The ascent from impressive mortality to legendary immortality
Even today, despite an increasing global awareness of civil rights, gender equality and morality, there remain far fewer women in positions of power than men. That, unfortunately, is the way the world is today, and that is how much of human civilization has been for the majority of our existence. Therefore, it is no surprise that humans become awed and inspired by powerful, brilliant women who prove themselves to be more competent than men. Though more and more women are achieving positions of power today, in the man-dominated history of our past, women in power were such anomalies that their very existence caused myth and legend to form around them—enter the Assyrian Queen Sammu-Ramat, who after death, transcended into the realm of the Mediterranean gods.
Sammu-Ramat is thought to have lived around the transition period from the 9th century to the 8th century BCE, with her heyday approximately from 811-806 BCE. She was the wife of one Assyrian King and the mother of the next. In this, Sammu-Ramat is not very different from other powerful women leaders who existed both before and after her. For example, Queen Tiye or Tiy (lived in the 14th century BCE), also gained great power and influence in her country by being an extremely shrewd adviser and asset to her husband (Amenhotep III) and her son (Akhenaten) in Egypt. Though numerous other women reached incredible heights of power in the ancient world, few could match Sammu-Ramat in her most impressive feat. She reigned supreme in her (likely unintentional) creation of a cult of personality that, after death, raised her to godhood and distributed her legend out of Assyria and into neighboring regions.
The Landscape of the Legend
Before we begin to speak about Sammu-Ramat, some description is needed of her homeland, the Kingdom of Assyria. Assyria was one of a long list of expansionist Mesopotamian kingdoms and empires. One of the first major Mesopotamian Kingdoms was Babylonia, which became a regional power approximately 1850 BCE. The renowned Babylonian King Hammurabi is roughly dated to have lived from 1792-1750 BCE. After the death of Hammurabi, the Hittites began to increase in regional dominance. Historians have divided the reign of the Hittites into two sections: the Old Kingdom (1700-1500 BCE) and the New Kingdom (1400- 1200 BCE). During the second century of the New Kingdom of the Hittites (around the 14th century BCE), the Assyrians became an independent people, but they would play no major role in history for many more centuries.
As the Hittites declined, the Assyrians ascended. After multiple hundreds of years of biding their time, the Assyrians were ready to make their move in the 9th century BCE, the very century when Queen Sammu-Ramat was thought to have been active. The particular victories of the Assyrians under Sammu-Rammat, and her son, Adad-Nirari III, will be left for a later chapter, but be assured that the Assyrian gains were impressive.
Sammu-Ramat was made into a widespread legend under the name Semiramis, but even so, the actual living and breathing woman at the heart of it all remains fairly obscure. As her legend and cult grew, her story transitioned from history, to mythology, and eventually resembled a tall-tale. The facts, as far as historians and archeologists have been able to accurately uncover, should be clearly noted before moving from the human Queen Sammu-Ramat, to the mythological goddess, Semiramis. For full disclosure, some deny that Sammu-Ramat and Semiramis are related, but the majority believes that Sammu-Ramat served as either the archetype, or a significant inspiration, of the legendary Semiramis.
Sammu-Ramat began her rise to power at the start of Assyria’s long-awaited ascendance to dominance. She was wed to the Assyrian King Shamshi-Adad V (ruled approximately 823-811 BCE). Her husband ruled in a difficult time; his reign began after a civil war between his own father and brother. The Assyrian Kingdom was not stable, and Shamshi-Adad gladly accepted any advise that Sammu-Ramat provided. Queen Sammu-Ramat gladly took the opportunity to aid and influence the governing of the Assyrian Kingdom. She was reported to have been very active in her husband’s court. She participated in government and religious ceremony, court and even accompanied the Assyrian military on campaigns. The scale of her involvement in these government activities was never described in depth, but most sources imply that she was heavily involved in the governance of Assyria during her husband’s kingship.
Shamshi-Adad died around 811 BCE, and the Assyrian crown passed to the heir, Adad-Nirari III, who would lead an effective rule from 811-783 BCE. In 811, however, Adad-Nirari was too young to govern the kingdom. While the young king matured, Queen Sammu-Ramat was able to seize the position as regent ruler of the Assyrian people. She was able to maintain her authority and keep the kingdom stable until her son took the throne. Most historians propose two possible theories of Sammu-Ramat’s success; the Assyrians either both respected and admired her, or they were deathly afraid of her. The route of admiration and respect seems likeliest based on the facts that Sammu-Ramat was a trusted adviser to the late king, and had maintained a constant presence in court, ceremony and military campaigns.
As a regent, Queen Sammu-Ramat did not dawdle. She had no intention of simply waiting for the young king to grow old enough to rule. No, as far as we can tell, the regent Queen was very active during her period of rule. She reportedly gathered her fighting men and marched successfully against the Medes and the Armenians to her north. She created new roads and started construction on embankments for the Euphrates River near Babylon. She is thought to have funded the creation of at least one new temple, and erected a stela or obelisk. Many other miscellaneous structures and monuments were later attributed to Sammu-Ramat’s mythical incarnation, Semiramis.
Around 806 BCE, King Adad-Nirari III was at an age where he could take on the full responsibility of the Assyrian throne. In his reign, the Assyrian Kingdom continued to grow, following the example of Queen Sammu-Ramat. Under the rule of multiple successive kings, the Assyrians went on to expand their way outward into the Iranian plateau and down towards the Persian Gulf, and also spreading westward into Egypt. The Assyrian Kings did not besmirch Queen Sammu-Ramat’s name; quite the opposite occurred. Her historical regency transformed into a legendary tale of a conquering warrior queen, Semiramis of Assyria.
The Legend of Semiramis
The mythology of the Assyrian warrior queen, Semiramis, spread all around the eastern Mediterranean. Her story permeated throughout the lands of the extensive Assyrian Kingdom, and moved up through Armenia and other Annatolian peoples to reach the Greek city-states. Numerous writers of antiquity wrote about Semiramis, including Ctesias, Herodotus, Strabo, Polyaenus, Plutarch and Justinus. Even the major Christian writer, Eusebius (263-339 CE), wrote about the legendary warrior queen of Assyria. Her story went on to inspire countless people; some wanted to worship her, and others, like Alexander the Great, wanted to exceed her in conquest. The brief, but admirable, reign of the regent Queen Sammu-Ramat became immortal in the cult and mythology of the warrior queen goddess, Semiramis.
When it is stated that the story of Semiramis was mythological, the statement is accurate; the tale of Semiramis acquired many of the common features found in Greek mythology. Storytellers took the life of Sammu-Ramat, added a divine origin story, increased her conquests, and amplified her sexual activities—the story was a hit, and a legend was born.
The legend of Semiramis began when a fisherman, headed to the water to haul in his daily catch. Instead of wrangling a fish, however, the fisherman found a fish goddess named Derceto. The goddess had somehow earned the wrath of Aphrodite—suffice it to say, Derceto was much more lusty than she would have been in usual circumstances. From the encounter between the fisherman and the fish goddess, Semiramis was born. There is no happy ending for Derceto, however, as mythology often has more tragedy than contentment. Feeling shameful and guilty for what she did under Aphrodite’s spell, Derceto committed suicide shortly after she gave birth to Semiramis.
Yes, Semiramis was alone and abandoned, but do not fret. A flock of doves fluttered to the newborn demi-god, giving little Semiramis comfort, warmth and food. Soon, a group of farmers stumbled upon the baby goddess and the doves relinquished Semiramis into their care. The farmers took the abandoned girl back to their village and raised her as their own. From this point of her myth, Semiramis begins the events that occurred in the life of Sammu-Ramat. A government official found his way to the farming village and instantly wanted to marry Semiramis. She agreed to marry him, and she helped him with his governing duties. Semiramis’ advice proved to be very wise and effective, resulting in her every word and suggestion being trusted and implemented in her husband’s politics.
Eventually, Semiramis, and her husband relocated to the court of the Assyrian King. Unfortunately for her husband, the King, too, wanted to marry the astute goddess. Semiramis’ husband, trapped between love and loyalty, fell into despair and committed suicide. The widowed Semiramis agreed to marry the Assyrian King. She and the King held court jointly, went on military campaigns together and shared the decision of government policy, just as Sammu-Ramat and Shamshi-Adad V seemed to work together as partners. The Assyrian King eventually died, and Semiramis, like Sammu-Ramat, was able to keep power through the respect of the people or the fear of her wrath. Some versions of the legend claim that Semiramis had the Assyrian king executed, which is plausible considering the King’s actions had forced Semiramis’ former husband into suicide.
With the Assyrian kingdom under her control, the legend claims that Semiramis personally went on to conquer the same lands that Sammu-Ramat conquered, as well as the lands historically conquered by King Adad-Nirari III (Sammu-Ramat’s son) and the succeeding Assyrian kings. The legend of Semiramis claims she conquered even more territory than what was held by historical Assyria. From the Assyrian lands in Egypt, her legend claims that she pushed into Libya. From her Persian territory, Semiramis was supposed to have launched a failed campaign against India (a claim known to Alexander the Great while he was in the region). In true Greek god fashion, the legend of Semiramis claims that she slept with many of her soldiers, but had them all executed afterwards, fearing the political ramifications of having a lover.
The military expeditions of Semiramis ended with her failed campaign into India. She returned back to Assyria and died shortly, thereafter. On her deathbed, however, Semiramis did not simply die and decay like a normal mortal. No, in the true fashion of a goddess of antiquity, Semiramis transformed into a dove, and flew away from the world of mortals and into the realm of the divine.
Mortals and Myths
There are immense differences between the historical life of Sammu-Ramat and the Semiramis of legend and myth. Despite the divine origin story, and the exaggerated conquests of land and lust, the legend of Semiramis had at its core the history of Sammu-Ramat—a formidable woman who was able to gain the respect of the Assyrain people, stabilize the Kingdom and usher the Assyrians on their path to becoming an empire. Sammu-Ramat ruled with brilliance and skill in an ancient world where women leaders were few and far between. Queen Sammu-Ramat left the Assyrian Kingdom, and others surrounding Assyria, in a state of bafflement. The only explanation they could find for Sammu-Ramat climbing to such a height in life was that she was descended from gods and, upon death, ascended back to the heavens.
Written by C. Keith Hansley