Mesopotamian New Year Akitu Festival and You

So I wrote a little post on Reddit about Akitu, which is a twelve day new years and harvest festival that began yesterday. Reproducing it here for posterity.

The first day of the month of Nisan on the modern Jewish calendar was the beginning of the new year for the people of Mesopotamia. We usually think of the Jewish New Year Festival being Rosh Hashanna in the fall, and it is, but Nisan remains month one for their calendar, a holdover from the fact that this is the last surviving remnant of the old Sumerian calendar system. This year it falls on March 26, though the day properly begins at sunset the following day. Akitu is the ancient name for the twelve day holiday which used to begin at the start of each calendar year, celebrated partly for the Barley harvest which occurred around this time each year, the vernal equinox during which heaven and earth were in balance, and to wish well for the coming year in general.

The festival took place in many cities over thousands of years, and thus likely shifted a bit over time, but our understanding of the festival mostly comes from first century Babylon, and focuses heavily on the god Marduk. Due to the nature of the sources, much of our knowledge focuses on the high priests and royal court, just because most of what we know about from Mesopotamian history is the tip top of society in general, but as I go through the rituals and celebrations of each day, I am going to give my own thoughts for how this could be transformed into a holiday that can be celebrated by modern people and in the absence of the state sanctioned religious structure that the Babylonians would have seen as integral to their understanding of the holiday and faith in general.

The first three days of the year may or may not be properly considered part of the holiday, but each day the high priest of Marduk would offer the following prayer in pious humility, along with likely a table of ceremonial offerings.

“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 thy 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!”

Those …. are words missing from the end of the line of text that we get this prayer from, but generally it is remarkably complete and in good shape. I see no reason why a modern worshipper can not say the prayer himself, either for Babylon and Marduk or for his own city and patron god. While this prayer seem to have been the only observance for the first three days, it was probably also said in addition to the other observances on each subsequent day as part of the daily offering. Ideas for good offerings can be found over at the excellent, the most well researched site for modern Mesopotamian pagan practice, and one source for this post. Note that you should probably think in advance and make sure you have enough for each of the twelve days if you expect to follow the complete ceremony.

On day three puppets would be made in anticipation of day six.

With day 4 the party really gets started. In fact, there are many people who don’t consider the first three days to be part of the festival at all, and so they can be skipped if you need a bit of time to get your shrine and offerings ready, though offering the prayer in pious humility can’t hurt. During the fourth day, there would be partying in the streets, food stands, singing, music, plays, games, and praise for the gods. During the day time, the Enuma Elish would be publicly recited throughout the city. People are generally celebrating for the entire week, starting on this day. The king of Babylon, in the Babylonian version of the celebration, would go down to the city of Borsippa a bit south to the shrine of Nabu, known as Nisaba to the Sumerians, god of writing and the harvest and spend the night in that temple.

For the modern person, day four is when you really need to start your festival if you haven’t already. For rituals, continue the above prayer during the offering, and add prayers to Nisaba for the dual gifts of knowledge and food. If you are doing the above prayer verbatim, consider on this day adding a prayer for your personal patron and home city. Offerings of meat or grain would be best for today in celebration of the year’s bounty. Do something fun today, sing, party, go out with friends, or this would even be a good day to host a party among people who may not be Mesopotamian pagans but think the idea might be cool and are willing to party like its 1999(BCE). If you want to try and get away with taking a day off work for this, day seven would be the best one day off, but if you can take off multiple days, 4-7 is your best bet.

More generally, day 4 is a day for reflecting on the bounty of the year that has passed and giving thanks for the blessings in your life. No one reading this should spend the day dwelling on anything negative that has come about this year, since no matter what has happened, be it corona virus or lost jobs, you still have received a bounty from the gods greater than anything most of the people who celebrated Akitu historically ever enjoyed, and indeed in many ways enjoy lives more comfortable and pleasant than even the most decadent of Babylonian kings. On this day, find what the gods have given you and appreciate it as deeply as you know how.

Day five is a ceremony that focuses around the king and the god Marduk. In the more astronomically focused later Babylonian tradition, there was a prayer that went

The white star (Jupiter) which brings omens to the 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!

Though Mesopotamian tradition prior to 1500BCE was much less focused on astronomical signs. The king would then be stripped of his royal mace, crown and scepter, he and the temple would be ritually purified and prayed over, and then the king would kneel before Marduk, represented by the high priest, and he would make a heartfelt negative confession, swearing to the high god that he had not sinned. An example text reads:

I have not sinned, O lord of the lands,
I have not been negligent reguarding thy divinity,
I have not destroyed Babylon….
The high priests replied in Marduk’s name:
Do not fear… What Marduk has spoken…
He will hear thy prayer. He will increase thy dominion
and Heighten thy royalty.

Having given his confession, the king would be slapped hard in the face. It would have to be so hard as to draw tears from the king’s eyes, the more tears the more sincere it was and the better indication of the king’s faith. The exact meaning of this is debated, though it is clearly a humiliation to the king before the gods, probably for sins committed in the previous year or for not having been good enough of a king, since you can always be better, or possibly just to remind him that he is mortal and inferior to the gods. It is suspected that the rest of the city would also be undertaking rites of penance, humility, devotion, and purification to acknowledge the sins of the past year. Additionally, this was a time of unrest among the people and the cosmic order, since for this night the world is without a king.

This is perhaps the hardest ritual for a modern person to emulate, since of course there is no king of Babylon currently, though it would probably be a great improvement to modern politics to have all of our politicians annually slapped to the point of tears. Still, the purpose is humiliation before the gods, and it wouldn’t hurt for a modern practitioner to go through a similar ritual on his own. Can you, in good honesty, before the gods, announce that you have not done wrong this year, that you have not been negligent, and shepherded your house and your responsibilities to the best of your abilities at all times? Consider the times this year where you have failed, where you have let people down, where you could have put in more effort but got lazy. Consider these things and feel shame before the gods. They created you to serve your purposes in life, to fit into your household and your place of work as an efficient and productive part of the machine of society. No one is perfect, but this isn’t the time for making excuses for yourself, it is the time for honestly being ashamed of the ways and times you have been less than you should be. It should hurt, it should bring tears to your eyes, and frankly I don’t think anyone who genuinely contemplates their inadequacies and failures should really need a slap to draw tears. Still, if you have a partner that you trust to take the ritual seriously, you can follow up a set period of this contemplation by trading hard slaps to the face. It should hurt, and you should be crying both physically and emotionally. This is the point of day five– it is the last day of the year, and you could have done a lot better.

At some point after this and after the prayers and offerings have been made, remove some or all the things from your altar, your cult statue or whatever you have on there and place it respectfully into a box. The governors of order in the universe are absent on this night, and the deity has departed the shell you have created for it.

The sixth day begins before dawn with a great commotion. In the streets, the puppets that had been made previously would be burned and mock battles would be staged. This is all to symbolize that without Marduk, without a king, the world is in chaos, and the people of the city likely made as much chaos as they could just for the sake of it. As the sun rises, the gods are led in procession back into the city, followed by the king and then followed by the people of the city. Nabu is the chief god returning in the Babylonian tradition, though it is likely that in other cities the Nabu-Marduk primacy of the ritual was replaced by some other pair of major patron gods. The people would chant that Nabu is coming to free the imprisoned Marduk, who is trapped in a ziggurat and has spent the night fighting monsters. This is why the morning mock battles and puppet burnings need to be as fierce and energetic as possible, to lend Marduk your assistance in the battle. The parade would go from temple to temple and see Nabu defeating evil monsters at each stop.

For the modern practitioner, a scaled down version of this parade would be appropriate, possibly something as simple as removing the things you put in the box the night before and putting them back on the altar, but the closer you can get to this the better. This is obviously a very social ritual, and the bigger your parade the better, but there is no reason the same general veneration can’t be accomplished alone in your room, or perhaps, with some cleverness, over the internet. Still, the purpose is to systematically venerate the lesser gods today, through the vehicle of a secondary god, probably your personal god is best for this to take the role of Nabu. However you have it set up, begin with you personal god and offer a hymn of praise. Next bring forward another god you have on your altar, and offer that god a prayer, then offer your personal god another hymn of praise. Next bring the next god you have on your altar and alternate prayers between the minor god and your personal god. This can be fairly quick or fairly lengthy depending on the size of the pantheon that you or your group are able to venerate, and it is no problem if the minor gods are not strictly Mesopotamian here, since they were big on syncretism and frequently brought in the gods of the cultures that joined their civilization over the years. A parade would be nice, but at least make sure to have an offering reserved for each god, and a bunch for your personal god.

Day seven began with cleaning and new clothes. After three days of imprisonment, Marduk returns and the new year dawns with splendor. Get your whole house clean before Marduk shows up to make sure that you receive him in the best state possible, and wear your best, cleanest clothes, or possibly new clothes for the new year. If you are running a gift exchange, though this isn’t an attested portion of the festival, giving gifts that are good offerings to the gods and/or new articles of clothing would be very good, and this would be the day to don the newly received clothes. Once things are clean, bring Marduk symbolically out of the underworld, offering prayers and the festival’s largest sacrifice to the supreme god. And remember, the Babylonians considered Marduk supreme, but in other cities and other times other gods were considered the highest, and it could well be another one in your ritual who dies/is imprisoned for three days before being resurrected. Whoever it is returning, make sure they are properly honored, along with the entire pantheon, for the blessings of this world and for providing the world order. Then the plan for the year is laid out by the gods and good fortune is decreed for the coming year. Some think the king also gave a policy speech laying out his annual policy proposals at this time.

If you practice any sort of divination, this is the time to do that in preparation for the year. Otherwise, or in addition, making resolutions for the coming year would be an appropriate modern activity to supplement what should mostly be a day of praise and sacrifice to the gods, mostly focused on glorification activities for all the gods.

Days eight to twelve are less well attested, and some believe that only days four to seven were the core of the festival. But there were likely activities on each day, mostly involving different ways of showing off. On one day, the war plunder from the previous year may have been shown off. Assuming you don’t have any war plunder because you aren’t engaged in a constant cycle of warfare, you can instead present some marker of the wealth you accumulated in the previous year, maybe even something as simple as putting a paystub or tax form on the altar, in part to appreciate last years accomplishments but mostly to thank the gods for their role in providing you that bounty. One day may have involved tree decoration and been a celebration of the nature that the gods and their good order provide for the world, which should be easy enough to emulate since christmas lights are on deep discount this time of year. On one of these days, the symbolic royal marriage of the king and the goddess Ishtar would take place, which is honestly a fairly elaborate ritual that I am not really sure how to translate into modern practice. And on the eleventh day, divinations would be repeated, the gods would renew their covenant with Babylon and the people would renew their covenant with the gods.

On the twelfth day of Akitu, daily life resumes as normal and plowing begins.

I would be interested to hear how everyone else celebrates Akitu and what sort of rituals are in common usage, since I am not really plugged in very well to the pagan community as a whole.

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