FESTIVALS AND CALENDARS IN MESOPOTAMIA

FESTIVALS IN MESOPOTAMIA

20120208-Standard_of_Ur_-_feast.jpg
feast at Ur
The Mesopotamians had a lot of festivals. There were regular feasts during the new moon and full moon and on the seventh and fifteenth day of the month. The were also special feast days for individual deities. The biggest event of all was New Year's Day.

Ceremonies and rituals included re-enactments of divine marriages, prayer hymns addressed to the kings, recitation of the creation myths, ritual bathing by the king, royal procession on the land and water and of course lots of feasting and barley beer drinking. The climax of the Babylonian New year festival was when the head priest at the Marduk temple removed his insignia and slapped the king in the face. If tears flowed it meant Marduk was pleased and it would be a good year. [Parrinder, Op. Cit]

The Babylonian king prostrated himself in front of a Marduk statue and was slapped in the face to expunge his sins. There were also large celebrations in the streets. Singing crowds who came from all over Mesopotamia carried images of gods and placed them on boats on the Euphrates and then carried them in chariots to a special temple in the northern part of the city.

Websites and Resources on Mesopotamia: Ancient History Encyclopedia ancient.eu.com/Mesopotamia ; Mesopotamia University of Chicago site mesopotamia.lib.uchicago.edu; British Museum mesopotamia.co.uk ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Mesopotamia sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Louvre louvre.fr/llv/oeuvres/detail_periode.jsp ; Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org/toah ; University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology penn.museum/sites/iraq ; Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago uchicago.edu/museum/highlights/meso ; Iraq Museum Database oi.uchicago.edu/OI/IRAQ/dbfiles/Iraqdatabasehome ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; ABZU etana.org/abzubib; Oriental Institute Virtual Museum oi.uchicago.edu/virtualtour ; Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur oi.uchicago.edu/museum-exhibits ; Ancient Near Eastern Art Metropolitan Museum of Art www.metmuseum.org

Archaeology News and Resources: Anthropology.net anthropology.net : serves the online community interested in anthropology and archaeology; archaeologica.org archaeologica.org is good source for archaeological news and information. Archaeology in Europe archeurope.com features educational resources, original material on many archaeological subjects and has information on archaeological events, study tours, field trips and archaeological courses, links to web sites and articles; Archaeology magazine archaeology.org has archaeology news and articles and is a publication of the Archaeological Institute of America; Archaeology News Network archaeologynewsnetwork is a non-profit, online open access, pro- community news website on archaeology; British Archaeology magazine british-archaeology-magazine is an excellent source published by the Council for British Archaeology; Current Archaeology magazine archaeology.co.uk is produced by the UK’s leading archaeology magazine; HeritageDaily heritagedaily.com is an online heritage and archaeology magazine, highlighting the latest news and new discoveries; Livescience livescience.com/ : general science website with plenty of archaeological content and news. Past Horizons : online magazine site covering archaeology and heritage news as well as news on other science fields; The Archaeology Channel archaeologychannel.org explores archaeology and cultural heritage through streaming media; Ancient History Encyclopedia ancient.eu : is put out by a non-profit organization and includes articles on pre-history; Best of History Websites besthistorysites.net is a good source for links to other sites; Essential Humanities essential-humanities.net: provides information on History and Art History, including sections Prehistory

Mesopotamian Festivals and the Seasons

Morris Jastrow said: “Festival days sacred to a deity were numerous and formed another important feature of worship. As was to be expected of an agricultural people like the ancient Babylonians, these festivals were connected originally with the seasons of the year. The most important was the spring festival. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 <>]


planisphere fragment

“The Babylonians and Assyrians must have had harvest festivals, marked like those of other people by rejoicings and thanksgivings to the gods, but as yet we have not unearthed these rites and ceremonies. We are, however, fortunate enough to know a good deal about a festival that forms a complement to the new year’s celebration and, because of its antiquity and wide bearings on the general religious ideas of the Semites, commands a special interest. <>

“The sun-god of the spring was pictured as a youthful warrior triumphing over the storms of winter. The goddess of vegetation—Ishtar, under various names—unites herself to this god, and the two in unison—sun and earth—bring forth new life in the fields and meadows. But after a few months the summer season begins to wane, and rains and storms again set in. The change of seasons was depicted as due to the death of the youthful god; according to one tradition he was deserted by the goddess who had won his love; according to another, he was slain by a wild boar. An old Sumerian designation of this god was Dumu-Zi, abbreviated from a fuller designation, Dumu-Zi-Ab-zu, and interpreted as “the legitimate [or “faithful”] child of the deep.” The allusion is apparently to the sun rising out of the ocean, which was supposed to flow about and underneath the world. The name passed over to the Semites of Babylonia, and thence spread throughout and beyond the borders of Semitic settlements under the form Tammuz. With the name, went the myth of the youthful god, full of vigour, but who is slain, and condemned to a sojourn in the lower world, from which he is released and revivified in the following spring. <>

“The antiquity of the cult of Tammuz in Babylonia is confirmed by religious compositions in Sumerian, bewailing the loss of the god and also hailing his return. This, of itself, would not, necessarily, prove the Sumerian origin of the myth, which indeed is of so widespread a character as to justify us in regarding it as common to Sumerians and Semites; but it shows that the weeping for Tammuz, which Ezekiel (viii., 14) portrays as being practised even in his days by the women at the north gate of the temple in Jerusalem, is one of the oldest items of the Sumero-Babylonian cult. In the older Babylonian calendar the summer solstice fell in the sixth month; in the later calendar in the fourth month, which became known as the month of the festival of Tammuz, and then briefly as the month of Tammuz. With the summer solstice the year begins to wane, and it was appropriate, therefore, to hold at this time a festival commemorating the gradual waning of the god’s vigour.” <>

Calendars and Years in Mesopotamia

What may be the world’s oldest calendar was unearthed in Iraq. It is 10,000 years old and is comprised of a pebble with 12 notches. The were various Sumerian calenders. Ones with 12 months of 30 days, which added up to 360 day years, soon fell out of synch with the season so extra months were added every few years. The Eblaite calendar affixed a different name to every year that commemorated a great event. The year 2480 B.C., for example, is referred to as Dis mu til Mari ki (the Year of the defeat of Mari).

The Babylonians are often given credit for devising the first calendars, and with them the first conception of time an entity. They developed the used the 360-day year—divided into 12 lunar months of 30 days (real lunar months are 29½ days)—devised by the Sumerians and introduced the seven day week, corresponding to the four waning and waxing periods of the lunar cycle. The ancients Egyptians adopted the 12-month system to their calendar. The ancient Hindus, Chinese, and Egyptians, all used 365-day calendars.

One of the most important aspects of the calendar in Mesopotamia was marking spring and autumn, which in turn marked the beginning and end of the agricultural year. Like Easter, spring and new year were marked by the first new moon after the spring equinox, around the end of March or beginning of April. Autumn was marked at the first new moon after the autumn equinox. In Mesopotamia, autumn marked the beginning of the planting season and spring was a time of harvest as the summer was too dry and hot to grow crops. [Source: Lishtar based on the first part of the excellent chapter on the Akitu Festival by Mark Cohen´s “The Cultic Calendars of the Ancient Near East,” CDL Press, Bethesda, Maryland, 1993 ==]

The Babylonians stuck stubbornly to the lunar calendar to define the year even though 12 lunar months did not equal one year. In 432 B.C., the Greeks introduced the so-called Metonic cycle in which every 19 years seven of the years had thirteen months and 12 years had 12 months. These kept the seasons in synch with the year and the roughly kept the days and months of the Metonic year in synch with those on the lunar calendar. The Metonic calendar was too complicated for everyday use and used mostly by astronomers.


Zuist (sumerian religion) calendar


Hours, Minutes and Time Measurement in Mesopotamia

Many cuneiform tablets are dated by the year, month and day. The Mesopotamians used sundials and water clock. These technologies were improved by the Egyptians,, Greeks and Romans. Within Babylonian literature there is a widespread but specialized group of texts that deals with the days of the months one by one, the hemerologies, and with the months of the year, the menologies.

The Mesopotamians also invented the 60 minute hour. The idea of measuring the year was more important than measuring the day. People could judge the time of day by following the sun. Judging the time of year was more difficult and important in knowing when to plant crops, expect rain or snow and harvest crops. That is why a yearly calendar was developed before clocks and minutes and seconds didn’t come to the Middle Ages.

The Babylonians have been credited with coming up with the idea of dividing the hour into 60 minutes. The number 60 seemed to be prized especially since 360 divided by six is 60 and some scholars have speculated that is why hours are made up of 60 minutes and minutes are made up of 60 seconds. Other believe the number 60 was arrived at by multiplying the visible planets (5, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn) by the number of months (12).

The Akkadian term shapattu (source of the word Sabbath) suggests a Babylonian origin for the seven-day week and the Sabbath. But shapattu refers to the day of the Full Moon and is not described as a day of rest. Why a seven-day week was chosen is not clearly known as it does not fit well into either a solar or lunar calendar.

Months in Mesopotamia and stages in the agricultural calendar for the city of Girsu: 1) Nissannu — March-April: last irrigation; harvesting starts, flooding; 2) Ajaru — April-May: harvest, survey of wet fields; 3) Simanu — May-June: cutting, drying, stacking; 4) Du'uzu — June-July: transport and storage of grains, time of rest; 5) Abu — July-August: harvest ends, rest; 6) Elülu — August-September: beginning of ploughing, sowing, inactivity; 7) Tashritu — September-October: ploughing, early sowing, rest; 8) Arashamna — October-November: late sowing; end of ploughing; 9) Kissilimu — November-December: late sowing, inactivity; 10) Tebetu — December-January: end of late sowing of cereals, preparation of fields; 11) Sabatu — January-December: first seedlings appear; irrigation; preparation of fields; 12) Addaru — February-March: irrigation

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Sumerian Calendar

Farmers Instructions, Gods and the Agricultural Seasons of Mesopotamia

The Sumerians produced a 111-line text called The Farmer´s Instructions. consisting of instructions on annual agriculture duties addressed by a farmer to his son. D. T. Potts (1997) has argued that there are many similarities between traditional, pre-mechanized agriculture in Iraq and the agricultural cycle and the recommendations found in "The Farmer´s Instructions". [Source: Lishtar based on the first part of the excellent chapter on the Akitu Festival by Mark Cohen´s “The Cultic Calendars of the Ancient Near East,” CDL Press, Bethesda, Maryland, 1993]

Generally, fallow land was followed flooded and leached in spring and summer, and ploughed and sowed in the autumn and winter, while cultivated fields were harvested and threshed in the dry and hot spring and summer, following the relatively wet fall and winter. The Spring Equinox marked the beginning of the season when fallow land was washed to cleanse the soil of salt and impurities. The Autumn Equinox marked the beginning of harvest. For cultivated fields, the Spring Equinox marked the beginning of harvest, whereas the Autumn Equinox marked the fallowing season.

Morris Jastrow said: “Festival days sacred to a deity were numerous and formed another important feature of worship. As was to be expected of an agricultural people like the ancient Babylonians, these festivals were connected originally with the seasons of the year. The most important was the spring festival. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 <>]

“The Babylonians and Assyrians must have had harvest festivals, marked like those of other people by rejoicings and thanksgivings to the gods, but as yet we have not unearthed these rites and ceremonies. We are, however, fortunate enough to know a good deal about a festival that forms a complement to the new year’s celebration and, because of its antiquity and wide bearings on the general religious ideas of the Semites, commands a special interest. <>

“The sun-god of the spring was pictured as a youthful warrior triumphing over the storms of winter. The goddess of vegetation—Ishtar, under various names—unites herself to this god, and the two in unison—sun and earth—bring forth new life in the fields and meadows. But after a few months the summer season begins to wane, and rains and storms again set in. The change of seasons was depicted as due to the death of the youthful god; according to one tradition he was deserted by the goddess who had won his love; according to another, he was slain by a wild boar. An old Sumerian designation of this god was Dumu-Zi, abbreviated from a fuller designation, Dumu-Zi-Ab-zu, and interpreted as “the legitimate [or “faithful”] child of the deep.” The allusion is apparently to the sun rising out of the ocean, which was supposed to flow about and underneath the world. The name passed over to the Semites of Babylonia, and thence spread throughout and beyond the borders of Semitic settlements under the form Tammuz. With the name, went the myth of the youthful god, full of vigour, but who is slain, and condemned to a sojourn in the lower world, from which he is released and revivified in the following spring. <>`

See Agriculture


Modern version of the Akitu festival celebrated by Assyrian Christians


Mesopotamian New Year

The earliest known New Year's festival was celebrated in Babylon around 2000 B.C. in March during the vernal equinox. The celebration, as recorded on cuneiform tablets, lasted for 111 days and featured ritual bathing and hymn singing by priests, parying to Marduk for plentiful crops, parades with costumed dancers, seed-sowing ceremonies, and rubbing a beheaded ram against a shrine. The festival was called Kuppura ("Day of Atonement"). The Jewish holiday Yom Kippur also means "Day of Atonement."

Morris Jastrow said: The spring festival, or New Year festival, symbolised “the marriage of the young sun-god of the spring with the goddess of vegetation. At Nippur the pair was Ninib and his consort Gula; at Lagash, Ningirsu and Bau. When the attributes of all the various local solar deities were transferred to Marduk of Babylon, the consorts of Ninib and Ningirsu and other consorts were replaced by Marduk’s consort Sarpanit,—the Ishtar of Babylon. To an agricultural people the spring represented the birth of the year. Thereupon this spring festival naturally became the new year’s celebration, known by the Sumerian name, Zag-Muk. As Babylon grew in political and religious importance, the new year’s festival became the most solemn occasion of the year. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 <>]

“We have seen that the cult of Nebo, whereof the centre was in the neighbouring Borsippa, was closely-associated with that of Marduk, and that Nebo himself became, in the systematised pantheon, the son of Marduk. A feature of this annual festival was the visit paid by Nebo to his father, Marduk, marked by a procession of the images of the great gods, borne along the via sacra leading to the Marduk temple in Babylon. A heightened solemnity was imparted to the festival by an assemblage of all the great gods in a special chapel, known as the “chamber of fates,” in order to decree for the coming year the fate of the country and of individuals. Over this assembly Marduk presided with his son, Nebo, at his side, acting as recorder. The festival lasted for eleven days, and on the concluding day, as it would appear, the fates decreed by the gods were definitely sealed. <>

“A special interest attaches to this new year’s festival, because it served as the pattern for both the New Year and the Day of Atonement of the Jews. The popular Jewish tradition represents God as sitting in judgment during the first ten days of the year, surrounded by his court of angels, who inscribe in the book of fate the names of all persons with what is to be their destiny for the coming year. To this day the New Year’s greeting among Jews is: “May you be inscribed for a good year!” The nine days intervening between the New Year’s Day and the Day of Atonement are days of probation, but at the dose of the tenth day the book of fate for the year is sealed, and the wish of this day therefore is, “May you be sealed for a good year! <>

“The first days of the new year, among the Babylonians, as well as among the Jews, after their close contact with the Babylonians during the Exilic period, thus assumed an austere character, marked by penitential and expiatory rites and offerings. The consciousness of sin and guilt was brought home at this season of the year with special force to ruler, priests, and people. The rulers, standing nearer to the gods as they did, first performed the expiatory ceremonies, the general term for which was Nam-Bur-Bi, but we may be sure that on this occasion the priests and people participated in the solemn rites. We may further suppose that some of the penitential and lamentation hymns of a personal character, of which we have many examples in the library of Ashur-banapal, and in which the personal sense of guilt and sin is emphasised with fervent appeals for forgiveness were recited during these penitential days of the new year’s festival, even though their application was general, and they may not have been composed for this special occasion.” <>


model of the Ishtar Gate, site of part of the Babylon Akitu festival


Hymns and Lamentations for Mesopotamian Festivals

Morris Jastrow said: “While we meet references to Tammuz in hymns and other compositions, we hear little or nothing of his cult in later days. The question may be raised, therefore, whether or not it was officially recognised in the temples after a certain date. There are, indeed, good reasons for believing that the worship of Tammuz continued as a private, rather than as an official, cult; but from this point of view, the cult becomes even more significant, since it affords an insight into the popular religion, apart from rites merely official. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 <>]

“In contrast to the lamentation hymns, which formed part of the atonement ritual, the hymns to Tammuz are remarkably free from references to national disasters. A personal note runs through them, in keeping with the popular character of a festival, based on the change of seasons, and which is fraught with such significance to an agricultural people. They are largely composed of an enumeration of the names of the god, accompanied by phrases expressive of grief at his removal to the lower world—the abode of the dead. <>

“One of them reads, in part:
[Oh for the lord sitting in sorrow], oh for the lord sitting in sorrow! Damu sits, oh for the lord sitting in sorrow!
Ama-Ushum-Gal sits, oh for the lord sitting in sorrow!
Alas! my hero Damu!
Alas! child, legitimate lord!
Alas! Kadi of the shining [?] eyes!
Alas! Nagar, lord of the net!
Alas! prince, lord of invocation!
Alas! my heavenly wailer!
The raging storm has brought him low,—him that has taken his way to the earth.
Like a reed he is broken . . .
A hero, he has forsaken his field.
A shepherd, Tammuz is cast in sorrow.
His mother wails—she begins the wailing for him.
Wailing and sighing—she begins the wailing for him.
She rises—bitterly she wails!
She sits—she puts her hand on her heart
She breaks out in wailing—bitter is her wailing.
She breaks out in lament—bitter is her lament! <>

“In another lament, we are specifically told: “He is gone, he is gone to the bosom of the earth, / And the dead are numerous in the land! “ “While Tammuz is hidden in the earth, verdure disappears, vegetation ceases, and fertility among animals pauses: “How long will the springing up of verdure be withheld? / How long will vegetation be withheld?


panels of the Ishtar Gate


Akitu Festival at Ur

The Akitu festival is one of the oldest recorded Mesopotamian festivals. The earliest reference, from the middle of the third millennium B.C., probably refers to an Akitu building or celebration at Nippur. Sumerian documents from 2350-2100 B.C. describe the Akitu Festival as a semi-annual event at Ur, Nippur, Adab, Uruk and probably Babtibira. The festival was held at different times in each citiy perhaps to synchronize the festival rites with the ones for the patron deity of each city. The Akitu festival in Ur provided the names for its months. [Source: Lishtar based on the first part of the excellent chapter on the Akitu Festival by Mark Cohen´s “The Cultic Calendars of the Ancient Near East,” CDL Press, Bethesda, Maryland, 1993 ==]

The Akitu festival probably originated as a celebration of the onset of the Equinox cycle. The major theme of the festival was the coming of the Moon God Nanna, symbolized by the waxing of the Moon in the sky and reenacted by the entry of His statue by barge into Ur from outside the city, where it had temporarily resided in a building called the Akitu House. The basic ritual format of the festival was rather straight-forward. The statue of the god left the city in festive procession for temporary residence in the Akitu House, where it received the standard offerings and prayers during its stay. The statue returned to the city in a grand procession, after which the god inaugurated the city’s administration and rites were carried out to determine of the city´s fate. The festival was picked up by other cities of Sumer and Mesopotamia to honor their patron gods in a similar way. ==

The Akitu festival at Ur lasted at least from the first day to the fifth day of the month Nissanu, according to a series of tablets dated from the reign of Ibbi-Sin of Ur. The text of the tablet said that activities occurred at three sites: 1) the Dug-ür sanctuary in Ur, where perhaps a sacred marriage took place on a primordial mound from which the gods and civilization sprang; 2) the Ekishnugal temple of Nanna at Ur; and 3) the Ekarzida temple complex at Gaesh, outside Ur. ==

The high point of the festival was Nanna´s entrance by barge into Ur from the á-ki-ti House in Gaesh. This likely occurred in the third day, when a special offering to the Boat of Heaven, Nanna´s transport to Ur, was made. There were no offerings on the third and fourth days. This seems to indicate Nanna´s absence from the complex. On the fourth day the Great Offering was conducted at the Dug-ür sanctuary, with Ekishnugal, indicating Nanna´s presence in Ur proper. Offerings included, with each offered at different times of the day, reed bundles, bundles of figs, dates, animal offerings (sheep, goat), beer, ghee and oil. ==

The Akitu festival of the 7th month (Tashritum) lasted for at least the first eleven days of the month, with the most important day being the Autumn Equinox, marking the beginning of the triumph of the Moon over the Sun and the start of longer nights, when crops were planted after the dry season. The three ritual sites were the same as those of the festival of Nissanu. The king participated in some of the ceremonies, staying at his royal residence, or the Place of the King at Karzida. During the festival the king held a banquet, but its location is not specified. ==

The two main processions were associated with the Akitu House, one going, the other returning. The late Uruk ritual text BRM 4 7 describes the procession going to the Akitu house, showing priests accompanying Anu to Uruk´s Akitu House (Anu and Inanna/Ishtar were the patron deities of Uruk). Nebuchadnezzar described the opulence of the procession between the Esagila, the temple of Marduk to the Akitu house, as well as the richness and decoration of the god´s barge. The return procession was the most important in Uruk. It was held seven days after the image of Anu was placed in the Akitu House. ==


recreation of the Akitu festival


Description of the Akitu Festival at Ur

A description of the Akitu Festival in Ur from a Sumerian text reads: “The people of Sumer assemble in the palace,
The house which guides the land.
The king builds a throne for the queen of the palace.
He sits beside her on the throne.
In order to care for the life of all the lands,

“The exact first day of the month is closely examined,
And on the day of the disappearance of the moon,
On the day of the sleeping of the moon,
The Sacred Measures, the Me, are perfectly carried out,
So that the New Year´s Day, the day of rites,
May be properly determined,
And a sleeping place be set up for Inanna.

“The people cleanse the rushes with sweet-smelling cedar oil
They arange the rushes for the bed.
They spread a bridal sheet over the bed.
A bridal sheet to rejoice the heart,
A bridal sheet to sweeten the loins,
A bridal sheet for Inanna and Dumuzi.

The queen bathes her holy loins,
Inanna bathes for the holy loins of Dumuzi,
She washes herself with soap,
She sprinkles sweet-smelling cedar oil on the ground.

The king goes with lifted head to the holy loins,
Dumuzi goes with lifted head t the holy loins of Inanna.
He lies down beside her on the bed.
Tenderly he caresses her, murmuring words of love:
"O my holy jewel! O my wondrous Inanna!"
After he enters the holy vulva, causing the queen to rejoice,
After he enters the holy vulva, causing Inanna to rejoice,
Inanna holds him to her and murmurs:

"O Dumuzi, you are truly my love!"
The king bids the people to enter the great hall,
The people bring food offerings and bowls,
They burn juniper resin, perform laving rites,
And pile up sweet-smelling incense.

The king embraces his beloved bride,
Dumuzi embraces Inanna.
Inanna, seated on the royal throne, shines like daylight.
The king, like the sun, shines radiantly by her side.
He arranges abundance, lushness and plenty before her.

He assembles the people of Sumer.
The musicians play for the queen,
They play the loud instruments which drowns out the Southern storm,
They play the sweet algar-instruments, the ornament of the palace,
They play the stringed instrument that brings joy to all people,
They play songs for Inanna to rejoice the heart.

The king reaches out his hand for food and drink,
Dumuzi reaches out his hand for food and drink,
The palace is festive, the king is joyous
In the pure clean place they celebrate Inanna in song.

She is the ornament of the assembly, the joy of Sumer!
The people spend the day in plenty.
The king stands before the assembly in great joy.
He hails Inanna with the praises of the gods and the assembly:
"Holy Priestess! Created with the heavens and earth,
Inanna, first daughter of the Moon, Lady of the Evening!
I sing you praises!" [Source: Akitu Festival At Ur, GatewaysToBabylon.com, piney.com]

20120208-800px-Assyrian_procession.png
ancient Assyrian procession

Babylonian Roots of the Jewish Sabbath

The Sabbath was a Babylonian, as well as a Hebrew, institution. Its origins go back to early Mesopotamian time. The words Sabbat (Hebrew) and Sabbath (from Latin Sabbatum) are of Babylonian origin. In cuneiform tablets, Sabattu is described as a 'day of rest for the soul.' It was derived by the Assyrian scribes from two pre-Semitic Sumerian words, “sa” and “bat”, which meant respectively 'heart' and 'ceasing.' In Akkadian times, the term 'dies nefastus’ was used to describe a day on which certain work was forbidden to be done. Lists of Babylonian festivals and fast-days marks the seventh, fourteenth, nineteenth, twenty-first, and twenty-eighth days of each month as Sabbath-rest days. [Source: Kenneth Sublett, piney.com, A. H. Sayce, The Higher Criticism and the Monuments, p. 74, 1895]

Some have theorized that Jewish Sabbath was a reaction to the Babylonian Sabbath not a copy of it. According to this interpretation, the Sabbath was a holy a day of worship for the Babylonians, who had a strong mostly negative impact on the Jews during Old Testament times, especially during the time of the Babylonian Exile in the 6th century B.C.. For the Babylonians the Sabbath was a day of rest for the Gods not their worshipers. The gods and their earthly agents — namely the political-religious leaders of Babylonia — rested on the Sabbath while the non-ruling population worked to feed, clothe, house, entertain and sexually please the gods and their agents. In some respects the people of Babylon — which for a while included the Jews — were like like slaves for the temple-state, surviving on daily food allowances.

In reaction to this the Jews — according to God’s orders — set aside the Sabbath as a day of rest, not a day of worship. By restricting the practices of the arts and crafts, making a living, being entertained and traveling, God essentially quarantined the pagan sabbaths so that the Jews could not participate. Instead Jews were expected to relax with friends and family, pray (not worship) and listen to the Word of God.

Feast of Marduk and the Sabbath

The earliest Babylonian Sabbath worship honored Marduk with rest while, some say, the lesser gods, people and slaves performed “work” duties to worship him. In the Babylonian accounts, the Babylon Sabbath festival "work" was for the common people but the "rest" was for the "gods." The people served the greater gods by making sacrifices to feed, clothe, house and entertain the gods. Women musicians and prostitutes were part of the team. There were even female musical worship teams that performed sexual acts to entertain him. One Babylonian passage related to the Sabbath reads: “ Let the bonds of the gods be bound upon them; / For future days the limit Be established; / The yoke and lifting cord on their hands Be placed,[Source: Kenneth Sublett, piney.com]


Assyrian banquet


Saturday honored Saturn, the planet associated with Marduk, which explains why the Jewish Sabbath is on that day. The Akkadian term shapattu, suggests a Babylonian origin for the seven-day week and the Sabbath. But shapattu refers to the day of the Full Moon and is not described as a day of rest. Why a seven-day week was chosen is not clearly known as it does not fit well into either a solar or lunar calendar. Babylonian Sabbath rules were applied on the 14th, 15th, 21st, 28th days. It did not apply to all people and business was conducted as usual. "Only royalty enjoyed the seventh-day rest.”

Marduk was the chief god of the city of Babylon. Originally he seems to have been a god of thunderstorms. A poem, known as Enuma elish and dating from the reign of Nebuchadrezzar I (1124-03 B.C.), relates Marduk's rise to such preeminence that he was the god of 50 names, each one that of a deity or of a divine attribute. After conquering the monster of primeval chaos, Tiamat, he became "lord of the gods of heaven and earth." All nature, including man, owed its existence to him; the destiny of kingdoms and subjects was in his hands.

One text on the Babylonian Sabbath reads:
The seventh day is the feast of Marduk and Zarpanit..
The Shepherd of the great people shall not eat
flesh cooked on the coals which is smoked.
The garment of his body he shall not change;
A clean one he shall not put on.
A sacrifice he shall not offer.
The king in a chariot shall not ride.
In triumph he shall not speak.
In the secret place a seer shall not give an oracle.
The physician shall not lay his hand on the sick.
It is not fitting to utter a malediction.
At night before Marduk and Ishtar
the king shall bring his offering;
A libation he shall pour out.
The lifting up of his hands
shall then be pleasing to the gods. [Source: George Barton, “Archaeology and the Bible”, 7th Edition, p. 309.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons except Akitu festival images, Brown University and atours.com

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Mesopotamia sourcebooks.fordham.edu , National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, especially Merle Severy, National Geographic, May 1991 and Marion Steinmann, Smithsonian, December 1988, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, BBC, Encyclopædia Britannica, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018


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