A Celebration of Women Writers

"Assyrian Mythology." by Mrs. Elizabeth A. Reed. pp. 719-722.
From: The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893, With Portraits, Biographies and Addresses. Edited by Mary Kavanaugh Oldham Eagle, 1854-1903. Chicago: Monarch Book Company, 1894.


woman's portrait, head and shoulders

The far East was the home of poetry and the land of mythology, before the hundred gates of Palmyra were swung upon their massive hinges, or the crown of her beautiful queen had been set with its moonlight pearls.

A land which was rich with jewels and radiant with flowers held in her background a mythology so primitive that it appears to have been the mother of them all.

The Assyrians counted no less than three hundred spirits of Heaven, and six hundred of earth, all of which (as well as the rest of their mythology) appear to have been borrowed from ancient Babylonia, the birthplace of that common mythology which in various forms afterward became the heritage of so many nations.

In those early days, when men did not like to retain God in their hearts, they made gods with their own hands for their worship—they erected the altars of Baal, and prepared the hideous feast of Moloch. They glorified the god of wine and offered their daughters upon the shrine of Ashtaroth.

In the days of this primitive idolatry, elaborate and costly temples were built for these uncouth deities, and when the image of a god was brought into his newly built temple, there were festivals and processions, and wild rejoicings among the worshipers.

The principal gods mentioned in the early tablets may be briefly sketched as follows:

Anū was the sky god, and ruler of the highest heaven, whose messengers are evil spirits.

The messengers of Anū are elsewhere described as the seven storm-clouds, or the winds, and their leader seems to have been the dragon Tiamat, who was defeated by Bel-Merodach in the war of the gods.

The tablets have preserved an Accadian poem on this subject, the author of which is represented as living in the Babylonian city of Eridu, where his horizon was bounded by the mountains of Susiani, and the battle of the elements raging around their summit suggested to his poet mind the warring of evil spirits. It was these seven storm spirits who were represented as attacking the moon when it was eclipsed.

In this primitive mythology we find also Assur, the god of judges, who was the special patron of Assyria, and afterward made to express the power of the later Assyrian empire by becoming "father of the gods" and the head of the Pantheon.

Heâ was the god of chaos, or the deep; he was the king of the abyss who determines destinies. In later times he was also called the god of the waters, and from him some of the attributes of Neptune may be derived. It was said that Chaos was his wife.

In later mythology, however, Nin-ci-gal, instead of Chaos, was the wife of Heâ. She was the "lady of the mighty country," and the "queen of the dead." This goddess may have been the prototype of Proserpine, who was carried away by Pluto in his golden chariot to be the queen of Hades.

Sin is a word which signifies brightness, and it was the name borne by the moon-god, who was the father of Ishtar or Ashtaroth. A golden tablet found in the cornerstone of a palace or temple, at Khorsabad, contains an account of the splendid temples which King Sargon II built in a town near Nineveh and dedicated to Heâ, Sin, the moon-god; Chemosh, the sun-god; and Ninip, the god of forces.

Heâ-bani was represented as a satyr with the legs, head and tail of an ox. This figure occurs very frequently on the gems, and may always be recognized by these characteristics. He is doubtless the original of Mendes, the goat-formed god of Egypt, and also of Pan, the goat-formed god of the Arcadian herdsmen, with his pipe of seven reeds.

Nergal was the patron deity of Cutha. He was the god of bows and arms. According to Dr. Oppert, Nergal represented the planet Mars, and hence the Grecian god of war appears to have been merely a perpetuation of this early deity.

Bel-Merodach, or Marduk, had a splendid temple, which, according to the inscriptions, was built by Nebuchadnezzar, with its costly woods, its silver and molten gold and precious stones.

It is from the name of the god Nebo that the name of King Nebuchadnezzar was derived. In a ten-column inscription of Nebuchadnezzar, which now forms a part of the India Office collection, the king speaks of building a temple in Babylon "to Nebo of lofty intelligence." Even the portico of the shrine of Nebo was covered with gold, and many dazzling gems were used in the decoration of the temple.

Ninip, the lord of strong actions, finds an echo in Hercules of Grecian mythology, who received his bow from Apollo, his sword from Mercury, his golden breastplate from Vulcan, his horses from Neptune, and his robe from Minerva.

The Assyrian Dagon was usually associated with Anū, the sky-god, and the worship of both was carried as far west as Canaan.

Of Moloch little is said upon the tablets except the very significant statement that "he took the children," but a curious fragment of an old Accadian poem indicates that the children of these highlanders were offered as burnt offerings in very early times. It will be remembered that the Mosaic law was especially severe upon this "abomination" of human sacrifices, the death penalty being ordered for every such offense.

Chemosh was the sun-god who was often worshiped as the supreme, while his early worshipers sang praises, offered sacrifices and performed incantations. The success of Mesha, the King of Moab, in his revolt against the King of Israel, was commemorated by the erection of the celebrated Moabite stone, whereon was recorded the inscription ascribing his victory to Chemosh, his favorite deity. But the hideous idols of the sun-god that occupied the palatial temples of Chemosh at Larsam, in Southern Chaldea, and at Sippara, in the north of Babylonia, became more refined in the poetry of the Vedas, and he appeared in the mythology of the Hindūs as Sūrya, the god of day, who rode across the heavens in a car drawn by milk-white horses.

In this pantheon of mythology Im was the god of the sky, sometimes called Rimmon, the god of lightning and storms. He is represented among the Hindūs as Indra, who furiously drives his tawny steeds to the battle of the elements. With the Greeks and Latins he was personated by Zeüs and Jupiter, "the cloud-compelling Jove," while among the Northmen he wears the form of Thor, whose frown is the gathering of the storm clouds, and whose angry voice echoes in the thunderbolt.

Baal, or Bel, was also an important character, and indeed, according to Dr. Oppert, all of the Phœnician gods were included under the general name of Baal, and human sacrifices were often made upon their blood-stained altars. Baal had a magnificent temple in Tyre, which was founded by Hiram, the King of Tyre. Not only human sacrifices, but also the grossest sensuality characterized the worship of Baal.

Tammuz is another form of the sun-god who is represented as being slain by the boar's tusk of winter. June is the month of Tammuz, and his festival began by the cutting of the sacred fir-tree in which the god had hidden himself. Tammuz is the proper Syriac name for Adonis of the Greeks, and doubtless Adonis is merely a later form of the same myth.

Ishtar, the goddess who is sometimes called Astarte, was the most important female deity in this early pantheon. The Persian form of the word is Astara. In Phœnician it is Ashtaroth, and it is said that all the Phœnician goddesses were included under this general term. Another form of the name afterward appeared in Greek mythology as Asteria, arid it was applied to the beautiful goddess who fled from the suit of Jove, and, flinging herself down from heaven into the sea, became the island afterward named Delos.

Ishtar of Arbela was the goddess of war, the "Lady of Battles." She was the daughter of Anū, whose messengers were the "Seven Evil Spirits," and she was the favorite goddess of King Assur-bani-pal, who claims that he received his bow from her. Her image, according to Pliny, was of solid gold, and her high priest was second only to the king himself.

The character of Ishtar is apparently a prototype not only of Hecate, but also of Medea, whose chariot was drawn by winged serpents, and the caldron or pot which Ishtar filled with her magic herbs suggests the statement of Ovid that Medea on one occasion spent no less than nine days and nights in collecting herbs for her caldron.

The character of Ishtar may also have suggested that of Circe, who

"Mixed the potion, fraudulent of soul,
The poison mantled in a golden bowl."

And she loved Ulysses as Ishtar loved Izdubar, even though she had transformed all his companions into swine.

In Column II. of the tablet under consideration we find the story of the king whom Ishtar changed into a leopard, "and his own dogs bit him to pieces." No one can doubt that we see here the original of the Greek fable of Actæon, the hero who offended the goddess Diana, when she revenged herself by changing him into a deer, and his dogs no longer knowing their master, fell upon him and tore him to pieces.

Ishtar of Nineveh, who is identified with Beltis, the wife of Baal, became the goddess of love. She is the prototype of Freyja, the weeping goddess of love among the Northmen, and the Aphrodite of the Greeks—the beautiful nymph who sprang from the soft foam of the sea and was received in a land of flowers by the gold-filleted seasons, who clothed her in garments immortal. Her chariot was drawn by milk-white swans, and her garlands were of rose and myrtle. Ishtar of Nineveh appears as the imperious queen of love and beauty, and was undoubtedly the original of the Latin Venus. Indeed, Anthon says: "There is none of the Olympians of whom the foreign origin is so probable as this goddess, and she is generally regarded as being the same with Astarte or Ashtaroth of the Phœnicians." We find upon the tablets a beautiful legend concerning her visit to Hades. She went in search of her husband Tammuz, as Orpheus was afterward represented as going to recover Eurydice, when the music of his golden shell stopped the wheel of Ixion, and made Tantalus forget his thirst.

It was doubtless through the Phœnicians that this legend reached Greece, and was there reproduced in a form almost identical with the fable of the tablets. Adonis, the sun-god, who was the hero of the Greek fable, was killed by the tusk of the wild boar, even as Tammuz, the sun-god of Assyria, was slain by the boar's tusk of winter. Venus, the queen of love and beauty , was inconsolable at his loss, and at last obtained from Proserpine, the queen of Hades, permission for Adonis to spend every alternate six months with her upon the earth, while the rest of the time should be passed in Hades.

Ishtar is represented as going down to the regions of darkness wearing rings and jewels, with a diadem and girdle set with precious stones, and this fact would indicate that this ancient mythology was the source of the idea that whatever was buried with the dead would go with them to the other shore. Hence India for ages burned the favorite wives with the dead bodies of her rājas, while other tribes placed living women in the graves of their chiefs, and our own Indians provide dogs and weapons for the use of their braves when they reach the "happy hunting grounds."

cross design made up of five ornamental circles

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Mrs. Elizabeth A. Reed is a native of Maine. Her parents were Alvin and Silvia Armstrong. They were of English stock and almost Puritan habits. She was educated partially at the South and largely by private tutors, but being happily married before she was eighteen to a man of letters, she has been a life-long student, and her intellectual training has been very largely under her husband's influence. She married Hiram Von Reed, who is one of the most original thinkers of the day, and a brilliant orator. Her special work has been in the interest of philanthropy, moral reform, Christianity and literature. Her principal literary works are "Hindoo Literature" and "Persian Literature," published by S. C. Griggs & Co. Her books have received cordial praise from some of the most distinguished scholars of Europe. Her postoffice address is 41 Seeley Avenue, Chicago, Ill.


About This Edition

This chapter has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at A Celebration of Women Writers. Initial text entry and proof-reading of this chapter were the work of volunteer Mary Hitchcock.