Need A Cosmic Reset? Learn From The Ancient Babylonians, And Slap The King!

History Facts

Once upon a time, archaeologists came across a Babylonian tablet describing a ceremony where the chief priest of Marduk slapped the king as hard as he could. If the king cried it was a blessing on the nation. I'm not saying I want to try out a god-king theocracy, but this "to restore cosmological order, slap the king" concept intrigues me. Let's explore!


When he [the king] arrives before Bel [also known as Marduk], the high Priest leaves, taking the mace, the loop and the scepter. He [also] takes the crown of his kingship. He then brings them before Bel and places them on a pedestal before Bel. He leaves and strikes the king's cheek. He places [the king] behind him and brings him before Bel. He drags him in by his ears. He forces him to kneel down on the ground. The king says the following only once.

"I have not sinned, Lord of all Lands. I have not neglected your divinity. … I have not struck the cheek of those under my protection, I have not belittled them."

After [the high Priest] has spoken, the king retains his dignity as usual. [The High Priest] retrieves the mace, loop, scepter, and crown and hands them back over to the king. He strikes the king's cheek. If, as he strikes his cheek, tears flow, Bel is friendly. If tears do not flow, Bel is angry. The enemy will arise and bring about his downfall. [1]

The ceremony has a heavy focus on warding off abuses of power. Along with things you'd expect from an old-timey oath of office like military defense and religious duties, it covers not being an asshole to the powerless. It's unclear how old this ceremony is or even whether it was ever done. It might be an attempt to assimilate foreign rulers who conquered Babylon later in its history, from Alexander onwards, rather than an ancient tradition.

In any case, the symbolic message is clear. Even kings are helpless, naked mortals before the gods. They're just as subject to forces beyond their control as the rest of us. The political message is also clear. If this looks like priests making the head of state their lil bitch, well … yeah.

This ceremony was supposed to take place during Akitu, or Babylonian New Year. This was a multiday festival that coincided with crop planting. It was supposed to guarantee an orderly and successful crop season. No flooding, no blight, no shady business from the gods. Much of it revolved around the Babylonian idea of the universe as a battle between Marduk (representing order) and Tiamat (representing chaos). That's why it has the king agreeing to submit to Marduk and play by his rules. These included "not being an agent of chaos who interferes in the daily lives of ordinary people."

Why is this ceremony relevant today? First, it's a lovely reminder that people have always been kinky. But second, a lot of folks want to make basic social justice out to be a new age hippie thing. It's not. At its youngest, this ceremonial text is about two thousand years old. Correcting power imbalances is so traditional, the old gods made kings kneel for it.

[1] The Babylonian Akitu Festival: Rectifying the King or Renewing the Cosmos? Benjamin D. Sommer. Northwestern University. Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Studies 27(1):81-95. Full text available at https://www.academia.edu/1818789/The_Babylonian_Akitu_Festival_Rectifying_the_King_or_Renewing_the_Cosmos

Sarah Taber
Dr. Sarah Taber is a crop scientist who worked her way up from dirty jobs. She's currently using her experience in dirty jobs and the garment industry to make fun, comfortable no-fog masks that you should check out if you're into that kind of thing (https://www.etsy.com/shop/FunkyFreshNoFogMasks). She lives in Fayetteville, North Carolina and shitposts at https://twitter.com/SarahTaber_bww.
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