Previous to about 2700 B. C., the Sumerians had ruled the Tigris-Euphrates valley; they were then conquered by a Semitic people, who established the first Babylonian Empire. This was succeeded about 1400 by the Assyrian, also Semitic and very warlike, with its capital at Nineveh, which was destroyed about 612. In 605, the center of power shifted again to the Valley, now ruled by Nebuchadnezzar from Babylon. This great city was captured by the Persian-Aryan Cyrus in 538; and this event marked the end of Semitic empire.
Assyrian religion and culture, derived from Babylonian, prevailed among all Semitic nations. There was a large pantheon of nature-deities, which were probably the first prototypes of the Hellenic, but there was no basic monotheism, as in Egypt. Babylonian-Assyrian concepts, themselves derived from the Sumerian, were the basic source of Greek and Jewish eschatology, until Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and the mystery-cults effected their far-flung revolution.
The above statement is very important as it indicated the process of alteration and change of religious beliefs. Somewhere in the evolution of religious beliefs, especially in eschatology, is truth but to discern it leaves one subject to blind faith.
The Babylonians and Assyrians, along with the primitive Greeks, believed that at death very nearly all souls pass into a cold, dark prison-house known as Sheol, Hades, or the House of the Dead, from which there could be no release and in which, for all alike, there was neither activity, joy, nor hope; above all and of major importance for you to note is that there was no differentiation between the wicked and the righteous. Sinai revelation will change all of that. One might say that after death, the soul had an existence but no life. It was believed that unless the body was properly buried the spirit subsisted on dust and mud, and, therefore angered, might do injury to the living. Therefore we see the importance of funeral rites in preparation of the body for burial as preparation for a spiritual-existence.
The Babylonian-Assyrian religion does not fall within our province, since it did not exercise direct influence upon the New Testament. But the same cannot be said about Gentile Christianity; especially the Catholic Church!
We concern ourselves only with Ishtar, the great Babylonian goddess, who grew and expanded over the centuries into the Queen of Heaven and the Mother of the Gods, who was adopted by the Assyrians and all the lesser Semitic nations as their greatest deity, and whose worship was absorbed, under various guises, by many Aryan nations as well. She appeared under many names, among which the most popular were Ashtoreth, Astarte, Mylitta, Cybele, Anaitis, Dindymeme, Aphrodite, and Venus; but her character remained substantially unaltered.
Ishtar was worshipped primarily as the goddess of generation and the source of life, whether vegetable, animal, or human. She ached with cosmic sex-desire; and without her influence, no creature could experience the same yearning, and hence no new life could come into being. According to ancient myth, she had taken a mortal lover, Tammuz, who had died and departed into his eternal underworld prison. She wept inconsolably, but could not retrieve him from the clutches of Allatu, mistress of the nether regions. To be with him again, she invaded the House of the Dead, where she was herself condemned by Allatu to perpetual imprisonment.
But now a terrible tragedy supervened upon earth. All the vegetation died, and could not grow green again; none of the wild beasts, the cattle, or even insects would copulate; and all sexual relationships ceased among the human race. In short, love was dead, and the world was doomed.
To meet this fearful emergency, there was a council of the great gods, who determined that Ishtar must be restored to earth. They therefore sent a delegation to Allatu, who reluctantly released her prisoner. But Ishtar could not endure life always separated from her beloved; and so, every fall, she went down into the underworld to be with him for six months, and every spring, on the 20th of June, when the star of Ashtoreth appeared in the East, she came again into the upper world. With her return, the birds, the flowers, the trees, the grain sprang to life; the insects, the beasts, and the cattle copulated once more; and men and women, stirred by strong desire, hastened to embrace.
Every year, the passion of Ishtar was re-enacted at a great religious festival, at which the women wept for Tammuz, as we read in Ezekiel 8:14. Her ritual was consonant with her character. Close by her temples were her sacred groves, in which men and women performed her rites by uniting in the sex act which is symbolic of life and which was her sacrament. Herodotus declares that the Babylonians have one most shameful custom: "Before marriage, every woman must sit down in the precincts of Aphrodite and wait for a stranger who will pay her a temple fee to have intercourse with her. The woman goes with the first man who throws her money, and rejects no one. As soon as the man made his choice, he led the woman to the sacred grove, where they consummated the ritual. Thereupon, she returned to her home and never again submitted to the embrace of a stranger. Strabo describes the same ceremonial at Byblus.
Wherever the orthodox Semites (Babylon and Assyria) advanced, Astarte, together with her sacred prostitution, came with them. Not only were all women compelled to submit once to this pre-marital ceremony, but we know that the temples of the Queen of Heaven were staffed with professional priestesses, whose earnings swelled her coffers. Herodotus says that formerly Babylonians used to sell their daughters into slavery or wifehood to the highest bidder; but now, to avoid such violence, they reared the damsels to become temple prostitutes in the service of Ashtoreth. We learn from Strabo that not only the Babylonian Ishtar, but also the Median Anaitis, offered the same serviced
Sir James G. Frazer suggests that Ishtar dates from an antiquity so remote that marriage was unknown or regarded as an immoral aggression against the communal rights of many women to many men. Astarte and Aphrodite are therefore unmarried and unchaste. As monogamy and monogamic marriage developed with private property, a relic of primitive communism lingered on in the ritual of Astarte: once in her life, each woman was compelled to surrender to men communally in the person of a single stranger; and we read that if women wished to preserve their chastity, they were required to sacrifice their hair in lieu thereof. The custom by which brothers or fathers married their sisters or daughters was also a relic of ancient communism, in which all property and the line of descent belonged to women alone. Only by marriages regarded as incestuous after private property was consolidated, could wealth be continued among the males of the same family.
The Semitic culture and religion spread all over Asia Minor to the Hellespont and the Mediterranean. We have already seen in the article about Osiris that ancient Byblus was a colony of Egypt four or five thousand years ago; and that the body of Osiris, later recovered by Isis, was said to have landed there. The story is told by Plutarch, from whom we learn also that the chest containing the body of Osiris was enclosed in a great myrrh or heather tree; and that Isis poured perfume upon the wood, which was still, in the first century, preserved in her shrine at Byblus.
What actually occurred was something of far-reaching importance: for in Byblus, the religions of Babylonia and Egypt met and coalesced; and a new cult emerged, which bore a generic resemblance to both progenitors, but developed certain characteristics of its own. Basically it was the same but different. This was the first time that Osiris was exported; but the old religion he encountered here was so thoroughly established that it could not be displaced in its entirety. Ishtar, therefore, remained almost intact. Osiris, however, continued as the savior-god, and, in this character, drove Tammuz into oblivion. In this first mystery religious-synthesis, Ishtar and Osiris became Aphrodite and Adonis. Lucian notes the identity of these gods and declares that Adonis is Osiris.
As known to the Greeks, the myth runs as follows: the Ancient Syrian king Cinyras and his wife Astarte, who ruled both at Byblus and in Paphos, had a daughter, Myrrha, whom Aphrodite caused to become desperately enamored of her father, who unwittingly impregnated his own child when she replaced her mother in his bed; on discovering his impiety, he attempted to destroy her, but she escaped his wrath and the gods transformed her into a myrrh tree (remember Osiris and the tree?). After ten months, the tree burst asunder, and forth sprang the beautiful Adonis (A don, in Syrian, means lord) who developed into a handsome youth with whom Aphrodite became hopelessly enamored. But before she could consummate her love, Adonis was killed and his body mangled by a boar in a hunting accidents The disconsolate goddess followed her beloved into Hades (remember how Isis searched for Osiris and as Ishtar had entered Hades in search of Tammuz?), whence she sought his return to the upper air; but Persephone had herself fallen so deeply in love with him that she would not permit his release. Aphrodite thereupon appealed the case to Zeus, who determined that Adonis should spend a portion of each year, four or six months, with Celestial Aphrodite and the remainder with Persephone (before it was Allatu and Tammuz). All this, of course, re-creates in main outline the myth of Ishtar, Allatu, and Tammuz; and as we shall see, it was reproduced in the Demeter-Persephone myth. Furthermore, the aromatic Isis and the myrrh tree of Adonis, Osiris and the child Adonis both enclosed in the tree (will become a cross later)these are elements reflecting the congenital relationship between Osiris and Adonis.
From Byblus, the Adonis-cult spread far and wide; and Pausanias declares: "among the Athenians, her worship was instituted by Aegeus, thinking that he had no children . . . owing to the wrath of the Celestial One."
The Greeks called Aphrodite a Cyprian, because her worship on Cyprus antedated Greek civilization; and they called her sea-born, because she came from across the Mediterranean. Her temple at Paphos, of which ruins are still extant, probably dates back to 1500 B. C.; but even this, according to Herodotus, was built in imitation of the more ancient one at Ascalon. And that at Byblus was the oldest of all, and was said by the Phoenicians to have been built by the god El, the creator of the world.
The important question for us, however, is to discover the relationship between the Mother Goddess and the savior-cults; for her worship was never celebrated as a mystery in her original habitat. It became such only when Osiris, displacing Tammuz, became known as Adonis. In the new cult, this god was at least equal to the (great Mother: Tammuz, a vegetation-god, had died in the autumn, after which he descended to the underworld; but Adonis, like Osiris, died at seed-time because he was the god of resurrection who symbolized the grain quickened into a second life; and, even more significant, it was his passion and not that of the goddess which was celebrated. Tammuz, who remained forever in the underworld, was simply the lover of Ishtar; but Adonis, like Osiris, symbolized the grain which is placed in the earth and which dies and is reborn that mankind may have abundant life. During the winter months, Ishtar lived in the nether realm with Tammuz; but Adonis was the soter (savior) was made to descend into Hades (Hell) but was seen to be resurrected and thereby ascended each spring from Hades to dwell during the summer with the celestial Astarte.
The river Adonis empties into the Mediterranean below Byblus, where stood for centuries that stretched into millenniums the celebrated temple of Aphrodite. The worshipers believed that every spring their god, Adonis, was gored and slain by a cruel boar upon the jagged mountainside, and that his blood discolored the waters of the stream and caused a profusion of anemones to redden the earth.
We know that the great festival of Adonis, commemorating his death and resurrection, occurred at midsummer, because that is when the river Adonis runs red and the anemones bloom in Syria. We know this also from the fact that the great fleet fitted out by the Athenians against Syracuse left at just that time in 415 B.C.E.; and the streets of Athens at the same moment were lined with the coffins of Adonis and with the women lamenting and bewailing their slain god. When Emperor Julian arrived in Antioch in 6 A. D., the Festival of Adonis was in progress, and the people plunged in grief; for Venus, the Morning Star of Salvation, had just appeared in the East, the god had just died, but had not yet been resurrected.
The ritual of Adonis as celebrated in Alexandria, Egypt, where the Essenes had their college, is described in the fifteenth Idyll of Theocritus. Couches were set up, on which figures of the god and the goddess reclined; their union was celebrated with music, recitations, and rejoicing; and there were altars laden with many fruits and cakes. The phallic Osiris and the lascivious Ishtar were represented by objects symbolizing the male and the female generative organs; and their union was celebrated as a holy mystery, which must be concealed from the uninitiated, but the details of which are described and excoriated by Clement of Alexandria.
Each year at Byblus, Paphos, and other cities, the festival of Adonis was celebrated with a mystery-drama, even as was that of Osiris in Egypt. The time was spring or early summer, because that was the time of sowing in Syria, instead of autumn, as in Egypt. The god was slain by the wild-boar, and his rent and bleeding body crimsoned the earth and the river with his blood. At this fearful tragedy, the women-mourners filled the air with shrieks and lamentations. Yet they did not grieve like those who are without hope; for shortly thereafter, the Star of Venus appeared in the East; this was the goddess coming to rescue her lover from the nether regions, to resurrect him to life, as did Isis in Egypt. Thereupon, before their very eyes, Adonis rose before them and ascended into heaven to be again with his heavenly bride. This festival occurred annually about the twentieth of June.
In the Adonis-Aphrodite cult, there seems to have been no eucharist; there was only a thank-offering of fruits and grains. The sexual ritual seems to have taken the place of the sacred meal. There can be no doubt that each new initiate became a member of the cult through intimacy with the sacred temple personnel: female novitiates became Aphrodites by union with the priestly Adonis (instead of becoming one with the god through partaking of his body and blood/drink, one became one with the god through sexual union with his representative priestess or priest); and the men were similarly sanctified with the sacred prostitutes. Personal immortality through a eucharist was an idea so foreign to the Semitic mind that it could not be engrafted upon the worship of the Great Mother. But that cannot be said for Osiris and Egyptian religion.
We saw the evolution and synthesis of many of the same Osirian and Egyptian religious beliefs with religious beliefs of the Babylonians, Assyrians, and the Greeks. Understand that is is not a "complete inclusion of all existing religious beliefs," but a selecting in-grafting of religious beliefs through not only trade and commerce that introduced such concepts into other lands, but through military conquest where the victors subjugated the conquered in all areas, even religious beliefs.
There can be no doubt that in the primitive phases of the cult, a priest, impersonating Adonis, was ceremonially slain at each annual festival; as civilization advanced, however, this was replaced by a simulated sacrifice.
Adonis never penetrated the pantheon of the Greeks; nor did the Adonis-Aphrodite cult progress far among them. As Aphrodite freed herself from Adonis, she became in time simply the goddess of beauty and of love and her cultic mysteries retreated from the peninsula. The reason was probably that her sacrament became progressively more repulsive as monogamy and private property became more and more firmly entrenched; it was therefore impossible for the Aphrodisiacs to compete successfully against the Eleusinians and the Dionysiacs, to whom we turn in the next article.