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World Poetry Project: Good Night Babylon

Updated on May 2, 2011

Sunset no longer shuts cities down. Las Vegas seems to have no night at all, and a representation of the Earth at night ( shows how far from darkness we have come. "Prayer to the Gods of the Night", written about 1500 BCE, and translated forWorldPoetry by David Ferry, comes to us from an age long before electricity, before we humans struggled to extend day far into the night, when we lived, more or less, diurnal lives.

The gates of the town are closed. The princes

Have gone to sleep. The chatter of voices

Has quieted down. Doorbolts are fastened.

Not until morning will they be opened.

Night closes in, and doors close on all the families. There is no more conversation. Doors are locked against strangers and enemies, but also against friends. The time of sleep has come. We are in the city. Neighbors lock their doors against one another.

The gods of the place, and the goddess,

Ishtar, Sin, Adad, and Shamash,

Have gone into the quiet of the sky,

Making no judgments. Only

The voice of a lone wayfarer

Calls out the name of Shamash or Ishtar.

Even the gods are in suspension, gone to their places of quiet. They do not conduct business in the night, and the solitary traveler calling upon them will receive no answer. No doors will open to provide him shelter. He is in the night calling upon Shamash, the god of the sun. He calls on Ishtar, the goddess of fertility, sex, and creation, but this is not the time of Ishtar.

Now house and field are entirely silent.

The night is veiled. A sleepless client

In the still night waits for the morning.

Great Shamash has gone into the sleeping

Heaven; the father of the poor,

The judge, has gone into his chamber.

Is this silence good or evil, this time when Shamash is absent, sociability dead (the client waits for morning), the judges retired, security held only by doors and gates. What is done in the night?

May the gods of the night come forth--the Hunter,

The Bow, the Wagon, the Yoke, the Viper,

Irra the valiant, the Goat, the Bison,

Girra the shining, the Seven, the Dragon--

May the stars come forth in the high heaven.

Establish the truth in the ritual omen;

In the offered lamb establish the truth.

The Babylonians were devoted to their gods, and this devotion led them to study the skies. Their understanding of the stars, their movements and the attribution to them of influence over mankind, although based on mistaken premises, was of great influence: the Zodiacal signs and astrologists of the modern newspaper attest to this influence. Astrology was a predictive art in Babylon by which they strove to gain secure knowledge in an insecure world, and as they were concerned with prediction, with patterns and anomalies, they kept records, made measurements, and named stable patterns to enable them to recognize recurrences. Constellations move across the sky, and the Babylonians, as well as other ancient peoples, each with their own name for these stellar patterns, made of these movements a conversation with the divine of omens and messages.

The night is a time of ritual and sacrifice, when the gods are probed in their absence.


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