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The real and historical Shammuramat (the original Akkadian and Aramaic form of the name) was the Assyrian wife of Shamshi-Adad V (ruled 824 BC–811 BC), king of Assyria and ruler of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, and its regent for five years until her son Adad-nirari III came of age and took the reins of power. She ruled at a time of political uncertainty, which is one of the possible explanations for why Assyrians may have accepted her rule (as normally a woman as ruler would have been unthinkable). It has been speculated that ruling successfully as a woman may have made the Assyrians regard her with particular reverence, and that the achievements of her reign (including stabilizing and strengthening the empire after a destructive civil war) were retold over the generations until she was turned into a mythical figure.
The name of Semiramis came to be applied to various monuments in Western Asia and Asia Minor, the origin of which was forgotten or unknown. Various places in Assyria and throughout Mesopotamia as a whole, Media, Persia, the Levant, Asia Minor, Arabia, and the Caucasus bore the name of Semiramis, but slightly changed, even in the Middle Ages, and an old name of the Armenian city of Van was Shamiramagerd (in Armenian it means created by Semiramis). Nearly every stupendous work of antiquity by the Euphrates or in Iran seems to have ultimately been ascribed to her, even the Behistun Inscription of Darius. Herodotus ascribes to her the artificial banks that confined the Euphrates and knows her name as borne by a gate of Babylon.
While the achievements of Semiramis are clearly in the realm of mythical Persian, Armenian and Greek historiography, the historical Assyrian queen Shammuramat (Semiramis), wife of Shamshi-Adad V (and not the fictional Ninus as in legend) of Assyria, certainly existed. After her husband's death, she served as regent from 811–806 BC for her son, Adad-nirari III. Shammuramat would have thus been briefly in control of the vast Neo-Assyrian Empire (911-605 BC), which stretched from the Caucasus Mountains in the north to the Arabian Peninsula in the south, and western Iran in the east to Cyprus in the west.
She ruled at a time of political uncertainty, which is one of the possible explanations for why Assyrians may have accepted her rule (as normally a woman as ruler would have been unthinkable). It has been speculated that ruling successfully as a woman may have made the Assyrians regard her with particular reverence, and that the achievements of her reign (including stabilizing and strengthening the empire after a destructive civil war) were retold over the generations until she was turned into a mythical figure. In the city of Ashur, she had an obelisk built and inscribed, which read: Stele of Sammuramat, queen of Shamshi-Adad, King of the Universe, King of Assyria, Mother of Adad Nirari, King of the Universe, King of Assyria, Daughter-in-Law of Shalmaneser, King of the Four Regions of the World. Georges Roux speculated that the later Greek and Indo-Iranian (Persian and Median) flavoured myths surrounding Semiramis stem from successful campaigns she waged against these peoples, and the novelty of a woman ruling such an empire.
Legend according to Diodorus SiculusEdit
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According to Diodorus, Semiramis was of noble parents, the daughter of the fish-goddess Derketo of Ascalon in Assyria and of a mortal. Derketo abandoned her at birth and drowned herself. Doves fed the child until Simmas, the royal shepherd, found her. Semiramis married Onnes or Menones, one of King Ninus' generals. Her advice led him to great successes, and at the siege of Bactra she personally led a party of soldiers to seize a key point in the defense, leading to the city's surrender. Ninus was so struck that he fell in love with her and tried to compel Onnes to give her to him as a wife, first offering his own daughter Sonanê in return and eventually threatening to put out his eyes as punishment. Onnes, out of fear of the king, and out of doomed passion for his wife, "fell into a kind of frenzy and madness" and hanged himself. Ninus then married her.
Semiramis 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 for 42 years, conquering much of Asia. Semiramis restored ancient Babylon and protected it with a high brick wall that completely surrounded the city. She also built several palaces in Persia, including Ecbatana. Diodorus also attributes the Behistun inscription to her, now known to have been done under Darius I of Persia (reigned 522-486 BCE). She not only ruled Asia effectively but also added Libya and Aethiopia to the empire. She then went to war with king Stabrobates (Sthabarpati) of India, having her artisans build an army of false elephants by putting manipulated skins of dark-skinned buffaloes over her camels to deceive the Indians into thinking she had acquired real elephants. This ploy succeeded initially, but then she was wounded in the counterattack and her army mainly annihilated, forcing the surviving remnants to re-ford the Indus and retreat to the west.
In ancient traditionsEdit
Legends describing Semiramis have been recorded by writers including Plutarch, Eusebius, Polyaenus, and Justinus. She was associated with Ishtar and Astarte since the time before Diodorus. The association of the fish and dove is found at Hierapolis Bambyce (Mabbog), the great temple which, according to one legend, was founded by Semiramis, where her statue was shown with a golden dove on her head.
The name of Semiramis came to be applied to various monuments in Western Asia and Asia Minor, the origin of which was forgotten or unknown. Various places in Assyria and throughout Mesopotamia as a whole, Media, Persia, the Levant, Asia Minor, Arabia, and the Caucasus bore the name of Semiramis, but slightly changed, even in the Middle Ages. She is credited with founding the city of Van in order to have a summer residence, and the city may also be referred to as Shamiramagerd (city of Semiramis). Strabo credits her with building earthworks and other structures "throughout almost the whole continent." Nearly every stupendous work of antiquity by the Euphrates or in Iran seems to have ultimately been ascribed to her, even the Behistun Inscription of Darius. Herodotus ascribes to her the artificial banks that confined the Euphrates and knows her name as borne by a gate of Babylon.
Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus credits her as the first person to castrate a male youth into eunuch-hood: "Semiramis, that ancient queen who was the first person to castrate male youths of tender age"
Armenian tradition portrays Semiramis negatively, possibly because of a victorious military campaign she prosecuted against them. One of the most popular legends in Armenian tradition involves Semiramis and an Armenian king, Ara the Beautiful. According to the legend, Semiramis had fallen in love with the handsome Armenian king Ara and asked him to marry her. When he refused, in her passion she gathered the armies of Assyria and marched against Armenia. During the battle Semiramis was victorious, but Ara was slain despite her orders to capture him alive. 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, convincing the Armenians not to continue the war. In one persistent tradition, Semiramis' prayers are successful and Ara returns to life. During the 19th century, it was also reported that a village called Lezk, near Van, traditionally held that it was Ara's place of resurrection.
In later traditionsEdit
She is Semiramis, of whom we read
That she succeeded Ninus, and was his spouse;
She held the land which now the Sultan rules.”
—Dante's Divine Comedy, Canto V, lines 60 to 62
Semiramis was generally viewed positively before the rise of Christianity, although negative portrayals did exist. During the Middle Ages, she was associated with promiscuity and lustfulness. One story claimed that she had an incestuous relationship with her son, justifying it by passing a law to legitimize parent-child marriages, and inventing the chastity belt to deter any romantic rivals before he eventually killed her. This was likely popularized in the 5th century by Orosius' Universal History (Seven Books of History Against the Pagans), which has been described as an "anti-pagan polemic." In the Divine Comedy, Dante sees Semiramis among the souls of the lustful in the Second Circle of Hell. However, she was also admired for her martial and political achievements, and it has been suggested that her reputation partly recovered in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. She was included in Christine de Pizan's The Book of the City of Ladies (finished by 1405), and starting in the 14th century she was commonly found on female lists of the Nine Worthies.
Semiramis appears in many plays and operas, such as Voltaire's tragedy Semiramis, and in multiple separate operas with the title Semiramide by Domenico Cimarosa, Marcos Portugal, Josef Mysliveček, and Giacomo Meyerbeer, Pedro Calderón de la Barca and Gioachino Rossini. Arthur Honegger composed music for Paul Valéry's eponymous 'ballet-pantomime' in 1934 that was only revived in 1992 after many years of neglect. In Eugène Ionesco's play The Chairs, the Old Woman is referred to as Semiramis. She was mentioned by Chaucer in his compilation The Craft of Lovers, as "Queene of Babilon," as well as by Shakespeare in Act 2 Scene 1 of Titus Andronicus and Scene 2 of the Introduction in The Taming of the Shrew. Semiramis' portrayal has been used as a metaphor for female rulership and sometimes reflected political disputes in relation to female rulers, both as an unfavorable comparison (for example, against Elizabeth I of England) and as an example of a female ruler who governed well. Powerful female monarchs Margaret I of Denmark and Catherine the Great were given the designation Semiramis of the North.
In the 20th century, she has also appeared in several sword and sandal films, including the 1954 film Queen of Babylon in which she was played by Rhonda Fleming, and the 1963 film I am Semiramis in which she was played by Yvonne Furneaux. In John Myers Myers's novel Silverlock, Semiramis appears as a lustful, commanding queen, who stops her procession to try to seduce young Lucius (who has been transformed into a donkey).
The Two BabylonsEdit
The book The Two Babylons (1853), by the Christian minister Alexander Hislop, was particularly influential in characterizing of Semiramis as associated with the Whore of Babylon despite a lack of supporting evidence in the Bible. Hislop claimed that Semiramis invented polytheism and, with it, goddess worship. He also claimed that the Catholic Church was a millennia-old secret conspiracy, founded by Semiramis and the Biblical king Nimrod to propagate the pagan religion of ancient Babylon. Grabbe and others have rejected the book's arguments as based on a flawed understanding of the texts, but variations of them are accepted among some groups of evangelical Protestants.
Hislop believed that Semiramis was a consort and mother of Nimrod, builder of the Bible's Tower of Babel, although the Bible does not mention him having any consorts. He said that Semiramis and Nimrod's incestuous male offspring was the Akkadian deity Tammuz, and that all divine pairings in religions were retellings of this story. These claims are still circulated among some groups of evangelical Protestants, in the form of Jack Chick tracts, comic books, and related media. Author and conspiracy theorist David Icke incorporated Hislop's claims about Semiramis into his book The Biggest Secret, claiming that Semiramis also had a key role in the Reptilian alien conspiracy that he asserts is secretly controlling humanity.
Critics dismissed Hislop's speculations as based on misunderstandings. Lester L. Grabbe has claimed Hislop's argument, particularly his association of Ninus with Nimrod, is based on a misunderstanding of historical Babylon and its religion. Grabbe criticized Hislop for portraying Semiramis as Nimrod's consort, despite that she has not been found in a single text associated with him, and for portraying her as the "mother of harlots", even though this is not how she is depicted in any of the texts where she is mentioned. Ralph Woodrow has stated that Alexander Hislop "picked, chose and mixed" portions of various myths from different cultures.
In modern cultureEdit
Semiramis appears in the light novel and anime series Fate/Apocrypha as the Assassin of Red. She also appears in the mobile of the same franchise, Fate/Grand Order. In the Fate series, she is depicted as the world's oldest poisoner.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Semiramis.|
- 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
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Semīramis". Encyclopædia Britannica. 24 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 617.
BERINGER, A. 2016. The Sight of Semiramis: Medieval and Early Modern Narratives of the Babylonian Queen. Tempe: Arizona State University Press.