Wherein the Babylonians guarantee a happy new year by dragging the king by his ears and slapping him until he cries.
We celebrate the coming of a new year in a wide variety of ways: gathering with friends, drinking, watching fireworks and, most significantly, singing Auld Lang Syne (and perhaps drunkenly arguing over the words and meaning, thereby beginning the new year as inanely as we lived the last). Sadly, however, we’ve dropped one of history’s most beautiful new year’s traditions: laying a good old-fashioned ear-dragging smackdown on our political leader.
It’s Easy to Trace the Tracks of My Tears
The Babylonian calendar started with the month of Nisannu (March/April), the time for planting barley and celebrating Spring. In Babylonian religion this was linked to the victory of the god Marduk over the goddess Tiamat; Marduk ripped Tiamut in two, using one half for the sky and the other for the earth (and, for good measure, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers flow from her eyes). And as is only natural, as the people walked around on a chunk of dismembered goddess and dipped their cups into her ever-flowing tears, their thoughts turned to celebration.
This celebration, Akitu, was a twelve-day reenactment of Marduk’s victory over Tiamat and the forces of chaos, symbolically cleansing the world and preparing it for the rebirth of Spring. Prayers were recited, hymns were sung, statues of gods were processed through the streets (with fancy new clothes), plays were performed, and finally the people returned to their divinely-ordained work of sowing and reaping. On the fifth day, quite literally smack-in-the-middle of the festival, was the submission of the king before the god Marduk. The rituals of this day top anything with which we might come up after a few flutes of champagne and boozy honks on a party blower.
The king was brought before a statue of Marduk, stripped of his crown and scepter as a sign of submission, and required to proclaim that he had not sinned against the god. The king’s words alone were not enough, however; he needed to cry as an offering to Marduk. Because Babylonian rulers were generally not a group of sniveling cry-babies, the priest helped stimulate tears by slapping the king and, if necessary, even dragging him by his ears until he cried. The king’s tears signified that Marduk was pleased with the ruler, and the regal accoutrements were then returned.
Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Ear-Draggin’
We may no longer see the need to appease a deity to guarantee a good harvest—although I would enjoy picturing the world as a dismembered goddess, with various states and municipalities accusing each other of being Tiamat’s anus—but there’s still something to be said for ringing in the new year with the ritual humiliation of a political leader. I for one would gladly tune in to watch Ryan Seacrest slap and drag a politician by their ears beneath the Times Square ball while screaming, “Cry! Cry for your sins!”
Image: “Nebuchadnezzar Recovering His Reason” by Robert Blyth (1782) (Source)