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The Babylonian Ghost Festival

Author: Michele Briere
Posted: October 26th. 2008
Times Viewed: 6,959

At the end of the month of Abu, during the last week at the disappearance of the moon, this ceremony was held. Abu is from the start of new moon in July to the ending of the moon in August. This was a time when ghosts ascend to the world of the living and then return to the netherworld, taking unclaimed souls with them.

After the invasion of Sumer by King Sargon in the 23rd century BC, at which time Sumer became Babylon, the concepts of evil and anti-witchcraft began to take hold and the temple exorcists added onto the ritual, turning it into a trial of judgment, looking for witches. Keep in mind the time period, please; we don’t have a decent translation for the word representing an evil magician. These trials were conducted by the temple exorcists, all men, and the ‘evil witch’ was usually a woman practicing the older tribal magics. This was not the original treatment of witches (bad magicians, not our witches) in Sumer. This is all despite the fact that the exorcists and the witches were doing the exact same things; the exorcists were temple-approved, the witches were not. And the temple ruled the magic and the rituals.

Little by little the incantations and rituals, which were directed at spirits to get them back into the underworld, began to be directed at witches due to a growing identification of the underworld as a place of evil. This concept is not native to the Near Middle East, but is mainly a Persian influence. Illness, originally caused by demons, began to be attributed to ghosts, and thus to witches.

The ritual itself was, at first, only 10 incantations plus rituals, and it was held in the early morning. Shamash, the god of the sun, and Nusku, the god of the lamp (for illumination) , are the main deities in this part of the rite because their light illuminates truth from shadows. With both of them fire gods, they could also destroy and cleanse.

Images of the unclaimed or criminals that needed to be judged, were created.

1. Statues of the persons were raised up to Shamash and then placed on a brazier.
2. Nusku, the lamp, is addressed; a matchstick is lit in a flame.
3. The brazier is set ablaze by the application of the matchstick, and the statues are ignited.
4. Wool is knotted and unknotted and then cast into the fire.
5. Flour and other items are burned and then thrown into the fire.
6. The brazier is stirred with an ash wood branch.
7/8. Water is poured on the glowing coals.
9. A mountain stone is set atop (the censer which had previously been placed on) the opening of the brazier.
10. A magic circle is drawn with flour; the ashes are disposed of.

The fire and water has specific cultic meaning: both are judges, the gods Girra (destructive fire) and Ea or Enki (fresh water, underground water) . This is where the European idea of burning and drowning witches comes from. The fire and water effectively ‘deals’ with the guilty. This burning was a major deal in the Middle East because someone whose body is not buried cannot go to the underworld. To not go to the underworld was a horrifying thought; it meant that the soul was unable to keep in contact with the family and help guide them. To be burned, the ashes or smoke rising to heaven was a bad thing because the soul dissipated.

An example of this is in the incantation for #8:

“Fierce, raging, furious,
Overbearing, violent, wicked are you!
Who but Ea can dampen you?
Who but Asalluhi can cool you?
May Ea dampen you,
May Asalluhi cool you.
My mouth is water, your mouth is fire;
May my mouth extinguish your mouth,
May the curse of my mouth extinguish
the curse of your mouth,
May the plot of my heart extinguish the
plot of your heart!”

Yikes! How angry is that? Eventually, this ritual grew to 100 incantations over a three-day period.

A skull was used (think Hamlet) in place of the ghost, accorded the rites of the dead, and told to carry off the witches and ghosts to the netherworld, and then the ghosts and witches themselves were told to leave. Eventually, the demi-god Tammuz was used in place of the skull, and he was to take these ghosts and witches to the underworld with him when he was sacrificed during the harvest season.

By going backward in time, taking away the neo-Babylonian additions, we can take the ritual apart, back to its original, harvest ritual and the sacrifice of the grain, which was a perfect time to honor the ancestors and set out plates of food and drink for them.

In ancient times, only the temples performed these types of rituals. Nowadays, there is no need for the neo-Pagan to have knowledge of temple rites in order to perform a ritual to honor the ancestors. It is easy enough to gather family together, offer the foods of the season for the area you live in, and set an extra plate out for your honored deceased. If you don’t have family or you want to do something a little more, consider volunteering at a soup kitchen or a food bank. What about that old lady or elderly gentleman down the street? Get those lonely neighbors together and make a nice dinner for them.

If you do want to do a little more in the ritual department, look at the items listed in the above incantations. Water, fire, wool, a brazier, flour, rock and wood. The basics of the elements. Cleanse your space, thanks the gods for their presence and attention. Just be careful when tossing flour into fire –the stuff is combustible. Have a fire extinguisher or bucket of water handy. The wool? We all know about knot magic, right? Knot up the negatives from the year and release them to the cleansing fire.

Yes, I know I said this was during August. Sounds familiar, though, doesn’t it? The holiday of the Middle East for this time of year is the Akitu, the New Year Festival at the equinox. This is one of the oldest recorded festivals in the ancient Middle East. Since the Sumerians counted only two seasons, summer and winter, both equinoxes are Akitu festivals. This was the time when Inanna/Ishtar and/or Dumuzi/Tammuz went into and escaped the Underworld. This was also a reference to the harvest seasons, since they were fertility gods of the grains and livestock before becoming warrior gods.

The festivals were originally harvest festivals with the autumn equinox being the wheat harvest which then became the cultic festival with the gods entering and leaving the underworld. The spring equinox was the barley harvest, which became the national festival with the entrance of the gods into the city after a long winter death and the re-consecration of the king to the people and the land. The political aspects of these festivals came much later in the Babylonian history, not the Sumerian history.

Interestingly, the Chinese Ghost Festival is also in August, their 7th month, a time when ghosts, spirits and ancestors come out from the Lower Realm. Taoists and Buddhists use this time to absolve sufferings, while the more traditional aspects revolve around family obligations to the deceased.

May your harvest season be filled with love and laughter. Enjoy your meal and the visit from your ancestors.

Copyright: Mesopotamian Witchcraft by Tzvi Abusch
The Akitu Festival by Julye Bidmead


Michele Briere

Location: Phoenix, Arizona


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