Assyrian and Babylonian Texts and Precious Stones

The description of an ornament of seven precious stones in an ancient Assyrian text, the ornament's origin in Babylonia, Assyrio-Babylonian epics mention of precious stones, and the rare Babylonian axe-head of banded agate

Among the Assyrian texts giving the formulae for incantations and various magical operations, there is one which treats of an ornament composed of seven brilliant stones, to be worn on the breast of the king as an amulet; indeed, so great was the virtue of these stones that they were supposed to constitute an ornament for the gods also. The text, as rendered by Fossey, is as follows:

"Incantation. The splendid stones! The splendid stones! The stones of abundance and of joy.

Made resplendent for the flesh of the gods.

The hulalini stone, the sirgarru stone, the hulalu stone, the sandu stone, the uknu stone.

The dushu stone, the precious stone elmeshu, perfect in celestial beauty.

The stone of which the pingu is set in gold.

Placed upon the shining breast of the king as an ornament.

Azagsud, high-priest of Bel, make them shine, make them sparkle!

Let the evil one keep aloof from the dwelling!"

(Fossey, "La Magie Assyrienne," Paris, 1902; see Rawlinson, "Cun. insc. of West. Asia," vol. iv, 18, No. 3.)

The names of two of these gems, the hulalu and the hulalini, suggest that they were of similar class. As the fundamental meaning of the root whence the names are formed is "to perforate," it is barely possible that we have here the long-sought Assyrian designation for the pearl, which was commonly regarded in ancient times as a stone. In Arabic the perforated pearl has a special name to distinguish it from the unperforated, or "virgin pearl." All we know of the sandu is that it must have been a dark-colored stone. The uknu, however, is almost certainly the lapis-lazuli. It is often mentioned in the Tel el Amarna tablets as having been among the gifts sent by the kings of Babylonia and Assyria to the Pharaohs of Egypt, and also by the latter to friendly Asiatic monarchs. Of the sirgarru and dushu stones nothing is known, but the elmeshu, the seventh in the list, was evidently regarded as the most brilliant and splendid of all; indeed, Prof. Friedrich Delitzsch hazards the conjecture that it is the diamond. In any case this stone must have been set in rings and considered very valuable, for in an Assyrian text occurs the following passage: "Like an elmeshu ring may I be precious in thine eyes." (Delitsch, "Assyrisches Worterbuch," Leipzig, 1896, s. v. elmeshu.) The fact that this stone is described as having "a celestial beauty" might incline us to believe that it was a sapphire.

The idea of this mystic ornament, composed of seven gems, probably originated in Babylonia, where the number seven was looked upon as especially sacred. As we shall see, there is some reason to attribute a Hindu origin to the nine gems, "the covering" of the King of Tyre, enumerated by Ezekiel, while the breastplate on the ephod of the Hebrew high-priest, with its twelve stones, symbolizing the twelve months of the year, appears to be of later date, and seems to belong to the time of the return from the Babylonian Captivity and the building of the second temple. Certainly, the historic and prophetic books of the Old Testament know nothing of it, although the Urim and Thummim are mentioned and the elaborate description given in Exodus is generally regarded by Biblical scholars as belonging to the so-called "Priestly Codex," the latest part of the Pentateuch, gradually evolved during the Exile and given its final form in the fifth century B.C.

In the very ancient Assyrio-Babylonian epic narrative of the descent of the goddess Ishtar to Hades, the guardian of the infernal regions obliges the goddess to lay aside some part of her clothing and ornaments at each of the seven gates through which she passes. At the fifth, we are told that she stripped off her girdle of aban aladi, or stones which aided parturition. (Jansen, "Assyrisch-Babylonische Mythen und Epen," Berlin, 1900.) It has been asserted, and perhaps with some reason, that of the many mineral substances supposed to possess this virtue, jade (nephrite) or jadeite was the earliest known.

The Babylonian legends also tell of trees on which grow precious stones. In the Gilgamesh epic a mystic cedar tree is described. This grew in the Elamite sanctuary of Irnina and was under the guardianship of the Elamite king Humbaba. Of this tree an inscription relates:

"It produces samtu-stones as fruit;

Its boughs hang with them, glorious to behold;

The crown of it produces lapis-lazuli;

Its fruit is costly to gaze upon."

Another tree bearing precious stones was seen by the hero Gilgamesh, after he had passed through darkness for the space of twelve hours. This must have been a most resplendent object, to judge from the following description on a cuneiform tablet:

"It bore precious stones for fruits;

Its branches were glorious to the sight;

The twigs were crystals;

It bore fruit costly to the sight."

Ward, "Seal Cylinders of Western Asia," Carnegie Institution Pub., Washington, D. C., 1910,.)

One of the rarest and most significant specimens illustrating the use of valuable stones for religious ceremonial purposes in the pagan world is in the Morgan-Tiffany collection. It is an ancient Babylonian axe-head made of banded agate. So regular, indeed, is the disposition of the layers in this agate that one might be justified in denominating it an onyx. Its prevailing hue is what may be called a "deer-brown"; some white splotches now apparent are evidently due to the action of fire or that of some alkali. This axe-head bears an inscription in archaic cuneiform characters, and presumably in the so-called Sumerian tongue, that believed to have been spoken by the founders of the Babylonian civilization. The form of the inscription indicates that the object dates from an earlier period than 2000 B.C.

While the characters are clearly cut and can be easily deciphered, the inscription is nevertheless exceedingly difficult to translate. It is evident that the axe-head was a votive offering to a divinity, probably on the part of a certain governor named Adduggish; but whether the divinity in question was Shamash (the sun-god), or the god Adad, or some other member of the Babylonian pantheon, cannot be determined with any finality. The French assyriologist, Francois Lenormant, who first described this axe-head in 1879, and Prof. Ira Maurice Price, of the Semitic Department of Chicago University, both admit that it may have been consecrated to Adad. As the weather-god, the thunderer, the axe-symbol would have been more especially appropriate to him in view of the usage, almost universal among primitive peoples, of associating stone axe-heads or axe-shaped stones with the thunderbolt, and hence with the divinity who was believed to have launched it toward the earth.

This Sumerian axe-head measures 134.5 mm. in length (5.3 inches), 35.5 mm. in width (1.4 inches), and 31 mm. in thickness (1.22 inches). It was originally secured by Cardinal Stefano Borgia (1731-1804), for some time secretary of the College of the Propaganda in Rome, who probably acquired it from some missionary to the East. From the cardinal's family it passed for 15,000 lire ($3000) to the Tyszkiewicz Collection, and when the objects therein comprised were disposed of at public sale, the writer purchased it for the American Museum of Natural History in New York, April 16, 1902. (For a fuller description of this valuable relic, and a discussion of the meaning of the inscription, see "On the ancient inscribed Sumerian (Babylonian) axe-head for the Morgan Collection in the American Museum of Natural History," by George Frederick Kunz, with translation by Prof. Ira Maurice Price and discussion by Dr. William Hayes Ward. Bulletin of the Museum, April 6, 1905.)


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