Source: Nemet-Nejat, K. R. (1998) Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia, Chapter 8 - Recreation. Green Wood Press "Daily Life through History Series", Westport, Connecticut, London.

Note: Found this wonderful chapter on a hard-to-find issue, and had to share it with you. Enjoy!


Karen Rhea Nemet-Nejat

Everybody loves a good time, and the Mesopotamians were no exception. Sports, games and entertainment were part of their everyday life. Some games had religious or magical significance, and others were just for fun. The lunar month of the Mesopotamian calendar had 29 or 30 days. Six days were designated holidays, three lunar festivals and three more for relaxation. Both the monthly and annual holidays were times for games and entertainment.



The Assyrian kings were famous hunters of lions, elephants, ostriches, wild bulls and other beasts. Though the king preferred to hunt the larger, more aggressive animals, other beasts would do. The sport had both religious and political implications: as a successful hunter, the king proved that the gods favored him and that his power was therefore legitimate. Good triumphed over evil.

The Syrian plain was often the scene of the Assyrian royal hunt, but lions were also caught in Africa and brought to Assyria, where they were kept in game reserves until the hunt. The hunts were carefully orchestrated. From a booth above the wooden cage, a servant raised the door and released the lions, who were attacked by dogs and beaters. The beaters´ job was to beat the lions with sticks and drive them towards the king. The king killed the lions from his chariot with a bow or spear. Sometimes the king was shown on foot, killing the lion by holding the mane and thrusting a sword into his prey. The hunt became a public event. After the hunt, as part of a religious cerimony, the king poured a libation over the dead lion to atone for the harm he had done them and to appease their angry spirits. He also recited a devotional speech attributing the success of the hunt to his patron goddess. At the end of the hunt the servants picked up the dead animals. The formal hunt was continued by the Persian kings. The popularity of this sport is attested to by both information in the tablets and lifelike hunting scenes carved on countless Assyrian palace walls.



Both boxing and wrestling were depicted in art. Terra-cotta plaques showing boxers imply that boxing was a popular sport. In one plaque the boxers are beside two men beating na enormous drum, perhaps in time with their motions. In the Epic of Gilgamesh there is a reference to a wresting match between Gilgamesh and Enkidu.

A form of polo may also have been played, but with men astride the shoulders of other men rather than on horses, as in Mesoamerica. Again, in the Epic of Gilgamesh there is a reference to Gilgamesh oppressing his subjects by tiring the young men with endless contests of this polo and then taking sexual advantage of the young women.



Board games have actually been recovered through archaeological excavation. The boards were usually stone or clay (in Egypt and ancient Israel they were wood or ivory). Some were from Esarhaddon´s palace and displayed the royal legend. Board games were played with various kinds of pieces and even dice. Two of these games were similar to those of ancient Egypt. The first, the game of twenty-squares, involved a race using pieces that moved according to rolls of the dice. The game of 20 squares was played not only by the rich, since large clay bricks have been found with the board crudely drawn. Palace guards even passed their time playing the game of twenty-squares; in fact, a game board was scratched into the pedestal of one of the pair of bull-colossi guarding King Sargon´s palace gates at Khorsabad. The second type of board game, the board of 58 holes, is an early model for cribbage.

Two lot-boards, one connected with the 12 signs for the zodiac, contained instructions on the back about how the game was played. We learn how to draw the 84 sections on the ground and the names of the pieces (eagle, raven, rooster, swallow and na unidentified bird). In fact, lot boards used a word for game piece, "doll figurine", like man in chessman. The pieces were moved when dice made from astragals (the joint bones of oxen or sheep) were thrown. The game, called asha is still played today by women in the Jewish community of Cochin in Southern India.

In general, games were accompanied by objects that were thrown and objects that were moved. Thrown objects included disc, probably of Indian origin, which have been dated to all periods and found at sites throughout Mesopotamia. The dice are cubes of bone, clay, stone and even glass. They have the numbers 1 through 6 incised on them. However, unlike modern dice, on which the sum of the opposite sides is always 7, ancient dice have opposite sides which are usually numbered consecutively. Other objects thrown included joint bones, throw sticks and tones. Stones described as desirable or undesirable were put as lots into a container, drawn and played once certain prayers were made to the gods to oversee the game. Moved objects included the game piece referred to as a "doll figurine", as well as birds, dogs, circular pieces, and other shapes such as small clay cones and pyramids.



Both action and nonaction toys have been found. Some, like today´s toy guns, were miniaturized weapons of the time; these included sling shots, bows and arrows, and boomerangs and throw sticks. Other action toys and games included the spinning top, rattles, jump ropes (sometimes called the Game of Ishtar), puck and mallet, hoop, balls (seals are shown with jugglers and balls), and the buzz or button (a disc or piece of pottery with holes for strings). Nonaction toys were used by children to play house or grown-up. For their role-playing, children used miniature furniture such as tables, beds, stools, dolls and a variety of small-sized animals. Model vehicles clearly mirrored the time with miniature carts, wagons, chariots and ships for children.



From Early Dynastic period, if not before, music was a part of oral and religious festivals. Singers and musicians were featured at festivals, as were snake-charmers, bear trainers and jesters. Singers were both male and female; they sang in the royal courts and in the temple where they sometimes functioned as priests. Their repertoire consisted of celebratory music, laments and literary works (see below). Singers were often accompanied by musical instruments.

Musical instruments belonged to the string, wind and percussion families. Stringed instruments, pipes and a clay whistle were even recovered from excavations. Eight lyres and Two harps, including an elaborate example of a lyre inlaid with shell and trimmed in gold were found at the Royal Cemetery of Ur. There are also many examples of both the harp and the lyre throughout the Near East, but there are fewer examples of the lute. The pipe, a wind instrument, existed as either a single or double pipe. Trumpets were used for communication (as in battle) rather than for music. Three kinds of drums were known: a hand drum or tambourine, a drum in the shape of a sand-glass which was used by the temple priest to appease the god and a kettledrum, which was beaten in the temple courtyard during eclipses of the moon. Also, cymbals and bells were used. Second millenium tablets from Babylonia, Assyria and Ugarit in Syria described music theory, naming nine strings of the harp, and using a heptatonic scale. A whole psalm praising the moon goddess Ningal was found complete with libretto and score at 13th century Ugarit. Complete scores were also kept on file.

Musicians were sometimes shown playing solo, but often several musicians were pictured together carrying harps, lyres, and various other instruments, suggesting an ensemble. The musicians might also accompany dancers or singers in royal and religious festivals. Sometimes musicians were even shown dancing. Musicians were also depicted in military scenes, accompanying the army as they marched.



Reliefs show dancing done in time to music, singing and clapping. Dancing was mentioned in the tablets, but usually in reference to the cult and not as an independent activity. At the annual feast for the goddess Ishtar and other goddesses, whirling dances were done in her honor by both men and women. Circle dancers were usually performed by women. Acrobatic dancers took part in cultic activities.



Bas-reliefs show kings and queens banqueting in lush gardens, attended by servants, and entertained by musicians. In a relief from Khorsabad, the nobles sat at tables of four. In front of them was placed a dish of food as they toasted the king, raising a rhythm cornucopia-shaped drinking cup) with a base in the shape of a lion´s head.

When king Assurnasirpal II built his new capital at Nimrud, he hosted a huge banquet to celebrate opening ceremonies. A historical summary of the event provides us with a detailed menu, the number of guests and their country of origin:

When Assurnasirpal, king of Assyria, inaugurated the palace in Calah, a palace of joy, built with great ingenuity, he invited into it Assur (the Assyrian national god), the great lord and the gods of the entire country. He prepared a banquet of 1,000 fattened head of cattle, 1000 calves, 10,000 stable sheep, 15,000 lamb - for my lady Ishtar alone 200 heads of cattle and

And ... 1,000 spring lambs, 500 stags, 500 gazelles, 1,000 ducks, 500 geese... 10,000 doves... 10,000 skins with wine ... 1,000 wooden crates with vegetables, 300 containers with oil, 300 containers with salted seeds... 100 containers of fine mixed beer, 100 pomegranates, 100 bunches of grapes, 100 pistachio cones.... 100 with garlic, 100 with onions... 100 with honey, 100 with rendered butter, 100 with roasted ... barley, 10 homer of shelled peanuts... 10 homer of dates... 10 homer of cumin... 10 homer of thyme, 10 homer of perfumed oil, 10 homer of sweet smelling matters... 10 homer of zinzimu-onions, 10 homer of olives.

When I inaugurated the palace at Calah, I hosted for 10 days with food and drink 47,074 persons, men and women, who were bid to com from across my entire country, also 5,000 important persons, delegates from the country Sukhu, from Khindana, Khatina, Hatti, Tyre, Sidon, Gurguma, Malida, Khubushka, Gilzana, Kuma and Musasir (capital of Urartu), also 16,000 inhabitants of Calah from all ways of life, 1500 officials of all my palace, altogether 69,574 invited guests... furthermore, I provided them with the means to cean and anoint themselves. I did them due honors an sent them back, healthy and happy to their own countries. "

The menu despite difficulties in translation has furnished us with an outline of the banquet: 1) meat dishes, such as sheet, cattle, and some game; fowl, mostly small and aquatic birds; fish and jerboa, and a large variety of eggs; 2) bread; 3) beer and wine in identical amounts, 4) side dishes (mostly pickled and spiced fruit and a large variety of seeds and onion); 5) dessert (sweet fruits, nuts, honey, cheese) and savories, most are still not identifiable. Finally perfumed oil and sweet smelling substances were listed.



Literary works were sometimes sung. The compositions display a poetic structure syntactically and rhythmically. Stanzas are usually composed of four to twelve verses, sometimes more.

Kings were the subject of hymns (which sometimes named the musical instrument for accompaniment) and historical romances. The king and his court were often the audience for these literary works, as well as for the new compositions. The royal house may even have commissioned the scribes to compose hymns and other works. King Shulgi claimed he wrote his own.

Some literary works became part of the cult, such as the Epic of Creation: this myth was recited and its battle scene reeacted at the Babylonian New Year´s Festival. Other texts were clearly cultic and their instructions indicated that they be recited for particular rituals.

Some literary works showed awareness of an audience. At the beginning of the Epic of Gilgamesh, the narrator praised the accomplishments of King Gilgamesh and asked his listeners to examine his monuments - the temple, the city walls and even the lapis lazuli tablet buried in the walls´ foundation as part of na ancient time capsule of information.

Dialogues such as the Babylonian Theodicy and the Dialogue of Pessimism might be performance pieces, with the two speakers clearly delineated like actors in a script. The Babylonian Theodicy is a dialogue between a sufferer and his friend discussing age-old questions such as why the gods allow man to suffer and why good things happen to bad people. The sufferer says:

Your reasoning is a cool breeze, a breath of fresh air for mankind,
Most particular friend, your advice is excellent,
Let me put but one matter before you;
Those who seek not after a god can go the road of favor,
Those who pray to a goddess have grown poor and destitute,
Indeed, in my youth I tried to find out the will of my god,
With prayer and supplication I besought my goddess.
I bore a yoke of profitless servitude,
My god decreed for me poverty instead of wealth
A cripple rises above me, a fool is ahead me,
Rogues are in the ascendant, I am demoted.

Among the friend´s standard pious replies, we find:

Adept scholar, master of erudition,
You blaspheme in the anguish of your thoughts,
Divine purpose is as remote as innermost heaven,
It is too difficult to understand, people cannot understand it.

The conclusion is that men are unjust because the gods made them that way and the sufferer challenges the gods to take care of him. The Dialogue of Pessimism is a more humorous treatment about the purpose of life. The scene is a series of exchanges between a master and servant. Each time the master suggests and plan of action, the servant obsequiously puts a positive spin on it; the master then suggests doing the exact opposite, and the slave once again finds other "words of wisdom" to support his master, as in the following exchange:

"Servant, listen to me". "Yes, master, yes". "I will do a good deed for my country." "So do it, master, do it. The man who does a good deed for his country, his good deed rests in Marduk´s basket." "No, servant, I will certainly not do a good deed for my country." "Do not do it, master, do not do it. Go up the ancient ruin heaps and walk around, look at the skulls of the lowly and great. Which was the doer of evil, and which was the doer of good deeds?"

Only at the conclusion does the servant finally offer na independent opinion about life and his master:

"Servant, listen to me". "Yes, master, yes". "What, then, is good?" "To break my neck and yours and throw (us) in the river is good. Who is so tall as to reach to heaven? Who is so broad as to encompass the Netherworld?" "No, servant, I will kill you and let you go first." " Then, my master will certainly not outlive me even three days!"

Other dialogues featuring a verbal contest between two characters - such as Summer and Winter, the Pickax and the Plow, the Date Palm and the Tamarisk - are followed by a judgement and reconciliation in which the contestants leave as good friends. Possibly these competitions were performed, but we cannot be sure.

In some cases, we can only speculate as to how broad the audience was - whether these works were performed only before the royal court or before the general public. Certainly, the literature reflects an awareness of taste and standards of the time.


Mesopotamian Feasts and Vegetable Recipes:
Foods and Feasting in Ancient Mesopotamia
Feast Recipes Lamb Stew and Braised Turnips
Best Asparagus Recipe and How to Cook Asparagus


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