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BABYLONIAN AND ASSYRIAN LITERATURE

1. The Accadians and Babylonians.—2. The Cuneiform Letters.—3. Babylonian and Assyrian Remains.

1. ACCADIANS AND BABYLONIANS.—Geographically, as well as historically and ethnographically, the district lying between the Tigris and Euphrates forms but one country, though the rival kingdoms of Assyria and Babylonia became, each in turn, superior to the other. The primitive inhabitants of this district were called Accadians, or Chaldeans, but little or nothing was known of them until within the last fifteen or twenty years. Their language was agglutinative, and they were the inventors of the cuneiform system of writing. The Babylonians conquered this people, borrowed their signs, and incorporated their literature. Soon after their conquest by the Babylonians, they established priestly caste in the state and assumed the worship, laws, and manners of their conquerors. They were devoted to the science of the stars, and determined the equinoctial and solstitial points, divided the ecliptic into twelve parts and the day into hours. The signs, names, and figures of the Zodiac, and the invention of the dial are some of the improvements in astronomy attributed to this people. With the decline of Babylon their influence declined, and they were afterwards known to the Greeks and Romans only as astrologers, magicians, and soothsayers.

2. THE CUNEIFORM LETTERS.—These characters, borrowed by the Semitic conquerors of the Accadians, the Babylonians, and Assyrians, were originally hieroglyphics, each denoting an object or an idea, but they were gradually corrupted into the forms we see on Assyrian monuments. They underwent many changes, and the various periods are distinguished as Archaic, hieratic, Assyrian, and later Babylonian.

3. BABYLONIAN AND ASSYRIAN REMAINS.—The origin and history of this civilization have only been made known to us by the very recent decipherment of native monuments. Before these discoveries the principal source of information was found in the writings of Borosus, a priest of Babylon, who lived about 300 B.C., and who translated the records of astronomy into Greek. Though his works have perished, we have quotations from them in Eusebius and other writers, which have been strikingly verified by the inscriptions. The chief work on astronomy, compiled for Sargon, one of the earliest Babylonian monarchs, is inscribed on seventy tablets, a copy of which is in the British Museum. The Babylonians understood the movements of the heavenly bodies, and Calisthenes, who accompanied Alexander on his eastern expedition, brought with him on his return the observations of 1903 years. The main purpose of all Babylonian astronomical observation, however, was astrological, to cast horoscopes, or to predict the weather. Babylon retained for a long time its ancient splendor after the conquest by Cyrus and the final fall of the empire, and in the first period of the Macedonian sway. But soon after that time its fame was extinguished, and its monuments, arts, and sciences perished.

Assyria was a land of soldiers and possessed little native literature. The more peaceful pursuits had their home in Babylonia, where the universities of Erech and Borsippa were renowned down to classical times. The larger part of this literature was stamped in clay tablets and baked, and these were numbered and arranged in order. Papyrus was also used, but none of this fragile material has been preserved.

In the reign of Sardanapalus (660-647 B.C.) Assyrian art and literature reached their highest point. In the ruins of his palace have been found three chambers the floors of which were covered a foot deep with tablets of all sizes, from an inch to nine inches long, bearing inscriptions many of them so minute as to be read only by the aid of a magnifying glass. Though broken they have been partially restored and are among the most precious cuneiform inscriptions. They have only been deciphered within the present century, and thousands of inscriptions are yet buried among the ruins of Assyria. The most interesting of these remains yet discovered are the hymns to the gods, some of which strikingly resemble the Hebrew Psalms. Of older date is the collection of formulas which consists of omens and hymns and tablets relating to astronomy. Later than the hymns are the mythological poems, two of which are preserved intact. They are “The Deluge” and “The Descent of Istar into Hades.” They form part of a very remarkable epic which centred round the adventures of a solar hero, and into which older and independent lays were woven as episodes. Copies are preserved in the British Museum. The literature on the subject of these remains is very extensive and rapidly increasing.