The Ritual Cycle of the Months of Shebat, Adar and Nisan

Another important ritual complex in the city of Assur was the large festive cycle that began in the eleventh month, Shebat, and ended with the akītu festival in the first month of the year, Nisan. This ritual complex, constructed out of various major cultic ceremonies, demonstrates how Assyrian scholars reshaped and reinvented rituals in the Sargonid period by linking the royal ancestor cult with the king's re-investiture and the akītu festival to define the king's role in the cosmic scheme. The ritual complex of the month Shebat appears to have been introduced by Ashurnasirpal II, who dedicated it to the warrior god Ninurta. Along with the Ninurta festival celebrated in the month of Shebat, Ashurnasirpal II also established a ritual complex for Ninurta in the month of Elul:

FIG. 1. Ground plan of the temple of Aššur. B. PONGRATZ-LEISTEN, Baghdader Forschungen 16, Abb. 12 (with modifications).

I adorned the room of the shrine of the god Ninurta, my lord, with gold and lapis lazuli, I stationed bronze On his right and left, (and) installed wild ferocious dragons of gold at his throne. I appointed his festivals in the months of Shebat (and) Elul. The name of his festival in the month Shebat I called 'Splendor' I established for them food (and) incense offerings. I created my royal monument with a likeness of my countenance of red gold (and) sparkling stones (and) stationed (it) before the god Ninurta, my lord.[[62]]

The choice of the months Shebat and Elul was probably motivated by astral observations, as in the eleventh month Sirius, the star of Ninurta, "stands exactly in the south at sunset and in the sixth month it stands there at sunrise."[[63]] In this case, the astral opposition presents an image of symmetry and cosmic balance, which is also evident in the Hymn to Ninurta as Sirius:[[64]]

O greatest Ninurta, warrior god, vanguard of the Anuna-gods, commander of the Igigi-gods,
Judge of the universe, who oversees (its) opposition = equilibrium,
Who makes bright darkness and illumines gloom,
Who renders verdicts (pāris purussê) for teeming mankind!
O my splendid lord, who satisfies the needs of the land
Who grasps truth and justice and destroys [...],
Indefatigable arrow (šukūdu) that [kills] all enemies,
Great storm, who grasps the leadrope [of heaven and netherworld],
Judge of verdicts (dayyn purussê), diviner of oracle[s... ] (bārû têrēti)
Conflagration that incinerates and bums up the wick[ed...],
Whose name in heaven is "Arrow Star,"
Whose name is greatest among the Igigi-gods,
Among all your gods your divinity is doubled.[[65]]
At the rising of the stars your face shines like the sun...

In this hymn the notion of cosmic balance is apparent in Ninurta's roles as judge and warrior, which work to secure civic order and were defined as the primary duties of the king in Late Assyrian ideology.[[66]] Although in the Shebat cycle as reconceptualized under Assurbanipal, Ninurta only appears in procession on the 10th of Shebat and otherwise plays no major role, everything suggests that in this ritual complex the king emulates Ninurta's role as warrior deity and that his installation as king was thought to parallel Ninurta's investiture as recounted in mythological narratives and exegetical texts like SAA 3 39.[[67]] While not necessarily tied to the coronation ceremony, the Shebat cycle can be interpreted as re-enacting the king's investiture and thus as annually reconfirming the king's claim to wield legitimate power and authority over Assyria.

It is in the prescriptive rituals relating to the Shebat Cycle (nos. 1-6), the Reports on Rituals Performed by Assurbanipal in Shebat-Adar 650 (nos. 9-11), and the Manual for Chanters (no. 12) from the reign of Assurbanipal that the rituals of the months Shebat, Adar and Nisan become recognizable as components of a complex whole centered on human and divine kingship. Further evidence for the unity of these ritual complexes comes from a tablet listing the cultic reforms undertaken by Sennacherib (no. 52 and related fragments) recovered from the House of the Exorcists at Aššur. Together with their scholars, Sennacherib and Assurbanipal went to great lengths to reorganize the ritual cycle of the city of Assur and to integrate the royal office in the overarching cosmic scheme. The following observations build on Stefan Maul's detailed and comprehensive description of the festive cycle.[[68]]

It must be stressed that both the prescriptive rituals and the ritual reports have breaks, which makes it difficult to determine the extent to which their ritual syntax corresponds. Major distinctions are, however, apparent with regard to the days on which certain rituals are performed, cultic locales, some of the rites themselves, and the sequence of rites. Prescriptive ritual texts survive for the period between the 18th and 25th of Shebat. The ritual reports, by contrast, describe rites for the period between the 16th and 20th of Shebat and for the 3rd, 8th, 9th and 10th of Adar. The cultic reform texts refer to the processions of Aššur and the gods: on the 22nd of Shebat, Aššur goes to the bīt Dagan, and on the 23rd, Aššur's chariot leaves for the bīt Dagan.

Regarding cultic locales, in the prescriptive rituals performance moves between the king's palace, the Aššur temple, and the bīt Dagan (in the Old Palace). In the ritual reports, by contrast, the bīt Dagan is mentioned only for the 16th of Shebat, while in the cultic reforms (no. 52 rev. ii 36') it appears only for the 22nd of Shebat. In the ritual reports, moreover, ritual performance moves between the king's palace, the Aššur temple, and the Anu-Adad temple.

The visit to the bīt Dagan/dugani must have been central to the beginning of the festive cycle; the ritual prescriptive texts provide a detailed description of the rites performed during this visit and while the king moved between the palace and the bīt Dagan. G. van Driel[[69]] originally suggested that the bīt Dagan should be equated with the bīt hurše in the Aššur temple, but this view was rejected by Brigitte Menzel, who thought it was in the Old Palace, before Karlheinz Deller again identified the bīt Dagan with the slaughterhouse or kitchen in the Aššur temple.[[70]] Because ritual performance centers primarily on two locations, namely the palace and the Aššur temple, I am inclined to follow Menzel and locate the bīt Dagan in the Old Palace. There were two palaces in Aššur, the so-called Old Palace and the New Palace. The latter, originally built in the Middle Assyrian period, was still used by Ashurnasirpal II before he built his new palace at Calah. Since the ritual refers to the performance of the kispu-offering in the Aššur temple on the 18th — probably for the ancestors — and since six tombs were uncovered in the southeastern part of the Old Palace, of which three were identified as belonging to Šamšī-Adad V (Gruft II), Aššur-bēl-kala (Gruft III), and Ashurnasirpal II (Gruft V),[[71]] it is likely that É.GAL denotes the Old Palace.

According to several inscriptions found in the area of the Old Palace, the New Palace, and the Aššur temple, Sennacherib was also buried in Aššur. One inscription is particularly revealing with regard to the meaning attributed to the burial place of the Assyrian kings as a place of social identification and consolidation of the dynastic line:

(This is) the palace of repose (bīt tapšuhti),
the dwelling for eternity (šubat dārât),
house of the dynasty (brt kimti) which is firmly grounded,
of Sennacherib, great king,
strong king, king of the universe, king of Assyria.[[72]]

The assumption that the bīt Dagan was located in the Old Palace, is further corroborated by two Middle Assyrian administrative documents that mention the offering of red wool for the weapons of some deceased Middle Assyrian kings[[73]] on the occasion of the "return of the god" (tuʾāri ili); this offering took place in the palace (É.GAL). According to the observations of Peter Miglus, the burials of the late Middle Assyrian king Aššur-bēl-kala and the Neo-Assyrian kings were situated exactly where the Old Palace of the Old Assyrian period had its throne room or major hall. Such architectural organization evokes the traditions known from Amorite Mari and Tuttul, which equally combined royal residence and royal burials, and links the practice of the Assyrian ancestor cult with the Syrian cultural horizon.[[74]]

Further links with Syrian tradition can be observed in the kispu-offering performed in the Aššur temple to honor the royal ancestors; it is reminiscent of the Amorite tradition attested in the text known as the Genealogy of Hammurabi. In this text the living king, whether at the moment of his investiture or as part of an annual ritual, honors the ancestors and members of the Babylonian royal dynasty by reciting the list of the ancestral names and performing the offering for the dead. It is worth noting in this context that two of the five versions of the Neo­Assyrian King List were written on tablets whose format resembles amulet tablets,[[75]] suggesting that they were used within a cultic context and possibly also read during the kispu ceremony. Genealogies are easily manipulated,[[76]] and both the Genealogy of Hammurabi and the Assyrian King List primarily serve to promote the view that the institution of kingship was continuous and unbroken, thereby contributing to the reinvention of tradition.[[77]] The kispu ceremony generally consisted of a communal meal with the ancestors, which not only served the needs of the dead but also consolidated the social position of the head of the family by regularly reaffirming social hierarchies. In the case of the king, the successfully performed kispu ceremony was an additional form of cognitive reliability[[78]] that reinforced his place within the dynastic line of the kings of Aššur.

Communication with the ancestors by means of the kispu offering must have had a transformative effect, as when the king enters the bīt Dagan he wears the Tiara of Aššur (Bēl-Agû) on his head. Aššur's tiara as a symbol of Assyrian world dominion represents still another central aspect of the rites performed during the month of Shebat. Only the ritual prescriptions allude to the governor, queen, crown prince, and grand treasurer providing for the wedding ceremony of Mullissu (quršu ša Mullissu, see no. 1 r. 18; no. 2 ii 8', iii 35'); this wedding ceremony is not mentioned in the ritual reports of Assurbanipal. In a theogamy the goddess generally intercedes with her consort on behalf of the king to secure divine blessing for his rulership,[[79]] so the inclusion of Mullissu's wedding ceremony (quršu) perfectly suits the purpose of this ritual component, which aims at celebrating and reaffirming the king's rulership through divine consent. A large part of no. 1 is broken, but the preserved part refers to rites performed on the 20th of Shebat. The king enters the bīt Dagan wearing Bēl-Agû on his head, while the gods accompanying him are identified as Aššur, Mullissu, Bēl-Agû, Sîn, Šamaš, Anu, Adad, Nergal, the Chariots-of-War, Šerua, Kippat-mati, Kakka, Mandanu, the Conquerors (Kāšidūti), the deified weapon (dKakku), and the deified Axe (dKalappu). These gods largely overlap with the list of gods walking in procession and driving on the chariot to the akītu-house in Nisan (compare no. 1 r. 20-24 and no. 54). The symbolic meaning of this configuration of deities walking in procession suggests that this ritual component connoted the symbolic re­enactment of Aššur-Ninurta's/the king's victorious battle against the forces of chaos. Along with some other divinities, the same gods are mentioned in the text describing the image of Aššur's battle against Tiamat on Sennacherib's bronze door for the akītu-house, in which it is stated explicitly that the divine weapon and the Kāšidūti travel together with Aššur on his chariot.[[80]] Not only the procession itself but also the group of gods accompanying Aššur communicated a standardized narrative that applied to the supreme god of the imperial pantheon, Aššur in the case of Assyria and Marduk in the case of Babylonia; the outcome of this standardized narrative was common knowledge among the participants. The procession, consequently, functioned as an effective means for materializing the combat myth and reinforcing imperial theology.

On the 23rd of Shebat the king performed an Opening-of-the-Mouth ritual that reaffirmed his status. On the 24th of Shebat the king went to the Aššur temple and illuminated the face of the gods He performed offerings before Aššur and Mullissu and provided for the gods of the Aššur temple in the bīt Dagan. In addition, the king accompanied Aššur to the bīt Dagan, performed further offerings, and then returned to the palace (no. 3).

The ritual reports appear to describe a different syntax for the ritual cycle. First of all, they do not mention the kispu-offering in the bīt Dagan and all the rites centered on Bēl-agû are moved to the 20th of Shebat and the 3rd and 8th of Adar. For the 16th of Shebat (not extant in the prescriptive ritual texts), the ritual reports record the entry of Šerua, Kippat-māti, and Tašmētu into the bīt Dagan. It is possible that this visit of the female goddesses implies their role as mediators who intercede with the ancestors on behalf of the king. On the following day the king entered the city (no. 10), and on the 18th of Shebat he made offerings before Aššur and Bēl-agû in the Aššur temple as well as before Aššur of the Reading, Kippat­māti, and possibly some other divinities whose names are not preserved (no. 10: 11-24). Further offerings took place before Ninurta and Nusku, the gods of the Aššur temple, the Conquerors (Kāšidūti), the Golden Chariot (of Aššur), and Bēl and Nabû. On the 19th of Shebat further offerings took place before Aššur and Mullissu and the priests circumambulated the Aššur temple and all the other temples. On this day, the king accompanied the goddesses Šerua, Kippat-māti, and Tašmētu into the Anu temple. Since this visit took place on the day before the king was to wear Bēl-agû on his head, it is tempting to assume that it implied a negotiation of the king's legitimate status in the presence of the divine assembly of Anu in which the female goddesses interceded on the king's behalf.

On the 20th of Shebat the king escorted Aššur and his consort Mullissu together with Bēl-agû to the dais of destinies (parak šīmāte). While no commentaries on this particular rite are extant, this gathering of Aššur, Mullissu, and Bēl-agû may be considered the Assyrian version of the Babylonian assembly of the gods who acknowledge and confirm the king in his office at their first gathering during the Babylonian akītu on the 8th of Nisan. The gathering of Aššur, Mullissu, and Bēl-agû is in all likelihood to be distinguished from the assembly of all the gods (puhur ilāni) that took place on the 3rd of Adar.

The arrival of the gods at the dais of destinies had a transformative effect on the king, who wore Aššur's tiara on his head on the following day — the 22nd of Shebat — and drove to the bīt Dagan on a chariot. It is not clear whether it was only at this point that king performed the kispu to his royal ancestors, as no mention of this is made in the surviving texts. A transformation in the king's status must nevertheless have occurred, as on that day he was crowned with Aššur's tiara. When it was paraded in procession, Aššur's tiara communicated the legitimate claim to power of its bearer. The king's reconfirmation as legitimate occupant of the throne entitled him to undergo the mouth-washing ritual (KA.LUH.Ù.DA) on the 23rd of Shebat, itself designed to turn him into the body politic and holder of the royal office. The mouth-washing ritual was generally intended to transform the statue of either the king or the gods into an agent on their behalf. In this case, however, the ritual serves as a potent means of ritual transformation whereby the king becomes an official body politic and so reaffirms his own power, status, and authority as the god Aššur's agent.

The king's role as Aššur's agent consisted of the emulation of Ninurta's role as steward. This role included the executive aspect of power, particularly the obligation to extend the borders of the Assyrian empire in order to align them with the boundaries of the known universe, a duty also communicated in the Assyrian coronation ritual. As such, it is perhaps unsurprising that a cultic commentary associates the 23rd of Shebat with battle.[[81]] It is not necessary to assume, however, that the king performed an actual battle ritual to demonstrate his abilities as war lord or hunter, as described in ritual no. 18.[[82]] As noted in the commentary, the implication of the king's ritual performance during the months of Shebat and Adar was his rightful and legitimate participation in the establishment of cosmic order by assuming the warrior aspect of Aššur, i.e. Aššur-Ninurta. Seeing the two war chariots and Aššur's deified weapons, dkakku and dkalappu, during the procession of the gods accompanying Aššur to the bīt Dagan — in addition to seeing the head of the sea-monster (mentioned in no. 52 v 47'-48') — sufficed to materialize and evoke the cosmic battle in the minds of both the participants and the observers and functioned to trigger the memory of the narrative of Marduk/Aššur fighting Tiāmat as recounted in Enūma Eliš.

The king's assumption of Aššur's crown on the 24th of Shebat provided a similar cue, as is revealed by the same commentary, which identifies that day as the day on which the king wears the crown of Aššur.[[83]] The crown as icon communicates the outcome of the combat myth's standardized narrative in a condensed form to the viewer, in which Aššur-Ninurta or Marduk becomes king of the universe after fighting a victorious battle. As a "signature element"[[84]] of divine rulership, Aššur's crown does not simply announce that the king's rulership is divinely sanctioned but transforms the king into an extension of Aššur's agency, merging divine and human kingship in a single unitary intentionality. On the 26th of Shebat the image of Aššur that had remained in the bīt Dagan throughout the preceding four days returned to the Aššur temple.

At some point between the 23rd of Shebat and the 3rd of Adar the king opened the vat, a rite that the cultic commentary SAA 3 37: 18' explains as Marduk defeating Tiāmat with his penis.

According to the ritual reports, the bīt Dagan and the Aššur temple functioned as the main cultic localities in the month of Adar. The festive cycle continued on the 1st of Adar with offerings to Aššur, and on the following day to Mullissu. On the 3rd of Adar the gods again made their way to the bīt Dagan in a procession in order to assemble (puhur ilāni) and probably to confirm divine and earthly rulership.[[85]] The 8th of Adar represented a pivotal moment in the festive cycle. After his performance of offerings before Aššur and Mullissu, the king accompanied both gods to the Anu temple where the tiara was placed on the socle of Aššur. Like the 24th of Shebat, the 8th of Adar is called the "day on which the king wears Aššur's crown"[[86]] in the cultic commentary. Wearing Aššur's tiara, the king left the Aššur temple through the Kalkal gate, which links the southwestern courtyard with Sennacherib's newly built additional courtyard,[[87]] and re-entered the temple through the same gate — thus moving into the semi-public sphere of the outer courtyard of the temple.

When Esarhaddon finished his renovations to the Aššur temple, he held a banquet in this courtyard for three days, to which he invited his magnates and his people.[[88]] Regardless of who precisely is meant by "his people," the king's remark reveals that at least part of the population had access to the outer courtyard of the temple. The king's leaving and re-entering through the Kalkal gate must have served the purpose of integrating the public sphere into the ritual space and thus publicizing the king's active partaking in the divine and terrifying splendor radiated by Aššur's crown. The king's spatial movement involving semi-public space was reinforced by the incantations "The crown's terrifying splendor" and "the Weapon," recited by the exorcists (no. 11 r. 4). Both evoke the image of Aššur's overwhelming splendor spreading throughout the universe and forcing everyone to submit to his yoke. Together with Aššur, Šerua, Kippat-māti, Tašmētu, the Axe and Mandanu, the king went to the Adad temple, stopping at the cella of Anu (no. 11 r. 5ff) before returning to the Aššur temple on the same day.

On the 9th of Adar a ritual took place that seems to have been designed to add to the materialization of the changed status of the king. The king came out of the palace and stood in the courtyard, where the priest placed a vat of vine before him and then placed a peeled pomegranate on a platter of salt. This pomegranate was then put in the mouth of the cupbearer, who was brought before the king. The head of the female singers announced the good news three times before entering the temple of Anu: "Šerua has given birth!" The king then entered the temple of Adad, lit the censer, and illuminated the face of the god. The peeled red pomegranate possibly symbolizes the female blood and the white salt the male semen, thus visualizing the idea of a sexual reunion before the announcement "Šerua has given birth!" and indicating the king's new status.[[89]] By means of the ritual just described, the king's changed status was emphasized during Assurbanipal's reign at the expense of the notion of the divine couple blessing and legitimizing the king in his office as effectuated by the wedding ceremony of Mullissu.

On the 10th of Adar the king set the table and gave gifts to the temple-enterers.

Overall, it seems that the reforms undertaken during the reign of Assurbanipal emphasize the king's position as agent of the god Aššur — visualized by the king's wearing of Aššur's Tiara — even more strongly than do the prescriptive rituals that probably date to the reign of Sennacherib.

62 RIMA 2, A.0.101.30 69-78.

63 Annus 2002, 135.

64 E. Burrows, "Hymn to Ninurta as Sirius," JRAS 1924 Centenary Supplement, 33-40.

65 Burrows translates "Fixer of Harmony," Foster 1996, 634 translates "your divinity is singular." Mayer 2005, 54: "in der Gesamheit aller Götter ist deine Gottheit die ungewöhnlichste" Both group the reference with CAD Š/1, 403ff., s.v. šanû B "to change" rather with šanû A "to do again, to repeat."

66 Tadmor 1971 and 1987.

67 Livingstone 1986, 146-147; Maul 1999, 211; Annus 2002, 100-101.

68 Maul 2000.

69 Van Driel 1969, 40-43.

70 Deller 1985, 362-364.

71 Haller 1954, 170-181; Lundström 2009; Pedde 2011; Lundström and Pedde 2008, 145.

72 Luckenbill Senn., 151 no. 13. On Sennacherib's tomb see most recently Frahm 1997, 181f.

73 MARV IV 138 and MARV 4 140 (Erīšum I, Aššur-nādin-ahhē, Shalmaneser I, Tukultī­Ninurta I, Ninurta-apil-ekur), see Cancik-Kirschbaum 2012.

74 Miglus 2003, 262-267; Lundström and Pedde 2009; Cancik-Kirschbaum 2012, 47. One can now further add the archaeological evidence of Middle Bronze Age Qatna.

75 Version B is from Khorsabad and C is probably from Aššur, S. Yamada, "The Editorial History of the Assyrian King List," ZA 84 (1994) 11-37, 37.

76 Michalowski 1983; Wilson 1977.

77 Pongratz-Leisten 1997.

78 V. Platt, Facing the Gods. Epiphany and Representation in Graeco-Roman Art (Cambridge, 2011) 238.

79 Pongratz-Leisten 2008.

80 See most recently Frahm 1997, T 183 (pp. 261-264).

81 SAA 3 40:10.

82 Pace Maul 2000, 395.

83 This compares to the visual cues constituting meaning in art as discussed by Ross 2005.

84 Winter 2009, 258.

85 As noted by Maul 2000, 397f. this assembly of the gods was already known under Adad­nīrārī III, see SAA 12 69: 27ff. Here the rites for Shebat and intercalary Adar are called pandugāni ša šarri. There is no attestation for a pandugani ša šarri, which according to K. Deller, "Old Assyrian 'Kanwarta', Middle Assyrian Kalmarte, and Neo-Assyrian 'Galmarte,' JEOL 29 (1985-86) 43-49, 47 seems to have been a banquet of a more secular kind, after Adad-nīrārī III.

86 SAA 3 40 rev.16.

87 Van Driel 1969, 47.

88 RINAP 4 no. 57 vii 26-30.

89 This suggestion was made to me by my student Anthony Soohoo.

Beate Pongratz-Leisten

Beate Pongratz-Leisten, 'The Ritual Cycle of the Months of Shebat, Adar and Nisan', 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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