FROM remote antiquity the Egyptians knew well enough that they could not indicate upon their maps the actual location of mountains which upheld the sky. They maintained the cosmological fiction because it was elastic, the invisible pillars of heaven being easily pushed farther afield as knowledge of new lands was brought home by venturesome wanderers. Yet it was with a certain justice that the men of the Old Kingdom considered their country to be the center of the world, themselves to be the only civilized beings, for at the farthest limits of their travels they found only barbarians to whom the finer arts of agriculture, masonry, sculpture, painting and the like were quite unknown. The Egyptians, moreover, were never great explorers, their expeditions being confined to the upper reaches of the Nile or the Red Sea coast, or at the farthest venturing across the Isthmus of Suez into the Sinai Peninsula. Consequently even the country of Syria which lay immediately beyond the wedge of Sinai remained for them an almost unknown land until the period of the New Empire when Thothmes brought its western edge under the double crown.
Yet even while the Pharaohs were building the great pyramids, neolithic culture was crystallizing into a civilization of sorts far to the east of Syria, in the valley of the Tigris and Euphrates. Like that of Egypt, the civilization of Mesopotamia had its origin in the rich alluvium of a river valley which was flooded yearly, but unlike the Nile, the Tigris and Euphrates held no mystery in their pulsation. Arising in the snow-covered mountains of Armenia, these rivers ran a relatively short course to the Persian Gulf and were accessible to navigation from beginning to end, so that the peoples who inhabited their banks were enabled to observe the inevitable sequence of rain and flood.
The climate of Mesopotamia has changed so much that it is difficult to believe that the country was once the paradigm of the Garden of Eden. Where as late as the time of Herodotus there stood the great cities of Ur, Sumer and Babylon, there remain now but hummocks of earth scarcely distinguishable from the surrounding desert of sterile, ever shifting sand, about the most intolerable sites for human habitation of any place on earth. In the hot season the temperature reaches 137° in the shade, while dust storms, so dense that they may completely hide the sun, envelop the country for six weeks on end. As in all desert countries, winter is equally extreme. This change in climate is attributable in part to desiccation of the land. At an early date the Euphratean peoples had learned to restrain the river between high artificial banks and to divert its water through a network of irrigation canals; then, around 300 B.C., the river burst its man-made banks and cut a new channel for itself; when the artificial water supply which had maintained a grassy cover failed, the soil dried out and blew away until there was left only desert sand. With no evaporation from soil or verdure to cool the air in summer, and no blanket of humidity to preserve the sun's heat in winter, the temperature now ranges between extremes which are suggestive of the atmosphereless moon.
Yet in the days of Abraham, Sumer was one vast granary and Ur and Babylon were competing for the domination of a great and wealthy empire. The countryside was dotted with prosperous hamlets, villages and farms, and rich with crops of vegetables, wheat, barley, sesame and fruits. Along the irrigated land the grass reached a height of fifteen feet, while on the surrounding prairie flowers grew in such luxuriance that in the lush season one who walked among them was dusted with their multicolored pollen. Moist hollows held the date palm which, as in Egypt, proved to be the most valuable of trees, for from its fruit the people manufactured bread, wine, vinegar and cakes, the wood being turned into numerous utensils and the stones used for charcoal fires or given as fattening food to cattle, pigs and sheep. The Mesopotamians tended the date with loving care and early discovered how to fertilize the female flowers by shaking over them the flowers of the male palm. The fig, apple, almond, apricot and olive, plane trees, cypresses, tamarisks, acacias and of course the grape vine made up a great orchard that stretched from the Armenian mountains down to the Persian Gulf. Fish and birds were abundant; the dog, ass, sheep and ox were domesticated before historic times, and the lion, elephant, panther, deer, wild ass and boar were indigenous inhabitants.
Stone was rare in Mesopotamia and was not used except as decoration or for statuary. The principal element of construction was brick, prepared by mixing the clay of the marshes with straw or reeds and drying the square or oblong packet in the sun. Artificial firing was sometimes used, but even at their best these bricks softened in the rain and ultimately consolidated into a compact mass, which explains why the ancient houses constructed of them are today but mounds of earth irregularly eroded by rain and covered with windblown sand. Everywhere the excavator finds a story of alternate building and dissolution; generation after generation built upon the decomposed and leveled residue of their predecessors' houses until the last abode stands many feet above the natural land. Even the citizens of the twentieth century B.C. walked over the homes and tombs of forgotten dead.
The Mesopotamian city possessed an almost appealing ugliness: its brick buildings, huddled close together, were all alike, their flat roofs relieved only by stepped battlements in the angles of the streets -- if the narrow passageways between the houses could be so dignified, for they were rarely straight for a distance of more than half-a-dozen houses and they so interlaced with each other that they resembled a tangled spider web. They were either dusty or muddy and invariably littered with refuse left to be cleaned away by flocks of ravens or by wandering goats or dogs. Though the dull brickwork was occasionally ornamented by an inlay of red, black or yellow terra cotta cones arranged in geometric patterns, or by awnings of colored matting or woven rugs stretched above the roofs, on the whole the city was a vast conglomerate of angular lights and shadows monotonously repeated in every view.
The outstanding building in the city was the temple or ziggurat (high place), a great tower of solid brickwork built in three or more stages with sloping sides and reinforced by buttresses that gave it the appearance of a stepped pyramid. Stairways led to the top of each stage, where were planted flowers and trees, and finally to the uppermost cubicle wherein the god was housed. In the surrounding court were temples and shrines to minor gods, kitchens and living quarters for the attendants, counting rooms and warehouses, all the accessories of a rich and busy temple. The lower courses of the ziggurat and of the court walls were faced with vertical stripes of black and white bricks; the great gates were of boxwood overlaid with bronze, with hinges of silver and door posts of gold; the temple and frequently the smaller shrines were paneled inside with cedarwood, their ceilings painted blue and set with golden stars and crescent moons, their floors covered with matting and rugs; and along the walls were arranged statues of minor gods carved in diorite or alabaster and crowned with gold. The walls of the sanctuary were sheathed with thin gold cut into a pattern of overlapping scales and set with lapis lazuli and agate and turquoise-blue paste. One of the most important rooms high up in the ziggurat was the dark bed chamber to which the priestess went by night to become the bride of the god, and by this mystic marriage to renew the fertility of the soil and the strength of the king's arms.
The essence of worship was sacrifice, since that which was sacrificed was shared between the god, his priests who performed the sacrifice and the worshiper who supplied it. The god demanded the first fruits, the best of that which by his favor had been bestowed on man, and so to him the farmer brought his cattle and barley, the peasant his jars of milk and cheese, the merchant his wool and linen, incense, spices, copper and gold, and porters staggered through the temple gates bent under massive blocks of diorite to be carved into a divine image, or of hard wood for the furnishing of a new temple. Crowds milled about the attendants who counted and weighed or otherwise appraised the ever flowing stream of gifts while they kept careful tallies and wrote out duplicate receipts on damp tablets of clay, one for the donor and one to be filed in the temple archives. Among the chattels brought to the ziggurat the most notable were the male and female slaves who were sold to the highest bidder, or contributed to the god himself: for the god controlled vast gardens and farms which had to be worked, innumerable industries where were manufactured utensils, jewelry, cotton or linen goods, as well as great mines and trade routes; and in addition he required for the services of the temple troops of laborers, eunuchs, women singers and sacred courtesans. The practice of slavery, never more widespread in history than here, constituted the primary basis of economics, and laws designed to protect both slave and master were among the earliest to be formulated in the East. Indeed, such laws were an outstanding feature in the famous code which Hammurabi engraved upon the diorite shaft that he set up in the temple of the great god Marduk in Babylon, and, even more than the laws of Egypt, supplied the principles of equity to the Mediterranean world.
So important was the holy traffic of the temple that at the opening of Mesopotamian history the priests virtually controlled the country. They acted as intermediaries in all business transactions, they lent grain and precious metals at high rates of interest, they dictated the laws of marriage, slavery and real estate, and otherwise by their sacred trusteeship invaded all economic life. It was the essential tragedy of the Land of the Two Rivers, the prototype of the Garden of Eden, that it never gained freedom from the dominance of the priestly mind.
At Kish, Ur, Susa and Tell al-Ubaïd, excavations have penetrated through the stratified debris of the ancient cultures to find at the lowermost level pottery and other artifacts belonging to the first inhabitants who occupied these sites for any period of time. Any reading of the stratigraphic record must allow considerable latitude for error, for the discoveries at various sites are not as yet satisfactorily collated, nor are authorities agreed on dates, but a free reconstruction indicates that about 5000 B.C. there were settled along the Euphrates one or more types of neolithic people who made a good pottery not greatly different from the almost contemporary Badarian and Tasian cultures of Egypt. At this time another neolithic people, the proto-Elamites from the Iranian plateau, were spreading southward and westward to establish colonies at Susa, Eridu, Ur, Tell al-Ubaïd and other sites along the two rivers. A third group, the Sumerians, were invading the country from the Persian Gulf and bringing with them pictographic writing and the arts of making bricks and of building cities on mounds raised some feet above the water level.
Then, about 4200 B.C., came the great flood which echoes in Babylonian and Semitic lore. Floods were not uncommon in the lowlands of Mesopotamia where the rivers rise rapidly as spring melts the ice and snow in the northern mountains, but this one laid down a six-to ten-foot layer of clay and mud at Kish and Tell al-Ubaïd, indicating that water had covered the lowlands to a depth of perhaps twenty feet. The severity of this particular flood implies exceptionally heavy spring rains combined with the sudden melting of northern snow fields left from the Gschnitz glaciation of some ten centuries before. The reed huts of the earlier inhabitants were washed away and perhaps most of the people were drowned; only the Sumerians who took refuge in their unique, elevated brick cities escaped wholesale destruction.
Perhaps at the time of their immigration by way of the Persian Gulf, and certainly by a short time afterwards, the Sumerians had developed pictographic writing, invented the chariot which was pulled by oxen, and learned the use of bronze. Excavations in the royal cemetery at Ur indicate that by 3100 B.C. they were organized into distinctive classes of slaves, shepherds, agriculturists, craftsmen and merchants, priests, soldiers and government officials. Gold was brought from many lands, silver from Persia, bronze from Oman, lapis lazuli from the Pamirs, amazonite from southern India, conch shells from the Persian Gulf; calcite for vases, diorite for cups, cornelian for beads, malachite for eye paint -- all came from faraway lands and meant trade, discipline, order and the exchange of ideas.
Mesopotamia was hopelessly exposed to aggression from every side, but apart from the danger of foreign invasion no city ever let down its guard against its nearest neighbor. After the Flood the Sumerians gained control of the country and founded the Ist Dynasty of Erech, but they were displaced shortly by the rise of Ur to military power, and for the next millennium the country was engaged in a tug of war between competing city states. About 2500 B.C. the Sumerian and Semitic peoples were consolidated around the city of Akkad under the leadership of Sargon to form the first mighty eastern empire, the Kingdom of Sumer and Akkad. As in the case of Horus, it was afterwards related that Sargon had been born in concealment and set adrift in a basket of bulrushes on the waters of the Euphrates; he had been rescued by Akki, the husbandman, who brought him up as his own son until, when he had reached the age of manhood, the goddess Ishtar fell in love with him; then, his true origin becoming known, the crown was placed upon his head and he entered on a career of foreign conquest.
The empire founded by Sargon was disrupted in a few years (2370 B.C.) by the invasion of the Guti, and in succeeding centuries underwent a series of vicissitudes. In the meantime Babylon, midway between Sumer and Ur, had so grown in strength that its Amorite king, Hammurabi (1940 B.C.), was able to consolidate the land into an empire that greatly exceeded Sargon's in extent and embraced most of western Asia. Yet like all its predecessors, Hammurabi's empire was short-lived, and about 1780 B.C. it fell before the Hittites and the Kassites, the latter bringing with them a strange 'animal of the mountains,' the domesticated horse. Not until 800 B.C. was reconsolidation possible; then the city-state of Assur expelled the invaders permanently and, by probably the cruelest warfare in history, united the country of the Two Rivers with all of Syria and Palestine into the second great empire of the East, Assyria.
While the geography of Mesopotamia tended to produce perpetual war, its physical features were responsible for the fact that, apart from fighting, the people were preoccupied with trade. Since there was no flint for the making of fine tools, no stone and practically no timber, there was no massive architecture and relatively little art. Apart from farming and brickmaking the chief outlet for endeavor was in commerce, and from first to last the Sumerians, Babylonians and Assyrians were travelers, bankers and keepers of accounts. Yet since wealth and good business, like good crops, were favors of the gods, the oldest monumental buildings were temples to the deities, and the oldest written records were the ledgers of sacred scribes. But nothing could be more typical of Mesopotamian culture than the facts that amulets were transformed by the Semites of prehistoric times into magic 'seals' wherewith a man could consecrate or put his taboo upon whatever other men might covet, and that writing was first developed not to record the worship of divinities or the exploits of kings but for the practical device of keeping accounts.
Because of the difficulty of drawing accurate pictograms on clay tablets the Sumerian writing rapidly degenerated into conventional cuneiform symbols which were made with the beveled tip of a reed, the bricks and prisms of fine clay on which these symbols were commonly inscribed being rendered hard and durable by baking. If desired, privacy was obtained by covering the inscribed tablet with another layer of clay on which was inscribed the name and address of the recipient, after which the tablet was given a second baking.
No contemporary literature is available to reveal the details of life or the beliefs of the Sumerians of the time of Ur. The extant records go back scarcely beyond 2000 B.C., and for knowledge of the people of ancient Akkad and Babylon, history is chiefly indebted to the Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal, who ruled from Nineveh about the middle of the seventh century B.C. Ashurbanipal, though ferociously cruel to his enemies, as were all Mesopotamian kings, was a savant, an educated man, a patron of learning and a lover of books; in fact, among the spoils of war he treasured most highly those written works of his enemies which dealt with their history and their gods.
He sent his scribes into all the ancient seats of learning, Akkad, Assur, Babylon, Nippur, Ur, to make copies of the books that were preserved in these places, and these copies he installed in his own palace, or in the nearby temple of Nebo. These books consisted of tablets of the finest homogeneous clay which lent itself admirably to the cuneiform script, and they were written with rare mistakes in a uniform, almost perfect hand. It is possible that the king inscribed and baked many of them himself. The decipherment of the ancient Sumerian literature presented innumerable difficulties, even in Ashurbanipal's time, and to facilitate translation it was necessary to draw up bilingual texts consisting of the signs in one column and, in adjacent columns, the names given to these signs, the phonetic spelling, and the Sumerian or Assyrian equivalents, often with a gloss to complete the explanation.
Perhaps it was the deflection of Ashurbanipal's energy from political and military strategy to scholarly matters that accounted for his difficulties in affairs of state; he let a treacherous brother weaken the solidarity of his empire by fomenting rebellion in Babylon, he failed to hold Egypt in subjugation, and he permitted the Scythians, or Medes, as the Greeks called them, to grow to dangerous power in the East. When he died, the Assyrian empire was drained of its resources and military strength, and only a few years passed before its complete collapse. In 612 B.C. the Scythians occupied Nineveh, and a few decades later the Persians under Cyrus tore down the walls and leveled the buildings with military thoroughness. But they neglected Ashurbanipal's library as of no significance and it lay buried under the fallen bricks. The wind blew a shroud of sand over the ruins until the whole of Nineveh was to all outward appearances but an outcropping of desert rock. When, in 1845, archaeologists began excavating a mud pile representing the remains of an unidentified city, they found there the remnants of this great king's books.
It was unfortunate that the fire-stained, broken contents of Ashurbanipal's library, which represented thousands of volumes, suffered more injury from careless packing when first discovered than they had suffered from the hands of the Medes and Babylonians. The strangely marked bits of clay were thought to be merely decorated pottery, the significance of the inscriptions being then unknown; they were dumped into baskets, with great breakage, and sent down the river on rafts to be shipped to England on a passing man-of-war. But from such fragments as were saved, and from others collected from the ruins of the temple of Nebo and totaling nearly 30,000, there comes most of what knowledge is available about the ancient cities of the Fertile Crescent.
Long before Hammurabi codified the laws of Mesopotamia, the people had read into the constellations the personalities of many deities. The gods of Ur and Babylon, of the Sumerians and Semites, had been mingled together in inextricable confusion as new deities had risen to power by virtue of the military prowess of one or another of the great cities of the empire, but out of the diverse elements there had been forged a major pantheon. Shamash was originally the sun, Sin the moon, and Ishtar both the evening star which precedes the appearance of the moon and the morning star which heralds the approaching sun, and in the beginning Ea had charged Sin, Shamash and Ishtar with the ruling of the sky, apportioning the day and the night between them. Marduk was originally the local god of Babylon, but when that city came to the front politically under Hammurabi, he advanced in prestige until to all purposes he usurped the divine leadership. His chief feast fell at the time of the spring equinox and became for every Babylonian a general New Year period of rejoicing. He was probably first conceived as embodied in the spring sun which brought new life and light, more primitively perhaps as a god of vegetation. With his rise to supremacy there was coupled to his name the Semitic word Ba'al, meaning lord or master, so that he came to be called Bel-Marduk.
Of special interest among the books in Ashurbanipal's library are those recounting the history of Bel-Marduk, and known as the Seven Tablets of Creation, or the Fight between Bel-Marduk and the Dragon, Tiamat. Though it is probable that none of these was actually inscribed before Ashurbanipal's time, the legend they record can be traced by other fragments as far back as 2000 B.C., and that it was in existence in the time of Sargon (2500 B.C.) is indicated by fragmentary evidence. In addition to the Nineveh records, Berossus, a priest of Marduk wrote a history of Babylon in Greek in 280 B.C., and fragments of this history preserved in the works of later Greek writers afford a confirmation of the cuneiform texts.
In the beginning, according to the Seven Tablets of Creation, there were only Tiamat (primordial substance) and Apsu (matter), the mother and father of all things. These beings engendered Mummu (confusion, chaos), with whom they were mingled together in a single, formless mass. After countless eons of quiescence, one might say of divine peace, there were evolved from this admixture a number of gods and a number of grotesque demons. After further eons the gods and demons, by their ceaseless movement, clamor and song, troubled the peace of Tiamat: 'Indeed they upset Tiamat's belly by song in the midst of the divine abode.' Apsu was troubled, too, and when he could not diminish their brawl he summoned Mummu and together they went to Tiamat to complain 'They lay down [on a couch] facing Tiamat. They took counsel together about the gods [their children]. Apsu took up his word and said, To Tiamat, the holy one, he made mention of a matter, [saying] Their way has been vexatious to me. By day I find no peace, by night I have no rest. Verily, I will make an end of them, I will have their way scattered. Let there be silence established; lo, then we shall rest.'
Thus spoke Apsu, wishing to destroy the gods who annoyed him by bringing 'order' into the formless world. Tiamat was outraged at Apsu for proposing such a thing, and recommended kindness. Mummu encouraged his father, however, and offered to destroy the gods for him. So they plotted, but the rumor of the plot escaped and the gods took secret counsel to defend themselves. Ea, 'the prudent god, the exalted one,' by sympathetic magic induced Apsu to go to sleep, and slew him, and in a mad whirl of battle Mummu's manly parts were cut off, his joints were loosened, his 'light' was removed and misery was made his lot. Then the gods returned to the begetting of their kind and to their noisy ways. Tiamat, angered by Apsu's death, now turned upon the gods herself. She spewed out a mass of demons to aid her, among which were the constellations, the Viper, the Snake, the Lakhamu, the Whirlwind, the Dog, and Scorpion-man, the mighty Stormwind, the Fish-man and the Capricorn, and these she put under the direction of Kingu, her second husband, to whom she also gave the Tablet of Destinies, fastening it upon his breast, saying, As for thee, thy command shall not fall empty, what goeth forth from thy mouth shall be established." The gods, alarmed by the frightful mobilization of Tiamat's forces, held counsel again, thinking in their fright, "Nowhere is there a god who will attack Tiamat. He would not escape from Tiamat's presence with his life." However, such a courageous one was found in the god Marduk; but Marduk astutely demanded before going into battle that he be exalted: "If I am to be your avenger to slay Tiamat, and bestow life on you, Summon a meeting, proclaim and magnify my position, Sit yet down together in friendly fashion in Upshukkinaku, Let me determine destinies by the opening of my mouth even as ye do. Whatsoever I bring to pass let it remain unaltered. That which my mouth uttereth shall neither fail nor be brought to nought." When the gods agreed to this request, Marduk, having first tested his newly acquired divinity by making a cloak to disappear and reappear, and thereby knowing himself to be King of the Gods, took for his arms the winds and the lightning and met Tiamat in a mighty conflict in which he slew her and scattered her allies.
The death of Tiamat, primordial substance and the mother of the gods, occurred when she opened her mouth to its greatest extent, for then Marduk made the four winds of the heavens and the seven winds of the typhoon to enter her so that her lips could not close, and the raging winds filled her belly and gripped her heart. He then shot an arrow into her, cleaving her bowels, piercing her heart, destroying her life. The gods were of course greatly pleased with Marduk's success, as indeed was Marduk himself. He thereupon devised a cunning plan to dispose of Tiamat once and for all. He slit her 'open like a shellfish into two pieces. The one half he raised up and made the heavens as a shade therewith; He pulled the bolt, he posted a guard, He ordered them not to let her water escape.' Then he assigned gods to inhabit the holy places -- that is, he set in heaven the sun and moon and the constellations, and gave them the laws which they were never to transgress. From the other half of Tiamat's body Marduk created the earth. The portion of the tablet which may have contained the details of this event is most unfortunately missing.
The gods who had fought at Tiamat's side, Marduk chastised. Kingu, 'who led the rebellion against the gods, he crushed utterly, and took from him the precious Tablet of Destinies which never should have been his in the first place, and sealed it upon his own breast.' Then he fettered this rebellious deity and confined him in a 'dark place.'
It was not long before the gods complained of boredom, their existence being dull because they lacked worshipers to make them offerings. So Marduk devised another 'cunning plan': "I will create the Man. The service of the gods shall be established, and they shall be at rest." Marduk's plan was to create man out of the blood of a god and the bone of earth, and at Ea's suggestion, and 'for the consolation of the gods,' Kingu, the rebellious god, was sacrificed. Kingu was bound, his blood was let, and from it Ea 'fashioned mankind for the service of the gods, and set the gods free.' Everyone was so pleased with the final arrangement that Marduk was chosen and empowered as their leader, not only decreeing the fates of men from the Tablet of Destinies which he wore upon his breast, but also ordering the affairs of the heavens. Men, grateful to Marduk, their hero and creator, built for him a temple at a site which Marduk himself picked out on the banks of the Euphrates; and they called the temple Ba-Bel -- the 'Gate of God.'
Among the elements in the Seven Tablets of Creation which are notable for their historical precedent are the notion of chaos or confusion as a primeval state, the general story of creation which, authorities agree, furnished the pattern for the later Hebrew version, and the rebellious god who was punished and locked up in a dark place. Of chief significance, however, for Mesopotamia itself was the Tablet of Destinies which Marduk carried upon his breast.
The people of the Two Rivers accepted the principle of causality in its most elementary form. When two events had been noticed to happen one after the other, they assumed that the first was the cause of the second; if a plague followed the eclipse of the sun on a particular day, it was expected that a recurrence of the eclipse on the same day would be followed by a recurrence of the plague. Since so many phenomena followed the recurring cycle of the stars, they logically read celestial causes behind all terrestrial events. They conceived that the gods assembled every morning to deliberate on the affairs of the day, when Ea submitted to them the fates which were about to be fulfilled; after these had been approved, a record was made of them on Marduk's Tablet of Destinies.
It is not clear why the gods left any escape from the fate inscribed on Marduk's tablet, but escape there was, by means of divination. In Egypt divination had been a matter of obtaining celestial advice, and even on occasion required some celestial cogitation; but along the Tigris and Euphrates the day's agenda was not subject to amendment, and the sole hope of the victims of the divine decisions was to discover these decisions in advance; accordingly as they were favorable or unfavorable, the victim could move to or from the trap.
The belief in divination served to give direction to Mesopotamian culture as belief in a future life had given direction to the culture of the Nile, the force of the custom being such as to give the priesthood complete domination of the country for over thirty centuries. The king, as high priest of the state, took the responsibility for divination in national affairs, while the daily needs of the people were met by the vast staff of temple priests. The gods revealed their plans to the seers in dreams, or inspired them to speak, or caused the statues in the temples to give answers, or signaled their assent or dissent from stones, trees, springs and weapons. Prophetic significance was attached to the behavior of drops of oil on water, the actions of dogs, horses, birds, fish and serpents, the burning of fire or the rising of smoke, and one of the most popular means of reading the dispositions of the divinities was in the observation of the entrails, and especially the livers, of sacrificial animals. The liver was supposed to be the seat of life, and the interpretation of slight variations in its conformation and markings constituted a specialty, inscribed clay models of sheep livers being used to educate novices in the art. All dreams were charged with prophecy, and there were special divinities of dreams to whom prayers were addressed for favorable visitations; since revelation could best be obtained in sacred places, it was the custom for applicants to incubate, or sleep in the temple, after offering the appropriate sacrifice. Incubation was also practiced to cure disease, and was so systematized that the priests not only prescribed stimulants to induce the desired therapeutic ecstasies but, failing to cure the sick man, would sleep for him on the incubation floor. A notable feature of the Mesopotamian pantheon was its general viciousness. On occasion Marduk's tablet might decree good health and fortune for a man, but the general lot seems to have been an almost continuous state of misery, as though the gods were chronically choleric. No venture could succeed unless the relevant god was in the proper mood. Particular hours, days, weeks and months were dedicated to the making of bricks, the planting of seed, the reaping of grain or the making of wine; to do any of these tasks at the wrong time would be disastrous. Every seventh day was sacred to the moon god, Sin, an evil day on which a man dare not eat cooked flesh, change his garment, offer sacrifices, ride in a chariot, give an oracle, speak a malediction or begin anything new lest the venture be attended by dire misfortune.
No country ever seems to have suffered more from the malignancy of the supernatural. Written texts preserve the names of several thousand gods on whose whims human affairs depended, and the number of lesser spirits, demons, goblins, imps, ghouls, good and evil genii must have been uncountable. These baleful beings, usually grouped in bands of seven, lurked in graves, in shadows, in mountains, in dens in the earth, behind rocks and trees and hedges, in the storehouse, the oven, the door, even in the libation vase. 'They are wicked, they are wicked,' was the universal opinion. Such was the trepidation of the people that scarcely a day passed without their repairing to the temple to fortify themselves against the attacks of demons by sacrifice, purification with sacred water or oil, fumigation in the smoke of torches or aromatic censers, by burning a waxen image of the demon, or by confession. The last was carried to the point where the people confessed categorically and in an all-inclusive manner, in order to avoid the possibility of failing to confess and therefore being punished for some forgotten or unconsciously committed transgression.
Yet in spite of daily ablutions and purifications, in spite of frequent sacrifices and repeated consultation with the oracles, in spite of the fact that the people lived in a constant state of penitence, the malignant beings kept the upper hand. Misfortune continued to be a part of life, and death continued to be its end.
It was perhaps, because the moist soil of Mesopotamia promoted the rapid decomposition of the corpse that the people never made any effort at mummification, and when they rendered the traditional services to the departed, they never posited that the afterlife was dependent upon the preservation of the body. Up to the time of Sargon, the dead, at least in the city of Ur, had been buried in cemeteries in which the graves were arranged regularly and one above another. With the body there were usually interred a few clay vessels for food and drink; in the case of wealthy persons the funerary equipment might be of copper or stone and include a modest quantity of jewelry. The pit tombs of the kings of the Ist Dynasty of Kish were almost as richly equipped as the royal tombs of Egypt; they contained chariots drawn by asses, wagons with oxen, and personal accessories, jewelry and the like frequently made of gold and lapis lazuli. With the bones of these great chiefs were the bones of servants, men-at-arms, charioteers and harpists who had been despatched to join the king. These tombs were dug as pits, sometimes to a depth of twenty feet, through layers of broken pottery, bricks and rubbish which had been accumulating through the centuries, and yet failed to reach the bottom of this debris, showing the long period during which the site had been occupied.
The life which the dead led in the spirit world was definitely worse than that which the living led in this one, and the people resigned themselves to face it as a dreadful but necessary end. The land of the dead, Aralû, was under the domination of the angry goddess Allat, who was full of grim menace and easily provoked to violence, and her husband, Nergal, god of fever and plague. Allat's realm was situated in the western part of the earth and was surrounded by seven walls. Here newcomers were passed through a sort of judgment in which their fate was determined by the lavishness of the offerings and sacrifices which they had made in life. Those who were wanting were consumed by leprosy to the end of time, while those who met the demands of Allat were permitted to drag out a miserable existence in gloom, eating the dust of the earth, suffering from the pangs of thirst and hunger, shivering with cold and constantly plagued by the demons of darkness. Domestic affection, friendships, all memories were effaced, nothing remaining but an inexpressible regret at having been exiled from the world and an excruciating desire to reach the light once more.
The Mesopotamian peoples forever cherished the legend that somewhere in the far corners of the earth there grew a magic fruit which would save a man from the twilight realm of Allat, and their greatest legend was the epic tale of Gilgamesh and his search for the Tree of Life. This tale occupied twelve tablets in the royal library at Nineveh, and aroused considerable interest when it was discovered that the eleventh tablet contained, as a legend within the legend, the story of the Great Flood, the ark and the destruction of men, and recounted how the Babylonian Noah, Uta-Napishtim, was saved by the gods for immortality. Confirmatory fragments of the tale have been discovered at Ashur, Boghaz-Keui and elsewhere in Asia Minor, on tablets of much older date than those in Ashurbanipal's library, and seals of princes who reigned before 2500 B.C. are engraved with episodes in which the hero and his great chief friend Engidu are struggling with various monsters.
Gilgamesh, a man of remarkable physique and heroic character, had, according to the legend, so captivated the youth of his time by his prodigious feats of strength and his unexcelled beauty that the elders of the city complained to Ishtar of the state of neglect to which the younger generation had relegated them. 'He has no longer a rival in their hearts, but thy subjects are led to battle and Gilgamesh does not send one child back to his father. Night and day they cry after him: "It is he, the shepherd of Erech, the well-protected, he is its shepherd and master, he the powerful, the perfect and the wise."' Even the women did not escape: 'He leaves not a single virgin to her mother, a single daughter to a warrior, a single wife to her master.' Ishtar and the gods hearkened to the prayer of the men of Erech and commanded the goddess Aruru to create a rival to Gilgamesh. Aruru washed her hands, took a bit of clay, cast it upon the earth and kneaded it into a male creature who was called Engidu. Engidu's whole body was covered with hair and his tresses were as long as those of a woman; he was different in every way from the people of the country, and lived in the forest eating herbs like the gazelle, drinking with the wild cattle and roaming with the beasts of the field. Mighty in stature, invincible in strength, omniscient of the past and the future, he obtained complete mastery of all the creatures of the forest and would undoubtedly have triumphed over Gilgamesh had not the god Shamash devised a plan to convert these two mighty warriors from enemies into lifelong friends. So terrible was Engidu that no mere mortal could approach him, but Shamash thought that where the strongest of men might fail by employing force, a woman might succeed by the attractions of pleasure. So Shamash sent a hunter to the temple of Ishtar, there to choose from among the priestesses the most beautiful. This the hunter did, and he proceeded with the priestess to the water hole in the mountains where Engidu drank with the animals and sported with the beasts of the water.
The hunter went yonder and got him a priestess.
The woman of Ishtar painted for him a bright picture of Erech and of the pleasant rewards that would come to him as a friend of Gilgamesh. "Thou who are superb, Engidu, as a god, why dost thou live among the beasts of the field? Come, I will conduct thee to Erech, the well-protected, to the glorious house, the dwelling of Anu and Ishtar, to the place where is Gilgamesh whose strength is supreme and who, like Urus, excels the heroes in strength." He hung upon her words and was pleased with the anticipation of having a friend. He said, "Let us go, priestess; lead me to the glorious and holy abode of Anu and Ishtar, to the place where is Gilgamesh whose strength is supreme and who, like Urus, prevads over the heroes by his strength. I will fight with him and manifest to him my power; I will send forth a panther against Erech and he must struggle with it."
So Engidu and the priestess proceeded to Erech, where Shamash tried to persuade him not to return to his mountain home. Not only would the priestess belong to him forever, but Gilgamesh would endow him with a great bed cunningly wrought, and give him a place beside him where the princes of the earth should kiss his feet; and Gilgamesh also sent on offer of entertainment, saying, however, that he would expect the customary present from a stranger and would exercise his privilege over the woman who accompanied him.
The first meeting of Gilgamesh and Engidu took place when the former came in the night to claim his right to the priestess, and Engidu violently resisted him, the two heroes fighting like bulls until Engidu was finally worsted. But the result of this combat was that the two became fast friends.
So Gilgamesh and Engidu went on various glorious exploits, one of which was the rescue of Ishtar herself, who was held captive in a cedar forest in the mountains of the east by a fearful ogre called Humbaba. After a fierce conflict, Gilgamesh and Engidu succeeded in slaying Humbaba, whereupon Ishtar offered her love to Gilgamesh.
Gilgamesh is washing himself and dressing in splendid attire, putting on his white garments, adorning himself with the royal insignia and binding on his diadem, when Ishtar sees him and is consumed by the mortal passion. 'To the love of Gilgamesh she raised her eyes, the mighty Ishtar, and she said, "Come, Gilgamesh, be my husband now. Thy love, give it to me as a gift to me and thou shalt be my spouse and I shall be thy wife. I will place thee in a chariot of lapis and gold, with golden wheels and mountings of onyx: thou shalt be drawn in it by great lions, and thou shalt enter our house with the odorous incense of cedarwood. When thou shalt have entered our house, all the country by the sea shall embrace thy feet, kings shall bow down before thee, the nobles and the great ones, the gifts of the mountains and of the plains they will bring to thee as tribute. Thy oxen shall prosper, thy sheep shall be doubly fruitful, thy mules shall spontaneously come under the yoke, thy chariot horse shall be strong and shall gallop, thy bull under the yoke shall have no rival."'
Gilgamesh is not tempted by the goddess and he repels her with abuse and contempt and insolently inquires what had become of her other mortal husbands. To be loved by the goddess Ishtar is no blessing: her love is a ruin that gives no shelter, a door that lets in the storm, a crazy building, a pitfall, defiling pitch, a leaky vessel, a crumbling stone, a worthless charm, an ill-fitting shoe. "Who was there with thy lord that had an advantage thereby?" he asks her:
I will unfold the tale of thy lovers. Tammuz, the spouse of thy youth, thou hast condemned him to weep from year to year. Alla, the spotted sparrow hawk, thou lovedest him, afterward thou didst strike him and break his wing: he continues in the wood and cries: "Oh my wings." Thou didst afterwards love a lion of mature strength, and then didst cause him to be rent by blows seven at a time, thou lovedest also a stallion, magnificent in battle; thou didst devote him to death by the golden whip: thou didst compel him to gallop for ten leagues, thou didst devote him to exhaustion and thirst, thou didst devote to tears his mother Silili. Thou didst also love the shepherd Tabulu, who lavished incessantly upon thee the smoke of sacrifices, and daily slaughtered goats to thee; thou didst strike him and turn him into a leopard; his own servants went in pursuit of him and his dogs followed his trail. Thou didst love Ishullanu, thy father's gardener, who ceaselessly brought thee presents of fruit and decorated every day thy table. Thou raisedest thine eyes to him, thou seizedest him: "My Ishullanu, we shall eat melons, then shalt thou stretch forth thy hand and remove that which separates us." Ishullanu said to thee: "I, what dost thou require from me? Oh, my mother, prepare no food for me. I myself will not eat: anything I should eat would be for me a misfortune and a curse and my body would be stricken by a mortal coldness." Then thou didst hear him and didst transform him into a dwarf, thou didst set him up in the middle of a couch; he could not rise up, he could not get down from where he was. Thou lovest me now. Afterwards thou wilt strike me as thou didst these.
Ishtar was filled with rage and went up to heaven and complained to Anu, her father, "My father, Gilgamesh has despised me. Gilgamesh has enumerated my unfaithfulnesses, my unfaithfulnesses and my ignominies."
Anu replied in effect that it was her own fault. "Canst thou not remain quiet now that Gilgamesh has enumerated to thee thy unfaithfulnesses, thy unfaithfulnesses and thy ignominies?" But the angry Ishtar would not allow the outrage to go unpunished and she made Anu create a heavenly bull to destroy Gilgamesh, threatening that otherwise she would destroy every living thing in the entire universe by suspending the impulses of desire and the effect of love. So Anu created a bull, the terrible Urus, which thereupon attacked the city of Erech. The bull destroyed three hundred men before Gilgamesh and his great friend Engidu could slay it. Ishtar was now more angry than ever and cursed Gilgamesh. When Engidu heard Ishtar's maledictions he tore out the bull's phallus and threw it in the face of the goddess, saying, "Could I but get at thee, I would serve thee like him; I would hang his entrails about thee." Then Ishtar gathered together all her priestesses, her female votaries, her frenzied women, and together they intoned a dirge, a lamentation over the phallus.
Gilgamesh prepared from the bull's horns vessels to hold unguent for the gods and, after dedicating them in the temple, he and Engidu washed their hands in the Euphrates and took their way back to the city where the people thronged around to admire them. As Gilgamesh looked upon the women of Erech, who joined in the celebration, he asked, "Who is splendid among men, who is glorious among heroes?" To which the answer was, "Gilgamesh is splendid among men. Gilgamesh is glorious among heroes."
The beginning of the seventh tablet is badly damaged, and in the opening lines Engidu lies dying of some unexplained disease, cursing the tree from whose wood the door of his death-chamber has been fashioned:
Had I known, thou door,
He curses Ishtar:
Be the streets thy dwelling,
He recounts to Gilgamesh a vision of the land of death to which he is departing:
To a way whose road turneth not,
For twelve days Engidu lies stricken, with Gilgamesh by his side seeing what it is to die, learning now to fear death. His heart is filled with grief, he buries his friend and sets out across the steppes dreading the time when he must follow him to the land of darkness. He sets out in search of the Tree of Life, for only thus can he avoid the fate of his beloved friend. No man had ever been successful in this quest, for the Tree of Life grew in a remote and terrible country, the road to which was hard and beset by many dangers, but spurred on by his fervent desire he finally makes his way to the land of his ancestor, Uta-Napishtim, who had become immortal. The various adventures that beset the hero, the dangers that he overcame, the manner in which he obtained the magic plant -- which was called 'when-old-the-man-becomes-young-again' -- only to lose it to a serpent while he was bathing in a pool, cannot be recounted here, but it may be noted that it was when he asked Uta-Napishtim for immortality that the latter, explaining how he himself had come by eternal life, related the story of the Flood and of the great ark which he had built and into which he had taken all the animals.
Into the tale of Gilgamesh the people of Mesopotamia had woven threads of their history, their encounters with lions and other ferocious animals, and much of their cosmology; yet these, like the affection of the brave Gilgamesh for his great chief friend Engidu, his seduction by Ishtar, the woman whom all men loved and no man could trust, and the curse she laid upon him when he spurned her, are but embroidery on the epic theme of man's search for immortality.
Although Ishtar plays a major role in the drama of Gilgamesh, her importance would be misjudged were this legend alone considered. She was, in fact, the principal goddess of Mesopotamia and, next to Marduk, perhaps the most popular deity in the Babylonian pantheon.
Ishtar, so it was related in Nineveh and Babylon, had chosen Tammuz, 'son of light' (Dumuzi in Sumerian), to be the lover of her youth, having become entranced with him while watching him shepherding his flocks under the great tree of Eridu, which covers the whole earth with its shade. Then Tammuz was mortally wounded by a wild boar and was cast into the kingdom of Allat. One means remained by which he might be restored to the light of day: his wounds must be washed in the waters of the fountain of youth, which flowed in the land of death, and Ishtar resolved to go in quest of this marvelous spring. The undertaking was fraught with danger, for no one might travel into Aralû without having previously gone through the terrors of death. She arrived at the dark country which is surrounded by seven high walls and approached by seven gates, each guarded by a pitiless warden.
At the first gate she knocked, demanding to be let through, threatening otherwise to tear down the walls, to excite the dead so that they would eat the living. When Allat heard that Ishtar was demanding admission, she gave orders to have the gates opened, but only providing the goddess of love should be treated according to the ancient laws. Mortals enter the world naked and naked they must leave it: and since Ishtar had decided to share their lot she must divest herself of her garments. As she passes through the first gate the guardian removes from her head the great crown. When she asks, "Why, guardian, dost thou remove the great crown from my head?" the reply is "Enter, my lady. Such is the law of Allat." At the second gate the guardian takes the rings from her ears, and so on from gate to gate. Now her necklace with its attached amulets, now the tunic which covers her bosom, now her enameled girdle, her bracelets and the rings on her ankles, until at the seventh gate she is divested of her last covering.
At length she arrives in the presence of Allat and she throws herself upon the goddess of death in order to wrest from her by force the life of her beloved Tammuz. But Allat overcomes her and has her bound and given over to the torments of the other world. In the meantime the world of the living is wearing mourning on account of Ishtar's death. In the absence of the goddess of love the rites of love are no longer performed, the passions of animals and men are suspended, the race is about to become extinct, the earth is a desert and the gods are left without votaries or offerings. The gods are very much concerned, but they know they cannot get Ishtar back without effecting the resurrection of Tammuz. Ea, the supreme god, he who alone can modify the laws imposed upon creation, at length decides that an exception to the law of death will have to be made. So he creates a messenger whom he sends to Allat commanding the release of Ishtar and her lover. Allat is outraged at this invasion of her rights but she can do nought but obey the orders of the supreme divinity.
And thus it was that Ishtar and her lover returned to earth. Thereafter the fate of Tammuz was in her hands. Every year she must bathe him in pure water, clothe him in a robe of mourning and play to him sad airs upon a flute, while her priestesses intoned their doleful chants and tore their breasts in sorrow: only thus, as long as she celebrated in his behalf the prescribed ceremonies, would his heart take fresh life and his youth flourish once more between springtime and springtime.
Some historians believe that the original of Ishtar was the Semitic goddess Ashtar or Astarte. It is generally accepted that the Semites, before their specialization from other Arabian peoples, possessed a matriarchal society made up of the mothers and their brothers and children who inhabited a particular oasis in the Arabian desert. The fathers were men of other tribes, dwelling in other oases, who contracted only temporary unions with the women of neighboring clans. Descent was traced through the mother, who was not only the head of the clan but its leader in battle, and all masculine authority, such as it was, was vested in the brother or the maternal uncle of the matriarch. In such a society the chief deity would of course be a counterpart of the matriarch, and if male divinities existed they must have been conceived as divine uncles rather than as divine fathers, since fatherhood was biologically unrecognized.
Other historians see in Ishtar a Euphratean deity who absorbed the Semitic Astarte. The priority of either goddess is, however, obviously suspect when one recalls the neolithic images of pregnant women with full breasts and enlarged or steatopygous buttocks that are found all the way up the peninsula of Italy, around the Adriatic and down into Greece, across Phoenicia, Syria and Palestine, along the Nile and down both the Tigris and Euphrates to the Persian Gulf. It must be accepted that these neolithic figurines bespeak beliefs which foreshadowed all the Great Mother cults of protohistoric time.
Ishtar's nature was a confusing mixture of antitheses, As a cruel goddess of war she was identified with the morning star; robed in flames, armed with bow, two quivers and a sword, she gave oracular direction and success in arms to a long line of mighty kings from Sargon down to Ashurbanipal. As the sympathetic mother of mankind she listened to the supplications of the diseased the unhappy, all who were struck by misfortune. As a giver of earthly blessings she was mistress of the magic arts and counteracted the wiles of demons. As goddess of love she was identified with the evening star and was, like Isis, the spirit of fertility in man and beasts and of the green things of the earth. Green was her special color, and the ashera or post, a conventional symbol of the living tree, was sacred to her. The dove, probably because of its erotic temperament, was her sacred bird. The fact that she had first loved Tammuz, as Gilgamesh recounted, then a bird, a lion, a stallion, a shepherd, a gardener and finally himself indicated how impartially she distributed her favors.
Ishtar's descent into Aralû presents a parallel instance to the death and resurrection of Osiris, where a legendary drama acquired magic power: on the principle of sympathetic magic, that a desired effect can be obtained by imitating it, the resurrection of Tammuz through Ishtar's grief was dramatically represented annually in order to insure the success of the crops and the fertility of the people. Each year during the winter rains the earth was thrilled by the god and was fructified by him, pouring forth its abundance of flowers and fruits; each year in the summer heat the god died, and the earth was plunged into grief and barrenness, only to be made joyous again by his resurrection. Each year men and women had to grieve with Ishtar over the death of Tammuz and celebrate the god's return, in order to win anew her favor and her benefits.
Ishtar's temple in Babylon was maintained by women to whom the rigid constraints of the harem and the veil had no appeal, or those who were forced, either by divorce or the denial of their husbands, to walk the streets. It was reported by Herodotus that every woman born in the country had once during her lifetime to enter the enclosure of the temple and wait there upon a stranger. The wealthy made their way to the temple in closed chariots followed by a considerable train of slaves:
The greater number seat themselves on the sacred pavement, with a cord twisted about their heads -- and there is always a great crowd there coming and going; the women being divided by ropes into long lanes, down which strangers pass to make their choice. A woman who has once taken her place here cannot return home until a stranger has thrown into her lap a silver coin, and has led her away beyond the limits of the sacred enclosure. As he throws the money he pronounces these words, "May the goddess Mylitta [Mulitta, 'she who causes to bear'] make thee happy!" ... The silver coin may be of any value, but none may refuse it, that is forbidden by the law, for, once thrown, it is sacred. The woman follows the first man who throws her the money, and repels no one. When once she has accompanied him, and has thus satisfied the goddess, she returns to her home, and from thenceforth, however large the sum offered to her, she will yield to no one. The women who are tall or beautiful soon return to their homes, but those who are ugly remain a long time before they are able to comply with the law; some of them are obliged to wait three or four years within the enclosure.
With the exception of Isis, Ishtar was worshiped for as many centuries as any deity conceived by mankind, her votaries repairing to her temples with not only oriental casualness but a feeling of sanctity and righteousness. They could only serve her truly who shared her pains and pleasures: the women wept each year with Ishtar over the fatal wound of Tammuz; to serve at least once in her temple was a religious duty; the self-mutilated eunuchs and the boys and men who dressed themselves as women and gave themselves to womanly pursuits had about them an aura of sanctity; the men who sought the embraces of her priestesses simultaneously experienced communion with the Fruitful Goddess, the Divine Mother. In later days a newly developing asceticism led men to condemn her worship as an evil thing, but they continued by fasting or self-torture, dancing, singing, bloody sacrifices and other orgies to provoke a perverted ecstasy in order to establish communion with the deity.
In Gilgamesh's recital of her 'unfaithfulnesses and ignominies,' Ishtar is pictured as maltreating every lover. Perhaps this fickleness is but an echo of duplicity on the part of the ancient Semitic matriarchs whom men loved at the risk of life, or of the tragedy in which her first lover, Tammuz, died; or perhaps it is an epitome of her dual aspect as goddess of both love and war. Whatever the reason for her antithetic composition, when the people of the East depicted the Mother of All Living as full of contradictions, made her at once cold and passionate, chaste and lascivious, faithful and treacherous, kind and cruel, they achieved notable success in the deification of creation.