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Semiramis is depicted as an armed Amazon in this eighteenth century Italian illustration.

For the ancient Greeks[1] Semiramis was a legendary Assyrian queen.[2]

Many legends have accumulated around her bold personality. Various efforts have been made to identify her with real persons. She is sometimes identified with the real Shammuramat (in Greek, Semiramis), the Assyrian wife of Shamshi-Adad V (ruled 811 BC–808 BC), King of Assyria[1].

The legends narrated by Diodorus Siculus, Justin and others from Ctesias of Cnidus make a picture of her and her relationship to King Ninus.

The name of Semiramis came to be applied to various monuments in Western Asia, the origin of which was forgotten or unknown.[3] Ultimately every stupendous work of antiquity by the Euphrates or in Iran seems to have been ascribed to her, even the Behistun Inscription of Darius.[4] Herodotus ascribes to her the artificial banks that confined the Euphrates [5] and knows her name as borne by a gate of Babylon.[6] The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World are also known as the Hanging Gardens of Semiramis.

Various places in Assyria, Mesopotamia and Medea bore the name of Semiramis, but slightly changed, even in the Middle Ages, and an old name of Van city was Shamiramagerd. Assyrians still name female children Semiramis to this day.

Contents

Biography according to Diodorus Siculus

The Shepherd finds the Babe Semiramis, by Ernest Wallcousins (1915).

According to legend, Semiramis was of noble parents, the daughter of the fish-goddess Derketo of Ascalon in Syria and a mortal. Derketo abandoned her at birth and drowned herself. The child was fed by doves until she was found and brought up by Simmas, the royal shepherd.

Afterwards she married Onnes or Menones, one of the generals of Ninus. Ninus was so struck by her bravery at the capture of Bactra that he married her, forcing Onnes to commit suicide.

She and Ninus had a son named Ninyas. After King Ninus conquered Asia, including the Bactrians, he was fatally wounded by an arrow. Semiramis then masqueraded as her son and tricked her late husband's army into following her instructions because they thought these came from their new ruler. After Ninus's death she reigned as queen regnant, conquering much of Asia.

Not only was she able to reign effectively, she also added Ethiopia to the empire. She restored ancient Babylon and protected it with a high brick wall that completely surrounded the city. She is also credited with inventing the chastity belt.

In the end, however, her son killed her.

The association of the fish and dove is found at Hierapolis Bambyce (Mabbog), the great temple at which, according to one legend, was founded by Semiramis [7], where her statue was shown with a golden dove on her head.[8]

Semiramis in Armenian legend

Semiramis staring at the corpse of Ara the Beautiful.

Armenian tradition portrays her as a homewrecker and a harlot. These facts are partly to be explained by observing that, according to the legends, in her birth as well as in her disappearance from earth, Semiramis appears as a goddess, the daughter of the fish-goddess Atargatis, and herself connected with the doves of Ishtar or Astartë.

One of the most popular legends in Armenian tradition involves Semiramis and an Armenian king, Ara the Beautiful. In the 20th century, the poet Nairi Zarian retold the story of Ara the Beautiful and Shamiram, considered a masterpiece of Armenian literary drama.

According to the legend, Semiramis had heard about the fame of the handsome Armenian king Ara, and she lusted after his image. She asked Ara to marry her, but he refused; upon hearing this, she gathered the armies of Assyria and marched against Armenia.

During the battle, which may have taken place in the Ararat valley, Ara was slain. In order to avoid continuous warfare with the Armenians, Semiramis, reputed to be a sorceress, took his body and prayed to the gods to raise Ara from the dead. When the Armenians advanced to avenge their leader, she disguised one of her lovers as Ara and spread the rumor that the gods had brought Ara back to life. As a result, the war ended.[9]

Although many different versions of the legend exist, it is usually accepted that Ara never came back to life.

Historicity

While the achievements of Semiramis are clearly mythical, there was a historical Assyrian queen Shammuramat, wife of Shamshi-Adad V of Assyria. After her husband's death, she appears to have served as regent for several years for her son, Adad-nirari III[2].

In later traditions

  • In The Divine Comedy, Dante sees Semiramis among the souls of the lustful in the Second Circle of Hell:

And as the cranes go chanting forth their lays,
Making in air a long line of themselves,
So saw I coming, uttering lamentations,
Shadows borne onward by the aforesaid stress.

Whereupon said I: "Master, who are those People, whom the black air so castigates?"
"The first of those, of whom intelligence Thou fain wouldst have," then said he unto me,
"The empress was of many languages. To sensual vices she was so abandoned,
That lustful she made licit in her law,

To remove the blame to which she had been led.
She is Semiramis. . .
She succeeded Ninus, and was his spouse;
She held the land which now the Sultan rules.[10]

She married her son after Ninus' death and lived with him.

Semiramis appears in plays and operas, most notably Voltaire's tragedy Semiramis, Domenico Cimarosa's opera Semiramide and Gioachino Rossini's opera Semiramide. Arthur Honegger composed music for Paul Valery's eponymous 'ballet-pantomime' in 1934 which was only revived in 1992 after many years of neglect. In Eugene Ionesco's play The Chairs, the Old Woman is referred to as Semiramis.

She has also appeared in several sword and sandal films. An Italian progressive rock group named Semiramis released one album in 1973.

In literature Semiramis often stands as an icon of beauty.[citation needed]

In William Faulkner's Snopes Trilogy Eula Varner is her modern incarnation. Faulkner quite likely got the name from Inferno V where she appears in the same list as Helen of Troy as those punished for uncontrolled passion.

Hislop's goddess claim

Protestant minister Alexander Hislop in The Two Babylons (1853)[11] claims that Semiramis was an actual person in ancient Mesopotamia who invented polytheism and, with it, goddess worship.

Hislop believed that Semiramis was a consort of Nimrod, builder of the Bible's Tower of Babel, though Biblical mention of consorts to Nimrod is lacking.

According to Hislop, Semiramis invents polytheism in an effort to corrupt her subjects' original faith in the God of Genesis.

In support of his claim, Hislop talked about legends of Semiramis being raised by doves. He referred to the writings by the church's Ante Nicene Fathers to suggest that these stories began as propaganda invented and circulated by Semiramis herself so her subjects would ascribe to her the status of virgin birth and view her child as the fulfillment of the "seed" prophecy in Genesis 3:15.

Hislop believed Semiramis' child to be the Akkadian deity Tammuz, a god of vegetation as well as a life-death-rebirth deity.

He maintained that all divine pairings in world myths and religions depicted in art e.g. Isis/Osiris, Aphrodite/Cupid, Asherah/Orion[citation needed], Mary/Jesus and others are retellings of the tale of Semiramis and Tammuz. Semiramis goes on to become the Blessed Virgin Mary according to Hislop's book. This attempts to support Hislop's claim that Roman Catholicism is in fact paganism.

Hislop took literary references to Osiris and Orion as "seed of woman" as evidence in support of his thesis. The legends already existing in his day about Semiramis he claimed were distortions of history.

Hislop's claims continue to be circulated among some fundamentalist Christians today in the form of Jack Chick tracts, comic books and related media, even though historians largely consider Hislop's claims to be without merit, even going so far as to call them fraudulent.

Notes

  1. ^ "Semiramis was an invention of Greek legend only" observes Robin Lane Fox (Fox, Travelling Heroes in the Epi Age of Homer, 2008:176)
  2. ^ In Italian, as Semiramide, her legend furnished a libretto for Gioachino Rossini; re-translated into Persian, she becomes Shamiram.
  3. ^ See Strabo xvi. I. 2
  4. ^ Diodorus Siculus ii. 3
  5. ^ i. 184
  6. ^ iii. 155
  7. ^ Lucian, De dea Syria, 14
  8. ^ Lucian, De dea Syria, 33, 39
  9. ^ Armenian History
  10. ^ Canto V, lines 48 to 62
  11. ^ Alexander Hislop. The Two Babylons

References

Primary sources

  • Paulinus Minorita, Compendium
  • Eusebius, Chronicon 20.13-17, 19-26
  • Orosius, Historiae adversus paganos i.4, ii.2.5, 6.7
  • Justinus, Epitome Historiarum philippicarum Pompei Trogi i.2
  • Valerius Maximus, Factorum et dictorum memorabilium libri ix.3, ext 4

Secondary sources

External links


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