The Coronation Ritual

In Mesopotamia generally and in Assyria in particular, the mythic concept of kingship originating in heaven, as related in the Sumerian King List and other narratives of power, was integral to the ritual performance of the coronation ritual. This ritual was often not performed in the capital; in cases where the religious center and the political capital were not one and the same, the ceremony invariably took place in the religious center, which in Assyria was Aššur. This choice can be explained by the fact that the coronation ritual's objective — through which the king took symbolic possession of the powers of his office — was to connect the individual royal person with the divine world and thus to reassert the link between the king as body politic and the gods. By virtue of its performance in the religious center, i.e. Aššur, the coronation ritual served to concretize and materialize the cosmological notion of kingship and, concomitantly, to affirm the intertwinement of the institutions of the palace and the temple of the supreme god Aššur. The coronation ceremonial, consequently, stressed the connection between the symbolic function of the individual king and his relationship with the active center of social and cosmic order represented by the seat of the chief god and the home of the leading religious elites.[[144]]

The performance of the coronation ritual defined the king's cosmic identity and authoritatively imposed on him his obligation to act by the command of and in compliance with the gods. As part of his heroic destiny, the king was obliged to work toward the conquest and subjugation of the known universe, which was ultimately considered the domain of the gods. At least within Assyrian culture, the cosmic role of the king as divine warrior explains why his military and priestly duties were so closely intertwined. As is done by Maurice Bloch, the theological superstructure of the coronation ritual can be interpreted as a means of legitimating traditional authority.[[145]] Beyond its legitimating function, however, the Middle Assyrian Coronation Ritual also outlined and defined the king's scope of action and shaped and affirmed the particular socio-political organization of the higher echelons of the Assyrian administrative apparatus. Moreover, the royal commemorative inscriptions reveal that the ritual never lost its semantic components. Throughout Assyrian history kings perpetually strove to affirm that they had met the requirements of their office and, consequently, that they corresponded to the image of the ideal king.

Given the cosmic and social importance assigned to kingship in the ancient Near Eastern Weltanschauung, it is surprising how little evidence survives that can be directly associated with the coronation ritual. There are, however, a few texts attested from the second through the first millennium BCE that list the regalia of the royal office and the host of competences transferred to the king by the gods in order to enable him to successfully fulfill the duties associated with his office; these texts shed much light on the social definition and identity[[146]] of kingship in Mesopotamia and on the cultural meaning of the coronation ritual in particular. In contrast to Early Dynastic Ebla in Syria, where a ritual for a marriage and coronation ceremony survives,[[147]] the ritual investiture of the king is not attested in Old Sumerian texts. For the Ur III period and Isin I period, information about the coronation of the king can only be found in administrative texts and literary texts such as royal hymns. Administrative texts from the period of lbbi-Suen record offerings in Nippur, the seat of the supreme god Enlil, on the occasion of the king's reception of the brimmed cap (aga3), the most important signifier of rulership. In addition to Enlil in Nippur, the new ruler had to pay homage to Inanna in Uruk, Nanna in Ur, and Ninhursag in Nutur.[[148]]

The royal hymns of the Ur III kings convey the same message: the coronation of the new king took place in Nippur and not in Ur, their royal residence. Following the king's blessing by Enlil, he travelled to other southern cultic centers, among them Uruk and Ur, in order to receive the blessings of the respective city gods. It should be noted in this regard that in the Ur III hymns the investiture of the king was sometimes connected to his military achievements. Akin to the emplotment of Old Babylonian and later myths, Ur III royal hymns present the act of subduing of the enemy as a prerequisite for the king's promotion. Šulgi's journey to Nippur with the booty collected on his military campaigns very much resembles Ningirsu's triumphal entry into Ekur in order to present his trophies to Enlil and secure the establishment of his cult:

He (= Šulgi) moored the boat at the temple area of Nibru, the temple area Dur-an-ki, at Enlil's Kar-geština. He entered before Enlil with the silver and lapis lazuli of the foreign lands loaded into leather pouches and leather bags, all their heaped-up treasures, and with the amassed wealth of the foreign lands.[[149]]

Enlil in turn decrees a good destiny for Šulgi, guaranteeing him a long-lasting and successful reign, whereupon the king travels to the major cultic centers of Sumer to receive the blessings of their patron deities.

An Old Babylonian bilingual text from the reign of Hammurabi inscribed on a stone statue reveals that the Babylonian mandate for rulership also consisted essentially of winning battles in order to maintain the cosmic and social order originally established by the gods. In all periods, the gods are said to bestow the regalia and typical royal characteristics of leadership upon kings primarily to enable them to succeed in this regard. Although the Old Babylonian text has traditionally been classified as a hymn, Wassermann recently categorized it as a secondary textualization of "oracular messages by several gods to Hammurabi, calling him not to wait any longer but to dare and move against his adversaries."[[150]]

"Enlil gave you a heroic destiny — as for you, for whom do you wait?
"Sîn gave you leadership — as for you, for whom do you wait?
"Ninurta gave you an exalted weapon-As for you, for whom do you wait?
"Inanna gave you battle and strife — as for you, for whom do you wait?
"Šamaš and Adad are watching over you — as for you, for whom do you wait?
gain the victory, make yourself a hero In the four world regions,
That your name be invoked forever.
"May the numerous peoples be prayerful and supplicant to you,
"May they recount of you great (poems) of praise!
"May they sound of you exalted adulation!
He showed forth his great power to the distant future,
Hammurabi, the great warrior king,
Who struck down his enemies, a deluge in warfare,
Who leveled the land of the foe, who extinguished warfare,
Who suppressed insurrections, who destroyed opponents,
Like figurines of clay,
Who found the way out of numerous difficult crises,
(breaks off) [[151]]

It is only from the Middle Assyrian period onward that there is concrete evidence for the transmission of the ritual prescription for the coronation ceremony. The Middle Assyrian coronation ritual is complemented by a coronation ritual from the late Sargonid period (seventh century BCE)[[152]] that for the most part records only the hymns to be recited during the ritual. The beginning of the Middle Assyrian coronation ritual text does not survive, but the remainder of the text suggests that while the magnates and eunuchs perform a particular rite in the Aššur temple, a procession including the king sets out from the palace (mentioned in no. 7 i 33') — in this case probably the Old Palace — and proceeds through the Anzû Gate toward the Aššur temple, in this text referred to as the 'House of God':

[Having finished] their blessings, [the magnates and the royal eunuchs] place [......] before Aššur [...]. The king [......]. touches the king [......]... The carrier[s pla]ce [the throne of the king upon their necks] and s[et off] for the House of God (=Aššur temple). They enter the [House] of God. The priest of Aššur slaps [the king's face] in their presence and says thus: "Aššur is king! Aššur is king!" He says so [as far as] the Anzû Gate. [Having r]eached the Anzû Gate, the king [en]ters the House of God. (no. 7 I 22'-30')

Given the general conception in modern scholarship of the Assyrian king as a despot, the participation of the magnates and royal eunuchs in the ritual performance and their role in confirming the king in his office is notable, as they are assigned at least a symbolic part in his enthronement. During his coronation, the Assyrian king endured humiliation by being slapped in the face by the šangû, which is comparable to the king's humiliation in the Babylonian akītu-festival.[[153]] This humiliation was not so much a temporary degradation in status as in the Babylonian case, but was intended to stress the Assyrian king's inferior status vis­a-vis Aššur, i.e. his stewardship, with kingship being reserved for the supreme god.

Once in the temple, the Assyrian king presents numerous stones to a variety of deities.[[154]] The long lists of stones presented as offerings to the gods are peculiar to this ritual and are not attested elsewhere in Assyrian rituals on a comparable scale.[[155]] Following the offering of stones, the Middle Assyrian ritual continues with prescriptions regarding the crown of Aššur and the weapons of Ištar­Mullissu as well as the king's headgear (kulūlu). Subsequently, while the šangû­ priest places the royal headdress on the head of the future king, the magnates and royal eunuchs recite the following blessing:

May Aššur and [M]ullissu, the owners of your crown, co[v]er you with your crown for a hundred years!
May your foot be good in the temple and your hands be good [a]t the chest of Aššur, your God!
May your priest[hood] and that of your sons be pleasing to Aššur. Expand your country with your just scepter! Expand your country with your just scepter! May Aššur give you command (qabâ), understanding (šemâ),[[156]] obedience (magīra), justice (kitta)[[157]] and peace (salīma)!" (no. 7 30ff)

By combining the cultic and political actions of the king, this blessing provides a religious foundation for royal action in general. After blessing the king, the magnates and courtiers pay homage to him and kiss his feet. The king leaves the Aššur temple through the courtyard of Nunnamnir and returns to the palace. Once they have performed a ritual on the rēš hameluhhi, which is part of the palace, the cultic specialists carry the king first to the terrace (tamlû), which was built at the latest under Tukultī-Ninurta I,[[158]] and then to the bīt labbūni located in the northeastern annex and dating to the Middle Assyrian period, where they place him on the royal throne. Again the magnates and courtiers pay homage to the king, while he remains seated on the throne. The courtiers then present gifts to the king, of which the first is taken to the Aššur temple and placed before Aššur as the revenue of the šangû.

Another key moment in the ritual takes place at this point, involving the reinstatement under the new king of those who are part of the Assyrian state apparatus. The grand vizier, the second vizier, and other officials and cultic personnel divest themselves of the insignia of their office and present themselves to the king as individuals bereft of their previous positions. The king then addresses them with the words, "Everybody may keep his office!" After paying homage yet again, the officials return to their hierarchically determined places. A list of stones offered to various gods follows.

The subscript of the tablet states that its prescribed offerings were to enter the temples of the gods of Kar Tukultī-Ninurta; additionally, the tablet states that the gods of Kar Tukultī-Ninurta dwell in Aššur, thus indicating that the text must have been written after the reign of Tukultī-Ninurta I, when his new capital had been abandoned and its gods had been returned to Aššur. Following a ruling, the text continues to list offerings for gods.

All three blessings or speech acts performed by the king or the magnates and eunuchs establish and reinforce the reality of the Assyrian organization of power by means of their perlocutionary force. The first blessing acclaims the kingship of the god Aššur and implicitly establishes the inferior status of the Assyrian ruler as his steward. The second blessing acclaims the king in his role as the chief šangû of Aššur, which, as stated earlier in this book, includes the king's role as a warrior who is divinely commanded to expand the borders of Assyria, thus introducing a cosmological concept of war preceding the creation of order. As is the case in the rhetoric of the Assyrian royal inscriptions, the internal logic of this cosmological concept is that only by means of war and the defeat of the enemy can the king achieve peace and justice.

This is also why Aššur is entreated to bestow eloquence, understanding, obedience, justice, and peace on the king only after the king is instructed to expand Assyria's borders. The third speech act was performed by the king himself, who reinstated the magnates and eunuchs in their offices, thereby making clear their dependence on the institution of kingship and their inferior status in relationship to it. No other text expresses so clearly how the Assyrian state hierarchy and power structure were ideally conceived: 1) the god Aššur, 2) the king as steward and šangû of Aššur, 3) the courtiers, and 4) other officials. Indeed, establishing this hierarchical organization appears to have been the central concern of the coronation ritual.

The transformational quality of the coronation ritual's performance is implicit in the annalistic texts of Adad-nīrārī II (911-891 BCE), which include a beautiful example of the idea that high rank and status is intrinsically linked with perfection in outer appearance — a concept that, as we have seen, is also integral to the Gilgamesh Epic. Only the perfect royal body can be turned into a body politic and be entrusted with kingship by the gods:

The great gods, who take firm decisions, who decree destinies, they properly created me, Adad-nārārī (II), attentive prince, [...], they altered my stature to lordly stature (nabnīti bēlūti), they rightly made perfect my features (šikin bunnannīya) and filled my lordly body (zumur bēlūtīya) with wisdom. After the great gods had decreed (my destiny, after) they had entrusted to me the scepter for the shepherding of the people, (after) they had raised me above crowned kings (and) placed on my head the royal splendor (melamme šarrūti), they made my almighty name greater then (that of) all lords, the important name Adad-nārārī (II), king of Assyria, they called me. Strong king, king of Assyria, king of the four quarters, sun of all people, I.[[159]]

The various text categories that have appeared in the preceding discussion — hymn, ritual, and royal inscription — demonstrate that we should not subscribe to the categorical divide between ritual as practice and discourse as represented in the theological superstructure. While authorizing social structures and hierarchies, ritual must evoke the cosmological discourse in order to map the institution of kingship onto the larger cosmic scheme. The affective force of the coronation ritual consisted in re-doing the hierarchical relationships in a formalized way (dromena) and substantiating them through the verbal specification of this act (legomena) in order to physically and mentally shape and materialize the organization of power between temple and palace and between god, king, courtiers, and officials in the Assyrian state. The Assyrian coronation ritual includes ritualized elaborations of functional movements like moving between palace and temple, various prostrations performed by the king in front of the god and by the magnates and officials in front of the king, slapping the king's cheek, and moving the insignia of kingship. All of these acts contributed to the bodily, physical experience of the intended hierarchy of power and enhanced its experience and communication.[[160]]

144 The Mesopotamian model is thus more complex than the case discussed by C. Geertz, "Centers, Kings' and Charisma: Reflections on the Symbolics of Power," in Culture and its Creators. Essays in Honor of Edward Shils Eds. J. Ben-David and T. N. Clark (Chicago and London, 1977) 150-171,151.

145 M. Bloch, Ritual, History and Power: Selected Papers in Anthropology (London) 1989.

146 P. Bourdieu, Language and Symbolic Power (Cambridge, MA, 1991) 120f.

147 ARET 11, 1 and 2.

148 See Sallaberger and Westenholz 1999, 172-73.

149 Šulgi D ETCSL 2. 4. 2. 04:373-381.

150 N. Wassermann, "CT 21, 40-42. A Bilingual Report of an Oracle with a Royal Hymn of Hammurabi,RA 86 (1992) 1-18, 13.

151 Foster 2005, 136f.; N. Wasserman, "CT 21, 40-42, A Bilingual Report of an Oracle with a Royal Hymn of Hammurabi," RA 86 (1992) 1-18.

152 Livingstone, SAA 3 11.

153 See most recently Pongratz-Leisten 2014.

154 Annus 2002, 162 suggests that this offering is reminiscent of the section in Lugal-e in which Ninurta judges the stones, variously cursing and blessing them while assigning either good or bad properties to them. The cursing and blessing scene is modeled after judgment in court, and the stones are evaluated according to their behavior in the battle against Ninurta. For the stones see also J. N. Postgate, "Mesopotamian Petrology: Stages in the Classification of the Material World," Cambridge Archaeological Journal 7 (1997) 205-224.

155 See no. 7 ii 4 for a similar kind of offering.

156 Translated "attention" in no. 7: 35.

157 Translated "truth" in no. 7: 36.

158 Miglus 1986, 201.

159 RIMA 2, Adad-nārārī II A.0.99.2:5-10.

160 R. A. Rappaport, Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity (Cambridge, 1999) 50f.

Beate Pongratz-Leisten

Beate Pongratz-Leisten, 'The Coronation Ritual', Assyrian Royal Rituals and Cultic Texts, SAA 20. Original publication: Winona Laka, IN, Eisenbrauns, 2017; online contents: SAAo/SAA20 Project, a sub-project of MOCCI, 2020 []

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SAAo/SAA20, 2014-. Since 2015, SAAo is based at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, Historisches Seminar (LMU Munich, History Department) - Alexander von Humboldt Chair for Ancient History of the Near and Middle East. Content released under a CC BY-SA 3.0 [] license, 2007-20.
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