The impact of Mesopotamian religious thought on the evolution of other ancient religious and philosophical thought has never been seriously investigated. What follows are my initial forays into this uncharted territory. I suspect the influence has been far greater than anyone has yet suggested.
Take, for example, one small datum: There was a commandment to refrain from work and travel on every seventh day of each month (plus the 19th day). Whether this had any effect on the Israelite commandment to refrain from work and travel on the seventh day, I do not know. It may be simply coincidence. Or there may be some relationship between these prohibitions.
A more substantial matter is the Mesopotamian sense of the king as the son of God. As we shall 018see, some of the similarities to later religious concepts are rather striking.
In the popular imagination Assyrian kings have long been portrayed as despots of the worst possible kind, spending their time—when not engaging in war or other cruelties—in their harems, immersed in bodily pleasures and revelries. Consider Eugène Delacroix’s famous painting The Death of Sardanapalus: Here, an atmosphere of depraved luxury is suggested in the disgusting portrait of this last great Assyrian king (late seventh century B.C.) as described in ancient Greek histories.
The picture of Assyrian kingship that emerges from a study of the documents left by the Assyrians themselves, however, is far different. To the Assyrians, a king immersed in revelries and cruelties would have been an abomination; their kingship was a sacred institution rooted in heaven, and their king was a model of human perfection seen as a prerequisite for man’s personal salvation.
The heavenly origin of kingship is already attested in the earliest Mesopotamian cultures. In both Sumerian and Babylonian mythology, it is expressed allegorically with the image of a tree planted upon earth by the mother goddess, Inanna/Ishtar. The sacred tree, usually represented in the form of a stylized palm tree growing on a mountain, is the most common decorative motif in Assyrian royal iconography. It occurs in imperial architecture, on seals and weapons of the ruling elite, on royal jewelry and elsewhere. The walls of the palace of king Ashurnasirpal II (883–859 B.C.) in Kalhu (modern Nimrud) were covered with more than 400 representations of the sacred tree.
The most elaborate rendition of the tree motif in this palace occurs on a relief placed directly behind the royal throne. The tree appears under the winged solar disk of Ashur, the supreme god of the empire. The symbol of the highest god hovering over the tree marks it as the cosmic tree growing on the axis mundi and connecting heaven with earth. It is flanked by two representations of Ashurnasirpal II depicted as the ideal king. This enigmatic tree thus stood in the center of the Assyrian Empire, the middle point of the world from the ideological point of view. The cosmic nature of the tree is implied by its elaborate structure, absolute symmetry and axial balance, as well as by the overall composition of the relief, the flanking figures forcing the viewer’s attention towards the center and thence to the winged disk above.
A cosmic tree growing in the middle of the world and connecting heaven with earth was the best imaginable visual symbol for the king’s pivotal position as the focal point of the imperial system and the sole representative of god upon earth. When seated on his throne, the king, from the viewpoint of the people present in the throne room, merged with the tree, thus becoming, as it were, its human incarnation. This idea is implicit in the fourth chapter of the biblical Book of Daniel, in which the king of Babylon dreams of a huge tree growing in the middle of the earth, its top reaching the sky, and is told by the prophet: “That tree, O king, is you” (Daniel 4:10–22).
The king’s association with the cosmic 019tree, while part and parcel of Assyrian royal ideology, was inherited from earlier Mesopotamian empires. Several Sumerian kings of the Ur III dynasty, about 2000 B.C., are referred to in contemporary texts as “palm trees” or “mes-trees growing along abundant watercourses.” In the Babylonian Epic of Erra, the mes-tree is said to “reach by its roots the bottom of the underworld and by its top the heaven of Anu,” thus leaving no doubt about its identification as the cosmic tree.
Representing the king as the personification of the cosmic tree not only emphasized the unique position and power of the king, it also served to underline the divine origin of kingship.
As already noted, the cosmic tree had been planted in the world by the goddess Inanna/Ishtar, who elsewhere figures as the divine mother of the king. In Assyrian imperial art, the goddess nurses the king as a baby or child. The message conveyed was that the king was identical in essence to his divine mother. In keeping with this idea of essential identity, or consubstantiality, the goddess too is identified with the date palm in Assyrian texts.
Since the human king, in contrast to gods, was made of flesh and blood, his consubstantiality with god of course has to be understood spiritually: It did not reside in his physical but in his spiritual nature, that is, in his psyche or soul. He thus was an entity composed of both matter and divine essence. This sounds very like the doctrine of homoousios enunciated at the Council of Nicaea in 325, in which Jesus is said to be “of the same substance” as the Father. According to the Epic of Gilgamesh, the eponymous hero, a “perfect king,” was two thirds god and 020one third man.
Ishtar, the divine mother of the king, was the wife of Ashur, the supreme god of the empire, defined in Assyrian sources as the “sum total of gods” and the only true god. Ashur was thus, by implication, the “heavenly father” of the king, while the latter was his “son” in human form. The Father-Mother-Son triad constituted by Ashur, Ishtar and the king reminds one of the Holy Trinity of Christianity, where the Son, according to Athanasius, is “the selfsame Godhead as the Father, but that Godhead manifested rather than immanent.”
The notion of the king as the son of god held true only insofar as it referred to the divine spirit that resided within his human body. In Mesopotamian mythology, this divine spirit takes the form of a celestial savior figure, Ninurta, whose mythological role the Assyrian kings consciously emulated both in ritual and in daily life. The Ninurta myth is known in numerous versions, but in its essence it is a story of the victory of light over the forces of darkness and death. In all its versions, Ninurta, the son of the divine king, sets out from his celestial home to fight the evil forces that threaten his father’s kingdom. He proceeds against the “mountain” or the “foreign land,” meets the enemy, defeats it and then returns in triumph to his celestial home, where he is blessed by his father and mother. Exalted at their side, Ninurta becomes an omnipotent cosmic accountant of men’s fates. It is this that the Assyrian kings emulated.
It is not difficult to recognize in this myth the archetype of the Christian dogma of the elevation of Christ to the right hand of his Father as the judge over the living and the dead. The figure of Ninurta also recalls that of the archangel Michael, the “Great Prince,” the slayer of the Dragon and the holder of the celestial keys, in Jewish apocalyptic and apocryphal traditions.
Doctrinally, the perfect king as Ninurta incarnate was the “perfect likeness of god,” who shared all the attributes of the godhead. Like Ashur, he was omnipotent, omniscient, profoundly wise and prudent, perfectly just and merciful, all love, glorious and superbly strong. Like the Pauline Christ, he also metaphysically encompassed the whole universe, symbolized by the cosmic tree. In short, he was god in human form, the “perfect man,” the only person possibly fit to rule the world as god’s earthly representative. As a semi-divine being, he alone of all human beings was surrounded by divine radiance, or melammu, the outward sign of divine perfection.
The Assyrian idea of royal perfection is not elaborated in terms of Aristotelian logic but is expressed only through metaphors, allegories and symbolic imagery. In order to understand it, we must 021see it through the symbols and images by which it is expressed. The most important of these is the sun, the primary symbol of the supreme god, Ashur. The blinding brilliance of its disk symbolized the absolute purity, holiness and righteousness of god as opposed to the darkness of the world, associated with evil, ignorance, injustice and death. The sun’s unwavering, absolutely straight path across the skies, its merciless heat and the triumphant return of light after the winter solstice symbolized god’s irresistible victory over wickedness and evil. Finally, the eternal return of the seasons symbolized the eternity of god and kingship as a divine institution eternally regenerating itself, notwithstanding the bodily death of the king.
In Assyrian royal ideology, the king is often referred to as the “sun” or the “very image” of Shamash (the sun god), and the word “king” was commonly written with the sacred number of the sun god, 20.
It was, of course, patently clear to everybody close to the king that whatever his spiritual condition, he was physically human and thus subject to all the weaknesses and imperfections of humankind: disease, bodily injury, misbehavior, imperfect memory and reasoning, error of judgment, faulty decisions, miscalculations, flaws of all sorts and, of course, even physical death.
The fragility of the human component of the king was duly recognized and accepted as an inevitability. However, it could not be tolerated. The king’s body was viewed as a temple erected by god himself—the worldly residence of the divine spirit. Like a temple of stone eventually worn and stained by dust, smoke, rain, fire and other agents, it was subject to the constant influence of the elements, pollution, decay and old age. But just as it was unworthy for the image of god to reside in a dirty or dilapidated temple, it was inconceivable that the spirit of god, synonymous with purity, chastity, wisdom, light and perfection, could have resided in a filthy and foul body. It was essential that any stains and defects observed in the king’s body and comportment be immediately removed and amended, just as the disk of the sun would soon return to its pristine glory and beauty after an eclipse. If not, the divine spirit would depart from the king’s body, leaving behind just an empty shell.
A perfect king, filled with the divine spirit, would be able to exercise a just rule and maintain the cosmic harmony, thus guaranteeing his people divine blessings, prosperity and peace. By contrast, a king failing to achieve the required perfection and thus ruling without the divine spirit, trusting in himself alone, would rule unjustly, disrupt the cosmic harmony, draw upon himself the divine wrath and cause his people endless miseries, calamities and war. The purity and perfection of the king thus had to be maintained at all cost, and it was achieved with the help of god and through the exertions of the king and his closest advisers.
Under this doctrine, godlike perfection was an inherent characteristic of kings, granted to them even before their birth. 024According to Assyrian royal inscriptions, kings were called and predestined to their office from the beginning of time. Their features were miraculously perfected in their mother’s womb by the mother goddess, that is, the spirit of god, and their intellectual and physical abilities were perfected by the great gods, that is, the powers and attributes of god. After birth, they were nursed in the temple of Ishtar and raised there “between the wings of the goddess,” being initiated into her sacred mysteries. Their education was completed in the “tablet house,” where they received thorough training in all aspects of Mesopotamian learning and wisdom. An inscription of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal (668–630 B.C.) elaborates as follows on the careful education this king received:
I learned the craft of the sage Adapa, the hidden secrets of the entire scribal profession. I observed the portents of heaven and earth. I was praised in the meetings of scholars, arguing with expert diviners about the liver, the mirror of heaven. I can solve complicated, elusive mathematical problems. I have read sophisticated texts in obscure Sumerian and in Akkadian difficult to comprehend, and have studied inscriptions on stone from the time before the flood with elite companions.1
Having completed his education and proven his valor, the prince who displayed the greatest abilities was chosen and appointed as crown prince by his father. The choice of the prince was confirmed by consulting the divine will through “extispicy” (inspection of the liver, or other entrails, of sacrificed sheep), and on an auspicious day the prince was officially introduced into the royal palace and presented with the royal diadem in a ceremony patterned after the triumphal return of Ninurta to his heavenly father. From now on the prince was considered equal in essence to his father, fit to exercise kingship and assume royal power should his father die.
In the royal palace, the king lived in a sacred space designed and built after celestial patterns and guarded against the material world by deities and apotropaic figures stationed at its gates and buried in its foundations. Colossal supernatural beings in the shape of a bull, lion, eagle and man, symbolizing the four turning points, guarded its gates. These apotropaic colossi marked the palace as a sacred space and thus may be compared to the four guardians of the divine throne in Ezekiel 1:10 and Revelation 4:76, which later re-emerge as symbols of the four 025evangelists of the New Testament: Matthew (man), Mark (lion), Luke (bull) and John (eagle).a
Mythical sages holding buckets of holy water flanked the palace doorways, ready to purify everyone who entered the sacred precinct. The air of the palace was heavy with the fragrance of purifying fumigants and incense, and its rooms were manned by eunuch attendants and bodyguards, whose very asexuality emulated the heavenly host.
The royal entourage, too, was organized after celestial patterns. Just as god was imagined to rule and direct the universe through “the assembly of great gods,” the king exercised his rule through a state council composed of eight cabinet ministers, “the assembly of great men.” Each of the cabinet ministers represented one of the central attributes or functions of the ideal king; together they constituted his manifest body, which carried out his will both individually and in coordination, like members of a single body.
To reach the greatest possible perfection in decision making and to eliminate, as far as possible, the element of human error, the king made no important political, military or judicial decision without first consulting his cabinet. The final decision was, however, always the king’s, and all resolutions of the council were issued in the name of the king alone. For additional safety, the will of the gods was consulted by extispicy before any decision of major importance was implemented.
Over and above the royal council, the safeguarding of royal perfection essentially depended on another group of men attached to the king’s service, namely the royal scholars.
These men, experts in five different branches of Mesopotamian learning, functioned as the spiritual guardians and advisers of the king, constantly monitoring his conduct and health and helping him with their advice and expertise whenever needed. It was believed that the king’s performance was being constantly watched from heaven and that the gods communicated their pleasure or displeasure with him through a system of signs transmitted in dreams, portents and oracles that could be interpreted and reacted to. Any royal error or act committed against the divine will was a flaw calling for correction and, if perpetuated, divine punishment. However, no punishment was inflicted before the king had been notified of his error and had been given a chance to change his ways. After all, he was god’s beloved son.
Apart from reading and reacting to the signs sent by the gods, the royal scholars protected the king against disease-causing 026demons, black magic and witchcraft.
Every sin or error committed by the king, however small or inadvertent, was a blemish tainting the purity of his soul. Therefore it was imperative that at any sign of divine displeasure an appropriate countermeasure be taken. It was essential that the king mend his ways. Sometimes it was possible to soothe the divine anger by performing an apotropaic ritual. In other cases, however, the portents were so grave that there was no effective counter-ritual: The king had committed a sin so grave that it could be atoned for only with his death. This required enthroning a substitute king, who would take upon himself the sins of the true king and die in his stead, thus enabling his spiritual rebirth.
This rite is not to be misunderstood simplistically as a cheap way of “tricking fate.” Its rationale lies in the doctrine of salvation through redemption outlined in the myth of the descent of Ishtar into the netherworld, according to which even a spiritually dead soul (in this case, the king) could be restored to life through repentance, confession of sins and divine grace, and could return to a state of innocence and purity by gradual ascent to higher spiritual states. The relevant ritual put a heavy strain on the king, who had to live an ascetic life and undergo a long and complicated series of ritual purifications during the “reign” of the substitute, 027which often lasted as long as a hundred days. Again, the emphasis of the ritual is clearly on the repentance of the ruler, not just on the mechanical performance of a set of ritual acts.
We can get an idea of the frame of mind of the king from the prayers he said in the course of the purification rites marking his symbolic ascent from the dead. One of these prayers is reprinted in the sidebar to this article.
Fulfilling and executing the ritual aspect of kingship blamelessly was necessary for the maintenance of the divine world order, the primary task of the king. This order of things, embodied in the person of the king and in the Assyrian Empire itself, a true “kingdom of heaven upon earth,” did not exist just for its own sake but served a higher purpose: to provide mankind with a living example of spiritual perfection, the attainment of which would open the way to eternal life. Ultimately, then, the role of the king was that of a savior from sin and death, a role that he shared with his celestial paragon, Ninurta.
The path to this spiritual perfection is outlined in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the famous story of the legendary king of Uruk who sought eternal life. At the beginning of the epic, the author informs us that Gilgamesh has returned from his quest with a hidden secret that he has written down for posterity, but nowhere does he reveal what this secret is. He does, however, give clues as to how this “locked lapis lazuli box” can be discovered and opened. These clues include the literary structure of the epic, intertextual allusions, enigmatic passages and intriguing spellings of names and words to be analyzed with the esoteric interpretive techniques used at the time.
An important clue is provided by the curious spelling of the protagonist’s name, GISH.GIN.MASH, which when broken down into its logographic components can be interpreted to mean “the man who matched the tree of balance.” Another clue is provided by the thematic structure of the epic: Each of its 12 tablets deals with a different spiritual theme associated with a particular great god of the Assyrian pantheon. Remarkably, the order of these gods corresponds to the order in which the same gods are distributed in the Assyrian sacred tree, starting from Nergal, the god of the underworld and sexual power at the root of the tree. Once it is realized that the epic is structured after the sacred tree, the narrative can be read as a path of gradual spiritual development culminating in the achievement of supreme intellectual powers, which enabled the hero to meet his dead friend at the end of the epic and retrieve from him precious information about life after death.
Two crucial points mark the hero’s progress towards spiritual perfection: the killing of the monster Humbaba and the felling of the tall cedar tree in Tablet V (which I take to symbolize victory over the “ego”) and the killing of the Bull of Heaven in Tablet VI (which I take to symbolize victory over the “id,” man’s animal soul).
Thanks to the perfection that he achieved, Gilgamesh was granted divinity and made the judge of the netherworld—the Mesopotamian equivalent of Egyptian Osiris’s rule—after his physical death. A hymn to Gilgamesh from the royal libraries of Ashurbanipal describes his postmortem perfection in the following way:
O Gilgamesh, perfect king, judge of the Anunnaki, administrator of the netherworld, lord of the dwellers-below! You are a judge and have vision like God; you stand in the netherworld and pronounce final judgment. Your judgment is not altered, your word is not despised; you question, you inquire, you judge, you weigh, and you render the correct decision. Shamash has entrusted verdict and decision in your hands. In your presence kings, regents and princes bow down.
Through his attainment of spiritual perfection, Gilgamesh became the yardstick of man’s spiritual value, the ideal weight, 061so to speak, placed on the other end of the scales to determine the weight of one’s soul on the day of judgment. In this role, the perfection of Gilgamesh and the way it was attained became a model for anyone who, like Gilgamesh, dreaded the idea of death and strove for eternal life.
On the surface it might seem that the epic, dealing as it does with the deeds of a king, was addressed principally to a royal audience, as a model of royal perfection. However, there is reason to believe that it was, from the beginning, written for a different readership. Even though the attainment of perfection is presented in the epic as a process taking place in Gilgamesh, a more attentive reading shows that his perfection is an inborn quality decreed to him at birth; aided by gods, he proceeds towards his goal unfalteringly, like the sun, never wavering in his course. Hence, the program of spiritual perfection outlined in the epic actually had no relevance for a king. The true hero of the story, rather, is Gilgamesh’s companion, Enkidu, a primitive man who overcomes his animal nature through divine guidance and becomes the partner and indispensable helper of Gilgamesh in his quest for life. The possibility of achieving human perfection is not limited to the king alone.
The esoteric lore I have described did not die with the fall of the Assyrian Empire. The scholars who had previously served the Assyrian emperor later found employment at the courts of the Median and neo-Babylonian kings, the usurpers of Assyria’s claim for world dominion.
In due course, we find their descendants teaching Daniel the esoteric secrets of the Chaldeans, advising the Achaemenid kings of Persia, transmitting their wisdom to Pythagoras, waiting at the deathbed of Plato, performing the substitute king ritual for Alexander the Great, reading the physiognomy of Sulla and finally spreading their doctrines in the imperial court of Rome, as highly valued advisers of the emperors Claudius, Nero, Domitian, Trajan and Marcus Aurelius. I venture to suggest that their influence was far greater than is generally believed.
The impact of Mesopotamian religious thought on the evolution of other ancient religious and philosophical thought has never been seriously investigated. What follows are my initial forays into this uncharted territory. I suspect the influence has been far greater than anyone has yet suggested. Take, for example, one small datum: There was a commandment to refrain from work and travel on every seventh day of each month (plus the 19th day). Whether this had any effect on the Israelite commandment to refrain from work and travel on the seventh day, I do not know. It may be simply […]