Ringing in the New Year, Babylonian-Style

By: The Scribe on Monday, January 7, 2013

You think you had a good time celebrating New Year’s? Compared to what happened in Babylon during the 3rd millennium BC, our modern celebrations look like snooze-fests. Short snooze-fests. Short, boring snooze-fests with crappy food and even worse entertainment.

In Ancient Mesopotamia, the new year was rung in at a festival known as Akitu, which means “barley” in Sumerian. The festival was made up of two distinct festivals, each held at the beginning of the two half-years on the Sumerian calendar—one to celebrate sowing barley, and the other to celebrate cutting it.

The festival started on the 21st of Adar, running until the 1st of Nisannu. The two most important places during the festival were the Temple of the supreme god Marduk (the Esagila), and the “House of the New Year” in the north of the city of Babylon. The primary gods of the festival were Marduk (of course) and Marduk’s son, Nabu.

The first three days of the festival weren’t filled with a whole lot of excitement—mostly prayers, pleading for the safety of the city and people, and confessing. On the fourth day, seemingly reassured by three days of sad prayers, folks got a little uppity, and the party began! The high priest would recite the Enuma Elish—the Babylonian creation epic—in preparation for the following day, sort of like many people’s modern traditions of watching White Christmas on Christmas Eve, or watching the ball drop in New York’s Times Square before midnight on New Year’s Eve.

On the fifth day, the King of Babylon was required to “submit” to Marduk—essentially, the King would enter the Esagila, be stripped of all his objects of power, and then got slapped across the face by the high priest. Yes, that’s right—the high priest got to slap the king. And while slapping kings isn’t generally recommended for folks who plan on staying, well, alive, in this case the high priest was acting as a vessel of the god Marduk, forcing the King to remain humble and reflect on his blessings. In fact, the slap had to be hard enough to draw tears, and the more tears? The better!

While we don’t understand all the rituals that went on afterward, historians know that the sixth day and following saw a parade of sorts, perhaps several. The gods arrived in boats and traveled to the temples—that is, gold statuettes of the gods were carried and paraded around as the King made his rounds—and battles were recited and acted out with these statues. At the end of the seventh day, the procession was supposed to end up at the House of the New Year, amidst plenty of rousing songs and dances from the populace (no “Aud Lang Syne” at this party!).

Days eight through ten get a little shady in terms of historical knowledge of what happened, but perhaps that should be expected—when you’ve been celebrating for seven days beforehand, there’s bound to be a little forgetfulness at the bottom of one’s tankard of ale, if you catch my meaning.

We do know that on the eleventh day (or twelfth, depending on the source), the gods—ie. statues—boarded their boats to sail away for another year. And presumably everyone else went home and took a long nap.


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