Mesopotamian Mondays: Deities Who Forget

In the ancient world, deities were perceived as sometimes forgetting about humans, their servant subjects. Such is true for ancient Judean religion(s) (i.e. the Hebrew Bible) and Mesopotamian religion(s). So, in what follows, I will briefly explore one method by which Assurbanipal reminded deities to pay attention. This is followed by a couple of examples demonstrating how certain actions and moments in the Hebrew Bible are means by which the Israelites reminded the deity to pay attention.

During the reign of Assurbanipal (c.  668-627 BCE), the Assyrian king collected a massive amount of Akkadian (cuneiform) texts from across Mesopotamia. He then compiled these texts into a single location, which is the modern archaeological site of Kouyunjik, ancient Nineveh. Many of these cuneiform tablets are explicitly noted as being compiled for the palace of Assurbanipal. In other words, Assurbanipal of Assyria was responsible for creating a treasure trove of literary, magical, ritual, and other types of cuneiform texts.

His gathering of these texts served to point to Assurbanipal’s wisdom. In doing so, he hoped that this would also cause deities to look favorably upon his rule, life, kingship, and well-being. In fact, most of these texts contain statements at the end of the tablets about the scribe and writing process. This is more commonly called a colophon. In a few of these colophon’s, the speaker of the text is Assurbanipal himself! So, at the end of a medical texts, the colophon begins with: “I, Assurbanipal, king of the universe, king of Assyria, on whom Nabu and Tashmetu have bestowed vast intelligence… I wrote down on tablets Nabu’s wisdom, the impressing of each and every cuneiform sign, and I checked and collated them” [1]. Assurbanipal goes on to plead for well-being in the present and future.

In this prayer-colophon, the tablet serves as a reminder to the deity: “When this work is deposited in your house and placed in your presence, look upon it and remember me with favor!” [2].  Essentially, the material on which Assurbanipal claims to have written serves as a physical reminder to the deity to pay attention! Thus, by amassing a massive number of texts, many of which explicitly reference being in the Palace of Assurbanipal, his accumulation of texts is practical on two planes. First, it highlights his role as a sage par excellence. Second, the accumulation physically serves as a reminder to the deities, especially the writing deity Nabu, to pay attention to Assurbanipal.

A similar sentiment is expressed in the Hebrew Bible. Throughout the Pentateuch, more commonly referred to as the Torah, people do certain actions which remind Yahweh to pay attention to them. Likewise, Yahweh requires Israelites to perform certain actions so that he doesn’t forget things. For example, Jeremy Schipper and Jeffrey Stackert illustrate how circumcision functions as a reminder to Yahweh: “by prescribing a physical “blemish” for all Israelite males, God turns an irritant into an effective reminder for himself so that he might always bless his people with fertility” [3].

Additionally, Yahweh remembers his covenant with the Patriarchs only after he hears the groans of the Israel: “And Yahweh hear their groanings, such that God remember his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God saw the sons of Israel and God took notice” (Exodus 2:24-25; my translation). In other words, Yahweh is not portrayed as having divine omnipotence, knowing and remember everything happening in the world; rather, he is portrayed as being a forgetful deity, inasmuch as he forgets about the Israelites and his covenant. It is only sound, a loud cry, which reminds Yahweh of his covenant. In short, this demonstrates how the notion of needing deities to pay attention is a common problem in the ancient Near East; however, different time periods, scribes, and cultures deal with the issue in different ways [4].

 

[1] Benjamin Foster, Before the Muses (Bethesda: CDL Press, 2005), 831.

[2] Before the Muses, 831.

[3] Jeremy Schipper and Jeffrey Stackert, “Blemishes, Camouflage, and Sanctuary Service: The Priestly Deity and His Attendants,” in Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israel 4 Vol. 2 (2013), 477-478.

[4] To be clear, I am not claiming that these are the same or that one influenced the other. Rather, I am suggesting that this is simply part of the broader ancient theological environment.

Mesopotamian Monday: Prayer to Ishtar by Assurbanipal

Through examining hymns of exultation, we can attain a sense of how an individual perceives him or herself. So, by looking at one of Assurbanipal’s prayer to Ishtar of Nineveh and Arbela, we can get a sense of how Assurbanipal perceived himself, or at least how he wants others to perceive him.

The prayer may be summarized as follows: First, the speaker extols Ishtar of Nineveh and Ishtar of Arbela, who are to be understood as two distinct deities (lines 1-7). Subsequently, the speaker identifies himself as Assurbanipal and describes how the goddesses supported and currently support him, from birth to his current success as king of Assyria (lines 8-44).

Ishtar

Now, this hymn contains a plethora of rich imagery which could help us to understand how Assurbanipal perceives himself. I will focus on one aspect, though. In particular, I want to focus on how Assurbanipal represents himself as having been raised by a divine goddess. I suggest that this self-representation is conceptually related to how Marduk, a mighty warrior deity, is represented in the myth titled The Babylonian Creation Epic (Akk. Enūma eliš). First, I will discuss the relevant sections of each text independently. Second, I will point to the particular similarities in terms of the motifs and imagery employed.

In Assurbanipal’s hymn, Assurbanipal represents himself as having been raised by the goddesses:

I (am) Assurbanipal, their hearts’ desire,
Great seed of Baltil, [bo]rn at Nineveh,
Formed in the [Emashmash], and the Egashankalamma,
Whose kingship they [sum]moned(?) from the [crown prince’s] palace
They have [ordered] with their holy command that my throne long endure.
I knew neither human father nor mother, I grew up on my goddesses’ knees,
The great gods have guides me like an infant…
They made my physique splendid, they made mighty my strength,
They exalted my name over any other ruler’s. [1]

What stands out in these lines is how the goddesses themselves summoned Assurbanipal, ordering his kingship. Then, in describing his upbringing, he likens himself to an individual without human parents, an extraordinary experience for a human being. Subsequently, these gods are attributed with having made his strength mighty and physique splendid. In other words, he perceives himself as having been made into the ideal human and king, both caused by the goddesses.

Another text, commonly called The Babylonian Creation Epic, contains a similar description of a Marduk, a central deity in Mesopotamia who was known for defeating the mythological dragon of Chaos named Tiamat. Importantly, The Babylonian Creation Epic is a mythological narrative about Marduk’s ascent to primacy within the divine pantheon. So, the beginning of the narrative takes great care to represent Marduk as a mighty, fearsome deity. When Marduk is born, the narrative describes how he was raised:

He sucked the breasts of goddesses,
A nurse reared him and filled him with terror.
His figure was well developed, the glance of his eyes was dazzling,
His growth was manly, he was mighty from the beginning. [2]

Here, Marduk is represented as having been raised by goddesses. Unlike Assurbanipal, though, the goddesses are not attributed with making Marduk mighty; rather, he just was so from the beginning. Instead, Anu, father of Marduk, is attributed with rendering Marduk perfect (lines 91-92).

When placed side-by-side, an important theme emerges: the mighty-warrior-to-be who was raised by goddesses. Although framed in distinct ways, both Marduk and Assurbanipal are represented as being raised by goddesses. And while I don’t have evidence to suggest that Assurbanipal expressed himself as he did in order to compare himself to Marduk, it is plausible that Assurbanipal used the theme with full awareness that this was how mighty divinities were sometimes represented within other texts [3].

Thus, we return to the initial question: how did Assurbanipal want others to perceive him? On the basis of the previous discussion, I suggest that Assurbanipal wanted to be perceived as one who was intimately connected to the divine realm. By representing himself as having been raised by goddesses, he successfully integrates himself into the divine realm. Additionally, by emphasizing his perfect physique and might as originating from the goddesses, he is represented as an extraordinary human. He is, to a certain degree, representing himself as a superhuman, being part man and part divine.

 

[1] Benjamin Foster, Before the Muses (Bethesda: CDL Press, 2005), p. 820.

[2] W. G. Lambert, Babylonian Creation Myths (Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 2013), p. 55, lines 85-88.

[3] This gains support from the fact that The Babylonian Creation Myth was so well-known during the 7th century BCE, itself being part of a cult ritual. For other references to the role of two goddesses in raising Assurbanipal, see Barbara Nevling Porter, “Ishtar of Nineveh and Her Collaborator, Ishtar of Arbela, in the Reign of Assurbanipal,” in Iraq vol. 66, Papers of the 49th Recontre Assyriologique Internationale, Part One (2004), pp. 41-44.  She notes two texts aside from the text we are examining. In both texts, goddesses are attributed to having suckled the royal baby Assurbanipal. Moreover, a commentator on Enūma eliš suggests that the “nurse who raised Marduk” was actually Ishtar of Nineveh, one of the two Ishtar-figures referenced at the beginning of the hymn. Although this isn’t proof for interpreting The Babylonian Creation Myth, it does support the general thinking that Assurbanipal’s being raised by Ishtar of Nineveh is conceptually similar to Marduk’s being nursed by goddesses. See Eckart Frahm and Enrique Jimenez, “Myth, Ritual, and Interpretation: The Commentary on Enūma eliš I–VII and a Commentary on Elamite Month Names,” in Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israel 3, Vol. 4 (2015), p. 301.

Mesopotamian Monday: A Prayer by Assurbanipal to Assur

Within religious traditions, a primary aim and orientation is sometimes to secure a blessed life for descendants. In Catholic and Christian traditions, this can occur through infant baptism. In Deuteronomy 11:19 and 6:7, teaching children Torah is emphasized. And in any case, depending on social status, the performance and language which are perceived to have efficacy for blessing descendants can vary.

Naturally, Mesopotamian prayers by kings were also aimed at securing blessings for descendants. So, how did Mesopotamian’s performance rituals in order to attain and secure a blessed life for descendants? One way to think about this question is by looking at a prayer by the Assyrian king Assurbanipal [1].

For the majority of the prayer, Assurbanipal praises Assur [2]. For example, the speaker exalts Assur as the creator:

[Let me exalt] the sovereignty of [Assur] forever.
[Cap]able one, profound of wisdom, sage of the gods, princely one,
[Father], creator of what is in the heavens and earth, who formed the mountains,
[Assur], creator of the gods, begetter of goddess(es),
[Whose heart] is inscrutable, whose mind is ingenious,
Lofty [hero] whose name is feared… [3]

Evidently, the speaker attributes creation itself to Assur, views Assur as a warrior, and consider Assur to be the wisest of all beings (i.e. “sage of the gods”).

In the second half of the hymn, we read of a focus on the descendants of Assurbanipal:

Among descendants, in far-off days,
For future reigns, years without number,
May th(is) praise of Assure be not forgotten, may it keep one mindful of Esharra, a temple in Assur.
Let it be in (every) mouth, may it never cease to enlarge understanding,
So that, as to me, Assur will deliver into your hands sovereignty of land and people [4].

Essentially, the speaker Assurbanipal prays for the perpetual reign of his offspring on the basis of his prayers and role in supporting the temple at Assur. Note, though, that Assurbanipal explicitly says “your hands,” with reference to his descendant. Although it is unclear whether he used a 2nd person form because his descendant is present where the hymn is performed or he imagines his descendant as being present, it is clear that the prayer is explicitly focused on his particular offspring, not the general concept of “descendants.”

Based on Assurbanipal’s father, though, this is no surprise. In a famous text typically called Esarhaddon’s Succession Treaty, a covenant stipulates that all people within the Assyrian empire ruled by Esarhaddon commit to serving his son, Assurbanipal, as king when Esarhaddon dies [5]. Thus, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. For just as Esarhaddon attempted to ensure that Assurbanipal maintain reign and sovereignty, so Assurbanipal attempted to ensure that his descendant maintain reign and sovereignty [6].

 Therefore, Assurbanipal’s prayer to Assur uses religious language, imagery, and activities as a perceived means of securing political sovereignty for his offspring. This echoes how Esarhaddon ensured that Assurbanipal maintain sovereignty. At base, it demonstrates how a particular social class, namely that of the royal family, attempts to secure a blessed life for descendants.

 ________________

[1] As noted previously, individuals and groups with different social statuses will have different rituals and performances to attain blessed life for descendants. Now, the prayer which I am analyzing here was written for Assurbanipal. So, at most the text represents the ways in which a very small and wealthy social class sought to attain blessings for descendants. Therefore, we should be careful not to apply the paradigm and rituals represented within this hymn to every social group in ancient Mesopotamia, even if they do overlap is some places.

[2] In particular, he praises Assur as a primeval deity called Anshar. See Benjamin Foster, Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature (Bethesda: CDL Press, 2005), pp. 817n1.

[3] Translation by Foster (2005), pg. 817.

[4] Translation by Foster (2005), pg. 818. Italics added for clarity in the text.

[5] For an example available on academia.edu, see Jacob Lauinger, “Esarhaddon’s Succession Treaty at Tell Tayinat: Text and Commentary,” in Journal of Cuneiform Studies, Vol. 65 (2012), pp. 87-123.

[6] Interestingly, perhaps Assurbanipal also looks backwards to his father, Esarhaddon in The Underworld Vision of an Assyrian Prince (SAA 03 032 r. 26). See Ramond C. van Leeuwen, “Cosmos, Temple, House: Building and Wisdom in Ancient Mesopotamia and Israel,” in From the Foundations of the Crenellations: Essays on Temple Building in the Ancient Near East and Hebrew Bible, eds. Mark J. Boda and Jamie Novotny (Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 2010), pg. 414.  

 

 

Mesopotamian Monday: Coronation Prayer of Assurbanipal (1/2)

Part 1: Reading Mesopotamian Texts as Scripts

*This week, Mesopotamian Monday is divided into two Parts. Part 1 can be read independently; however, Part 2 expands and builds on Part 1.  

Most students in the USA have read play scripts as literature during their K-12 education. Many of these play scripts have stage direction embedded within the lines themselves. These stage directions weren’t intended to be spoken; rather, the stage directions were intended to be performed. As such, it suggests that plays are not primarily literature to be read. Instead, the plays were meant to be performed, scripts only capturing a snapshot of performance, sometimes providing stage directions to aid in performance.

This raises a serious problem, then: how much do we lose when we read plays as “literature” rather than as a key to performance? This same problem, I suggest, is also present in Mesopotamian literature. So, I will discuss one text in particular, the Coronation Prayer of Assurbanipal. The text itself is relatively straight forward: the speaker requests blessings on the kings, economic prosperity for Assyria, and long life and military success for Assurbanipal. In the second section, the speaker describes the deity as having given symbols of power and authority to Assurbanipal [1], wishes that any who oppose the king would lose life and social status. This is summarized in a short section at the end of the text.

Notably, Foster includes a footnote between the first half and second half of the text. In the footnote, Foster notes a stage direction inserted within the text: “As soon as he has made the blessing, he turns around and makes a blessing toward the ‘Censer Gate’, that is, toward Shamash” [2]. Importantly, this stage direction is not an extra addition or commentary; rather, it is included within the flow of the text itself [3]. What Foster has done, then, is exclude the ‘stage direction’ from flow of the text.

It appears that Foster is attempting to present the coronation prayer primarily as a piece of literature. So, just as one would read a poem by Robert Frost, so one would read the Coronation Prayer of Assurbanipal. In my opinion, this misrepresents the text. When a text provides stage directions, whether it be a modern play or a Coronation Prayer, it is essential that we listeners pay attention! To a certain degree, it is a text’s way of saying, “Hey, I know that I’m meant to be performed in a physical space. So, I’ve provided stage instructions so that my words can be enacted and physicalized within a real environment.”

In this case, the Coronation Prayer is pointing towards its awareness that it is meant to be performed within the physical space of the Shamash Temple at Ashur [4]. In other words, without performance, the text is not entirely complete.

(Click here to read Part 2)

[1] Ernst F. Weidner, „Salz aus Bariku“, in Archiv für Orientforschung Bd. 13 (1939-1941), pp. 324-325.

[2] Foster (2005), pg. 816n1.

[3] Ernst F. Weidner, „Assurbanipal in Assur“, in Archiv für Orientforschung Bd. 13 (1939-1941), pp. 204-218.

[4] For a helpful methodology as it concerns monuments, see Jeremy D. Smoak, “Inscribing Temple Space: The Ekron Dedication as Monumental Text,” in JNES Vol. 76, no. 2 (2017), pp. 319-336.