Sunday, December 1, 2013

Ancient Babylon: A Hedonistic Society

The idea of ancient Babylonians being a society of pleasure seekers, devoted primarily to sensual self-indulgence, appears well supported.

One of the principal deities of ancient Babylon was the goddess Ishtar who presided over all aspects of sexuality. According to a line in an ancient Mesopotamian poem, the Erra Epic, Ishtar's sacred prostitutes 'frequently do abominable acts to please the heart of Ishtar'. A hymn dedicated to Ishtar declares her to be the supreme Woman, beautiful, desirable, 'with a fondness for sensual pleasures and delights, full of seduction, charm and voluptuousness'. Licentious activities were common in and around her temple precincts and such 'worship' of Ishtar was encouraged. The goddess is usually pictured naked, supporting her breasts with her hands.

Goddess Ishtar 

That the ancient Babylonians saw nothing unusual about the shocking activity of Ishtar's prostitutes, transsexual performers and acts of more or less public copulation, puzzled me a fair bit. It seemed like an almost frenzied attempt to wring as much physical pleasure from life as they could. But why? A bit of research into the society provided possibilities.
First of all, they worshipped a vast number of gods who created man to take over their work so the gods could rest. The gods are almost morbidly ill-tempered, are incapable of gathering together without drinking excess..are violent, gluttonous, uncontrolled, faithless and vindictive.(1)
A person's well-being was tied to the correct worship of these fickle deities and they were lousy role models.
                                  Tiamet, dragon goddess
Secondly, the Babylonians believed their world to be populated by vast numbers of ghosts and demons. Demons were invisible enemies, deformed monsters that compassed them on every side, lying wait for them by day and night, for if a person angered his god through disobedience he would be without any protection from them. There were incubi and succubi whose embraces no man could escape, she-demons who prevented children from being born or killed new-borns, or the 'evil eye' under the influence of which nothing could prosper. There were also spirits of those whose lives had been unhappy, who had been cheated of an expectation, died a violent death or had not enjoyed the happiness they craved. They were much feared as dangerous, vengeful ghosts who haunted the living.
                                        Humbaba, Babylonian demon

Thirdly, the gods reserved eternal life for themselves and decreed death to be man's fate. The Babylonians had no hope of anything being better in the afterlife, no matter how well they'd behaved in this life. Man had to enjoy life on earth while it lasted since life in the underworld was, for the most part, miserable for all. The realm of the dead was described as a dreary place:

"To the gloomy house, seat of the netherworld,
To the house which none leaves who enters,
To the road whose journey has no return,
To the house whose entrants are bereft of light,
Where dust is their sustenance and clay their food,
They see no light but dwell in darkness." (2)

The most they could expect in death was a bit to eat and drink in this dark place, provided by family members at their gravesite. Food was set near the burying place and liquids were poured through a pipe in the ground. The Babylonians were in constant dread of angering a host of unstable gods and being harassed by multitudes of demons and ghosts relentlessly dogging their footsteps. I think it's fairly easy to understand why they might prefer to live by a motto similar to Eat, Drink and Be Merry, For Tomorrow We Die!

Ereshkigal, goddess of underworld and sister of Ishtar

(1) excerpted from Everyday Life in Babylon and Assyria by Georges Contenau 
(2) excerpted from Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia by Karen Rhea Nemet-Nejat


  1. I'm fascinated by different cultures' (especially ancient ones) views of death and the afterlife. I wonder, though, at the negative words used to describe the priestesses. If the people in general felt the acts were "abominable" then they couldn't have been that into Ishtar. It sounds like your readings suggested that the people were rather disgusted with the gods, but did whatever they did to appease them to avoid retribution. Since the correct behavior of a people is often based on religious beliefs, that seems rather contradictory. What do you think?

  2. I suspect, but obviously don't know, that the Babylonians showed the degree of their devotion in the lengths to which they would go to please the goddess. Other societies were horrified at their behavior but I don't know that the Babylonians were disgusted with the gods. It was simply the way things were. Stories of the gods had been passed down for a long time and there is some indication that the negative attributes of the gods were actually a reflection of the primitive people from whose imagination they sprang and would have been a true picture of the average man in the most ancient age of their civilization.

  3. Many of the Fertile Crescent societies seems to have a fairly pessimistic religion. I've read speculation that it was because the flooding of the rivers was so unpredictable and destructive that they couldn't take a positive view of life.

    1. Wow, that sounds harsh. Interesting, but harsh. My knee-jerk reaction is to disagree with the theory. I grew up around floodplains, and one thing you could be sure of was that they'd flood again. It was natural and normal in the same way as winter weather. But it does make me curious to do some reading on the matter. I'll put it on the ol' mental reading list.

    2. I think it may be a somewhat narrow view to suppose their pessimism had anything to do with the annual flooding of the Euphrates, regardless of how destructive it could be. You have to keep in mind that they believed the river to be overseen by their gods. Enbilulu was a deity in charge of Euphrates and was said to know the secrets of the water, made all things flourish, and was lord of abundance and ample crops. The flooding was both harmful and beneficial. Peak flooding in spring might cover the land but it carried with it the rich silt that acted as a kind of manure to fertilize their fields. They also had a complex canal system to channel water from the river. Construction and maintenance of the system was actually considered an act of piety and the digging of a new canal was regarded as equal to a victory in war or the building of a temple. The river was an essential source of drinking water and played a huge role in the economy of Babylon with its business life centered on the wharves. I suspect flooding was simply an acceptable price to pay for all its advantages.