Tag Archives: herodotus

Nebuchadnezzar II, a king with issues.

With Halloween upon us, I thought I’d write about Nebuchadnezzar II, the great king of Babylon, the one known for building one of the most elusive wonders of the ancient world.

Now, unless you’ve read up on this famous king, or are familiar with the bible, you’re probably wondering what Nebuchadnezzar has to do with Halloween, so I’ll get right down to it…

King Nebuchadnezzar was a werewolf!

King Nebuchadnezzar at kind of a bad moment.

Well, he thought he was, anyway. We think. It is believed that King Nebuchadnezzar II suffered from lycanthropy, what Merriam-Webster defines as “a delusion that one has become or has assumed the characteristics of a wolf.”

Conversely, Melissa Barrett writes in her article, “Real Werewolves: Three Cases of Lycanthropy,” that “…clinical lycanthropy is often offered as a secular explanation for the biblical story of King Nebuchadnezzar.”

In my research to put this post together, I found all kinds of sources referring to Nebuchadnezzar as the first–and I assume only–biblical werewolf. It is through the bible that we are introduced to this part of Nebuchadnezzar’s eventful life and reign as the king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, also known as the Chaldean Empire.

Putting secular explanations aside, Nebuchadnezzar was a proud and boastful king, who had the bricks used to build the walls of Babylon inscribed with the statement, “I am Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon.” (Source)

Who’s he?

Born around 634 BC, Nebuchadnezzar II was the son of Nabopolassar, the liberator king of Babylonia after three centuries under Assyrian rule. King Nabopolassar left his son plenty to work with when he died around 605 BC, including political stability and wealth with which to expand and strengthen the empire he built, and Nebuchadnezzar’s ambition helped him build upon his father’s accomplishments.

Nebuchadnezzar began his journey to greatness by marrying Amytis, the daughter of the Median king Cyaxerxes, securing an alliance with his father’s allies against the Assyrians, the Medes. He then went on to defeat the Assyrians as well as the Egyptians, and became the first Babylonian king to rule Egypt. He also brought the regions of Palestine and Syria under his rule, and in turn controlled all trade routes stretching across Mesopotamia, from the Arabian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea.

A panoramic view of the reconstructed city of Babylon. Note the thickness of the walls.

Nebuchadnezzar II is also credited with building what the Greek historian Herodotus (484 BC-425 BC) felt should have been included in the list of Seven Wonders–the walls of Babylon, which were 56 miles long according to the Ancient History Encyclopedia (another source says 10 miles), and so thick that chariot races were performed on top of them, along with the most famous entrance, the Ishtar Gate.

The original Ishtar Gate, which you can visit at the Berlin Museum. (Source)

Under Nebuchadnezzar’s rule, Babylon flourished as the center of art and literacy. Mathematics and craftsmanship also flourished then, along with religious tolerance and interest in other faiths and gods. Nebuchadnezzar built schools, and built and restored temples.

Nebuchadnezzar’s accomplishments are undeniably impressive, including being responsible for modern-day Judaism, and he might’ve been a hopeless romantic who built the legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon to help his wife deal with her homesickness, for example, but the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament focuses on Nebuchadnezzar’s pride and narcissism (not to mention that pesky business of destroying the temple of Solomon and exiling the Jews), which brings us back to the Halloween aspect–to the werewolf.

A performance of Nabucco, Giuseppe Verdi’s most famous opera, about the biblical exile of the Jews to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar, Nabucco in Italian. (Source)

Nebuchadnezzar is mentioned in several parts of the Bible, but it is in the Book of Daniel that a nightmare and a curse equal something supernatural.

The author of the RevDanTheMan blog writes in the post “A Werewolf in the Bible?”:

“Upon reading the Book of Daniel, we see that Nebuchadnezzar respected the God of Daniel[,] but he did not worship Him; he was a classic narcissist who believed in many gods[,] but who ultimately truly worshiped only the one [whose] image appeared every time he looked in a mirror.”

Well, pride and narcissism are never characteristics that bring good things to their bearers, especially in the Bible, so it is these flaws that bring on what is conjectured by some scholars to be lycanthropy.

According to the biblical account, Nebuchadnezzar’s troubles begin when he has a nightmare brought onto him by God as punishment for his pride and narcissism. The nightmare features a statue made of various materials; a head of gold, a chest of silver, a midriff of bronze, legs of iron, and feet of iron mixed with pottery (Source).

The statue from Nebuchadnezar II’s nightmare with a head of gold, a chest of silver, midriff of bronze, legs of iron and feet of iron mixed with pottery. (Source)

Nebuchadnezzar is troubled enough by this dream that he consults with magicians, sorcerers and conjurers for an interpretation, all to no avail. And this is perhaps where religious tolerance and interest in other faiths is most apparent in Nebuchadnezzar’s world, because he (eventually) asks the prophet Daniel to interpret his dream.

Daniel interpreting Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. (Source)

“You shall be driven from men,” Daniel tells the troubled king, “and your dwelling will be with the beasts of the field, and you will eat grass as oxen, and will be wet with the dew of heaven, and seven years will pass over you, till you know that the most High rules the kingdom of men, and gives it to whoever He will.”

I feel it important to mention at this point that lycanthropy is not exclusive to the form of a wolf. Harvey Rosenstock, M.D. and Kenneth R. Vincent, Ed.D., write in their article in The American Journal of Psychiatry: “The animals in the delusioned transformation include leopards, lions, elephants, crocodiles, sharks, buffalo, eagles, and serpents.”

And so, after refusing to repent, Nebuchadnezzar is struck by the curse of what is believed to be lycanthropy for the next seven years, and it was like there was a werewolf in Babylon.

The same hour was the thing fulfilled upon Nebuchadnezzar: and he was driven from men, and did eat grass as oxen, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven, till his hairs were grown like eagles’, and his nails like birds’.”

And after seven long years of living like a beast, Nebuchadnezzar finally repents and recognizes Daniel’s God, after which he returns to his former greatness.

Nebuchadnezzar II’s Legacy

Nebuchadnezzar II might’ve suffered from lycanthropy, he might’ve suffered from syphilis, we don’t know. Without archaeological evidence, we cannot be sure that he even suffered from anything other than a common cold here and there. We do know that Nebuchadnezzar II, who the historian Sir Henry Rawlinson labeled “the greatest monarch that Babylon, or perhaps the East generally, ever produced,” died an old man in 605 BC, in the city he made it his life’s mission to make one of the greatest the world would know. We might not have archaeological evidence of a werewolf in Babylon, or the legendary token of love he built for his wife, but we do have archaeological evidence of Nebuchadnezzar’s greatest achievement…Babylon.

Sources and further reading:


Posted by on October 20, 2013 in Babylon, Holidays, Kings


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Feasting in Mesopotamia

Standard of Ur Banquet scene. (Source)

The Greek historian Herodotus said that when the city of Babylon fell to the Persians in 539 BC, what King Cyrus and his armies found behind its walls were Babylonians feasting. The Bible says the same about the event, which served to peg the very name of that great city to excessive luxury.

I started with the fall of Babylon, but luxurious feasts and banquets had been a part of Mesopotamian culture from the time of the Sumerians, the ones who started it all.

Why they feasted

We feast today to celebrate all things happy, from weddings to religious holidays. Mesopotamians were no different.

The famous Standard of Ur (pictured above) contains a rather detailed Sumerian banquet scene in which servants bring food and drink to seated figures, one of them higher and larger than the rest, with musicians performing. There are also cattle being led in to be prepared for the feast, which we know is a celebration of a war victory, thanks to an accompanying war scene. (Source)

The amount of detail in the Standard of Ur and other art depicting a feast or a banquet tells us of the significance of these rituals that continued to be important through the centuries.

Another depiction of a feast is found on Assyrian relief from King Ashurbanipal’s palace that dates back to the 6th Century BC. The detail of the “Garden Party” relief is incredibly intricate. It shows King Ashurbanipal (668 – 627 BC) reclining on a chaise-longue with his wife seated next to him as servants bring food and drink and play music, all in celebration of his victory against the Elamite kingdom.

The relief known as “Garden Party,” found at Ashurbanipal’s North Palace at Khorsabad.  (Source)

What makes this feast depiction so special is not only its intricate detailing, but that it also serves as a medium for gloating. Ashurbanipal’s ruthlessness is something that is echoed in most all of his depictions, and in this relief it is manifested in hanging of the defeated Elamite king Teumman’s head hanging from a nearby tree (far left tree, right in Ashurbanipal’s line of sight).

There were other occasions for celebratory feasting by kings in Ancient Mesopotamia, besides war victories and gloating. The Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II (883 – 859 BC) held a huge banquet to celebrate the inauguration of his new palace in 879 BC.

But kings weren’t the only ones who feasted. So did ordinary people. For example, Assyrians, presumably the concerned merchants, celebrated the arrival of new trade goods by having feasts in their homes. (Source).

What was on the menu?

When King Ashurnasirpal II celebrated his palace’s inauguration, he spared no expense in feeding his 69,574+ guests:

“1,000 oxen, 1,000 calves, 14,000 sheep, 1,000 lambs, 500 deers, 500 gazelles, 1,000 large birds, 500 geese, 500 cranes, 1,000 mesukku-birds, 1,000 qaribu-birds, 10,000 pigeons, 10,000 turtle doves, 10,000 smaller birds, 10,000 fish, 10,000 akbiru (a small rodent), 10,000 eggs, 10,000 containers of beer, 10,000 goatskins of wine, 10,000 jars of a hot condiment, 1,000 boxes of fresh vegetables, and large quantities of honey, pistachios, roasted grain, pomegranates, dates, cheeses, olives, and all kinds of spices.” (Source)

The guests at this banquet (which was boasted about in an inscription put on a stele) were local as well as foreign dignitaries and workers. The gods were also considered guests at such extravagant banquets, and that meant part of the food was designated for the gods. For the goddess Ishtar alone Ashurnasirpal II designated some 200 heads of cattle.

To drink, Mesopotamians served beer and wine at their feasts. They also performed toasts in honor of their host.

What an Assyrian toast might’ve looked like. (Source)

Here is a description of a scene in which nobles offer a toast to their king:

…the nobles sat at tables of four. In front of them was placed a dish of food as they toasted the king, raising a rhythm (cornucopia-shaped drinking cup) with a base in the shape of a lion´s head.” (Source

Finally, are you wondering just how flavorful a Mesopotamian feast might be? At History Tastes Like This, a blog about recipes from olden times, an attempt at a Mesopotamian Beef Stew recipe is described, and it sounds like a Mesopotamian feast would’ve made your taste buds sing. Maybe you could have yourself a different kind of feast this holiday season.

Bon Appetit!

Sources and further reading:

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Posted by on November 22, 2012 in Holidays


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A Case for Babylon

Walls of Babylon. (Source)

Babylon is a name we hear often, in everything from biblical discussions to reggae song lyrics. Although it is the name of the ancient city on the Euphrates, according to, it is also “any rich and magnificent city believed to be a place of excessive luxury and wickedness.”

Most people know about Babylon being mentioned in the Bible as that place of “excessive luxury and wickedness,” but it’s not just the Bible that portrays the grand city as such. The Greek historian Herodotus does the same.

But why?

Let’s start with a tiny bit of etymology. The name Babylon is the Greek form and is derived from the Akkadian name, Babili, which translates to “Gate of God” or “Gateway of the God(s).”

Many temples were built in Babylon, including the great temple of Marduk with its associated ziggurat. The Tower of Babel, a great biblical icon, is a landmark of the ancient city, even though we only know it existed through written descriptions of it, thanks to the writings of Herodotus and its mention in the Bible.

“The Tower of Babel” by Peter Bruegel (Source)

Now, through this mental picture of a city filled with temples, a city whose name reiterates its homage to a god, I can’t help but deduce that although Babylon might have been a city of excess and luxury, it couldn’t have been all that arrogant. I will explain why I’ve come to this conclusion, and not the conclusion that the city’s inhabitants had such a good relationship with their gods, that they were convinced, to point of arrogance, that the gods would protect them and the walls that surrounded their city from any harm…

Although there was very little covered about Mesopotamia in all my history classes, there was one thing that was driven home by all my ancient history professors: the Mesopotamians feared their gods. Mesopotamians believed that their gods were vengeful beings just looking for ways to hurt their subjects. Mesopotamians believed that their gods were basically out to get them.

One professor went so far as to describe the Mesopotamian mindset as: “We’re all going to hell in a hand basket, might as well make the most of what we’ve got.”

Now, drawing from that, which might be an inaccurate historical assessment for all anyone knows, it’s hard to imagine a people so afraid, so careful to pay homage to their vengeful gods by building temples and making their city a gateway for the gods by naming it as such, that they would think a wall would make them all-around invincible.

The way I see it is if you believed your gods were that vengeful, you would see any force that poses a threat to you as a harbinger of a god’s wrath, that you would think it was all over and there was nothing to be done but sit around and wait for fate.

The way I see it is, complete and utter surrender to fate might have been what the Persian king Cyrus saw when he entered the city after laying siege to it in 539 BC, and not obliviousness to the calamity that has befallen the city and its inhabitants. Herodotus documents this siege of the city, and the Bible does the same, by saying that when the Persians entered the fallen city, they found its inhabitants going about their excessive, luxurious lives, oblivious to the magnitude of the threat of the Persian army right outside their walls.

Given that the only time my professors ever brought up Mesopotamia was when they wanted to compare and contrast other civilizations, particularly Egypt, and sometimes Greece, isn’t it possible that the Babylonians’ reaction to the fall of their city was simply misconstrued as obliviousness, when it was really just complete and utter surrender to something greater than all their grandeur and power?

Let’s think about this for a second: the Bible, though used as a wealthy source and reference for many historical accounts that are scant at best in written form anywhere else, is often questioned by scholars. Scholars believe the Bible is too steeped in moral purpose to report on things without at least some form of exaggeration in order to drive moral lessons home.

Herodotus’s writings give us less morally driven descriptions of the ancient city, mostly because along with the rituals and lifestyles of the Babylonians, he describes the city right down to the number of stories in a typical Babylonian house. Still, scholars believe that Herodotus’s writings are given to exaggeration.

J. Andrew McLaughlin writes in an essay, Herodotus and the City of Babylon, that as much as the Bible is responsible for the portrayal of Babylon as a wicked place of arrogance, Herodotus is just as responsible for Babylon’s reputation as a model of infamy. “Whether or not his accounts of some of Babylon’s morally questionable customs reflect historical reality, he is responsible (at least in part) for its reputation as a place of hubris, hedonism, and depravity,” McLaughlin writes.

McLaughlin also mentions the belief by many that Herodotus might not have even visited the ancient city in the mid 5th century BC or at all, and that his writings were all written down as they would’ve been told orally, a point which reinforces the idea that there is a degree of exaggeration to Herodotus’s description of Babylon and its inhabitants.

One example McLaughlin used in his essay to demonstrate this point is how Herodotus alludes to how fertile Mesopotamian soil is by stating that its wheat yields are in the three-hundredfold range, a number, which, according to a modern scholar referenced in the essay, Georges Roux, is higher than that of Canada’s most modern wheatfield today. (Source)

The Euphrates River bisects the city of Babylon. (Source)

As to the question of Herodotus’s credibility, some of his descriptions of the city, when cross referenced with archaeological evidence, as well as the Bible, have pointed to inaccuracies.

The discrepancies are nothing major, but as they are details that don’t make or break what we know about the city, they are definitely cause for questions that go beyond the element of exaggeration.

For instance, had Herodotus seen Babylon for himself, he might’ve noticed that the royal palace and the great ziggurat are not located on opposite sides of the Euphrates River like he says they were.

Another reason McLaughlin says Herodotus had a hand in giving Babylon such a bad rep is his description of a ritual he calls “sacred prostitution,” in which a man throws a silver coin of any value to a woman on display, forcing her to prostitute herself to him after he utters a phrase that is believed to invoke the gods, after which acts are performed in a room within the Tower of Babel for a night.

I’d like to think that much like we are given to misunderstand the rituals and views of cultures different from ours, perhaps Herodotus was just looking at the city and its people through the eyes of a Hellenistic Greek, from a place where women, at least, are held to different moral standards than those of Mesopotamia, which fueled an unintentionally harsh assessment of a different culture and painted it as an example of all that is bad.

The negative stigma surrounding Babylon may forever live in religious texts and Bob Marley’s songs, but I think that maybe we need to look beyond what we may never understand and focus on what this great ancient city held within its walls, which is mesmerizing…

Babylon is where the Code of Hammurabi came to be, where the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were built by a rather romantic king for his homesick queen and still mesmerizes us simply through description, where powerful queens like Semiramis ruled, and innovation and civilization thrived for centuries.

Panoramic view of the rebuilt ruins of Babylon. (Source)

Should you ever happen to be walking along the fertile Mesopotamian plain of today, between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, you just might stumble upon the ruins of Babylon, just 55 miles (89 km) south of Baghdad. And we should all be so lucky as to be in such an amazing spot, where humans were either at their worst or their best, nobody knows for sure.

Either way, they were people who obviously loved life, and there is no wickedness in that.



Posted by on December 12, 2011 in Uncategorized


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