Summer, summer, summertime…in Mesopotamia

14 Jun

“Shamash, seated in his temple and facing his emblem (the solar disk), and worshipers, bas-relief from Sippar, about 870 bc; in the British Museum.” (Source)

As people across the northern hemisphere get ready to mark the beginning of summer with the Summer Solstice, there is a feeling of jubilation and excitement for days spent at the beach, eating ice cream and sunbathing.

To Mesopotamians, however, the official start of summer was not a time for jubilation or excitement. It was a time to mourn the beginning of the decline in daylight hours, and the beginning of parching heat.

The First Official Astronomers

Mesopotamians were the first to begin recording their observations of the skies, and they were such observant astronomers that while they had Shamash, the all-encompassing god of the sun, they were aware of the sun’s different behaviors. That knowledge drove them to assign a different deity to each of the sun’s phases throughout the year.

For the Summer Solstice phase, when the sun reached its highest point in the sky, they assigned Nergal, a deity 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 brought fever and devastation in Mesopotamian hymns and myths.

“As a god of plague, drought, fire, and insufferable heat, Nergal quickly came to be associated with death and the underworld. He was portrayed either as a powerful man bearing a sickle-sword and a mace, or as a lion with a man’s head.” (Source)

Through Nergal’s classification, it’s clear that Mesopotamians considered high summer to be a season of death, when the sun parched the earth and brought destruction in the form of drought and unbearable heat.

Like Someone Died

Like with most celestial events in antiquity, Mesopotamians observed the Summer Solstice with a distinct ritual. For six days 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.


Tammuz and Ishtar. Lovers. (Source)

This rather melodramatic 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 stuff about the Summer Solstice, albeit depressing. But don’t let Mesopotamian pessimism get you down about the official start of summer!

Happy Summer Solstice, Northern Hemisphere!


Sources and further reading: (Source of photo of Shamash tablet and explanation) (Nergal Wikipedia entry) (Nergal entry) (Nergal) (Tammuz Wikipedia entry) (Ishtar New World Encyclopedia entry) (The Illustrated Bible Dictionary, further reading on Tammuz and the logistics of mourning him at Summer Solstice)

1 Comment

Posted by on June 14, 2012 in Babylon


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One response to “Summer, summer, summertime…in Mesopotamia

  1. Apollodorosh

    June 15, 2012 at 11:56 am

    I’m not sure whether one can truly call Nergal an “evil” God… If it is evil it is usually considered a demon, which is lower than a God and does not receive any worship.


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