Mesopotamian Monday: Coronation Prayer of Assurbanipal (2/2)

Part 2: When the Scripts are Enacted

*This week, Mesopotamian Monday is divided into two parts. In order to fully understand Part 2, click here to first read Part 1

When scripts are embodied and performed on stage, certain physical aspects, not present before, become apparent. In this case, what does it mean for the officiant to “make a blessing toward the ‘Censer Gate’, that is, toward Shamash”?

First, we must identify the location of these documents. Then, based on the location of the text, we can infer the location where the ritual was enacted. Finally, by looking at the architecture of the Shamash temple, we may be able to identify ways in which the physical space makes the Coronation Prayer more understandable.

The Coronation Prayer of Assurbanipal was discovered in Assur at the house of an incantation priest, just 300 meters south of the great Ziggurat [5]. In proximity of the Ziggurat were a variety of temples dedicated to other deities, Shamash’s temple being among them [6]. This suggests that the giving of a blessing towards Shamash, towards the ‘Censer Gate’, may have occurred within Shamash’s temple.

Now that we have identified the location in which this ritual may have been enacted, how can the ritual space can help us to get a better sense of the performance of the Coronation Prayer? For this, two points should be addressed. First, it is difficult to identify what the ‘Censer Gate’ exactly was. For sure, we know that it marked a particular gate within the temple [7]. Second, whereas the temple entrance during the Old Assyrian and Middle Assyrian periods was on the northwestern front, the cult direction during the Neo-Assyrian period is re-oriented towards the East [8].

This shift in the direction is notable because the sun rises in the East. Seeing that the sun rises in the East, this means the sun would have had maximum access to the temple. Moreover, recall that the officiant turns towards Shamash. Thus, on the basis of the (a) eastern oriented Shamash temple and (b) the officiant of the Coronation Prayer turning towards Shamash, I would like to suggest that the Coronation Prayer would have been accomplished in the morning, when the temple would have received maximum sunlight.

Receiving maximum sunlight is extremely significant. Throughout Mesopotamian literature and history, reference is made to prayers, rituals, and judgment occurring at sunrise [9]. So, Mary Shepperson suggests that “these temple gateways where judgements were given and oaths taken may be connected to solar phenomena. If the presence of light is understood as the presence of the god of justice, then it seems desirable that judgement should be performed in sunlight” [10].

Therefore, performance of the Coronation Prayer was not a simply a religious prayer. Instead, the Coronation Prayer should be understood as a ritual performed in a physical space, one which was performed before Shamash. This reading is important because it suggests that the Coronation Prayer has legal overtones [11]. The ritual moves an individual from one legal status to another social status by means of religious language and actions. And, as I have demonstrated, this can be observed by considering the special and ritual aspects of the text [12].

At base, then, this should challenge our understandings of the relationship between “legal” and “religion.” Especially in the 21st century, people enjoy speaking about the separation between Church and state, often times viewing them entirely distinct entities. I propose, though, that this distinction did not exist in ancient Mesopotamia. Instead, the king’s new legal, social and religious status was invoked through rituals employing religious language and legal symbolism.

So, is this really a ‘Coronation Prayer’ or is it a ‘Coronation Prayer Employed in a Legal Ritual’? I suggest the latter.

[5] Weidner (1939-1941), pg. 210. Moreover, Weidner (1939-1941), pg. 210n30, notes that temple documents were often stored this house during the late period of the Assyrian empire. So, see also Ernst F. Weidner, „Neue Bruchstücke des Berichtes über Sargons achten Feldyug“, in Archiv für Orientforschung Bd. 12 (1937-1939), pp. 144-148.


[7] CAD B Babu A, 1C 2´.

[8] Adrndt Haller and Walter Andrae, Dei Heiligtumer des Gottes Assur und der Sin-Shamash-Tempel in Assur (Berlin: Verlag Gebr, 1955), 82.

[9] Mary Shepperson, “The Ray of Shamash: Light in Mesopotamian Architecture and Legal Practice”, in Iraq Vol. 74 (2012), pp. 51-64.

[10] Shepperson (2012), pg. 58. She continues by noting that, when temples were oriented Southeast, they would maximize the duration of the morning sun. Perhaps this is why the Sin-Shamash temple is not exactly East; rather, it is oriented between 73 and 103 degrees. Furthermore, though Shepperson is focused on the Ur III period, the same principle appears to be at place in later Mesopotamian history and literature, as is evident by her citations of NB texts. For a more broad overview of the influence of the sun on ancient architecture, see Ezequiel Uson Guardiola, Joan Lluis Fumado Alsina, and Josep Vives Rego, “The Influence of Religious and Cosmological Beliefs on the Solar Architecture of the Ancient World”, in International Journal of Architectural Engineering Technology no. 1 (2014), pp. 3-11.

[11] Martin Arneth, „“Möge Shamash dich das Hirtenamt über die vier Weltgegenden einsetyen” Der „Krönungshymnus Assurbanipals“ (SAA III, 11) und die Solarisierung des neuassyrischen Königtums”, in  Zeitschrift für altorientalische und biblische Rechtsgeschichte no. 4-5 (1998-99), pp. 28-53, provides an excellent form-critical analysis of o. 1 – r. 2, along with some fascinating work showing how the form matches on king rituals from the MA period and before. This work highlights the centrality of Shamash. However, Arneth does not deal with the stage instructions found in r. 3. My analysis, then, contributes to Arneth’s argument for the centrality of Shamash and the prayer as being legal in nature.

[12] Mapping out the way that a text imagines itself to be enacted in a physical space, and how that changes our reading of the text, was inspired by Jeremy Smoak, “Inscribing Temple Space: The Ekron Dedication as Monumental Text,” in JNES 76 no. 2 (2017), pp. 319-336.