The Mesopotamian New Year
The popular drama with the two faces of tragedy and comedy
The rituals of the New Year celebrations have appeared early in Mesopotamia as an expression of eternal renaissance and mythological repetition of the death of an old world and birth of a new one. We believe that the Mesopotamian New Year celebrations were the womb that gave birth to the real religious theater that has developed to be a mundane popular theater.
The myths of the eternal repetition and the pristine formulas have been established since pre-historic ages and before and after the advent of the Sumerians, the Egyptians and the Babylonians. They have been founded on well-known mythological foundations related to the mechanism of eternal renaissance that had been observed in the forms of New Year rituals and other periodic festivals.
Those rituals included the notion of restoring the metaphysical restoration of bygone times. In addition, they were matched up with the primitive formulas and unified with the symbols of the myth in order to cast away errors, demons, sins, diseases and all kinds of negative things. Through this restoration a purification process is being used to clean up the New Year of the evils of the older year and stopping them from being carried into the history of the New Year. This brings to our mind the importance of these rituals according to which the evils of the past could be destroyed.
Thus, eternal renaissance is the permanent repetition of the phenomenon and its associated rites and rituals that confirms and clarifies this repetition, hoping to get salvation or going back to a mythological point where historical time has no coercive activity in the life of man, who is running away from the worldly historical time and taking refuge in the mythological religious time.
The time of eternal renaissance is an absolute and static time compared to history which is a worldly time governed by becoming” abolishing the worldly time and shoving man into a metaphysical time happen only in times of substantial quality in which man becomes really himself: at birth, in celebrations, game, hunting, war, work …etc.( Iliad 1987: 72)
The concept of eternal returning to life is associated with the end of a time cycle and the beginning of a new one. This is confirmed by Iliad Marcia, Who believes that this concept is based on the observation of the vital cosmic rhythms and it falls under the broader frame of the cyclical purification system that includes hygiene, fasting, confessions etc. that occur at the end of the season and the periodical renewal of life. This necessity to have a periodical renewal of life which assumes the existence of a new creation i.e. a cosmological repetition (repetition of a cosmological birth) or cyclical renewal of time presents us with the problem of revocation of history. (Iliad 1987: 100)
The contemporary population of Mesopotamia is used to regard the 21st of March of each year as a national feast, symbolizing spring, especially the Kurds who call the feast as the Nawruz Feast, which refers, as a national day, to the Kurdish national hero Kawa the ironsmith who defeated the tyrant Dahhak, turning this day into a symbol of spring and freedom. This day, however, represent a national day for all Iraqi nations, religions and sects at all times. It is the oldest Iraqi feast because it represented the Sumerian New Year’s feast since more than five thousand years ago; therefore it is not correct to consider it a feast representing exclusively one nationality, one religion or one sect only, rather than being, in fact, a kind of ritual related to the concept of eternal returning of which the new year’s celebrations are considered to be a unique model for it.
New Year’s festival in Mesopotamia forms a unique type of hymns and Celebration Theater that are performed with a unique spiritual and liturgical depth which requires an accurate study to dig out the roots of the first dramatic hymns.
1- The Akitu
Religious and popular drama of the end and the beginning of the year
The Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian New Year’s Festival
The Sumerians: first and second Zagmaks
Monitoring the length of day and night, the Sumerians realized they become equal twice a year, the first on 21 March and the second time on 21 September. They noticed that night gets shorter after 21 March and day gets longer, while after 21 September night gets longer and day gets shorter. Therefore they chose the 21 of March (shikur-ku) in Sumerian to celebrate the Sumerian New Year’s festival. They called this festival ( first zagmak), which means a festival of birth and reproduction that corresponds to the vernal equinox, that marks the harvest season and the activity of the birth giving among the animals and the revival of human sexual desires. Therefore the festival of Tammuz’s resurrection and his reunion with goddess Inana in sacred marriage was performed by the king and the high priestess to denote the symbolic unity between temple and palace.
September 21(Akiti in Sumerian) is autumn equinox, which corresponds to (second Zagmak), the season of death and seeds burying. In this season Tammuz dies and Inana descends to the netherworld to retrieve him and collective mourning processions are held.
It is clear from the above that the Sumerian year is divided into two parts the first spring part starts on March 21 with the first Zagmak and lasts for six months. The second autumn part begins on September 21 marking second Zagmak and lasts for six months. The two parts joined together formed the Sumerian year. This law made by the Sumerians with constant monitoring of nature became the foundation on which were built all the New Year’s festivals in the entire ancient world in particular.
With the progress of time the Sumerians began calling this festival (Akitu), which was a separate festival related to rituals used to make rain falls and the inauguration of the King. From these rituals the Mesopotamian theater hymns took their final shape and were performed on Sumerian and Babylonian New Year’s festivals (Zagmak and Akitu).
Babylonians and Assyrians:
The Babylonians and Assyrians made themselves a new calendar starting from 21st of Sumerian March. Sumerian 1st of April (Nisan- Nisanu) does not correspond to our present day Nisan (April) in our calendar, but corresponds to the 21st of March in our calendar. Probably, the start of the feast used to begin with the appearance of the first full moon after the 21st of March, which is a possibility found in the Babylonian calendar, which marks the beginning of their new year that they came to call (Akitu).
Based on the older version of it that dates back to 2400 BC, Babylonian (Akitu) is a word with a Sumerian root in the form of (A – ki- to -). The sign (A) means water and metaphorically rain,(ki) means earth and (tu) is a verb denoting the sense of getting closer, therefore the complete sense of the word (bringing water closer to earth) i.e. prayer for rain. (Rashid 1991: 85).We believe that rain rituals are dating back to the civilization of Samarra in the sixth millennium BC, where they formed the seed for the grand festival then.
The dropsically (edematous) rituals in the civilization of Sammarra: the new stone age
The duration of the festival was for twelve days (the same number of the months of the year) beginning from the 1st of Nisan (April) and ending in the 12th of it. In Pursippa in the beginning of these festivals every New Year the god Nabu comes from his temple, the fortified house, to visit his Marduk, his father, in Babylon and to participate in these festivals. (Al Amin 1962: 16).The celebrations were held in a house outside the city called the House of Akitu, as in Warka, Assyria and Babylon, where the first four days were dedicated to sacrifice offerings, appointment of priests into different degrees and reading of the Babylonian epic of creation. On the fifth day a statue of the god Nabu is carried from Borsippa to Babylon in a gilded ship. On the sixth day the king is tried, ripped of his royal emblems in the temple of Esagil in Babylon and pulled from his ears to kneel down in front of the god to perform prayers of forgiveness.
The wagon of Akitu
On the seventh day a sad drama is performed to depict the death of the god Marduk, his ascension to heaven and the ensuing chaos that prevails in the city after his death; a ravaging cart is released then to wreak havoc in the streets of Babylon due to the absence of Murdoch. On this day a false king is appointed to replace the absent god. On the eighth day, due to Marduk’s return to life, things get reorganized and the gods hold a meeting in the chamber of fates to decide the destinies of humankind for the New Year, the emblems of royalty are returned to the real king and the priests walk in a procession towards the house Akitu outside the city, where they stay for three days to perform a symbolic drama for the representative of the god.
On the night of eleventh day the priests go back to the city to enter the temple, where the king being the representative of Marduk, spends a night with the High Priestess in the temple of the god. On the twelfth day the gods leave Babylon, heading for their respective temples in different cities.
Marduk is the pivotal axis of the Akitu Festivals
This festival, which represented the biggest dramatic celebration in Babylon, was firmly established in the lives of ancient Iraqis. They had been practicing it for more than two thousand years ago, which have made an important sign of the old Mesopotamia heritage. It was celebrated every 21st of March (according to our present calendar every year), and it was the womb that gave birth later to the Greek comedy and tragedy dramas. There is a lengthy description of this festival in clay tablets translated from Akkadian by Thorough Dungun, Pritchard and Saknar.
The commemoration of creation was an actual restoration of the birth of the universe, and the proof of this is found in the rituals as well as the formulas they used to recite in the course of the celebration. The fighting between Tiamat and Murdoch was being replicated in the sword fighting performed by two teams of actors. This celebration is always found in the dramatic framework of the Hittites in their celebrations of the New Year, as well as the Egyptians and in Ugarit. The conflict between two teams of actors does not commemorate the original fighting between Tiamat and Marduk only, but it repeats and recreates the act of the universe geneses, i.e. the transition from chaos to the universe and thus the metaphysical event is present. (Iliad 1987: 106).
This festival was one of the reasons why Chaldean Babylon (539 BC) fell at the hands of the Achaemenid Persians when the last king of Babylon Nabunaed decided not to celebrate the Akitu that year. Cyrus who was awaiting the chance to attack Babylon used to send emissaries to the Babylonians that he would strongly support the celebration of the Akitu force the king to renounce the lunar cult based on the worship of the lunar god (SIN). The priests of Marduk welcomed Cyrus, because he was their helper and supporter against Nabunaed who forced them to give up their religious traditions.
But after opening Babylon and patronizing this festival for years, Cyrus and his followers changed the essence of the festival and imposed the worship of their own god (Ahura Mazda) instead of (Marduk) the Babylonian deity, turning it gradually into a Persian holiday translated as Nowruz or the new day which corresponds to the Babylonian name (Yumu Nisano) or the day of Nisan (April), the new day
However, with the wilting of Babylon and the rise of the Persians Nowruz celebration got stronger, pushing away the Akitu from the scene, only to be remember in its new Persian face on the 21st of March each year. It spread out and was embrace by all the peoples of Iran, including the Kurdish people. The outcome of this transition was the change the Akitu endured it its mythological and ritualistic contents according to the different people it was celebrated by.
It should be noted that this festival moved to the Phoenicians under the name (Adonites) specifically feast of Havris, which corresponds to Easter and the resurrection of Adonis at the beginning of spring. Likewise, it was the festival of Baal for the Canaanites, and the Festival of Isis and Osiris for the Egyptians and festival of Dionysius for the Greeks. All of these festivals originated from the Babylonian Akitu festival, which has spread east and west and was a source of inspiration for the current New Year holiday, which turned into the beginning of the Christian calendar year.
Perhaps the word (Akitu) has mutated with time to turn in the Semitic languages into (Hakitu) and (Hajitu) then into (Haj)( pilgrimage) which is still used in Syriac in the sense of (festival). This mutation probably included the emergence of a word (Hikaya- tale) because of the storytelling activity used during the Akitu to relate the account of of the Babylonian creation myth and later days to other tales and stories like the epic of Gilgamesh.
This is applicable to the month of (Nisanu), which represents the beginning of the New Year, where it initially meant a month of fertility and sexual fertilization (Nish) then it became a month of good tidings and (Nishanu) or the distinguishing relationship of which came the word (Nishan) in the stages of marriage.
The Akitu that appeared as nature festival has two main manifestations. The first expresses nature’s sadness over the death of all growing things. The second expresses nature’s joy over the comeback of these things. Added to these two main features there was the glorification of Marduk as a worshipped deity, whose feats that made him earn his place among the great gods were commemorated with the Akitu. (Kontino 1979: 474)
We can see that the Babylonian Akitu Festival has replaced the popular Sumerian god Dumuzi with the official god Marduk and bestowed upon him the qualities of Dumuzi such his relationship with fertility, his kidnap and imprisonment in the netherworld, his holy matrimony and many other qualities. In other words, Zagmak was a popular Sumerian festival, while Akitu was an official Babylonian festival where Marduk and Nabu are essential parts of it.
The celebration of the Babylonian New Year Babylonian (the Akitu) is a good example of this type of mythological time recovery. This was happening in the1st of April (which now corresponds to 21st of March) lasting for twelve days. This number is very significant as each day is an indication of a new month of the New Year. Therefore the celebrators meant to make a liturgical schedule for each day.
Our analysis of the Akitu celebrations shows that these days are equally divided between tragic rituals for the first six days and comic rituals for the last six days.
This is why we have to think that tragedy and comedy in their full festive and religious senses were being held according to organized and precise methods in the Sumerian and Babylonian dramas before their worldly organized appearance in the Greek theater in the sixth century BC.
In the tragedy of the Akitu the rituals indicate the emergence of chaos and drowning in nothingness, holding the king accountable, the transformation of slaves into masters, the emergence of the false king and the removal of ranks and negative confession .
In the comedy Akitu a new world is born where the prestige of the king is returned, celebrations are held; weddings and banquets are bountiful, paving the way for the holy marriage to grant a new beginning to land, country and man.
Thus, the Akitu festival includes the negative archetype that plunges the last year into chaos and nothingness, and the positive archetype from which a new world is born. According to this mechanism a new universe is recreated through the Akitu that symbolizes the process according to which time is purified from the stain of history and brought back to the realm of legend. In other words to rid time of man and return it to God or gods as a kind of time cleansing that has been corrupted by human actions.
Thus, we can exactly understand the Flood (and major cosmic disasters) as an act of purification cleansing to the world of its historical evils to give it a new birth with the blessings of the gods and the great patriarchs associated with it. In an event like the Flood gods meet up with legendary heroes who are granted a divine touch may be through being immortals.
Noah, Zeusidera and Utnabishtim are the epic heroes who meet at the end of the flood with the gods who granted long life to Noah and immortality to Zeusidera and Utnabishtim in Dilmun. The area where the past year fuses into the New Year is the area of coexistence of contradictions. The souls of the dead often come side by side with the living, sky and the earth and the netherworld are interconnected with each other, because the eschatological end of the old year means the cosmogonic beginning of the New Year. This dialectic is fully illustrated in New Year celebrations, in particular.
Stages of the rituals
The spiritual text
The main person performing rituals
The main ritual
After ablution the high priest enters the temple of Marduk to pray for him and other gods
The Shikalu ( High Priest)
At dawn: purification and ablution then praying. Done by priests
The Isagil- the temple of Marduk in Babylon
Chanting religious hymns
Before dawn: chanting ( at the Isagil)
The sculpturing of two small wooden sculptors studded with gold and precious stones and dressed in red; one of them holding a grain in his left. Both sculptures are kept in the temple.
Two skillful sculptors
The Shikalu gets up 3:20 hours after sun rise, prays for Marduk and the other gods, and watches the constellation of Akra reciting a hymn before its appearance. Recitation of a religious drama( few actors perform the drama)
Praying and the epic of Enuma Elish
The Shikalu: the reciter of the epic
Before dawn: praying and watching stars.
In the evening: recitation and acting the Babylonian epic of creation
Recitation and acting
2- purification of the temple, with holy oil and water
3- The slaughtering of a ram and smearing walls of the temple with its blood to suck out evil the carrying the ram by the priest and swordsman to throw it in the river outside the city.
4- the recitation of the stars text in front of the statue of Marduk
5- the priest deprives the king of his royal emblems and puts them on a chair, then he slaps the king and forces him to kneel and give the negative confession
6- the priest recites the supplication of Sarbanit
7- The arrival of the god Nano’s ship from Borsipa to the hog and the criminal holes. The god kills them and hangs the head of the criminal.
8- people search the courtyard of tower for the Marduk who disappears therein( people get bored)
9- chaos prevails in the city- the wagon of Marduk is empty and released towards the house of Akdisteram
10- the instruction of the road of passions
11- the god Nabu releases Marduk of captivity
1-the text of the stars
2- the negative confession
3- the supplication of serbanit
The priest of purification, the priest of hymns, the sword bearer, the High priest, the king
Acquitting the king of his sins and releasing Marduk of his captivity
The Isagil and the center of Babylon
1-The arrival of the gods’ ships to Babylon and being received by the king
2- the king gives liquid offerings
3- the king escorts gods to the temple of Marduk
Reception of the gods emissaries
Between the river and the Isagil
- Tragedy and Comedy of the Akitu
Akitu is the nucleus of popular and religious drama that gave birth to theater in ancient history. Akitu celebrations began appearing early in Sumer before they appeared anywhere else base on Dumuzian rituals and the inauguration of the new king before maturing up and becoming fully architectured at the hands of the Babylonians and Assyrians.
Our analysis of the Akitu celebrations shows that the festival twelve are evenly divided between the tragic rituals for the first six days and comic rituals for the next six days, as follows:
The Akitu tragedy: last year’s farewell
First Day: Cleansing
Second Day: Chanting
Third Day: Sculpturing
Fourth Day: Recitation and Acting
Fifth Day: The release of the king and Marduk
Sixth Day: Receiving city gods delegations
The abolition of the old year and all of the lapsed time means the stopping of the flowing current of history by the presence of (eternity), which is (a legend) that has no the time nor a place. In other words, the abolition of history is a way for a new world to be born legendarily but soon to be entered into history, again, because of the rule of worldly deeds and lack of liturgical ceremonies.
The prehistoric humans lived in some sort of (eternity) where (pristine formulas) and (myth) thrived and history in its chronological sense was not found. Therefore the idea of immortality appeared in those times because man could not imagine the existence of mortal life outside this eternal cycle driven by him and the metaphysical forces that surrounded him according to his belief. Therefore when the historical times began (after writing) humans seemed as if they were noting down their diary by writing though the shadow of the gods was not absent, but the writing was, in one way or another, a sort of history while drawing was a sort of eternity.
Can we according to the above interpret the great number of images the Egyptian hieroglyphs are teeming with and that are consistent with the Egyptian heritage laden with the idea of eternity and immortality, while in the Mesopotamian writing images completely disappear because of the people’s beliefs that did not care about immortality as a fixed and absolute fact, though they sought it sometimes in their adventures and fantasies?
Pre-historical times are forever implanted with symbols, images, pristine forms and images that give humans the sense of endlessness, while the historical times and the emergence of civilizations was a codification of history and a gradual departure from myth and eternity towards materialistic and realistic everyday life.
Stages of the rituals
The spiritual text
The main person performing rituals
The main rituals
Celebrating the coming of gods
Celebrating the gods
Near to the Isagil
The meeting of gods inside the chamber of destinies to decide the fates of humans
2- the king leads Marduk outside the walls of Babylon followed by a host of gods( statues)to the House of Akitu
3- acting scenes from the epic of creation depicting Marduk’s battle with Tiamat, his victory over her and splitting her into two halves and the creation of mankind ( the people watch the drama)
Sections of the epic
gods and the king
The meeting of gods / the battle
The Isagil / the House of Akitu
1-A worldly party
2- the banquet
Worldly party ( the banquet)
The celebration of victory
The house of Akitu
1-The marriage of Marduk represented by the king and
Sarbanim the High Priestess
2- the return to Babylon – Isagil
The texts of the holy marriage – the hymns of returning
The king and the queen
Religious – divine marriage
The holy marriage – the evening return
The house of Akitu
The meeting in the chamber of fate deciding between Marduk and the gods – Nabu noting down the decisions
Texts of fate deciding
king – Marduk, Nabu – the gods
Silence ( the deciding of fates)
Deciding fates ( Nabu)
Babylon – Isagil
The return of gods ( their statues) to their cities seen off by processions headed by the king
Texts of gods valediction
The king and gods
The farewell of gods
The return of the gods
Isagil – the river
The Akitu Comedy: Receiving the New Year
Seventh Day: Celebration
Eighth Day: Acting
Ninth Day: Celebration and food
Tenth day: Holy Marriage (King and High Priestess)
Eleventh Day: Registration of fates and destinies
Twelfth day: Seeing off the gods delegations returning to their cities
We have sought to regulate the attached tables for activities of the Akitu Festival with its twelve tragedy and comedy days.
- Eliade, Mercea: the myth of Eternal Return, translated into Arabic by Nihad Al Khayyat, Dar Talas for studies, translation and publishing, Damascus (1987).
- Al Amin, Mahmoud: the Akitu or Babylonian New Year and the doctrine of immortality and resurrection after death, Journal of the Faculty of Arts, c 5, (1962).
- Dr. Rashid, Fawzi: Who are the Sumerians? Afaq Arabia magazine. The sixth year. Baghdad, number (12) August (1981).
- Kontino, George: daily life in Babylonia and Assyria. Translation and Commentary by Salim Taha Al-Tikriti and Burhan Al-Tikriti, Al-Rasheed Publishing House, Baghdad (1979)
By: Dr. Khazal Al Majidi
Translated by: The translation department of Nanar