Akitu or Akitum (barley-cutting, barley-sowing, head of the year) was a spring festival in ancient Mesopotamia. The Babylonian Akitu festival has played a pivotal role in the development of theories of religion, myth and ritual, yet the purpose of the festival remains a point of contention among both historians of religion and Assyriologists.
The name is from the Sumerian for “barley”, originally marking two festivals celebrating the beginning of each of the two half-years of the Sumerian calendar, marking the sowing of barley in autumn and the cutting of barley in spring. In Babylonian religion it came to be dedicated to Marduk’s victory over Tiamat.
The Babylonian festival traditionally started on 21 Adar – 1 Nisannu.
First to third Day
The priest of Ésagila (Marduk’s house) would recite sad prayers with the other priests and the people would answer with equally sad prayers which expressed humanity’s fear of the unknown. This fear of the unknown explains why the high priest would head to the Ésagila every day asking for Marduk’s forgiveness, begging him to protect Babylon, his holy city, and asking him to have favor on the city. This prayer was called “The Secret Of Ésagila”. It reads as followed: “Lord without peer in thy wrath, Lord, gracious king, lord of the lands, Who made salvation for the great gods, Lord, who throwest down the strong by his glance, Lord of kings, light of men, who dost apportion destinies, O Lord, Babylon is thy seat, Borsippa thy crown The wide heavens are thy body…. Within thine arms thou takest the strong…. Within thy glance thou grantest them grace, Makest them see light so that they proclaim thy power. Lord of the lands, light of the Igigi, who pronnouncest blessings; Who would not proclaim thy, yea, thy power? Would not speak of thy majesty, praise thy dominion? Lord of the lands, who livest in Eudul, who takest the fallen by the hand; Have pity upon thy city, Babylon Turn thy face towards Esagila, thy temple Give freedom to them that dwell in Babylon, thy wards!” On the third day special craftsmen would create two puppets made of wood, gold, and precious stones and dress them in red. These puppets were set aside and would be used on the sixth day
The same rituals would be followed as in the previous three days. Before the sunrise the priests looked for the sacred stars “Acre”. During the day the Epic of Creation Enuma Elish would be recited. The Enuma Elish, is most likely the oldest story concerning the birth of the gods and the creation of the universe and human beings. It then explains how all the gods united in the god Marduk, following his victory over Tiamat. The recitation of this Epic was considered the beginning of preparations for the submission of the King of Babylon before Marduk on the fifth day of Akitu. During the night a drama was performed that praised Marduk as well.
The submission of the king of Babylon before Marduk. The king would enter to the Esagila accompanied by the priests, they would approach all together the altar where the high priest of the Esagila impersonates Marduk then he approaches the king, begins to strip him of his jewelry, scepter and even his crown then he would slap him hard while the altar would kneel and begins to pray asking for Marduk’s forgiveness and submitting to him saying: “I have not sinned O Lord of the universe, and I haven’t neglected your heavenly might at all”… Then the priest in the role of Marduk says: “Don’t be afraid of what Marduk has to say, for he will hear your prayers, extends your power, and increases the greatness of your reign”. The removal of all worldly possessions is a symbol of the submission the king gives to Marduk. After this the king would stand up and the priest would give him back his jewelry, scepter and crown then slaps him hard again hoping for the king to shed tears, because that would express more the submission to Marduk and respect to his power. When the priest returns the crown to the king that means his power was renewed by Marduk, thus April would be considered not only the revival of nature and life but also to the State as well. Thus, these ceremonies would make the greatest and most feared personalities of that time submit to the greatest god, and live a humbling moment with all the population, sharing prayers to prove their faith before the might of God. Following his presence in his earthly home Babylon and renewing its king’s power, god Marduk stays in the Etemenanki (a ziggurat or tower composed of seven floors, known in the Torah as the Tower of Babylon) where was Marduk’s dwelling or in the temple Esagila (in the Torah God would dwell on a “mountain” Psalms 74:2). During this day according to the tradition of Akitu, Marduk would enter his dwelling and is surprised by the evil gods who will fight him, then he’s taken prisoner by Tiamat, the chaos monster and goddess of the ocean, and awaits for arrival of his son god Nabu who would save him from “Nought” and restore his glory.
Before the gods arrived, the day would be filled with commotion. The puppets that were made on the third day would be burned and mock battle would be taking place as well. This commotion signified that without Marduk, the city would be in constant chaos. The arrival of God Nabu in boats accompanied by his assistants of brave Gods coming from Nippur, Uruk, Kish, and Eridu (cities ancient Babylonia). The Gods accompanying Nabu would be represented by statues which would be mounted on boats made especially for the occasion. Here the people in huge numbers would begin their walk behind their king towards the Esagila where Marduk is held prisoner, chanting the following :”Here’s he who’s coming from far to restore the glory of our imprisoned father”.
On the third day of his imprisonment Nabu frees Marduk. The evil gods had closed a huge gate behind him when he entered his dwelling. Marduk would be fighting till Nabu’s arrival, when he would break in the huge gate and a battle would go on between the two groups, until Nabu comes out victorious and frees Marduk.
When Marduk is set free, the statues of the gods are gathered in the Destinies Hall “Ubshu-Ukkina”, to deliberate his destiny, there it is decided to join all the forces of the gods and bestow them upon Marduk. Here, the king implores all the gods to support and honor Marduk, and this tradition was an indication that Marduk received submission from all the gods and was unique in his position.
The victory procession to the “House of Akitu” where Marduk’s victory in the beginning of Creation over the dragon Tiamat (goddess of the nether waters) is celebrated. The House of Akitu which the Assyrians of Nineveh called “Bet Ekribi” (“House of Prayers” in old Assyrian language), was about 200 meters outside the city’s walls, where there were wonderful trees decorated and watered carefully out of respect to the god who’s considered the one to grant nature its life. The victory procession was the population’s way to express its joy at Marduk’s (Ashur) renewal of power and the destruction of evil forces which almost controlled life in the beginning.
Arriving at “Bet Akitu”, god Marduk begins to celebrate with both the upper and nether world gods (the statues of gods were arranged around a huge table such as in a feast) then Marduk returns to the city at night celebrating his marriage to goddess “Ishtar” where earth and heaven are united, and as the gods unite so is this union arranged on earth. Thus the king personifies this union by playing the role of marrying the highest priestess of the Esagila where they would both sit at the throne before the population and they recite special poems for the occasion. This love is going to bring forth life in spring.
The gods return accompanied by their Lord Marduk to meet again in the Destinies Hall “Upshu Ukkina”, where they met for the first time on the eighth day, this time they will decide the fate of the people of Marduk. In ancient Assyrian philosophy Creation in general was considered as a covenant between heaven and earth as long as a human serves the gods till his death, therefore, gods’ happiness isn’t complete except if humans are happy as well, thus a human’s destiny will be to be given happiness on the condition that he serves the gods. So Marduk and the gods renew their covenant with Babylon, by promising the city another cycle of seasons. After the fate of mankind is decided, Marduk returns to the heavens.
The last day of Akitu. The gods return to Marduk’s temple (the statues are returned to the temple) and daily life resumes in Babylon, Nineveh, and the rest of the Assyrian cities. The people begin to plow and prepare for another cycle of seasons.
The Babylonian Akitu seems to have been a development from the earlier Sumerian myth of Inanna’s descent into the underworld, from the early Bronze Age.
All the people in the city would celebrate, including the awilu (upper class), muskena (middle class), wardu (lower class), High Priest, and the King
The festival was also adopted in Iron Age Assyria, following the destruction of Babylon. King Sennacherib in 683 BC built an “Akitu house” outside the walls of Assur. Another “Akitu house” was built outside Nineveh.
Marduk in the myth enacted in the festival is preserved in the so-called Marduk Ordeal Text (KAR 143). In this myth, Marduk appears as a life-death-rebirth deity, reflecting the festival’s agrarian origin based on the cycle of sowing and harvesting. He is imprisoned in the underworld and rises again on the third day. The obvious parallel to the death and resurrection of Christ celebrated at Christian Easter has been noted at an early time, and elaborated in detail by Heinrich Zimmern in his 1918 editio princeps. Tikva Frymer-Kensky noted that Pallis (1926) rejected some of the Christological parallels noted by Zimmern, but continued to stress that the death of Marduk, the lamentation over him, his subsequent restoration and the rejoicing over his resurrection is among the Near Eastern templates for the Christ myth. Yet Frymer-Kensky goes on to say that further analysis by von Soden shows that this text is not a tale of a dying and resurrecting god, but that it is a manifestly political text relating to the enmity between Assyria and Babylon. The political themes don’t involve anyway that the mythical module of the resurrecting god would be meant as inexistent. This theme of a dying young (harvest/vegetable) God (common throughout the Middle east) is also reflected in the legends of Tammuz, and is condemned in the Bible as “women weeping for Tammuz” even in the temple of the Hebrew God.
The Akitu festival was continued throughout the Seleucid period and into the Roman Empire period. At the beginning of the 3rd century, it was still celebrated in Emessa, Syria, in honour of the god Elagabal. Roman Emperor Elagabalus (r. 218-222), who was of Syrian origin, even introduced the festival in Italy (Herodian, Roman History, 5.6).
Contemporary Near Eastern spring festivals
Iranians traditionally celebrate 21 March as Noruz (“New Day”). Kha b-Nissan is the name of the spring festival among the Assyrians. The festival is celebrated on April 1, corresponding to the start of the Assyrian calendar. The Akkadian name Akitu has been re-introduced in Assyrianism, falling on 1 Nisan of the “Assyrian calendar” introduced in the 1950s, corresponding to the 1 April of the Gregorian calendar.://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O3V98RC_mKU
The Festival of Seharane is continuously celebrated by Jews from Northern Iraq, Western Iran and Southeast Turkey in the last 2000 years, it is a direct descendant of Akitu which modified it to the day after Passover, it was created by converts from Ashurism to Judaism probably at the time of Kingdom of Adiabene.