The Assyrian Empire of Ancient Mesopotamia

The Assyrian Empire of ancient Mesopotamia achieved its greatest size in the seventh century b.c.e. The Assyrians go back to much earlier times, however. With the Sumerians, Babylonians, and Egyptians, they created the amazingly advanced civilization of the ancient Near East, and not surprisingly, elements of each other’s religions are to be found in all of those cultures.

The Assyrians spoke Akkadian, a Semitic language that was also the language of the great Babylonian epic, the Enuma Elish. The Assyrian capital was at Ashur and later at Nineveh. Assyrian creation stories vary greatly from period to period, depending in part on the power of various deities at any given time.

In an Assyrian creation used for religious initiation ceremonies, we find a pantheon of dominant male gods, but there are fragments in the myth of earlier ex nihilo creations suggesting a dominant goddess.

After the earth and heavens had been created and the Mother Goddess, too, the great sky gods—the Annunaki—led by Anu (sky), Enlil (storms and earth), Shamash (sun), and Ea (water), looked out over their creation and wondered what else they needed to do. The beautiful Tigris and Euphrates rivers flowed majestically to the sea, and the destinies of heaven and earth were established, but something seemed to be lacking.

It was decided that mankind was needed to till the fields, celebrate religious festivals, and constantly retell the origin stories. The new being would be made of the blood of certain sacrificed deities. So it was that the first humans—Ulligarra (abundance) and Zalgarra (plenty)—were created. Their destinies were established by the “lady of the gods,” Aruru.

In another Assyrian myth, however, it is the goddess herself, Ninhursag (also Nintu or Mama, goddess of earth) who creates the human. This myth was apparently used as part of a birth incantation. The myth itself depicts the birth process.

After the great goddess is praised and her feet kissed, she goes with the other gods to the House of Fate, where 14 “mother-wombs” (pregnant women in the ritual) are assembled. The great god Ea sits next to the goddess and asks her to begin the incantation.

She does so, drawing 14 figures in the clay before her and then pinching off 14 pieces, placing seven to her left and seven to her right with a brick between them. Then Ea kneels on a mat, opens his navel, and calls on the mother-wombs to bring forth seven males and seven females.

Then the Great Mother Womb, Ninhursag, herself forms the new beings. During the incantation itself, the mother in the birthing house is encouraged to act for herself as the goddess and to bring forth her child safely.

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