ASHUR was the national god of Assyria; his name is that of the city-state of Ashur (or Assur). The characteristics of this god are very different from those of the other divinities of the Sumerian-Akkadian pantheon. There is some speculation that Ashur was formerly recorded in a list of divine names of the middle of the third millennium bce (Mander, 1986, p. 69). However, in the earliest confirmed documents (twentieth to nineteenth centuries bce), it is the god who appears as the real lord of his city, whereas the Assyrian sovereign was nothing more than Ashur's chief priest and manager of the city on his behalf. The god Ashur personifies the homonymous city (similar conditions are documented in High Mesopotamia, Syria, Anatolia, and the Diyala region, but are neither so frequent nor so relevant) as a possible expression of the holiness of the place near present-day Shirqat, where an imposing spur was the spot of the ancient city (it is to be remarked that the praises that were addressed to the towns or temples of the gods in southern Mesopotamia were intended as allusions to the "glory" of the god who there manifested himself: a completely different phenomenon). This peculiar origin is probably the reason for his marked difference with the other gods of the Mesopotamian pantheon. Ashur lacks family relations, no epithet is attributed to him, nor does he show clear connections with the world of the cosmic natural powers. He is praised in no hymns, nor is he ever engaged in incantations, and no mythological poem about him is known. His images are not anthropomorphic but only symbolic icons.
Transformation of Ashur
From the beginning of the second millennium bce, however, Ashur began to transform from a numen loci (divine presence of the place) into a deus persona (god person). The first step in this gradual passage was the combining of the god Ashur with the weather-god Adad (fifteenth century bce), an evident resonance of the Syrian tradition in which El and Baal were the divinities at the head of the pantheon. Even the position of the king in respect to the god slowly changed. Shamshi-Adad I (1812–1780 bce), a usurper who led the first moment of the Assyrian expansion assumed the title of "king." However, it was not until the time of Adad-nirari I (1305–1274 bce) that the god ordered his king to undertake wars of conquest, an errand that the above-mentioned sovereign strove at his utmost to accomplish, thus beginning the second moment of the Assyrian expansionism. The process of strengthening the monarchy led—under his successor Salmanassar I (1273–1244 bce)—to the nomination of the king and of his dynasty by the god. Times were mature for a turning point, and under Tukulti-Ninurta I (1243–1207 bce) Ashur was identified with the Sumerian-Babylonian king of the gods, Enlil, and even his wife, Ninlil, was considered to be the wife of Ashur (Ninlil was called Mullissu in Assyria) and the city of Ashur became the holy center of Assyria, just as the city of Nippur—the see of Enlil—was for Babylonia. Ashur was therefore the indisputable king of the gods and the only god tied to a people by means of such a significant linkage. Due to this exclusive linkage, the Assyrian people believed they were invested with the mission to conquer the world, and they thus considered themselves almost an elected people.
Ashur and the Sargonids
A further phase of the god Ashur's history took place under the Sargonids who wanted him to overcome Marduk, the city-god of Babylon, when the latter replaced Enlil as king of the gods. The usurper Sargon II (founder of the Sargonids; r. 721–705 bce) developed the theology of Ashur in order to attribute to him an omnipotentia divina, thus designating him as the divine power from which both men and gods depended (both having been created from that power). To that aim Sargon II introduced the identification of Ashur with An-shar. An-shar was a primordial god mentioned in Enuma elish, the poem of Marduk's exaltation to the lordship over the gods and the universe, probably composed around the eleventh century bce. In it, An-shar plays the role of progenitor of the gods having just issued from the fresh and salted waters (Apsu and Tiamat, respectively) when the cosmic gate of the universe was generated (cf. W. G. Lambert, "The Pair Lahmu-Lahamu in Cosmology," Orientalia 54 (1985), pp. 189–201). This identification made the god's generational preeminence possible: Ashur/An-shar was the first-born among all the gods (and therefore was their principle); he was Marduk's ancestor, being indeed three generations older. Marduk was Ea's son and An's grandson, the latter having been generated by An-shar. An-shar was mentioned in texts before the Enuma elish was composed (it is one of the earliest elements that were absorbed and refashioned in the poem)—his name is found in the earliest Mesopotamian tradition in lists of primeval gods, and one of these lists is that of Enlil's ancestors. The identification with An-shar was therefore an extraordinary success and meant the acquisition of a position of absolute priority for a god like Ashur, who was not even included in the main Mesopotamian religious tradition, which did not include him in its pantheon.
Sargon II's son, Sennacherib (r. 704–681 bce), further developed this theology by combining it with basic elements of the Sumerian-Babylonian religious thought, which he conveniently adopted. His struggle against Babylon eventually led him to destroy that city in 689 bce, a policy mirroring his theological reform intended to nullify Marduk by replacing him with Ashur. The king went even further with the elimination from worship in Assyria of the cults of the South (even that of the very important son of Marduk, Nabû). In this context, by increasing An-shar's characteristics, the god Ashur becomes deus summus omnipotens and creator absolutus. From these attributes it consequently resulted that he alone could determine the destinies of the universe and—this is particularly crucial to the understanding of his position—that he was "the creator of himself," as an Assyrian text states.
In this context the akitu ceremony was moved to the city of Ashur. When performing the ceremony, the god Ashur was seen to fight against Tiamat, a deed that Marduk accomplished in Enuma elish. This overlapping is not to be considered as a merely outrageous behavior but rather as a traditional theological explanation of defeat. Babylon had been destroyed because Marduk had abandoned it as a direct consequence of its presumed impious acts. The son and successor of Sennacherib, Esarhaddon (r. 680–669 bce), explicitly mentioned this concept when, in inverting the course of his father's policy, he rebuilt Babylon and reestablished the cults in the restored temples. In any case, he by no means repudiated his predecessors theology of Ashur.
Simo Parpola has presented a theory of the monotheism of Ashur: it was a reality limited to an elite and not to the whole population. Ashur, as "metaphysical universe of light, goodness, wisdom and eternal life" (2000, pp. 165–209) was considered to be the "intermediate entity between existence and non-existence" (with reference to the creative nonexistence). The gods were hypostasis of his almightiness, of the "powers and attributes of God" (i.e., Ashur). Parpola compares them to the Jewish and Christian archangels; he recalls furthermore the Elohim in the Bible (a possible Assyrian influence) as the designation of a transcendent god. To support his thesis, Parpola quoted not only textual and iconographic data, but also onomastic data—for example, the personal names Gabbbu-ilani-Ashur, which means "Ashur is all the gods"; Ilani-aha-iddina (= "God [literally: the gods] gave [singular] a brother"); and that of King Esarhaddon (the Assyrian form of which is Ashur-aha-iddina, "Ashur gave a brother"). Analogous forms are well known, which were defined, if not as "monotheism," at least as "sophisticated polytheism." In some texts the gods were denoted as particular aspects of Marduk (Lambert, 1975). The image of Ashur, especially as he is outlined in the Sargonid period, is very close to this theology of Marduk. In the ancient Near East a form of monotheism had formerly appeared: it was the reform of the god Aton, which the pharaoh Ekhnaton had wanted in the fourteenth century bce (Assmann, 1997). Raffaele Pettazzoni, in his L'Essere Supremo nelle religioni primitive (1957, pp. 156–162) warned researchers to start from known elements in order to disclose unknown ones—and the known elements are the historical monotheisms. Now all of them are seen to share common features: a prophet or reformer preaching a new religion that is precisely monotheistic and that considers omnes dii gentium daemonia (all the Gentile gods are demons). Such a revolution is not recorded in Assyria, so—assuming Pettazzoni's nomenclature—one cannot speak of a monotheism in Assyria (the case of Aton is, however, to be included in this class) but rather of a theology of the Supreme Being.
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