Akitu Festival: A Celebration of New Beginnings in Ancient Mesopotamia

Today I want to talk about one of the most fascinating festivals of the ancient Mesopotamians: The Akitu Festival. The Akitu was a spring festival and New Year’s celebration held on the first day of first month of the year that is in March/April.

The new year celebration is one of the oldest and most universal festivals in human history. Different cultures and religions have marked the beginning of a new year at different times, usually based on astronomical or agricultural events. The earliest recorded new year celebration is Akitu, which dates back to the third millennium BCE. However, the details of the festival are mostly known from cuneiform tablets dating to the first millennium BCE.

Fragment of a clay tablet, Prayers of Amil-urgal, New Year ritual at Babylon, 72 lines of inscription, neo-Babylonian. © The Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

It was a time to celebrate the sowing of barley, the rebirth of nature, and the renewal of life. It was also a time to honor the supreme god Marduk, his son Nabu, and other gods who protected Babylon and its king. In the Babylonian calendar, this month was known as Nisannu (and in the modern Jewish calendar is still called Nisan). This was the first month of the Babylonian calendar, corresponding to the spring equinox.

The Akitu festival lasted for 12 days, from the first to the twelfth day of Nisannu. Each day had its own rituals and ceremonies, which involved the king, the priests, and the people of Babylon. The festival was celebrated in a special temple outside the city walls, called Bait Akitu, or “the house of Akitu”.

Originally, Marduk was the god of Babylon, but in the eighteenth-century BCE, when this city became the capital of Babylonia, he became the supreme god of the Mesopotamian pantheon. As such, he was recognized by the gods of the cities that were subjected by the Babylonian kings.

The festival was divided into two parts: the first part took place in the city of Babylon, where the king and the priests performed sacrifices and prayers at the Esagila temple, the house of Marduk. The second part took place outside the city walls, at a special temple called Akitu House, where the king and the people participated in a cultic drama that reenacted the creation myth of Enuma Elish, which described how Marduk defeated the forces of chaos and created the universe.

The first three days of the festival were dedicated to prayers and offerings to Marduk and other gods. The priests would recite sad laments that expressed humanity’s fear of the unknown and begged Marduk for forgiveness and protection. The king would also participate in these rituals, bathing in the Euphrates River and entering the Esagila temple, where Marduk’s statue was housed.

The Processional Way, Babylon, Iraq

The fourth day was a day of joy and celebration. The high priest of the Esagila used to open the festival, saying that the new year had begun. The king would lead a procession of gods’ statues from Esagila to Bait Akitu, accompanied by music and dancing. The people would cheer and praise their king as he passed by, showing their loyalty and devotion. The king would then perform a ritual called “taking the hand of Bel”, in which he would grasp Marduk’s hand and receive his blessing and authority for another year.

The fifth day was a day of rest and preparation for the next day’s events. The priests would adorn two wooden figures with gold and jewels, representing Marduk’s enemies Tiamat and Kingu, who had tried to destroy the world in the ancient myth of Enuma Elish (the Babylonian creation myth). These figures would be used in a symbolic battle on the sixth day.

The sixth day was the climax of the festival. The priests would recite Enuma Elish, the epic story of how Marduk defeated Tiamat and Kingu and created the heavens and the earth. As they narrated the story, they would act out the battle with the wooden figures, smashing them to pieces and throwing them into a bonfire. This ritual symbolized Marduk’s victory over chaos and his renewal of order in the cosmos.

The seventh day was a day of thanksgiving and celebration. The statues were cleaned and received new dresses. The king would offer sacrifices to Marduk and other gods, thanking them for their favors and gifts. The people would also join in the festivities, feasting and drinking wine. The king would then return to Esagila with Marduk’s statue, while Nabu’s statue would remain at Bait Akitu.

A gigantic limestone statue of Nabu, god of knowledge and wisdom, found in one of gates of the Nebu temple dated to the 8th century BCE.
A gigantic limestone statue of Nabu, god of knowledge and wisdom, found in one of gates of the Nabu temple dated to the 8th century BCE. Characterised by the homogenous style and technique as well as conventional posture of a worshipper showing bent arms and clasped hands, National Museum of Iraq, Baghdad.

The eighth to eleventh days were days of rest and relaxation. The king would enjoy his leisure time with his family and courtiers, while Nabu’s statue would be entertained by musicians and poets at Bait Akitu. The people would also have fun, playing games and sports. Nabu was the patron god of scribes, literacy, and wisdom. He was also the inventor of writing, a divine scribe, the patron god of the rational arts, and a god of vegetation.

The Processional Way, Babylon, Iraq

The twelfth day was the final day of the festival. The king would lead another procession of gods’ statues from Bait Akitu to Esagila, where he would reunite Marduk with Nabu. The priests would recite prayers and hymns to praise Marduk’s greatness and power. The king would then return to his palace, while Marduk’s statue would be placed back in his shrine.

The purpose of this ritual was to remind the king that he was not a god, but a mortal human who depended on Marduk’s grace and protection. It was also a way to test his humility and loyalty to Marduk, who was considered the true king of Babylon. By enduring this humiliation, the king ensured that Marduk would bless him and his people with prosperity and peace for another year.

The Akitu was not only a religious festival, but also a social and political event. It was a time for people to express their joy and gratitude for Marduk’s benevolence, as well as their loyalty and obedience to their king. It was also a time for people to enjoy music, dancing, feasting, and games. The Akitu feast was a celebration of life in all its aspects.

A part of the ancient Babylon city

One of the most interesting aspects of the Akitu festival was the ritual humiliation of the king. On the fifth day of the festival, the king had to strip off his royal garments and enter the Esagila temple barefoot. There he had to kneel before a statue of Marduk and confess his sins and shortcomings. Then he had to endure a slap in the face from a high priest, who also pulled his ears to make sure he was listening. The king had to cry out loud to show his repentance and submission to Marduk. Only then he was allowed to put on his clothes again and receive a royal scepter from Marduk as a sign of his restored kingship.

The Akitu festival was also adopted in the Neo-Assyrian Empire following the destruction of Babylon. King Sennacherib in 683 BCE built an “Akitu house” outside the walls of Assur. Another Akitu house was built outside Nineveh. The Akitu festival was continued throughout the Seleucid Empire and into the Roman Empire period. At the beginning of the third century, it was still celebrated in Emessa, Syria, in honor of the god Elagabal. The Roman emperor Elagabalus (r. 218-222 CE), who was of Syrian origin, even introduced the festival in Italy.

Happy Akitu! Chaldeans and Assyrians celebrate Akitu on the 1st of April using the Gregorian calendar.

I hope you enjoyed this post about the Akitu festival. If you did, please leave a comment below and share it with your friends. And don’t forget to subscribe to our blog for more posts about ancient history and culture. Thanks for reading!

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