still regarded as sacred birds, and a few years ago British soldiers created a riot by shooting them. Doves were connected with the ancient Greek oracle at Dodona. In many countries the dove is closely associated with love, and also symbolizes innocence, gentleness, and holiness.

The pigeon was anciently, it would appear, a sacred bird in these islands, and Brand has recorded curious folk beliefs connected with it. In some districts the idea prevailed that no person could die on a bed which contained pigeon feathers: "If anybody be sick and lye a dying, if they lye upon pigeon feathers they will be languishing and never die, but be in pain and torment," wrote a correspondent. A similar superstition about the feathers of different varieties of wild fowl 2 obtained in other districts. Brand traced this interesting traditional belief in Yorkshire, Lancashire, Derbyshire, and some of the Welsh and Irish counties. 3 It still lingers in parts of the Scottish Highlands. In the old ballad of "The Bloody Gardener" the white dove appears to a young man as the soul of his lady love who was murdered by his mother. He first saw the bird perched on his breast and then "sitting on a myrtle tree". 4

The dove was not only a symbol of Semiramis, but

p. 432

also of her mother Derceto, the Phœnician fish goddess. The connection between bird and fish may have been given an astral significance. In "Poor Robin's Almanack" for 1757 a St. Valentine rhyme begins:

This month bright Phoebus enters Pisces,
The maids will have good store of kisses,
For always when the sun comes there,
Valentine's day is drawing near,
And both the men and maids incline
To choose them each a Valentine.

As we have seen, the example was set by the mating birds. The "Almanack" poet no doubt versified an old astrological belief: when the spring sun entered the sign of the Fishes, the love goddess in bird form returned to earth.

Advocates of the Totemic theory, on the other hand, may hold that the association of doves with snake goddesses and fish goddesses of fertility was due to the fusion of tribes who had various animal totems. "The Pelew Islanders believed", says Professor Frazer, "that the souls of their forefathers lived in certain species of animals, which accordingly they held sacred and would not injure. For this reason one man would not kill snakes, another would not harm pigeons, and so on; but everyone was quite ready to kill and eat the sacred animals of his neighbours." 1 That the Egyptians had similar customs is suggested by what Herodotus tells us regarding their sacred animals: "Those who live near Thebes and the lake Mœris hold the crocodile in religious veneration. . . . Those who live in or near Elephantine, so far from considering these beasts as sacred, make them an article of food. . . . The hippopotamus is esteemed sacred in the

p. 433

district of Papremis, but in no other part of Egypt. . . . They roast and boil . . . birds and fishes . . . excepting those which are preserved for sacred purposes." 1 Totemic animals controlled the destinies of tribes and families. "Grose tells us", says Brand, "that, besides general notices of death, many families have particular warnings or notices: some by the appearance of a bird, and others by the figure of a tall woman, dressed all in white. . . . Pennant says that many of the great families in Scotland had their demon or genius, who gave them monitions of future events." 2 Members of tribes which venerated the pigeon therefore invoked it like the Egyptian love poet and drew omens from its notes, or saw one appearing as the soul of the dead like the lover in the ballad of "The Bloody Gardener". They refrained also from killing the pigeon except sacrificially, and suffered agonies on a death-bed which contained pigeon feathers, the "taboo" having been broken.

Some such explanation is necessary to account for the specialization of certain goddesses as fish, snake, cat, or bird deities. Aphrodite, who like Ishtar absorbed the attributes of several goddesses of fertility and fate, had attached to her the various animal symbols which were prominent in districts or among tribes brought into close contact, while the poppy, rose, myrtle, &c., which were used as love charms, or for making love potions, were also consecrated to her. Anthropomorphic deities were decorated with the symbols and flowers of folk religion.

From the comparative evidence accumulated here, it will be seen that the theory of the mythical Semiramis's Median or Persian origin is somewhat narrow. It is possible that the dove was venerated in Cyprus, as it certainly was in Crete, long centuries before Assyrian and

p. 434

[paragraph continues] Babylonian influence filtered westward through Phœnician and Hittite channels. In another connection Sir Arthur Evans shows that the resemblance between Cretan and early Semitic beliefs "points rather to some remote common element, the nature of which is at present obscure, than to any definite borrowing by one side or another". 1

From the evidence afforded by the Semiramis legends and the inscriptions of the latter half of the Assyrian Middle Empire period, it may be inferred that a renascence of "mother worship" was favoured by the social and political changes which were taking place. In the first place the influence of Babylon must have been strongly felt in this connection. The fact that Adad-nirari found it necessary to win the support of the Babylonians by proclaiming his descent from one of their ancient royal families, suggests that he was not only concerned about the attitude assumed by the scholars of the southern kingdom, but also that of the masses of old Sumerian and Akkadian stocks who continued to bake cakes to the Queen of Heaven so as to ensure good harvests. In the second place it is not improbable that even in Assyria the introduction of Nebo and his spouse made widespread appeal. That country had become largely peopled by an alien population; many of these aliens came from districts where "mother worship" prevailed, and had no traditional respect for Ashur, while they regarded with hostility the military aristocracy who conquered and ruled in the name of that dreaded deity. Perhaps, too, the influence of the Aramæans, who in Babylonia wrecked the temples of the sun god, tended to revive the ancient religion of the Mediterranean race. Jehu's religious revolt in Israel, which established once again the cult of Ashtoreth, occurred after he came under

p. 435

the sway of Damascus, and may have not been unconnected with the political ascendancy elsewhere of the goddess cult.

Nebo, whom Adad-nirari exalted at Kalkhi, was more than a local god of Borsippa. "The most satisfactory view", says Jastrow, "is to regard him as a counterpart of Ea. Like Ea, he is the embodiment and source of wisdom. . . . The study of the heavens formed part of the wisdom which is traced back to Nebo, and the temple school at Borsippa became one of the chief centres for the astrological, and, subsequently, for the astronomical lore of Babylonia. . . . Like Nebo, Ea is also associated with the irrigation of the fields and with their consequent fertility. A hymn praises him as the one who fills the canals and the dikes, who protects the fields and brings the crops to maturity." Nebo links with Merodach (Marduk), who is sometimes referred to as his father. Jastrow assumes that the close partnership between Nebo and Merodach "had as a consequence a transfer of some of the father Marduk's attributes as a solar deity to Nebo, 1 his son, just as Ea passed his traits on to his son, Marduk". 2

As the "recorder" or "scribe" among the gods, Nebo resembles the Egyptian god Thoth, who links with Khonsu, the lunar and spring sun god of love and fertility, and with Osiris. In Borsippa he had, like Merodach in Babylon, pronounced Tammuz traits. Nebo, in fact, appears to be the Tammuz of the new age, the son of the ancient goddess, who became "Husband of his Mother". If Nebo had no connection with Great Mother worship, it is unlikely that his statue would have

p. 436

borne an inscription referring to King Adad-nirari and Queen Sammu-rammat on equal terms. The Assyrian spouse of Nebo was called Tashmit. This "goddess of supplication and love" had a lunar significance. A prayer addressed to her in association with Nannar (Sin) and Ishtar, proceeds:

In the evil of the eclipse of the moon which ... has taken place,
In the evil of the powers, of the portents, evil and not good, which are in my palace and my land,
(I) have turned towards thee! . . .
Before Nabu (Nebo) thy spouse, thy lord, the prince, the first-born of E-sagila, intercede for me!
May he hearken to my cry at the word of thy mouth; may he remove my sighing, may he learn my supplication!

Damkina is similarly addressed in another prayer:

O Damkina, mighty queen of all the gods,
O wife of Ea, valiant art thou,
O Ir-nina, mighty queen of all the gods . . .
Thou that dwellest in the Abyss, O lady of heaven and earth! . . .
In the evil of the eclipse of the moon, etc.

Bau is also prayed in a similar connection as "mighty lady that dwellest in the bright heavens", i.e. "Queen of heaven". 1

Tashmit, whose name signifies "Obedience", according to Jastrow, or "Hearing", according to Sayce, carried the prayers of worshippers to Nebo, her spouse. As Isis interceded with Osiris, she interceded with Nebo, on behalf of mankind. But this did not signify that she was the least influential of the divine pair. A goddess played many parts: she was at once mother, daughter, and wife of the god; the servant of one god or the "mighty queen of all the gods". The Great Mother

p. 437

was, as has been indicated, regarded as the eternal and undecaying one; the gods passed away, son succeeding father; she alone remained. Thus, too, did Semiramis survive in the popular memory, as the queen-goddess of widespread legends, after kings and gods had been forgotten. To her was ascribed all the mighty works of other days in the lands where the indigenous peoples first worshipped the Great Mother as Damkina, Nina, Bau, Ishtar, or Tashmit, because the goddess was anciently believed to be the First Cause, the creatrix, the mighty one who invested the ruling god with the powers he possessed--the god who held sway because he was her husband, as did Nergal as the husband of Eresh-ki-gal, queen of Hades.

The multiplication of well-defined goddesses was partly due to the tendency to symbolize the attributes of the Great Mother, and partly due to the development of the great "Lady" in a particular district where she reflected local phenomena and where the political influence achieved by her worshippers emphasized her greatness. Legends regarding a famous goddess were in time attached to other goddesses, and in Aphrodite and Derceto we appear to have mother deities who absorbed the traditions of more than one local "lady" of river and plain, forest and mountain. Semiramis, on the other hand, survived as a link between the old world and the new, between the country from which emanated the stream of ancient culture and the regions which received it. As the high priestess of the cult, she became identified with the goddess whose bird name she bore, as Gilgamesh and Etana became identified with the primitive culture-hero or patriarch of the ancient Sumerians, and Sargon became identified with Tammuz. No doubt the fame of Semiramis was specially emphasized because of her close association, as Queen

p. 438

[paragraph continues] Sammu-rammat, with the religious innovations which disturbed the land of the god Ashur during the Middle Empire period.

Adad-nirari IV, the son or husband of Sammu-rammat, was a vigorous and successful campaigner. He was the Assyrian king who became the "saviour" of Israel. Although it is not possible to give a detailed account of his various expeditions, we find from the list of these which survives in the Eponym Chronicle that he included in the Assyrian Empire a larger extent of territory than any of his predecessors. In the north-east he overcame the Median and other tribes, and acquired a large portion of the Iranian plateau; he compelled Edom to pay tribute, and established his hold in Babylonia by restricting the power of the Chaldæans in Sealand. In the north he swayed--at least, so he claimed--the wide domains of the Nairi people. He also confirmed his supremacy over the Hittites.

The Aramæan state of Damascus, which had with-stood the attack of the great Shalmaneser and afterwards oppressed, as we have seen, the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, was completely overpowered by Adad-nirari. The old king, Hazael, died when Assyria's power was being strengthened and increased along his frontiers. He was succeeded by his son Mari, who is believed to be identical with the Biblical Ben-Hadad III. 1

Shortly after this new monarch came to the throne, Adad-nirari IV led a great army against him. The Syrian ruler appears to have been taken by surprise; probably his kingdom was suffering from the three defeats which had been previously administered by the revolting Israelites. 2 At any rate Mari was unable to gather together an army of allies to resist the Assyrian advance, and took

p. 439

refuge behind the walls of Damascus. This strongly fortified city was closely invested, and Mari had at length to submit and acknowledge Adad-nirari as his overlord. The price of peace included 23,000 talents of silver, 20 of gold, 3000 of copper, and 5000 of iron, as well as ivory ornaments and furniture, embroidered materials, and other goods "to a countless amount." Thus "the Lord gave Israel a saviour, so that they went out from under the hand of the Syrians: and the children of Israel dwelt in their tents, as beforetime". This significant reference to the conquest of Damascus by the Assyrian king is followed by another which throws light on the religious phenomena of the period: "Nevertheless they departed not from the sins of the house of Jeroboam, who made Israel sin, but walked therein: and there remained the grove also in Samaria". 1 Ashtoreth and her golden calf continued to be venerated, and doves were sacrificed to the local Adonis.

It is not certain whether Adad-nirari penetrated farther than Damascus. Possibly all the states which owed allegiance to the king of that city became at once the willing vassals of Assyria, their protector. The tribute received by Adad-nirari from Tyre, Sidon, the land of Omri (Israel), Edom, and Palastu (Philistia) may have been gifted as a formal acknowledgment of his suzerainty and with purpose to bring them directly under Assyrian control, so that Damascus might be prevented from taking vengeance against them.

Meagre details survive regarding the reign of the next king, Shalmaneser IV (781-772 B.C.). These are, however, supplemented by the Urartian inscriptions. Although Adad-nirari boasted that he had subdued the kingdom of Urartu in the north, he appears to have

p. 440

done no more than limit its southern expansion for a time.

The Urarti were, like the Mitanni, a military aristocracy 1 who welded together by conquest the tribes of the eastern and northern Highlands which several Assyrian monarchs included in their Empire. They acquired the elements of Assyrian culture, and used the Assyrian script for their own language. Their god was named Khaldis, and they called their nation Khaldia. During the reign of Ashur-natsir-pal their area of control was confined to the banks of the river Araxes, but it was gradually extended under a succession of vigorous kings towards the south-west until they became supreme round the shores of Lake Van. Three of their early kings were Lutipris, Sharduris I, and Arame.

During the reign of Shamshi-Adad the Assyrians came into conflict with the Urarti, who were governed at the time by "Ushpina of Nairi" (Ishpuinis, son of Sharduris II). The Urartian kingdom had extended rapidly and bordered on Assyrian territory. To the west were the tribes known as the Mannai, the northern enemies of the Medes, a people of Indo-European speech.

When Adad-nirari IV waged war against the Urarti, their king was Menuas, the son of Ishpuinis. Menuas was a great war-lord, and was able to measure his strength against Assyria on equal terms. He had nearly doubled by conquest the area controlled by his predecessors. Adad-nirari endeavoured to drive his rival northward, but all along the Assyrian frontier from the Euphrates to the Lower Zab, Menuas forced the outposts of Adad-nirari to retreat southward. The Assyrians, in short, were unable to hold their own.

p. 441

Having extended his kingdom towards the south, Menuas invaded Hittite territory, subdued Malatia and compelled its king to pay tribute. He also conquered the Mannai and other tribes. Towards the north and north-west he added a considerable area to his kingdom, which became as large as Assyria.

Menuas's capital was the city of Turushpa or Dhuspas (Van), which was called Khaldinas 1 after the national god. For a century it was the seat of Urartian administration. The buildings erected there by Menuas and his successors became associated in after-time with the traditions of Semiramis, who, as Queen Sammu-rammat of Assyria, was a contemporary of the great Urartian conqueror. Similarly a sculptured representation of the Hittite god was referred to by Herodotus as a memorial of the Egyptian king Sesostris.

The strongest fortification at Dhuspas was the citadel, which was erected on a rocky promontory jutting into Lake Van. A small garrison could there resist a prolonged siege. The water supply of the city was assured by the construction of subterranean aqueducts. Menuas erected a magnificent palace, which rivalled that of the Assyrian monarch at Kalkhi, and furnished it with the rich booty brought back from victorious campaigns. He was a lover of trees and planted many, and he laid out gardens which bloomed with brilliant Asian flowers. The palace commanded a noble prospect of hill and valley scenery on the south-western shore of beautiful Lake Van.

Menuas was succeeded by his son Argistis, who ascended the throne during the lifetime of Adad-nirari of Assyria. During the early part of his reign he conducted military expeditions to the north beyond the river

p. 442

[paragraph continues] Araxes. He afterwards came into conflict with Assyria, and acquired more territory on its northern frontier. He also subdued the Mannai, who had risen in revolt.

For three years (781-778 B.C.) the general of Shalmaneser IV waged war constantly with Urartu, and again in 776 B.C. and 774 B.C. attempts were made to prevent the southern expansion of that Power. On more than one occasion the Assyrians were defeated and compelled to retreat.

Assyria suffered serious loss of prestige on account of its inability to hold in check its northern rival. Damascus rose in revolt and had to be subdued, and northern Syria was greatly disturbed. Hadrach was visited in the last year of the king's reign.

Ashur-dan III (771-763 B.C.) occupied the Assyrian throne during a period of great unrest. He was unable to attack Urartu. His army had to operate instead on his eastern and southern frontiers. A great plague broke out in 765 B.C., the year in which Hadrach had again to be dealt with. On June 15, 763 B.C., there was a total eclipse of the sun, and that dread event was followed by a revolt at Asshur which was no doubt of priestly origin. The king's son Adad-nirari was involved in it, but it is not certain whether or not he displaced his father for a time. In 758 B.C. Ashur-dan again showed signs of activity by endeavouring to suppress the revolts which during the period of civil war had broken out in Syria.

Adad-nirari V came to the throne in 763 B.C. He had to deal with revolts in Asshur in other cities. Indeed for the greater part of his reign he seems to have been kept fully engaged endeavouring to establish his authority within the Assyrian borders. The Syrian provinces regained their independence.

During the first four years of his successor Ashur-nirari IV (753-746 B.C.)

p. 443

the army never left Assyria. Namri was visited in 749-748 B.C., but it is not certain whether he fought against the Urartians, or the Aramæans who had become active during this period of Assyrian decline. In 746 B.C. a revolt broke out in the city of Kalkhi and the king had to leave it. Soon afterwards he died--perhaps he was assassinated--and none of his sons came to the throne. A year previously Nabu-natsir, known to the Greeks as Nabonassar, was crowned king of Babylonia.

Ashur-nirari IV appears to have been a monarch of somewhat like character to the famous Akhenaton of Egypt--an idealist for whom war had no attractions. He kept his army at home while his foreign possessions rose in revolt one after another. Apparently he had dreams of guarding Assyria against attack by means of treaties of peace. He arranged one with a Mesopotamian king, Mati-ilu of Agusi, who pledged himself not to go to war without the consent of his Assyrian overlord, and it is possible that there were other documents of like character which have not survived to us. During his leisure hours the king engaged himself in studious pursuits and made additions to the royal library. In the end his disappointed soldiers found a worthy leader in one of its generals who seized the throne and assumed the royal name of Tiglath-pileser.

Ashur-nirari IV was the last king of the Middle Empire of Assyria. He may have been a man of high character and refinement and worthy of our esteem, although an unsuitable ruler for a predatory State.


418:1 The Land of the Hittites, J. Garstang, p. 354.

419:1 The Old Testament in the Light of the Historical Records and Legends of Assyria and Babylonia, T. G. Pinches, p. 343.

423:1 Nat. Hist., v, 19 and Strabo, xvi, 1-27.

424:1 The Mahàbhàrata: Adi Parva, sections lxxi and lxxii (Roy's translation, pp. 213-216), and Indian Myth and Legend, pp. 157 et seq.

424:2 That is, without ceremony but with consent.

425:1 The Golden Bough (The Scapegoat), pp. 369 et seq. (3rd edition). Perhaps the mythic Semiramis and legends connected were in existence long before the historic Sammu-rammat, though the two got mixed up.

425:2 Herodotus, i, 184.

425:3 De dea Syria, 9-14.

425:4 Strabo, xvi, 1, 2.

426:1 Diodorus Siculus, ii, 3.

426:2 Herodotus, 105.

426:3 Diodorus Siculus, ii, 4.

426:4 De dea Syria, 14.

427:1 This little bird allied to the woodpecker twists its neck strangely when alarmed. It may have symbolized the coquettishness of fair maidens. As love goddesses were "Fates", however, the wryneck may have been connected with the belief that the perpetrator of a murder, or a death spell, could be detected when he approached his victim's corpse. If there was no wound to "bleed afresh", the "death thraw" (the contortions of death) might indicate who the criminal was. In a Scottish ballad regarding a lady, who was murdered by her lover, the verse occurs:

’T was in the middle o’ the night
The cock began to craw;
And at the middle o’ the night
The corpse began to thraw.

428:1 Langdon's Sumerian and Babylonian Psalms, pp. 133, 135.

428:2 Introduction to Lane's Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians.

428:3 Tammuz is referred to in a Sumerian psalm as "him of the dovelike voice, yea, dovelike". He may have had a dove form. Angus, the Celtic god of spring, love, and fertility, had a swan form; he also had his seasonal period of sleep like Tammuz.

429:1 Campbell's Superstitions of the Scottish Highlands, p. 288.

429:2 Indian Myth and Legend, p. 95.

429:3 Ibid., pp. 329-30.

430:1 Crete, the Forerunner of Greece, C. H. and H. B. Hawes, p. 139.

430:2 The Discoveries in Crete, pp. 137-8.

430:3 Religion of the Semites, p. 294.

431:1 Egyptian Myth and Legend, p. 59.

431:2 Including the goose, one of the forms of the harvest goddess.

431:3 Brand's Popular Antiquities, vol. ii, 230-1 and vol. iii, 232 (1899 ed.).

431:4 Ibid., vol. iii, 217. The myrtle was used for love charms.

432:1 The Golden Bough (Spirits of the Corn and of the Wild), vol. ii, p. 293 (3rd ed.).

433:1 Herodotus, ii, 69, 71, and 77.

433:2 Brand's Popular Antiquities, vol. iii, p. 227.

434:1 Cited by Professor Burrows in The Discoveries in Crete, p. 134.

435:1 Like the Egyptian Horus, Nebo had many phases: he was connected with the sun and moon, the planet Mercury, water and crops; he was young and yet old--a mystical god.

435:2 Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria, pp. 94 et seq.

436:1 Babylonian Magic and Sorcery, L. W. King, pp. 6-7 and 26-7.

438:1 2 Kings, xiii, 3.

438:2 2 Kings, xiii, 14-25.

439:1 2 Kings, xiii, 5, 6.

440:1 The masses of the Urartian folk appear to have been of Hatti stock--"broad heads", like their descendants, the modern Armenians.

441:1 It is uncertain whether this city or Kullani in north Syria is the Biblical Calno. Isaiah, x, 9.

Next: Chapter XIX. Assyria's Age of Splendour