The Ancient Akitu Festival of Mesopotamia

Akitu is the earliest New Year's festival for which we have written records, as well as one of the oldest Mesopotamian festivals, dating back to the middle of the third millennium B.C.E. Although it was initially observed on a semiannual basis, due to a local system of six-month equinox years, it sometimes came to be celebrated with more emphasis on one of its two dates in some of the region's city states. Thus, in Babylonia, it started on the new moon closest to the spring equinox to honor the sky god Marduk; the Akitu nearest the fall equinox in Assyria honored the high god Ashur; and Akitus were held on both dates each year in Uruk to honor the sky god Anu. In each case, there would be a procession to a temple called "Akitu house" along a canal out in the fields, cultic dramas reenacting the creation of the cosmos by the god being honored, and the sacred marriage of a god and goddess to ensure the land's prosperity. Development Which gods were involved depended on the current political fortune of the particular Mesopotamian city state that had them as patrons, since each would reenact with an Akitu festival a god's original triumphal entry to take possession of it. Each city had a calendar of its own, with months named after local religious festivals. That of Nippur, which was the religious center of legitimate authority for the region and where all its local practices converged, eventually became the standard calendar. This calendar incorporated the dates that originated in Ur for the Akitu festivals. One of these Ur Akitus was celebrated in the first month (lasting about a week) and the other in the seventh month (lasting eleven days) when the equinoxes occurred. In the Nippur calendar, one Akitu was celebrated in the fourth month (for five different deities!) and the other in the twelfth month, but the names of both months sounded like those of the Ur months for the Akitus. These imported festivals were absorbed by preexisting agricultural festivals after which these months were named in Nippur, and they lost their connection to the moon, whose god, Nanna, was the one Ur worshipped (though the original Ur dates were still observed much later in the Akitu festivals of Babylon and even Hellenistic Uruk). In its Nippur version, Akitu provided a model for other cities in Sumer and then Mesopotamia (the culture that succeeded Sumer in a larger area between the Rivers Tigris and Euphrates, which is now at the heart of Iraq), since each city also wanted to show its god the respect due it in a triumphal welcome (the equivalent of a medieval prince's royal entry into one of his cities), in return for which the god would rule the city justly and grant it a happy fate. Thus, there was an Akitu for Urash in Dilbat and one for Belit in Sippar. In some cities, other deities beside the local patron, such as the more broadly regional goddess Ishtar, might also be welcomed into the city at times of the year that did not conflict with their chief god's Akitu. In the course of the second millennium B.C.E., Babylon became the political capital of Mesopotamia, and its god Marduk incorporated the attributes of the agro-pastoral god Tammuz he largely supplanted in the new state religion. In the process, the semi-annual Akitu festival held previously by the Akkadians (whose kingdom held sway in the region from the twenty-fourth to the twenty-second centuries B.C.E.) in honor of Tammuz (who emerged with the spring shoots and rose again with fall harvests after his death in summer droughts) became strictly a spring event. It even absorbed a fall New Year's festival called Zagmuk. It filled the gap between the end of the solar and lunar years with a dozen-day celebration tied to the spring equinox (just like the twelve days of Christmas that follow the winter solstice in European tradition). Having started out as a sowing and harvest festival, it came to prominence in Babylon as the proper occasion for the crowning and investiture of a new king. On this occasion, the reigning monarch's divine mandate was renewed in connection with the sky god Marduk's victory over Tiamat, the goddess of salt water. As a spring festival, Akitu thus bound together the renewal of nature's fertility, the reestablishment of the king's divine authority (formerly a fall ceremony), and the securing of the people's favorable destiny over the coming year-especially the scorching summer heat-while putting an end to the sterility of the winter months when the world seemed old and worn out.

Seasonal Ordeals of Gods and Kings

In Babylon, the year's most important festival began with ritual preparations on the first three days of the month of Nisan. On the fourth day, a high priest, the sheshgallu, recited the creation epic Enuma elish (which was written down in the late twelfth century B.C.E.) in praise of Marduk (also known simply as Bel or Lord), who was the city's patron and head of its pantheon. Meanwhile, the king went to Borsippa to fetch an effigy of that city's patron, the sky god's son Nabu. He brought back the statue of this god of vegetation and of writing in a solemn ritual procession that arrived the next day by barge. In the interval, residents and pilgrims roamed the streets of Babylon looking for Marduk, whose captivity inside a mountain (like that of Tammuz, his predecessor as supreme god) explained the land's desolate 6 | akitu condition in the winter.

The shrines of Marduk and Nabu were purified on the fifth day, when the king would enter the great Esagila temple to be greeted by a priest, who proceeded to lead him to Marduk's shrine. There, the priest stripped the monarch of his regalia, slapped his face, and pulled his ears. As part of this royal penitential rite, the king had to kneel before the god and assure him he had not neglected his duties toward his city Babylon and his temple Esagila. Only then could he be reinvested with the insignia of Marduk's kingship and partake again of his divine powers. It has been suggested (Cohen 1993, pp. 440-441) that this ceremony of the humbling of the king, which normally occurred after his arrival from the Akitu house, was put on the fifth day because that was when time was available for it in the midst of the festivities associated with an Akitu of Nabu. The latter went on until the eighth day, followed by an abridged Akitu of Marduk which went on for another three and a half days (since the Akitus of Borsippa and Babylon seem to have been combined due to the growing regional importance of the cult of Nabu in the first millennium B.C.E.).

After Nabu's own triumphal entry on the fifth day, mock battles were staged to reenact his struggle to avenge and free his father from his enemies. The enemies were represented by two small figurines, one made from tamarisk and the other from cedar. These were decapitated and burned on the sixth day. On the eighth day, Nabu could serve as a scribe to register the decrees of an assembly of all the gods, whose statues were arranged and carried following a strict hierarchy. The king would "take Marduk by the hand" (i.e., escort him) first to the temple's courtyard and then to his Throneof- Destiny on the Sacred Mound to proclaim the solar sky god's sovereignty over all the other gods for the beginning of the New Year on Zagmuk. Then, he would "take Marduk by the hand" again to lead a grand procession of the gods, who went in battle order to the Euphrates in carriage boats to fight the forces of chaos. There, real boats awaited the royal party to take it upriver to the Akitu house (Bit Akitu), or "House of Offerings," north of the city, for a "banquet of the gods," which celebrated Marduk's triumph and the resulting prosperity of his Babylonian kingdom.

Ritual Dramas of Divine Victory and Sacred Marriage As part of the ritual drama of this "banquet of the gods," the story of the Enuma elish (meaning "When on high . . .") was reenacted, either with the gods' statues or by humans, including the king who represented Marduk. It related the story of the sun god Marduk's victory over the titanic powers of chaos, which were unleashed by his great-grandmother Tiamat (turned sea dragon in her wrath) against her unruly divine progeny, and the resulting creation of the universe out of her carcass. With Marduk's enthronement as head of the gods, at which Babylon's gods annually renewed their consent to be governed by him, the dominance of the city's royalty was also reaffirmed as the earthly representation of the order of the universe created by its national god. However, there was a period during the second half of the thirteenth century B.C.E. when Assyria defeated Babylon and took over its Akitu along with the statue of Marduk, only to cast him in a less glorious role: that of one who abused his commission in the cosmic battle by trying to claim for himself the legitimate supreme leadership of Anshar, the true hero of the Enuma elish in this alternate reading, allowing him to be identified with Ashur. In this version, Marduk appears to have been made to go through an ordeal and admit to having wronged Assyria's national god, before being allowed to return to his captors' capital and rejoin the assembly of his divine peers. At the conclusion of their banquet in Babylon, the king, in the role of Marduk, would normally consummate his "sacred marriage" or hierogamy with a priestess of royal blood, representing the god's consort Zarpanit-"she of the city Zarpan."

Since the days of Sumerian civilization, what made kings divine were the marital relations they had with the goddess of the land they ruled at the beginning of a new year. This assured that she would ease this delicate transition and bestow her protection beyond it, bringing some seasonal regularity to the unpredictable environmental conditions of the region. On the festival's eleventh day, the gods' statues were brought back by road to the Esagila from the Akitu house-whose main purpose was probably just to provide a city's primary god with a "home away from home." This journey gave him an excuse to reenter the city in the same glory as on the mythical day he first took possession of it.

Judgment and Celebration

Another assembly of the gods would take place in Babylon's Shrine of Destinies on the last day of Akitu. It represented the one held after Marduk's initial victory, when the gods decided to create humans as servants to work for them and to reward or punish them accordingly. For this was when the gods ratified what had been decreed about the kingdom's fate over the coming year at the previous assembly. It was followed by a final banquet of the gods. (Soon after Rosh Hashanah-the Jewish New Year festival of God's enthronement and "Judgment Day," which is probably derived from Akitu-a similar ten-day interval separates God's decree from its final ratification on Yom Kippur.) In addition to this ritual drama, many sacrificial offerings were made; they stemmed from agrarian rites that were used for Akitu when it was celebrated in the month of Nisan- whether as a spring festival or as the New Year-on which this public, political dimension had come to be overlaid.

This solemn state affair thus also had a lighter counterpart in popular feasting and street celebrations. They included joyful songs and dances that were fostered by the "sweet sounds" of lyres, harps, tambourines, and other instruments, as described in the allusions of ancient texts to such occasions where the festive spirit of the Babylonians (like that of the Sumerians before them) had always found an outlet in fun and games. Once Akitu was over and a new year had begun, gods and men returned from Babylon to their native cities and regular functions, reassured that they might get the kind of treatment they expected from each other to prosper in their respective spheres.

Comments 11 comments

irene 7 years ago

thanks for the useful information! i'm doing a comparative civilizations project on ancient mesopotamia myth and religion.


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Sara 6 years ago

Thanks for the information. I am writing a story about Daniel while he lived in Babylon, and this was helpful!


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Usain Bolt 22 months ago

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