Ask For Blessings, Wake Up Early and Don’t Travel too Far: Welcome to the New Year

There are three little messages that we pass along to each other in my family. One, spend a little time to pray around midnight to be grateful for the year that has passed and ask for blessings for the coming year. Two, if possible, despite perhaps the long night of partying, get up early in the first day of the New Year to watch the sunrise. Lastly, don’t travel long distance so near the major holidays. If one does need to travel, try to travel one or two weeks before 25 December at the latest and ideally wait for one or two weeks after the holidays to return. These are all ancient advice.

Nowruz is not only an ancient holiday that is still celebrated globally, it has the distinction of being one of the longest continually celebrated holiday in the world. Although there even records of it being celebrated in 550 BCE by Cyrus the Great, versions of the same celebration were also known to be observed 2,000 years earlier in the Kingdom of Aratta. 

Nowruz is traditionally observed on the day of the vernal equinox, when the coming of spring also heralds the new year. The first five days of the ancient Nowruz celebration were very public, then followed by a more reverent observance. On the thirteenth day of the festival, people would throw wheat grass into rivers and canals to throw away bad luck and misfortune.

File:Passing lion, brick panel from the Procession Way which ran from the Marduk temple to the Ishtar Gate and the Akitu Temple. Glazed terracotta, reign of Nebuchadrezzar II (605 BC–562 BC), Babylon (Iraq).Louvre Museum (12251455183).jpg

Passing lion, brick panel from the Procession Way which ran from the Marduk temple to the Ishtar Gate and the Akitu Temple. Glazed terracotta, reign of Nebuchadrezzar II (605 BC–562 BC), Babylon 

In Babylonia, the festival of Akitu honored Marduk and marked the beginning of the growing season. For the general population, the beginning of the festival meant a week of holidays and celebrations. The king would begin the festival by going to the temple of Nabu, where the priests presented him with a royal scepter reminding him of his responsibility. He then travelled to the city of Borsippa, where he spent the night participating in religious ceremonies in this city’s temple such as the re-enactment of their creation myths to remind him of his past and the past of his people. When the king returned to Babylonia, he would go to a temple and stripped off his weapons and royal regalia to approach his god with humility befit someone given their rule by a supreme deity.


Ebony label depicting the pharaoh Den, found in his tomb in Abydos, circa 3000 BC. Top register depicts the king running in his Heb Sed festival as well as seated on a throne. Lower register depicts the destruction of enemy strongholds and the taking of captives. EA 32650.
Hieroglyphs: The Sed festival area is framed on the right with a large Renpet hieroglyph.

The hieroglyph for the Egyptian word renpet (“year”)  is a woman wearing a palm shoot, symbolizing time, over her head. She was often referred to as the Mistress of Eternity. She also personified fertility, youth and spring. The New Year, Wepet Renpet (“the opening of the year”), was based on the annual flooding of the Nile River, an earthly cycle which also coincided with a heavenly cycle. Therefore, the New Year was marked with community feasting and a mix of hope and fear. To the ancient Egyptians, every year was potentially their last, because they didn’t know how the flood would impact them. The annual flood left behind rich deposits of silt, which fertilized crops to feed the entire country. Just the right amount of flooding assured a fruitful harvest – too little means famine, too much means destruction.

The festival for the annual flood celebrated the death and rebirth of Osiris and, by extension, the rejuvenation and rebirth of the land and the people. The legend behind this celebration was that the god Set and his accomplices murdered Osiris by drowning him in the river and dismembered him – scattering his limbs up and down the valley. Osiris’ death brought about the annual floods that brought life to the valley. It was then believed that Osiris arose from the dead, but needed the constant supplication of his devoted followers to strengthen his return. The priests mourned his death, prayed for his return and, at the moment of his resurrection, celebrated with dancing, singing, and feasting. Traditionally, young boys chosen for their exceptional beauty were thrown into the Nile to drown, just as Osiris had drowned, as a sacrifice for the benefit of the living. Those who drowned in the Nile were then considered to have become gods, especially if the water responded the following year with a flood.

Solemn rituals related to the death of Osiris were observed as well as singing and dancing to celebrate his rebirth. The call-and-response poem known as The Lamentations of Isis and Nephthys was recited at the beginning to call Osiris to his feast.  

The lamentation is when the two goddess-sisters call the soul of Osiris to rejoin the living. The dual entreaties of the two sisters echoed each other in their attempts to symbolically revive Osiris. The best-preserved version of this work comes from the Berlin Papyrus dating to the Ptolemaic Dynasty (323 – 30 BCE) although the work itself is much older.

Another ancient Egyptian interpretation is that the New Year’s Day itself was also regarded as the birthday of the god Ra-Horakhety. The belief was that, on New Year’s day the sun was reborn and grew increasingly frail over the year’s final few months. This is another reason why the end of the year was considered dangerous. At the end of the year, the sun god was weak and vulnerable to attack from his enemies. If he were to be defeated, the New Year might never arrive.

Therefore, it was a time of great relief when the sun rose on New Year’s day, because the end of the world had been averted. People would then make offerings to Ra-Horakhety at sunrise, pour black ink into the Nile for the goddess Nut and the god Nun as a sign of gratitude, then cleansed themselves by bathing in the Nile. Afterwards, they wore their best clothes and went off to riotous banquets to celebrate their opportunity to see another year.

Another belief is to do with the fact that the Egyptian civil calendar consisted of 360 days, with five “extra” days added to the end. These five extra days were regarded as a dangerous, transitional time, when the goddess Sekhmet controlled twelve demonic murderers who travelled the earth shooting arrows from their mouths and cause plague wherever they went. To protect themselves, the ancient Egyptians performed rituals and wore charms around their necks to pacify Sekhmet, ensuring her protection instead of her wrath. This is similar to the Aztec calendar where the passing of the old year and the coming of the new were two very different sets of days. The last five days of the year were called nemontemi, and they were considered very dangerous days where dark spirits wander the land. People mostly stayed indoors, kept to themselves, and kept quiet to avoid attracting the attention of these spirits.

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Reflecting on the Ancient Beauty of the Lioness

“Danger hides in beauty and beauty in danger.”

— Belva Plain (1915 –  2010)

 

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Bas-Relief of Sekhmet

Although the role of lions in ancient culture were later mostly confined to being slain with lances and spears, the lioness has been an important symbol to humans for tens of thousands of years and appear as a theme in cultures across Europe, Asia and Africa. The earliest historical records in Egypt present an established religious pantheon that included a lioness as one of the most powerful cultural figures, protecting the people as well as their rulers. The earliest tomb paintings in Ancient Egypt, at Nekhen, c. 3500 BC., include images of lions, including an image of a deity flanked by two lions in an upright posture. The war goddess Sekhmet, depicted as woman with a lioness head, was one of the ancient Egyptian’s major deities. Even before the rise of Skehmet’s popularity, there was already a belief that a sacred lioness was responsible for the annual flooding of the Nile. Although the name sometimes differ from one region to another, a lioness deity was the patron and protector of the people and the land. As the country united, a blending of those deities was assigned to Sekhmet. The image of lions and great goddesses did not stop there. The Babylonian goddess Ishtar has been represented driving a chariot drawn by seven lions. Ishtar’s Sumerian Inanna was frequently depicted standing on the backs of two lionesses and Persian goddess Anahita was sometimes portrayed standing on a lioness.

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The goddess Cybele dating from 361/363 AD

Archeologists discovered a figurine at Çatal Hüyük, dating back approximately 8,000 years, which depicts the Mother Goddess flanked by two leopards, squatting, while in the process of giving birth. The leopards were replaced by lions centuries later. Cybele was frequently depicted wearing her turreted crown, while she was seated on a throne, with either a lion lying in her lap or with one of them lying on each side of her. She has also been pictured driving a chariot which was drawn by two lions.  Her association lions lend more strength to her already formidable image – that her power was so great, that even lions became meek whenever they were in her presence. Later, lions were used in sculpture to provide a sense of majesty and awe, especially on public buildings. Ancient cities would have an abundance of lion sculptures to show strength such as lions at the entrances of cities and sacred sites from Mesopotamian cultures, the Lion Gate of ancient Mycenae in Greece and the gates in the walls of the Hittite city of Bogazkoy, Turkey. “The Lion of Menecrates” is a funerary statue of a crouching lion, found near the cenotaph of Menecrates.  Lionesses often flanked the Gorgon, a vestige of the earliest Greek protective deity that often was featured above temples of later eras.

Then, the powerful needs to be conquered.  A poem later relates how a eunuch priest of Cybele, sheltering during a snowstorm in a cave, saves himself from a lion’s attack by beating the great kettle-drum which was used in the worship of Cybele and scares it away. This poem was evidently popular enough that ancient writers such as Alcaeus c. 620 – 6th century BC) and Simonides ( c. 556 – 468 BC) paraphrase it with variations and elaborations of their own.

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Sculpted reliefs depicting Ashurbanipal, the last great Assyrian king, hunting lions, relief from the North Palace of Nineveh (Irak), c. 645-635 BC

The Dying Lioness, depicting a half-paralyzed lioness pierced with arrows, is a well-known detail from the Lion Hunt of Ashurbanipal, a large set of Assyrian palace relief from about 645–635 BC, depicting dozens of lions being hunted, originally in an Assyrian royal palace in Nineveh (modern day Iraq).

Panopeus, hunter of lions and leopards, dies from the sting of a scorpion; the accident is not impossible, though this may be merely a rhetorical exercise, showing how the boldest man may be overcome by the weakest of animals:

Tis in this tomb strong Panopeus rests,
Lion-hunter, piercer of rough panthers’ breasts.
On the hills a scorpion from earth issuing
Wounded his heel with its death-giving sting.
Upon the ground lie his poor darts and spear,
Alas ! — the playthings of audacious deer.

Hercules, slayer of the Nemean lion, is frequently hymned and brave men like Leonidas have lions sculptured on their tombs. We also have the well-known lines from Aristophanes comparing Alcibiades to a lion-cub which should not have been reared in the city. A figure of Eros, driving a chariot drawn by lions (the “whip” has been noticeably absent from previous depictions of lions and deities) is noted by Marcus Argentarius:

Upon this seal Love whom none e’er withstands
I see, guiding strong lions with his hands;
One flaunts o’er them a whip, the other holds
The reins ; and grace abundant him enfolds.
I fear this bane of men; he who wild beast
Can tame won’t pity mortals in the least.

Besides these, there is an anonymous poem praising the Roman Emperor because he emptied Libya of her lions and other prowling monsters, and sent them to Rome to fight in the Circus.  In Socrates’ model of the psyche (as described by Plato), the bestial, selfish nature of humanity is described metaphorically as a lion, the “leontomorphic principle”.

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One night we were together, you and I, 
And had unsown Assyria for a lair, 
Before the walls of Babylon rose in air. 
How languid hills were heaped along the sky, 
And white bones marked the wells of alkali, 
When suddenly down the lion-path a sound . . . 
The wild man-odor . . . then a crouch, a bound, 
And the frail Thing fell quivering with a cry! 

Your yellow eyes burned beautiful with light: 
The dead man lying there quieted and white: 
I roared my triumph over the desert wide, 
Then stretched out, glad for the sands and satisfied; 
And through the long, star-stilled Assyrian night, 
I felt your body breathing by my side. 

Edwin Markham (1852 – 1940)