Babylonian and Assyrian Literature

Produced by Juliet Sutherland, Andy Schmitt and the Online Distributed
Proofreading Team





The great nation which dwelt in the seventh century before our era on the
banks of Tigris and Euphrates flourished in literature as well as in the
plastic arts, and had an alphabet of its own. The Assyrians sometimes
wrote with a sharp reed, for a pen, upon skins, wooden tablets, or papyrus
brought from Egypt. In this case they used cursive letters of a Phoenician
character. But when they wished to preserve their written documents, they
employed clay tablets, and a stylus whose bevelled point made an
impression like a narrow elongated wedge, or arrow-head. By a combination
of these wedges, letters and words were formed by the skilled and
practised scribe, who would thus rapidly turn off a vast amount of “copy.”
All works of history, poetry, and law were thus written in the cuneiform
or old Chaldean characters, and on a substance which could withstand the
ravages of time, fire, or water. Hence we have authentic monuments of
Assyrian literature in their original form, unglossed, unaltered, and
ungarbled, and in this respect Chaldean records are actually superior to
those of the Greeks, the Hebrews, or the Romans.

The literature of the Chaldeans is very varied in its forms. The hymns to
the gods form an important department, and were doubtless employed in
public worship. They are by no means lacking in sublimity of expression,
and while quite unmetrical they are proportioned and emphasized, like
Hebrew poetry, by means of parallelism. In other respects they resemble
the productions of Jewish psalmists, and yet they date as far back as the
third millennium before Christ. They seem to have been transcribed in the
shape in which we at present have them in the reign of Assurbanipal, who
was a great patron of letters, and in whose reign libraries were formed in
the principal cities. The Assyrian renaissance of the seventeenth century
B.C. witnessed great activity among scribes and book collectors: modern
scholars are deeply indebted to this golden age of letters in Babylonia
for many precious and imperishable monuments. It is, however, only within
recent years that these works of hoar antiquity have passed from the
secluded cell of the specialist and have come within reach of the general
reader, or even of the student of literature. For many centuries the
cuneiform writing was literally a dead letter to the learned world. The
clue to the understanding of this alphabet was originally discovered in
1850 by Colonel Rawlinson, and described by him in a paper read before the
Royal Society. Hence the knowledge of Assyrian literature is, so far as
Europe is concerned, scarcely more than half a century old.

Among the most valuable of historic records to be found among the
monuments of any nation are inscriptions, set up on public buildings, in
palaces, and in temples. The Greek and Latin inscriptions discovered at
various points on the shores of the Mediterranean have been of priceless
value in determining certain questions of philology, as well as in
throwing new light on the events of history. Many secrets of language have
been revealed, many perplexities of history disentangled, by the words
engraven on stone or metal, which the scholar discovers amid the dust of
ruined temples, or on the cippus of a tomb. The form of one Greek
letter, perhaps even its existence, would never have been guessed but for
its discovery in an inscription. If inscriptions are of the highest
critical importance and historic interest, in languages which are
represented by a voluminous and familiar literature, how much more
precious must they be when they record what happened in the remotest dawn
of history, surviving among the ruins of a vast empire whose people have
vanished from the face of the earth?

Hence the cuneiform inscriptions are of the utmost interest and value, and
present the greatest possible attractions to the curious and intelligent
reader. They record the deeds and conquests of mighty kings, the Napoleons
and Hannibals of primeval time. They throw a vivid light on the splendid
sculptures of Nineveh; they give a new interest to the pictures and
carvings that describe the building of cities, the marching to war, the
battle, by sea and land, of great monarchs whose horse and foot were as
multitudinous as the locusts that in Eastern literature are compared to
them. Lovers of the Bible will find in the Assyrian inscriptions many
confirmations of Scripture history, as well as many parallels to the
account of the primitive world in Genesis, and none can give even a
cursory glance at these famous remains without feeling his mental horizon
widened. We are carried by this writing on the walls of Assyrian towns far
beyond the little world of the recent centuries; we pass, as almost
modern, the day when Julius Cæsar struggled in the surf of Kent against
the painted savages of Britain. Nay, the birth of Romulus and Remus is a
recent event in comparison with records of incidents in Assyrian national
life, which occurred not only before Moses lay cradled on the waters of an
Egyptian canal, but before Egypt had a single temple or pyramid, three
millenniums before the very dawn of history in the valley of the Nile.

But the interest of Assyrian Literature is not confined to hymns, or even

to inscriptions. A nameless poet has left in the imperishable tablets of a

Babylonian library an epic poem of great power and beauty. This is the

Epic of Izdubar.

At Dur-Sargina, the city where stood the palace of Assyrian monarchs three
thousand years ago, were two gigantic human figures, standing between the
winged bulls, carved in high relief, at the entrance of the royal
residence. These human figures are exactly alike, and represent the same
personage—a Colossus with swelling thews, and dressed in a robe of
dignity. He strangles a lion by pressing it with brawny arm against his
side, as if it were no more than a cat. This figure is that of Izdubar, or
Gisdubar, the great central character of Assyrian poetry and sculpture,
the theme of minstrels, the typical hero of his land, the favored of the
gods. What is called the Epic of Izdubar relates the exploits of this
hero, who was born the son of a king in Ourouk of Chaldea. His father was
dethroned by the Elamites, and Izdubar was driven into the wilderness and
became a mighty hunter. In the half-peopled earth, so lately created, wild
beasts had multiplied and threatened the extermination of mankind. The
hunter found himself at war with monsters more formidable than even the
lion or the wild bull. There were half-human scorpions, bulls with the
head of man, fierce satyrs and winged griffins. Deadly war did Izdubar
wage with them, till as his period of exile drew near to a close he said
to his mother, “I have dreamed a dream; the stars rained from heaven upon
me; then a creature, fierce-faced and taloned like a lion, rose up against
me, and I smote and slew him.”

The dream was long in being fulfilled, but at last Izdubar was told of a
monstrous jinn, whose name was Heabani; his head was human but horned; and
he had the legs and tail of a bull, yet was he wisest of all upon earth.
Enticing him from his cave by sending two fair women to the entrance,
Izdubar took him captive and led him to Ourouk, where the jinn married one
of the women whose charms had allured him, and became henceforth the
well-loved servant of Izdubar. Then Izdubar slew the Elamite who had
dethroned his father, and put the royal diadem on his own head. And behold
the goddess Ishtar (Ashtaroth) cast her eyes upon the hero and wished to
be his wife, but he rejected her with scorn, reminding her of the fate of
Tammuz, and of Alala the Eagle, and of the shepherd Taboulon—all her
husbands, and all dead before their time. Thus, as the wrath of Juno
pursued Paris, so the hatred of this slighted goddess attends Izdubar
through many adventures. The last plague that torments him is leprosy, of
which he is to be cured by Khasisadra, son of Oubaratonton, last of the
ten primeval kings of Chaldea. Khasisadra, while still living, had been
transported to Paradise, where he yet abides. Here he is found by Izdubar,
who listens to his account of the Deluge, and learns from him the remedy
for his disease. The afflicted hero is destined, after being cured, to
pass, without death, into the company of the gods, and there to enjoy
immortality. With this promise the work concludes.

The great poem of Izdubar has but recently been known to European
scholars, having been discovered in 1871 by the eminent Assyriologist, Mr.
George Smith. It was probably written about 2000 B.C., though the extant
edition, which came from the library of King Assurbanipal in the palace at
Dur-Sargina, must bear the date of 600 B.C. The hero is supposed to be a
solar personification, and the epic is interesting to modern writers not
only on account of its description of the Deluge, but also for the pomp
and dignity of its style, and for its noble delineation of heroic

[Signature: Epiphanius Wilson]



The Invocation.

The Fall of Erech.

The Rescue of Erech.

Coronation of Izdubar.

Ishtar and Her Maids.

Izdubar Falls in Love with Ishtar.

Ishtar’s Midnight Courtship.

The King’s Second Dream.

Izdubar Relates His Second Dream.

Heabani, the Hermit Seer.

Expedition of Zaidu.

Heabani Resolves to Return.

Heabani’s Wisdom.

In Praise of Izdubar and Heabani.

Zaidu’s Return.

The Two Maidens Entice the Seer.

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