Assyrian New Year
By. Emanuel Y. Kamber, Ph.D.
It was the tradition of our ancestors, the inhabitants of Bet-Nahrain (Mesopotamia), to celebrate the New Year annually on the first day of Nissan (April), a celebration of revival and renewal of nature. This was one of the most important religious and national celebrations held in Bet-Nahrain [1-3].
These celebrations originated from two myths, the myth of creation and the myth of Ishtar and Tammuz, which were revered by the inhabitants of Bet-Nahrain. In Babylon the myth of creation assumed central importance owing to the fact that it became associated with the great Babylonian new year or Akitu Festival , and was embodied in liturgical form in the poem or chant known for its opening words ENUMA ELISH “When on high” . In this form of the myth the Babylonian god Marduk plays the principal part. The German excavation of the site of Ashur, the old capital of the Assyrian empire, brought to light the Assyrian version of the “ENUMA ELISH”, in which the name of the Babylonian god Marduk was replaced by the name of Ashur, the Chief god of Assyria.
The first of these two myths is the myth of creation [6,7], the work consisting of seven tablets. The British excavation of Nineveh first discovered these tablets. The outline of this myth begins with a description of the primeval condition of the universe when nothing existed except Apsu, the god of the sweet (fresh) water, and Tiamat, the goddess of the salt water. From the union of these two, the gods were brought into existence. The first pair, Lahmu and Lahamu, give birth to Anshar and Kishar, interpreted by some scholars as the circular horizons of sky and earth. Anshar and Kishar in turn give birth to Anu, the sky god, and Ea, the earth and water god (also known as the god of wisdom and the source of all magic). Ea then begets Ashur, the hero of the Assyrians form of myth. But before the birth of Ashur, there was an account of the first conflict between the primeval gods and those whom they have begotten. Tiamat and Apsu are disturbed by the noise of the younger gods and take counsel with Mummu, Apsu’s vizier, on how to destroy them. Tiamat is reluctant to destroy her offspring, but Apsu and Mummu devise a plan. Their intention is disclosed to the gods, who are alarmed, but Ea, the all-wise, devises a counter-scheme; he casts a spell of sleep upon Apsu, slays him, binds Mummu and puts a cord in his nose. He then builds his sacred chamber. In this chamber the birth of Ashur takes place, and a description of his beauty and tremendous strength follow.
The preparation for a renewed conflict between the primeval gods and the younger gods went on. Tiamat is reproached by her other children for having remained quiescent when Apsu was destroyed, and they succeed in stirring her up to take measures for the annihilation of Anu and his associates. She makes Kingu, her first born, the leader of the attack, arms him and invests him with the tablets of destiny. She then begets a horde of monstrous beings, and places Kingu at the head of this host, and prepares to avenge Apsu. The assembly of the gods received the news of the coming attack. Then Anu is sent armed with the authority of the assembly of the gods to turn Tiamat from her purpose, but he returns unsuccessful. Then Anshar rises in the assemble of gods and proposes that Ashur, the strong hero, should be entrusted with the task. Ashur’s father, Ea, advises him to accept the task, and Ashur agrees to undertake it on the condition that he is given full and equal authority in the assembly of the gods, and that his word is to determine destiny unalterably. The gods are satisfied and proclaim “Ashur is King”. Then Ashur arms himself for the combat; his weapons are the bow and arrow, mace, lightning, and a net held at the corners by the four winds; he fills his body with flame, and creates the seven raging hurricanes; he mounts his storm chariot and advances against Tiamat and her host. He challenges Tiamat to single combat, he casts his net to enclose her and when she opens her mouth to swallow him, he drives in the evil wind to distend her and transfixes her with his arrow, splitting her heart. Her demon helpers flee, but are caught in the net and bound. Their leader, Kingu, also is caught and bound. Then Ashur takes from Kingu the tablets of destiny and fastens them upon his own breast. He then splits the body of Tiamat in two; he places half of her above the earth as the sky, fixes it with bars, sets guards and charges them not to let her water escape. Ashur declares his intention of creating man for the services of the gods. By the advice of Ea, it is decided that the leader of the rebellion, Kingu, shall die so that mankind may be fashioned. Accordingly, Kingu is slain and from his blood mankind is created for the services of the gods. Then the gods build a temple for Ashur, and at the command of Anu, they proclaim the fifty great names of Ashur, a proceeding that occupies the rest of the poem.
The second myth, which gave rise to the choice of April the first to become the beginning of the New Year for the Assyrians and Babylonians, is the myth of Ishtar and her lover Tammuz. The details of this mythical story begin with a discussion between Ishtar and her brother, the god Utu. Initially, she announces her love for the farmer and her desire to marry him, whereas Utu prefers her marry to the shepherd Tammuz. Eventually, she is persuaded to accept her brother’s choice especially after listening to Tammuz claim to be gifted with superior qualities. After this meeting, Ishtar falls in love with the shepherd Tammuz, who in turn asks for her hand in marriage. Hence Ishtar, the goddess of love, marries the shepherd Tammuz, who is elevated into the god of Fertility. Their marriage endows the earth with fertility and renewal of life is ensured.
From this myth we also learn of the descent of Ishtar to the Netherworld (land of no return), the realm of Ereshkigal (Ishtar’s sister). The original version gave no reasons for this journey, but the Assyrian version states that she sets free some of the dead. The version runs as follows : Ishtar determines to descend to the Netherworld. When Ishtar reaches the gate of the land of no return, she says these words to the gatekeeper:
“O gatekeeper, open thy gate,
Open thy gate so that I may enter!
If thou openest not the gate so that I cannot enter,
I will smash the door. For I will shatter the bolt,
I will smash the doorpost, I will move the doors,
I will raise up the dead, eating the living,
so that the dead will outnumber the living.”
Although Ereshkigal is Ishtar’s sister, she is filled with joy at the thought of capturing such a prize, and orders her to be admitted. At each of the seven doors of hell, through which she must pass, the keeper of the gate forces Ishtar to remove part of her apparel; first her crown, and then her earrings, her necklaces, her breastband of precious metal, her belt made of charms of “stones of childbirth”, her bracelets from her wrists and her ankles, and finally her “garment of modesty.” Thus Ishtar appears naked in the presence of the queen of the Netherworld, and overcomes with rage, without a moment’s thought, she attacks her. In revenge, Ereshkigal bids her minister, Namtar, to unleash upon Ishtar a multitude of diseases, like a pack of hounds.
During these events in the underworld, everything on earth is withering away. Trees and plants will not turn green; animals and human beings alike are sterile. But Ishtar has already asked her devoted messenger Papsukkal, the vizier of the great gods, to inform Ea, the god of wisdom, of her misfortune if she does not return from the Netherworld within three days. Three days elapse and Ishtar has not appeared. Consequently, Papsukkal pleads with Ea to rescue Ishtar from the Netherworld. When Ea learns of Ishtar’s predicament, a being Asushunamir of extreme beauty (or the eunuch) is created and instructed by the god Ea to undertake the rescue of Ishtar from the Netherworld. Ea sends Asushunamir down to induce Ereshkigal to give him the life-water bag. By his charm he succeeds in doing this, and Ereshkigal reluctantly orders her vizier Namtar to sprinkle Ishtar with the water of life. Ishtar is released and returns, receiving back those articles of adornment and apparel which had been taken from her as she passes through the seven gates on her return journey. But a reference is made to the ransom, which she must pay. Ereshkigal says to Namtar, “If she does not give thee her ransom price, bring her back.” What this is to be is not specified, but the mention of Tammuz at the end of the myth seems to imply his return from the underworld, although no indication has been given as to how he came there.
Mr. Yousip Nimrud Canoon, in his article , describes in details the mythical story of how Ishtar passes through many cities whose inhabitants are in mourning because of the news of her death. When Ishtar reaches her husband’s house, she realizes his indifference to what had happened to her. She also realizes that he is not saddened by her death. Instead he is wearing immaculate robes and sitting in opulent surroundings. In anger Ishtar casts a deathful look on Tammuz followed by an attack of Namtar, but Tammuz escapes several times aided by the god Utu.
Eventually, Tammuz is captured and beaten to death by Namtar and taken to the Netherworld. His sister mourns his death and pleads with Ishtar to set him free; Ishtar also mourns the death of Tammuz her beloved husband. When her anger subsides, Ishtar pleads with the council of gods to restore Tammuz to life, but the gods agree to a partial reprieve only, whereby Tammuz spends six months in the world of living and the following six months in the Netherworld. Hence, Tammuz is restored to life on the 1st of Nissan (April), the 1st day of spring. The event is marked by the renewal of life on earth and the promise of fertility, and Tammuz returns to the Netherworld by the end of August, the onset of autumn.
NEW YEAR FESTIVAL
At Ashur (or Babylon) the New Year festival lasted for twelve days. The first four days of Nissan were in fact largely given to preliminaries including the necessary purification, and culminating in the recitation of the epic in the temple, and the ENUMA ELISH itself was solemnly recited on the fourth day of the festival. On the fifth, the king began to play his leading part. Within the shrine of Ashur (or Marduk), he was confronted by the high priest, who stripped him of his regalia and placed them before the god’s image. The priest then struck his face, made him kneel and declare his innocence: “I have not sinned, O lord of the lands …” The priest addressed him on behalf of the god, announcing that his prayer was heard and that he will increase thy dominion, heighten thy loyalty, then gave back the regalia and struck the king again. If the blow drew tears (fertilizing rain?), it was a good omen. In this curious rite, evidently, the ruler was purified and his reign renewed in preparation for the universal renewal in which he was to participate. On the same day emotion grew in the streets. The god had disappeared, the power of death held him captive in the mountain, nature was lifeless hung in suspense, chaos might be about to return. The crowds began to work themselves up, they ran hither and thither, wailing and lamenting; the people’s eyes were turned toward the ziggurat – there was Ashur’s “tomb”, there he was imprisoned in the dusty dark of the Netherworld and needed the help of their mourning.
The next day, Nissan 6, was full of excitement. The crowds must have surged along the riverbanks to watch the arrival of the visiting god — images as they arrived at the quays in their sacred barges. They came from Nippur and Uruk, from Kutha and Kish. Most important of all Marduk’s own son, Nabu, who was a resident at Borsippa, came toBabylon as the Savior of his father. Possibly he led a triumphal procession of all the gods up from the river; the king was there and poured a libation. Not so much was known of the actual “liberation” which may have been enacted on the seventh day. In some manner Nabu led the gods against his father’s foes and Marduk was set free from the mountain. Nissan 8 was a solemn day. All the divine images were assembled in the Ubshuukkinna, which here as elsewhere represented the place of assembly for the gods. They were ranged in order of precedence and stood facing Ashur (or Marduk), on whom they bestowed their united power, giving him “a destiny beyond compare.” While the king, the priests and the images were occupied in this way within the walls of the Esagila, the populace were to remain hushed and peaceful, a day of calm between the lamentations and the outburst of rejoicing. It was the ninth day that saw the great procession of gods and people from the Esagila to the Festival House (Bit Akitu), set in beautiful gardens outside the city. Eventually, Ishtar went with Ashur (or Marduk) and the king proclaimed the start; The Lord of Ashur (Babylon) goes forth, the lands kneel before him. Sarpanitum (Ishtar) goes forth, aromatic herbs burn with fragrance. By the side of Ishtar, while her servants play the flute, goes all Ashur exultant.
Sennacherib had the drama shown on copper doors of the Bit Akitu at Ashur — where of course Ashur was the protagonist; the drama of the battle, between Ashur (god) and Tiamat, and the subsequent creation of heaven, earth and mankind seems to have been expressed by symbolic acts. With chaos defeated and order triumphant once again, Ashur led the way back to Ashur (city) through crowds roaring out their ritual cries of joy. This return may have taken place on the tenth of Nissan, after a grand banquet held in the Festival House.
If this ordering of the days is correct, then it was that night, either in Esagila or in the chapel with the couch on the ziggurat, that the sacred marriage of Ashur and Ishtar, perhaps enacted by the king with the high priestess, was celebrated and the renewal of all nature secured. On the eleventh day, the gods had a second assembly for the determination of destinies comparable to that of the eighth. This time, however, it was the destiny of mankind that had to be settled. Just as in Genesis, the creation of man in the ENUMA ELISH followed that of the natural world. This last solemn rite of the New Year festival seems in fact to celebrate the moment when Ashur and Ea killed Kingu and from his blood, they formed mankind… Ea then imposed toil on man and set the gods free. The twelfth day of Nissan was the day of departures. The quays must have been thronged once more as all the visiting gods, and perhaps visiting royalty as well, set out on the waterway that would take them home.
Mr. Canoon in his article , described the 6th day as that, a hooligan is chosen to rule the land (during the daytime) surrounded by madmen and lawless companions who kill, steal, rape and spread chaos. At sunset, the impostor king is dethroned and stripped of his regalia and offered to the legal king who reclaims his throne amidst rejoicing of the populace. The aim of such display is to remind the inhabitants of the benefits of justice and stable rule, and the triumph of order over that of chaos.
Finally, the new year festival has left its mark on the contemporary Assyrian; where to this day, they indulge in the game of luck (fortune telling) with the hope of knowing their fortune for the coming year and from this tradition developed the habit of gambling practiced by some Assyrians on new year’s eve. Also present day Assyrians living in the northern villages of Bet-Nahrain place a bunch of green grass (or NISSAN’S BEARD) on the thresholds or lintels of their houses on the 1st day of Nissan, an indication of green pastures, fertility and prosperity in the new year.
Another custom inherited from these festivals is on the 10th of Nissan, the day of the sacred marriage of Ashur and Ishtar, as mentioned earlier, a large number of marriage ceremonies took place on the same day in different Assyrian cities. Consequently it was impractical to hold every marriage celebration separately, but instead the brides paid a visit to every house in their city. To this day, the Assyrians uphold this tradition whereby on Ascension Day (KALO SOLAQA) groups of young brides visit every house in their village (or city) and they receive presents which then they share or distribute among the brides of each group. We can also attribute to the “April Fool” to what took place on the fifth day of the New Year festival where the god disappeared and disorder prevailed.
Canoon, Y.N., KHA B’NISSAN ASSYRIAN NEW YEAR, Mordinna Atouraya Magazine, Volume 3, No. 12, July 1977, Page 8.
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Pallis, S.A., THE BABYLONIAN AKITU FESTIVAL, Copenhagen, 1926.
Deimel, A., ENUMA ELIS, 2nd edition, 1936.
Smith, G., THE CHALDEAN ACCOUNT OF GENESIS, 1876.
Kings, L.W., THE SEVEN TABLETS OF CREATION, 2 Vols., 1902.