Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The King who would be slapped

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.

Following the first new moon after the vernal equinox in late March, the Babylonians of ancient Mesopotamia would honor the rebirth of the natural world with a multi-day festival called Akitu. This early New Year’s celebration dates back to around 2000 B.C., and is believed to have been deeply intertwined with religion and mythology. During the Akitu, statues of the gods were paraded through the city streets, and rites were enacted to symbolize their victory over the forces of chaos. Through these rituals the Babylonians believed the world was symbolically cleansed and recreated by the gods in preparation for the new year and the return of spring.
One fascinating aspect of the Akitu involved a kind of ritual humiliation endured by the Babylonian king. This peculiar tradition saw the king brought before a statue of the god Marduk, stripped of his royal regalia and forced to swear that he had led the city with honor. A high priest would then slap the monarch and drag him by his ears in the hope of making him cry. If royal tears were shed, it was seen as a sign that Marduk was satisfied and had symbolically extended the king’s rule. Some historians have since argued that these political elements suggest the Akitu was used by the monarchy as a tool for reaffirming the king’s divine power over his people.

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.  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.

No comments:

Post a Comment