A History of Art in Chaldaea & Assyria Part 6

[Illustration: FIG. 12.--Assyrian Cylinder, in the National Library, Paris.


The force and suddenness of these visitations could hardly fail to impress the imagination of a people exposed to them, and it is not surprising that Mesopotamia had its god of storms and thunder. He, Raman, it is, perhaps, who is figured in the bas-relief from Nimroud reproduced below (Figs. 13 and 14),[107] in which a god appears bearing an axe in his right hand, and, in his left, a kind of faggot, whose significance might have escaped us but for the light thrown upon it by classic sculpture. The latter no doubt borrowed a well-known form from the east, and the object in question is nothing less than the thunderbolt given by Greek artists to their Zeus.

[Illustration: FIG. 13.--Gods carried in procession; from Layard's _Monuments of Nineveh_, first series, pl. 65.]

It was this adoration of the stars and planets that led by degrees to what we call polytheism. Man partitioned those terrible powers of nature of which he felt himself the sport, between a vast number of agents, between crowds of genii upon whose mercies he thought himself dependent, and whom he did his best to propitiate by gifts and to compel by magic. Little by little, intelligence perfected that work of abstraction and simplification by which all races but those who have stuck fast in the conceptions of their infancy have arrived at a single conclusion. Without ceasing to believe in the existence of genii, they invented the gods, a race of beings far more powerful, not only than short-lived man, but even than the confused army of demons, of those beings who enjoyed the control of not a few of the mysterious agencies whose apparent conflict and final accord are the causes of the life, movement, and equilibrium of the world.

[Illustration: FIG. 14.--Gods carried in procession; from Layard's _Monuments of Nineveh_, first series, pl. 65.]

When the intellect had arrived at this doctrine, calmness and serenity fell upon it. Each deity became a person with certain well-defined powers and attributes, a person who could not escape the apprehension and the appeals of mankind with the facility of the changing and fantastic crowd of demons.

His dwelling-place could be pointed out to the faithful, whether it were in his own peculiar star, among the eternal snows upon the summits of the distant mountains, or near at hand, in the temple built for him by his worshippers. Such a deity could be approached like a sovereign whose honour and interest are bound up with his word. So long as by prayer, and still more by sacrifices, the conditions were observed on the suppliant's side, the god, invisible though he was, would do his duty and protect those with whom he had entered into an unwritten contract.

But in order to establish this mutual relationship between gods and men, it was necessary that the former should be brought within reach of the latter. With the development of the religious sentiment and of definite and clear ideas as to the gods, the plastic faculty was called upon for greater efforts than it had before made.

Something beside grimacing and monstrous images of genii was asked from it.

Figures were demanded which should embody something of the nobility and majesty attributed to the eternal masters of the world. The divine effigy was the incarnation of the deity, was one of the forms in which he manifested himself, it was, as the Egyptians would say, one of his _doubles_. Such an effigy was required to afford a worthy frame for the supreme dignity of the god, and the house built by man's hands in which he condescended to dwell had to be such that its superior magnificence should distinguish it at a glance from the comparatively humble dwellings in which mortals passed their short and fugitive lives.

It was thus that the temples and statues of the gods took form when the various deities began to be clearly distinguished from one another, and, by a process of mental condensation, to acquire a certain amount of consistence and solidity. The Chaldaean temples, unlike those of Egypt and Greece, have succumbed to time, and the ancient texts in which they are described are short and obscure. Their ruins are little more than shapeless heaps of _debris_. In endeavouring to arrive at a clear understanding of the Chaldaean notions as to the gods, we are unable to study, as we did elsewhere, the forms of their religious edifices, with their plans, dimensions, and the instructive variety of decorative symbols and figures with which the sanctuary and its dependencies were overspread.

On the other hand a sufficient number of figures of the gods have come down to us. They abound upon small objects, such as cylinders, engraved stones, cones, scarabaei, the bezels of rings, terra-cotta tablets and statuettes.

They are also found, though less frequently, among the _debris_ of monumental sculpture, in the bas-reliefs of the Ninevite palaces, and even among certain figures in the round which have been recovered from the ruins of these latter buildings. We can therefore easily find out the particular attributes given by the artist as the interpreter of the national beliefs to those gods whose visible bodies it was his office to create; we can see what choice and combination of forms he thought best fitted to solve the problem presented to him. But as yet we are not in a position to put a name to each even of the figures that recur most frequently. In the case of Egypt there is no such difficulty: when we encounter the image of one of her gods upon the walls of a temple or in the cases of a museum, we can say without hesitation, "This is Osiris or Ptah," as the case may be, "Amen or Horus, Isis, Sekhet, or Hathor." It is not so with Chaldaea. Figures are there often found uninscribed, and even when an inscription is present it not seldom offers difficulties of interpretation which have not yet been cleared up; for the divine names are usually ideograms. Only a few have been identified beyond all doubt, those namely of which we have Hebrew or Greek transcriptions, preserving for us the real Chaldaean original; Ilou, Bel, Nisroch, Beltis, Istar, are examples of this. Hence it results that Assyriologists often feel no little embarrassment when they are asked to point out upon the monuments the figures even of those gods of whose names they are the least doubtful. The Assyrians and Chaldaeans, like other nations of antiquity, had what we should now call their _figured mythology_, but we are still imperfectly acquainted with it. Even for those whom we may call the most exalted personages of the Chaldaean Olympus, scholars have hardly succeeded in illustrating the texts by the monuments and explaining the monuments by the texts; and we are yet far from being able to institute a perpetual and standard comparison as we have done in the case of Egypt and still more in that of Greece, between the divine types as they appear in religious formulae and in the national poetry, and the same types when embodied by the imagination of the artist.

A long time may elapse before a mythological gallery for Chaldaea, in which all the important members of the Mesopotamian pantheon shall take their places and be known by the names they bore in their own day, can be formed, but even now the principles upon which they were represented by art may be stated. The images of the various gods were built up in great part by the aid of combinations similar to those made use of in realizing the minor demons. A natural bent towards such a method of interpretation was perhaps inherited from the days in which the _nave_ adoration of all those animals which help or hurt mankind formed a part of the national worship; again, certain animals were, by their shapes and constitution, better fitted than others to personify this or that quality which, in its fulness, was considered divine. It was natural, therefore, that the artist should, in those early days, have indicated the powers of a deity by forms borrowed from the strongest, the most beautiful, or the most formidable of animals.

Nothing could suggest the instantaneous swiftness of a god better than the spreading wings of an eagle or vulture, or his destructive and irresistible power better than their beaks and talons, the horns and dewlap of the bull, or the mane and claws of the lion.

The sculptor had, therefore, a good reason for employing these forms and many others offered to him by the fauna of the regions he inhabited. He introduced them into his work with skill and decision, and obtained composite types by their aid which we may compare to those of Egypt. But there were some differences which deserve to be remembered. The human face received more consideration from the Mesopotamian sculptors than from those of Egypt. Except in the sphinxes and in two or three less important types the Egyptians, as our readers will remember, crowned a human body with the head of a snake, a lion, or a crocodile, an ibis or a hawk, and sometimes of a clumsy beast like the hippopotamus,[108] and their figures are dominated and characterized by the heads thus given to them. At Babylon and Nineveh the case is reversed. Animals' heads are only found, as a rule, upon the shoulders of those figures which are looked upon by common consent as genii rather than gods. In the latter a contrary arrangement prevails.

They may have, like Dagon, a fish's tail hanging down their backs, or, like the colossal guardians of the king's palace, the body and limbs of a lion or bull with the wings of an eagle, but the head is that of a man and the sculptor has given it all the beauty he could compass. To this, we believe, there is but one exception--the eagle-headed god to whom Assyriologists have assigned the name of Nisroch. He seems to have occupied a high place among the Mesopotamian divinities (Fig. 8).

But the difference between the two systems does not end here. There are a few deities, such as Ptah, Osiris, and Amen, to whom the Egyptians gave a human form in its simple entirety; but even in such cases it was not reproduced in its native elegance and nobility. The extremities of Ptah and Osiris were enveloped in a kind of sheath, which made their figures look more like mummies than beings with the power of life and motion. It was not so in Chaldaea, as we shall see if we examine the procedure of the Mesopotamian artist when he had to figure the greater gods, those in whom the highest efforts of mental abstraction found concrete expression. Take, for instance, Nebo, the god of intelligence and prophecy, and Istar, the personification of the earth's fertility, of its power of creation and destruction and its inexhaustible energy. Nebo stands upright, his head covered with a horned tiara: his ample beard is gathered into three rows of close curls: he wears a long robe falling straight to the ground (Fig. 16).

As for Istar, she is a young woman, nude, large-hipped, and pressing her breasts with her hands (Fig. 15). The awkwardness and rudeness which to some extent characterizes these figures is due to the inexperience of the artist; his intentions were good, but his skill was hardly equal to giving them full effect. His Nebo was meant to be as majestic as a king or high priest; his Istar is the spouse, the mother, the nurse; she is the goddess "who," as the inscriptions say,[109] "rejoices mankind," who, when fertilized by love, assures the duration and perpetuity of the species. It was this method of interpretation that was in later years to lead to those great creations of Greek art whose beauty is still the wonder of mankind.

Between these Chaldaean figures and those of the Greek sculptors the difference was one of degree. The anthropomorphism of the Chaldees was franker than that of the Egyptians, and so far the art of Chaldaea was an advance upon that of Egypt, although it was excelled by the latter in executive qualities. The method to which it had committed itself, the diligent and passionate study of the human figure, was the royal road to all excellence in the plastic arts.

[Illustration: FIG. 15.--Statue of Nebo; from Nimroud. British Museum.

Calcareous stone. Height 6 feet 5 inches.]

But our present business is to discover this people's real conceptions of its gods and to get a clear idea of their characteristic qualities. We shall not attempt, therefore, to show how most of them belonged to one of those divine triads which are to be found, it is believed, in Chaldaea as well as in Egypt: we shall not ask how these triads were subordinated, first, one to another, and secondly, to a single supreme being, who, in Mesopotamia as elsewhere, was in time perceived more or less clearly and placed at the head of the divine hierarchy. These triads are nearly always found in polytheistic religions, and that for sufficiently obvious reasons.

[Illustration: FIG. 16.--Terra-cotta Statuette; from Heuzey's _Figurines antiques du Musee du Louvre_.]

The most simple relationship offered by the organic world to the mind of man is the relationship of the sexes, their contrast, and the necessity for their union. Wherever religious conceptions spring up gods and goddesses are created together. All the forces divined by human intelligence are doubled into two persons, closely united, the one the complement of the other. The one has the active, the other the passive _role_. Egypt, Chaldaea, Greece, all had these divine couples; Apsou, or, as Damascius calls him, Apason and Tauthe; Anou and Antou, the Anatis of the Greek writers; Bel and Belit, or Beltu, perhaps the Greek Mylitta; Samas, the sun, and Allat, the queen of the dead; Merodach (or Marduk) and Zarpanit, a goddess mother who protected unborn infants and presided at births; Nabou and Nana; Assur and Istar; Dumouzi and Istar. Precise details as to the status of these divinities are still wanting. Several among them seem to have been at one time endowed with a distinct individuality, and at other periods to have been almost indistinguishable from some other deity. They were without the distinct features and attributes of the inhabitants of Olympus, but we are left in no doubt as to the binary divisions of which we have been speaking.

The attraction of desire and the union of the sexes leads to the birth of the child; with the appearance of the latter the family is complete, and, with it, the type upon which the triple classification of the gods was founded. But even when we attempt to trace the composition of a single group and to assign his proper place to each of its members, the embarrassment is great. We find a single god sometimes filling, to all appearance, the _role_ of husband and father, and sometimes that of the son; or a single goddess acting at different times as the wife and daughter of one and the same god. Some of these apparent contradictions must be referred to the want of certainty in our interpretation of the inscriptions, some to the floating quality of the conceptions to which they relate. It may never, perhaps, be possible to make out a complete list, or one which shall not be obnoxious to criticism on other grounds; moreover, the historian of art has no need to enter into any such discussion, or to give the details of a nomenclature as to which Assyriologists themselves have many doubts. It suffices that he should point out the multiplicity of couples and triads, the extreme diversity of deities, and thus indicate a reason for the very peculiar aspect of the cylinders and engraved stones of Chaldaea, for the complex forms of the gods, and for the multitude of varied symbols which encumber the fields of her sculptured reliefs. Some of the figures that crowd these narrow surfaces are so fantastic that they astonish the eye as much as they pique the curiosity (see Fig. 17).

[Illustration: FIG. 17.--A Chaldaean Cylinder: from Menant's _La Bible et les Cylindres Chaldeens_.]

The number of divine types and the consequent difficulties of classification are increased, as in Egypt, by the fact that every important town had its local deities, deities who were its own peculiar gods. In the course of so many centuries and so many successive displacements of the political centre of gravity, the order of precedence of the Mesopotamian gods was often changed. The dominant city promoted its own gods over the heads of their fellows and modified for a time which might be long or short, the comparative importance of the Chaldaean divinities. Sin, the moon god, headed the list during the supremacy of Ur, Samas during that of Larsam. With the rise of Assyria its national god, Assur, doubtless a supreme god of the heavens, acquired an uncontested pre-eminence. It was in his name that the Assyrians subdued all Asia and shed such torrents of blood. Their wars were the wars of Assur; they were undertaken to extend his empire and to glorify his name. Hence the extreme rigour, the hideous cruelty, of the punishments inflicted by the king on his rebellious subjects; he was punishing heretics and apostates.[110]

In the religious effusions of Mesopotamia, we sometimes find an accent of exalted piety recalling the tone of the Hebrew scriptures; but it does not appear that the monotheistic idea towards which they were ever tending, but without actually reaching it and becoming penetrated by its truth, had ever acquired sufficient consistence to stimulate the Chaldaean artist to the creation of a type superior in beauty and nobility to those of gods in the second rank. The fact that the idea did exist is to be inferred from the use of certain terms rather than from any mention of it in theological forms or embodiment in the plastic arts.

At Nineveh, Assur was certainly looked upon as the greatest of the gods, if not as the only god. Idols captured from conquered nations were sometimes restored to their worshippers, but not before they had been engraved with the words, "_To the glory of Assur_." Assur was always placed at the head of the divine lists. He is thought to be descended from Anou or Sin: but he was raised to such a height by his adoption as the national deity, that it became impossible to trace in him the distinguishing characteristics of his primary condition as a god of nature; he became, like the Jehovah of the Israelites, a god superior to nature. His attributes were of a very general kind, and were all more or less derived from his dignity as chief leader and father, as master of legions and as president in the assemblies of the gods. He was regarded as the supreme arbiter, as the granter of victory and of the spoils of victory, as the god of justice, as the terror of evil doers and the protector of the just. The great god of the Assyrians was, of course, the god of battles, the director of armies, and in that capacity, the spouse of Istar, who was no less warlike than himself. His name was often used, in the plural, to signify the gods in general, as that of Istar was used for the goddesses. No myth has come down to us in which he plays the principal part, a fact which is to be accounted for by his comparatively late arrival at a position of abstract supremacy.[111]

In the Babylon of the second Chaldee empire there was, it would seem, a double embodiment of the divine superiority, in Merodach, the warrior god, the god of royalty, and Nebo the god of science and inspiration. In Chaldaea the power of the priests and learned men did not yield before that of the monarch. And yet a certain latent and instinctive monotheism may be traced in its complex religion. There were, indeed, many gods, but one was raised above all the others, and, whether they turned to Merodach or Nebo, the kings loved to style themselves the worshippers of the "Lord of Lords,"

_Bel Beli_.[112]

Like Assur at Nineveh, this supreme deity was sometimes called, by abbreviation, _Ilou_, or god, a term which was employed, with slight variants, by every nation speaking a Semitic tongue.[113]

But in spite of their aspirations and the august _role_ assigned to their Merodach, their Nebo, and their Assur, Chaldaea and Assyria succeeded no better than Egypt in giving a fit embodiment to the sovereign moderator of the universe, to the king and common parent of gods and men. Their art was without the skill and power required for the creation of an image which should be worthy of the mental idea. Neither the temples of Nineveh nor those of Babylon had an Olympian Jove.

Assur came nearer to the acquisition of a supreme and unique godhead than any of his rivals, but we do not know with any certainty what features were his in plastic representations. Some have recognized him in a group which often occurs on the historic bas-reliefs and cylinders, here floating over a field of battle, there introduced into some scene of adoration. You are at once struck by the similarity of the group in question to one of the commonest of Egyptian symbols--the winged globe on the cornice of almost every temple in the Nile valley. Long before they had penetrated as conquerors to Thebes and Memphis, the Assyrians may have found this motive repeated a thousand times upon the ivories, the jewels, the various objects of luxury which Phoenician merchants carried from the ports of the Delta to distribute over every neighbouring country.[114]

[Illustration: FIG. 18.--The winged globe; from Layard.]

The Assyrians appropriated the emblem in question, sometimes with hardly a modification upon its Egyptian form (Fig. 18), but more often with an alteration of some significance. In the centre of the symbol and between the outspread wings, appears a ring, and, within it, the figure of a man draped in flowing robes and covered with a tiara. He is upright, in some cases his right hand is raised as if in prayer, while his left grasps a strong bow (Fig. 19); in others he is stretching his bow and about to launch a triple-headed arrow, which can be nothing but a thunderbolt.

[Illustration: FIG. 19.--The winged globe with human figure; from Layard.]

The meaning attached to this plastic group by the Assyrians is made clear to us by the important place it held in the religious imagery of the Aryans of Media and Persia. These people, the last born of the ancient Asiatic world, borrowed nearly the whole of their artistic motives from their predecessors; they only modified their significance when the difference between their religious notions and those of the inventors required it.

Now, we find this symbol upon the rocks of Behistan and Persepolis, where, according to texts the meaning of which is beyond a doubt, it represents Ahura-Mazda. The name has changed, but we may fairly conclude that the idea and intention remained the same. Both in Mesopotamia and in Iran this group was meant to embody the notion of a supreme being, the master of the universe, the clement and faithful protector of the chosen race by whom his images were multiplied to infinity.

In this rapid analysis of the beliefs held by the dwellers on the Tigris and Euphrates, we have made no attempt to discriminate between Chaldaea and Assyria. To one who looks rather to similarities than to differences, the two peoples, brothers in blood and language, had, in fact, but one religion between them. We possess several lists of the Assyrian gods and goddesses, and when we compare them we find that they differ one from the other both in the names and numbers of the deities inscribed upon them; but, with the exception of Assur, they contain no name which does not also belong to Chaldaea. Nothing could be more natural. Chaldaea was the mother-country of the Assyrians, and the intimate relations between the two never ceased for a day. Even when their enmity was most embittered they could not dispense the one with the other. Babylon was always a kind of holy city for the kings of Assyria; those among them who chastised the rebellious Chaldaeans with the greatest severity, made it a point of honour to sacrifice to their gods and to keep their temples in repair. It was in Babylon, at Borsippa, and in the old cities near the coast, that the priests chiefly dwelt by whom the early myths had been preserved and the doctrines elaborated to which the inhabitants of Mesopotamia owed the superiority of their civilization. The Assyrians invented nothing. Assur himself seems only to have been a secondary form of some Chaldaean divinity, a parvenu carried to the highest place by the energy and good fortune of the warlike people whose patron he was, and maintained there until the final destruction of their capital city. When Nineveh fell, Assur fell with her, while those gods who were worshipped in common by the people of the north and those of the south long preserved their names, their fame, and the sanctity of their altars.

The religion of Nineveh differed from that of Babylon, however, in minor particulars, to which attention has already been called.[115] A single system of theology is differently understood by men whose manner and intellectual bent are distinct. Rites seem to have been more voluptuous and sensual at Babylon than at Nineveh; it was at the former city that Herodotus saw those religious prostitutions that astonished him by their immorality.[116] The Assyrian tendency to monotheism provoked a kind of fanaticism of which no trace is to be found in Chaldaea. The Ninevite conquerors set themselves to extend the worship of their great national god; they sacrificed by hecatombs the presumptuous enemies who blasphemed the name of Assur. The sacrifice of chastity was in favour at Babylon, that of life seemed to the Assyrians a more effectual offering. A soldier people, they were hardened by the strife of centuries, by the perpetual hardships of the battlefield, by the never-ending conflicts in which they took delight. Their religious conceptions were, therefore, narrower and more stern, their rites more cruel than those of their southern neighbours.

The civilization of Babylon was more refined, men gave themselves more leisure for thought and enjoyment; their manners were less rude, their ideas less rigid and conservative; they were more inclined towards intellectual analysis and speculation. So that when we find traces of the beliefs and useful arts of Mesopotamia on the coasts, and even among the isles, of the aegaean, the honour of them must be given to Babylon rather than to Nineveh.


[82] The _History of the Assyrians and Medes_, which EUSEBIUS (_Preparation evangelique_, 1, 12, and 41) attributes to the writer whom he calls ABYDENUS, dates perhaps from the period when the Roman Empire turned its attention to the basin of the Euphrates and attempted to regain possession of it. The few extant fragments of this author have been collected in Ch.

MuLLER'S _Fragmenta Historicorum Graecorum_, vol. iv. p. 279. We know nothing as to when he lived, but he wrote in the Ionian dialect, as did ARRIAN in his book on India, and it would seem difficult to put him later than the second century. It is probable that his undertaking belonged to that movement towards research which began in the reign of Augustus and was prolonged to the last years of the Antonines.

[83] Damaskiou diadochou aporiai kai luseis peri ton proton archon (edition published by Kopp, Frankfort-on-the-Main, 1826, 8vo), ch. 125. Ch. emile RUELLE, _Le Philosophe Damascius; etude sur sa Vie et ses Ouvrages, suivie de neuf Morceaux inedits, Extraits du Traite des premiers Principes et traduits en Latin_ (in the _Revue archeologique_, 1861), fragments i. and ix.

[84] On this subject the reader should consult M. Fr. LENORMANT'S _La Magie chez les Chaldeens et les Origines Accadiennes_, Paris: 1874, 8vo. The English translation, dated 1877, or, still better, the German version published at Jena in 1878 (_Die Magie und Wahrsagekunst der Chaldaeer_, 8vo), will be found more useful than the French original. Both are, in fact, new editions, with fresh information.

[85] TIELE, _Manuel de l'Histoire des Religions_ (Leroux, 1880, 8vo). In our explanation of the Chaldaeo-Assyrian religions we shall follow this excellent guide, supplementing it by information taken from another work by the same author, _Histoire comparee des anciennes Religions de l'egypte et des Peuples Semitiques_--both from the Dutch.

[86] _A History of Art in Ancient Egypt_, vol. i. pp. 47-57.

[87] At Erzeroum Mr. LAYARD heard of some Kurdish tribes to the south-west of that place who, he was told, "are still idolatrous, worshipping venerable oaks, great trees, huge solitary rocks, and other grand features of nature." _Discoveries_, p. 9.

[88] Francois LENORMANT, _Les Betyles_ (extracted from the _Revue de l'Histoire des Religions_, p. 12):--"The cuneiform inscriptions mention the seven black stones worshipped in the principal temple of Urukh in Chaldaea, which personify the seven planets." In the same paper a vast number of facts are brought together which show how widely spread this worship was in Syria and Arabia, and with what persistence it maintained itself, at least until the preaching of Islamism. It would be easy to show that it still subsists in the popular superstitions. As to this worship among the Greeks, see also the paper by M. HEUZEY, entitled, _La Pierre sacree d'Antibes_ (_Memoires de la Societe des Antiquaires de France_, 1874, p. 99).

[89] BEROSUS, fragment 1. -- 3. in the _Fragmenta Historicorum Graecorum_ of CH. MuLLER, vol. ii. p. 496.

[90] VIRGIL, _Bucolics_, viii. 69. See in the edition of Benoist (Hatchette, 8vo, 1876) passages cited from Horace and Ovid, which prove that the superstition in question was then sufficiently widespread to enable poets to make use of it without too great a violation of probability.

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