According to Cohen (Festivals, 438), the month-name Ṭebētu is most likely derived from the Akkadian: ṭebû, “to drown; submerge,” a fitting title for the tenth month of the year, which falls in the middle of Iraq’s winter season and has, on average, a 14% chance of being a “wet day” (defined as a day with at least 0.04 inches of liquid or liquid-equivalent precipitation). Much of this precipitation arrives in the form of rain brought by the southeasterly wind, called šūtu, which becomes active in Iraq from December to April and would have manifested to the peoples of Ancient Mesopotamia as the steadily rising levels of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, with occasional early flooding.
At the close of the second millennium BCE, when the city of Ur exerted hegemony over the microstates of Southern Mesopotamia, the tenth month of the year was called: iti-ezem-maḫ-diĝir-nanna, “Month of the Festival of Exalted Nanna,” in honor of the tutelary-deity of Ur and moon-god par excellence of Mesopotamia: Nanna. Meteorologically, the tenth month of the year in Iraq sees the dispersal of the previous month’s cloud coverage. This, on the heels of the longest night of the year—the winter or hibernal solstice—would have inspired the people of Ur, to whom it would have appeared as if their principal divinity, the moon-god Nanna, had dispersed the gloom of the season to let his brilliance illuminate the Heavens.
The actual festival, ezem-maḫ-diĝir-nanna, appears to have been celebrated for the entire month, beginning in the city of Ur on day six (08 January) and concluding in the city of Nippur on day twenty-eight (30 January), with a potential visit to the city of Uruk on day twenty-four (26 January). As with most celebrations that spanned multiple days and included a pilgrimage, the purpose was equal parts devotional and propagandistic. In this case, the King of Ur journeyed from his home to the cities of Uruk and Nippur not only to celebrate with Nanna’s divine-daughter—Inana of Uruk—and divine-father—Enlil of Nippur—but also to legitimize the hegemony of the kings of the Third Dynasty of Ur over the rest of the cities of Southern Mesopotamia (collectively, the lands of Sumer and Akkad).
In all three locations a “great offering” (siškur₂-gu-la) was performed. While the exact nature of this offering is uncertain, it appears to have been included all the deities in a city with the intent of heaping praise upon its performer. An expensive affair, the “great offering” probably took the form of a large banquet held in the primary temple of each city (the e₂-ĝeš-nu₁₁-gal of Ur, the e₂-an-na of Uruk, and the e₂-kur of Nippur) where the cultic statues (ṣalmu) and divine-emblems (šurinnu) of each deity could be seen. The success of the “Festival of Exalted Nanna,” in evidence since the Early Dynastic period, might have inspired Ur’s second contribution to this month’s calendar: the ab(a)-e₃ festival.
The ab(a)-e₃ festival is first attested in the city of Nippur during the Ur-III period. It appears to have been introduced by King Amar-Suen of Ur as a way of honoring the spirits (eṭemmū) of his divine predecessors, Ur-Namma and Shulgi. Amar-Suen’s successor, Shu-Suen, incorporated Amar-Suen’s spirit into the ceremony as well, revealing an attempt to introduce a funerary cult surrounding deceased kings of Ancient Mesopotamia into the sacerdotal calendar. Such ancestral devotion is attested elsewhere in the city of Ur, namely among the EN-priestesses, who were known to provide offerings and libations for the spirits of their deceased predecessors.
As with the ezem-maḫ-diĝir-nanna, the exact days of the ab(a)-e₃ festival are uncertain, with a range of dates from the thirteenth (15 January) to the twenty-ninth (31 January) of the month attested. The most common range of dates are the twenty-fourth through twenty-ninth (26-31 January), adopted for this calendar.
The Sumerian ab(a)-e₃ festival and the Amorite-Babylonian abum festival—namesake for the fifth month of the later Standard Mesopotamian Calendar: Abu—are clearly related. The abum appears to have been more general, honoring all a city’s elders, while the ab(a)-e₃ might have been specifically focused on deceased monarchs. Unfortunately, such theories must remain pure speculation until such time as further evidence of each celebration is unearthed.
In the first millennium BCE there were two important holy days celebrated in Assyria and Babylonia during the month of Ṭebētu.
The first, attested on a Hellenistic period tablet (VAT 00158), describes a ceremonial procession to mark the hibernal or winter solstice which occurred on day three (05 January).
Astronomically, the winter solstice—the shortest day or longest night of the year—occurs on 21 December, after which the days become progressively longer. However, this lengthening of daylight does not become perceptible until at least twelve days after the solstice. During these twelve days the sun appears to “stand still” in the Heavens. As a result, the winter solstice was celebrated in Assyria and Babylonia during the month of Ṭebētu—when the lengthening daylight first became noticeable—rather than the month of Kissilimu, when the astronomical phenomenon occurred.
The “solstice” was marked by a special observance during which cultic statues of the goddesses Gazbaba and GUnisurra—daughters of Nanaya and patronesses of the e₂-zid-da temple at Borsippa—journeyed to the city of Babylon, where they joined the cultic statues of two more goddesses: Ṣilluš-ṭāb and Kaṭuna, the hairdressers of the goddess Ṣarpānītum in the e₂-saĝ-il temple of Marduk. These four goddesses—Gazbaba, GUnisurra, Ṣilluš-ṭāb, and Kaṭuna—were the regulators of sunlight in ancient Babylonian religion, and the journey of Gazbaba and GUnisurra from Borsippa to Babylon was intended to represent the delivery of extra sunlight to the land.
The second celebration is an akītu for the goddess Ishtar-of-Nineveh, celebrated in her temple: e₂-maš-maš, on day sixteen (18 January).
Traditionally, akītu ceremonies were recreations of important events from the mythical history of Mesopotamia. The akītu of Marduk in the city of Babylon, for example, focused on Marduk’s creation of the cosmos and founding of Babylon at its center. An akītu for the Ishtar-of-Nineveh likely celebrated the founding of the city, construction of Her temple, and advent of her cult. In support of this belief, a record from Ashurbanipal (K 1286) records the existence of an akītu-house just outside of the city proper. The main function of an akītu-house was, according to Cohen (Festivals, 391-392):
To serve as temporary residence for the chief god of the city until the moment arrived for his glorious reentry into the city—it was a holding station from which Nanna returned to Ur by barge, just as the Boat of the Moon was approaching in the sky. This is the reason the akītu-building had to be outside the city proper—the statue of the god had to be escorted into the city with great pomp and circumstance.
Although it is not explicitly included in the itinerary for the Ishtar-of-Nineveh’s akītu festival, there are records of the performance of a nabrû ceremony during the month of Ṭebētu in Assyria. The nabrû ceremony, attested since the second millennium BCE and probably of Amorite origin, is an oracular performance during which a bārû-diviner performs an act of extispicy to ascertain insight into the future of the kingdom.
Since our primary record of the Ishtar-of-Nineveh’s akītu festival comes from Ashurbanipal, it is also relevant to mention here that a prayer exists wherein King Ashurbanipal credits the Ishtar-of-Nineveh and her compatriot, the Ishtar-of-Arbela, with his creation. The prayer also posits that both goddesses are responsible for his success as a king. That Ashurbanipal would have performed a nabrû ceremony to gain insight into Ishtar-of-Nineveh’s designs for his future during the celebration of Her entrance into the city is not implausible.