By: Shana Zaia
I captured the cities of Tarbaṣu and Yaballu. I carried off 30,000 people, together with their possessions, their property, their goods, and their gods. I destroyed those cities, together with cities in their environs, making them like the tells after the Deluge. – Assyrian King Tiglath-pileser III (745-727 BCE)
When Mesopotamian polities went to war, the successful party gained more than just territory. Triumphant kings boast in their inscriptions that they carried off royal family members, deportees, and precious goods and treasures. Often nested in these lists is a more unusual type of loot: the gods of the losing king or polity were also moved into the victorious king’s homeland. This particular removal of gods, called “godnapping” by modern scholars, is attested over a long period of Mesopotamian history, from the start of the 2nd millennium through the 5th century BCE. But how can a mortal carry off a divine being against its will?
Ancient Near Eastern gods were represented on earth by cult images. Often anthropomorphic, the images were made from a wooden core with precious metals and stones as decoration. These statues would have stood in temples, locations that were thought of as the houses of the gods, and received offerings there. Because of the perishable nature of the core material, none of the original cult images have survived until today, but there are texts that describe the creation of these statues and the rituals that imbued them with the divine spirit. Reliefs also depict these divine images, as seen in an example from the Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser III’s palace reliefs in Nimrud, which features Assyrian soldiers carrying off an enemy’s gods. Most of the evidence for godnapping, however, comes from texts, including royal inscriptions, chronicles, and letters.
Godnapping is not religious warfare in today’s sense; these gods were not removed to promote other religious systems, nor were conquered areas converted to a new religion. It is extremely rare that kings recorded the destruction of cult statues, as this seemed to cross broadly accepted boundaries of what kinds of aggression were permitted against the gods. The descriptions of godnapping suggest that cult images were treated with respect and were sometimes set up in temples for safekeeping, even if the gods were considered foreign to the conquering king’s pantheon. There is also evidence that the cults of the abducted gods were not suspended in their homelands during the statues’ absence, and alternative symbols could be used until such time as the cult statue was returned or a new one could be fashioned, both actions that were dependent upon the will of the gods. The Neo-Babylonian “Sun-God Tablet” from Sippar, for instance, shows the divine symbol of the solar disc, which had served as a substitute for the missing cult image in the temple, being lifted away before the new statue of Šamaš, the sun god and patron of the city.
Assyrian and Babylonian inscriptions reveal differences in the conceptualization of godnapping. Assyrian kings describe this practice in a straightforward way, simply stating that the gods were taken after a successful conquest. The names of individual gods are only mentioned infrequently, as the texts generally identify the gods on the basis of their city of origin or by the king to whom they belonged. Notably, the Assyrian royal inscriptions only record the acts of deportation that they committed, never mentioning if their own gods were ever taken by any other polity, a practice that is consistent with the Assyrian tendency to omit any mention of defeat or misfortune in war.
Babylonian inscriptions, on the other hand, include the loss of Babylonian gods, but the forcible nature of godnapping is retold as the gods leaving their city of their own volition. The reason given for the gods’ departure is anger with the behavior of the inhabitants, and the gods return only after they are appeased. This rewriting makes the gods responsible for their own departure, essentially editing godnappers out of the narrative and denying mortals the ability to deport gods. In turn, this flight is usually the cue for invading forces to come in and wreak havoc on the newly-abandoned city, the next step in the gods’ punishment of their own cities. Earlier parallels to this include Sumerian city laments, a literary genre in which a deity leaves his or her patron city, which subsequently falls into ruin.
As the texts that record godnapping do not explain any specific philosophy or reasoning behind the act, several theories have been advanced. First and foremost, gods were seen as protectors of the city in which they lived, and their departure meant that the city was left vulnerable to invasion and conquest. By removing the cultic statues, conquering kings were symbolically stripping the city of its divine protection, thus placing the city instead under their new hegemony or facilitating its destruction. Assyrian royal inscriptions also describe individual enemy kings who face defeat as being abandoned by their gods.
Some have suggested that godnapping was a tactic of humiliation, emblematic of total defeat, as the public spectacle of one’s own gods being carried away as booty would be devastating both emotionally and psychologically. Another feature of godnapping is that kings would take a conquered city’s gods away so that they could bring them back; like with hostage-taking, deported gods would be held until negotiations were made or certain behavioral conditions were met. Generally, this strategy meant that gods would be returned when a polity or its leader swore allegiance to the conquering king. The return of deported gods is mentioned with some frequency in royal inscriptions and chronicles, described as taking place with great joy and celebration.
Despite the claim in 2 Kings 19: 17-18 that “the kings of Assyria have laid waste the nations and their lands, and have cast their gods into the fire; for they were no gods, but the work of men’s hands, wood and stone; therefore they have destroyed them,” iconoclasm was not the stated motivation for godnapping. In fact, only two episodes are known in which Assyrian kings admitted to the destruction of cult images: king Sennacherib describes smashing the Babylonian gods after his conquest and sack of Babylon, and his grandson Ashurbanipal later records turning the Elamite gods into “ghosts.” Both cases are extreme examples perpetrated against major opponents, however, and Sennacherib’s successor, Esarhaddon, even takes great lengths to undo the theological and political damage caused by his father’s actions.
In contrast, when ancient Near Eastern divine images are mentioned in the Bible, it is almost exclusively in the context of iconoclasm. Figures such as the prophet Daniel (as in the apocryphal story Bel and the Dragon) and King Josiah (2 Kings 23: 4-6) advocated for the destruction of cult statues, criticizing them as mere idols and underscoring their man-made nature. The Assyrians and Babylonians would not have shared this attitude towards the destruction of cult images, particularly the idea that such iconoclasm could occur without serious divine repercussions.
Overall, godnapping was apparently a temporary situation for the victimized gods, who were carried off intact and stored safely until they were returned to their homes amidst great fanfare. In general, the ability of gods to leave their earthly dwellings, whether it was considered voluntary or not, explained how cities could be vulnerable to outside invasion and destruction despite the belief that they were divinely protected by their patron gods.
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