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Sémiramis of Babylon
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Semiramis of Babylon

Semiramis (c. 800 BC) also known as Semiramide or Semiramida, was a famous Assyrian princess, round whose personality a mass of legend has accumulated. It was not until 1910 that the researches of Professor Lehmann-Haupt of Berlin restored her to her rightful place in Babylonian-Assyrian history.

The legends derived by Diodorus Siculus, Justin and others from Ctesias of Cnidus were completely disproved, and Semiramis had come to be treated as a purely legendary figure.

The legends ran as follows: Semiramis was the daughter of the fish-goddess Atargatis of Ascalon in Syria, and was miraculously preserved by doves, who fed her until she was found and brought up by Simmas, the royal shepherd. Afterwards she married Onnes, one of the generals of Ninus, who was so struck by her bravery at the capture of Bactra that he married her, after Onnes had committed suicide. The Jewish historian Josephus relates Ninus to the Biblical hunter-king Nimrod.

Ninus died, and Semiramis, succeeding to his power, traversed all parts of the empire, erecting great cities (especially Babylon) and stupendous monuments, or opening roads through savage mountains. She caused the Hanging Gardens of Babylon to be built. She was unsuccessful on]y in an attack on India. At length, after a reign of forty-two years, she delivered up the kingdom to her son Ninyas, and disappeared, or, according to what seems to be the original form of the story, was turned into a dove and was thenceforth worshipped as a deity.

The name of Semiramis came to be applied to various monuments in Western Asia, the origin of which was forgotten or unknown (see Strabo xvi. I. 2). 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 (Diod. Sic. ii. 3). Of this we already have evidence in Herodotus, who ascribes to her the banks that confined the Euphrates (i. 184) and knows her name as borne by a gate of Babylon (iii. 155). Various places in Media bore the name of Semiramis, but slightly changed, even in the middle ages, and the old name of Van was Shamiramagerd, Armenian tradition regarding her as its founder. 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. The same 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 (Lucian, De dea Syria, 14), where her statue was shown with a golden dove on her head (33, 39).

The irresistible charms of Semiramis, her sexual excesses (which, however, belong only to the legends there is no historical groundwork), and other features of the legend, all bear out the view that she is primarily a form of Astartë, and so fittingly conceived as the great queen of Assyria.

Professor Lehmann-Haupt, by putting together the results of archaeological discoveries, has arrived at the following conclusions. Semiramis is the Greek form of Sammuramat. She was probably a Babylonian (for it was she who imposed the Babylonian cult of Nebo or Nabu upon the Assyrian religion). A column discovered in 1909 describes her as "a woman of the palace of Samsi-Adad, King of the World, King of Assyria, King of the Four Quarters of the World." Ninus was her son.

The dedication of this column shows that Semiramis occupied a position of unique influence, lasting probably for more than one reign. She waged war against the Indo-Germanic Medes and the Chaldćans. The legends probably have a Median origin. A popular etymology, which connected the name with the Assyrian summat, "dove," seems to have first started the identification of the historical Semiramis with the goddess Ishtar and her doves.

Semiramis appears in a number of plays and operas, most notably Domenico Cimarosa's opera Semiramide and Gioacchino Rossini's opera, also called Semiramide.

See F. Lenormant, La Legende de Sémiramis (1873); AH Sayce, "The Legend of Semiramis," in Hist. Rev. (January, 1888).

          This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.

Sémiramis in Art

Hanging Gardens of Babylon

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