The Assyrian State Rituals: Re-invention of Tradition

The Contribution of Ritual to Create a Unified Territory

When Assyria developed into a territorial state during the Middle Assyrian period and then a large-scale empire during the Neo-Assyrian period, it faced the problem of integrating local communities and their activities into a more complex centralized organizational system.[[1]] In order to control conquered regions, Assyria relied not only on its superiority in technological warfare, but also on various economic, ideological, and political strategies.[[2]] Throughout Mesopotamian history, rulers made use of similar strategies to maintain their authority, favoring one or the other; in Assyria, these strategies were formed into a coherent system and perfected. During the Middle Assyrian period, Assyrian expansion toward the Ha.bur and beyond[[3]] prompted the implementation of economic measures that strengthened Aššur's position as the imperial center. A two-tiered system served to bind the provinces to the administrative and cultic center of Aššur, namely the payment of regular taxes to the palace and the monthly delivery of gināʾu offerings to the Aššur temple.

Information regarding the gināʾu offering comes from tablets found in ten clay pots at the southwest side of the large forecourt of the Aššur temple of the Middle Assyrian period, rebuilt under Shalmaneser I (1263-1234 BCE). Nearly all of these tablets concern the administration of the gināʾu offerings in the Aššur temple.[[4]] Among these texts are tabular lists that supply data in condensed form regarding the total amount of the four different kinds of gināʾu offerings from the provinces of the Assyrian empire that were delivered to Aššur in one year, including cereals, honey, sesame, and fruit. There was a great deal of variation in the quantity and nature of deliveries from the various provinces from year to year, but the average annual total received by the Aššur temple is estimated to be approximately "1000 homer (c. 100 m3) cereals, 10 homer (c. 1 m3) honey, 100 homer (c. 10 m3) sesame and 50 homer (c. 5 m3) fruit."[[5]] These deliveries were managed by the supervisor of the gināʾu offerings (šā muhhi gināʾe). Three such supervisors are known by name from the period between Tukultī-Ninurta I (1233-1197 BCE) and Aššur-dan I (1169-1134),[[6]] though during the reign of Tiglath-pileser I (1114-1076 BCE) a comparable office — perhaps the same office with a different designation — was held by a person named Ezbu-lēšer, who bore the title rab gināʾe.

Although most of the tabular lists of gināʾu offerings can be dated to Tiglath­Pileser I, eponyms in some of the texts indicate that the archive begins toward the end of Tukultī-Ninurta I's reign;[[7]] as such, the archive documents a practice stretching over more than a hundred years. The tabular lists are five column­tablets of horizontal format, of which four columns list quantities of cereals, honey, sesame, and fruit, while the fifth column lists provinces. These tablets give a sense of the territory that was actually under the control of the Assyrian king,[[8]] and it is interesting to note that the deliveries are designated by the term maddattu, "tribute" that was supplied by provincial governors.[[9]] In other words, only the provinces of the land of Aššur (māt Aššur) were obliged to send these regular deliveries — not the vassal kingdoms. Twenty-five tabular lists have been identified thus far.[[10]] The headings or subscripts of these lists refer either to 'received regular offerings' (gināʾu mahru)[[11]] or 'missing regular offerings' (gināʾu muṭṭāʾu)[[12]] Some lists bear the subscript "later/final? cleared list of the eponym PN" (ṭuppu urkītu za(k)kūtu ša lime PN).[[13]] The list of provinces obliged to send regular deliveries to the Aššur temple was probably established under Ninurta-apil-ekur (1181-1169 BCE), though the practice essentially dates back to the reign of Tukultī-Ninurta I.[[14]]

The gināʾu offerings supplied by the provinces represent only very basic provisions for the Aššur temple, and their purpose appears to have been primarily symbolic. From a financial perspective, the support provided by the gināʾu offerings was not of great consequence and could have been provided by the lands of the temple itself. These offerings thus served to express the binding together of the imperial center and the imperial periphery,[[15]] a relationship reinforced by the performance of the tākultu ritual, as is discussed below.

A modified system of regular offerings appears to have operated during the Neo-Assyrian period, as is demonstrated by a decree of Adad-nīrārī III (810-783 BCE) concerning regular offerings for the Aššur temple,[[16]] sealed with the seal of Aššur and Ninurta. In this instance, however, only a few towns — all located in the province of Arbela — had the obligation to supply offerings. This document contains the interesting regulation decreeing that towns, fields, houses, orchards, and people are not to be given to any other governor, only to the one responsible for the Aššur temple.

Several letters from the Neo-Assyrian period sent to the king by temple officials report failure to deliver offerings to the Aššur temple and other temples and ask the king what action should be taken.[[17]] In the following case, the complaint concerns the failure to deliver livestock:

1 [To the king], my lord: [your servant, D]adî. [Good health t]o the king, my lord. May Nabû and Marduk bless the king, my lord.
5 Two oxen and 20 sheep, offerings of the king's heart (to be provided) by the city of Diquqina, have not been delivered. The king, my lord, should inquire about them. Three rams are for the temple of Dag[an, x] are for the town of [... for the me]al of [ ]. It has now been [x] years that they have not been delivering. They have ceased. The king, my lord [should ] his soldiers.
r.2 The priest of Aššur consumes [(...)] 20 sheep from the [offerin]gs of Shebat (XI). Last year I wrote to the king, my lord, about it. The king, my lord, wrote back, saying: "Assign (them) to the storehouse for pickled meat." I assigned (them). Now the temple scribe is saying to me: "Give them to the harem governess of the Inner City." Now then, I have written to the king, my lord. What is it [that] the [ki]ng, my lord, commands?[[18]]

In addition to the administrative and economic strategies for integrating various communities into a coherent imperial system described above, there was also an ideological dimension. It is breathtaking to observe how from the reign of Šamšī­ Adad I (1808-1776 BCE) onward, Assyrian and Babylonian scholars creatively engaged with cultural models extant in the Hurrian and Babylonian tradition and interweaved mythology and ritual performance in order to anchor the image of Assyrian kingship in the contemporary Weltanschauung.

Assyrian rituals are part of this ideological discourse, and the collection of rituals contained in this volume presents the modern scholar with a unique insight into the Assyrian exploitation of Sumero-Babylonian and Hurrian myth and ritual practice to generate their own ideological program this revolving around the figure of the king as the human agent of the supreme god Aššur. In the present day, reading the rituals as a group rather than individually enables us today to appreciate the 'syntax' of Assyrian ritual, which was built on a number of constituents that continuously reiterated the king's primary task of securing the cosmic order; this demonstrates that these rituals from the Middle Assyrian period onward were created by an informed scholar for an educated audience capable of identifying the rich allusions to mythology conjured by ritual performance.

While ceremonial public performance and ritual figured as one of the central devices at further displaying the king's authority as resting on divine support and consent, their efficacy can only be understood by modern scholars if read in conjunction with the cultic commentaries published by Alasdair Livingstone[[19]] and the extant corpus of ancient Near Eastern mythology revolving around the divine figure of the warrior god. While formerly perceived as an esoteric genre somewhat disconnected from the rest of cultural production, the corpus of cultic commentaries forms the backbone to our understanding of Assyrian rituals. The prescription for ritual performance to the uninformed reader just read like instructions for the preparation of sumptuous offerings, but in reality, as the commentaries teach us, the ritual reiterates a sequence of action blending hunting, warfare and cosmic battle into a continuum of confronting the forces of chaos to completely subdue them to Assyrian control. Unlike Greek drama this re­ enactment of the cosmic battle does not operate in a linear narrative. Rather ritual prescriptive texts or ritual reports and commentary literature choose key moments of action, objects or songs and words referencing these actions that for the informed viewer and reader evoke the narrative.

The ideological implications of Assyrian state ritual can only be understood if viewed from the perspective on kingship in the ancient world, which located the king as guarantor of civic and cosmic order at center stage. It is these obligations, linked with the office of kingship, that explain the pervasive existence of combat myths and their ritual reenactment in royal context. Such combat myths include the Sumerian and Babylonian stories revolving around the warrior deity Ningirsu/Ninurta, who by his victory over chaos secured his position as administrator of Enlil. This role in Assyrian ideology was emulated by the king and defined the essence of his office. In Babylonia, elements of the warrior mythology were absorbed into the theology shaping the image of the Babylonian chief god Marduk during the second half of the second millennium. In the Tigridian region, such mythological elements also formed part of the narrative recounting around the storm god Tišpak of Ešnunna's battle against the snake dragon at the request of the older god Sîn,[[20]] a mythic tale perhaps referenced in the iconography of cylinder seals by as early as the Akkadian period. With the implementation of Hurrian domination in Northern Syria during the second millennium BCE, the imagery of the weather god smiting the snake dragon made its way into the iconography of a stele found at the city of Terqa located on the middle Euphrates. Purely of Southern Anatolian style, the stele was appropriated by an Assyrian king.[[21]] The battle between a weather god and a snake dragon subsequently reappears in the textual medium on a seventh century tablet from Nineveh recounting Tišpak's smiting of the Labbu.[[22]] It surfaces again in a seal from late Neo-Assyrian Tušhan (modern Ziyaret Tepe).[[23]]

Irrespective of local and temporal variations and differences the general plot is straightforward: a warrior deity battles disruptive and hostile forces, which had formerly unsettled the cosmic balance. The gods convene to deliberate and at first choose representatives of the elder generation to confront the disruptive element. This tactic generally fails and so either a mother goddess is consulted whom to choose next (Serpent Myth) or an elder god persuades a younger god, sometimes his son, to go into battle. This battle generally does not go without crisis and the younger god might need the help overcome the challenge how to bring down the adversary. The solution, whenever preserved, generally does not lie in application of brutal force but the use of the word, either in form of an incantation (Enūma eliš) or the use of the cylinder seal (Labbu Myth). Through his victory the young warrior is able to elevate his position in the pantheon to one immediately alongside the existing chief deity, or during the period of the empires to secure his position as chief god of the pantheon and absorb the role of the creator god formerly held by a representative of the older generation.

The contribution of myth and ritual as explanatory patterns to the developing ideological framework, which not only asserted a utopian vision of the king mastering any potential disruptive forces but also conveyed a notion of cohesion and consent among all the peoples of the empire, were as important as pragmatic action in consolidating and stabilizing Assyrian power and control in the center and in the provinces. Ritual and state ceremonies were powerful means for visualizing and negotiating the asymmetrical power relationships as presented by the monarchical system and its monopoly on such events, which had to be carefully orchestrated.

The city of Assur, and more precisely, the family of exorcists organizing the cult of the Aššur temple, played a major role in this regard with its chief Kiṣir­ Aššur, author of several state rituals, representing one of its key figures.[[24]] Throughout Assyrian history, even when not functioning as the political capital, the city of Assur remained a cultural and religious metropolis and the locale for the creation, elaboration and performance of state rituals as well as the burial place of the Assyrian kings. As discussed below, the purpose of these rituals goes far beyond legitimizing the status quo and fostering the authority of the king: While these rituals embodied certain views of how the world was constructed,[[25]] they also functioned to respond to specific novel situations and so were capable of both transforming and re-inventing tradition.[[26]] This applies particularly to the Assyrian versions of the akītu festival and the tākultu ritual as they were designed in Assyria during the late Sargonid period. In Assyria, these state rituals not only involved the presence of the king as in Babylonia but also required his active participation in his role as chief šangû of the god Aššur: this cultural role was similarly performed by Hittite royalty[[27]] and thus serves as a further token of the close connection between the Assyrian and Anatolian cultural horizons.

Assyrian state rituals demonstrate the capacity of Assyrian scholarly experts to evoke the spatial dimensions of the empire and to implement a sacred topography that includes even the most distant regions of the territory controlled by the king. In the composite and varied nature of Assyrian state rituals these sites constitute a mental topography of the empire that merges with elements of mythology, ancestor worship, and theological visions of divinity. Taken as a whole, these various strands ultimately delineate the Assyrian concept of divine and human rulership as performed in tandem by the god Aššur and the human king.

1 This introduction represents an abbreviated and slightly changed version of the Chapter 10 of my recent book Religion and Ideology in Assyria (Berlin and Boston, 2015).

2 For economy, politics, military, and ideology as the four sources of power see Mann 1986.

3 Pongratz-Leisten 2011b.

4 Weidner 1935-36, 13 with n. 87 and 21 with n. 148; Postgate 1985; Pedersén 1985, 43-53, Archive M 4; Freydank 1991, 1992, 1997 and 2006; Maul 2013.

5 Pedersén 1985, 46.

6 Aba-lā-īde, Sîn-uballiṭ, and Sîn-nādin-apli (Freydank 1992, 276-278).

7 Pedersén 1985, 44 with n. 7 goes back to Aššur-dan or earlier, while Freydank 1997, 48 assumes a terminus post quem around the end of the reign of Tukultī-Ninurta I.

8 Weidner 1935-36, 13 n. 87; Postgate 1985, 96f., more cautiously Freydank 1997, 51.

9 Maul 2013, 564-65.

10 Freydank 2006, 219f.

11 Freydank 1997, 48 n. 21 with reference to VS 21 21:32, VAT 19200:24 = MARV 5 14; VAT 19206:1; VAT 19198:1 = MARV 9 9; MARV 9 12.

12 Freydank 1997, 48 n. 22 VAT 19208:28.

13 Freydank 1997, 49 with n. 23 referring to VAT 15491:26 = MARV 5 1; VAT 15492:26 = MARV 5 2, VAT 19200:24 = MARV 9 9.

14 Freydank 2006, 221.

15 Maul 2013, 569.

16 SAA 12 no. 71. SAA 12 nos.72 and 73 probably represent portions of this text, although SAA 12 no. 73 is apparently a prism fragment.

17 See the letters written by Dadî, for instance, SAA 13 nos. 18-24.

18 SAA 13 no. 18.

19 Livingstone 1989.

20 Th. J. Lewis, 'CT 13.33-34 and Ezekiel 32: Lion-Dragon Myth,' JAOS 116/1 (1996) 28-47.

21 Gerlach 2000.

22 Foster 2005, 581-582.

23 Pongratz-Leisten 2015, 236 fig. 37.

24 Maul 2010.

25 D. I. Kertzer, "The Role of Ritual in State-Formation," in E. R. Wolf, A. Koster and D. Meijers (eds.), Religious Regimes and State Formation (New York, 1991), 89.

26 E. Hobsbawm in Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (eds.), The Invention of Tradition. (Cambridge/New York, 1983), 2.

27 A. Taggar-Cohen, Hittite Priesthood (Heidelberg, 2006) 369ff.

Beate Pongratz-Leisten

Beate Pongratz-Leisten, 'The Assyrian State Rituals: Re-invention of Tradition', 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 []

Back to top ^^
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.
Oracc uses cookies only to collect Google Analytics data. Read more here []; see the stats here []; opt out here.