The civilization of Babylonia and Assyria

Its remains, language, history, religion, commerce, law, art, and literature

by Morris Jastrow | 1915 | 168,585 words

This work attempts to present a study of the unprecedented civilizations that flourished in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley many thousands of years ago. Spreading northward into present-day Turkey and Iran, the land known by the Greeks as Mesopotamia flourished until just before the Christian era....

The occasions on which the people repaired to the temples have been touched on at various points in the course of our survey of the chief aspects presented by the religion. In general it was when sickness or some other kind of misfortune ensued, that the people sought the mediating help of the priests. On such occasions the elaborate incantation rituals were drawn upon, the appropriate formulas selected and the ceremonial details punctiliously carried out. Reports were sent to the rulers, announcing the appearance of the new moon and officially recording the exact time of full moon.

All strange occurrences in the heavens and on earth were interpreted, and the priests were kept busy answering the questions put to them by the rulers at critical periods, or by the people when strange happenings took place in houses, streets or stalls, or when any unusual experience occurred. Owing to the large aspect taken on by the official character of the religion, the times when the rulers proceeded to the temples were particularly numerous.

The official cult played a far larger part in the religion than the satisfaction of the religious needs of the ordinary individual, but at the important festival celebrations, occurring at the transition periods of the year, the people joined the rulers in thronging the courts of the temples, witnessing the offering of the sacrifices which they provided for such occasions and perhaps taking a direct, albeit a minor, part in the ceremonies incident thereto.

The sacrifices embraced animals and land produce, as well as precious woods and special votive gifts. Lists embodied in Gudea's inscriptions, [1] which anay be regarded as typical, enumerate oxen, sheep and goats, doves and various other domesticated birds, chickens, ducks and geese (?), various kinds of fish, dates, figs, cucumbers, butter, oil, cakes. In what way the animals to be offered were selected we do not as yet know, but it is eminently likely that with the perfected organization of the priesthood, regular tariffs were set up, prescribing what was to be brought on each occasion and in what amounts very much as in the various Pentateuchal codes and in Phosnician sacrificial tarifs.

The New Year's festival, celebrated at the commencement of the spring season and marking the transition from the winter the period of nature's silence to the reawakening to new life was the most solemn occasion of the year. Its celebration may be traced back to the old Babylonian period. In Lagash it was pictured as the marriage day of the solar deity Ningirsu with his consort Bau, the mother-goddess, the union, accordingly, of the male and female element, issuing in the new life pulsating throughout the earth in the joyous springtime.

The sacrifices offered at the festival were designated as the wedding presents for the divine pair. No doubt in other centres of sun cults and we have seen that most of the patron deities in the large centres were solar gods similar rites were observed, so that the celebration in Babylon centring around Marduk and his consort Sarpanit, of which we know many details, represents a combination and elaboration of ancient traditions. The gods were carried about in solemn procession, bringing their homage in common with that of mankind to the great solar deity who had become the head of the pantheon. Nabu came from Borsippa to pay a visit to his father enthroned in E-sagila. [2]

The festival lasted for ten days, during which interval the gods were supposed to assemble in the "sacred chamber of fates", there to decide the fates of the individuals for the coming year, with Nabu acting as the secretary and recording the divine and unalterable decisions. A sombre character was thus given to the festival, the ritual for which included penitential hymns, embodying appeals for forgiveness of sins and for divine mercy.

The Babylonian-Assyrian akitu, as the New Year's festival was called, became the prototype for the New Year's season of the Hebrews, which likewise embraces a period of ten days and closes with a solemn fast, the main burden of which is the confession of sins and the appeal for forgiveness so that one may be "inscribed for life for the coming year", as the phrase in the Jewish ritual runs. The seventh month, as the beginning of the second half of the year which was divided into twelve lunar months, [3] also acquired a sacred significance; it marked the season of the final harvest, preceding the beginning of the rainy season.

The transition motif thus also dominates the fall festival which, like the one in the spring, appears to have extended over a considerable part of the month. Indications point to its having been marked by the rejoicings incident to a harvest festival, though the approach of the wintry season of the year must have tempered the joy.

There are indications that the Babylonians, from a certain time on, recognized two "New Year's" seasons, [4] one in the spring which remained the official one, and one in the fall which appears to have been suggested by the agricultural and climatic conditions of the Euphrates Valley.

The period of the summer solstice was also marked by a festival, though we are still in the dark as to the character of the ceremonial prescribed for it; it is eminently likely moreover that we will come across some rites marking also the winter solstice. Besides these occasions, marking the transition from one season to the other, the two transition periods in the phases of the moon, the new moon and the full moon, were festive occasions, the former characterized by rejoicings at the reappearance of the silvery orb, the latter of a more solemn aspect as marking the transition to the waning of the moon.

Footnotes and references:


Statue E, cols. 5-6 and G, cols. 4-5 and elsewhere (Thureau-Dangin, Sumerisch-Akkadische Konigsinschriften, pp. 80-84).


See above, p. 217.


Regulated to accord with the solar year through intercalating a month at certain intervals.


See Jastrow, Religion Babyloniens und Assyriens, II, p. 462, and now with further details, Weidner, Alter und Bedeutung der Babylonischen Astronomic und Astrallehre (Leipzig, 1914), p. 31, seq.

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