Queen Semiramis was a mythical queen who appears in many myths, legends, works of art and literature through the ages. She was was believed to have evolved from a real, historical Queen Sammuramat who ruled the Neo-Assyrian Empire for a brief period. Here we look briefly what is known of the historical Queen Sammuramat and her transformation to the mythical, semi-divine, Queen Semiramis.
Sammuramat ruled the Neo-Assyrian Empire in the ninth century after her husband, King Shamshi-Adad V, died until her young son Adad-nirari III came of age in 806 BC. It is not clear whether she ruled as regent or in some other capacity but it was only believed to have lasted for five years. According to the myths Semiramis ruled for 42 years as queen regnant but it is necessary to separate the historical from the mythical in thinking of Sammuramat.
Although much of her prestige may have come through being the wife and queen of King Shamshi-Adad V, history shows she briefly had great political influence over a great empire. This stretched from the Arabian Peninsula in the south to the Caucasus Mountains in the north and in the west as far as Cyprus and in the east western Iran. She was highly regarded by her subjects and neighboring states and appeared to have been a good ruler in what ever capacity she reigned. Like many other powerful and famous rulers throughout history her achievements were embellished, exaggerated and added to. In the centuries after her death she became a mythical or legendary figure and given the name Semiramis.
EVIDENCE OF HER EXISTENCE
Not all archaeologists and historians are convinced of the existence of Queen Sammuramat. Those who are point to four pieces of evidence they claim prove she once existed. Two of these are statuettes found in the ancient city of Nimrud in Iraq. These are dedicated to the Babylonian god of knowledge and writing named “Nabu” and both mention her name. The other pieces are two stellae; one from Kizkapanli, situated in modern day Turkey and the other from Assur in Iraq which mention her.
Stele of the Assyrian queen Shammuramat, from AssurOsama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg), CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
When considered together these show she was highly esteemed and exercised an unusually high degree of political power for a woman of that epoch. The Assur Stela inscription reads,
“Sammuramat, Queen of Shamshi-Adad, King of the Universe, King of Assyria; Mother of Adad-nirari, King of the Universe, King of Assyria.”
FROM HISTORY TO MYTH
The classical historian, Herodotus, in the fifth century B.C. used the Greek form of her name, Semiramis, which helped perpetuate her memory. It is by this name she is perhaps better known today. According to some traditions an entity known as Semiramis was the wife of the mythical Nimrod who reputedly built the Tower of Babel. This entity does not appear to be the same character as the Semiramis who evolved from Sammuramat though there may have been some conflation through the ages.
After her name was Hellenized she became the subject of many enduring myths and legends as an Assyrian queen. In this role she was the semi-divine daughter of the dove and fish goddess Derceto of Askalon, who in shame of conceiving a baby by a mortal flung herself into a lake. Her body transformed into that of a fish while her head remained human. Her baby girl was fostered by doves and grew up to become Semiramis.
In some legends she plays the role of the beautiful “femme fatale” in tragic love storiesbut in others she is a formidable commander and military leader winning impressive battles extending her empire greatly. She is also cast as a great civil ruler who built the walls of Babylon and other monuments throughout her domain.
The Greek scholar, Diodorus Siculus, enlarged upon her legend inventing an exaggerated and inaccurate account of her life and deeds. He claimed Semiramis was born in Ashkelon, now in modern day Israel and was the daughter of the Syrian goddess, Derceto, who many scholars see as a version of the Phonecian goddess Astarte and the Babylonian goddess, Ishtar.
RAISED BY DOVES
Her father was a mortal and her mother in shame of falling in love and conceiving with a mortal man abandoned her baby who was then raised by doves. Eventually she was adopted by the chief shepherd of the king of Assyria and named Semiramis and grew up to be a woman of great and rare beauty and intelligence.
One day while inspecting the royal flocks Onnes, the royal governor of Syria came across her and struck by her beauty gained her adoptive father’s consent to marry her. After the wedding she went to live with him in Nineveh.
When Onnes was sent on a military mission to central Asia to besiege the city of Bactra by King Ninus of Assyria he began to miss her badly. Therefore, he sent a message asking that she join him. When she arrived the siege was still in place but she came up with a strategy and led an attack that gave her husband and his army the victory.
When King Ninus heard about how she had formulated the winning strategy and led the attack he wanted to meet the rare female with such military ability. Ninus was completely besotted by her beauty falling in love with her at first sight. He ordered her husband to exchange his wife for one of his daughters but Onness refused. Ninus was determined he would marry her and subjected Onnes to terrible threats causing him to take his own life. Ninus got his way and Semiramis became his wife and queen of Assyria.
BUILDER AND COMMANDER
According to Diodorus she embarked on a number of large civil projects including the rebuilding of the city of Babylon along the Euphrates River, including the royal palace, the temple of Marduk and the city walls. Other Greco-Roman authors such as Strabo credit her with creating one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon though this is not supported by evidence.
Variations of her name were applied to many ancient monuments in Anatolia and Western Asia often with little or no evidence they originated with her. She was also credited with building the city of Van as her summer residence and may have been known as Shamiramagerd (city of Semiramis).
According to Diodorus Siculus after the completing works in Babylon she turned her attention to the empire. She launched several military campaigns in Persia, Libya and North Africa. Furthermore, in an act of supreme ambition she organized and launched an invasion of India ruled by King Stabrobates. This was an incredibly difficult and risky operation and would prove although she was a capable and formidable commander and general she was not invincible.
Nevertheless, she was very bold and inventive conceiving a daring plan of deception to use against Stabrobates. She instructed her craftsmen to construct a herd of fake elephants by covering camels with the dark hides of buffaloes. In this way she initially managed to give the impression she had a formidable battalion of real elephants to unleash in battle. Initially, this deception was successful in an attack but her enemy strongly counterattacked. Her army was routed with the survivors forced to retreat back over the Indus River. The invasion failed disastrously and she was injured in the fighting.
THE ORACLE OF AMUN
While campaigning in Africa she had consulted an oracle of the deity Amun. The oracle predicted her son Ninias would conspire to supplant and kill her. According to Diodorus this was to come true and after her failure in India on discovering her son’s plot she decided to hand over power peacefully to him rather than fight him for the throne. However, other historians give differing versions of her death. Some say she threw herself on a burning pyre while others say her son killed her.
In Armenian tradition, Semiramis, was often portrayed negatively because of her military successes against Armenia. One of the most well known Armenian legends about her is her romance with a King of Armenia known as Ara the Handsome. Armenian traditions say Semiramis had fallen head over heels in love with him and proposed marriage. To her dismay he refused and in a display of extreme petulance she mustered her army and made war on him ordering her commanders to capture him alive. She was victorious but contrary to her explicit instructions Ara was killed in battle.
Semiramis was reputed to be a sorceress and the death of Ara had left her in an awkward position. She did not want to continue warring with the Armenians who were now determined to avenge their leader. Therefore she came up with a plan to end the war. She openly prayed to the gods to raise Ara from the dead but secretly disguised one of her lovers as him. When the Armenians arrived for battle she presented him to them claiming she had raised him from the dead by her love for him. The deception convinced the Armenians he was alive and ended the fighting. There is also a tradition that she actually succeeded in resurrecting Ara and there is a village not far from Van called Lezk where his resurrection allegedly took place.
INGREDIENTS FOR A GOOD TALE
Her legend has much in common with other myths from the region that tell of great leaders or powerful people. There is the theme of her divine origin being born of Derketo, the goddess and then abandoned at birth to be found and brought up by animal or bird foster parents.
The evolution of Queen Semiramis from Queen Sammuramat provided an example for other female rulers to follow. Her legendary and mythical status was achieved possibly because it was unusual in patriarchal societies for females to be allowed to shine or display their intelligence and talents. According to these traditions, she proved herself to be a as good or better than males in her governing abilities, civil building works and military prowess. This was unusual and may be part of the reason why she was elevated to such status. Her mystique and appeal lasted for centuries after her death and was the inspiration for many works in art and literature. Perhaps because of her legendary beauty and reputation, or maybe, just because she was a woman, she was often cast in erotic and immoral roles.
Over the ages her achievements became embellished and exaggerated and new stories emerged about her. In many ways the little that was known about her added to her mystique and after her death the myths and legends grew. In later times was held as a model for good female rulers who exhibited similar characteristics as her and such as Margret I of Denmark, and Catherine the Great of Russia who were called Semiramis of the North after her.
Throughout the ages the mythical Queen Semiramis evolved a long way from the original historical Queen Sammuramat but such is the stuff that legends are made from.
© 29/09/2021 zteve t evans
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References, Attributions and Further Reading
Copyright September 29th, 2021 zteve t evans
- Semiramis – Wikipedia
- Semiramis – World History Encyclopedia
- The True Story of Semiramis, Legendary Queen of Babylon
- Myths of Babylonia and Assyria: CHAPTER XVIII – The Age of Semiramis
- Alexander Hislop – Wikipedia
- The Two Babylons, 1853 – Alexander Hislop
- Nimrod – Wikipedia
- Shammuramat – Wikipedia
- Semiramis of the North