Akitu: the Babylonian New year's
Akitu: the Babylonian New year's festival,
celebrated to honor the supreme god Marduk, his crown prince Nabû and other
The name Akitu is very ancient. In the third
millennium BCE, the Sumerian population of southern Mesopotamia celebrated the
á-ki-ti-še-gur10-ku5, the festival of the sowing of barley. It was celebrated in
the first month of the year, that is in March/April. In the Babylonian calendar,
this month was known as Nisannu (and in the modern Jewish calendar is still
called Nisan). Since the festival was celebrated on the first days of the
Babylonian year, we can call it a New year's festival. In fact, the ancient
Babylonians already called it rêš šattim, 'beginning of the year'.
The festival -better: conglomerate of festivities-
was celebrated on two locations in Babylon: in the temple of the supreme god
Marduk, the Esagila, and the 'house of the New year' which was situated north of
the city. The two gods who were in the center of the festival were Nabû and his
father, the supreme god Marduk, who was in the first millenium BCE usually
called 'Bêl', Lord, because his real name was considered too holy to be
On 4 Nisannu, the high priest of the Esagila
(šešgallu) opened the festival, saying that the new year had begun. To the
populace, this meant the beginning of a holiday of a week. On the same day, the
king went to the temple of Nabû, where the high priest gave him the royal
scepter. He then traveled to Borsippa, a city 17 kilometers downstream from
Babylon that had a famous Nabû temple.
Here, he spent the night. At the same time, the
šešgallu recited the Babylonian creation epic (Enûma eliš) in the house of the
and his snake dragon (from J. Black & A. Green, Gods, demons and symbols
ofancient Mesopotamia,1992; ©!!!)
The fifth of Nisannu saw the king's return to
Babylon, accompanied by the statue of Nabû from Borsippa. The statue was left
behind in the Uraš gate, and the king went to the Esagila to greet Marduk. He
had to do this humbly, laying down his weapons, crown and scepter. The šešgallu
listened to the king's words that he had not sinned against Marduk and hit him
very hard on the cheek (the king had to have tears in his eyes). Perhaps, this
was a punishment for sins that were unwillingly committed. Kneeling in front of
the statue of Marduk, the king receives an oracle about the glorious future, and
was given back his royal insignia. At sunset, the king and the šešgallu
performed a not completely understood ritual with a white bull.
Next day, the statue of Nabû visited the temple of
Ninurta, where it defeated two enemies (in the form of golden statuettes). Then,
it continued to the Esagila, where it joined Marduk's statue. At the same time,
other statues of other gods arrived at Babylon.
Akitu procession (From W. Andrae, Das wiederentstandene Assur, 1977,
On 7 Nisannu, the statues were cleaned and
received new dresses. On the next day, the festival reached its climax when all
statues were brought out from their rooms and shown to the Babylonian populace.
All gods were now present to honor Marduk, and their 'parliament' announced its
policy for the next year.
(One is reminded of the 'state of the union'
speech by the American president.) As far as we know, this policy was always one
of blessing, fortune and success. After these joyful tidings, the gods started a
tour through the city to the river.
Here, they boarded a small fleet, that brought
them to the house of the New year. The king himself guided the supreme god. On
the last part of the route, the ships were placed on chariots, so that the gods
were driven to the house of the New year in ships.
The people were singing all kinds of songs. Three
of them can be reconstructed: a frivolous hymn to the goddess of sexuality and
love Ištar, a song in which Marduk's father Enlil was ridiculed as a god in the
gutter, and an antiphonal hymn in which the gods were asked why they were not in
their temples and replied that they had to be with Marduk.
What happened in the house of the New year on 9-10
Nisannu, is not known, but it seems that sacrifices were made by the king and
that the spoils of war were presented to the gods. On 11 Nisannu, the gods
returned to the Esagila, where they repeated their parliament. After this, they
saw Nabû off, and went home.
The Akitu festival continued for centuries, and
not only in Babylon. In Palmyra, the temple of Baal was inaugurated on the same
date as Akitu. At the beginning of the third century CE, it was still celebated
in Emessa in Syria, to honor the god Elagabal; the Roman emperor Heliogabalus
(218-222) even introduced the festival in Italy (cf. Herodian, Roman History,