Nature and Content of the Corpus

The sources edited in the present volume all belong to the literary category of ritual texts. They concern, therefore, performances that might be classified as "ritual" — but how can we define such a wide and somehow elusive concept?

If we look at the form rather than the contents, lingering over the methodology of the performance more than over its essence, we could describe rituals as "patterned and ordered sequences of words and acts, often expressed in multiple media, whose contents and arrangements are characterized in varying degrees by formality (conventionality), stereotypy (rigidity), condensation (fusion), and redundancy (repetition)"[[1]] Such a description avoids all of the issues connected with the conjectural religious aspect of rituals, and their possible mystical and metaphysical values:[[2]] it remains valid, thus, within a wide range of different realities and also fits well within the Neo-Assyrian world.

When considering ritual texts stemming from first millennium Assyria, in fact, we must never forget that there was not a clear-cut separation in that universe between "sacred" and "secular" events. The entire civic experience was firmly anchored to a religious conception of the world: men at any social level were agents of the gods' will, and the cults performing in the temples erected within the Assyrian territory embodied such idea.

To the extent that such moments when the human and divine worlds came into contact and interacted with each other were charged with symbolic and existential values, they needed to be regulated and exempted from any possible fault. Therefore, the adherence to a fixed tradition inherited by previous generations became crucial: these events were thus characterized by standardized sequences of acts carried out in conjunction with standardized sequences of words. This is particularly clear in the texts collected in the present volume, whose recurring series of acts may appear somewhat rigid and repetitive to the modern reader's eyes. However, a closer look at their contents reveals how such strict etiquette was applied to different contexts, and precisely these variables make each source assume a different and profound meaning in the light of the wider Neo-Assyrian cultural frame.

In an anthropological perspective, rituals use a multi-sensorial language in order to reach different audiences, and therefore have a particularly strong social impact on the human group that performs or attends them. As is the case in the sources presented here, they do not necessarily represent special actions: they could also reflect everyday acts (eating, washing hands, lighting a fire, taking someone's hand) that, due to the circumstances in which they are performed, are nevertheless explicitly marked as unique.[[3]]

Neo-Assyrian ritual texts neatly integrate them in the stream of Mesopotamian tradition, with the firm belief that humankind was created by gods in order to support, maintain and honour them. Sources stemming from the third millennium onward from every region of the ancient Near East are very keen on providing all the instructions for the perfect performance of the necessary activities, including feeding, washing, clothing, entertainment with songs and music, and many others.[[4]] These acts, seemingly simple, became specialized and ritualized, firmly integrated into temple life and elevated to a higher status because of their beneficiaries.

Within this ritualized frame, the behavioural rules of each participant must be clearly determined, and this is why the written sources that we can consult today were drafted: a strict etiquette appropriate to the holy shrines and their divine inhabitants needed to be maintained during the entire delicate performance. As a consequence, rituals could also represent the means to define, isolate and confirm the social community; they could be voluntarily used to identify the closed group of those holding the privilege to approach the deities, creating boundaries and highlighting the different statuses and hierarchies within the established social scale.

The leitmotif that runs through all the texts presented in this volume is the leading role of the Assyrian king, who is presented as the main performer of the acts described in the sources or as the person who established such rites. More or less explicitly, while honouring the chief of the Assyrian pantheon and his divine council, these rituals were aimed at reinforcing and putting on stage the special relationship existing between the legitimate monarch and the god Aššur, who chose his representative on earth and guided him throughout his reign for the protection of the Assyrian State and its people.

This belief was at the foundation of the daily life of the Palace and the temples in Assyria, the cornerstone around which the whole architecture of the royal propaganda was built: it was crucial then to exhibit it on a few particularly significant occasions such as during special rites and at religious festivals. The collected texts do not refer to the day-to-day life of an Assyrian temple, but instead provide us with a lot of interesting data about specific performances linked to special dates on the Assyrian religious calendar and that assumed special values precisely in the light of their peculiarity.

From these sources, clear indication appears that, from the Assyrian perspective, the ruler was considered the sole legitimate delegate of the main god Aššur on earth. Although he was never divinized throughout the period of the Empire, the king was considered as divinely appointed whose actions were constantly guided by the gods themselves: this gave the monarch a unique position over his people.

Such honour, however, also brought various duties, particularly in the military and religious realms: indeed, the king was called upon to convert chaos into order by launching campaigns every year to bring the largest possible group of people under the protection of Aššur. Thus, the words pronounced during the coronation hymn are significant: he is exhorted to broaden the borders of the empire, see text no. 7, ii 34-35: i-na e-šar-te GIŠ.PA-ka KUR-ka ra-pi[š] "Expand your country with your just sceptre!". In the religious domain, he was regarded as responsible for the care and well­ being of the gods' houses, and for all of the people and structures that gravitated around such divine abodes. A failure in these tasks or the non­fulfilment of such imperatives would have severely undermined the king's divine and temporal legitimacy.[[5]]

In both the Coronation Ritual (text no. 7, see line i 29') and Assurbanipal's Coronation Hymn (SAA 3, 11), it is explicitly stated: "Aššur is king — indeed Aššur is king!" and in the second document, the text continues: "Assurbanipal is the [representative] of Aššur, the creation of his hands". Interestingly, in the case of text no. 7, these words are pronounced by the priest of Aššur after having slapped the king's face and when the king has humiliated himself before the gods by prostrating himself and rolling on the ground (ll. 31' and 32'). It is only after the acknowledgment of his lower status in front of his protective deity that he can assume the task of governing the earthly community and is finally crowned. There is no doubt, thus, that according to the Assyrian perception, the real supreme monarch is always the god Aššur: the monarch chosen by him represents his warrior who ensures and extends the god's realm.

These conclusions, derived from the documents edited here, find confirmation in many other textual typologies that span all of the first millennium Assyrian writings: administrative texts, letters and reports of royal correspondence, decrees and legal documents, treaties, royal inscriptions, as well as literary compositions, theological commentaries and other sources conceived in a sacred context such as prophecies and extispicy reports. They mostly stem from the main religious and civic Assyrian centres of Assur, Kalhu and Nineveh, and provide us with information on various aspects concerning the organization of the cult in the major temples of the empire — not only with reference to the shrines in the "holy city" of Aššur, but also to the administration of both the major and minor religious buildings spread across Assyria. The temple of the chief god Aššur in the religious capital, however, always retained its role as the symbol of the Assyrian identity and the emblem of the royal authority and, in effect, many of the rituals performed by the king and described in the texts collected in this volume take place precisely in this building.

It should be noted that during the entire festive cycle and, in particular, throughout the winter months which included all the performances of the Shebat-Adar cycle and its natural prosecution in the month of Nisannu, the Assyrian king dwelled in the religious capital. The urban arrangement conveyed meaning: the Royal Palace, in fact, was built in the centre of the inner city thus surrounded by those temples and ziggurats in which the primary Assyrian gods also dwelled. The ruler was physically and ideologically in a privileged space, accessible only to a very narrow group of people; this is highlighted by our sources as well, as they often record the frequent movements of the king from the Temple of Aššur to his Palace and back. Behind the apparently laconic statement LUGAL ana É–DINGIR it-tar-da "the king came down to the House of the Gods" and LUGAL ina É.GAL i-ta-šar, "the king went straight back to the Palace" (and similar), repeated sometimes for each single day recorded by text, such as in the case of no. 12, lies the purpose of showing this special (although temporary) physical proximity. The honour that the king bestowed on the deities had a precise counterpart: with his pious behaviour and thanks to his cultic performances, he in fact gained divine blessings for himself, his family and offspring, his reign and his projects for supremacy.

On these occasions, the king acted as a privileged cultic performer toward his protective god and the other deities as well: the primary and essential cultic act was the offering of food. For his duty, he was assisted by the temple personnel and in a few cases also by members of his family (particularly his sons, as symbols of their special statuses — see for example texts no. 2 at ll. r. iii 2 and iv 36' and no. 17, l. r. 12) and higher state officials (who thus received confirmation of the legitimacy of their roles before the gods, as in text no. 7). According to our sources, the basic sequence of acts to be performed for an offering ritual in a Mesopotamian temple always included the following steps (possibly in a different order and/or enhanced with details): at first, a table was brought in and placed before the image of the divinity. Then, various purification rites were executed (washing of the hands, ablutions, incantations and prayers) in order to cleanse both the area and the performers. The table was prepared according to a prescribed arrangement and vessels for liquids were set out together with the first foodstuffs (mostly bread, fruit and sweets). Afterwards, animals were brought in and slaughtered — specific indication of the location where this bloody act was performed is often missing, but it is conceivable that this took place on an altar or another dedicated space not far from the offering table. Specific cuts of meat were served to the god(s) following a particular order and procedure motivated by the individual circumstances. Finally, after the divine meal, all of the vessels and utensils that had been used were cleared and the table removed.

Various other actions could be added to this basic scheme that loaded each event with a unique meaning. Examples include the celebration of the "wedding night" (quršu) and the presentation of funerary offerings during the rituals included in the Shebat-Adar cycle; the presence of special individuals such as the sīru in a rite performed in the Equ House (see text 16); the use of particular equipment like the carriage and the bow in a ritual for Ištar (text 18); the setting of the ritual in an unusual location as happened on the occasion of the nāṭu for different gods (texts 24-26 and 32).

It is clear that the Assyrian royal propaganda at the beginning of the first millennium BCE acquired and enhanced those rites and ideological beliefs that derived from the late Middle-Assyrian period when the first justifications for the political expansion of the empire were devised. These considerations were so deeply rooted inside the society to have clear reflections in every aspect of the human life: they influenced not only the political proclamations and economic strategies, but also absorbed literature, arts, religion, and culture. The purpose was to justify the expansion to two sets of groups: namely, an internal audience that was called upon to contribute to the annual military campaign, the maintenance of the growing bureaucratic system and the requirements of temples and administrative palaces, and, secondly, to an external audience consisting of the newly subjugated populations. First­ millennium Assyria, thus, truly reinvented the pre-existing tradition and integrated it into its original ideological project.

Among the gods who appear in these texts, Aššur without doubt represents the main character; at his sides are the main deities of the traditional Mesopotamian culture with a special role played by Ištar as protector and mediator between the divine and royal forces through her prophecies (published in SAA volume 9). Moreover, the expansive politics of the Neo­ Assyrian empire are mirrored in the sources, and gods derived from the Hittite, Hurrian and Iranian traditions appear as well, for example, in the long lists comprising the tākultu manuals (texts 37-48). Furthermore, other divine or divinized beings are also mentioned, such as demons (considered in their ambivalent aspect as good or evil entities), natural elements of the Mesopotamian land, statues and other iconic representations, stars, planets and constellations. These were all named in order to convey the idea of a "cosmic assembly" that celebrated and, in a sense, also ratified Assur's role.

1 S.J. Tambiah, "A Performative Approach to Ritual", Proceedings of the British Academy 65 (1979), 113-169; see esp. p. 119.

2 For a schematic but complete history of the studies about rituals, see D. Harth — G.J. Schenk (eds.), Ritualdinamik. Kulturübergreifende Studien zur Theorie und Geschichte rituellen Handelns, Heidelberg 2004. For an example of the questions about rituals raised by scholars of the Ancient Near East, see B.N. Porter B.N., Ritual and Politics in Ancient Mesopotamia (AOS 88), New Haven 2005.

3 C. Bell, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice, New York-Oxford 1992; id., Ritual. Perspectives and Dimensions, New York-Oxford 1997. Contra Bell see J. Quack," Bell, Bordieu, and Wittgenstein on Ritual Sense", in W.S. Sax — J. Quack— J. Weinhold (eds.), The Problem of Ritual Efficacy, Oxford 2010, 169-188.

4 On this subject, see Lambert 1993 and Maul 2008.

5 See Parker 2011.

Stefania Ermidoro

Stefania Ermidoro, 'Nature and Content of the Corpus', 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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