The Story Of Religious Controversy
Religion and Morals in Ancient Babylon
THE first great historian, Herodotus, a Greek who traveled widely over the ancient world several centuries before the birth of Christ, has left us a description of the city of Babylon. It is believed by many scholars that he personally visited the mighty city in its decline; though we hardly need the warning that, even if he passed through Mesopotamia, he would not speak the language, and his remarkable statements must come largely from the lips of “guides.” However that may be, this Greek description represented almost all that we knew about Babylon until recent times.
And we can understand the Greek’s enthusiasm. The city was built in a perfect square, one-half on each side — of the river Euphrates, and the streets ran in straight lines, north to south and east to west; as in a modern American city. Two vast walls, three hundred and thirty-five feet in height and eighty-five feet broad at the top, enclosed the city; and they were, he says, fifty- six miles in circumference, so that the entire enclosed area would comprise nearly two hundred square miles! A hundred magnificent bronze gates pierced the walls; and smaller walls, each pierced by twenty-five bronze gates at the end of the streets, shut the city from the river.
“In magnificence,” Herodotus goes on, “there is no other city that approaches it.” The walls and public buildings, constructed generally of sun-dried bricks — for there is little stone in the region — were faced with glazed or enameled tile of brilliant colors. Nor was this artistic coating, which shone in the Mesopotamian sun, a monotonous surface of blue or yellow or white. The Babylonian artisans attained so high a pitch of art in enameling their clay that huge figures of bulls or lions or legendary animals stood out in relief from the bright surface. Great bronze figures of bulls and serpents guarded the gates. The houses which lined the streets were “mostly three or four stories high.” The palaces of the rich added to the splendor; and one of the “seven wonders of the world” were certain “hanging gardens,” which seem to have been beautiful parks of trees and flowers in the topmost of a series of super-imposed arches rising seventy-five feet above the ground, and irrigated by an ingenious apparatus which brought up water from the river.
We can well believe that, as he vaguely says, the king’s palace was a stupendous building; for the mound of clay into which it has sunk in the course of time is seven hundred yards, or nearly half a mile, in circuit. But the most impressive edifices were the great temples. That of the chief god, Marduk, rose about three hundred feet above the level of the city; and its seven stages were (at the lowest level) coated with pitch and above faced with red, blue, orange or yellow enameled tile, or faced with gold or silver, in honor of the sun (gold), the moon (silver), and the five large known planets, with which the chief Babylonian gods were associated.
The furniture was as magnificent as the structure was imposing. Three great courts enclosed the area round the temple, and on the west side of the inner court, opposite the vast pyramid, was the temple of the god Marduk and his wife. Here was a gold statue of the god forty feet high, with a gold table, a gold chair, and a gold altar, Outside was a stone altar on which animals were sacrificed, and an incredible quantity of incense was burned. Up the side of the seven-staged temple ran a winding stair, and at the top was the symbolical chamber of the god, with furniture of solid gold, awaiting the hour when he would descend to visit his priestess.
From the summit of the temple one would look for many miles over the great plain (in Babylonian, “Edin”) which sustained the millions of humbler folk who in turn sustained all this splendor. But even the soil was a prodigy. The harvest was, Herodotus says, twice or thrice as bountiful as in other lands, the ears of wheat and barley growing to a phenomenal size. Rich groves of palm trees waved in the breeze all over the plain; and so expert were the food-growers that from the fruit of the palm they got “bread, wine, and honey.” From their scattered villages they looked with pride toward Babel — it is the Greeks who made the name “Babylon” — or “The Gate of the God” — a name which ignorant Hebrew scribes long afterwards connected with their own word for to confuse” and turned into a myth.
Herodotus brings the very people before us in this enthusiastic account of Babylon in the First Book of his history. They were clad in white linen tunics to the feet. Over this they wore a woolen tunic or robe and a white mantle. They had the full beards of the Semite, and wore their hair long; and both men and women copiously bathed themselves with perfumes. Men carried walking sticks, with fancily carved heads; and they had seals, to seal the clay envelopes of their clay letters, dangling from their girdles. Women had strings of beads on their heads.
But how did they live? Here the historian begins to tell stories which, considering the high civilization of the Babylonians, are less easy to believe than his descriptions of the city.
They had no physicians, he says. The sick man was laid in one of the public squares with which the city abounded, and every passerby was compelled to ask his symptoms or his malady. If any had had the same malady, or knew another person who had been similarly afflicted, he told the patient what to do. And if the sick man died, he was buried in honey!
Marriage, he says, was by purchase or auction sale. On a certain day all the maids of a place were assembled and put up to the highest bidder. No parent was permitted otherwise to dispose of his daughter; and assuredly no daughter to dispose of herself. The price was pooled and equally divided in dowries, so that the prettier girls helped to endow the less favored.
This is bad enough, as we shall see, but I will conclude this sketch from the pages of Herodotus with his account of their “one most shameful custom”; for the whole evil reputation of Babylon for more than two thousand years, and its reputation for vice in the minds of most people today, is based almost entirely upon this passage. A religious reader might remind me that the “prophet” Baruch makes precisely the same statement (vi, 43), but I invite him to learn that “Baruch” is the latest and most shameless of the Jewish forgeries, and was almost certainly written in the first century of the present era. The writer of it does not confirm, but he drew his own information from, the Greek historian.
This famous statement about the morals of ancient Babylon is to the effect that every woman had “once in her life” to prostitute herself in what Herodotus calls “the court of Venus”: meaning no doubt, the court of the temple of the goddess Ishtar. There she was compelled to stand until some man threw her a coin, saying, “The goddess Mylitta prosper thee,” and taking her away to his couch. The ordeal — Herodotus is kind enough to represent it as an ordeal to them — was over at once for the prettier maids of Babylon; but the plainer, he calmly says, had to “wait three or four years in the precinct. And even Sir J.G. Frazer has not been intimidated by the absurdity of the latter sentence, or by the almost unanimous rejection of the whole story by modern scholars, and has given further currency and the weight of his own authority to it in his great work “Adonis, Attis, Osiris.”
Herodotus — most of the preachers who quote the legend do not seem to know — not only represents Babylonian women as shrinking from the affront to which their religion and their priest exposed them, but he graciously adds that, once a woman has accepted the coin and discharged her debt, “no gift, however great, will prevail with her.” A modern Herodotus would hardly say that of the entire body of women of one of our modern cities! And there is a third passage of the historian which represents the Babylonians as singularly delicate in regard to sex. When. a husband and wife have had intercourse at night, be says, they must sit on either side of a burning censer until dawn, and they must then purify themselves by washing before they are allowed to touch anything.
I reproduce this medley of incredible stories so that the reader may see for himself the very feeble foundation for the common opinion of ancient Babylon; the source of the myth that is still treasured in the religious literature of the world. That Herodotus ever visited Babylon seems to me almost as incredible as that Sir J.G. Frazer ever read Herodotus. In any case, modern scholars have long suspected that the legend about the women of Babylon is an absurdity, and recent archeological research has completely discredited it. This chapter will establish beyond cavil that the men and women of Babylon were at least as moral in sexual matters as, and probably more moral than, the inhabitants of any metropolis of our time. But let us at once correct some of the errors of the historian.
Babylon was a mighty city, and all that Herodotus says about its beauty is confirmed by our discoveries. I am speaking of the city of Babylon which was known to the ancient Jews in the sixth century B.C.; for it had earlier been destroyed by the Assyrians and had then, as the curse of the great god Marduk clung to the destroyers, been rebuilt on a larger scale, and lavishly decorated in the seventh century. This new and grander Babylon is the city of Herodotus and of the Old Testament.
Singularly enough, though its circuit seems to have been nearer twelve miles than the fifty-six miles of the Greek historian, its famous walls were actually about ninety feet broad at the top. Several automobiles, had there been such things, could have raced abreast along the lofty summit of the walls. Except in regard to the area of the city Herodotus was well informed.
But in regard to its morals and its women he totally misunderstood his informants. There was no auction of wives in Babylon, and there was no such law as the prostitution of every woman at the temple of Ishtar. By that time, as we shall see, Ishtar was actually a patroness of virtue and the chief “refuge of sinners.” Women had in ancient Babylon a position of respect and prestige scarcely lower than they have won in modern times; and the law of sexual purity was most drastically enforced upon both sexes.
Modern learned commentators on Herodotus (such as How and Wells, now the standard authorities) curtly dismiss both of these statements of the historian. Marriage by auction was, they say, an ancient custom that had been abandoned ages before the time of Herodotus and of the Jewish Exile. The marriage mart is, or has been, a real Oriental custom, but it obviously belongs to village life or a low state of development. It is absurd to think of it in connection with the vast city of more than a hundred square miles area which we have described, In fact, How and Wells say that the proper reading of Herodotus is that be represents it as a custom of the past.
As to the historian’s vivid and detailed description of the women at the temple, the commentators remark that such a thing was not unknown in the ancient east, but Herodotus “is wrong in making universal one single set of rites, those of the goddess Nana at Erech.” In plainer English, we know that there were certain parts of the east in its decay where sacred prostitution was enjoined by religion, and we discuss this in a later chapter, “Phallic Elements in Religion.” We have further some ground to believe that the custom was in force at the old Babylonian provincial town of Erech.
But we have no other trace of it in Babylonia, and in the great city itself we can say positively that there was no such custom. The law, as I will now describe it, is so severe in regard to sexual offenses, and religious literature ascribes to the gods and goddesses so stern a demand of sexual purity in their worshipers, that the story is now generally abandoned. We have, in fact, even more positive disproof in the marriage-tablets of the women of Babylon, which habitually describe the bride as a virgin. The few modern writers who think that there may have been one temple on the out-skirts of Babylon with the custom have, apparently, not weighed the evidence. It enormously outweighs the words of Herodotus, who makes frequent mistakes.
We have in the previous section swept aside the oldest and worst calumny of the ancient Babylonians. The absurd story told by Herodotus — absurd in connection with a city almost as large as London — is still repeated constantly in religious works, but it is quite false and is generally relegated by scholars to the department of ancient legends. We have now to get a more positive knowledge of the Babylonian character, and again we shall find a remarkable series of discoveries vindicating the old civilization and actually showing us that Judaism and the Old Testament were deeply indebted to it.
One of these is the discovery of the Babylonian code of laws compiled by King Khammurabi. The Mosaic code of law had hitherto been regarded as, for its age, the most just and original in history: so wonderful, in fact, that millions still believe it to be the outcome of inspiration. Now we have the real source of at least part of its inspiration in a Babylonian code hundreds of years older than the supposed date of Moses, and sixteen centuries older than the Mosaic laws as we have them! It is, moreover, far more just than the Mosaic code, and implies a far higher degree of civilization. To understand it and its significance let us glance at the earlier history of Babylonia.
In the dim light of the dawn of civilization, six or seven thousand years ago, we find two very different races mingling on the great plain of Mesopotamia. One was a race of beardless men, in some respects like the Mongolians, whom we call the Sumerians or Akkadians. The other was the Semitic race, a type like that of the Jew, which in the end became predominant. The Sumerians seem to have descended upon the plain from the mountains of the northeast — the direction of Asia — and it is clear that they drained the vast marshes, confined the rivers where necessary, irrigated the dry land, and built the first cities.
They also, like the Egyptians, Chinese, and Mexicans, developed a picture-writing (hieroglyphics) which became in time the scrawls on clay tablets which we call the “cuneiform” (wedge- shaped) writing of the Babylonians and Assyrians. The “scribe,” if we may call him that, used a slender square wooden pencil, and with this he made indentations on the clay. Thus what had originally been a picture of a bird or a man became a few wedge-shaped lines standing for the same object.
It is interesting to learn that, as scholars have found, the first cities of the Sumerians, such as Eridu and Nippur, the sites of which are now some two hundred miles from the sea, were originally sea-ports. This obviously means that the two great rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, have formed two hundred miles of land with their silt in the last six thousand years. The interest of the fact is that it suggested to the ancient Sumerians their version of the creation of the world, which is now summarized in the first verses of Genesis. The beginning was a watery waste, and the gods separated the land from the water.
The Sumerians were the great city-builders, agriculturists, and engineers. But from the earliest age we find the Semitic people, probably from Arabia, mingling with them and taking over the work of civilization. I pass over the two thousand years of what we may call elementary or evolving civilization. The people were gathered in a number of city-states and these were generally ruled by the priests. At last arose a Babylonian monarch, Sargon, a Sumerian, who has a peculiar interest in connection with religion.
I have before me, as I am compiling the notes for this work in the British Museum at London, a number of clay tablets, covered with cuneiform writing of the Babylonians and Assyrians. One of these tablets refers to Sargon, the great king. It seems that (for reasons which are left to the imagination) his mother bore him in secret. After the birth she made a little ark or boat of reeds or rushes, coated it with pitch (which is common in that region) and, placing the babe in it, she set it afloat on the great river. But the child was destined to be a mighty leader, and the gods took care of him. A water-carrier found the ark and reared the child, until the goddess Ishtar saw and fell in love with the youth, and made him king over the land.
You have heard that story before. It is the original of the story of the infancy of Moses! Sargon, who founded Babylon and created the first Babylonian empire, lived thirty-eight hundred years before Christ, or long before the date of the Flood and very near the day of Creation. But we are not interested in his primitive empire. It went to pieces, and there was again a clash of ambitions, a series of small city-states, until about 2160 B.C., when King Khammurabi needed a uniform law to supersede all the different laws of the various states, and be gathered the best of the old Sumerian laws in one great code.
A copy of this code, carved on a black diorite column seven feet high, was found in the ruins of Susa in 1901. Some conqueror of Babylon, apparently about 1100 B.C., had stolen it, and carried it off to the hills. On the upper part of it is a figure of Khammurabi in an attitude of worship before the sun-god Shamash. H.G. Wells in his “Outline of History” says that it is “Hammurahi receiving his code of law from the god.” He cannot have read the law very closely, as the king very emphatically says that he made the code himself; and there is no doubt that it is a compilation of the old Sumerian and Semitic laws of the region collected and improved much as Napoleon I adjusted the old laws of Europe in his famous Code Napoleon.
The sentiment of justice which inspires the entire code is, in view of its great antiquity, quite remarkable. People who imagine that these old pagan nations lived “in darkness and the shadow of death” will read the clauses of the code with astonishment; and several good English translations are now available. Every conceivable kind of injury or injustice has its separate clause, and the fine or other punishment is assigned with almost mathematical proportion to the delinquency. The relations of husbands and wives are regulated, in a series of forty clauses, with a sense of justice that wives never experienced under any code of laws in Christian Europe during the whole period of its civilization. Slaves are protected against injury, and the rights of the wife against a concubine are severely prescribed.
One of the most astonishing discoveries was that four thousand years ago the Babylonian law laid down a minimum wage for every class of workers in the kingdom: a just enactment, which is in superb contrast to the complete indifference of Christian law to the workers during the last fourteen centuries (the fifth to the nineteenth) of feudalism and exploitation. The boat builder, the boatman, the agricultural laborer, the herdsman, the driver, the potter, the tailor, the mason, the carpenter — in short, every manual worker, skilled or unskilled, had his wage fixed by law. The agricultural workers were paid in corn, and the artisans had from four to six grains of silver.
But it is impossible to compare this with the modern wage, nor would any economist dream of attempting it. It took the Papacy eighteen hundred years to rise to the height of declaring that a worker had a right to a “living wage” (which the Pope emphatically declined to define more closely); and wicked Babylon, the most calumniated of all the old pagan empires, had a definite wage fixed by law two thousand years before Christ was born, and seven hundred years before Moses. The “laws of Moses” are simply borrowed from the Babylonian code, and are not as just as in that code.
We are, however, chiefly interested here in the light which the code throws upon Babylonian notions of sex-morality; though it must not be supposed that I regard this as equal in importance to the just settlement by law of the relations of employers and employees or of husband and wife, master and slave.
Here again we made an astonishing discovery. Babylon, your religious neighbor will inform you, was “a sink of iniquity,” and chastity was unknown in it. One can imagine what his surprise would be, if be could be induced to read such clauses as these in the Khammurabi Code of four thousand years ago:
129. If the wife of a man is found lying with another male, they shall be bound and thrown into the water [the Euphrates]; unless the husband lets the wife live, and the king lets his servant live.
130. If a man has forced the wife of another man, who has not known the male [a child wife] and who still resides in the house of her father, and has lain within her breasts, and he is found, that man shall be slain.
Clause 131 says that if a woman is accused by her husband of adultery and there is no evidence, “she shall swear by the name of god and return into her house.” Clause 132 says that if she is accused by others of adultery, “she shall plunge for her husband into the holy river, or clear herself by ordeal.” Clause 133 enacts that if a man is taken prisoner, and his wife goes off with another man, though there is food for her in the house, she shall be drowned. The next clause says that if she does this because there is no food, “that woman bears no blame.” If, says clause 136, a man who had deserted his wife returned and claimed her, though she had married again, she need not go back. For incest with a daughter (154), the sentence was exile. For adultery with one’s daughter-in- law, if the son had had relations with her, a man was drowned (155). If the son had not yet had intercourse with the girl, the man (156) was heavily fined, and the girl received her dowry back and was free to remarry. In case of incest of mother and son, “both of them shall be burned” (157).
The reader will now perceive the full irony of the statement that is constantly being made from pulpits that we “are returning to the morals of ancient Babylon”! Any attempt in any modern civilization to enforce even an approach to the Babylonian law would result in rebellion. Every variety of sexual offense, which is either not punished at all or only visited with a few months’ imprisonment in any Christian civilization, was in ancient Babylon punished with death. I must, in fact, defend Babylon, not against looseness in sex-matters, but against an apparently just charge of savage puritanism. These old laws were, as one gathers from clause 129, probably not generally enforced in all their rigor. But they are an eloquent testimony to the Babylonian’s stern view of sexual irregularities. Fancy Chicago or New York or London, to say nothing of Rome, Paris, or Madrid, with such laws on its statute-books!
On the other hand, there was a very easy and just law of divorce or remarriage. When we read in one clause that a woman was divorced by the husband merely saying, “she is divorced,” we may be inclined to suspect injustice. but other clauses restore the balance. Clause 142 enacts that a woman has only to refuse conjugal rights, which would lead to a judicial inquiry, and, if the man is proven at fault, she takes her dowry and is free to marry again. Many clauses regulate her right to her dowry and other property, and protect her against the intrigues of concubines.
In fine, there are clauses referring to priestesses and other women serving the temples which throw light on the subject. Chilperic Edwards, whose fine translation of this remarkable Khammurabi Code can be bought for half a dollar, tells us that four types of sacred women are mentioned. Two of these are married priestesses, and the following two clauses show how irreproachable their lives had to be:
110. If a priestess who has not remained in the sacred building shall open a wine-shop, or enter a wine-shop for drink, that woman shall be burned.
127. If a man has pointed the finger against a priestess or the wife of another man unjustifiably, that man shall be thrown before the judge, and his brow shall be branded.
The other two types of sacred women were, apparently, not married; one is expressly called a “virgin.” But, though the law regulates their dowry (which the father should settle on them on devoting them to the temples), it never contemplates the possibility of their having children. I gather from the references that they were “temporary nuns,” leaving to marry after a time. Nowhere in the whole law is there the least allusion to sacred prostitution.
Such were the laws which King Khammurabi and his successors often administered in person at the gates of the temples. There were, of course, other courts; and we find an enactment that a judge who has given an unjust verdict shall suffer the same fine or punishment increased twelve-fold, and then be deposed. Let us hear no more about the iniquity of Babylon.
There are four or five sources from which we may derive a more authoritative account of the ideals of the Babylonians than from the pages of a traveler who, even if he visited Babylon, which is not certain, did not speak the language, and has demonstrably included many serious errors in his narrative.
One source is the code of laws which we have just examined. A second source is the collection of legal documents we have recovered; and of these it is only necessary to say that the most extraordinary engagements are sealed with religious oaths and the marriage contracts habitually describe the bride as a virgin. Another source is the collection of creation-myths and other legends. But the main source is what is broadly called the “temple literature,” or ritual: a very large collection of written oracles or forecasts, of magical texts and incantations, and of hymns and prayers.
How we happen to possess this large literature in connection with so ancient a civilization the reader will already understand. There was nothing of the nature of paper or papyrus or parchment in Babylonia. But there was much clay, and, molded into convenient form of small thick tablets (like tiles) or cylinders, it affords a good surface for the scribe. It is increasingly thought that, as I have often hinted, the Sumerians, the founders of Babylonian civilization, came from the direction of Central Asia; and they had, like the early Chinese, a kind of picture-writing. When clay was adopted as the writing material, these figures or little pictures of objects degenerated into the groups of wedge-shaped marks – cuneiform characters — with which most people will be familiar.
But clay, once baked, may last forever. As a brother-author once remarked in taking the chair for me for a lecture on Babylon: “These ancient authors had one advantage over us — the more you burned their books, the more immortal they became.” Hence it is that we have so plentiful a collection of what was written in Babylonia during two thousand years or more: even letters from man or wife, marriage tablets, business contracts, and so on, For the sacred literature and the semi-sacred epics we have the further advantage that great collections of these tablets were made in libraries. Asurbanipal, the greatest king of Assyria, and a most zealous patron of science and letters, formed (about 650 B.C.) an enormous library of tens of thousands of tablets, and we have had the good fortune to recover a large part of this.
The reader must not for a moment suppose that the few documents I can quote here are just isolated texts that may not have been typical. Many volumes of translations of them have been published, and I select only what is entirely representative; and, for the convenience of the reader who wishes to verify these remarkable sentiments, I take the translations mainly from Professor M. Jastrow’s admirable “Religion of Babylonia and Assyria.” A very much smaller work by Dr. T. Pincher, with the same title, will be found a good summary of Babylonian religion.
As a rule the incantations or exorcisms, the charms or spells with which the priests drove out the devils or combated their influence, are more interesting from the religious than the moral point of view. But some of these incantations are closely allied to prayers. The earliest are mere charms. God is invoked to drive out the devil: the good spirit is asked, in semi-magical formulae, to smite the evil spirit. But as time went on the idea grew that a man’s sins had brought the evil upon him, and confession of sin became a condition of recovery.
It is clear from the tablets that the priests came to draw up lists of sins — much like what you will find in Roman Catholic prayer books today — and one of these was read by the priest to the worshiper, so that he might recognize and confess his transgression. They therefore give us the Babylonian moral code. One of them, translated by Professor Jastrow, begins as follows:
Is his guilt against a goddess?
Is it a wrongful deed against his master?
Hatred towards his elder brother?
Has he despised father and mother?
Insulted his elder sister?
Has he given too little? [short weight]
Has he withheld too much?
Has he for “no” said “yes”?
For “yes” said “no”?
Has he used false weights?
Has be possessed himself of his neighbor’s house?
Has he approached his neighbor’s wife?
Has he shed the blood of his neighbor?
Robbed his neighbor’s dress?
This code, the same entirely as ours, is couched in dry official language. In the prayers and psalms it so closely approaches ours, or corresponds so wholly to ours, that for use in a modern church very little alteration would be needed. One class of psalms, known as “the Penitential Psalms,” and probably recited by priest and penitent when the sin had been confessed, is of particular interest. I reserve for the fourth section the petitions addressed to the goddess Ishtar, and need give here only one or two specimens of the language habitually used. Lines from one are:
its former condition!
The sin I have committed I know not.
Food I have not eaten;
Clean water I have not drunk.
This “fasting” of the penitent is very frequently mentioned. It seems to have been a constant religious practice of the “depraved” Babylonians; and the Roman Catholic may find that fact as disturbing as the confession of sins to the priest, the imploring of the intercession of “the Queen of Heaven,” or the annual celebration of the death and resurrection of a god.
One of their hymns recalls to our minds the Lord’s Prayer; and it is still more strongly recalled by the following prayer which King Nebuchadnezzar, on his accession to the throne of Babylon six hundred years before the birth of Christ, or in 604 B.C., addressed to the great sun-god Marduk:
Grant that the name of the king whom thou lovest,
Whose name thou hast mentioned, may flourish as seems good to thee.
Guide him on the right path.
I am the ruler who obeys thee, the creation of thy hand.
It is thou who hast created me,
And thou hast entrusted to me sovereignty over mankind.
According to thy mercy, O Lord, which thou bestowest upon all,
Cause me to love thy supreme rule.
Implant the fear of thy divinity in my heart.
Grant to me whatsoever may seem good before thee, Since it is
thou that dost control my life.
Had I the slightest interest in such matters, I would recommend this prayer for the accession-service of the next king of England! Seriously, if these Babylonian hymns and prayers had had the good fortune to be translated into English by the poetic generation which translated the Old Testament, we should hear no more about the superiority of the latter.
There are hundreds of such hymns, scores to Shamash as well as Marduk. Here is one that might have been taken as the very model of the Lord’s Prayer, yet the Rev. Professor Sayce, who translates and reproduces it, tells us that it was chanted in the temple of Sin at Ur as long ago as 2500 B.C.:
upholds the life of all mankind!
First born, omnipotent, whose heart is immensity, and there is
none who may fathom it!
In heaven, who is supreme? Thou alone. …
On earth, who is supreme? Thou alone. …
As for thee, thy will is made known in heaven, and the angels
bow their faces.
As for thee, thy will is made known upon earth, and the
spirits below kiss the ground.
He is the source of all light and life and strength, the creator and merciful farther of all. One prayer runs:
Eternally just in the heavens art thou;
Of faithful judgment towards all the world art thou.
O Shamash, supreme judge of heaven and earth art thou.
O Shamash, on this day cleanse and purify the king, the son of his God.
Whatsoever is evil within him, let it be taken out.
The constant reference in these prayers to the “supremacy” of the one or the other god raises the question of Monotheism. It may be said at once that there was never a time when the whole people of Babylonia believed in the existence of only one god. One wonders if there was ever such a time in Judea. Certainly during nearly the whole period covered by the Old Testament the Jews did not deny the existence of other gods. They merely insisted that Jahveh was supreme and alone worthy of worship. So it was, at different periods of Babylonian history, with Sin, Shamash, or Marduk. A god becomes “unique” only when political circumstances enable his priests to suppress his rivals. That was possible in the little kingdom of Judea. It was not possible in a land where great cities, three thousand years old, with special deities and powerful priesthoods, rivaled the metropolis.
But we have, fortunately, found positive proof that the educated Babylonians were monotheistic four thousand years ago. We have discovered a tablet of about 2000 B.C. — the period when the rise of Babylon made Marduk supreme — in which the other gods are represented as merely different aspects of Marduk. Thirteen of the chief deities of Babylonia (Bel, Sin, Nebo, Nergal, etc.) are thus explained, and the list goes no farther only because the tablet is broken. Monotheism was thus the religion of educated Babylonians seven centuries before Moses, and of educated Egyptians, not much later.
We turn now to a very different, but equally interesting and illuminating, aspect of Babylonian religious and moral life. We have seen what a land of gods and goddesses it was. We shall now see that it was a land of devils innumerable; and the very source of the weird belief in legions of malignant spirits which, through Judaism, passed on into Christianity. And this side of Babylonian life must be considered here because it is intimately connected with the virtue of the Babylonian people. No one who is acquainted with it can doubt that if, as we saw, adultery was a vice in ancient Babylon, there were more urgent incentives to avoid it than there are in Christendom.
Had, then, the Babylonians a worse hell than that of the Christian Church? No: no other religion surpasses Christianity in that respect, and very few approach it. The Babylonians seem in their latest days — I should think under Persian influence — to have partially adopted the belief in punishment and reward after death. During practically the whole of their four thousand years’ history, they had no idea of reward and punishment beyond the grave. They believed, however, more intensely than most Christians believe in hell, that a man was punished in this world for his sins; and, since there was no escape from the penalty before it was felt (as there is in the case of hell), the deterrent was very effective.
There were two foundations of the Babylonian belief. One was their extreme vagueness about life after death. That the mental part of a man survived the body they fully believed. This was the oldest and most deeply ingrained of religious beliefs. But all that the Babylonians knew, though their learned priest speculated much on the subject, was that the dead passed into a dark, dim cave under the earth, Arabu, or the House of Arabu. In the legend of Ishtar, who (as we shall see) “descended into hell,” it is said:
Ishtar, the daughter of Sin, turned her mind,
The daughter of Sin turned her mind;
To the home of darkness, the dwelling of Irhalla,
To the house whence no one issues who has once entered it,
To the road from whence there is no return, when once it has
To the house whose inhabitants are deprived of light,
The place where dust is their nourishment, their food clay,
They have no light, dwelling in dense darkness,
And they are clothed, like birds, in a garment of feathers,
Where, over gate and bolt, dust is scattered.
Here again, we may note in passing, the Babylonians were the teachers of the Jews. Through the greater part of the Old Testament the Jews know only that the dead pass underground to Sheol, the land of darkness”; and Sheol is only a variant of another Babylonian name for the home of the dead, Shuala. It was only when they came much later under Egyptian and Persian influence that the Jews began to talk of “the spirit returning to God who made it.” In the end, when Greek influence fell on them, their educated men began (like the writer of Ecclesiastes) to reject the very idea of immortality. So little question is there of “revelation” in the Hebrew religion; and, as to the “religious instinct,” we need not observe that it seems to have taught the early civilizations entirely contradictory things about the most fundamental of religious beliefs!
The Babylonians dreaded this lower world. Their priests avoided mention of it. It was felt that the dead were soured by their gloomy prison underground, and would harm the living. This was one of the primitive roots of the belief in malignant spirits; and it leads us on to the next basis of Babylonian character — the belief that the gods allowed legions of devils to torment the sinner in this life. One large class of the Babylonian devils has the express title “shades of the dead.” Other and more powerful demons are clearly gods of an earlier generation whom a more successful religion has turned into devils. Alongside of the elaborate religion, the virtual Monotheism, of the priests and the educated, Babylonia had plenty of religion in its more primitive stages: spirits of the river, the tree, the field, etc., and countless legions of evil spirits warring against men.
If there is one thing that Christianity owes to Babylon more plainly than another it is the belief in legions of devils, There were countless numbers of them, arranged by the priests in classes for the purpose of exorcism. They lurked by day in dark places, old ruins or groves, or in the desert, at night they set out to torture humanity. Every evil, from a tornado to a toothache, came from them. Most dreaded of all were the “night spirits,” Lilu and his wife Lilitu: and it would be profoundly interesting to trace the evolution of Lilitu into Lilith, the “screech owl,” the “night monster,” of the Jews, the vampire or blood-sucker of the Arabs, the fanciful creature of some of our modern novelists and mystics.
But our material is too vast and our space too small. What we have to notice here is that these immense armies of demons were responsible for every disease and misfortune of the Babylonians. Did a maid show the symptoms of anemia? Obviously Lilu or Lilitu had been busy at night with her body. Did a man or woman have an erotic dream leaving him or her excited and unsatisfied? It was Ardat Lili. Headaches, toothaches, stomachaches — every organ of the body had its demonic tormentors. Fevers (from the marshes), plagues and all pestilences were their work. Even “the evil wind, the terrible wind, that sets one’s hair on end” had its demon. Pictorially they were represented as ferocious beings of animal head and human body: the prototypes of our devil pictures. Some were so powerful that they were next to gods. The book of Job is thoroughly Babylonian.
It followed that devil-dealers, sorcerers and witches, were very common. They turned on or turned away the “evil eye”: they gave magical (and often poisonous) potions: they made little clay or pitch images of your enemy and injured or killed him through that. Dreadful, you say, for so high a civilization! Why, the whole of Europe believed and did these things until modern times. Late in the Middle Ages cardinals sought to kill a pope by getting a sorcerer to make a wax image of him!
What could a man do but appeal to the more powerful spirits, the gods? Hence the immense number of priestly spells, incantations, and exorcisms, to which I have referred. These were at first merely magical formulae (much as you read in the first part of Goethe’s “Faust,” which is thoroughly Babylonian). The gods were conjured to drive out the devils. But, as we saw, the ethical note gradually entered. The gods were the “fathers” of all men, they were full of love and mercy, and so on. Why, then, did they permit these demons to torture their children? The answer was as natural as on the lips of a modern preacher. Men had offended the gods by their “sins.”
It is curious how religious writers still boast that Christianity invented the sense of “sin.” Even if this were true, we should be the reverse of grateful. It has so obscured the real meaning of social law and character that it has actually led to far more “sin,” far more injury to men, than there would otherwise have been. At the best it is a morbid illusion. At its commonest it is a fear that the gods will punish a man, just as in ancient Babylon. It is as old as civilization: that is to say, as old as the priesthoods which invented it and profited by it.