This illustration was created by Ernest Wallcousins for Donald Alexander Mackenzie’s book, Myths of Babylonia and Assyria (published in 1915). As the title of Mackenzie’s book hints, it is a scene from ancient Mesopotamian myth and legend that Ernest Wallcousins re-creates in his illustration. In particular, it shows the origin myth of an Assyrian legend—Semiramis. The larger-than-life tales of Semiramis are thought to have grown from the historical regent queen, Sammu-Ramat, who is known to have held great influence in the Assyrian Empire from 811 to 806 BCE. Over centuries, the historic figure of Sammu-Ramat was supplemented with tall tales and mythology, resulting in her being remembered as a wide-conquering demi-goddess. Tales of the legendary Semiramis found their way to the ancient Greek city-states, whose scholars such as Herodotus, Ctesias, Strabo, and Diodorus Siculus were happy to report the stories in all their embellished glory.
Ernest Wallcousins’ illustration shown above depicts the origin myth created for Semiramis. The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus (c. 1st century BCE) recorded the fullest account of the mythological tale. As the story goes, Semiramis was the daughter of a deity named Derceto, who conceived the demi-goddess child with a mortal man. For the man, it was a one-night stand, and Semiramis never knew her father. Derceto, too, after she gave birth to the little girl, did what ancient deities were usually wont to do in such circumstances—she abandoned the child, leaving the newborn girl alone with nothing but nature to watch over her. Yet, as often happened in tales of myth and legend, nature did an excellent job providing for the child. Diodorus Siculus described the tale of how Semiramis survived her infancy:
“About the region where the babe was exposed a great multitude of doves had their nests, and by them the child was nurtured in an astounding and miraculous manner; for some of the doves kept the body of the babe warm on all sides by covering it with their wings, while others, when they observed that the cowherds and the other keepers were absent from the nearby steadings, brought milk therefrom in their beaks and fed the babe by putting it drop by drop between its lips. When the child was a year old and in need of more solid nourishment, the doves pecking off bits from the cheeses, supplied it with sufficient nourishment. Now when the keepers returned and saw that the cheeses had been nibbled about the edges, they were astonished at the strange happening; they accordingly kept a look-out, and on discovering the cause found the infant, which was of surpassing beauty” (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, II.4).
Such is the scene occurring in the illustration featured above. It shows the child Semiramis, with her caretaker doves flying around her, as she is discovered by one of the herdsmen. As the legend goes, she was brought to the head herdsman and royal gamekeeper, who would become her adoptive father. Through the official’s ties to the Assyrian court, Semiramis gained her access to power.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Library of History, by Diodorus Siculus, edited by Giles Laurén (Sophron Editor, 2014).