AKITU . Akitu was an important Babylonian temple, located just outside the city, where the annual procession celebrating the New Year took place. The festival of the same name was celebrated in the first few days of the month of Nisan, which marked the beginning of the New Year.
The Babylonian chronicles of the first millennium include statements such as the following regarding the great Nebuchadrezzar II, who conquered Jerusalem: "In the month of April he took Bel and the son of Bel by the hand and celebrated the feast of Akitu." The following statement with the opposite meaning refers to Nabonidus, the last king of Babylon, overthrown by Cyrus the Great: "The king did not come to Babylon in the month of April, Nabu did not come to Babylon. Bel did not leave in procession. The feast of Akitu was not celebrated" (Falkenstein, 1947, p. 147). These passages reveal the importance the Babylonians attached to the celebration of the New Year, which began in April.
There is no doubt that for Babylonian society the feast of Akitu, named after the temple whose doors opened once at the beginning of every year, represented not only a moment of joyous celebration but also a particular moment for reflection upon their institutions, without which the New Year would begin inauspiciously. The text concerning the ritual, which is unfortunately fragmentary, indicates that the celebrations lasted eleven days, culminating with the procession of the statues of Marduk, the Babylonian supreme god, and Nabu, his son and the god of wisdom. These statues left the city temple Esagila and proceeded along the so-called Street of the Procession, its walls covered with multicolored enamel tiles, passing through the marvelous Gate of Ishtar. They sailed along the river to the temple of Akitu outside Babylon. The ritual texts describe all the ceremonies that took place during the eleven days of the celebrations, which occupied the priests day and night. Most concern the purification of the temple and its furnishings with incantations, prayers, and ablutions.
The high point was the arrival of the statue of Nabu by boat from its home city of Borsippa to take part in the procession and then the introduction of the Babylonian sovereign into the Esagila temple in order "to take the hand of Bel and his son Nabu" (Farber, 1987, p. 225). The two quotations at the beginning of this article lead to the conclusion that there was a direct link between royal legitimacy and the feast of Akitu. It seems that the festival could only be celebrated if the sovereign was present. This is certainly a limited interpretation of the action of "taking the hand of the god," however. The fact that the Assyrian kings, who aspired to the Babylonian crown, emphasized in their inscriptions that they had taken part in the festival and taken the hand of the god tends to support that this act legitimized power in Babylon.
Besides this institutional aspect, there is another equally relevant point. The sovereign, upon being introduced to the temple, was stripped of all his royal insignia, slapped, and made to kneel in front of the statue, where he recited the following confession:
I have not failed, Lord of these lands, I have not been negligent regarding thy majesty; I have done no harm to Babylon; I have not ordained its destruction; I have not made the Esagila quake, nor have I neglected its rites; I have not smote the people who are under thy protection; I have done nothing that would make it subject to mockery; I have taken care of Babylon, I have not destroyed its walls! (Farber, 1987, p. 215)
This penitential recitation sets out the duties of the Babylonian sovereign: he must be respectful of the gods and be the careful shepherd of his people. Only after he recited these words did the sovereign once again put on his robes and receive the symbols of royal power. At this moment he was allowed to take the hands of the god Bel and the god Nabu and start the procession. When they reached the temple of Akitu, the god Marduk addressed the sovereign and his sacred city with this eagerly awaited blessing: "If you will take due care of my majesty and you will protect my people, the year now beginning will be a year of plenty for Babylon!" (Farber, 1987, p. 226). The New Year began with the procession and the final blessing, but only if the king was present at Babylon and the statue of Marduk was taken in procession were the omens for the New Year truly favorable.
One further point, which certainly does not please all scholars of comparative religion and religious historians generally, who have been prone to compare the ritual of the feast of Akitu and another mythological text concerning Marduk, in which he descends to the underworld and is mistreated by the powers there before he rises to life again. Luigi Cagni collected accounts of all the theories advanced by scholars regarding the interpretation of this extremely interesting document, which has been called "Supposed 'Death' and 'Resurrection' of Marduk." Is this the description of a rite that could be compared to the death and resurrection of Christ, however distantly? The interest in such a topic by biblical scholars as well as by Orientalists and Assyriologists is understandable. In his account, Cagni quotes the views of scholars from 1918 to 1955, from Heinrich Zimmern (1862–1931) to Mario Theodoro De Liagre Böhl. The former put forward a comparison between Marduk and Jesus Christ, whereas the latter established the historical setting in which the text was written, namely the Assyria of Sennacherib, and the parodistic nature of the text itself. Cagni then proceeded to the theory of Wolfram von Soden, who categorically denied the possibility that the document implies Marduk's resurrection and instead considered it a work of parody or propaganda composed in the reign of Sennacherib, just as De Liagre Böhl proposed.
Cagni rejected von Soden's theory and put forward a mythico-cultural interpretation of the document without drawing any parallel with the death and resurrection of Christ. The text talks of the imprisonment of Marduk, which Belet-Babili and Nabu constantly seek to end. Silvia M. Chiodi (1995) showed that the death is the equivalent of a state of imprisonment, starting from a passage in the Epic of Gilgamesh.
As far as the end of the text is concerned, Cagni drew the following conclusion: "After detailing the apparent entry of the gods into battle against Marduk, who is shut behind the birru gate, the text stops at this point and is deliberately silent regarding the outcome of the struggle. If the aim of the text were political, as suggested by von Soden, it seems strange that Sennacherib's theologians, had they reached this point in the story, would have failed to mention the 'annihilation' of the power of Marduk. Nor would it have been particularly difficult for them to devise a suitable means to convey this, in a kind of anti–Enuma Elish " (Cagni, 1982, p. 612).
Initial studies of Babylonian civilization from about the middle of the twentieth century regarded this myth as an integral part of the ritual celebrating the New Year, but subsequent research has shown that no relation exists between the two texts. The ritual is a stand-alone text, and the myth of the suffering Marduk has no connection with the New Year celebrations. The only common aspect of the two ceremonies is the slapping: in the New Year festival the king was slapped, while in the myth the god was slapped. However, the slap the king received was meant as an act of both penitence and encouragement. The conclusion of the ritual text is interesting. The slap received by the king had to be hard enough to cause him physical pain and make him weep. Only if the king wept would the god Marduk look favorably upon his people. On such occasions, rich offerings were made to the god Marduk, as king Nabonidus confirmed: "In the month of Nisan, on the tenth day, the day on which the king of the gods, Marduk, and the gods of heaven and earth come to the E-siskur, the 'house of prayer,' in the Akitu temple of the Lord of Justice, I brought there 6,021 minas of silver, 307 minas of gold, in addition to the annual gifts, taken from votive offerings, from the wealth of the land, from the produce of the mountains, from the taxes on the villages, from the wealth of the king, from the riches which the god Marduk has bestowed upon me" (Falkenstein, 1959, p. 150).
Although the most famous festival of Akitu was held at Babylon, it should not be forgotten that Akitu was also celebrated in other cities, such as Uruk and, in Assyria, Ashur and Nineveh. The fact that the tradition is much older is shown by evidence in Sumerian documents that there were already festivals of Akitu in the pre-Sargonid period at Lagash and during the third dynasty at Ur, when it was linked to the same royal dynasty and was celebrated twice a year at Gaesh, a village near Ur. From a ritual rediscovered in Uruk it is clear that the celebration of Akitu took place twice a year, in the month of Nisan and also in the month of Tishrit. Almost nothing is known of the festival in Assyria because of a lack of relevant rituals.
The Enuma elish poem links the institution of kingship with the divine world. The dream of Babylon, of being the cultural and spiritual center of Mesopotamia, the overwhelming logic of which pervades the poem, became reality. A new star, the most resplendent, appeared in the mythological Mesopotamian sky. Henceforth he was recognized as the supreme god of the Babylonians and Assyrians, and in the divine Babylonian world he was known to the Greeks by his name Bel, which means "Lord." Marduk was indeed the preeminent Lord, the ruler of the gods, and Babylon was his only home. The Babylonians had no intention of forgetting their cultural heritage and celebrated the triumph of Marduk every year in the festival of the New Year. This festival, undoubtedly the most important of Babylonian festivals, could only take place in the presence of the legitimate sovereign, who led the procession after he had "taken the hand" of Bel and Nabu. The deep significance of this act, which many Assyrian kings would have willingly undertaken but were prevented from doing by the sacred defenders of authentic Babylonian tradition, is beyond question. Only a legitimate king of Babylon could take the hand of the god, so the festival was not celebrated if the king was absent.
Among the various rites of the festival, two are particularly significant. First was the annual consecration of the sovereign, subject to the penitential act followed by the slap. Second, the high priest twice raised the tablets on which the poem Enuma elish was written, which emphasized the direct link between the festival of the New Year and the celebration of Marduk as the supreme god of the Mesopotamian pantheon. The feast of the New Year marked the commemoration of the apotheosis of Marduk because of his victory over Tiamat and the creation of the cosmos—heaven and earth—culminating in the construction of Babylon.
These small indications clarify the central role occupied by Babylon, with its god Marduk, regarding the nation's royal line. The Babylonian sovereign ruled insofar as he was chosen by Marduk, who was made lord of the gods by the assembly of the gods. So the Babylonian king was the vicarious substitute of Marduk, not an absolute despot like the Assyrian king. Thus it is significant that in his inscriptions Nebuchadrezzar often called himself not "the king of Babylon" but "the governor of Babylon."
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Giovanni Pettinato (2005)
Translated from Italian by Paul Ellis