III. SCIENCE OF BABYLONIA AND ASSYRIA
From omens associated with the heavenly bodies it is but a step to omens based upon other phenomena of nature, and we, shall see in a moment that the Babylonian prophets made free use of their opportunities in this direction also. But before we turn from the field of astronomy, it will be well to inform ourselves as to what system the Chaldean astronomer had invented in explanation of the mechanics of the universe. Our answer to this inquiry is not quite as definite as could be desired, the vagueness of the records, no doubt, coinciding with the like vagueness in the minds of the Chaldeans themselves. So far as we can interpret the somewhat mystical references that have come down to us, however, the Babylonian cosmology would seem to have represented the earth as a circular plane surrounded by a great circular river, beyond which rose an impregnable barrier of mountains, and resting upon an infinite sea of waters. The material vault of the heavens was supposed to find support upon the outlying circle of mountains. But the precise mechanism through which the observed revolution of the heavenly bodies was effected remains here, as with the Egyptian cosmology, somewhat conjectural. The simple fact would appear to be that, for the Chaldeans as for the Egyptians, despite their most careful observations of the tangible phenomena of the heavens, no really satisfactory mechanical conception of the cosmos was attainable. We shall see in due course by what faltering steps the European imagination advanced from the crude ideas of Egypt and Babylonia to the relatively clear vision of Newton and Laplace.
We turn now from the field of the astrologer to the closely allied province of Chaldean magic—a province which includes the other; which, indeed, is so all- encompassing as scarcely to leave any phase of Babylonian thought outside its bounds.
The tablets having to do with omens, exorcisms, and the like magic practices make up an astonishingly large proportion of the Babylonian records. In viewing them it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the superstitions which they evidenced absolutely dominated the life of the Babylonians of every degree. Yet it must not be forgotten that the greatest inconsistencies everywhere exist between the superstitious beliefs of a people and the practical observances of that people. No other problem is so difficult for the historian as that which confronts him when he endeavors to penetrate the mysteries of an alien religion; and when, as in the present case, the superstitions involved have been transmitted from generation to generation, their exact practical phases as interpreted by any particular generation must be somewhat problematical. The tablets upon which our knowledge of these omens is based are many of them from the libraries of the later kings of Nineveh; but the omens themselves are, in such cases, inscribed in the original Accadian form in which they have come down from remote ages, accompanied by an Assyrian translation. Thus the superstitions involved had back of them hundreds of years, even thousands of years, of precedent; and we need not doubt that the ideas with which they are associated were interwoven with almost every thought and deed of the life of the people. Professor Sayce assures us that the Assyrians and Babylonians counted no fewer than three hundred spirits of heaven, and six hundred spirits of earth. "Like the Jews of the Talmud," he says, "they believed that the world was swarming with noxious spirits, who produced the various diseases to which man is liable, and might be swallowed with the food and drink which support life." Fox Talbot was inclined to believe that exorcisms were the exclusive means used to drive away the tormenting spirits. This seems unlikely, considering the uniform association of drugs with the magical practices among their people. Yet there is certainly a strange silence of the tablets in regard to medicine. Talbot tells us that sometimes divine images were brought into the sick-chamber, and written texts taken from holy books were placed on the walls and bound around the sick man's members. If these failed, recourse was had to the influence of the mamit, which the evil powers were unable to resist. On a tablet, written in the Accadian language only, the Assyrian version being taken, however, was found the following:
1. Take a white cloth. In it place the mamit, 2. in the sick man's right hand. 3. Take a black cloth, 4. wrap it around his left hand. 5. Then all the evil spirits (a long list of them is given) 6. and the sins which he has committed 7. shall quit their hold of him 8. and shall never return.
The symbolism of the black cloth in the left hand seems evident. The dying man repents of his former evil deeds, and he puts his trust in holiness, symbolized by the white cloth in his right hand. Then follow some obscure lines about the spirits:
1. Their heads shall remove from his head. 2. Their heads shall let go his hands. 3. Their feet shall depart from his feet.
Which perhaps may be explained thus: we learn from another tablet that the various classes of evil spirits troubled different parts of the body; some injured the head, some the hands and the feet, etc., therefore the passage before may mean "the spirits whose power is over the hand shall loose their hands from his," etc. "But," concludes Talbot, "I can offer no decided opinion upon such obscure points of their superstition."
In regard to evil spirits, as elsewhere, the number seven had a peculiar significance, it being held that that number of spirits might enter into a man together. Talbot has translated a "wild chant" which he names "The Song of the Seven Spirits."