As people across the northern hemisphere get ready to mark the beginning of summer with the Summer Solstice coming up on June 20th, there is a feeling of jubilation and excitement for days spent at the beach, eating ice cream and sunbathing.
To the Mesopotamians, however, the official start of summer was not a time for jubilation or excitement, but rather a time to mourn the start of the decline of daylight hours and parching heat.
The Mesopotamians were the first to begin recording their observations of the skies, and they paid such close attention to what was happening above them, that while they had Shamash, the all-encompassing god of the sun, they also knew that the sun did not always behave the same way. As a result, they assigned a deity to represent certain phases of the sun.
For the summer solstice phase, when the sun reached its highest point in the sky, they assigned Nergal, an evil god of the netherworld. Aside from being a solar god representing the evil aspect of Shamash, Nergal was also portrayed as the god of war and pestilence who brings fever and devastation in Mesopotamian hymns and myths.
Through Nergal’s classification, it becomes clear that the Mesopotamians considered high summer to be the dead season, when the sun parched the earth and brought destruction in the form of drought and unbearable heat that turned everything brown.
Like most celestial events in antiquity, the Mesopotamians observed the summer solstice with a distinct ritual. For six days, the Babylonians would hold a funeral for the god of food and vegetation, Tammuz, by placing his statue on a bier and having a walking procession complete with mourners in tow. Tammuz’s wife, Ishtar, the goddess of fertility, love and war, would mourn his death through a dirge. The lamentation hymn was recited each year, accompanied by sobbing and wailing by women mourners.
The ritual of mourning Tammuz’s death continued until the biblical time of Ezekiel. In fact, aside from Tammuz being the name of the fourth month of the Babylonian calendar, it is also that in the Hebrew calendar. (Wikipedia)
Now you know some cool information, albeit depressing, but don’t let Mesopotamian pessimism get you down about the start of summer. Remember, they didn’t have air conditioning or snow cones back then! Happy Summer Solstice, Northern Hemisphere!
Sources and further reading:
http://www.tofm.org/papacy/sunworship.htm (Picture of Shamash and emblem)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nergal (Nergal Wikipedia entry)
http://www.pantheon.org/articles/n/nergal.html (Nergal entry)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tammuz_%28deity%29 (Tammuz Wikipedia entry)
http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Ishtar (Ishtar New World Encyclopedia entry)
http://www.ancientworlds.net/aw/Article/1139774 (Tammuz Funeral Dirge)