Monday, March 31, 2014

Positive Affirmation Babylonian Style

Ruins of ancient Babylon

Part of late twentieth century 'New Age' thinking, positive affirmation refers to a positive mental attitude accompanied by a carefully worded written statement or 'affirmation', spoken confidently to one's self repeatedly. For example, one can think, write down and say over and over - "I am confident my environment is safe and divinely guarded". According to this thinking, doing so makes the words true.

Processional Way, Aibur-shabu: attribution: Jackie Craven

But there's nothing new about positive affirmation. The ancient Babylonians practiced positive affirmation to an even greater degree. The 'doctrine of the name' asserted that as long as anything had no name, it didn't exist. Once named, the name of the object or person was an image or representation of it much like a shadow or reflection is a representation.

Speaking the name can evoke the almost perpetual power that the knowledge of the name confers, though it is limited in practice by the impossibility of perpetual repetition. (1)

Since giving the name and speaking the name wasn't sufficiently powerful, writing it down could project the name indefinitely, giving it perpetuating power. That is why a single proper name came to be the god Ningirsu, in the temple of Uruk, spoke favourably on the subject of Urukagina with the goddess Baba. (1)

Anyone who repeated his name reinforced the action described, causing benefit to the man himself. City gates and walls in Babylon would have names designed to ensure good influences for the city, like, Bel hath built it, Bel hath shown it favour.  

god Marduk: attribution

The famous Processional Way in Babylon bore the name Aibur-shabu which meant 'the enemy shall never pass'. King Nebuchadrezzar's own name meant 'O god Nabu, preserve/defend my firstborn son'. Nabu is the Babylonian diety of wisdom and son of the god Marduk, Babylon's patron god. Powerful stuff.

Every time a person used the proper names for people or objects they reinforced the positive affirmation so not only could an individual benefit himself by speaking his own affirmation, so could anyone using the name, affirmation being built right into the name.

Unfortunately, positive affirmation wasn't too effective for the Babylonians. The confident positive affirmation given to the Processional Way by King Nebuchadrezzar, the enemy shall never pass, proved unsuccessful. In 539 BC the enemy definitely passed over the Processional Way, overthrew the government of Babylon and took the city, putting an end to the neo-Babylonian empire.

Demon Pazuzu: Although himself an evil spirit, he drove away other evil spirits and was frequently buried beneath household threshholds for protection: Wikimedia Commons
(1) Everyday Life in Babylon and Assyria by Georges Contenau

Monday, March 24, 2014

Marriage in Ancient Babylon

selling women in ancient Babylon

Generally, marriage in ancient Babylon was monogamous, although secondary wives could be chosen from among the slaves, particularly if the first wife was barren or too ill to satisfy her marital obligations. Both custom and law allowed the barren wife to supply a slave-girl as her surrogate to bear children. The resulting children were legally considered the wife's children. A childless wife could also adopt a second woman as her sister and permit her to marry her husband.

Until the time of her marriage a girl was under the protection of her father. He was free to marry her to whomever he thought fit and she was dependent on him for getting married. If her father died, her brothers took over his responsibility.  If she was in service in another household as security for a debt of her father's, the creditor was only free to dispose of her as he liked if she had neither father nor brothers. In theory, wives were not bought and sold but there are texts which make it clear that purchase in a disguised form did in fact take place. One would think a girl would prefer to remain single rather than be forced into marriage, particularly marriage with an undesirable partner.  But, according to the thinking of the time, it was a woman's 'destiny' to marry and provide sons to perpetuate the male line of her husband's family and it was a duty most women took seriously.

Marriage was preceded by a ceremony of betrothal. The girl's future husband poured perfume on her head and brought her presents. After this small ceremony, although she could remain in the home of her parents if young, she was considered a full member of her future husband's family; so much so that if he died she would marry one of his brothers or if he had no brothers, one of his near relatives.

Both families brought a financial investment to the table - the groom's family were contracted to provide a bride-price in silver and the bride's family were contracted to provide a dowry of equal value. The dowry consisted of household items, silver rings, slaves and even fields. It could also include furniture, textiles and jewelry. Not infrequently the dowry included the bed used to consummate the marriage. Both the bride-price and the dowry could be paid in installments until the first child was born, at which time the balance of both payments was due and the marriage was legally finalized.

prostitute in ancient Babylon

The virginity of the bride was a matter of concern. The 'best men' of the bride were a group of friends who protected her and were responsible for her chastity. After the wedding night it was their responsibility to display 'the bloody sheets'. If the virginity of the bride were in dispute, expert female witnesses were called upon to offer testimony. In one letter from Mari a betrothed girl was pursued by another man. There had been some kissing and intimate touching but the young woman  insisted that she did not sin against her betrothed because she had denied the man intercourse. This seemed to be the criteria for establishing whether a woman was raped or seduced, in order to determine culpability.

The actual marriage was simply a delivery of the wife to her husband. The husband declared, 'she is my wife', in the presence of witnesses and that was that.

There were, of course, 'specialists' who engaged in what we would call prostitution. Taverns run by alewives were houses of pleasure where men drank, listened to music and had intercourse with prostitutes. The walls of the taproom were decorated with clay plaques of naked women or other erotic scenes. Married women took lovers but it was a dangerous business. While a husband's sexual escapades were punishable only if they seriously harmed a third party, those of the wife and her lover were dealt with much more harshly. If the lovers were caught they were bound together and thrown into the water. The husband could be granted permission to have both parties killed or mutilated. He could cut off his wife's nose and make her lover a eunuch. If the wife told her husband she no longer wanted him, once again, death by drowning and if it were proven that she had been  disobedient or a manhunter, breaking up the home and bringing discredit on her husband, you guessed it, she was thrown into the water. Drowning seemed to be a popular judgment.

There is little to glean from the personal correspondence of ancient Babylonian literature, as they seem to have been fairly modest in expressing their most intimate feelings in letters. However, I don't want to leave you with the idea that marriage was simply a passionless contract so I'll close with a 'medical' text and a poem composed around 1750BC.

Sumerian couple

Medical text.
When the patient is continually clearing his throat; is often lost for words; is always talking to himself when he is quite alone, and laughing for no reason in the corners of the fields; is habitually depressed, his throat tight, finds no pleasure in eating or drinking, endlessly repeating, with great sighs, 'Ah! my poor heart! - he is suffering from lovesickness.
(Everyday Life in Ancient Mesopotamia by Jean Bottero, pg 102)

Poem of a man who returns to a loving woman he'd previously abandoned.
Yes! You are the only one who matters! Your face is as beautiful as ever! It is as it used to be,
When I held you close to me
And you rested your head on me!
I shall never call you anything but 'Enchanting'
And 'Wise' shall be your only title for me!
May Ishtar be my witness:
Henceforward your rival shall be our enemy!
(Everyday Life in Ancient Mesopotamia by Jean Bottero, pg 105)

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Great Dragon Dilemma: Should I or Shouldn't I?


I'm in a bit of a pickle. I'd like to include a dragon of the sea serpent variety in my historical novel set in ancient Babylon. But will readers accept a dragon in historical fiction or will that push it over the edge into fantasy?

In the Bible, the book of Job has an entire chapter devoted to a sea monster, a leviathan. This enormous creature was a lethal fire-breathing snake-like apex predator without equal and without fear. But did such a beast ever exist?

Every country has dragons in their mythology and stories of dragons have been passed down through millennia. They must have some basis in reality.

The Aberdeen Bestiary, written in the early 16th century, describes the dragon as 'bigger than all other snakes or all other living things on earth'.
The third century historian, Flavious Philostratus, said about dragons in India and Ethiopia that 'the marshes are full of them' and that they were 'thirty cubits long'.  Pretty darned big. Depending on how you measure a cubit, (18" makes a royal cubit while usual measurement was the length of a forearm) the creature could be as much as 45 feet long!

Now before you say, not possible, keep in mind that the blue whale runs around 98 feet in length, an African bush elephant measures about 35 feet from trunk to tail and the largest confirmed crocodiles are 20 - 23 feet long. One of my favorite apex predators, the almost extinct Barbary lion, is pretty small in comparison at only 11 feet long but he has a guaranteed spot in my novel.

African Lion 

Dragons are incorporated into much of ancient Babylon's artwork. The Ishtar Gate is ornamented with some pretty cool dragons in glazed-brick relief but they're rather fanciful affairs not actually meant to depict living animals, well at least not as far as we know anyway. They seem to have scaly bodies and snake heads, scorpion tails, the feet of a lion and the talons of a bird of prey.

But one of the best 'proofs' I found for water dragons in ancient Babylon is this white limestone boundary-stone housed in the British Museum and recording certain privileges granted to a chariotry captain by Nebuchadrezzar I.  This is the front of the stone. You can't see the dragon very well from this view.

But here's a side view and you can clearly see a thick giant serpent dragon running the length of the stone.

Cool, right? So, I'm thinking - maybe a dragon isn't such a far-fetched idea after all.