The Neo-Assyrian Ištar Rituals

Several of the ritual gestures signaling parricide, theomachy, or the combat myth feature in rituals centered on the goddess Ištar, who, as already stated, played an essential role in mediating between the Assyrian ruler and the god Aššur (no. 16 i 1'-4' and rev. iv 8-34; no. 17 I 7-8; no. 19).

The Ištar ritual no. 19 is particularly well suited for elucidating how the reception of Sumero-Babylonian and Hurrian cultural discourse in Assyria shaped Assyrian royal ideological discourse. Given the available evidence, the precise implications of this reception are difficult to determine; several points can nevertheless be made. The ritual of no. 19 took place either in the Aššur temple or in the Ištar temple, and the first offering was made to Aššur by the king after he brought Ištar into the temple. The divine participants who receive offerings are Aššur, Ištar, the Sebetti, probably Kulitta,[[130]] and Lisikutu, though offerings are repeatedly presented to Aššur and Ištar. Human participants in the ritual include the king, the singer, the šangû-priest, and the magnates. The section describing the active involvement of the magnates is broken, but the extant text refers to the singer, who intones: "My feast, my feast is battle," establishing an intertextual link with the Assyrian war ritual which includes Ištar in her hypostasis as Bēlat­dunāni.[[131]] Subsequently, part of the ritual takes place in the bedroom, where the ṣīpu dish is offered before Ištar and libations are made; after he performs purification rites with incense, the king offers blood into the pit (apu) and pours syrup and oil as well as beer and wine into it.[[132]] When cuts of roast meat arrive, the king pierces the front part of the neck cut with an iron dagger and feeds it to Lisikutu. The singer intones, "Let them eat roast, roast, roast meat." When the song reaches its end, the king casts the neck cut into the pit. Further purification rites involving the censer follow, after which the king opens the vat and completes the libations of the vat, the singer intones a festive Hurrah, and the king and the magnates wield clappers. As soon as the king finishes his part of the meal, the singer performs his offices and the šangû performs battle. The francolin (= bird of Kakka = messenger of Anu) is then brought out and the priest gives water to Ištar and the king; still more purification rites and libations follow and the king feeds the foreleg to Lisikutu. The singer intones: "Who opens the house of silver?" and then the king throws the foreleg into the pit and pours syrup, oil, beer, and wine upon it. Finally, the singer fills up the pit and the king places his foot upon it before leaving for the palace.

Two elements in this ritual are conspicuously alien to the Assyro-Babylonian tradition, namely the pit (apu) at which the purification rites are performed and the use of blood as part of the purification process. Interestingly, pits are well­ known in Anatolian rituals and blood serves as a typical means of purification in Hurrian rituals.[[133]] Other elements requiring explanation are the allusions to the bed of Ištar, which implicitly refer to a sexual relationship between Ištar and the king, and the involvement of the magnates. Once again the commentary SAA 3 37 provides an exegetical explanation:

9' [The brazie]r which is lighted in front of Mullissu, and the sheep which they throw on the brazier and which the fire bums, is Qingu, when he bums in the fire. (combat myth)
10'-15' The torches, which he lights from the brazier, are merciless arrows from the quiver of Marduk, which are terrible in their shooting off and which, when they hit, slay (even) the strong; drenched in blood and gore, they rain down mountains and lands. The gods, his fathers and brothers, and the evil gods, Anzû and Asakku, were vanquished by them. (theomachy and combat myth combined)
16'-17' The king, who wears his jewelry and roasts young virgin goats, is Marduk, who wearing his armor bur[ned] the sons of Enlil and Ea in fire. (theomachy)
18' [The ki]ng, who opens the vat in the race, is Marduk, who [defeat]ed Tiāmat with his penis. (combat myth)
19' [The ki]ng, who with the high priest tosses the cake, is Marduk (with) Nabû, [who ...] vanquished and crushed Anu (theomachy)
20' The king, who stands on the podium with a [heart] in his hand, while the singer chants 'To the Western Goddess', is Marduk, [who] with his bow in his hand cast down Ea, while Venus was ascendant in front of him.

How can Ištar's prominence in the ritual, which evokes battle scenes and which involves the performance of rites in Ištar's bedroom, be explained? Although she is characterized as mistress of battle, with the exception of the first millennium cultic commentaries Ištar's involvement in theomachy is attested only once Sumero-Babylonian tradition of the Old Babylonian period and can probably therefore not be traced back to the influence of Babylonian scholars in Assyria. Consequently, it is necessary to search for parallels in other cultural horizons, and it is here that Hurrian tradition again provides a possible solution since Ištar is one of the key protagonists in the Hurrian Song of Hedammu. This song forms part of a cycle of myths centered on Kumarbi, who represents the older generation of gods and whose position as king of the gods is threatened by the younger Teššub.[[134]]

The entire cycle of Kumarbi songs is addressed to the Primeval Deities, an epithet that is sometimes translated as the 'Former Gods.'[[135]] This corresponds well with the associations of the dromena and legomena performed in our Neo­Assyrian ritual, which — as indicated by the cultic commentaries — implicitly reference the fathers and brothers among the opponents of the younger god Marduk. The Defeated Gods in the Old Syrian and Hurrian tradition include Anu, Antu, Enlil, Ninlil, Nara-Napsara, Minki, and Ammunki;[[136]] Anu and Enlil also figure as defeated gods in the Mesopotamian cultural horizon. While the notion of the Defeated or Bound Gods is very old and extends back to Sumerian mythology, it generally includes only rebel gods.[[137]] Only one Sumerian myth of the Old Babylonian period, known as Enlil and Namzitarra, has a vague reference to Enlil usurping kingship from Enmešarra. The relevant lines read as follows:

17 U₄ den-me-šár-ra šeš ad-da-zu LÚU×KAR-da-a
18 nam-den-líl ba-e-de₆-a ud-de₃ en-gin₇ nam /ga\-zu-e-še
17 When Enmešarra, your father' s brother was captured,
18 You carried off kingship saying, 'As of this day I shall assign destinies.'[[138]]

Bilingual versions of this myth have been found in Emar and Ugarit,[[139]] testifying to the possibility of transmission of the trope of theomachy to the north. Another possibility is that theomachy entered Assyrian cultural discourse by way of Hurrian tradition, as the theme of theomachy is central to several tales belonging to the Kumarbi Cycle. Theomachy is apparent in the Assyrian cultic commentaries discussed above and then only reappears in detailed narrative form in mythic tales like Enmešarra's Defeat and The Defeat of Enutila, Enmešarra, and Qingu, which all date to the Late Babylonian period and seem to revive the Old Babylonian tradition revolving around Enmešarra rather then Anu, Enlil, and Ea as older members of the pantheon.[[140]] The above attempt to locate the ways through which various strands of assorted traditions made their way into Assyrian cultural discourse is indicative of the artificiality and fruitlessness of attempting to identify origins when evidence is as scarce as it is in this case. What is relevant here, however, is that the Assyrian scholars — in their capacity as agents behind the scene — participated in a shared cultural discourse, which was centered on the organization of power and on kingship, and which seems to have been much more prominent in Northern Mesopotamia and Anatolia as revealed by its pervasive presence either in mythic narrative or in ritual. Further, the marked presence of parricide and usurpation in this cultural discourse points to broad similarities in the weltanschauung of scholars from different regions, including Assyria and the Hurrian-Hittite milieu.[[141]] While the trope might have originated in Babylonia, it is its elaborate treatment in Hurrian-Hittite mythology on the one hand and in Assyrian ritual on the other which to my view links both cultures in their discourse.

Yet another feature suggestive of a shared Hurrian and Assyrian mythic tradition is the reference made to the bed of Ištar, implying some kind of sexual performance on her part. Although the trope of the Sacred Marriage[[142]] might appear to be an obvious explanation, it belongs to the Sumero-Babylonian tradition of the late third to early second millennium BCE and references the close bond between the Sumerian goddess Inanna and the king. This tradition has no real counterpart in Assyria. Instead, Ištar's close relationship with the Assyrian king was based in her role as wet nurse and nurse to the Assyrian crown prince and in her function as the voice of Aššur in oracles delivered to the king. Accordingly, a different trope is likely to underpin Ištar's sexual role in the Neo­ Assyrian Ištar rituals. The Hurrian Song of Hedammu again comes to mind, as it is Ištar-Šauška who develops the plan to defeat the sea-monster Hedammu — created by Kumarbi in his effort to gain rulership — by means of her seductive charm. In order to seduce Hedammu, Ištar bathes and anoints herself before walking to the shore in the company of her two maidservants, Ninatta and Kulitta. Ištar exposes her naked body to Hedammu and, though the relevant passage is not preserved, succeeds in or helps in killing Hedammu, the opponent of the younger god Teššub.

Last but not least the song "Who opens the house of silver" in the Assyrian state ritual evokes the Hurrian-Hittite Song of Silver, which is also part of the Kumarbi Cycle. Here the personified Silver aligns himself with Kumarbi as a member of the older generation of gods against the storm-god and Ištar-Šauška, who represent the younger generation. While there is no reason to believe that the Neo-Assyrian ritual from Aššur represents the reenactment of a Hurrian myth, the evidence does suggest that Hurrians and Assyrians possibly shared a mythical tradition that accounts for Ištar's association with the trope of the Defeated Gods, an association otherwise alien to Sumero-Babylonian religion.

This Hurrian connection is perhaps confirmed by the use of the term bīt nathi 'bedchamber' in Assurnaṣirpal I's (1046-1033 BCE) epigraph on the White Obelisk. The term refers to Ištar's bedchamber in her temple in Nineveh and is a Hurrian loanword that made its way into the Hittite language and was adopted in Assyria. In the Sargonid period the term bīt nathi is superseded by the standard bīt majāli, but the image on the White Obelisk representing the king in the bīt nathi in front of Ištar and the term itself possibly refer to the same or at least to similar ritual events.

There are further indications of shared Assyrian and Hurrian cultic traditions. According to the Nuzi texts, the cultic bīt ēqi building has an equivalent in the city Ulamme, where it is associated with Bēl-Ulamme.[[143]] One of the Neo­Assyrian rituals (no. 16) takes place in the bīt ēqi of Aššur and involves an offering before the standard (dURI.GAL) that accompanied the king on his military campaigns. The ritual prescriptions involve references to the jewelry worn by the king, the priest's placement of two Anzû-birds between his (the king's?) shoulders, litanies recited before Ištar of the bīt ēqi, the "dancing" of the kamānu­cakes signifying the demotion of Anu and Enlil, and the opening of the vat evoking Marduk's defeat of Tiāmat. These actions have strong belligerent overtones and, like the ritual discussed above, demonstrate Ištar's involvement in the defeat of chaos.

130 Only dKu-li-[x] is preserved in the text.

131 Menzel 1981 T 82-83; Deller 1992; May 2012.

132 Written a-pi, see Menzel 1981, T 98ff. no. 45 r. i 10' Note that a divinity Ištar ša abi is attested in Emar 6/3 373:92'. For the use of a sacrificial pit see further Emar 6/3 40' and 46' For further bibliography see L. Feliu. "Dagan ša ḪAR-ri at Terqa," NABU 1998 no. 44.

133 Haas 1993.

134 Hoffner 1998, 50-55.

135 Hoffner 1998, 41.

136 Hoffner 1998, 112.

137 Cooper 1978.

138 For the text and its various translations see M. Civil, "Enlil and Namzitarra," AfO 24 (1974-1977) 65-71; Cooper 2011; Lambert 1989; H. I. J. Vanstiphout, "Some Notes on Enlil and Namzitarra," RA 74 (1980) 67-71.

139 See most recently Y. Cohen, " 'Enlil and Namzitarra ': The Emar and Ugarit Manuscripts and a New Understanding of the 'Vanity Theme' Speech." RA 104 (2010) 87-97.

140 For an edition of these texts see Lambert 2013, 281-298 and 326-329, along with the respective commentaries.

141 For an excellent discussion of transmission see Gilan 2004.

142 See most recently Lapinkivi 2004 and Nissinen and Uro 2008.

143 K. Deller, "Materialien zu den Lokalpanthea des Königreiches Arraphe," Or 45 (1976) 33-45, 44.

Beate Pongratz-Leisten

Beate Pongratz-Leisten, 'The Neo-Assyrian Ištar Rituals', 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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