Calendars of the Past: Arḫu Shabāṭu

Since calendars in Mesopotamia were oriented in accordance with the phases of the moon, there are two dates of importance for reckoning the length of arḫu shabāṭu: the first sighting of a waxing lunar crescent, and the following dawn. The month officially begins at the sighting of a waxing lunar crescent, perceived as the return of the moon-god, Nanna-Sîn, from his sojourn to the netherworld; while each individual day of the month is marked by its dawning, when the sun-god, Utu-Shamash, emerges from his bedchamber in the mythical mountain called māshu to begin his daily journey across the Heavens. This year, the advent of arḫu shabāṭu occurs at dusk on 14 January, when 2% of the waxing crescent becomes visible; and the first day begins at dawn, 15 January, with the rising of the sun.

At the city of Ĝirsu, beginning in or just after the governorship of Gudea, ca. 2100 BCE, but no doubt practiced sporadically before then, two festivals were observed every month: the eššeššu, etymologically derived from the Sumerian eš3-eš3 “all shrines,” and kispū, etymologically derived from the Sumerian ki-sig10-ga, a type of funerary offering. Both observances were continued well into the first millennium BCE.

The eššeššu festival occurred on the day of the full moon, 28 January for arḫu shabāṭu, and, according to Sallaberger, focused on devotional services carried out in honor of the local gods and goddesses of the city. For the modern-day Mesopotamian polytheist, this takes the form of the “care and feeding of the God,” during which the cultic statue (ṣalmu) is cleaned, its mouth washed (mīs-pî) and opened (pīt-pî), and its holy garment (lamaḫuššû) beautified. Any icons and standards (šurinnu) are similarly beautified. Afterward, a cultic meal (tākultu) is prepared and served.

The kispū observance, meanwhile, is more somber and was used to close out the month. The day of kispū was determined by the disappearance of the moon, its new phase, 11 February for arḫu shabāṭu. During kispū, which Tsukimoto defines as a period of “care for the dead,” offerings of bread and libations of fresh, cold water are prepared for the deceased and taken to the “place of pouring water” (ki-a-naĝ), traditionally the site of the grave. In Assyria and Babylonia this location was moved to the house chapel (aširtum), often located near what passed for a hearth in Mesopotamian homes. The observance might have begun with an invocation to the moon-god, Nanna-Sîn, as demonstrated in this excerpt: den-zu diĝir ša-me-e u3 er-ṣe-tim at-ta a-na ki-im-ti [—] dumu [—] i-na še-ri-im me-e a-na-aq-qi-kum ki-im-ti [—] dumu [—] uš-še-ra-am-ma ninda-šu li-ku-lu u3 me-e-šu li-iš-tu-u2, “Sîn, god of the Heavens and the Earth, for the family of [—], son of [—], I pour water for you in the morning. Release the family of [—], son of [—], so that they may eat his bread and drink his water” (BE 6/2, 111). Here, the use of “family” stands for the ancestral ghosts (eṭimmū) of the individual who is performing the devotional work and providing the bread and water. A list of the names of one’s ancestors is inserted before the final line, identifying the ghosts one wishes to participate in the “care of the dead.”

In the city-state of Lagash, after the governorship of Gudea, month eleven is called itiše-kiĝ2-ku5, “the month of reaping,” equivalent to the twelfth month of the parochial calendar in use at the city of Nippur. Despite its name, there is no indication that any kind of seasonal reaping occurred in the Lagash city-state during this month. According to Sallaberger and Cohen, the only observation recorded for month eleven is an u2-šim (urqītu) of the goddess Babu. The urqītu observance, meaning “vegetation,” was a celebration of the first new growth to emerge from the earth after the melting snows began to flood the land following the arid and inhospitable summer season. According to Cohen, the itinerary of Babu’s urqītu ran as such: “Baba goes out (è) to the ú-šim, then returns (ú-šim-ta du-ni), the city-gate is opened wide (ḫa-la), and a royal offering is performed.” Elsewhere, the urqītu is associated with the goddess Dumuziabzu, the god Ninĝeshzida, two lamma-spirits, and even the ruler Gudea, whose statue was utilized for an urqītu on day seven of the month, 21 January for arḫu shabāṭu.

In Ur, following the Ur-III period introduction of the cult of Nanna-Suen, month eleven bore the name ezem-an-na, “Festival of Heaven,” a title that might have inspired the similar-sounding month name in use at Uruk during the same period: itiezem-ma2-an-na, “Festival (of) the Boat of Heaven.” The itinerary of the “Festival of Heaven” is not recorded, but one text does mention the fifteenth day, 29 January of arḫu shabāṭu, as the “day of the holy festival.” If the “Festival of the Boat of Heaven” celebrated in Uruk is the same as the “Festival of Heaven” celebrated at Ur, then it is possible the observance involved the myth detailing Inana’s acquisition of the powers of enculturation wielded by the gods from Enki, during which the goddess brings the powers back to Uruk on the ma2-an-na, “Boat of Heaven.”

Closing out the third millennium, we move to the city of Nippur, where the eleventh month was called itiud2-duru5, which Cohen hypothesizes is etymologically related to a type of emmer wheat, ud2-duru5-ka-du8, that might have been harvested during the month. No major festivals are recorded in Nippur for this month, but many specialized offerings do occur in economic texts. Most notably, on days 1 and 9—14 January and 22 January of arḫu shabāṭu respectively—an uzu-bal (perhaps soup?) and siškur2-gu-la offering was performed in the e2-kur temple for Enlil and Ninlil. The goddess Nintinuga, a local manifestation of the goddess Gula, was also the recipient of a special u2-saĝ “early grass” observance, perhaps linked, thematically, to the u2-šim vegetation-observance held in the city-state of Lagash during this same time. Finally, Sallaberger notes the addition of wine (ĝeštin-da ku4-ra) to any offerings provided from days 6 through 24—19 January to 6 February of arḫu shabāṭu—hinting at the use of grapes, gathered during the fruit harvest of months nine and ten, as offerings.

Turning now to the first and second millennium, our information about festivals during arḫu shabāṭu comes primarily from Assyria, where a re-investiture ceremony was held over the course of twenty-four days, beginning on the sixteenth day of arḫu shabāṭu (29 January) and concluding on the ninth day of arḫu addāru (24 February). The first three days feature the King of Assyria entering the temple of Adad alongside the goddesses Sherūʾa and Tashmētum. The three perform ablutions for Adad and Anu alongside a kettledrum performance, which Cohen believes existed to expunge guilt and sin from the citizenry. The following three days feature the King of Assyria venturing to the temple of Anu, where he bows before the cultic image of Aššūr, is lead back to the palace by a priest, and performs a cultic meal (tākultu) for Aššūr and Ninlil before being seated upon the “throne of destiny,” no doubt the actual ceremony of re-investiture. Another kettledrum performance occurs, absolving guilt once more. The following four days are entirely encompassed by the performance of lamentations before Aššūr, no doubt related to a cosmic conflict that Aššūr is destined to overcome, like the Assyrian redactions of the Babylonian Enūma Elish. The final day for which we have an itinerary, day 26 (8 February), features the singing of praises and hymns before Aššūr and Ninlil, perhaps to celebrate the conclusion of the cosmic conflict.


Cohen, Mark E. Festivals and Calendars of the Ancient Near East. CDL Press, 2015.

Sallaberger, Walther. Der kultische Kalender der Ur III-Zeit. Walter De Gruyter, 1993.

Tsukimoto, Akkio. “Peace for the Dead, or kispu(m) Again” in ORIENT, Vol XLV (2010).

Van Der Toorn, Karel. Family Religion in Babylonia, Syria, and Israel. E.J. Brill, 1996.

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