The Religion of Chaldea
Theosophical Quarterly, April, 1906
The land long known as Chaldea, wherein many nations successively grew and ruled, bears striking resemblances to the land of Egypt. Like Egypt, it is a long river valley, hemmed in between rocky mountain ridges on the east and vast expanses of sandy wilderness on the west. Like Egypt, it is of immense fertility, or might once more be, were its ancient system of irrigating canals restored. Like Egypt, it was warmed into sudden luxuriance, and burned dry by the summer sun. Again like Egypt, it was through long ages divided into two kingdoms, the north and the south land, sometimes under a single ruler, often at war.
In long past ages the resemblance went even further; for torrent rains then deluged Egypt, as they still deluge Chaldea in the winter months, and the Egyptian desert then blossomed in spring into a splendid carpet of flowers, red, blue and yellow among the luxuriant green grass, as does the Arabian desert which hems in Chaldea on the west. These analogies and relations go much deeper, as we shall presently see; for there are spiritual as well as material bonds of union, and they go back into a remote and wonderful past.
There are certain well-marked differences. Egypt has one sacred river, the Nile, flowing northward. Chaldea had two sacred rivers, now known as Euphrates and Tigris, flowing southward. At the dawn of our knowledge of Chaldea, these two rivers flowed into the sea many miles from each other; but what was then sea is now dry land, and the two rivers, ever approaching each other, as the land gained on the sea, finally came together into a single channel, and for long centuries they have been united in one, flowing as one stream into the Persian Gulf. Here we have our first means of dating the ancient civilization of Chaldea; for certain cities, which were at first ports, built on land recently won from the sea, are far inland today. They were deserted by the ever-receding waves, as the Persian Gulf filled up with the mud and sand carried down by the rivers.
One of these ancient seaports was Uru-dugga, the “good city,” the word uru meaning “city” in the most ancient known tongue of the land. Uru-dugga, later called Eridu, was the earliest home of religious and national culture in the valley of the two rivers, and the sea had just receded from its site when it was built. But Uru-dugga is now one hundred and twenty miles, or even further, from the present sea-shore, all the intervening land having been since built up by the sand and mud of the rivers. We know what point the receding sea had reached in the days of Alexander the Great. We can, therefore, count how much longer it took for the sea to withdraw from Eridu, and the period thus measured is some ten or twelve thousand years. Eridu was, therefore, founded ten or twelve thousand years ago; not later, because the sea withdrew some ten thousand years ago; not much earlier, because the site of the city was in earlier periods under the waves.
We have our starting-point thus fixed with some certainty, and without likelihood of future change. Other cities of the same ancient land were Uru-uku, the “city eternal,” and Uru, the “city,” so called because it was a royal seat; and these two cities, under the names of Erech and Ur, are found in the Hebrew scriptures, in the period immediately after the deluge. The people who dwelt in Uru-duggu, Uru-uku and Uru called themselves “the people of Sumer,” or, to use the modern form of the name, “Sumerians.” They spoke a language very different from most of those known to us; akin to the ancient forms of the Tartar tongues of Central Asia, Finnish, Mongol, Manchu and Turkish; one of the languages of the sub-races who bridge the gap between the ancient yellow races of China and the yellow-white races of Eastern Europe. The Sumerians were, in fact, ancient kindred of the Turks, and it is a part of time’s cyclic work that their land is at this moment under Turkish rule.
When they founded Uru-dugga, the “good city,” by the sea-shore some ten or twelve thousand years ago, the Sumerians were already a learned and highly cultivated race. They were familiar with many arts. They build admirably, using bricks and ties made of the river-mud. They used gold, silver, copper, tin and lead, and perhaps antimony, in their arts and manufactures. They made canals, irrigated their fields of wheat and other grain, wove cotton and wool into cloth, and carved fine statues of rock brought from the eastern mountains.
What is more to our purpose, we find them in possession of a great spiritual culture, a religious system presided over by priest-kings, who held civil authority in virtue of their spiritual power, and who kept the ancient records in writing closely akin to the earliest hieroglyphics of Egypt. Moreover we find the men of Sumer holding the belief that their spiritual culture had come to them from the sea, from the south, out of the waters of the Persian Gulf. The great spirit who brought them wisdom and hidden knowledge, they called Ea or Hea, whom they honored as “the Lord of the earth.” Hea dwelt in the deep, and held sway over the spirits of men. His home amid the “waters” was indicated by depicting him with the body of a fish, also a symbol of the Mysteries. Hea alone possessed a knowledge of “the supreme Name,” the ineffable Word, before which everything bows, in heaven and earth, and in the waters under the earth. The spirits of darkness yield obedience to this Name. Even the gods are awed by it. Another title of Hea was Zi-ki-a, the Zi or spirit of ki-a, “the earth and the waters,” and Hea is depicted as sailing on the deep in a mystical bark, like the boat of Ra, in the Egyptian religion. In this holy bark, built of cedar and adorned with “seven times seven lions of the desert,” go forth “Hea, who decides destinies, with Damkina, whose word is life; Silik-mulu-khi, who utters the beneficent name; Munu-abge, who guides the lord of the earth, and Nin-gar, the great pilot of heaven.” Here is an ancient Sumerian hymn to Hea, in which spiritual powers are symbolised:
Who holds his head high before the great terror which my vast strength causes?
I am master of the steep mountains which tremble whilst their summits reach the firmament.
The mountain of alabaster, lapis lazuli and onyx, in my hand I possess it.
Archangel of the abyss, in my right hand I hold my fiery disk; in my left hand I hold my fatal disk.
The sun with fifty faces, the raised weapon of my divinity, I hold it.
The weapon which, like a waterspout, stretches in a circle the bodies of the slain, I hold it.
That which breaks the mountains, Ana’s powerful weapon, I hold it.
That which bends the mountains, the fish with seven fins, I hold it.
The flaming blade of battle, which devastates and afflicts the land of the rebels, I hold it.
The great sword which overthrows the ranks of the brave, the sword of my divinity, I hold it.
The hand of the powerful men of battle, from the attacks of which the mountain cannot escape, I hold it.
The joy of heroes, the lance which deals injury in battle, I hold it.
The club which crushes the dwellings of the rebel country, and the shield of battle, I hold them.
The thunder of battle, the weapon with fifty points, I hold it.
Like the enormous serpent with seven heads, shaking its heads, the serpent with seven heads, I hold it.
Like the serpent which scours the waves of the sea, the destroyer in the shock of battle, extending its power over heaven and earth, the weapon with seven heads, I hold it.
The burning god of the east, who makes his glory shine like that of the day, I hold him.
The creator of heaven and earth, the god whose power has no rival, I hold him.
One is reminded of the transfigured Krishna, “with disk and mace,” of the “sword of wisdom,” in the mystical books of India, and of the spiritual powers represented by “the armor of righteousness,” the whole armor of God, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God, a close parallel to the ineffable Name of power known to Hea. There are also analogies with the chakra, or disk, and the seven-headed serpent of Brahma, on which the Creator rests amid the waters. We may see in this the symbol of a sevenfold “serpentine” power.
Hea, Lord of the earth, is thus the lord of wisdom, of spiritual and magical power. He is regarded as the creator of men, the giver of wisdom and spiritual knowledge to men. And we may also, no doubt, see in Hea a personification of spiritual wisdom and power, the “hosts,” as it were, of “perfect spirits,” possessing magical power and the knowledge of immortality.
Amongst those who go forth with Hea in his sacred bark, we saw included a divine being called “Silik-mulu-khi,” or “Silik-mulu-dugga,” who “utters the beneficent name.” Silik-mulu-dugga is a title, meaning “he who dispenses good to men,” and the proper name of the Son of Hea, who bore this title, was Asari. Asari is, perhaps, the most important and vital figure in the ancient religion of the Sumerians. For it is now recognized that the Sumerian Asari, son of the Lord of the earth, is no other than Asar, or Hasiri, prince of Egypt, called by the Greeks Osiris. The identity is conclusively proved by the symbols used, which are identical in Egypt and Chaldea, the picture sign for “a place,” accompanied by the picture-sign for “an eye,” being used in the one land to represent Asari and in the other to represent Asar. Moreover, the character of Asari, as known to the ancient Sumerians is identical with that of Osiris, as known to the men of ancient Egypt. Asari, like Osiris, is the mediator between God and mankind. Asari is known as “the dispenser of good to men,” the “prince,” and in Egypt Osiris is called “the good,” and “the prince.” It is clear that the same divine-human personage is meant; one who, though embodied as a ruler among men, was yet of divine nature; who died and rose again; who leads and guides the souls of men.
We come to this, that the great ruler who was esteemed an avatar in ancient pre-dynastic Egypt is recognized as the great divine personage who brought spiritual knowledge and culture to the ancient Sumerian in their city of Uru-dugga, then on the shore of the Persian gulf. The Sumerians spoke of him as the originator of their national and spiritual life, and as dwelling with them, a mediator between them and Hea, Lord of the earth. Sumerian tradition goes back no further.
This is not the case in Egypt. Asar or Osiris does not stand at the beginning of Egyptian life. Long ages of the Divine Dynasties stretch behind him, and he takes his place as one in a series of divine kings. We are, therefore, justified in believing that the Egyptian cycle is the older of the two; that the Sumerians looked back to Egypt, and especially to the divine king Osiris, as the source of their spiritual knowledge; and there may well have been an infusion of the earlier Egyptian race in Uru-dugga, the first city of the ancient Sumerians.
There is a close accord in the dates, so far as we can estimate them. Uru-dugga, as we saw, must have been founded some ten or twelve thousand years ago, when the Persian gulf lay one hundred and twenty miles further inland than it does today. The culture of Uru-dugga began, therefore, some ten or twelve thousand years ago. On the other hand, we find a date assigned to Osiris, in the reckoning of ancient Egypt, which corresponds closely with this. We saw the beginning of the “historic” dynasties is now admitted to have been some seven thousand years ago, and that Menes, the first conqueror and unifier of all Egypt, is now dated about 5,000 years before our era. But the ancient Egyptians reckoned four cycles of rulers before that period of unification under Menes, and they numbered Osiris among the rulers of the first of these four dynasties. The date they gave to his reign is some thirteen thousand years ago, agreeing closely with the known antiquity of Uru-dugga or Eridu, the oldest city of the Sumerians, where, under the name of Asar, “who dispenses good to men,” Osiris was reverenced.
Asar, the incarnate “son of God,” who died and rose again, came to be esteemed as the Mediator between Hea, Lord of the earth, and the souls of mankind. To Asar, in this character, hymns and prayers were addressed. The following is one of them:
Thy will is the sublime sword with which thou rulest heaven and earth.
I commanded the sea, and the sea became calm.
I commanded the flower, and the flower ripened its grain.
I commanded the girdle of the river of Sippara (Euphrates), and by the will of Asar I diverted its course.
Lord, thou art sublime I what mortal being is like unto thee?
Dispenser of good to men, amongst all the gods who are named, thou givest the reward. Hero among the gods, who dispensest good to men, lord of battles . . .!
In another hymn, Asar is addressed thus:
Great lord of the land, king of countries, eldest-born of Hea, who bringest back heaven and earth,
Dispenser of good to men, lord of the lands, king of peoples, God of gods,
Merciful one among the gods,
Regenerator, who bringest back the dead to life,
Dispenser of good to men, king of heaven and earth,
To thee are heaven and earth,
To thee are heaven and earth round about!
To thee is the breath of life!
To thee are death and life!
To thee is the sublime shore of the ocean!
To thee belong all the children of men, all who breathe, all who, bearing a name, exist on the surface of the earth;
The whole of the four regions of the world, the archangels of heaven and earth, how many soever they are,
Thou art the propitious god;
Thou art the favorable strong one;
Thou art the life-giver;
Thou art the savior, the merciful one among the gods,
Thou art the regenerator, who bringest back the dead to life!
Dispenser of good to men, king of heaven and earth,
I have invoked thy name,
I have invoked thy sublimity!
Asar is also represented as saying:
I am he who walks before Hea,
I am the Warrior, the eldest son of Hea, his messenger.
Asar carried a sacred reed as his scepter and magical wand, thus described in one of the hymns:
Golden reed, great reed, tall reed of the marshes, sacred reed of the gods.
. . . I am the messenger of Him who dispenses good to men, causing all to grow young again. . . .
Above the realm of “land and sea” ruled over by Hea, the Sumerians held that there were three zones, or realms, or planes, in ascending order. Between the earth and the heavens was the zone or realm of the powers of the air, where the winds blew, the storms raged, the clouds were spread forth, the lightnings played, the hot thunderbolt whirled, and the water-spouts poured forth.
Above this cloud-realm was the lower zone of the heavens, in which the seven sacred planets moved in their courses. The planetary realm was called ul-gana, and the planets were conceived as living things, as beings possessed of life and consciousness, of the power to live and move in this realm where they had their being.
Higher still was the sublime heaven of the fixed stars, to which was given the name of Ana. Ana, as Heaven, was held to be the greatest of the gods, the Supreme, the Father and fore-runner of all. Or, to speak more justly, the Sumerians did not conceive the Supreme otherwise than as the Spirit of Heaven.
For everything throughout the Fourfold World was held to have not only its separate being, but its “spirit” or “life” as well, the word Zi meaning “life” as well as “spirit” in ancient Sumerian. Thus the Supreme was called Zi-ana, “spirit of Heaven.” In the same way there were the Planetary Spirits, lords of the second heaven. And there were “spirits” of the elements, in the cloud-world and on earth. So Hea was Zi-ki-a, “Spirit of earth and seas.” Men also had their spirits, guardian-angels, who watched over them from birth; and he who was full of devotion and aspiration was invariably spoken of as “the son of his god.”
The light has its shadow. Each of these hosts was deemed to have its negative or dark aspect. And there was a dark shadow-land which stood in this negative relation to the whole earth. This was the gloomy Abyss, “the waters which are under the earth,” as it is called in the Decalogue. The Abyss was the dwelling of seven spirits of darkness, the forces who resist all good, who destroy the good works of nature, who are at enmity against man; the forces which resist evolution, and which contend against our spiritual growth. These are the same powers which, in Egypt, we saw personified as Set, the Adversary, who slays Osiris and scatters his dismembered body throughout the two lands; in one aspect they are the “law in the members warring against the law of the mind;” in another aspect they are the forces which bring disease, decay and death. In yet another sense, the Abyss is what we sometimes call the astral world, the astral atmosphere of the earth, and one part of the ancient Sumerian religion was dedicated to the purification of this astral region, and to averting the dark influences which might lurk therein, boding evil to men. These dark influences were of several kinds. There were elemental spirits, as we should call them, to whom storms, fires, floods and natural calamities were due. There were the classes of elementals held to cause disease, something like the astral counterpart of our modern microbes, which are supposed to be hosts of invading lives, fastening themselves in the living body, and to be exorcised by anti-septics, many of them preparations of tar. We may, perhaps, see here a suggestion of why the cedar and other fir-like trees were held especially efficacious against the elementals of disease, by the ancient Sumerians. Yet a third class of astral influences were the shades of the dead; not by any means of all who died, but of certain persons given over to evil, and who thus reverted to the realm of the abyss. Lastly, there were the malign wishes and purposes of the living. To guard against these different dark forces of the astral world a system of magical ceremonies was in use, and its special home seems to have been at Nippur, somewhat to the north of Uru-dugga. It appears likely that the ghost-lore of Nippur represents a northern system of spiritualism, handed down from a high antiquity among the ancestors of the Tartar nations, while the religious lore of Uru-dugga or Eridu carries us in the opposite direction, southward to the Egypt of Osiris.
Two visible powers, the Sun in the heavens, and Fire on the hearth, were reverenced as representatives of Hea and Asar, as manifestations of their divine power, and as mediators between mankind and the spiritual world. Here is part of a hymn to the Sun:
O Sun, thou shinest in the deepest heavens; thou openest the bolts which close the high heavens; thou openest the gate of heaven.
O Sun, thou raisest thy head above the lands,
O Sun, thou stretchest the vast heavens above the lands like a covering.
Another hymn to the Sun is as follows:
Great lord! from the center of the high heavens thou comest into our sight.
O Sun, valiant hero, from the center of the high heavens, thou comest into our sight.
At the opening of the high heavens, at the door, thou comest into our sight.
The bolts of heaven thou drawest back.
In the great door of the high heavens, in the opening, which belongs to thee, in the highest summits of the high heavens, high in thy rapid course, the spirits respectfully and joyfully approach thee; they exalt thy crown, they raise thee up rejoicing.
In the repose of thy heart the days pass.
The spirits of all countries greatly surround thee. The spirits of heaven and earth turn toward thee. . . .
The Sun is invoked as the healing messenger of Hea, when
The man, the son of his god, is burdened with the load of his omissions and transgressions. . . .
And the prayer is offered:
By thy orders may his omissions be forgiven! May his transgressions be blotted out!
These ancient Sumerian prayers end with the word Amen, held to have divine and magical efficacy. Like the Sun, Fire was reverenced as the purifier, the messenger of Hea made manifest on earth. A hymn addresses him thus:
O Fire, supreme chief rising high in the land!
Hero, son of the Ocean, rising high in the land!
O Fire, with thy pure and brilliant flame.
Thou bringest light into the dwellings of darkness,
Thou decidest the fate of everything which has a name.
Thou mixest copper and tin,
Thou purifiest gold and silver.
Thou art the offspring of the goddess of earth.
May the works of the man, the son of his god, shine with purity!
May he be high as heaven!
May he be holy and pure as the earth!
May he shine as the midst of the heavens!
Another beautiful hymn to Fire begins:
Peace of the god Fire, the hero,
May countries and rivers rest with thee!
May the Tigris and Euphrates rest with thee!
May the sea rest with thee!
May the path of the daughter of the gods rest with thee!
May the inward works of nature rest with thee!
May the heart of my god and goddess rest with thee!
There are also hymns to the two rivers, Tigris and Euphrates, conceived as spiritual beings, “children of the Ocean, whose waters are sublime, whose waters are brilliantly pure, whose waters glisten . . .” which strongly call to mind the Hymn to the Nile. There is a close analogy between the worship of the Sun, as the manifested messenger of Asari and Hea among the ancient Sumerians of Uru-dugga, and the worship of the same Sun as manifested spirit, the visible representative of the Logos, in ancient Egypt. On the other hand the hymns to the Sun and Fire, which we have just given, carry us eastward, toward the headwaters of the Indus, toward the land of the Rig Veda hymns.
Many teachings which appear in later religions had their prototype among the ancient Sumerians. Thus we find them depicting the beginning of manifestation in these verses:
When the upper region was not yet called Heaven,
And the lower region was not yet called earth,
And the Abyss beneath had not yet opened its arm,
Then the chaos of waters gave birth to all of them.
And the waters were gathered into one place.
No men yet dwelt together, no animals yet wandered about,
None of the gods had yet been born,
Their names were not spoken, their attributes were not known.
In like manner we find the story of the garden of “Edin,” the sacred plain of ancient Chaldea, with the tree of life, the first man and woman, and the tempting serpent; and the Hebrew scriptures explicitly associated Eden with the Euphrates. We find also the story of the Deluge, in a form which was doubtless handed down from the earliest Sumerian times:
“I will tell thee how I was saved from the flood,” says Hasisadra to the hero Izdubar, “also will I impart to thee the decree of the great gods. Thou knowest Surippak, the city that is by the Euphrates. This city was very ancient when the gods were moved in their hearts to ordain a great deluge. The lord of inscrutable wisdom, the god Hea, was with them, and imparted to me their decision. ‘Listen,’ he said, ‘and attend, man of Surippak; go out to thy house and build a ship. The gods are willed to destroy the seed of life; but do thou preserve it, and bring into the ship every seed of life.’ When I heard this, I spoke to Hea my lord, ‘If I build the ship as thou biddest me, O Lord, the people and their elders will laugh at me!’ But Hea opened his lips once more, and spoke to me, his servant, ‘Men have rebelled against me, and I will do judgment on them, high and low. But do thou close the door of the ship when the time comes, and I tell thee of it. Then enter the ship and bring into it thy store of grain, all thy property, thy family, thy men-servants and thy maid-servants, and thy next of kin. The cattle of the fields, the wild beasts of the fields, I shall send to thee myself, that they may be safe behind thy door.’ Then I built the ship, and provided it with stores of food and drink; I divided the interior into compartments. I saw to the chinks and filled them; I poured bitumen over it without and within. All that I possessed I brought together and stowed it in the ship; all that I had of gold, of silver, of the seed of life of every kind; all my men-servants and my maid-servants, the cattle of the field, the wild beasts of the field, and also my nearest friends. Then, when the appointed time was come, a Voice spoke to me: ‘This evening the heavens will rain destruction, wherefore go thou into the ship and close thy door. The appointed time has come!’ And greatly I feared the sunset of that day, the day on which I was to begin my voyage. I was sore afraid. Yet I entered the ship, and closed the door behind me, to shut off the ship. And I confided the great ship to the pilot, with all its freight.
“Then a black cloud rises from the depths of heaven, with thunder and whirlwinds and floods from the depths of the earth, which quakes at their violence. The waters rise even to heaven; light is changed into darkness; confusion and devastation fill the earth. Brother looks not after brother; men have no thought for one another. In the heavens, the very gods are afraid. . . . For six days and seven nights wind, flood and storm reigned supreme; but at dawn of the seventh day the tempest decreased, the waters, which had battled like a mighty host, abated their violence; the sea retired, and storm and flood both ceased. I steered about the sea, lamenting that the homesteads of men were turned into mud. The corpses drifted about like logs. I opened a port-hole, and when the light of day fell on my face, I shivered and sat down and wept. I steered over the countries which now were a terrible sea. Then a piece of land rose out of the waters. The ship steered towards the land Nizir. The mountain of the land Nizir held fast the land, and did not let it go. Thus it was on the first and on the second day, on the third and the fourth, also on the fifth and sixth days. At dawn of the seventh day I took out a dove and sent it forth. The dove went forth to and fro, but found no resting place, and returned. Then I took out a swallow and sent it forth. The swallow went forth, to and fro, but found no resting-place, and returned. Then I took out a raven, and sent it forth. The raven went forth, and when it saw that the waters had abated, it came near again, cautiously wading through the waters, but did not return. Then I let out all the animals, to the four winds of heaven, and offered a sacrifice. I raised an altar on the highest summit of the mountain, placed the sacred vessels on it seven by seven, and spread reeds, cedar wood, and sweet herbs under them.”
So far the religion of the ancient land later called Chaldea, in some of its larger aspects. If it be asked how we come to know so much, and in such detail, of the faith and teaching of a race long since vanished, the answer is simple. That race left books so made, that neither fire nor water could injure them; and these books, tablets of clay inscribed with a metal point, and then hardened by fire, have come down to us in tens and even hundreds of thousands. The first writing was hieroglyphic, made of picture-signs, like those of ancient Egypt. Later, it was conventionalized into what we call the cuneiform, or wedge-shaped character, which lasted, in various forms, for thousands of years. In that character many different languages were written, beginning with archaic Sumerian, and ending with classical Persian. Through inscriptions in the latter language, at Persepolis, in Southern Persia, some three hundred miles to the east of ancient Eridu, the cuneiform writing was first deciphered. Then the later language of the Chaldean region, the tongue generally called Assyrian, was slowly spelled out; in part by means of its close relationship with a well-understood group of tongues, of which Arabic, Hebrew and Aramaic are the most important. There still remained the wholly different and most mysterious language now called Sumerian, in which all the older texts were written. Here, happily, the long gone races came to our aid; for grammars and dictionaries of Sumerian were found, which had been prepared for, those whose mother-tongue was Assyrian; and many Sumerian texts were found with an Assyrian translation between the lines. Among these were those from which the hymns here given were translated, and there are still tens of thousands to be read.
Undoubtedly the most interesting discovery in this field in recent years is that which shows the relation between the archaic Sumerians and the Egypt of Osiris. Along this line, much more will, perhaps, be learned in years to come. In the mean time, it is of high interest to point out that the period, some ten or twelve thousand years ago, in which we must place the founding of Uru-dugga by the ancient shore of the Persian gulf, was evidently marked by a wide alteration of conditions in ancient Egypt. At that date, it would seem, a change came over the face of the Nile valley. The tropical rains ceased. The land began to assume its present form.
We can date this change in Egypt in a very interesting way, quite similar to that which fixes the founding of Eridu. It is found that the Nile deposits a certain amount of sediment after every inundation, and that, in a hundred years, this sediment will amount to four or five inches. The total depth of the sediment is thirty-eight to forty feet, which gives us ten or twelve thousand years since the present sediment began to be formed. Perhaps the changes in the face of Egypt may have caused some of the people of Osiris to seek a new home in the east, where the Two Rivers fell into the Persian Gulf; and in the story of the Sumerian Asari we may have the echo of their coming.