Time as the Babylonians Saw It

archbab1 In Mesopotamia, a region long settled by other peoples, the Babylonians had to establish their dominance. By adopting various myths from the Sumerians, and then amending them, they created a sense of the long view of time. Into this invention of time stretching into the infinite past, the Babylonians inserted themselves, thereby breaking the timeline into two parts: before and after their arrival. They grafted the legacy of the Sumerians to themselves. Moreover, possessing a concrete sense of time, the Babylonians then subdivided it in a number of ways, each division of time serving a religious or imperial need. They bifurcated time into two distinct parts – one: circular and repeating, the other: an arrow into the future. These two splits of time complemented each other in the Babylonian mind.

Every New Year which began at the Spring Equinox, the Creation Myth (Enuma Elish) was read. This myth begins with the original creation of the world by Tiamat, the God of Chaos, and Apsu, the God of Waters. Later Enlil, a God from the succeeding generation becomes the “Father of the Gods.” Eventually, He cedes his powers to Anu, from yet a newer generation of Gods, who seeks to overthrow the original Gods. After Apsu is killed, Tiamat wages war on the newer Gods. In desperation, Enlil goes to Marduk, the principal deity of Babylon, for help. On the condition that He is made the Ruler of the Gods, Marduk agrees. After killing Tiamat, Marduk remakes the world from her body.

This creation story cements Babylon’s place in Mesopotamian history. After ages of rule by other peoples and their Gods, Mesopotamia is then recreated by the Babylonians. Generations of Gods follow each other ending with Marduk. Thus, Babylon becomes the terminus point for the timeless past, and the future that is now Babylon. The ritual of reading the Creation Myth every New Year was the intersection of circle with arrow time, and also the combination of both.

In its various forms, the Gilgamesh Epic highlights the nexus of time and immortality. Within this epic is the story of a Great Deluge. Like the Creation Story, the time in the Great Flood is broken into two halves, the world before Babylon and after. According to this myth, the list of Kings before the Flood numbered ten. After the Flood, the Kings reigned from the City of Kish (in Sumer), with reigns consisting of 300 years to 1,200 years. In this story, comes a sense of a long past, a rupture, and then the start of a new age. Because Kish had great symbolic significance, the myth allows Babylon to become the heir to the ancient civilization of Sumer. The story gives to the people of Babylonia, the sense of a great destiny. Babylon is the New World remade from the older world. Once more, time in Babylonian perception was broken, and then welded together again.

The Gilgamesh Epic, itself, focuses on the questions of death and immortality. After his friend, Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh comes to dislike death. Resolving to end death for all, he searches for the key of immortality. During his adventures, various Gods tell him to enjoy life and accept death gracefully. Through a series of mishaps, Gilgamesh is denied immortality for himself and his people. However, he realizes that his city will exist long after his death. His immortality would come from his legacy, which is his city. Babylonians saw this in terms of themselves as the legacy of Sumer. Again it was presented as endless time that was disrupted

In Babylon, the year was divided into two halves – summer and winter, in explicit circle time. In the myth of Ishtar’s Descent Into the Underworld, winter comes about when Ishtar sends her husband Tammuz to take her place in the Land of the Dead. In desperation, Tammuz then seeks help from his sister, Gestinana. After much negotiation with the Gods of the Underworld, both siblings decide to take each other’s place for six months at a time.

Ishtar’s husband, Tammuz was the God of Crops and Flocks. The Babylonians saw Him as the life blood of the land and the sheep. When He went into the Underworld, winter came. At that time his sister, Gestinana reemerged, and presided over the autumn harvest and wine making. She became the Goddess of Wine and Grapes.

At the Spring Equinox, the Babylonians started their New Year. To commemorate this, the King would enact a sacred marriage with the temple priestess of Ishtar. Their mating was to reaffirm the marriage of Ishtar, the Goddess of Fertility, with her husband, Tammuz. These marriage rites was to ensure that the King was accepted as one of the Gods, and blessed by Ishtar, who also blessed the crops. This was circle time, repeated every year at the same day.

In contrast, the Fall Harvest was the beginning of the Royal Year. At this time, the King offered First Fruits for the blessings of the Gods for him and his city. Afterwards, he would begin a project such as building a temple. Counting regnal years in Babylon started with the harvest, and was often named for the King’s latest project. The passage of time was demarked by the reigns of kings and their deeds. Again the Babylonian sense of time was divided into two parts, one for the Gods and the other for the kings. Regnal time was inserted as an arrow to the future into the circle time of the harvests.

In their daily lives, the Babylonians were very conscious of the passage of time. They measured days, months, and years (with a nineteen month calendar to tract solar and lunar eclipses). They used artificial time to track governmental and commercial activity for regnal years and fiscal years. Against this backdrop of dividing time into smaller units came the sense of timelessness that rose from living in Mesopotamia. Being conscious of being a part of a succession of kingdoms in the region, the Babylonians both merged their myths with the Sumerians, and divided them into two parts, before Babylon, and after.  Time for the Babylonians was to split into two parts, one an arrow pointing towards the future, whilst the other a circle that returned back to Babylon.

Works Used.
“Ancient Mesopotamian Gods and Goddesses.” U.K. Higher Education Project. 2011. Web.
Aveni, Anthony, “People and the Sky.” Thames and Hudson: New York. 2009. Print.
Cicero, Sandra, “A Guide to the Babylonian Tarot.” Llewellyn: Woodbury, MN, 2006. Print.
King, L.W., “Babylonian Religion and Mythology.” Wisdom Library. 1903. Web.
Siren, Christopher, “The Assyro-Babylonian Mythology FAQ.” 2003. Web.
Sumerian Mythology FAQ.” 2000. Web.
Smitha, Frank, “Civilization in Mesopotamia.” Macrohistory and World Time Line2015. Web.

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