Calendars of the Past: The Festival of Tammuz

Guest post by Seph Gonzalez

With the procession of Ṣilluš-ṭāb and Kaṭuna on 21 July behind them, and the withering power of the midsummer sun beginning to scour the earth from above, the people of Ancient Mesopotamia prepared for one of the most mournful episodes in their calendrical year: the Festival of Tammuz.

Marking the anniversary of Dumuzi’s murder at the hands of the gallû and subsequent imprisonment in the netherworld as a substitute for the goddess Inana, the Festival of Tammuz was a somber observance that lasted for three days: from the 26-28 of Duʾūzu in the cities of Ashur and Nineveh, and the 27-29 of Duʾūzu in the cities of Arbela and Nimrud.

Using the Ashur dating, this year the Festival of Tammuz begins on 05 August and concludes on 07 August.

We are all, no doubt, familiar with the narrative myth of *Inana’s Descent to the Netherworld*, during which the goddess Inana abandons the heavens and her earthly temples on a misguided quest to add the kingdom of the netherworld to her realm.

After descending to the netherworld, where she is stripped of her insignia and its associated authority, Inana wrestles the throne of the netherworld from its queen, Ereškigala, a feat for which the rest of the Anunnakī accuse her of trying to usurp the natural order. The punishment for Inana’s crime is death, and her execution is summarily carried out.

Inana’s sukkal, Ninšubur, petitions both Inana’s father, the moon-god Nanna-Suen, and the King of the Gods, Enlil, to intervene on her mistress’ behalf, but Nanna-Suen and Enlil refuse. It is only Enkig, craftiest of the Anunnakī, who realizes that Inana’s absence from the heavens and the earth will have its own detrimental effects on the natural order of things. Answering Ninšubur’s petition, Enkig creates two of Inana’s most enduring cultic personnel—the junior lamentation-singer, *kalû* (gala-tur-ra), and the warrior-performer, *kurgarrû* (kur-ĝar-ra)—whom he tasks with delivering the “water of life” (*mê-balāṭi*) and “bread of life” (*akal-balāṭi*) to the corpse of their beloved goddess.

Disguised as flies, the *kalû* and *kurgarrû* flit through the seven gates of Ganzer, the entrance of the netherworld, and come to throne-room of Ereškigala while she is experiencing negative-birth. After empathizing with Ereškigala and her plight, the *kalû* and *kurgarrû* are offered a “river in flood” and a “field at harvest” as a reward for their display of sympathy, both of which they refuse. Instead, the *kalû* and *kurgarrû* ask for Inana’s corpse, a request they are granted. Upon sprinkling the corpse with the “water of life” and feeding it the “bread of life,” Inana is resurrected and the trio prepare to leave the netherworld. Ereškigala, however, reminds them that the ordinances of the netherworld are absolute, and if Inana wishes to leave, then she must deliver a substitute.

Returning to the earth, Inana is accompanied by a pack of *gallû*: wardens of the netherworld tasked with retrieving those destined to die and begin their journey along the “road of no return” (*ḫarrānu lā târi*). The gallû follow Inana from city to city, offering to take each city’s tutelary god as her substitute. Seeing how the world is mourning her death, Inana cannot bring herself to offer her sukkal, Ninšubur; the tutelary god of Umma, Šara; or the tutelary god of Badtibira, Lulal, as her substitute. Inana’s procession, at last, brings her to the plain of Kulaba, near the city of Uruk, where her husband, the shepherd Dumuzi, is dressed in his most elegant finery and sitting upon a throne. Outraged over his refusal to mourn her passing, Inana commands the *gallû* to take Dumuzi as her substitute.

Sometime later, when the aftermath of her husband’s absence has finally set in, Inana is overcome with grief and mourns Dumuzi’s death. An actual fly offers to reveal the location of Dumuzi to Inana in exchange for a propitious fate, which the goddess awards. Soon after, Dumuzi’s sister, Ĝeštinana, offers to replace her brother in the netherworld for one-half of the year, securing an annual temporary release. Inana graciously accepts, and thus the death and imprisonment of Inana in the netherworld is thwarted by the cyclical death and imprisonment of Dumuzi and Ĝeštinana.

The myth concludes with a note of praise for the goddess Ereškigala, who is, ultimately, responsible for ensuring this cycle continues into perpetuity.

Who, then, is Dumuzi, namesake of his own festival, and long-suffering husband of the Queen of Heaven?

First appearing in Early Dynastic period offering lists from the city of Shuruppak (modern Fāra), Dumuzi is one of Ancient Mesopotamia’s most enduring gods, having achieved widespread popularity among the laity over the course of his three millennia of worship. Dumuzi, whose name means “true child,” is the son of Enkig by way of the goddess Durtur, a deification of the ewe perhaps identical to similar goddesses, like Gayayau of Ur and Laḫar of Nippur. Enkig and Durtur had a single daughter as well: Ĝeštinana.

Originally venerated in the steppe-land between the cities of Badtibira and Uruk, Dumuzi began his existence as a patron of the region’s nomadic shepherds, whose flocks grazed on the abundant vegetation.

In the city of Uruk he was called ama-ušumgal-ana “noble dragon of heaven,” and together with the Inana or Uruk he came to be the proprietor of the date-palm harvest. Meanwhile, in the microstate of Lagash, to which the city of Badtibira belonged, he was called both lugal-e-muš, “king of the e-muš temple,” in reference to the e₂-muš₃-kalam-ma, a ziggurat that stood in the city of Badtibira; and lugal-urub-ki, “king of Urub,” with Urub being the name of a village or city near the city of Lagash proper. Unlike the Inana of Uruk, who focused on the date-palm, the Inana of Lagash, and her Dumuzi, were proprietors of the cereal harvest, a staple of the Lagash microstate economy.

Eminently popular with the Sumerians, and only becoming more endeared to the hearts and minds of the Akkadians, Assyrians, and Babylonians, the latter of whom assimilated many of the regions dying-and-rising deities with him, Dumuzi can best be summed up as the proprietor of two domains: the patron of nomadic shepherds whose flocks roamed about the steppe-land, grazing on leaf and vegetation; and as the numinous power within the germinating grain, the harvesting of which was instrumental to the survival of the rapidly growing cities and microstates of Ancient Mesopotamia.

It is this second aspect that the Festival of Tammuz is concerned with.

Beginning at dusk on day 26 (05 August), the first day of the Festival of Tammuz opens with a ceremonial wail: a primal scream loosed into the oncoming night. This existential scream, called an *ikkillu*, was not said to be performed by Dumuzi at the advent of his capture, but by the people of Ancient Mesopotamia as news of his death reached them. The following day, called the Day of Release (*pašāru*), involved the communal removal of stubble, the release of grazing beasts to consume leftover fodder, and the razing of the fields in preparation for the next harvest. The final day, simply called the Day of Tammuz, featured the sowing of seeds for the next year’s harvest.

Originally an agricultural festival renewing the harvest cycle, the Festival of Tammuz was eventually transformed into a more personal observance, during which the people of Ancient Mesopotamia confronted their own mortality.

Much like Dumuzi, humanity grew to embody its august nature before being savagely cut down in its prime and delivered—like so much cereal—to the kingdom of Ereškigala. Seeing a metaphor for their own lives in the joys and suffering of their beloved Dumuzi, the people of Ancient Mesopotamia came to see the month during which they celebrated the Festival of Tammuz as a liminal time, when they could renew themselves and their bodies the way that the old, dead Dumuzi was revitalized in the form of fresh seeds.

So, as we approach the Festival of Tammuz, and prepare for the subsequent *kispū* offering to our beloved ancestors the following evening (08 August), consider this a time of rebirth, when you can transform yourself, burning away the parts of you that are no longer of use as you plant new seeds of self that will come to fruition throughout the remainder of the year.

Mourn the passing of Dumuzi, as you would wail over the death of your old self, but look forward too, to the new seeds planted in the virgin soil of your soul.


For more content by the author, check out Seph’s wonderfully curated work on r/Sumer.

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