The Meaning of the Assyrian New Year
By: Ashur Giwargis - Courtesy of AINA
Publish Date: 3/21/2014
It was from Assyria, known as Mesopotamia (between the Tigris and Euphrates) that the first civilization began, and gave rise to an intellectual thought process that helped build scientific as well as religious basis for all other cultures. Babylon which will have a large presence in the following paragraphs was an Assyrian city as it was asserted by the Greek historian Herodotus when he said: "Having subdued the rest of the continent, Cyrus turned his attention to Assyria, where the great cities, especially the most renowned and powerful of them all Babylon, to which the seat of government was transferred after the fall of Nineveh"
If we were to look deeply into the culture of Assyria, we would find that the Assyrians were the first to believe in the Oneness of God, the unseen and the greatest of all gods, but under a different name in every period. For we find the Sumerian "Enlil" who killed the dragon of the seas in order to bring about peace to the world, Then "Mardukh" in Babylon (Ashur in Nineveh). Later the idea was passed to the neighboring peoples like the Phoenicians, where goddess Anat the lover of Baal kills the dragon in the Canaanite Epic of Creation. Even the Hebrews' Yahweh is the hero that kills the dragon in the Torah's legend (Isaiah 27:1 - 51:9) (Psalms 74:11-13 and 89:11). All the gods that kill the evil dragon were to represent the "Greatest" god, which would take on a different name in each period culminating in the word "Alla" at a later time after Christ from the term "El", whose strength would slay the dragon at the hands of St. George, and at the hands of St. Zayaa, an intercessor for the Eastern Assyrians of today.
We always notice when we study the old Assyrian religion, the plurality of gods because human beings were used in the beginning to sanctify all that was frightful, and considered every movement in nature and in life as a tool in the hands of each of the gods.
When there was drought, the population would pray to the god of fertility and thunder, and if the king was pondering about something he would pray to the god of wisdom. All this was due to the human being's interaction within his environment. However, all those gods came second to the lord of the gods, the king of the universe. We find an example in the prayers offered by King Atur Nater Epri II (900 B.C) to the god Ashur (The Assyrian Intellectual's Magazine, Baghdad, November 1977, by the Assyriologist Fred Tamimi). For if we replace in the prayer's text the word "Ashur" with the word "God", we wouldn't find a difference between it and prayers in modern churches.
During 1840s Sir Austin Henry Layard (the father of Assyriology) and his assistant Hormuzd Rassam (An Assyrian from Mosul) discovered the library of King Ashur Banipal (626-667 B.C). The contents of the library included about 25,000 cuneiform tablets amongst which was the first story of the Biblical Flood explained in the Epic of Gilgamesh. In this very same library texts were found about the Epic of Creation "Enuma Elish" (Akkadian "When in the Highest") recorded in cuneiform on seven tablets, referring to seven generations in the creation of the universe and human kind, similar to the text of the seven days of creation in the Old Testament's Book of Genesis.
The contents of this library are considered to be the main portal to Assyriology and the beginning of the discovery of all the writings that have been later distorted, encompassing the human thought for 2000 years. The contents of this monumental library have scientifically replaced the Torah, which was considered for many centuries as the sole historic reference to the area.
In the middle of the 19th century scientist Henry Rawlenson was able to decipher and read the cuneiform script, and then George Smith shocked the Torah school of thought around the world when he was able to read and interpret the Babylonian Epic of The Flood in 1872. The similarities between the religion of Assyria and that of the Torah's legends astonished even the Jewish scholars at the discovery of the Assyrian cuneiform written tablets. Thus the phrase "Mesopotamian Torah" was given, and those scientists had to face a fierce confrontation by the western Churches and Jews, which resulted in the disappearance of many important tablets. Scientist Fredrich Dellitch mentions how he lectured on the topic of the Mesopotamian Torah in Berlin on 13 December 1902 in the presence of Kaiser Wilhelm II. The monarch asked him to repeat it in the Royal Palace, so he presented his lecture entitled "Babylon & the Bible", where he explained that the stories of the Bible were taken from Assyria, creating thus a huge clamor within the European media, which caused Dellitch to receive threats from some Jewish Rabbis and was severely reprimanded by western Churches.
Few of the neighboring peoples to the Assyrian homeland know about Neesan First and its connotations both cultural and national to the Assyrian people as well as its philosophical background for all of humanity. Generally, today's Assyrians consider the month of Neesan as God's blessed month, exactly as it was considered for thousands of years before, when the belief was that behind the nature's revival was the Lord of the gods' descent to earth, then battling with the evil gods and winning them and finally marrying the goddess Ishtar, thus reviving nature and the beginning of Spring.
The Sumerians called this feast "Akiti Zigorku", but in Assyrian it was called "Rish-Shateen" (The Beginning of the New Year)... Even today, the month of Neesan is scientifically considered the real beginning to the cycle of life on earth, for in March/April, nature begins to renew and revive itself and not in January.
In the Assyrian cities (Babylon, Nineveh and the rest...) the Epic of "Enuma Elish" was considered the ritual reading, which embodied the Lord of the gods' eternal existence, the beginning and the purpose of life. This is considered one of the oldest Epic legends in history, which was recited in the temple of Mardukh, "Esagila" (Magnificent House), that was done on the fourth day of Akitu (Assyrian New Year's festivities in Babylon lasting twelve days following the night of the new moon of April).
The prelude to the Epic of Enuma Elish mentions in the first tablet the beginning of the first generation when the earth didn't exist and was nameless. The universe was represented by the male element, Apsu (god of fresh waters), the female element Tiamat (goddess of salty waters) and Mammo (god of clouds), which moved between them (note here the exact similarity in day one of Genesis 1:1-2).
Then in the sixth generation, god Mardukh (Ashur for the Assyrians of Nineveh) who creates "Lallu" (human) to serve the gods so that they may rest in the seventh generation (exactly as when God created a human on the sixth day, and rested on the seventh, Genesis 2:2-3). Briefly, the story of Creation is about the goddess Tiamat which takes the form of a dragon "Habur" which swims in the seas, she wanted to get rid of her bothersome grand-children in order to enjoy a peaceful time with her husband Apsu, so she summons the scary beasts for a battle, there comes Mardukh(Ashur) and battles her until he's victorious, then divides the waters Tiamat into two parts, creating the heavens with its stars and planets, while he makes the earth with the second part where he creates animals and plants(as in the Torah , Genesis 1:6 when God separates between the waters and creates heaven and earth) When Mardukh finishes with all that, he creates a pair of humans with blood and mud then Mardukh builds a house on earth so that he may rest whenever he descends to earth in April (exactly as the Lord of hosts, builds a house in Israel ( II Samuel 7:1-17) The phrase "Lord's tent" is found in the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh -where the Torah"s story of the Flood was taken from, in the person of Noah after the Babylonian "Ziosodra" & the Sumarian "Utemapeshtim").
Neesan Festivities in Nineveh and Babylon before the Time of Jesus Christ (Some general ideas about the ancient Assyrian mythology)
The following brief picture about the festivities can give the reader an idea of how the ceremonies of the Assyrian New Year were conducted in Babylon and Nineveh. Here we learn about that the concept of the Lord of gods, Mardukh in Babylon and Ashur in Nineveh.
The festivities of the Babylonian Assyrian New Year (Akitu) were held starting on the first night of April new moon, and they included prayers, massive religious plays, as the priests would use figure representations of the gods as a medium of expression. The program of the festivities would be as follows:
1st to 3rd Day: Purifying souls: The priest of Easagila (Mardukh"s house) would recite solemn prayers with the other priests and the people would answer with equally woeful prayers which expressed humanity's fear of the unknown. That is why the high priest would head every day to the Esagila asking for Mardukh's forgiveness, begging him to protect Babylon, his holy city. This prayer was called the "The Secret Of Esagila".
4th Day: The same rituals would be followed as in the previous three days. Then at night the Epic of Creation "Enuma Elish" would be recited, telling the story of how the universe and the four seasons were created, how all gods united in god Mardukh following his victory over Tiamat the dragon. The recitation of this Epic was considered the beginning of preparations for the submission of the king of Babylon before Mardukh on the fifth day of Akitu.
5th Day: The submission of the king of Babylon before Mardukh. The king would enter to the Esagila accompanied by the priests. They would approach the altar where the high priest of the Esagila impersonates Mardukh then he approaches the king, begins to strip him of his jewelry, scepter and even his crown then he would slap him hard while the latter would kneel and begin to pray asking for Mardukh's forgiveness. The king would then ask: "I have not sinned O Lord of the universe, and I haven't neglected your heavenly might at all"... Then the priest in the role of Mardukh repeats: "Don't be afraid of what Mardukh has to say, for he will hear your prayers, extends your power, and increase the greatness of your reign". After this the king would stand up and the priest would give him back his jewelry, scepter and crown then slap him hard again hoping for the king to shed tears. Shedding of a king's tear expressed greater submission to Mardukh and respect for the monarch's power. Returning the crown to the king meant his power was renewed by Mardukh, thus Neesan would be considered not only the revival of nature and life but also to the State as well. Thus, these ceremonies would make the greatest and most feared personalities of that time (kings of Babylon and Nineveh) submit to the greatest god, and live a moment of humiliation with all the population, sharing prayers to prove their faith before the Mighty God.
Following a brief presence in his earthly home in Babylon and renewing the king's power, god Mardukh remained in the "netherworld mountain" -- a tower composed of seven floors, known in the Old Testament as the Tower of Babylon (In the Old Testament God dwells on a similar "mountain" Psalms 74:2). During this day according to the tradition of Akitu, Mardukh would enter his dwelling and is surprised by the evil gods who will fight him, and then he's taken prisoner and waits for arrival of his son god Nabu who would save him from "Nought" and restores his glory.
6th Day: The arrival of god Nabu in boats accompanied by his assistants of brave gods coming from Nippur, Uruk , Kish and Eridu (cities in the south of today's Iraq). The gods accompanying Nabu would be represented by statues that would be mounted on boats made especially for the occasion. Here the people in huge numbers would begin their walk behind their king towards the Easagila where Mardukh is held prisoner, chanting the following: "Here's he who's coming from far to restore the glory of our imprisoned father".
7th Day: On the third day of his imprisonment Nabu frees Mardukh. The evil gods had closed a huge gate behind him when he entered his dwelling. Mardukh would be fighting till Nabu's arrival, when he would break in the huge gate and a battle would go on between the two groups, until Nabu comes out victorious and frees Mardukh.
8th Day: When Mardukh is set free, the statues of the gods are gathered in the Destinies Hall "Upshu Ukkina", to deliberate his destiny, there it's decided to join all the forces of the gods and bestow them upon Mardukh. Here, the king implores all the gods to support and honor Mardukh, and this tradition was an indication that Mardukh received submission from all the gods and was unique in his position.
9th Day: The victory procession to the "Bet-Akiti" (House of Akitu) where Mardukh's victory in the beginning of Creation over the dragon Tiamat (goddess of the nether waters) is celebrated. The House of Akitu which the Assyrians of Nineveh called "Bet Ekribi" ("House of Prayers" in old Assyrian language), was about 200 meters outside the city's walls, where there were wonderful trees decorated and watered carefully out of respect to the god who's considered the one to grant nature its life. The victory procession was the population's way to express its joy at Mardukh's (Ashur) renewal of power and the destruction of evil forces, which nearly subdued life in the beginning.
10th Day: Arriving at "Bet Akiti", god Mardukh begins to celebrate with both the upper and nether world gods (the statues of gods were arranged around a huge table such as in a feast) then Mardukh returns to the city at night celebrating his marriage to goddess Ishtar when heaven and earth are united. As the gods unite so is this union arranged on earth. Thus the king personifies this union by playing the role of marrying the highest priestess of the Esagila, where they would both sit at the throne before the public and they recite special poems for the occasion. This love brings forth life in the form of the season of spring.
11th Day: The gods return accompanied by their Lord Mardukh (Ashur) to meet again in the Destinies Hall "Upshu Ukkina", where they met for the first time on the eigth day. This time they would decide the fate of the people of Mardukh (Ashur). In ancient Assyrian philosophy "creation" in general was considered as a covenant between heaven and earth as long as a humans serve the gods untill death. Therefore, gods' happiness was not complete except if humans were happy as well. Human's happiness was consequently dependent on the condition that he served the gods. So Mardukh and the other gods renewed their covenant with Babylon upon his return to his upper house (Heaven).
12th Day: The last day of Akitu. The gods return to Mardukh's temple (the statues are returned to the temple) and daily life resumes in Babylon, Nineveh ... and the rest of the Assyrian cities.
It was a tradition for the kings of Nineveh to visit Babylon and share their brethren celebrating Akitu. Thus we see king Sargon II in one of his inscriptions explaining about his visits to Babylon saying: "In Babylon I joyfully entered the house of the Lord of gods, the Esagila, and my face was lit up with happiness, I held my great Lord Mardukh's hand and we walked together to the "Bet Akiti", also many gods came from different places to share in a huge procession, with goddess Ishtar and her servants who played the reed pipes and brought joy to Babylon".
The Assyrian mythology influenced also neighboring peoples, especially because the Assyrian culture expanded to the Arameans and Phoenicians (Arameans of the coast) and even the Greeks. The legend of Dimuzi and Ishtar passed to neighboring peoples, thus the Assyrian god Dumuzi became Adonis for the Phoenicians and Greeks, while the Aramaeans called him Tammuz, and he became one of the Hebrews' gods (Ezekiel 8:14).
Ishtar became Ashtarout for the Phoenicians and "Heavens Aphrodite" for the Greeks, and "Heavens Queen" for Hebrews (Jeremiah 7:18 - 44:17 and chapters 19-25). Then Arshkigal, the goddess of death, became the Greek "Perciphonee"... Also Neesan wasn't only considered the first month of the year in Assyria only, but the idea spread to Hatti (Syria), Phoenicia and Judea (Esther 9:1) and the Zoroastrians celebrated it since the seventh century B.C. and called it "Nuw-Ruz" (The New Day).
Even though Babylon fell to the Persians in 539 B.C, the Assyrians kept their beliefs even during Alexander's time and also during the rule of his successors (331-126 B.C). During this time The Babylonian historian Berossos (Bar Aasha) compiled Babylon's history from 3600 B.C to the rule of Alexander in his famous book "Babyloniaca" in three volumes, responding to a request from king Antiochus II who ruled Babylon (261-247 B.C.). Berossos taught as well in Athens where he composed the book of "Wisdom". He was respected by the Greeks who sculptured a statue of him in his honor and made its tongue of gold. It's worthy here mentioning that Berossos during his days was the priest of the Easagila (Mardukh's House). The book "Babyloniaca" became a source of learning to the Greeks, following the letters of Herodotus and Alexander. The Greeks obtained a lot of the Assyrian sciences in the fields of religion, astrology, time measurement, calculation and mathematics, the most important one being that of Euclid in mathematical geometry which is taught till today in schools and universities around the world because it's considered as one of the basis in the science of mathematics.
Neesan Festivities After the Advent of Christianity (Some Assyrian festivals inherited since the Assyrian Empire)
The new testament mentions that the Apostle Peter visited Babylon and established a church there( I Peter 5:13).The Assyrians were the first to embrace Christianity for they found in Christ's person the "Saviour" that they celebrated for, and also the new faith had many similarities with the religion of their forefathers:
1. The Oneness of the unseen God.
2. The tradition in the Land of Ashur about Mardukh (Ashur) who descends to earth and battles evil. He is then imprisoned in the earthly mountain and liberated on the third day. Life resumes with a new covenant, and as we have seen Mardukh (Ashur) was imprisoned by the evil gods on the fifth and liberated on the seventh day (that is on the third day of his imprisonment).
3. In Babylon the king takes over the role of Mardukh's servant during "Akitu"; while in the Assyrian inscriptions, on the sixth day of Akitu, the king of Nineveh's role differs from that of his Babylonian brother. The latter assumes this role if the hero Ninurta (Storm God) who takes revenge for Ashur and saves him after three days, exactly as Christ the Lord conquers death on the third day during a strong "Storm". Death in ancient philosophy especially that of Assyria, was considered as a form of imprisonment.
4. The beginning of Spring following Christ's Resurrection, as Spring begins when Mardukh (Ashur) is freed from darkness.
5. Mardukh's return to his upper house (Heaven) after his liberation and meeting with the gods (11th Day) just as Christ ascended to heaven after his meeting with the Apostles.
6. The existence for the Babylonians of the idea of a holy trinity which was composed of Ea (god of the seas and Mardukh's father), Anu (god of heavens) and Enlil (god of the atmosphere and earth).
7. Baptism in Christianity, where the idea of cleansing sins inherited from "Nusard-El" which was considered as a tradition of sprinkling water in the path of god Dumuzi. This tradition had a great part during Akitu alongside the celebrations of Mardukh's(Ashur) freedom, the Assyrians would sprinkle each other with water to wash away their sins before welcoming god Dumuzi after his liberation from Arshkigal the goddess of death. The Assyrians still celebrate this tradition today by sprinkling water on each other and in the streets. Also known as "Nusardel" on this day special prayers are recited in the Assyrian churches. St. John the Baptist while washing the people in River Jordan asks: "Repent Ye For the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matthew 3:2).
Many Assyrian and non-Assyrian clergy admit to these similarities but not in public, however, at the altar the Old Testament is considered the book that tells about the New Testament, and that is to preserve an old Church tradition which was followed considering the Torah as a prophecy to the coming of Christ. This tradition began in the Church of the East in the first centuries A.D at the schools of Urhai (Edessa) and Nisibin (Nisibis) which were considered as the oldest "Universities" in the world. The western Churches consider the Torah as a prelude to the Christian religion. However, the Torah contributes to the distortion of history by presenting the Assyrians as an impious and unflavored people, while on the other hand it glorified Jews presenting them as a pious, tormented people and the Torah has played an important role besides the Holocaust during Second World War and the establishment of the State of Israel in the 20th century.
Although the Assyrians gave up their Akitu celebrations in favor of their Christian faith, they still considered Neesan as the month of renewal and resurgence. It has become a more simple festivity as until recently in the Assyrian villages girls would gather flowers and herbs on the first day of Neesan and suspend them under the house's roof, as a joyful expression to the arrival of the month of plenty and the revival of life and nature. These bouquets of flowers were called "Deqna D'Nissan" (Neesan's Beard).
Also the villagers would gather their children in pairs of brides and grooms; then those children would visit every house, where they would be offered different sorts of sweets and these visits would last till night fall then they would gather to share and eat a popular meal made especially for the occasion. This tradition had its roots in the tenth day of Akitu when god Ashur would marry goddess Ishtar before they ascend to heaven on the eleventh day. On this same day the king and the high priestess as mentioned before would enact the holy marriage, and this feast is known today as "Kalou D'Soulaqa" (Bride of the Ascension).
However, with the resurgence of political parties within the modern Assyrian national movement it was decided to celebrate the Assyrian New Year on the first day of April (the 10th or the 12th of Akitu following the new moon). The celebrations took a special tradition of public processions, festivals, patriotic and traditional songs, where the celebrants gather in every country in great numbers and go out to the fields where nature renews itself. April First is considered a nationalistic celebration for we rarely see an Assyrian who doesn't celebrate it. This day along with Assyrian Martyr's Day (August 07th) [Al-Nahar newspaper 09/08/2001] are considered to be a national duty for all Assyrians wherever they are. They provide an occasion to affirm the modern Assyrian existence. The Assyrian New Year became a point of continuation for the Assyrian national identity over the centuries in spite of all the persecutions the Assyrians faced beginning with the Fall of Nineveh (612 B.C) and the Fall of Babylon (539 B.C) followed by religious persecutions when they embraced Christianity and the organized massacres of the 20th century in Turkey and Iran (1915-1918) and the political persecutions in Iraq (1920-1933). These persecutions continue even today with the policy of arabization & kurdificaton under the Iraqi regime and the government of the so-called "Province Of Kurdistan". Interestingly both regimes are founded on the ruins of Assyrian monuments.
The Assyrians of today still keep many of the ancient festivals, which they inherited from their forefathers even if they are celebrated in simpler ways. Some of the celebrations (Nusardel, Nineveh Fast) became a part of the liturgical celebrations, distinguishing Assyrians once again from their neighbors, for these festivals are celebrated distinctively by the Assyrians and the Church played a great role in preserving some of the Assyrian traditions over the centuries.
The joy of these celebrations has diminished in the Assyrian villages due to the instability and oppressive practices towards the Assyrians where face a war of eradication of their identity in their own homeland. This has also increased their rate of emigration. The greater level of association with people of different cultures in the Diaspora, and even in Assyria where they live in areas far from each other has obviously contributed to the dispersion of the Assyrian identity, particularly within the Arab and Kurdish majorities.
This article was first published in Annahar Lebanese newspaper, April-14/ 2004
Translated from Arabic by Mary C. - Canada
- "Babylon & the Bible"- , Frederich Dellitch, Arabic Edition by Irina Dawood
- "The Histories", By Herodotus, Penguin Edition 1996
- "Unger's Bible Handbook", By Merrill F.Unger, Chicago 1967
- "They Wrote On Clay", By Edward Chierra, University Of Chicago 1938
- "Everyday Life in Babylon & Assyria", G.Contenau -
- "Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating The Old Testament", By James Prichard 1969