Semiramis (c. 800 BC)

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Semiramis

Semiramis was the Queen of Assyria, Babylon,  proclaimed daughter of a goddess.

Most of what we know about Semiramis comes from Greek historian, Diodorus of Sicily, who lived about 800 years after she did. Most of it (of course) is untrue… however, to every story are one can always assume there is some fact there. The thing is, by the time of Diodorus, two different Assyrian Queens had been confused into one woman, and a number of legends have been attached to the figure- some of them stories which have been told about many women who ruled. For example, Semiramis is supposed to have taken the handsomest soldiers in her army as lovers and to have killed each when she wanted a new one.

Diodorus tells us that Semiramis was the daughter of the Goddess of Love, Ishtar, who fell in love with a handsome young Assyrian and became pregnant. Disgusted with herself for having stooped so low, Ishtar killed her lover, left the child to die in the desert near Ascalon in Palestine, and changed herself into a being with the head of a woman and a body of a fish, removing all possibility of future temptation. (So perhaps… A mermaid?) You might think that Semiramis’ divine birth would make her conspicuous but as all the Assyrian royalty were said to be descended from gods, no one thought much about it.

After being abandoned as a baby by the unloving Goddess of Love, Semiramis was nursed by doves for a year, then found by a local cowherd who raised her as his daughter. When she was grown, a royal officer named Onnes came to inspect the herds. After inspecting the beautiful Semiramis too, he married her and had two sons by her. “And since he would do nothing without her advice, he prospered in everything.”

Onnes was called to serve in the army of King Ninus, who had raised two million men to fight the Bactrians. The army stalled in front of the city of Bactra, which is besieged but could not capture. Onnes, bored with siege life, sent for his wife. When Semiramis arrived, she found a way to capture the impregnable city, and led the troops to attack herself.

The King, much impressed by this feat, was more impressed with her beauty. He offered to trade Onnes one of his daughters for Semiramis; when Onnes refused, Ninus threatened to blind him. Onnes committed suicide; Ninus married Semiramis; and they had a son Ninyas. Ninus died, leaving Semiramis to rule as queen.

She founded the great city of Babylon- the city, bridges, reservoirs, palaces, aqueducts, and temples, but the Hanging Gardens came later. Among the temples were the great ziggurat, three hundred feet high, which we call the tower of Babel, and an obelisk one hundred and thirty feet tall: Wonders of the World.

Semiramis also traveled and fought. She visited Egypt and Ethiopia, then decided to win fame by conquering India. But the Indian King had a super weapon which terrified all other troops- elephants. He had a corner on the supply, so no one could counter his forces. Semiramis decided to beat real elephants with dummy elephants, moved by camels inside. These were made in secrecy by workers who were kept prisoner, so that the weapon would be a complete surprise. Semiramis though that the Indians would be so upset at discovering that their opponents had elephants too that they would all flee.

After three years of preparation, Semiramis took her army and three and a half million men against the Indian King’s army of the same size. When the armies met in battle, the Indian horses fled- not from the dummy elephants, but from the unfamiliar smell of camels within them. But the Indian King rallied his men and their charge fought back Semiramis’s army. She herself was slightly wounded, and two-thirds of her men were lost. Neither side won anything.

After this war, her son Ninyas wanted to rule. Semiramis, obeying omen from the gods, did not resist: she turned over government to him and disappeared, having lived sixty-three years and reigned for forty-two.

Modern historians take most of the juice out of the story. To begin with, they say, Diodorus’s Semiramis is a mixture of two different Assyrian queens who reigned five generations apart. The first, Sammuramat, whose name means “palace-lady,” ruled three years after the death of her husband Shanshi-Adad V, who had reigned from 823 B.C. to 811 B.C. He corresponds to Semiramis’ Ninus, the founder of Ninevah (the center of the goddess Ishtar, worshiped like Venus (the Roman goddess of love), or Isis (the Egyptian goddess of life); but some of Ninus’s feats were accomplished by Sennacherib, whose wife was Naqi’a, the Pure One, who reigned 683-670 B.C. After her husband’s death Naqi’a held the throne and kepts the country together until her grandson Assur-ban-apli was old enough to rule.

Sammuramat seems to have been the queen whose warlike and building exploits are reflected in the story of Semiramis; Naqi’a was more peaceful, but rebuilt Babylon, which her husband had destroyed.

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