Monday, December 27, 2010

Dragon of the Ishtar Gate

The Dragon of the Ishtar Gate may be one of Cryptozoology's strangest, yet best-documented, ancient crypids. This two and a half millennium old depiction is so unusual that many treat it as a chimera, an impossible combination of animals that could never have existed in nature. But the people of ancient Babylon knew and accepted the 'dragon' as real, as real as the bulls and lions that also share the walls.

The Ishtar Gate itself was one of eight entrances to the ancient city of Babylon. Built during the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar II (604-562 BC) and dedicated to the goddess Ishtar it was the main entrance to the city until the final fall of Babylon sometime in the 1st or 2nd century AD. (King Nebuchadnezzar also constructed one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, a marvel filled with exotic plants and animals.) The Dedicatory Inscription on the Ishtar Gate reads:
Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, the faithful prince appointed by the will of Marduk, the highest of princely princes, beloved of Nabu, of prudent counsel, who has learned to embrace wisdom, who fathomed their divine being and reveres their majesty, the untiring governor, who always takes to heart the care of the cult of Esagila and Ezida and is constantly concerned with the well-being of Babylon and Borsippa, the wise, the humble, the caretaker of Esagila and Ezida, the firstborn son of Nabopolassar, the King of Babylon.
Both gate entrances of Imgur-Ellil and Nemetti-Ellil following the filling of the street from Babylon had become increasingly lower. Therefore, I pulled down these gates and laid their foundations at the water table with asphalt and bricks and had them made of bricks with blue stone on which wonderful bulls and dragons were depicted. I covered their roofs by laying majestic cedars length-wise over them. I hung doors of cedar adorned with bronze at all the gate openings. I placed wild bulls and ferocious dragons in the gateways and thus adorned them with luxurious splendor so that people might gaze on them in wonder
I let the temple of Esiskursiskur (the highest festival house of Markduk, the Lord of the Gods a place of joy and celebration for the major and minor gods) be built firm like a mountain in the precinct of Babylon of asphalt and fired bricks.

The ruins of the gate and walls were discovered and excavated between 1899 and 1914 by Robert Koldeway, a German archeologist and architect. After its excavation the entire Gate was shipped to Berlin where it was reconstructed and now resides at the Pergamon Museum. It was Koldeway who recognized the animal as the mushhushshu, a name derived from an Akkadian word that is loosely translated as "splendor serpent." Early researchers mistakenly read it as sirrussu but the word has now been properly translitereated as musrussu, with mushhushshu as the commonly-accepted modern form.

Koldeway considered the dragon to be a real animal. His belief was based on the fact that the animal had been depicted in ancient Babylonian art for centuries and had remained unchanged by the passage of time. He noted that depictions of gods and mythological creatures did change through the years leaving him to believe the mushhushshu was an animal well known to the Babylonians. (While Koldeway was right in most regards notice the belly scales on this version of the mushhushshu. Its scales are like those of a snake while the one on the gate and most other depictions are like those on a lizard. A misrepresentation or the degradation of a myth?)
While the Ishtar Gate is the source most often cited when referencing the mushhushshu there is at least one written account of the Babylonian 'dragon'. In the Apocrypha, a collection of stories excluded from the Protestant Bible, is found the Book of Bel and the Dragon. In the Book is a story of how Nebuchadnezzar kept a dragon in the temple of the god Bel and when the prophet Daniel denounced the worshipping of false gods the king introduced Daniel to the dragon saying it "liveth and eateth and drinketh; you cannot say that he is no living god; therefore worship him." Daniel feed the dragon lumps of tar, fat, and hair that killed the animal proving it was mortal and not a god.

There are some who contend that the behemoth described in the Bible is actually a description of the mushhushshu. The Book of Job, Chapter 40, verse 15 through 24 reads:
Behold now behemoth, which I made with thee; he eateth grass as an ox. Lo now, his strength is in his loins, and his force is in the navel of his belly. He moveth his tail like a cedar: the sinews of his stones are wrapped together. His bones are as strong pieces of brass; his bones are like bars of iron. He is the chief of the ways of God: he that made him can make his sword to approach unto him. Surely the mountains bring him forth food, where all the beasts of the field play. He lieth under the shady trees, in the covert of the reed, and fens. The shady trees cover him with their shadow; the willows of the brook compass him about. Behold, he drinketh up a river, and hasteth not: he trusteth that he can draw up Jordan into his mouth. He taketh it with his eyes: his nose pierceth through snares.

Some cryptozoologists, Bernard Heuvelmans among them, believed that the 'dragon' was actually Mokele-Mbembe, the unidentified creature purported to be found in the Congo. If, as some think, Babylonia explorers penetrated equatorial Africa, there is a possibility that they both knew of and may have captured one or more of the creatures. So what was the 'dragon'?
The depiction on the gate shows a long necked quadruped with scales, clawed hind feet, lion-like front feet and legs, a forked tongue and a horn on its nose (head?). The Biblical description of the behemoth is more about it habits and habitat than its appearance but it does seem to indicate a large, powerful herbivore that prefers a riparian habitat, can swim and has a horn on its nose. The Book of Bel and the Dragon just shows it's not a picky eater. Adding that all together we have something weird in the woods down by the creek. There doesn't seem to be any known animal that fits the above combination of traits. The scales and forked tongue would indicate a reptile but the plumed tail (and it does appear to be a plume and not a stinger) and the grass eating would indicate a mammal. Throw in the clawed hind feet, especially the rear pointing claws, and it points toward a bird. A chimera, indeed.
But what happens if we remove one or more of the incongruous traits? But why would we do that? If the 'dragon' was a living creature it was depicted as the artist actually saw it, right? Maybe not. Let's assume that the 'dragon' was actually captured and brought to Babylon from deepest, darkest Africa or some other far away place but that it was a one-time event. One 'dragon', one time, seen by some of the people of Babylon. I say some, rather than all, since if the 'dragon' was placed in either the temple of Bel or in the Hanging Gardens both were places not open to the general public. Even if it were a long-lived creature, say on the order of an elephant, 50 years or so would probably be the outside limit to how long it could have lived in captivity. But if Daniel killed the 'dragon' it may have been alive there for a small handful of years. During its life it may have been seen by thousands of people but very few would have been artist or craftsmen. But for the few that were, probably only a small number would have found a reason to create an image of the 'dragon' in their work. So now we have a few craftsmen/artist who may, or may not, have actually seen the 'dragon, whose depictions, along with stories, may have been the inspiration for the other images created over the centuries. So both sides of the real/mythological argument could be right. It could have been a real animal that made a one-time appearance in Babylon then slipped into the mythos of the Babylonian gods.

Given the above, let's remove one or two of the contradictions and make it either a reptile or a mammal. If the plumed tail is removed along with the assumption that the animal is a grass eater (even through there are many herbivore reptiles none are known to 'eateth grass as an ox') and turn the back claws forward and add claws to the front feet. Viola, we have a big lizard with a horn on its nose like this rhinoceros iguana. This is in keeping with most people idea of Mokele-Mbembe and one of the most obvious characteristics of the various depictions of the 'dragon'. But what if remove the scales, move the claws to the front feet and unbifurcate the tongue? Now we have a large, powerful herbivore like, say, a Chalicothere? Why a chalicothere rather than just a just a plain everyday rhinoceros? Because the rhinoceros was known to the people of Babylon. But what about the horn? Well, the chalicothere is in the same family as the rhinoceros and it wouldn't have been impossible for a type of chalicothere to have a horn. Since it's hair it wouldn't have been found in the fossil records assuming a fossil of this species has ever been found. Another good reason to pick the chalicothere is that they were alive until at least the end of the Pleistocene and there could have been a remnant population hidden in a deep pocket somewhere.
Reagrdless of whether reptile or mammal the 'dragon' was real to the people of Babylon during the time of King Nebuchadnezzar. If the creature was part of a remnant population of some form of mega fauna that escaped the Pleistocene, or even earlier, extinction or a complete unknown that has evaded modern science, it was/is probably the ragged end of a line with a small population. And if it still exists today, either in the Congo as Mokele-Mbembe or in some even more hidden spot, it must be near the end of its time. If it is someday rediscovered before it disappears forever it will answer many questions. But even if it is never found it's a creature that has been capturing human imagination for over two thousand years and will probably continue to do so as long as humankind holds onto its sense of wonder.

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