The Legal Implications of the Tākultu Ritual

Although the name of the tākultu ritual suggests a focus on consumption, the text variants make relatively little reference to the preparation of offerings and feeding of the gods. In this regard the tākultu ritual differs profoundly from other Assyrian rituals, which generally provide a detailed guideline for the quantities, preparation, presentation, and distribution of the meals for the gods and the personnel involved.[[41]] Sennacherib's tākultu is an exception: at the very end, in addition to occasional ritual prescription, it dedicates a longer section to ritual performance. Even in this case, however, the emphasis is on the strewing of salt rather than on the preparation of food offerings:

When you are to provide for the House of the God (lit. 'gods') of Nineveh, when you are to st[rew] salt, [you say]: "Aššur-Ištar, Sîn, Šam[aš, and Mardu]k, king of the gods, a[ccept] life!" (no. 38 v 5-9)

This is followed by a purification of Ištar's temple by means of swinging a censer in order "to release" it. While incense is placed on the censer, Ištar is invoked and requested to accept the offering and to listen. Salt is strewed on bread and a glass vessel and the same request is made to the gods of Elam, among them the goddess Narudi, who is the earliest attested Elamite divinity. Elamite tradition ultimately ceases to refer to Narudi,[[42]] but Akkadian sources continue to list her together with astral divinities such as the Sebetti (Šurpu viii 27) and other stars (Šurpu ii 182f.) as do also the tākultu texts (no. 38 37 18; no. 38 ii 35; no. 38 iv 38; iv 58: v 30). Whether attestations in invocations represent the actual survival of this deity in the Assyrian cult or simply a literary reflection of an earlier cultic situation cannot be stated with certainty. A similar case occurs with Hurrian divinities (discussed below), some of whom also survive into the Neo-Assyrian period.[[43]] Additional gods who are addressed with the request to accept and listen are Nikkal and Kidinbirbir (v 35-36), Nusku and Bel (no. 38 v 41-42), lgigi und Annunaki, and again Nusku.

The same combination of rites, namely the strewing of salt accompanied by the request to the gods to "accept life" followed by the purification of the temple by means of a censer, occurs at the beginning of the Rituals of Shebat (no. 1:12ff.; 2: 15'-23'). The reports referring to these rituals mention a combination of hand­water and strewing of salt (no. 9:18-19); an offering of plates with salt (no. 9 iii), and an offering of salt along with pouring a libation bowl (rev. iii 25'); without legomena: no. 1 rev. 6ff.

If one can assume the same order of cities and same legomena as in what seems to be a tākultu ritual (no. 37) listing the gods of Assur, Nineveh, and then Kilizi, Arbela, Calah, Tarbiṣu. Kurbail, Tue, Urakku, and Harran, then also the akītu festival has a lengthy section with the invocation of the gods and strewing salt for them (no. 15 r. i-ii 39).

The tākultu for Assurbanipal (no. 40 with dupl. 41), by contrast, in addition to the long lists invoking the gods of the temples of Assur, Nineveh, and other cities, mentions the offering of sheep instead of the strewing of salt (no. 40 v 14-15, 21-23, r. ii 22'-254', V 23'-24', Vi 15').

What was the meaning of salt in this ritual context? It appears to entail more than enhancing the taste of cooked meat, as is attested for the offering in Nisan on day 20th for Belat-dunani (no. 15 ii 41-42). A letter of Nabû-ušallim (governor of Uruk during the early years of Sennacherib's reign and responsible for reporting on the activities of the Arameans to the king) mentions a rite with salt that served to bind the tribes into an alliance, which may illuminate our question:

Anyone who tasted the salt of the tribe of Jakīn (and) from whose mouth you have heard talk of peace, the king, my lord should uproot them so that the land may be well (again).

This reference is reminiscent of the Mari letters, which refer to the Turrukkeans having taken salt (MUN₆ ilqû) after their arrival (ARM 4, 21:8) — this reference could be interpreted in a similar manner as that of the letter quoted above.[[44]]

The use of salt appears to have a legal connotation and serves to bring into force an alliance an alliance between the gods and the city of Assur, Assyria, and the Assyrian king. In other words, strewing salt and burning incense as preparatory acts for the offering are intended to establish a context and determine a framework that has binding implications for all parties. This interpretation finds further support in the textual variant dating to the reign of Aššur-etel-ilani, which starts with the appeal to the gods to drink water or wine: [Aššur], drink! Enlil, drink! Anu, drink! Ea-šarru, drink! Queen of the [Gods], drink! Sîn, drink! Šamaš, drink! Adad, drink! Ištar, drink! etc. (no. 42 i lff). This recalls Ištar's asking the gods, her fathers and brothers, to drink water on the occasion of the Meal of the Covenant, with her entire prophetic message mythologizing the performance of the loyalty oath by transposing the political action onto the divine level.[[45]]

Drinking water and eating (bread with) salt play well into the meaning of the lengthy ritual invocations of the gods from all over the entire Assyrian empire as performed in the tākultu ritual. In practical terms, seeking the blessing of the gods involved an attempt to marshal their support and loyalty and thus connotes a binding force comparable to that of the symbolic gesture of strewing salt:

May they accept (the offerings) and listen (to the prayers), may they bless the city of Assur, may they bless the land of Assyria, may they bless the king our lord.
The manifest gods — you invoke their names in the morning and in the evening (no. 40 iv 4-8).

The tākultu ritual aimed at legally binding the gods spread throughout the empire into a relationship of mutual obligations between Aššur, Assyria, the Assyrian king and each other. This purpose was enhanced by the fact that not only deities but also deified mountains, rivers and deified regions were requested to speak their blessing. Such divinized cosmic features do not normally occur in other Assyrian rituals. Instead, their inclusion recalls the Old Babylonian treaties from Tell Leilan and Hittite-Hurrian treaties in which divinized geographical features appear alongside the gods to serve as witnesses for he swearing of oaths.[[46]] This particular take on nature as a "repository for value"[[47]] that wields legal authority in its own right, is characteristic of the northern Mesopotamian, Hurrian, and West Semitic traditions. As part of Assyrian cultural memory, it resurfaced in the context of the tākultu ritual, and one of the lengthiest such sections occurs in the tākultu for Aššur-etel-ilani (no. 42 r. iii. 3ff.).

In Sennacherib's tākultu, the combination of divinized geographical features with Tišpak images (no. 38 i. 39ff.) and the gods of Subartu (no. 38 i 56-58), i.e. Hurrian divinities, and with divinities of the Eastern Tigridian region (no. 38 iv 1'-10') explicitly associates this cultural practice with the erstwhile Hurrian cultural horizon. Accordingly, the adoption of this practice can be understood as yet another indication of the re-invention of an older tradition. Such penetration of Hurrian tradition into Assyrian ritual is also apparent in Assurbanipal's tākultu which has a section that lists the Hurrian divinities of the Habur area (no. 40 ii 38'-41'),[[48]] whose cult persisted into the Neo-Assyrian period.

The invocation of the heavenly bodies at the end of Assurbanipal's tākultu (no. 40 vi 15'-28') — reminiscent of Assyrian treaties and loyalty oaths — can be construed as further evidence of the close association between law and religion. This list of the astral bodies is interesting because the tablet on which it is recorded is said to belong to Issar-šumu-ereš, Assurbanipal's chief astrologer and advisor. It is difficult to determine whether the inclusion of the heavenly bodies in Assurbanipal's tākultu is a product of Issar-šumu-ereš's own idiosyncratic choice or whether he intended to invoke these divine stars as further guarantors of the blessed status of Aššur, Assyria, and the Assyrian king in a manner similar to the invocation of the heavenly bodies at the beginning of Esarhaddon's loyalty oaths (SAA 2 6).

41 See the discussion of the offerings made in the city of Emar in Sallaberger 2012; for the notion of ritual killing versus sacrifice see B. Pongratz-Leisten 2007; for the notion of offering, idem 2012.

42 H. Koch, Art. "Narunde," RIA 9 (Berlin and New York, 1999) 180.

43 Pongratz-Leisten 2012.

44 M. P. Streck, Art. "Salz. Versalzung" RlA 11 (Berlin/New York, 2008) 592-599, 596, against J.-M. Durand, "Villes fantômes de Syrie et autres lieux," MARI 5 (1987) 199-205, 199, and Archives Épistolaires de Mari (1993) 493.

45 SAA 9 3.4. For symbolic gestures performed during treaty ceremonies see D. Charpin, Reading and Writing in Babylon (Cambridge, MA/London: Harvard University Press), Ch. 4.

46 Eidem 1991.

47 L. Daston/F. Vidal (eds.), The Moral Authority of Nature (Chicago and London: Chicago University Press, 2004) 21.

48 Pongratz-Leisten 2012.

Beate Pongratz-Leisten

Beate Pongratz-Leisten, 'The Legal Implications of the Tākultu 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 []

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.