The Sun-God and Istar
IT is thus that Nebuchadrezzar addresses his god in the plenitude of his glory and power—
“To Merodach, my lord, I prayed; I began to him my petition; the word of my heart sought him, and I said: ‘O prince that art from everlasting, lord of all that exists, for the king whom thou lovest, whom thou callest by name, as it seems good unto thee thou guidest his name aright, thou watchest over him in the path of righteousness! I, the prince who obeys thee, am the work of thy hands; thou hast created me, and hast intrusted to me the sovereignty over multitudes of men, according to thy goodness, O lord, which thou hast made to pass over them all. Let me love thy supreme lordship, let the fear of thy divinity exist in my heart, and give what seemeth good unto thee, since thou maintainest my life.’ Then he, the firstborn, the glorious, the leader of the gods, Merodach the prince, heard my prayer and accepted my petition.”
“To Merodach, my lord, I prayed, and lifted up my hand: ‘O Merodach, (my) lord, the wise one of the gods, the mighty prince, thou didst create me and hast intrusted to me the dominion over multitudes of men; as my own dear life do I love the height of thy court; among all mankind have I not built a city of the earth fairer than thy city of Babylon. As I have loved the fear of thy divinity and have sought after thy lordship, accept the lifting up of my hands, hearken to my petition, for I the king am the adorner (of the shrine) who rejoices thy heart, an instructed ruler, the adorner of all thy fortresses.’”
The god before whom the great Babylonian conqueror thus humbles himself in passionate devotion, was the divine guardian and lord of his capital city. Ever since the days when Babylon had been but one of the many villages of Babylonia, Merodach had been its presiding god. It was to him that Ê-Saggil, its sanctuary, was dedicated, and from him and his priesthood the kings of Babylon derived their right to rule. Merodach had given them their supremacy, first in Babylonia and then throughout Western Asia, and the supremacy he bestowed upon them was reflected upon himself. The god followed the fortunes of his city, because through him his city had risen to power; and he became Bel, “the lord,” not for the inhabitant of Babylon only, but for all the civilised world. Like Amon of Thebes, Bel-Merodach of Babylon supplanted the older gods of the country because the city wherein he was worshipped supplanted the earlier seats of Babylonian power.
Like Amon of Thebes, moreover, Merodach of Babylon owed much to his solar character. Youngest of the gods though he might be, he was yet a form of the sun-god,” and as such a representative and impersonation of the supreme Baal. However much his solar features were overshadowed by other attributes in later days, they were never wholly obscured, and his solar origin was remembered to the last. It was never forgotten that before he became the supreme Bel or “lord” of Babylonian theology he had been merely a local sun-god, like Utu of Larsa or Samas of Sippara.
We can even trace his cult to Sumerian days. A punning etymology, proposed for his name in an age when the true origin of it had been lost, made him the amar-utuki or “heifer of the goblin”; and the fact that the sun-god was known to have once been an utuk or “goblin” seemed to lend countenance to it. But when we first catch glimpses of his worship, he has already ceased to belong to the goblins of the night. He has been identified with Aśari the son of Ea of Eridu, and has thus became the messenger and interpreter of the culture-god.
In the language of Sumer, Aśari signified “the strong one” or “prince.” His name was expressed by two ideographs which denoted “place” and “eye,” and had precisely the same meaning and form as the two which expressed the name of the Egyptian Osiris. Between the Sumerian Aśari and the Egyptian Osiris, therefore, it seems probable that there was a connection. And to my mind the probability is raised to practical certainty by the fact that the character and attributes of both Aśari and Osiris were the same. Osiris was Un-nefer, “the good being,” whose life was spent in benefiting and civilising mankind; Aśari also was “the good heifer” (amar-dugga), and his common title was that of “the prince who does good to men” (Aśari-galu-dugga). He it was who conveyed to men the teaching of Ea, who healed their diseases by means of his father's spells, and who “raised the dead to life.” Aśari and Osiris are not only the same in name and pictorial representation, they play the same part in the history of religion and culture.
But there was one important difference between them. Osiris was a dead god, whose kingdom was in the other world; Asari brought help to the living, whom he restored from sickness and delivered from death. Even in Egypt, however, it was remembered that Osiris had been a god of the living before he was god of the dead. Tradition told how he had instructed men in the arts of life, and done for primeval Egypt what Ea and Aśari had done for Chaldæa. The difference between him and Aśari is a difference that runs through the whole of Egyptian and Babylonian theology. The Egyptian of the historical period fixed his eyes on the future life, and the god he worshipped accordingly was the god who judged and saved him in the other world; the religion of the Babylonian was confined to this world, and it was in this world only that he was judged by the sun-god, and received his sentence of reward or punishment. The mummified sun-god did not exist for the Babylonians, for the practice of mummification was unknown among them.
It is possible that Aśari, “the prince who does good to men,” had been originally a title of Ea. If so, the title and the god had been separated from one another at an early epoch, and the title had become itself a god who owned Ea as his father. This relationship between Ea and his son betrays Semitic—or at all events foreign—influence. The ghosts and spirits of primitive Sumerian belief were not bound together by any such family ties; the demons of the night had little in common with the men they terrified and plagued. Aśari had once been conceived of as a ram, Ea as an antelope; and between the ram and the antelope no genetic relationship was possible. They might be united together like the composite creatures which had come down to the Babylonians from the old Sumerian days, but there could be no birth of one from the other. Birth characterises the present creation in which like springs from like; it was only in the time of chaos that unlike forms could be mingled together in disorderly confusion.
That Aśari was a sun-god follows from his identification with Merodach. Here and here only could have been the link which bound the two deities together. But in passing into Merodach he lost his own personality. Henceforth the son of Ea and the god of Babylon are one and the same.
It was but gradually that he attained his high position in the Babylonian pantheon. Ea and Aśari were gods of the south; Babylon lay in the northern half of the country. There must therefore have been some special reason for the close connection that grew up between them. I know of no other that would account for it except the one I gave many years ago—that Babylon was a colony from Eridu. In this case we could understand why its local deity should have been a son of Ea, and how accordingly it became possible to identify him with that particular son of the god of Eridu whose attributes resembled his own.
It is difficult at present to trace the history of Merodach beyond the age of the dynasty of Khammurabi. It was then that Babylon became an imperial city, and the power of its god grew with the power of its rulers. The dynasty was Semitic, though of foreign origin; and we may gather from the names of the first two kings that the ancestral god of the family had been Samu or Shem. But with the possession of Babylon the manners and religion of Babylonia were adopted; the fourth king of the dynasty bears a Babylonian name, and his grandson ascribes his victories to the god of Babylon.
Merodach is invested by Khammurabi with all the attributes of a supreme Semitic Baal His solar character falls into the background; he becomes the lord of gods and men, who delivers the weak and punishes the proud. The office of judge, which belonged to him as the sun-god, is amplified; the wisdom he had derived from Ea is made part of his original nature; his quality of mercy is insisted on again and again. Like the Semitic Baal, he is the father of his people, the mighty king who rules the world and occupies the foremost place in the council of the gods. Already the son of Khammurabi declares that the older Bel of Nippur had transferred to Merodach the sovereignty of the civilised world; the power of Nippur and its priesthood had passed to Babylon, and its god had to make way for a younger rival. As long as Babylon remained the capital of the kingdom, the Bel or “lord” of Babylonia was Merodach. The god followed the fortunes of his State.
The sanctity that had lingered for so many centuries around the temple of Nippur now passed to Ê-Saggil, the temple of Merodach. The priests of Merodach inherited the rights and functions of the priests of En-lil. From henceforth it was Merodach and his priests who could make and unmake kings; it was only the prince who had “taken the hand of Bel” of Babylon, and thereby been adopted as his son, that could claim legitimate rule. The descendants of the conquerors who had carried Babylonian culture to the lands of the West, derived their title to dominion not from Nippur, but from Babylon, and it was forgotten that the title had ever had any other source. The lordship of the world had indeed been transferred to a new god and a new city; Zeus had supplanted his father Kronos.
A sort of pæan in praise of Merodach, which is supposed to form part of the Epic of the Creation, describes how the god of Babylon received the names, and therewith the attributes and powers, of the older deities. In the great assembly of the gods he was greeted as their Zi or “Life,” then as Ea under his name of “god of divine life,” then as Hadad or the god of “the good wind,” and finally as Sin with “the divine crown,” in whose name he became “the merciful one who brings back the dead to life.” The ceremony was not concluded until he had received all “the fifty names of the great gods,” whose virtues and essence had thus, as it were, passed into himself. Not only was he their heir, he also absorbed their whole being, and so became one with his father, who is made to say: “He is become even as myself, for Ea is (now) his name.”
In these words we are brought very near to the Egyptian doctrine which transmuted one god into another, and saw in them only so many forms of the same divinity. But the stage of pantheism was never reached in Babylonia. The Semitic element in Babylonian religion was too strong to admit of it; the attributes and character of each deity were too clearly cut and defined, and the Semitic mind was incapable of transforming the human figures of the gods into nebulous abstractions. The god was too much of a man, moving in too well marked a sphere, to be resolved into a mere form or manifestation, Merodach might receive from the other gods their attributes and the power to exercise them, but it was delegation and not absorption. The other gods still retained the attributes that belonged to them, and the right to use them if they would. Merodach was their vicegerent and successor rather than themselves under another form.
Hence it is that the human element in the Babylonian god predominated over the abstract and divine. His solar attributes fell into the background, and he became more and more the representative of a human king who rules his people justly, and whose orders all are bound to obey. He became, in fact, a Semitic Baal, made in human form, and consequently conceived of as an exaggerated or superhuman man. The other gods are his subjects, not forms under which he can reveal himself; they retain their individualities, and constitute his court. There is no nebulosity, no pantheism, in the religion of Semitic Babylonia; the formless divinity and the animal worship of Egypt are alike unknown to it. As is the man, so is the god, for the one has been made in the likeness of the other.
Nevertheless the solar origin of Merodach left its impress upon the theology of the State. It had much to do with that process of identifying one god with another, which, as we have seen, tended to approximate the doctrines of Babylonia to those of Egypt. Though the individual gods were distinguished and marked off from one another like individual men, it was yet possible to get as it were behind the individual traits, and find in certain of them a common element in which their individual peculiarities were lost. The name, so the Babylonian believed, was the essence of the person or thing to which it was attached; that which had no name did not exist, and its existence commenced only when it received its name. A nameless god could not exist any more than a nameless man, and a knowledge of his name brought with it a knowledge of his real nature and powers. But a name was transferable; it could be taken from one object and given to another, and therewith the essential characteristics which had belonged to the first would become the property of the other.
When the name was changed, the person or thing was changed along with it. To give Merodach another name, therefore, was equivalent to changing his essential characteristics, and endowing him with the nature and properties of another god. The solar character which belonged to him primitively gave the first impulse to this transference and change of name. There were other solar deities in Babylonia, with distinct personalities of their own, for they were each called by an individual name. But the sun which they typified and represented was the same everywhere, and the attributes of the solar divinity differed but little in the various States of Semitic Babylonia. It was easy, therefore, to assign to the one the name of another, and the assignment brought with it a change of personality. With the name came the personality of the god to whom it originally belonged, and who now, as it were, lost his individual existence. It passed into the person of the other deity; the two gods were identified together; but it was not by the absorption of the one into the other but by the loss of individual existence on the part of one of them. It was no resolution of two independent beings into a common form, but rather the substitution of one individual for another.
This process of assimilation was assisted by the Babylonian conception of the goddess. By the side of the god, the goddess was little more than a colourless abstraction which owed its origin to the necessities of grammar. The individual element was absent; all that gave form and substance to the goddess was the particular name she happened to bear. Without the name she had no existence, and the name itself was but an epithet which could be interchanged with another epithet at the will of the worshipper. The goddesses of Babylonia were thus like the colours of a kaleidoscope, constantly shifting and passing one into another. As long as the name existed, indeed, there was an individuality attached to it; but with the change of name the individuality changed too. The individuality depended more on the name in the case of the goddess than in the case of the god; for the goddess possessed nothing but the name which she could call her own, while the god was conceived of as a human lord and master with definite powers and attributes. There was, it is true, one goddess, Istar, who resembled the god in this respect; but it was just the goddess Istar who retained her independent personality with as much tenacity as the gods.
When once the various sun-gods of Babylonia had been assimilated, or identified, one with the other, it was not difficult to extend the process yet further. As the city of Merodach increased in power, lording it over the other States of the country, and giving to their inhabitants its own name, so Merodach himself took precedence over the older gods of Babylonia, and claimed the authority and the attributes which had belonged to them. Their names, and therewith their powers, were transferred to him; the supremacy of En-lil, the wisdom of Ea, the glory of Anu, alike became his. The “tablets of destiny,” which conferred on their possessor the government of the visible world, were taken from the older Bel and given to his younger rival; the wisdom of which Merodach had once been the interpreter now became his own; and, like Anu, his rule extended to the farthest regions of the sky. But in thus taking the place of the great gods of earth and heaven, Merodach was at the same time the inheritor and owner of their names. If the tablets of destiny had passed into his possession, it was because he had assumed along with them the name of Bel; if Ea and Anu had yielded to him their ancient prerogatives, it was because he had himself been transformed into the Ea and Anu of the new official theology. The Babylonian hymn in honour of Merodach, when it declares that the fifty names of the great gods had been conferred upon him, only expresses in another form the conviction that he had entered into the heritage of the older gods.
As time went on, and Babylon continued to be the sovereign city of the kingdom, the position of its god became at once more exalted and more secure. The solar features in his character passed out of sight; he was not only the giver of the empire of the world to his adopted son and vicegerent, the king of Babylon, he was also the divine counterpart and representative of the king in heaven. The god had made man in his own image, and he was now transformed into the likeness of men. Two ideas, consequently, struggled for the mastery in Babylonian religion—the anthropomorphic conception of the deity, and the belief in his identification with other gods; and the result was an amalgamation of the two. Merodach was the divine man, freed from the limitations of our mortal existence, and therefore able not only to rule over the other gods, but also, like the magician, to make their natures his own. The other gods continued to exist indeed, but it was as his subjects who had yielded up to him their powers, and of whom, accordingly, he could dispose as seemed to him good. Originally the first among his peers, he ended—at least in the belief of the native of Babylon—in becoming supreme over them, and absorbing into himself all the attributes and prerogatives of divinity.
It was not, however, till the closing days of Babylonian independence that an attempt was made to give outward and visible expression to the fact. Nabonidos, the last king of Babylon and the nominee of its priesthood, took the images of the gods from their ancient shrines and carried them to Babylon. There, in the temple of Merodach, they formed as it were his court, bowing in reverence before him, when, on the festival of the New Year, he announced the destinies of the future. It was an effort to centralise the religion of the country, and give public proof of the supremacy of the god of Babylon. Like the parallel endeavour of Hezekiah in Judah, the attempt of Nabonidos naturally aroused the hostility of the local priesthoods; and, when Cyrus invaded the country, there was already a party in it ready to welcome him as a deliverer, and to maintain that Merodach himself had been angered by the sacrilegious king. The attempt, indeed, came too late, and Nabonidos was too superstitious and full of respect for the older sanctuaries and gods of Babylonia to carry it out in other than a half-hearted way. But it indicated the tendency of religious thought, and the direction in which the official worship of Merodach was irresistibly bearing its adherents. Merodach, like his city, was supreme, and the older gods were surely passing away.
The tendency was checked, however, by the long continuity of Babylonian history. Babylonian records went back far beyond the days when Babylon had become the capital of the kingdom. It was remembered that there had been other centres of power, in ages when as yet Babylon was but an obscure village. It was never forgotten that the god of Nippur had once made and unmade kings, that Akkad had been the seat of an empire, or that Ur had preceded Babylon as the capital of the ruling dynasty. Babylonian history did not begin with the rise of Babylon to power, much as the priests of Babylon wished to make it do so; and the chronological schemes which made a native of Babylon the first ruler of mankind, or traced to Babylon the first observations of astronomy, were but fictions which a little acquaintance with history could easily refute. The earlier cities of the land were proud of their traditions and their temples, and were not inclined to give them up in favour of the parvenu city of Merodach; their religious corporations were still wealthy, and their sanctuaries still commanded the reverence of the people. Wholly to displace and efface them was impossible, as long as history continued to be written and the past to be remembered. The sun-god of Sippara, the moon-god of Ur or Harran, even En-lil of Nippur, all remained the rivals of Merodach down to the latest days of Babylonian existence. Nabonidos himself was forced to conform to the prevailing sentiment; he bestowed almost as much care on the temple of the moon-god at Harran, and the temple of the sun-god at Sippara, as upon that of Merodach at Babylon, though, it is true, he tells us that it was Merodach who bade him restore the sanctuary of Sin, while the sun-god of Sippara might be considered to be Merodach himself under another name.
It was thus history which prevented the rise of anything like monotheism in Babylonia. It was impossible to break with the past, and the past was bound up with polytheism and with the existence of great cities, each with its separate god and sanctuary and the minor divinities who revolved around them. At the same time the tendency to monotheism existed; and could the Babylonian have blotted out the past, it might have ended in the worship of but one god. As it was, the language of the later inscriptions sometimes approaches very nearly that of the monotheist. When Nebuchadrezzar prays to Merodach, his words might often have been those of a Jew; and even at an earlier date the moon-god is called by his worshipper “supreme” in earth and heaven, omnipotent and creator of all things; while an old religious poem refers, in the abstract, to “the god” who confers lordship on men. As was long ago pointed out by Sir H. Rawlinson, Anu, whose written name became synonymous with “god,” is identified with various cosmic deities, both male and female, in a theological list; and Dr. Pinches has published a tablet in which the chief divinities of the Babylonian pantheon are resolved into forms of Merodach. En-lil becomes “the Merodach of sovereignty,” Nebo “the Merodach of earthly possessions,” Nergal “the Merodach of war.” This is but another way of expressing that identification of the god of Babylon with the other deities of Babylonian belief which, as we have seen, placed him at the head of the divine hierarchy, and, by depriving them of their attributes and powers, tended to reduce them into mere angel-ministers of a supreme god.
There was yet another cause which prevented the religion of Babylonia from assuming a monotheistic form. As we have seen, the majority of the Babylonian goddesses followed the usual Semitic type, and were little else than reflections of the male divinity. But there was one goddess who retained her independence, and claimed equal rank with the gods. Against her power and prerogatives the influence of Semitic theology contended in vain. The Sumerian element continued to exist in the mixed Babylonian nation, and, like the woman who held a position in it which was denied her where the Semite was alone dominant, the goddess Istar remained the equal of the gods. Even her name never assumed the feminine termination which denoted the Semitic goddess; Semitised though she might be, she continued to be essentially a Sumerian deity.
Many years ago, in my Hibbert Lectures, I first drew attention to the fact that Istar belonged to the non-Semitic part of the Babylonian population, and in both name and attributes was foreign to Semitic modes of thought. The best proof of this is to be found in the transformations she underwent when her worship was carried by Babylonian culture to the more purely Semitic peoples of the West. In Arabia and Moab she became a male deity; the ideas and functions connected with her were incompatible in the Semitic mind with the conception of a female divinity. Even in Babylonia itself there were those who believed in a male Istar; and the official theology itself spoke of an androgynous deity, of an Istar who was at once a goddess and a god. In Canaan, where her female nature was accepted, she was changed into a Semitic goddess; the feminine suffix was attached to her name, and her attributes were assimilated to those of the native goddess Ashêrah. In Assyria, too, we can see the same process going on. The name of Istar with the feminine termination of Semitic grammar becomes a mere synonym of “goddess,” and, as in Canaan, the Istars, or rather the Ashtoreths, mean merely the goddesses of the popular cult, the female counterparts of the Baalim or “Baals.” It was only the State religion, which had its roots in Babylonia, that prevented Istar of Nineveh or Istar of Arbela from becoming a Canaanitish Ashtoreth.
This was the fate that had actually befallen some of the old Sumerian deities. In the Sippara of Semitic days, for example, the wife of the sun-god was the goddess Â. But Â had once been the sun-god himself, and texts exist in which he is still regarded as a god. Sumerian grammar was genderless; there was no distinction in it between masculine and feminine, and the divine names of the Sumerian pantheon could consequently be classified by the Semite as he would. He had only to apply a feminine epithet to one of them, and it forthwith became the name of a goddess. Sippara already had its sun-god Samas: there was no room for another, and Â accordingly became his wife. But in becoming his wife she lost her individuality; her attributes and powers were absorbed by Samas, and in the later Semitic theology she serves only to complete the divine family or triad.
Istar succeeded in escaping any such effacement or degradation. Her worship was too deeply rooted in Babylonia, and too intimately associated with the religious traditions of the past. The same historical reasons which prevented monotheism from developing out of Babylonian polytheism prevented Istar from degenerating into an Ashtoreth. At times she came perilously near to such a fate: in the penitential psalms we find the beginnings of it; and, when Babylon became the head of the kingdom, the supremacy of Merodach threatened the independence and authority of Istar even more than it threatened those of the other “great gods.” But the cult of Istar had been fixed and established long before Merodach was more than a petty provincial god; she was the goddess and patroness of Erech, and Erech had once been the capital of a Babylonian empire. It was needful that that fact should be forgotten before Istar could be dethroned from the position she held in the religion of Babylonia, whether official or popular.
All attempts to find a Semitic etymology for the name of Istar have been a failure. We must be content to leave it unexplained, and to recognise the foreign character both of the name and of the goddess whom it represented. In Babylonia the name was never Semitised; the character of the goddess, on the other hand, was adapted, though imperfectly, to Semitic modes of thought. She took upon her the attributes of a Baal, and presided over war as well as over love. One result of this mingling of Semitic and Sumerian ideas was the difficulty of fitting her into the family system of Semitic theology. She could not have a wife, for she was a goddess; it was equally difficult to assign to her a husband, as in this case the husband would have been her shadow and counterpart, which was contrary to all the preconceptions of the Semitic mind. Generally, therefore, if not officially, she was conceived of as a virgin, or at all events as a goddess who might indulge in amours so long as they did not lead to regular marriage. Even Tammuz was the bridegroom rather than the husband of her youth, and he too had been banished to the darkness of the underground world long before Istar herself had interfered with the affairs of men. She has been described as the female principle corresponding with the male principle in the world: but the description is incorrect; she was rather the male principle in female form.
Istar at the outset was the spirit of the evening star. In days, however, when astronomy was as yet in its infancy, the evening and the morning stars were believed to be the same. It was only in aftertimes that an endeavour was made to distinguish between the Istar of the evening and the Istar of the morning. Originally they were one and the same, the herald at once of night and day. It was on this account that Istar was associated with Ana, the sky. The sky was her father, for she was born from it at sunset and dawn; and if other traditions or myths made her the daughter of the moon-god, they were not accepted at Erech, the centre and source of her cult.
In virtue of her origin she formed a triad with Samas and Sin. The sun, the moon, and the evening star divided, as it were, the heavens between them, and presided over its destinies. They were the luminaries that regulated the seasons of the year and determined the orderly course of the present creation. Istar represents “the stars” of Genesis that were made with the sun and moon. But in the Babylonian system the triad of Istar, Sin, and Samas was not made, they were deities that were born. Before them was the older and higher triad of Anu, Bel, and Ea,—the sky, the earth, and the water,—the three elements of which the whole universe was formed.
How the spirit of the evening star came in time to be the goddess of love, is not difficult to understand. Even modern poets have sung of the evening as the season of lovers, when the work and business of the day are over, and words of love can be whispered under the pale light of the evening star. But this alone will not explain the licentious worship that was carried on at Erech in the name of Istar. It was essentially Semitic in its character, and illustrates that intensity of belief which made the Semite sacrifice all he possessed to the deity whom he adored. The prostitution that was practised in the name of Istar had the same origin as the sacrifice of the firstborn, or the orgies that were celebrated in the temples of the sun-god.
At Erech, Istar was served by organised bands of unmarried maidens who prostituted themselves in honour of the goddess. The prostitution was strictly religious, as much so as the ceremonial cannibalism formerly prevalent among the South Sea Islanders. In return for the lives they led, the “handmaids of Istar” were independent and free from the control of men. They formed a religious community, the distinguishing feature of which was the power of indulging the passions of womanhood without the disabilities which amongst a Semitic population these would otherwise have brought. The “handmaid of Istar” owned allegiance only to the goddess she served. Her freedom was dependent on her priesthood, but in return for this freedom she had to give up all the pleasures of family life. It was a self-surrender which placed the priestess outside the restrictions of the family code, and was yet for the sake of a principle which made that family code possible. Baal, the lord of the Semitic family, claimed the firstborn as his right, and Istar or Ashtoreth similarly demanded the service of its daughters.
It was the same in Canaan as at Erech. Did the rites, and the beliefs on which the rites were based, migrate from Babylonia to the West along with Babylonian culture, or were they a common Semitic heritage in which Erech and Phœnicia shared alike? It is difficult to give a precise answer to the question. On the one hand, we know that the Ashtoreth of Canaan was of Babylonian birth, and that in days far remote the theology of the Canaanite was profoundly influenced by that of Babylonia; on the other hand, the rites with which Istar was worshipped were confined in Babylonia to Erech; it was there only that her “handmaids” and eunuch-priests were organised into communities, and that unspeakable abominations were practised in her name. The Istar who was adored elsewhere was a chaste and passionless goddess, the mother of her people whom she had begotten, or their stern leader in war. It does not seem likely that a cult which was unable to spread in Babylonia or Assyria should nevertheless have taken deep root in Phœnicia, had there not already been there a soil prepared to receive it. Erech was essentially a Semitic city; its supreme god Anu had all the features of the Semitic Baal, “the lord of heaven”; and its goddess Istar, Sumerian though she may have been in origin, like Anu himself, had clothed herself in a Semitic dress.
Moreover, there was another side to the worship of Istar which bears indirect testimony to the Semitic origin of her cult at Erech. By the side of the Istar of the official faith there was another Istar, who presided over magic and witchcraft. Her priestesses were the witches who plied their unholy calling under the shadow of night, and mixed the poisonous philtres which drained away the strength of their hapless victims. The black Istar, as we may call her, was a parody of the goddess of love; and the rites with which she was adored, and the ministers by whom she was served, were equally parodies of the cult that was carried on at Erech. But the black Istar was not only a parody of the goddess of the State religion, she was also the Istar of the popular creed, of the creed of that part of the population, in fact, which was least intermixed with Semitic elements and least influenced by Semitic beliefs. It was amongst this portion of the nation that the old Sumerian animism lingered longest and resisted the purer teaching of the educated class. The Semitic conceptions which underlay the worship of Istar at Erech were never thoroughly assimilated by it; all that it could do was to create a parody and caricature of the official cult, adapting it to those older beliefs and ideas which had found their centre in the temple of En-lil. The black Istar was a Sumerian ghost masquerading in Semitic garb.
As Bel attracted to himself the other gods, appropriating their names and therewith their essence and attributes, so Istar attracted the unsubstantial goddesses of the Babylonian pantheon. They became mere epithets of the one female divinity who maintained her independent existence by the side of the male gods. One by one they were identified with her person, and passed into the Istarât, or Istars, of the later creed. Like the Baalim, the Istarât owed what separate individuality they possessed to geography. On the theological side the Istar of Nineveh was identical with the Istar of Arbela; what distinguished them was the local sphere over which they held jurisdiction. The difference between them was purely geographical: the one was attached to a particular area over which her power extended, and where she was adored, while the other was the goddess of another city—that was all. It was the same goddess, but a different local cult. The deity remained the same, but her relations, both to her worshippers and to the other gods, were changed. There is no transmutation of form as in Egypt, but a change of relations, which have their origin in geographical variety.
In Babylonia, however, Istar was not so completely without a rival as she was in Assyria. There was another city of ancient fame which, like Erech, was under the protection of a goddess rather than of a god. This was one of the two Sipparas on the banks of the Euphrates, which is distinguished in the inscriptions from the Sippara of Samas as the Sippara of Anunit. The feminine termination of the name of Anunit indicates that here again we have a goddess who, in the form in which we know her, is essentially Semitic. But it is only in the form in which we know her that such is the case. The origin of Anunit goes back to Sumerian times. She was in the beginning merely an Anunna or “spirit” of the earth, as sexless as the other spirits of Sumerian belief, and lacking all the characteristics of a Semitic divinity. It was not till Sippara became the seat of a Semitic empire that the Anunna or Sumerian “spirit” was transformed into Anunit the goddess. The transformation here was accompanied by the same outward change as that which turned the Babylonian Istar into the Ashtoreth of Canaan. For a time it seemed as though Anunit rather than Istar would become the supreme goddess of Semitic cult; but the political predominance of Sippara passed away with the fall of the empire of Sargon of Akkad, and historical conservatism alone preserved the name and influence of its goddess. As time went on, Anunit tended more and more to sink into the common herd of Babylonian goddesses, or to be identified with Istar. As long as the Sumeriau element continued to be strong in the Babylonian people and their religion, Anunit retained the position which the mixture of the Semite and Sumerian had created for her; with the growing dominance of the Semitic spirit, her independence and individuality departed, and she became, like Beltis or Gula, merely the female complement of the god. Perhaps the process was hastened by the grammatical termination that had been added to her name.
Wherever, in fact, Semitic influence prevailed, the goddess, as opposed to the god, tended to disappear. It was but a step from the conception of a god with a colourless counterpart, whose very existence seemed to be due to the necessities of grammar, to that of a deity who absorbed within himself the female as well as the male principles of the universe, and who stood alone and unmated. A goddess who depended for her existence on a grammatical accident could have no profound or permanent hold on the belief of the people; she necessarily fell into the background, and the prerogatives which had belonged to her were transferred to the god. Istar herself, thanks to the masculine form of her name, became a god in Southern Arabia, and was identified with Chemosh in Moab, while even in Babylonia and Assyria she assumed the attributes of a male divinity, and was adored as the goddess of war as well as of love. In Assyria, indeed, her warlike character predominated: she took the place of the war-gods of Babylonia, and armed herself with the falchion and bow.
I shall have hereafter to point out how this tendency on the part of the goddess to vanish, as it were, out of sight, leaving the god alone in possession, resulted in Assyria in raising its supreme god Assur to something of the position occupied by Yahveh in Israel. Assur is wifeless; now and again, it is true, a wife is assigned to him by the pedantry of the scribes, but who it should be was never settled; and that he needed a wife at all, was never acknowledged generally. Like Chemosh in Moab, Assur reigns alone; and though the immemorial influence of Babylonia kept alive the worship of Istar by the side of him, it was Assur and Assur only who led the Assyrian armies to victory, and in whose name they subdued the disobedient. It was not until the kings of Assyria became kings also of Babylon that Istar encroached on the rights of Assur, or that an Assyrian monarch betook himself to her rather than to the god of his fathers in the hour of his necessity. As long as the capital remained at the old city of Assur, none but the god Assur might direct the counsels and campaigns of its princes, or confer upon them the crown of sovereignty. When Tiglath-pileser III acknowledged himself the son of Bel-Merodach, and received from his hands the right to rule, it was a sign that the older Assyrian dynasty had passed away, that the kingdom had become a cosmopolitan empire, and that the venerable traditions of Babylon had subjugated its conquerors from the north. The mixed races of Babylonia had overcome the purer Semites of Assyria, Istar had prevailed against Assur, and Semitic monotheism sought a home in the further West.