THE BABYLONIAN NEW YEAR´S FESTIVAL
"Through your mercies, Lord, may the months
be for us the source of joys, the years, of delight;
let them bequeath to us in peace, O Lord:
Nisan has its flowers, Iyyar its lilies too,
Haziran its sheaves, Tammuz its heaps of grain;
let Ab and Illul bring along grape-clusters on poles,
let the two Teshris give response to each other in the grape-pressing;
let the two Kanuns bring rest, Shebat and Adar, the Fast.
To you, Lord, be the praise."
In Mesopotamia, the New Year´s Festival appears as the confluence of every current of religious thought to express every shade of religious feeling. Basically, it served:
Although the main actors in the festivities were the gods, the king´s participation in the celebrations and the community were essential. Indeed, in Babylon, certain rites would not be performed unless the king was present in person. He was the representative of the community in a concourse of forces which sprang from beyond the range of human will or understanding. Remember that the king in Mesopotamia was a trained initiate, not perfect but a model of wholeness the subjects should emulate. Community participation was implicit, as this was Babylon´s main festival.
The New Year´s Festival could be held in the autumn as well as in the spring. We translate Sumerian zagmuk, which means "beginning of the year", and the Akkadian akitu, which has uncertain meaning, but basically means New Year´s Festival because these feasts are essentially what the modern term indicates - festive celebrations of a new beginning in the annual cycle. However, in the Near East, Nature offers two starting points within the solar year, the one at the end of winter and the other at the end of the even more deadly summer. In Mesopotamia, the rains were important; in Babylon, the Akitu festival was celebrated in Spring, at the first New Moon after the Spring Equinox, in the month of Nisan, whereas in Ur and Uruk the festival took place in the fall as well as in the Spring, in the months of Tishri (or Teshris in the poem above) and Nisan.
The inner logic of these celebrations comes from ancient myths, i.e. the Myth of Creation, or the Enuma Elish, the Descent of Inanna/Ishtar and the Courtship of Inanna and Dumuzi in the highlights of the festival celebrations, or the Sacred Marriage Rite. The Descent of Inanna/Ishtar is hardly mentioned by most scholars, but it is there in full symbolism, in the king´s descent, the high priestess´ and the city´s wailing for the vanished/captive king. The beauty of the Courtship and the Sacred Rite is not overlooked, but it is seldom ignored that it was the most hallowed of all rites, the culmination of events that led to the following day Second Determination of Destiny. May I kindly remind you that in the Courtship of Inanna and Dumuzi, the Consecration of the King happens only after the Sacred Rite. Thus, the sequence of festival events is reconstructed below. I will also include personal notes on the unfolding events, and, whenever appropriate, will establish the links with myths and the feminine presence during the rites, a fact that is overlooked by scholarship, but whose symbols are there, explicit or implicit. It is remarkable that Frankfort, the main source for this article, and Kramer in his introduction to Frankfort´s work, did not overlook the goddess´ presence, as it is the case of all first-rate scholarship that takes Mesopotamia in context. Here is the sequence of festival days:
1) Nisan 1-4: Preparations and Purifications
During the first five days, the rites within Esagila (Marduk´s temple in Babylon) reflected a somber mood, where priests and priestesses attuned to desolation, utter bereavement and grief for the uncertainties of the coming future. It is known that the people of the city also gave expression to misery and anxiety by ritual wailings, which, nevertheless, seem not to have been part of any temple service, though many temple hymns reflect this mood.
Each morning, before sunrise, the high priest, after a ritual washing, entered the temple alone and prayed to Marduk and to other gods. Afterward the other priests commenced their daily tasks. Typical of the mood of those days is the Kyrie Eleison sung before dawn on the second day and called The Secret of Esagila:
Lord without peer in thy wrath,
Lord, gracious king, lord of the lands,
Who made salvation for the great gods,
Lord, who throwest down the strong by his glance,
Lord of kings, light of men, who dost apportion destinies,
O Lord, Babylon is thy seat, Borsippa thy crown
The wide heavens are they body....
Within thine arms thou takest the strong....
Within thy glance thou grantest them grace,
Makest them see light so that they proclaim thy power.
Lord of the lands, light of the Igigi, who pronnouncest blessings;
Who would not proclaim thy, yea, thy power?
Would not speak of thy majesty, praise thy dominion?
Lord of the lands, who livest in Eudul, who takest the fallen by the hand;
Have pity upon thy city, Babylon
Turn thy face towards Esagila, thy temple
Give freedom to them that dwell in Babylon, thy wards!
On the evening of the fourth day, the Enuma Elish, or the Epic of Creation, was recited in its entirety, for each New Year shared something with the beginning of times, when the world was created and the cycle of seasons started. A recital of that triumphant achievevement increased the power of all favorable forces to overcome the hazards which had led to the incarceration of the god of natural life. In later stages of the festival, Marduk´s battle with Chaos was actually represented in the ritual, but on the evening of the fourth day the recital of the Epic was only an interlude in the general preparations for the atonement.
2) Nisan 5: Day of Atonement for the king - the people descends to the suffering god. Increasing commotion of the city during the search for Marduk
In the fifth day, the king is the main participant in the ritual. In the morning, the high priest again offered prayers of appeasement, this time to Marduk as manifest in the heavenly bodies:
The white star (Jupiter) which brings omens tot he world is my lord,
My lord be at peace!
The star Gud (Mercury) which causes rain is my lord;
My lord be at peace!
The star Gena (Saturn), star of law and order, is my lord;
My lord be at peace!
Then the temple was purified. Offerings and incantations continued. Craftspeople equipped the chapel of Nabu (Marduk´s son who was to arrive on the morrow) with an offering-table and a gold canopy from the treasury of his father. While these preparations were going on, the king entered Marduk´s shrine. He was escorted into the chapel by priests, who left him alone. The high priest emerged from the Holy of Holies where the statue of Marduk stood. He took the king´s scepter, ring, scimitar and crown and put them upon a "seat" before the statue of the god. Again, he approached the ruler, who was standing deprived of signs of royalty, and struck his face; then, the high priest made him kneel down to pronounce a declaration of innocence:
I have not sinned, O Lord of the Lands,
I have not been negligent regarding thy divinity,
I have not destroyed Babylon...
The High Priest replied in Marduk´s name:
Do not fear... what Marduk has spoken...
He will hear thy prayer. He will increase thy dominion
Heighten thy royalty...
The High Priest then took up the insignia and gave them back to the king, striking his face once more in the hope of drawing tears - which were counted a favorable omen and proof of the god´s will. (Lishtar´s Note 1: tears mean emotion, i.e. the king had to display true emotion and humility of the heart during the proceedings. Not difficult to happen if he really became the part)
It is clear that by his penance and confession, the king cleansed himself of the taint of past sins , thus cleansing also the community, becoming fit to officiate in the succeeding rites. It is also clear that his renewed investiture with the insignia of royalty signified a renewal of kingship and the bond with the gods and the community he embodied. At the coronation, too, the insignia had been placed upon seats in front of the god. I would like to point out that the seat is also a sign for the Earth Mother or Ki, as well as a symbol of Anu, the Skyfather, or in the words of the myths "the horned crown upon a shrine". The meaning is thus is very clear. It tells of the link the king has with Anu and Ki as the ruler of the land and shows the bond between the heavenly and earthly powers the king should protect and ensure through wise leadership in all levels and spheres.
Likewise, the ritual humiliation of the king brought him into harmony with the conditions under which the great ceremony of renewal started. Though communication with Marduk was still possible in the Esagila, in the outer world the god had "disappeared", as does Inanna during Her annual descent to the Underworld.
In the city, people were disturbed. The king, the shepherd of the land, had been robbed of his splendor, of the protection of the royal insignia and reduced to a minimum of power which corresponded to the low ebb in the life of nature, to the "captivity" of the god and also to the state of chaos preceding creation. Five days of sacrifice, atonement and purification culminated in the king´s degradation and reinstatement.
While the measured rites occupied priests and priestesses at the great temple of Marduk, city dwellers entered a different state of mind. We learn about these popular activities from commentaries, explaining the ritual acts of the people in terms of mythology, for the benefit of a priestly school.
The commentary says that "Marduk was confined in the mountain", and it is a Mesopotamian formula for the death of a god, characterizing the point from which the festival took its start. Death here means the suffering of the god, and here we have a clear allusion to the Descents of Inanna/Ishtar, who descended, were wounded, died and were reborn. Similarly, it is said of Marduk at the New Year´s festival that "Into the house of bondage, from the sun and light, they caused him to descend".
And more: "people hasten in the streets, they seek Marduk saying, ' Where is he held captive?'" We assume then that much of the commotion centered around the temple tower, the ziggurat, the man-made mountain that links the Underworld to the Realms Above.
Now, thanks to the Dumuzi/Tammuz hymns, we recognize the goddess who in her sorrow seeks the god and, when she has found him, stays at his side. Her acts clearly represent, on the mythological level, the acts and feelings of the people! Indeed, there is a line in a commentary that says "the dazed goddess who from the city goes, wailing"...
There is an obscure text called Marduk´s Ordeal, which tells of the abduction of Marduk by the enemy and who wails for him is not Sarpanitum, Marduk´s wife, but Ishtar. This is another arcane reference of the relationship of Marduk and Ishtar.
Finally, community participation may also have involved the representation of fights, because commentaries state that "after Marduk went into the mountain, the city fell into a tumult because of him, and they made fighting within it". We do not know whether the fights took place in the night of the fifth of Nissan or whether they accompanied Nabu´s triumphal entry into Babylon and his battle with the enemies of Marduk on the sixth or seventh days. The preparatory rites were completed; the scene was set for the arrival of the avenging son, Nabu, who would defeat the powers of death.
3) Nisan 6: The gods arrive by barge at Babylon, among them Nabu, the son and avenger, who takes up residence in Ezida, his chapel in the temple of Marduk;
Nabu, the god of the scribes, goes first to Borsippa to arrive in Babylon on the same day. Meanwhile barges carrying statues of the gods from Nippur, Uruk, Cutha and Kish converge to Babylon. The commentary is quite explicit:"That is he who comes to seek after the welfare of this father who is held captive". Possibly there was a great procession from the quays to the temple led by the king, who is mentioned as being present and pouring out a libation before the gods. In Assur, the role of the king was more impressive than it was in Babylon. There the protagonist of the gods was not Nabu but Ninurta, and the king himself represented the Divine Hero, standing in the royal chariot in the procession or being carried out of the Assur temple with a golden tiara as "Ninurta, who has avenged his father". We can assume that Nabu´s/Ninurta´s arrival brought back renewal and was celebrated accordingly by the people
4) Nisan 7: Nabu, assisted by other gods, liberates Marduk by force from the mountain of the Netherworld;
We do not have accounts of the actual Marduk´s liberation from captivity by Nabu. We do know however that Nabu led the army of visiting gods to accomplish this task. The commentary that refers to events is the following: "The door with aperture as they call it, that means that the gods confined him; he entered into the house and before him one locked the door. They bore holes into the door and there they waged battle".
Iconography shows that on cylinder seals of the middle and third millennium the liberation of the god is from a mountain. The liberator god is Ninurta, a god with a bow, and a goddess is his attendance. Again, a reference to the presence of the Divine Feminine, and I would risk an educated guess that the goddess in the seal is Ereshkigal, the Queen of the Underworld and Stern Judge of Souls, who is by then appeased and ready to set Marduk free. Iconography also shows the goddess kneeling with the captive god, while another god destroys the vegetation above the ground. This is a clear reference to Inanna/Ishtar and the Underworld events, or the Mysteries that took place in the Underworld, which were known, but not explicitly mentioned, especially to the non initiates. These seals prove the antiquity, if not of the usages, then of the myths which are reflected in the ritual, but are not included in the Epic of Creation. These are not my words, but Frankfort´s, a mystical insight based on his flawless scholar´s view of events.
5) Nisan 8: First determination of Destiny. The gods assemble and bestow their combined powers on Marduk who thus obtains "a destiny beyond compare";
After Marduk´s liberation, the statues of the gods were brought together in the Chamber of Destinies "to determine destiny". This was on the 8th day, and another determination of destiny followed on the 11th day. The two gatherings differed in significance, but both took place in a temple called Ubshu-ukkina, a name designating the place of assembly of the gods in the Epic of Creation and elsewhere. There, the gods proceed to the first Determination of Destiny, when Marduk is chosen king of all gods, according to the Enuma Elish. A text from Uruk describes how the statues of the gods were arranged in order of precedence for the assembly. The king acted as master of ceremonies. Carrying a shining wand or staff, he summoned each god in succession to leave his chapel and, taking his hand, guided the deity to the appropriate position in the great hall where the gods faced the leader. The corresponding scene in the Epic gives the meaning of this ceremony:
'They made a princely dais for him.
And he sat down, facing his fathers, as a councilors.
Thou art of consequence among the elder gods,
"Thy rank is unsurpassed and thy command is Anu´s.
Marduk, thou art of consequence among the elder gods,
Thy rank is unequaled and thy command is Anu
With these words, the gods put all the power of which they dispose in the hands of Marduk. Marduk´s destiny is now declared to be unequaled, for he actually commands the consolidated power of all the gods. It is in the Epic that this power is given so that Marduk can command all threats of annihilation to existence, and this is also the meaning of the ceremony of First Determination of Destiny. All gods´ powers are conferred to the liberated god, who then is ready to lead the battle against all powers of darkness, death and chaos that could affect Babylon in the coming year.
We know that a hush of reverence dominated the city while the gods assembled, in order that evil influences could be avoided. In connection with the New Year´s festival of later times, there is an entry for the eighth of Nisan in a calendar of lucky and unlucky days that says "Show no enmity at all". Thus, there was a sort of Pax Babylonium, tacit agreement to be followed and pursued at least in attunement to the days.
6) Nisan 9: Triumphal procession to the Bit Akitu under the king´s guidance. This represents the participation of the community in the victory which is taking place in Nature and renews Marduk´s destruction of Chaos.
When the late Assyrian kings recorded their annual visits to Babylon, they gave as the purpose of their coming participation in the ceremony which we are now to describe. Sargon II, for example, wrote: " Into Babylon, the city of the lord of the gods, joyfully I entered, in gladness of heart and with a radiant countenance. I grasped the hand(s) of the great lord Marduk, and made pilgrimage to the House of New Year´s feast, the Bit Akitu. The gods, too, came to Babylon " to take the hands of Bel" - to lead him in the procession to Bit Akitu. The king was privileged to give the sign for departure, "Come, go forth, Lord, the king awaits thee!... By the side of Ishtar of Babylon, while her servants play the flute, Goes all Babylon exultant!".
The procession was considered so important that every detail of its start and completion was watched carefully and possessed the significance on an omen for the year which was beginning. It seems, therefore, that the procession itself, and not a mock battle, represented Marduk´s victory in the cult. This view is supported by a commentary which enumerates various acts that are evident parallel to phases of the victory as related in the Epic.
Basically, two conclusions can be drawn. Firstly, Marduk´s victory over chaos was celebrated, or realized once more during the New Year´s festival. The Bit Akitu was the place where the Creator´s victory over Tiamat was celebrated, and the bronze figures on the door of Sennacherib appear relevant, as well as an inscription of Nebuchadnezzar in which he calls the "the temple of the sacrifices of the exalted New Year´s festival of Enlil of the gods of Upper and Netherworld". Secondly, this was most probably a time for peace in the region, once high dignitaries and the gods came to Babylon for celebrations, a peace that should at least be a concerted effort to be maintained in the coming year. The gods´ assembly of the Enuma Elish was re-enacted to show union and stability in the region as well.
7) Nisan 10: Marduk celebrates his victory with the gods of the Upper and Underworld at a banquet in the Bit Akitu and returns to Babylon for the Sacred Marriage Rite in the same night;
If the victory over Tiamat was achieved on the ninth of Nisan (on the eighth the gods met in the Chamber of Destinies), the great banquet may have fallen on the tenth. This is also suggested in the stela of Naboridus: " In the month of Nisan, on the tenth day, when the king of the gods, Marduk, and the gods of the Upper and Netherworld take up their abode in the House of Prayer (Bit Akribi), the House of the New Year´s Festival (Bit Akitu) of the Lord of Justice".
In Babylon, the Bit Akitu was always located outside the city. It was build about two hundred meters outside the city walls, and its outstanding characteristic was the richness of the gardens which surrounded it. The courtyard was filled with regularly spaced trees and shrubs. On either side there were porticoes, an unusual feature in Mesopotamian temples. The enormous "cella", 25x100 feet, extends over the whole width at the back and may well have served as a banqueting hall. All around the building were elaborate gardens, carefully watered. They remind us of the fact that the god was not merely a conqueror of Chaos, but also the personification of the life in nature. It is this aspect of the complex figure of Marduk or Assur that is especially stressed by the Sacred Marriage Rite, or the following phase of celebration. Of Marduk, it is said that "he hastened to the wedding".
Indeed, the renewal of nature in Spring, at the New Year´s festival, was conceived as the marriage of the Goddess with the liberated god. Their union took place in the temples, and the change in nature and the temple ritual constituted the Divine Union, being the two events inseparable and equivalent. The king was then made the Divine Bridegroom, and the High Priestess as his Divine Consort, the Goddess incarnate. For your delight, below follows a poem called The Joy of Sumer - The Sacred Marriage Rite found in Kramer´s and Wolkstein´s Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth: her hymns and stories from Sumer (1983):
The people of Sumer assemble in the palace,
The house which guides the land.
The king builds a throne for the queen of the palace.
He sits beside her on the throne.
In order to care for the life of all the lands,
The exact first day of the month is closely examined,
And on the day of the disappearance of the moon,
On the day of the sleeping of the moon,
The Sacred Measures, the Me, are perfectly carried out,
So that the New Year´s Day, the day of rites,
May be properly determined,
And a sleeping place be set up for Inanna.
The people cleanse the rushes with sweet-smelling cedar oil
They arange the rushes for the bed.
They spread a bridal sheet over the bed.
A bridal sheet to rejoice the heart,
A bridal sheet to sweeten the loins,
A bridal sheet for Inanna and Dumuzi.
The queen bathes her holy loins,
Inanna bathes for the holy loins of Dumuzi,
She washes herself with soap,
She sprinkles sweet-smelling cedar oil on the ground.
The king goes with lifted head to the holy loins,
Dumuzi goes with lifted head t the holy loins of Inanna.
He lies down besie her on the bed.
Tenderly he caresses her, murmuring words of love:
"O my holy jewel! O my wondrous Inanna!"
After he enters the holy vulva, causing the queen to rejoice,
After he enters the holy vulva, causing Inanna to rejoice,
Inanna holds him to her and murmurs:
"O Dumuzi, you are truly my love!"
The king bids the people to enter the great hall,
The people bring food offerings and bowls,
They burn juniper resin, perform laving rites,
And pile up sweet-smelling incense.
The king embraces his beloved bride,
Dumuzi embraces Inanna.
Inanna, seated on the royal throne, shines like daylight.
The king, like the sun, shines radiantly by her side.
He arranges abundance, lushness and plenty before her.
He assembles the people of Sumer.
The musicians play for the queen,
They play the loud instruments which drowns out the Southern storm,
They play the sweet algar-instruments, the ornament of the palace,
They play the stringed instrument that brings joy to all people,
They play songs for Inanna to rejoice the heart.
The king reaches out his hand for food and drink,
Dumuzi reaches out his hand for food and drink,
The palace is festive, the king is joyous
In the pure clean place they celebrate Inanna in song.
She is the ornament of the assembly, the joy of Sumer!
The people spend the day in plenty.
The king stands before the assembly in great joy.
He hails Inanna with the praises of the gods and the assembly:
"Holy Priestess! Created with the heavens and earth,
Inanna, first daughter of the Moon, Lady of the Evening!
I sing you praises!"
It is likely that during the Akitu the Sacred Marriage took place in the Esagila, Marduk´s temple in Babylon, and not in the Bit Akitu. We know that Nabu, Ningirsu and Inanna of Isin celebrated their weddings in the temple. The poem above shows full participation of the community in the preparation to the events, before and after the joining of the king with the high priestess. Also, according to our knowledge of Mesopotamian religion, it makes sense to place the Sacred Marriage on the tenth day, because only when harmony and order is restored love and fertility can return to the land in all levels and spheres. Remember that kingship should be acknowledged by the Goddess, from Ninhursag-Ki to Inanna/Ishtar in Mesopotamia.
8) Nisan 11: The Second Determination of Destiny. The gods assemble once more in the Chamber of Destinies to determine the destiny of society in the ensuing year. This was the last act of deities, bringing auguries and omens for the prosperity of the land.
It is extremely meaningful that the Second determination of Destiny is now concerned with the microcosmic scale, and so the gods meet again on the 12th of Nisan in the Chamber of Destinies, Also, remember that in Mesopotamia, by the bond of Heaven and Earth, or Duranki, humankind had been created as a result of the gods´ wish to humanity to continue the workings of existence for Them. Thus, humankind´s destiny and happiness was possible only if man and women lived out their destinies carrying out the deeds of existence for the gods. Basically, the auguries for the coming year were aimed at attuning to the future and once again reaffirm that the gods´ designs were of relevance to humankind who lived to celebrate the gods and Their creation in everyday life.
9) Nisan 12: The visiting gods return to their temples, and life returned to its everyday normalcy, and the business of plowing and sowing and trading for the new crops was taken at hand.
Finally, it is constantly said in the literature that Mesopotamians view life as a burden to be carried by humankind. The picture that emerges when we look at their rituals and meditate on the signficance of their values by listening to the words ancient Mesopotamians left inscribed in clay differs from the bleak scenario of more recent times. Think of the cycle of events we have just seen together: there was chaos, there was wailing, but there was also joy, justice and reasons to be happy about, ensured by the right divination procedures, which would aid the king and the land to choose the best courses of actions and guide the requests of help and assistance to the Powers Above and Below when there was a need.
As for myself, the Akitu festival reaffirmed my personal view of Mesopotamian religion and worldview as faith in life, faith in the world, faith in what will be and become, because most of it will be the fruit of our deeds in the world, and guided by the Light of the Tradition, we will try to make it better... again and again, for as many times as it takes, this lifetime, another time.
This article is heavily based on the classic on Kingship and Religion in the Near East, and the full reference is: