Where's Semiramis?

This is a chapter from an ebook I did which included a look at the works of Alexander Hislop -- the Christian version of Acharya S. Sadly, even Christian leaders as prominent as John MacArthur fall for this kind of stuff.


Who can forget those "Where's Waldo?" books, where you had to strain your eyes while scanning a giant cartoon picture looking for that one guy with the glasses, the striped shirt and the funny hat? If you were good at finding Waldo, you might also be good at finding Semiramis. She isn't in the Bible. She's also not in the works of the Jewish historian Josephus. So, we have to ask ourselves a question. Alexander Hislop says that Semiramis is pretty important as the wife of Nimrod, and co-founder of the Babylonian mysteries. But how can this be the case about someone who isn't even found in the Bible?

Let's start this round with a look at the history of Semiramis in the real world. The most complete and detailed history of Semiramis is found in the work of Diodorus, an author of the 1st century BC. In his Bibliotheca Historica, Diodorus says that Semiramis was born at Ashkelon, to her mother, the goddess Derceto, and her father was an anonymous young man, who was doing a sacrifice to Derceto. Apparently, Derceto wasn't much for the romance. Ashamed, she killed the young man and abandoned the child, leaving her to be taken care of by doves. Eventually, the child was adopted by the head of the royal sheepfolds, Simma, who named her Semiramis, which is a variant on the word for "dove."
Semiramis became a very beautiful girl, and the Assyrian governor of Syria, Onnes, fell in love with her and asked for her hand. He took her to Nineveh, where they had two children, Hypatus and Hydaspus. Later on, Onnes was called to military duty, and after he went away, he sent for Semiramis to join him. As it turns out, though, Semiramis had a hidden talent for military tactics: She used a ruse to help defeat the city they were besieging.

Thanks to all the fame that came of this coup, the Assyrian king, Ninus, rewarded her and also fell in love with her. As kings were wont to do, he first asked for her hand in marriage and then threatened to take her from Onnes if he didn't comply. Not being able to handle the stress, Onnes hanged himself, leaving Ninus to marry her. (Based on our last chapter, you can now begin guessing how and why Hislop connects Nimrod to Semiramis.)

Eventually, the couple had a son they named Ninyas. After Ninus died, he left Semiramis as queen, and from there, she went on to have a successful career founding Babylon. During her reign, she toured her kingdom and she created all sorts of wonderful parks and public works. She never remarried, but did give certain favors to handsome men in her army, who she showed her gratitude towards by making them disappear.

For her last great act, Semiramis raised a huge army of 3 million men and went after the natives of India, who ended up sending her back home defeated, with wounds in her arm and back. At that point, Ninyas plotted against her, but by this time, she was 62 years old and pretty tired, so she handed the reins of power over, and disappeared.

This won't sound a great deal like what Hislop has to say about Semiramis. The biggest problem, though, is the assigned date for Semiramis by scholars. She's supposed to have been around somewhere between the 9th and 7th century BC. That means that she's over a thousand years after the time when Nimrod lived, if we take Biblical chronology strictly.

Part of Hislop's confusion comes from the story of Semiramis founding Babylon, while Nimrod founded Babel. As we explained in the last chapter, although the two cities are related, they are not exactly the same. The city has undergone more than one renaissance in its history, and Hislop merely assumed that there was just one possible "founding" event - and that is one reason why he incorrectly put Nimrod and Semiramis together as contemporaries.

Historically, Semiramis is probably to be identified with Sammuramat, who was known from an inscription to be a queen from 823-811 BC, during the reign of a king named Shasmshi-Adad V. She was a regent for approximately four years, as is confirmed by the Babylonian 3rd century BC historian/priest Berosus, who interrupts his Babylonian King list to refer to "government of Semiramis in Assyria."

This equation does leave some aspects of her legend unexplained, like her alleged founding of Babylon. There are also some other testimonies about her that seem contradictory; however, all agree that she didn't live at the same time as Nimrod. [1]

[1] For more on Semiramis, see an essay by Georges Roux, "Semiramis: The Builder of Babylon, in Jean Botterfo, Everyday Life in Ancient Mesopotamia (Johns Hopkins University, 1992, pages 141-61)."

What would Hislop offer in response to this, in order to foist Semiramis into the time of Nimrod? Again, we won't be able to address every single point Hislop makes, but we can address a good number of them, sufficiently to show that he cannot be taken seriously.

Eusebius. Hislop initially notes three sources about Semiramis: Ammianus Marcellinus, Books 14 and 23; Justinus, Historia, Book 1; and the Chronicle of Eusebius.

Ammianus' reference in Book 14 doesn't even mention Semiramis. It only mentions Ninus:

And first after Osdroene, which, as has been said, I have omitted from this account, Commagene, now called Euphratensis, gradually lifts itself into eminence; it is famous for the great cities of Hierapolis, the ancient Ninus, and Samosata.

Book 23 does reference Semiramis, and says:

In this Adiabena is the city of Ninus, which once possessed the rule over Persia, perpetuating the name of Ninus, once a most powerful king and the husband of Semiramis; also Ecbatana, Arbela, and Gaugamela, where Alexander, after various other battles, overthrew Darius in a hot contest.

Neither of these, though, does anything to advance Hislop's case to early date Semiramis.

The reference in Justinus offers much of the information we related above, including Semiramis as founder of Babylon. As noted, Hislop confuses Babel and Babylon, so this does not aid his case.

The last reference, in Eusebius, Hislop considers prime evidence, for he says that Eusebius had Ninus and Semiramis reigning in the time of Abraham. This turns out to be true, but there isn't much useful about it:

Year one of Abraham. He was the first patriarch of the Jewish people. During his time Ninus and Semiramis ruled over Assyria and all of Asia.

Once again, though, we're hard pressed to see why Eusebius, writing some 1000 to 2000 years after the fact, is to be taken as correct over the evidence that has been gathered by historians indicating a different chronology. And, even more problematic for Hislop is that Eusebius disagrees with Hislop on certain other issues as well. Contrary to Hislop, Eusebius identifies Asshur as a person (see prior chapter). He also clearly does not regard Ninus as the same person as Nimrod, and doesn't think Ninus/Nimrod was chopped into pieces by Semiramis (i.e., Eusebius says: "Semiramis buried Ninus' body in the palace").
A secondary problem is that Eusebius isn't here testifying to what he thinks is actual history. In the Chronicle, Eusebius was collecting and reporting varying chronologies from different sources.

Beyond this, Hislop found himself compelled to address an authority in his own time and who dated Semiramis to a later age. Hislop's reply is instructive:

Sir H. Rawlinson having found evidence at Nineveh, of the existence of a Semiramis about six or seven centuries before the Christian era, seems inclined to regard her as the only Semiramis that ever existed. But this is subversive of all history. The fact that there was a Semiramis in the primeval ages of the world, is beyond all doubt, although some of the exploits of the latter queen have evidently been attributed to her predecessor.

In other words, Hislop is compelled to invent a second Semiramis to accommodate his thesis, and then, to accommodate his thesis yet further, speculates that the deeds of the earlier one have been attributed to the later one! The reality is that there is no evidence of an earlier Semiramis - save in the writings of authors like Eusebius who were in no position to confirm the chronology. Once again, Hislop merely picks and chooses what he wants to believe ignoring the rest.

Today, Rawlinson's view is the standard among scholars, and is also decisively in accord with the evidence. We're also compelled to ask, if we use Hislop's rules of evidence, why Berosus is to believed over Eusebius, when he was much closer to the time in question than Eusebius. That doesn't mean Berosus is automatically right - but it does put a burden on those who support Hislop's theories to give an explanation.

God of fortifications. To further connect Semiramis to Nimrod, Hislop appeals to Daniel 11:38, which refers to a "god of fortifications." But it's not really that "god" with whom Hislop is concerned just yet. He rather uses the reference to segue into a "goddess of fortifications," whom he identifies as Cybele, because she "is universally represented with a mural or turreted crown, or with a fortification, on her head." This much is true as Cybele's crown looked like a city wall, but what does this have to do with Semiramis?

Hislop quotes the Roman poet Ovid as saying that Semiramis, as first queen of Babylon, "surrounded Babylon with a wall of brick." This is not exactly true. The line from Ovid says:

In Babylon, where first her queen, for state, Rais'd walls of brick magnificently great...

Semiramis is not specifically named, but, since other writers of Ovid' s day regarded her as the first queen of Babylon, that is probably who is in mind. At any rate, Hislop completes the equation by saying that Cybele wore a crown that looked like walled towers because "she first erected them in cities." From this he concludes that Semiramis must also be Cybele, since Babylon was the first city in the world after the Noahic flood that "had towers and encompassing walls"!

The problem here is that we just don't know if or when Babel had walls. We also don't know for sure what city was the first to have them, though we have a relatively high degree of certainty that Jericho was the first walled city (Cambridge History of Warfare, Geoffrey Parker, 414). Babylon did have walls as well, but it is not regarded as a contender for "first walled city."
Hislop also has another problem as he must admit that another ancient historian, Megasthenes, reported that it was a "Belus" who built the walls of Babylon. Here is what Megasthenes reports:

It is said that from the beginning all things were water, called the sea: that Belus caused this state of things to cease, and appointed to each its proper place: and he surrounded Babylon with a wall: but in process of time this wall disappeared...

As you may guess from the context, "Belus" was a Babylonian creator-deity. But Hislop doesn't report this; in fact, he misrepresents what the text says of Belus:

As "Bel," the Confounder, who began the city and tower of Babel, had to leave both unfinished, this could not refer to him. It could refer only to his

So Hislop has "solved" his historical problem by conveniently rolling yet another identity into Nimrod - namely, Belus! It doesn't matter to Hislop that Megasthenes doesn't say Belus didn't finish the wall (indeed, his words imply that Belus did finish it). Instead, Hislop covers all his bases by making Nimrod responsible for starting the walls of Babylon, and Semiramis responsible for finishing them! And so, in turn, Hislop also claims that Daniel's "god of fortifications" is none other than…you guessed it -- also Nimrod.

Like a Virgin? As noted, one of Hislop's goals was to rebut Catholicism, and to this end he found another use for Semiramis:

As time wore away, and the facts of Semiramis' history became obscured, her son's birth was boldly declared to be miraculous: and therefore she was called "Alma Mater, the Virgin Mother."

The object here, of course, was to imply that this pagan accounting was a source for Catholicism. Not that this would work even if it were true: Hislop himself would hardly deny that Mary was a virgin even when she was the mother of Jesus. Unfortunately, Hislop was so excited about this proposition that he neglected to provide documentation that Semiramis ever was called a "virgin mother." He also does nothing to keep from undermining his own (quote Protestant) belief in the virgin birth, using the same arguments.

Even more poorly documented is this argument:

The dove, the chosen symbol of this deified queen, is commonly represented with an olive branch in her mouth, as she herself in her human form also is seen bearing the olive branch in her hand; and from this form of representing her, it is highly probable that she has derived the name by which she is commonly known, for "Z'emir-amit" means "The branch-bearer." (From Ze, "the" or "that," emir, "branch," and amit, "bearer," in the feminine.)

As we noted above, though, "Semiramis" means dove, not "branch bearer." But once again, Hislop has a -- connect the dots explanation: Noah's wild dove (or pigeon) carried a branch back to the ark, and that is how we also turn "Semiramis" into "branch bearer"! Nor can he produce any record of "Z'Emir-amit" as a historical person rather than as a fanciful linguistic construction.

In short, Hislop's treatment of Semiramis, like his treatment of Nimrod, is more fantasy than fact.


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