About Babylonian Mythology



Most records of Babylonian myths date from 700 B.C., when they were transcribed in cuneiform on clay tablets and stored in the library of the Assyrian King Ashurbanipal at Nineveh. However, the two major Babylonian epics probably originated around 2000 B.C.. The Epic of Creation justifies Marduk's rule over gods and men; and it reflects the political supremacy of Babylon in Mesopotamia, since Marduk was the chief god of that city. The Gilgamesh Epic shows the failure of man's quest to overcome death.

Generally Babylonian mythology lacks the transcendental quality of the myth of Osiris. It is more earth-bound and more materialistic. Death puts an end to the sensual pleasures of life, and the underworld of the dead is the most dismal place imaginable. The Babylonian gods themselves indulge in eroticism, feasting, and fighting. But if the values are coarser and more masculine, the Babylonians produced a literary triumph in the Gilgamesh Epic.

Major Babylonian Gods

Anu, the head of the gods, reigned in the uppermost part of heaven and had an army of stars to destroy evildoers.

Enlil, god of the hurricane and deluge, was also the source of royal power and dealt out good and evil to men.

Ea, a god of the waters, was a benefactor to nature and men by virtue of his all-encompassing wisdom.

Marduk was a fertility god and the principal deity of Babylon. He established lordship over all the other gods by killing the malevolent and chaotic Tiamat and by creating the world out of Tiamat's body.

Sin, the moon god, was an enemy to the wicked, shining his nightly light upon their deeds. His children were Shamash, the sun, and Ishtar, the planet Venus.

Shamash was the sun god, a dispenser of light and justice to the world, but also the god of prophecy.

Ishtar, one of the most popular Babylonian deities, was the goddess of sexuality, a potent force among beasts and men. She sanctified temple prostitution. Lustful herself, Ishtar had numerous lovers, most of whom had dreadful fates.

One of Ishtar's lovers was the harvest god Tammuz. When he died of her love Ishtar wailed bitterly. Thinking to retrieve Tammuz from the kingdom of death, Ishtar entered the seven portals to the underworld. At each portal she left one of her garments or pieces of jewelry until at last she stood naked before Ereshkigal, the queen of the dead. Ereshkigal had Ishtar imprisoned and assaulted her with sixty illnesses. During this incarceration the earth withered and became desolate, and the gods of heaven mourned. Finally Ea, the god of wisdom, took matters in hand and through his magical intervention Ishtar was released. Allowed to leave, she gathered up her garments and jewelry, accompanied by Tammuz, who was allowed to stand guard at the gates of heaven. Upon Ishtar's return the earth changed from winter to spring.

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