Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Accadian-Babylonian and Assyrian Literature
Critical Introduction by Crawford Howell Toy (1836–1919)
RECENT discoveries have carried the beginnings of civilization farther and farther back into the remote past. Scholars are not agreed as to what region can lay claim to the greatest literary antiquity. The oldest historical records are found in Egypt and Babylonia, and each of these lands has its advocates, who claim for it priority in culture. The data now at our command are not sufficient for the decision of this question. It may be doubted whether any one spot on the globe will ever be shown to have precedence in time over all others,—whether, that is, it will appear that the civilization of the world has proceeded from a single center. But though we are yet far from having reached the very beginnings of culture, we know that they lie farther back than the wildest dreams of half a century ago would have imagined. Established kingdoms existed in Babylonia in the fourth millennium before the beginning of our era; royal inscriptions have been found which are with great probability assigned to about the year 3800 B.C. These are, it is true, of the simplest description, consisting of a few sentences of praise to a deity or brief notices of a campaign or of the building of a temple; but they show that the art of writing was known, and that the custom existed of recording events of the national history. We may thence infer the existence of a settled civilization and of some sort of literary productiveness.  1
  The Babylonian-Assyrian writings with which we are acquainted may be divided into the two classes of prose and poetry. The former class consists of royal inscriptions (relating to military campaigns and the construction of temples), chronological tables (eponym canons), legal documents (sales, suits, etc.), grammatical tables (paradigms and vocabularies), lists of omens and lucky and unlucky days, and letters and reports passing between kings and governors; the latter class includes cosmogonic poems, an epic poem in twelve books, detached mythical narratives, magic formulas and incantations, and prayers to deities (belonging to the ritual service of the temples). The prose pieces, with scarcely an exception, belong to the historical period, and may be dated with something like accuracy. The same thing is true of a part of the poetical material, particularly the prayers; but the cosmogonic and other mythical poems appear to go back, at least so far as their material is concerned, to a very remote antiquity, and it is difficult to assign them a definite date.  2
  Whether this oldest poetical material belongs to the Semitic Babylonians or to a non-Semitic (Sumerian-Accadian) people is a question not yet definitely decided. The material which comes into consideration for the solution of this problem is mainly linguistic. Along with the inscriptions, which are obviously in the Semitic-Babylonian language, are found others composed of words apparently strange. These are held by some scholars to represent a priestly, cryptographic writing, by others to be true Semitic words in slightly altered form, and by others still to belong to a non-Semitic tongue. This last view supposes that the ancient poetry comes, in substance at any rate, from a non-Semitic people who spoke this tongue; while on the other hand, it is maintained that this poetry is so interwoven into Semitic life that it is impossible to regard it as of foreign origin. The majority of Semitic scholars are now of the opinion that the origin of this early literature is foreign. However this may be, it comes to us in Babylonian dress, it has been elaborated by Babylonian hands, has thence found its way into the literature of other Semitic peoples, and for our purposes may be accepted as Babylonian. In any case it carries us back to very early religious conceptions.  3
  The cosmogonic poetry is in its outlines not unlike that of Hesiod, but develops the ruder ideas at greater length. In the shortest (but probably not the earliest) form of the cosmogony, the beginning of all things is found in the watery abyss. Two abysmal powers (Tiamat and Apsu), represented as female and male, mingle their waters, and from them proceed the gods. The list of deities (as in the Greek cosmogony) seems to represent several dynasties, a conception which may embody the belief in the gradual organization of the world. After two less-known gods, called Lahmu and Lahamu, come the more familiar figures of later Babylonian writing, Anu and Ea. At this point the list unfortunately breaks off, and the creative function which may have been assigned to the gods is lost, or has not yet been discovered. The general similarity between this account and that of Gen. i. is obvious: both begin with the abysmal chaos. Other agreements between the two cosmogonies will be pointed out below. The most interesting figure in this fragment is that of Tiamat. We shall presently see her in the character of the enemy of the gods. The two conceptions of her do not agree together perfectly, and the priority in time must be assigned to the latter. The idea that the world of gods and men and material things issued out of the womb of the abyss is a philosophic generalization that is more naturally assigned to a period of reflection.  4
  In the second cosmogonic poem the account is more similar to that of the second chapter of Genesis, and its present form originated in or near Babylon. Here we have nothing of the primeval deep, but are told how the gods made a beautiful land, with rivers and trees; how Babylon was built and Marduk created man, and the Tigris and the Euphrates, and the beasts and cities and temples. This also must be looked on as a comparatively late form of the myth, since its hero is Marduk, god of Babylon. As in the Bible account, men are created before beasts, and the region of their first abode seems to be the same as the Eden of Genesis.  5
  Let us now turn to the poem in which the combat between Tiamat and Marduk forms the principal feature. For some unexplained reason Tiamat rebels against the gods. Collecting her hosts, among them frightful demon shapes of all imaginable forms, she advances for the purpose of expelling the gods from their seats. The affrighted deities turn for protection to the high gods, Anu and Ea, who, however, recoil in terror from the hosts of the dragon Tiamat. Anshar then applies to Marduk. The gods are invited to a feast, the situation is described, and Marduk is invited to lead the heavenly hosts against the foe. He agrees on condition that he shall be clothed with absolute power, so that he shall only have to say “Let it be,” and it shall be. To this the gods assent: a garment is placed before him, to which he says “Vanish,” and it vanishes, and when he commands it to appear, it is present. The hero then dons his armor and advances against the enemy. He takes Tiamat and slays her, routs her host, kills her consort Kingu, and utterly destroys the rebellion. Tiamat he cuts in twain. Out of one half of her he forms the heavens, out of the other half the earth, and for the gods Anu and Bel and Ea he makes a heavenly palace, like the abyss itself in extent. To the great gods also he assigns positions, forms the stars, establishes the year and month and the day. At this point the history is interrupted, the tablet being broken. The creation of the heavenly bodies is to be compared with the similar account in Gen. i.; whether this poem narrates the creation of the rest of the world it is impossible to say.  6
  In this history of the rebellion of Tiamat against the gods we have a mythical picture of some natural phenomenon, perhaps of the conflict between the winter and the enlivening sun of summer. The poem appears to contain elements of different dates. The rude character of some of the procedures suggests an early time: Marduk slays Tiamat by driving the wind into her body; the warriors who accompany her have those composite forms familiar to us from Babylonian and Egyptian statues, paintings, and seals, which are the product of that early thought for which there was no essential difference between man and beast. The festival in which the gods carouse is of a piece with the divine Ethiopian feasts of Homer. On the other hand, the idea of the omnipotence of the divine word, when Marduk makes the garment disappear and reappear, is scarcely a primitive one. It is substantially identical with the Biblical “Let it be, and it was.” It is probable that the poem had a long career, and in successive recensions received the coloring of different generations. Tiamat herself has a long history. Here she is a dragon who assaults the gods; elsewhere, as we have seen, she is the mother of the gods; here also her body forms the heaven and the earth. She appears in Gen. i. 2 as the Tehom, the primeval abyss. In the form of the hostile dragon she is found in numerous passages of the Old Testament, though under different names. She is an enemy of Yahwe, god of Israel, and in the New Testament (Rev. xii.) the combat between Marduk and Tiamat is represented under the form of a fight between Michael and the Dragon. In Christian literature Michael has been replaced by St. George. The old Babylonian conception has been fruitful of poetry, representing, as it does, in grand form the struggle between the chaotic and the formative forces of the universe.  7
  The most considerable of the old Babylonian poems, so far as length and literary form are concerned, is that which has been commonly known as the Izdubar epic. The form of the name is not certain: Mr. Pinches has recently proposed, on the authority of a Babylonian text, to write it Gilgamesh, and this form has been adopted by a number of scholars. The poem (discovered by George Smith in 1872) is inscribed on twelve tablets, each tablet apparently containing a separate episode.  8
  The first tablet introduces the hero as the deliverer of his country from the Elamites, an event which seems to have taken place before 2000 B.C. Of the second, third, fourth, and fifth tablets, only fragments exist, but it appears that Gilgamesh slays the Elamite tyrant.  9
  The sixth tablet recounts the love of Ishtar for the hero, to whom she proposes marriage, offering him the tribute of the land. The reason he assigns for his rejection of the goddess is the number and fatal character of her loves. Among the objects of her affection were a wild eagle, a lion, a war-horse, a ruler, and a husbandman; and all these came to grief. Ishtar, angry at her rejection, complains to her father, Anu, and her mother, Anatu, and begs them to avenge her wrong. Anu creates a divine bull and sends it against Gilgamesh, who, however, with the aid of his friend Eabani, slays the bull. Ishtar curses Gilgamesh, but Eabani turns the curse against her.  10
  The seventh tablet recounts how Ishtar descends to the underworld seeking some better way of attacking the hero. The description of the Babylonian Sheol is one of the most effective portions of the poem, and with it George Smith connects a well-known poem which relates the descent of Ishtar to the underworld. The goddess goes down to the house of darkness from which there is no exit, and demands admittance of the keeper; who, however, by command of the queen of the lower world, requires her to submit to the conditions imposed on all who enter. There are seven gates, at each of which he removes some portion of her ornaments and dress. Ishtar, thus unclothed, enters and becomes a prisoner. Meantime the upper earth has felt her absence. All love and life has ceased. Yielding to the persuasions of the gods, Ea sends a messenger to demand the release of the goddess. The latter passes out, receiving at each gate a portion of her clothing. This story of Ishtar’s love belongs to one of the earliest stages of religious belief. Not only do the gods appear as under the control of ordinary human passions, but there is no consciousness of material difference between man and beast. The Greek parallels are familiar to all. Of these ideas we find no trace in the later Babylonian and Assyrian literature, and the poem was doubtless interpreted by the Babylonian sages in allegorical fashion.  11
  In the eighth and ninth tablets the death of Eabani is recorded, and the grief of Gilgamesh. The latter then wanders forth in search of Hasisadra, the hero of the Flood-story. After various adventures he reaches the abode of the divinized man, and from him learns the story of the Flood, which is given in the eleventh tablet.  12
  This story is almost identical with that of the Book of Genesis. The God Bel is determined to destroy mankind, and Hasisadra receives directions from Ea to build a ship, and take into it provisions and goods and slaves and beasts of the field. The ship is covered with bitumen. The flood is sent by Shamash (the sun-god). Hasisadra enters the ship and shuts the door. So dreadful is the tempest that the gods in affright ascend for protection to the heaven of Anu. Six days the storm lasts. On the seventh comes calm. Hasisadra opens a window and sees the mountain of Nizir, sends forth a dove, which returns; then a swallow, which returns; then a raven, which does not return; then, knowing that the flood has passed, sends out the animals, builds an altar, and offers sacrifice, over which the gods gather like flies. Ea remonstrates with Bel, and urges that hereafter, when he is angry with men, instead of sending a deluge, he shall send wild beasts, who shall destroy them. Thereupon Bel makes a compact with Hasisadra, and the gods take him and his wife and people and place them in a remote spot at the mouth of the rivers. It is now generally agreed that the Hebrew story of the Flood is taken from the Babylonian, either mediately through the Canaanites (for the Babylonians had occupied Canaan before the sixteenth century B.C.), or immediately during the exile in the sixth century. The Babylonian account is more picturesque, the Hebrew more restrained and solemn. The early polytheistic features have been excluded by the Jewish editors.  13
  In addition to these longer stories there are a number of legends of no little poetical and mythical interest. In the cycle devoted to the eagle there is a story of the struggle between the eagle and the serpent. The latter complains to the sun-god that the eagle has eaten his young. The god suggests a plan whereby the hostile bird may be caught: the body of a wild ox is to be set as a snare. Out of this plot, however, the eagle extricates himself by his sagacity. In the second story the eagle comes to the help of a woman who is struggling to bring a man-child (apparently Etana) into the world. In the third is portrayed the ambition of the hero Etana to ascend to heaven. The eagle promises to aid him in accomplishing his design. Clinging to the bird, he rises with him higher and higher toward the heavenly space, reaching the abode of Anu, and then the abode of Ishtar. As they rise to height after height the eagle describes the appearance of the world lying stretched out beneath: at first it rises like a huge mountain out of the sea; then the ocean appears as a girdle encircling the land, and finally but as a ditch a gardener digs to irrigate his land. When they have risen so high that the earth is scarcely visible, Etana cries to the eagle to stop; so he does, but his strength is exhausted, and bird and man fall to the earth.  14
  Another cycle of stories deals with the winds. The god Zu longs to have absolute power over the world. To that end he lurks about the door of the sun-god, the possessor of the tablets of fate whereby he controls all things. Each morning before beginning his journey, the sun-god steps out to send light showers over the world. Watching his opportunity, Zu glides in, seizes the tablets of fate, and flies away and hides himself in the mountains. So great horror comes over the world: it is likely to be scorched by the sun-god’s burning beams. Anu calls on the storm-god Ramman to conquer Zu, but he is frightened and declines the task, as do other gods. Here, unfortunately, the tablet is broken, so that we do not know by whom the normal order was finally restored.  15
  In the collection of cuneiform tablets disinterred at Amarna in 1887 was found the curious story of Adapa. The demigod Adapa, the son of Ea, fishing in the sea for the family of his lord, is overwhelmed by the stormy south wind and cast under the waves. In anger he breaks the wings of the wind, that it may no longer rage in the storm. Anu, informed that the south wind no longer blows, summons Adapa to his presence. Ea instructs his son to put on apparel of mourning, present himself at Anu’s gate, and there make friends with the porters, Tammuz and Iszida, so that they may speak a word for him to Anu; going into the presence of the royal deity, he will be offered food and drink which he must reject, and raiment and oil which he must accept. Adapa carries out the instructions of his father to the letter. Anu is appeased, but laments that Adapa, by rejecting heavenly food and drink, has lost the opportunity to become immortal. This story, the record of which is earlier than the sixteenth century B.C., appears to contain two conceptions: it is a mythical description of the history of the south wind, but its conclusion presents a certain parallelism with the end of the story of Eden in Genesis; as there Adam, so here Adapa, fails of immortality because he infringes the divine command concerning the divine food. We have here a suggestion that the story in Genesis is one of the cycle which dealt with the common earthly fact of man’s mortality.  16
  The legend of Dibbarra seems to have a historical basis. The god Dibbarra has devastated the cities of Babylonia with bloody wars. Against Babylon he has brought a hostile host and slain its people, so that Marduk, the god of Babylon, curses him. And in like manner he has raged against Erech, and is cursed by its goddess Ishtar. He is charged with confounding the righteous and unrighteous in indiscriminate destruction. But Dibbarra determines to advance against the dwelling of the king of the gods, and Babylonia is to be further desolated by civil war. It is a poetical account of devastating wars as the production of a hostile deity. It is obvious that these legends have many features in common with those of other lands, myths of conflict between wind and sun, and the ambition of heroes to scale the heights of heaven. How far these similarities are the independent products of similar situations, and how far the results of loans, cannot at present be determined.  17
  The moral-religious literature of the Babylonians is not inferior in interest to the stories just mentioned. The hymns to the gods are characterized by a sublimity and depth of feeling which remind us of the odes of the Hebrew Psalter. The penitential hymns appear to contain expressions of sorrow for sin, which would indicate a high development of the religious consciousness. These hymns, apparently a part of the temple ritual, probably belong to a relatively late stage of history; but they are none the less proof that devotional feeling in ancient times was not limited to any one country.  18
  Other productions, such as the hymn to the seven evil spirits (celebrating their mysterious power), indicate a lower stage of religious feeling; this is specially visible in the magic formulas, which portray a very early stratum of religious history. They recall the Shamanism of Central Asia and the rites of savage tribes; but there is no reason to doubt that the Semitic religion in its early stages contained this magic element, which is found all the world over.  19
  Riddles and Proverbs are found among the Babylonians, as among all peoples. Comparatively few have been discovered, and these present nothing of peculiar interest. The following may serve as specimens:—“What is that which becomes pregnant without conceiving, fat without eating?” The answer seems to be “A cloud.” “My coal-brazier clothes me with a divine garment, my rock is founded in the sea” (a volcano). “I dwell in a house of pitch and brick, but over me glide the boats” (a canal). “He that says, ‘Oh, that I might exceedingly avenge myself!’ draws from a waterless well, and rubs the skin without oiling it.” “When sickness is incurable and hunger unappeasable, silver and gold cannot restore health nor appease hunger.” “As the oven waxes old, so the foe tires of enmity.” “The life of yesterday goes on every day.” “When the seed is not good, no sprout comes forth.”  20
  The poetical form of all these pieces is characterized by that parallelism of members with which we are familiar in the poetry of the Old Testament. It is rhythmical, but apparently not metrical: the harmonious flow of syllables in any one line, with more or less beats or cadences, is obvious; but it does not appear that syllables were combined into feet, or that there was any fixed rule for the number of syllables or beats in a line. So also strophic divisions may be observed, such divisions naturally resulting from the nature of all narratives. Sometimes the strophe seems to contain four lines, sometimes more. No strophic rule has yet been established; but it seems not unlikely that when the longer poetical pieces shall have been more definitely fixed in form, certain principles of poetical composition will present themselves. The thought of the mythical pieces and the prayers and hymns is elevated and imaginative. Some of this poetry appears to have belonged to a period earlier than 2000 B.C. Yet the Babylonians constructed no epic poem like the ‘Iliad,’ or at any rate none such has yet been found. Their genius rather expressed itself in brief or fragmentary pieces, like the Hebrews and the Arabs.  21
  The Babylonian prose literature consists almost entirely of short chronicles and annals. Royal inscriptions have been found covering the period from 3000 B.C. to 539 B.C. There are eponym canons, statistical lists, diplomatic letters, military reports; but none of these rise to the dignity of history. Several connected books of chronicles have indeed been found; there is a synchronistic book of annals of Babylonia and Assyria, there is a long Assyrian chronicle, and there are annalistic fragments. But there is no digested historical narrative, which gives a clear picture of the general civil and political situation, or any analysis of the characters of kings, generals, and governors, or any inquiry into causes of events. It is possible that narratives having a better claim to the name of history may yet be discovered, resembling those of the Biblical Book of Kings; yet the Book of Kings is scarcely history—neither the Jews nor the Babylonians and Assyrians seem to have had great power in this direction.  22
  One of the most interesting collections of historical pieces is that recently discovered at Amarna. Here, out of a mound which represents a palace of the Egyptian King Amenhotep IV., were dug up numerous letters which were exchanged between the kings of Babylonia and Egypt in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and numerous reports sent to the Egyptian government by Egyptian governors of Canaanite cities. These tablets show that at this early time there was lively communication between the Euphrates and the Nile, and they give a vivid picture of the chaotic state of affairs in Canaan, which was exposed to the assaults of enemies on all sides. This country was then in possession of Egypt, but at a still earlier period it must have been occupied by the Babylonians. Only in this way can we account for the surprising fact that the Babylonian cuneiform script and the Babylonian language form the means of communication between the east and west and between Egypt and Canaan. The literary value of these letters is not great; their interest is chiefly historic and linguistic. The same thing is true of the contract tablets, which are legal documents: these cover the whole area of Babylonian history, and show that civil law attained a high state of perfection; they are couched in the usual legal phrases.  23
  The literary monuments mentioned above are all contained in tablets, which have the merit of giving in general contemporaneous records of the things described. But an account of Babylonian literature would be incomplete without mention of the priest Berosus. Having, as priest of Bel, access to the records of the temples, he wrote a history of his native land, in which he preserved the substance of a number of poetical narratives, as well as the ancient accounts of the political history. The fragments of his work which have been preserved (see Cory’s ‘Ancient Fragments’) exhibit a number of parallels with the contents of the cuneiform tablets. Though he wrote in Greek (he lived in the time of Alexander the Great), and was probably trained in the Greek learning of his time, his work doubtless represents the spirit of Babylonian historical writing. So far as can be judged from the remains which have come down to us, its style is of the annalistic sort which appears in the old inscriptions and in the historical books of the Bible.  24
  The Babylonian literature above described must be understood to include the Assyrian. Civilization was first established in Babylonia, and there apparently were produced the great epic poems and the legends. But Assyria, when she succeeded to the headship of the Mesopotamian valley, in the twelfth century B.C., adopted the literature of her southern sister. A great part of the old poetry has been found in the library of Assurbanipal, at Nineveh (seventh century B.C.), where a host of scribes occupied themselves with the study of the ancient literature. They seem to have had almost all the apparatus of modern critical work. Tablets were edited, sometimes with revisions. There are bilingual tablets, presenting in parallel columns the older texts (called Sumerian-Accadian) and the modern version. There are numerous grammatical and lexicographical lists. The records were accessible, and often consulted. Assurbanipal, in bringing back a statue of the goddess Nana from the Elamite region, says that it was carried off by the Elamites 1635 years before; and Nabonidus, the last king of Babylon (circa B.C. 550), a man devoted to temple restoration, refers to an inscription of King Naram-Sin, of Agane, who, he says, reigned 3200 years before. In recent discoveries made at Nippur, by the American Babylonian Expedition, some Assyriologists find evidence of the existence of a Babylonian civilization many centuries before B.C. 4000 (the dates B.C. 5000 and B.C. 6000 have been mentioned); the material is now undergoing examination, and it is too early to make definite statements of date. See Peters in American Journal of Archæology for January–March, 1895, and July–September, 1895; and Hilprecht, ‘The Babylonian Expedition of the University of Pennsylvania,’ Vol. i., Part 2, 1896.  25
  The Assyrian and Babylonian historical inscriptions, covering as they do the whole period of Jewish history down to the capture of Babylon by Cyrus, are of very great value for the illustration of the Old Testament. They have a literary interest also. Many of them are written in semi-rhythmical style, a form which was favored by the inscriptional mode of writing. The sentences are composed of short parallel clauses, and the nature of the material induced a division into paragraphs which resemble strophes. They are characterized also by precision and pithiness of statement, and are probably as trustworthy as official records ever are.  26

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