The Akitu Festival: Ringing in the Babylonian New Year

Party Like It's 700 B.C.

The Akitu procession passed through Babylon's gates, like the famous Gate of Ishtar, shown here. Radziem/Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

The residents of ancient Mesopotamia loved a good party! Called "Akitu," the city's New Year's festival celebrated the coming of spring on the first few days of the Babylonian calendar, or perhaps the equinoxes. The original agricultural festival dated back to the second millennium B.C. in Ur, but by the first millennium B.C., it was a more ritualized process in Babylon, although there were probably multiple Akitus a year across Mesopotamia.

How did the Babylonians ring in the New Year? By a long procession and theatrical performance involving the king, of course. At the beginning of an eleven-day-long celebration, the king visited the temple of the god Nabu, then went to another famous sanctuary of that god in nearby Borsippa, where he had a sleepover. 

The next day, the king brought back the statue of Nabu from Borsippa. Before he returned, though, he stayed in a special ​akitu house for a few days; he then returned to Babylon with the Nabu statue to visit the god's father, Marduk, in his chief temple, the Esagila. Why were both gods included? Some historians have suggested that the spring Akitu originally involved two separate festivals - one for each deity - that were combined into one big party.

During this time, the Enuma Elishthe epic of creation - or perhaps the story of Babylon's foundation and the creation of city order as it should be -- was recited.

How does this play into the festival's overall meaning? Perhaps both affirmed renewal of the the earth every spring and control over all of the elements.

Other scholars, noting the late dates of many tablets detailing the Akitu rituals, posit that it reflects a response to foreign domination. For example, the smoke used when fumigating the Esagila symbolized destruction; indeed, the "Akitu Chronicle" records numerous seventh-century B.C. interruptions in the festival.


What Happens When You Smack the King?

One of the more peculiar customs occurred on the fifth day of the festival, the king was ritually humiliated. His royal garb was removed and his regalia stripped from him, and the priest of Marduk smacked him in the face at two different points. As the ritual texts described, the priest "shall accompany him [the king] into the presence of the god Bel [an epithet of Marduk] ... he shall drag [him by] the ears and make him bow down to the ground." After the king confirmed that he hadn't betrayed his city and had honored the gods, the priest gave him his goods back. That's a heck of a drastic action to take.

Some suggest that the first slap came to ensure the king had conducted himself as a proper Babylonian king, while the second came to ward off the enemy from conquering Babylon. In the first millennium B.C., when Babylonian rulers ran into a lot of trouble, placating the gods and ensuring the king acted as a monarch should would have been a good idea to theoretically ward off invasion. Indeed, as a result of king's humiliation, read the ritual texts, "The god Bel will bless you ... forever. He will destroy your enemy, fell your adversary." If the king didn't cry, Marduk would be upset with him and bring down the enemy on Babylon; if he started weeping, Marduk would be pleased.

How necessary was this action, as religious historian Jonathan Z. Smith asked in Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown, given that most native Babylonian kings probably didn't tear down the city walls and desecrate the Esagila? Not so important for the Babylonian-born rulers, but guess who did ruin the city? "These were the actions of foreign kings," Smith observed, men ws from Assyrian, Persian, and Seleucid dynasties, who had conquered Babylon and dominated it for centuries in the first millennium B.C.

If the Akitu festival was directed at supporting "true"/native Babylonian kings, then, Smith suggested that it became "a piece of nationalistic religious propaganda." That makes even more sense when we realize that the surviving ritual texts about the Akitu festival date from the Seleucid period - a time of conquerors.

Who knew that New Year's parties were really all about political conquest?