"There were festivals recognized on the seventeenth and thirtieth days each month. Apart from the lamentations for Tammuz in the summer, the largest festival is that of the new year, which falls in the Babylonian month of Nisan and coincides with the Spring Equinox."

(The First Great Civilizations, Jacquetta Hawkes)

The festival of the new year lasted twelve days; it was a time of purification, of renewal of the vegetation. It was also a time of dramatic reenactments, the most important of which were the rites of the Sacred Marriage, and the recitation of the Sumerian creation epic, Enuma elish. It was at this time that the destinies of both gods and mankind were fixed, and the king began his reign on new year's day. The material I present here has been compiled and paraphrased from two different sources, and presents the most complete accounts that I have found which outline the events of each day. Although these rites have been practiced since the origins of Sumer, the sources most readily available to us are dated from a much later time, and have sadly substituted the champion and supreme chosen god of the original tale, Enlil, with the local deity of Babylon, Marduk, just as later Assyrian rites replaced Marduk's name with that of their god, Ashur. These new year rites were practiced in Mesopotamia up until the time that Persian rule was established in the land.


Little is available about the first day, other than it is understood that the day was spent seeing to the preparations necessary for the following festival days.


From texts available which appear to be copies of earlier documents, it seems that the proceedings opened with elaborate purification ceremonies on the second day of the month (Nisan) two hours before dawn. An urigallu priest rose and washed himself with water from the river before attiring himself in a linen garment. He then addressed Marduk calling upon him as "Lord of Kings, light of mankind, and fixer of destinies, to have mercy upon this city, Babylon, and to turn his face to the temple Esagila, the secrets of which were known alone to its urigallu priest of the temple of Ekua." After the recitation of this prayer he opened the doors of the sanctuary and the priests and singers entered to perform the prescribed rites in the presence of Marduk and his consort Zarpanit.


After a break in this very fragmentary part of the text, on the third day three hours after sunrise, a metalworker and a woodworker were summoned and given items from the treasury of Marduk to make two images for the ceremonies on the sixth day, one constructed of cedar and the other of tamarisk, and ornamented with precious stones set in gold. A snake of cedar was held in the left hand of one, and in that of the other a scorpion raising its hand to the son of Marduk, Nabu. They were dressed in red garments and placed in the temple of Daian, the Judge, and given food from the gods' table.


The next day the urigallu recited prayers for the blessing of Marduk on Babylon as before, and added a petition to Zarpanit to bless the people of the city which honoured her. The priest then blessed the courtyard and the Esagila three times. After the customary rituals had been carried out, in the late afternoon the urigallu recited the Enuma elish. While this was being done the crown of Anu and the throne of Enlil were covered.


Two hours after sunrise on the fifth day, the customary ablutions and recitations having been performed, the temple was cleansed and sprinkled with water from both the Tigris and Euphrates, and the sacred drum was beaten inside as an exorcist remained in the courtyard. The chapel of Nabu was similarly purified, the doors were smeared with cedar resin, and the sanctuary was censed. The head of a sheep was cut off by an executioner and the exorcist wiped the sanctuary with the carcass, whilst reciting spells. He then carried the body of the sheep to the river and threw it in the water, facing west, while the executioner did likewise with the head of the animal. As both of them were in a tabu condition after the performance of this rite, they were required to retire to the country until Nabu left the city on the twelfth day of Nisan. The urigallu was forbidden to see the purification of the temple.

Three and one third hours after sunrise the urigallu called upon the artisans to bring out the Golden Heaven, or baldachino, from the treasury of Marduk, and to cover the chapel of Nabu while reciting an invocation. When this was done the urigallu prepared the table of offerings and poured out wine in praise of Marduk, exalted among the gods. The craftsmen carried it to the banks of the canal to await the arrival of Nabu in his ship and to escort the king to Esagila. There, the king entered the shrine of Marduk and allowed the high priest to remove his crown, ring, sceptre and harpe. He then sat upon a chair before the statue of the god and his regalia was placed on a seat in an inner sanctuary from which the urigallu emerged. The priest then struck the king on the cheek and forced him to his knees before the statue. In this posture the king had to make a negative confession [some of the best known examples of the rite of the negative confession can be found in the various versions of the Egyptian Book of the Dead]:

"I have not sinned, O Lord of the land. I have not been negligent regarding thy divinity; I have not destroyed Babylon; I have not caused its overthrow; I have not neglected the temple Esagila; I have not forgotten its ritual; I have not rained blows on the cheek of a subordinate; I have not humiliated them; I cared for Babylon; I have not broken down its walls."

To this, after a break in the text of about five lines, the high priest replied by a kind of absolution and blessing from Marduk:

"Have no fear,... The god Marduk [will listen to] your prayer, He will magnify your lordship...He will exalt your kingship. On the day of the essesu (new moon)...festival do...In the festival of the Opening of the Gate purify your hands; Day and night [The god Marduk] whose city is Babylon, whose temple is Esagila; Whose dependants are the people of Babylon. The god Marduk will bless you...forever. He will destroy your enemy, fell your adversary."

The urigallu then restored the sceptre, ring, crown and harpe, and struck the king on the cheek with the intention of making tears flow, this being a sign that Marduk was friendly and ready to destroy his enemies.

At sunset, the urigallu tied together forty straight reeds of three cubits in length bound together with a palm branch, dug a hole in the courtyard and planted therein with honey, cream and oil of the best quality. A white bull was placed before the trench, and the king kindled a fire in the middle of it. They both recited a prayer, the contents of which are lost apart from the opening lines addressed to the bull of Anu as the shivering light illuminating the darkness.

Also on this day, the people on the streets began to turn their eyes upward to the ziggurat, the great mountain in which the lifeless god Marduk is imprisoned; their mourning will strengthen him.


On Nisan 6, the visiting god images arrived by sacred barges. When the gods arrived, they were poured a libation by the king. While all this was taking place in the Esagila the city was in a state of increasing commotion because Marduk was alleged to have been imprisoned in the "mountain" of the underworld, with its reciprocal effects in the desolation of the country evidenced in the annual drought. Mock battles were fought for the purpose of securing his release and the renewal of vegetation. This was accomplished on the sixth or seventh day by his son Nabu assuming the role of the Goddess Inanna/Ishtar in the Tammuz cult when she found the god in the "mountain" and by her intervention was miraculously restored and emerged from the nether regions. Thereupon vegetation revived with the first winter rains. It may be presumed that this cult drama was of considerable antiquity in Mesopotamia, continuing the Sumerian tradition of the death and restoration of the Young god of vegetation.


Not so much is known of the actual "liberation" which may have been enacted on the seventh day. In some manner Nabu [son and saviour of Marduk] led the other gods against his father's enemies and Marduk was freed from the mountain. Presumably his image appeared on some part of the ziggurat; in Sumerian seals illustrating this part of the myth, the god is shown cutting his way out of a real mountain with a saw. In some of these scenes a goddess is present, and it is very likely that a goddess took part in the Babylonian liberation. Ishtar,in the title of Beltiya, had been evoked by the high priest in the most flowery terms on the fourth and fifth days:

"Bright Beltiya, sublime and elevated, incomparable among the goddesses".


After their instatement of the king by the urigallu and the liberation of Marduk in his Tammuz role, on the eighth day of Nisan the statues of the gods were assembled in the Chamber of Destinies (Ubshuukkinna) in order of rank, for the purpose of conferring their combined strength upon the restored god for the conquest of the hostile forces, and to give him the right to determine the destinies; that is to say, to renew fruitfulness and life during the forthcoming year. The king, holding his sceptre in his hand, also went to the great hall to receive a fresh outpouring of divine power. Grasping the hand of the great lord Marduk, he went in procession from the Esagila with the other gods along the sacred way to the Festival House (Bit Akitu) in the outskirts of the city, like the victorious armies of the gods in conflict with Tiamat, depicted by Sennacherib on the copper doors of the Bit Akitu. At the conclusion of these rites a banquet was held to celebrate the triumph of Marduk, and all that this involved for the well being of the country. While the king, priests and the images were occupied in this way within the walls of the Esagila, the populace were hushed and peaceful, a day of calm between the lamentations and the outburst of rejoicing.


Nisan 9 saw the great procession of gods and people from the Esagila to the Festival House (Bit Akitu) set in beautiful gardens outside the city. Evidently Ishtar went with Marduk and the king proclaimed the start:

"...The Lord of Babylon goes forth, the lands kneel before him. Sarpanitum [Ishtar] goes forth, aromatic herbs burn with fragrance. By the side of Ishtar of Babylon, while her servants play the flute, Goes all Babylon exultant!"

This seems to have been the chief day for visiting monarchs.


The battle and the following creation of heaven, earth and mankind were expressed by symbolic acts. Once finished, Marduk led the way back to Babylon. This return may have taken place on the tenth of Nisan, after a grand banquet held in the Festival House.

If this ordering of the days is correct, then it was that night, either in the Esagila or in the chapel with the couch on the ziggurat, that the sacred marriage of Marduk and Ishtar, often enacted by the king with the high priestess, was celebrated and the renewal of all nature secured. On the tenth day of Nisan, Marduk and those who had taken part in the procession went into residence in the Bit Akitu, and the next day a special festival was held in the Hall. It may have been then that the conflict was given dramatic representation, concluding with the aforementioned banquet, before a return was made to the Esagila where, as we have seen, there is reason to think that the king and queen engaged in a sacred marriage in a chamber decorated with greenery (the gigunu) on one of the stages of the ziggurat. The rites were directed to the maintenance of the fertility of the fields, the flocks and mankind, since fecundity in nature depended upon the union of the Goddess and the Young virile god, enacted on earth by that of the queen and her consort.


On the eleventh day the gods had a second assembly 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 Marduk and Ea (Enlil and Enki) killed Kingu and from his blood they formed mankind... Ea then imposed toil on man and set the gods free. It was, in fact, a renewal of the social contract: mankind was engaged for the service of the gods through another cycle of the seasons.


Nisan 12 was the day of departures.

So important was this annual observance for the country as a whole that it was celebrated in most of the cities at Ur and Nippur in third millennium BC, and subsequently at Ashur, Harran, Dilbat, Erech, Nineveh and Arbela, as well as at Babylon though it is about the Akitu in the capital that we are best informed. Since, however, neither the kings, the administration nor the community at large had an assured and completely secure position, gods rose to preeminence by the transference of political jurisdiction from one city to another e.g. from Nippur to Babylon. The gods and their status, therefore, were at the mercy of the ever changing fortunes of their cult centres. The New Year Festival gave a sense of stability in an unstable world, inasmuch as it was celebrated annually in many places with the same rites and theme enacted for the same purposes, whether the divinity were Tammuz, Marduk, Ashur, or any other vegetation god. This continuity in the myth and its ritual established a harmony with nature in perpetuity, when the renewal of life was the most urgent need of the moment.