Chapter 11. Festivals and Rituals

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The king’s ablutions are complete, his body now cleansed of all

defilement. An attendant stands by to assist him don ceremonial

garb—for one festival a blue robe, for another a simple

white garment, a rough shepherd’s mantle, and black shoes.1A

close-fitting skull cap and earrings of gold add the final touch.

Whatever his trappings, the king is but the servant, the slave,

of a higher authority in whose honour the forthcoming ceremonies

and festivities will be held. Throughout the festivities

he will acknowledge his subservience, by bowing or kneeling

before the appropriate god, and praying to him with hands held

upwards. He now enters the palace throne-room, where he is

joined by his consort, high priestess of the realm. She too has

undergone thorough ritual cleansing. The chief of the royal

smiths presents the king with a crook and a spear—of iron,gold,

or silver as the occasion warrants. The crook symbolizes the

king’s judicial power, delegated by the Sun God, the spear his

military power. Sometimes in the course of the festival he may

exchange his priestly robes for a soldier’s garb.

In the palace courtyard his entourage has been assembled—

the dignitaries of the realm, the royal bodyguard, the priests

and other temple personnel, the singers, the instrumentplayers,

the actors, the acrobats, the dancers. A scribe is consulting

his list, checking to make sure that everyone is present.

Finally, all is in readiness. A hush falls over the gathering as the

doors of the palace open and the royal couple emerge into

the courtyard. The king briefly surveys his entourage before

leading the way through the main gate and out of the palace

precincts. He and his queen mount the chariots awaiting them.

Here too are the ox-drawn carriages which will convey the

sacred statuettes. But pride of place is taken by the image of

the god, brought from the innermost recesses of his temple for

the occasion. His polished, jewel-encrusted, golden surface

gleams in the spring sunlight.This is no mere inanimate object.

It is occupied by the god himself. He has quite literally entered

into his image, and will remain there as guest of honour in the

ceremonies to follow. He looks forward with relish, so his worshippers

believe, to the feasting and entertainment which he

will share with them. The king is presented with a ceremonial

axe in exchange for his spear. It is time for the procession to

begin its journey.

A substantial part of the Hittite year was occupied with the celebration

of religious festivals, as indicated by the large number of festival

texts, far surpassing all other written sources, in the archives of the

royal capital.2 Up to 165 festivals were incorporated into the official

calendar, and no doubt there were many local community and

rural festivals which were never recorded in a permanent form.The

state-sponsored celebrations imposed considerable demands on

the kingdom’s resources, in terms of time,personnel,equipment,and

consumable items. Some lasted just a few hours, some several days.

But the most important ones continued for several weeks, or more.

Many required the king’s personal participation, even if he had to

cut short a military campaign to attend them, though there were

certain occasions on which the queen or a prince or even a symbolic

animal-hide could deputize for him.3 Many festivals were held annually,

some at more frequent intervals, and others perhaps only once

every eight or nine years. Procedures had to be followed in meticulous

detail, for the slightest error could invalidate the entire process.

There was no doubting that their performance at the prescribed

times was essential to the welfare of the kingdom. They were the

most tangible expression of the people’s devotion to their gods, and

in terms of the agricultural year many were strategically scheduled

to maximize divine goodwill at a time when this would have the

most beneficial effect.The large number of festivals was obviously a

reflection of the large array of gods in the pantheon.There was some

scope for rationalization, achieved by dedicating certain festivals to

a number of gods all at once, or to all the gods at once. But some gods

required exclusive attention, and it was always better to play it safe

and avoid the risk of offending any of them—which might well occur

if they were not given the recognition they thought was their due.

The Conduct of the Festivals

The crucial times of the agricultural year were spring, between

September and November, and autumn, between mid-March and

mid-June, the times respectively of the sowing and the reaping. Not

surprisingly, these were the periods when a number of the major festivals

were celebrated. So much depended on the benevolence of

those in whose honour they were held—the fertility of the soil, the

abundance of rain, the fruitfulness of the harvest, the increase in

flocks and herds and game for hunting. Of course the gods in question

could not be neglected at any time of the year. Like any master,

their needs and comforts and pleasures required constant attention.

But there were certain times when it was wise to ensure their benevolence

by treating them and entertaining them on a more than

usually lavish scale. Hence the festivals held in their honour.

The texts recording these occasions may not in themselves make

riveting reading; they are full of baldly stated minutiae, sometimes

repeated over and over again, with little variation from one text to

another. But they were after all intended purely as reference

manuals for the guidance of the participants in the ceremonies. To

appreciate fully their value to us as a source of information,we must

look beyond their repetitive formulaic expressions to the actual religious

experiences which they reflect. Even though no complete text

of any of the festivals survives, the fragments provide considerable

insight into one of the central activities of the Hittite state. The

detailed descriptions of the ceremonial rites, the texts of the liturgies

and recitations, the inventories of the equipment and other paraphernalia

to be used in the ceremonies, the food and drink to be

consumed by god and worshippers, and the programme of singing,

dancing, acting, and sports contests which accompanied the celebrations

help us to recreate something of the colour and vigour, the

sights, the sounds, the smells of Hittite religious practice in its most

active, tangible form. Here indeed was a show, here indeed hospitality

and entertainment, worthy of the gods.

The festivals often involved visits to many holy sites, within the

capital itself, in the open countryside, and to other centres of the

Hittite realm.We can retrace the path of a festival procession as it

leaves the palace gate and proceeds along the ceremonial way,

exiting the city through the so-called King’s Gate, and passing

outside the walls before again entering the city through the Lion

Gate.4 We can imagine the processional way lined with the city’s

inhabitants and foreign visitors, awaiting the spectacle soon to pass

by them. In the distance the songs of the musicians, the sounds of the

drums, cymbals, tambourines, and castanets can be heard, growing

ever louder as the procession approaches.5 The crowd catches sight

of the statue of the divine guest of honour, a gleaming monumental

image towering over the celebrants. This is a rare, once-a-year

opportunity for the people to see the great god’s image, otherwise

hidden away in the recesses of his temple from all but the few specially

appointed to his service. So too as the procession passes by, the

onlookers may gain a passing glimpse of their king and queen, well

protected and isolated from the crowd by an entourage of attendants

and a phalanx of royal bodyguards. Closer at hand, acrobats, jugglers,

red-robed jesters, dancers performing their steps to lute

accompaniment,all in brightly coloured costume, provide entertainment

for the spectators. Of course their job is primarily to entertain

the god. But who among them could fail to play up to a responsive,

on-the-spot, crowd in festive mood? The whole atmosphere might

seem more appropriate to a carnival procession than to a religious

one. But that is what a joyous celebration calls for. That is what the

god himself wants.

The processional itinerary includes stops for visits to the city’s

temples. Here too performers and other attendants are on hand to

greet the royal couple at the temple’s entrance.6 A whirling dance of

welcome is performed.7 Hymns are sung or intoned.Throughout the

ceremonies to follow,8 various cultic calls are made by designated

performers and attendants—’aha!’, ‘kasmessa!’, ‘missa!’. The king

enters the temple’s cella, after thoroughly washing his hands and

drying them on a perfumed towel provided by an attendant. He

makes libation at the holy places within the cella—an offering table,

a hearth, a throne, a window, even a doorbolt. A feast follows. The

god is the guest of honour, the king his host. A great variety of meats

and breads and pastries have been prepared—under conditions of

the strictest hygiene, for the food served to god and king must be free

of taint or defilement of any kind. The king again washes his hands,

and then breaks one of the loaves. Some are fancily shaped to resemble

a human figure or part thereof, perhaps a hand, finger, or tongue,

some are shaped like animal figures, perhaps a bird, piglet, or cow,

some like inanimate objects, perhaps a ball, ring, or wheel. The king

is handed a silver cup brimming with wine and fashioned in the form

of a bull or stag. From it he solemnly ‘drinks the god’.This is a sacramental

act. By it the king comes into mystical union with his divine

guest, for the cup symbolizes the god himself.9 God and king are now

joined by the other guests. A herald shows them to their places at

table. The king offers the god the choicest cuts of meat, grilled or

roasted, from the sacrificed animals—hearts, livers, kidneys, succu-

lent thighs, and fat (to which the gods were quite partial).The atmosphere

now becomes more relaxed as the rest of the company tuck in.

The king winks at his attendants, a sign for the entertainers to

appear.The dancers and acrobats have saved their best routines for

the occasion, for this is not merely a royal but a divine command

performance. The dancers’ performance recreates a hunt, its thrills

and its dangers.The performers are dressed as leopards, their actions

mimicking the graceful movements of the hunters’ feline prey.They

always ensure that they face towards the king. The highlight of the

programme is a wrestling match between two local champions.This

is a form of entertainment in which the deity seems to have taken

particular delight.When all is done, the meal and the entertainment

concluded, the king departs, after once more washing and drying his


Festival processions often took the celebrants and the images of

their gods beyond the city limits to holy places in the open countryside

marked off by the huwasi stones. Here too sacrifice was made to

the god, and a feast held for him and his worshippers. Once more

there was entertainment for the whole company—mock battles,

including a contest between two sides representing the ‘men of

Hatti’ and the ‘men of Masa’ (which the former always won10),

more wrestling, perhaps a weight-lifting contest, foot races, horse

races, and archery contests with the king acting as judge. There

were prizes for the winners (tunics for first and second place-getters

in a foot race) and sometimes embarrassing but light-hearted

penalties for the losers.11 All in the spirit of the fun and festivity of

the occasion.

The Reliefs at Alaca Höyük

Visual representations of parts of a festival programme may feature

among the reliefs at the site now called Alaca Höyük,12 situated c.150

kilometres north-east of Ankara. The reliefs are carved in registers

on the bases of the towers flanking the main entrance to the city, the

lower register continuing into the interior face of the gatehouse on

the west side. As we approach the gate we see a sacred procession

depicted. The king and the queen are the dominant figures in the

scene on the west tower. The king as chief celebrant wears a long

priestly robe and carries the kalmus, his curved staff of office. Also

depicted, in two registers, are the cult officials and the animals for

sacrifice. The royal couple face towards an altar, behind which a

bull is depicted, standing on a platform. This is almost certainly a

zoomorphic representation of the Storm God, one of the two deities

who are the divine guests of honour in these sacred rites. His

counterpart appears as the recipient of honours on the east tower, a

goddess seated on a throne, no doubt the Sun Goddess of Arinna,

chief female deity of the Hittite pantheon. To the left of the Storm

God scene we see other figures depicted, a sword-swallower and

two men associated with a ladder. The latter very likely depict the

‘ladder-men’ who appear amongst the entertainers in several ritual

texts.13 A lute-player is also there, perhaps even a bagpiper. Almost

certainly these represent the musicians and acrobats and other

entertainers who played an integral role in festival performances—

though the precise significance of the ‘ladder-men’ has been the

subject of some debate.14

Other reliefs, though now out of their original context, seem also

to belong to the same composition. Appearing on two large blocks,

each with two registers, they depict hunting scenes. There is a lionhunt,

a brilliantly conceived and executed scene in which the artist

has chosen to portray the climactic moment. A lion who has reared

up in pain and rage tries to grab the spear which a huntsman has

plunged into his neck and shoulders. The huntsman’s two dogs

torment the enraged and mortally wounded beast, whose fury and

suffering are emphasized by his head being turned fully towards us.

The dogs are barking in a frenzy of excitement at being in at the kill.

One is under his belly, the other leaps on his back. Our eyes pass to

another scene where a fierce bull is depicted, its head lowered ready

to charge its assailants, its enormous tongue lolling from its mouth.

Other scenes depict a stag-hunt, a lion pouncing upon a calf, and

another huntsman who has drawn back his bow ready to fire his shaft

at a wild boar bearing down upon him.

Despite the extreme flatness of the reliefs15 and errors in anatomical

detail,the hunting scenes contrast strikingly, in terms of their

violence and realism and dramatic impact, with the normally tranquil

and often static scenes of Hittite art. Hunting figures amongst

the activities recreated by the dancers in their festival performances,

and that may explain the hunting scenes here. The Anatolian

countryside provided a range of game for huntsmen—lions and

wild bulls, leopard, wolf, deer, hare, and wild boar.

The Major Festivals

Festivals celebrating a wide range of activities, particularly those

associated with agriculture, were held at all times of the year. Some

were of major national importance and necessitated the king’s presence,

others were more localized; some were named after seasons of

the year, others after the activities which they celebrated (like the

grape harvest), and others after a particular feature of the festival

programme. Four major festivals provided the high spots of the festival

calendar. Two were held in spring, and at least one in autumn.

The spring festivals were the an.tah.sum or ‘crocus’ festival, and the

purulli festival. The nuntarriyashas festival, the ‘festival of haste’,

was celebrated in autumn; this may also have been the season,

though less certainly, of the ki.lam or ‘gate-house’ festival.

Of the two spring celebrations, the an.tah.sum festival was performed

‘for the Sun Goddess of Arinna and the gods of the Hatti

Land’. Lasting some thirty-eight days, its rites took place in Hattusa

and other important religious centres of the homeland.16 It had much

in common with the purulli festival, which lasted for just under a

month. So named from the Hattian word for ‘earth’, this festival

belongs within the old Hattic tradition, and features the originally

Hattic deities Telipinu, the Storm God, and Inar(a).17 The king and

queen were again the chief officiants. Beginning in Hattusa the festival

procession passed through a number of towns, including Arinna,

the city of the Sun Goddess and a day’s journey from the capital,

before reaching its destination.18 Traditionally this was Nerik, the

city in the northern part of the homeland dedicated particularly to

the worship of the Storm God. Here the festivities reached their

climax. Here there was a general assemblage of gods for the occasion,

just as in Babylon all the gods gathered in deference to their

chief Marduk, to celebrate the year’s beginning.

In view of the peculiarly important place which Nerik claimed in

Hittite religious life, its capture by the Kaskans during the reign of

King Hantili II19 was a disaster of the gravest proportions,not merely

or even primarily for strategic reasons, but because it was so intrinsically

important to the kingdom’s religious life.We need only reflect

on the emotions generated in more recent times by the loss of a holy

city to an ‘infidel’ enemy to appreciate the full significance of the

fall of the city.While Nerik was under enemy occupation, the city of

Hakmis (Hakpis) in the northern part of the kingdom took over its

cultic functions. But after several hundred years in enemy hands,

Nerik was finally liberated by the man later to become King

Hattusili III and resumed its status as one of the leading cult centres

of the Hittite world.

The spring festival, which reached its climax in Nerik, celebrated

the regeneration of the powers of nature. It was a time of renewals,

of reconfirmation of the gods’ endorsement of the king’s authority,

of regeneration of the life and health and vigour of the king and his

consort. There was a direct connection between the king’s wellbeing

and the rhythm of nature which was essential to the growth

process.20 Two Hattic myths which have to do with the notion of

death followed by new life were closely linked with the purulli festival:

the myth of the vegetation god Telipinu and that of the dragon

Illuyanka. In all likelihood both myths were performed during the

course of the festival, as a ritualistic re-enactment of the process of

regeneration of life at the year’s beginning.We shall have more to

say about this below (Chapter 12).

Like the spring festivals, the autumn nuntarriyashas festival, the

‘festival of haste’ (whatever that may mean), lasted several weeks

and involved visits to holy places both within and beyond Hattusa.21

On the other hand the ki.lam festival, the ‘festival of the gate-house’,

lasted only three days and was confined entirely to the capital and

its immediate environs.22 The term ‘gate-house’ indicates visits to a

number of locations, with the procession commencing from the gate

of the royal palace and passing to the gates of various temples and

storehouses and apparently the city’s treasury. The procession featured

the Storm God, whose image was brought from his temple for

the occasion and paraded through the streets in an ox-drawn carriage.

But many other deities, over thirty of them, were also honoured

in the festival.

The Role of Yazılıkaya in the Festival Programme

Any general discussion of Hittite festivals inevitably raises the question

of the purpose and function of Yazılıkaya, the natural rock sanctuary

lying a kilometre north-east of Hattusa.23 Yazılıkaya almost

certainly played an important role in the festival programme. But

what precisely was this role? Human association with the site dates

back to the third millennium or earlier. And from at least 1600 the

site was in use by the Hittites, who initially left it in its natural state.

During Hattusili III’s reign a gatehouse and temple complex with

interior court and inner sanctuary was constructed across the front

of the site, replacing an earlier wall and shutting off direct access into

the sanctuary’s two rock chambers. The archaeologist Kurt Bittel,

who directed excavations at Hattusa from 1931 until succeeded by

Peter Neve in 1978, remarked on the strikingly careless manner in

which the complex was erected—in contrast to the very solid construction

of the known Hittite temples—with foundations set on

rubble and hardly anywhere going down to bedrock. He concluded

that the lightly constructed buildings in front of Yazılıkaya could

hardly have withstood the regular ritual usage attested for the daily

cult of a normal Hittite temple, and that the sanctuary was used only

on special limited occasions in the course of the year.24

What were these occasions? There can be little doubt that

Yazılıkaya with its imposing and largely unparalleled gallery of

reliefs, most notably its impressive parade of deities in ‘Chamber A’,

was an important and revered site.Yet its full significance still eludes

us.What clues do we have? Behind Chamber A is a narrow passage,

guarded by a pair of winged and lion-headed demons leading to the

smaller ‘Chamber B’. On the right of this chamber as one enters is a

sculptured frieze of twelve identical gods (indicated by their cone-

shaped caps) corresponding to a similar group bringing up the rear

of the procession of male deities in Chamber A, except that in this

case they are carrying sickle-shaped swords. On the opposite wall

are two closely linked figures.The larger one is identified by a hieroglyphic

inscription as the god Sharruma, son of Teshub and Hepat,

the smaller by the royal cartouche surmounted by a winged sun-disc

as the god’s protégé King Tudhaliya (IV). The god extends his left

arm round the shoulder of the king, and also clasps his right wrist, as

a symbol of divine protection.25 Tudhaliya also appears in Chamber

A, on the wall opposite the main group of deities, in a 3-metre-high

relief. In both reliefs he appears in priestly garb, long robe, shoes

with upturned toes, close-fitting skull cap and carrying a kalmus, the

staff whose end curves upwards in a spiral.

On the same wall as the Sharruma–Tudhaliya relief in Chamber B

the so-called ‘dagger-god’ relief was carved.The top part of the relief

consists of a human head (evidently that of a god since it wears a

conical cap), underneath which are the foreparts of two lions or lionskins

hanging head-down. All this forms the ‘hilt’ of the dagger. The

lower part of the relief is in the form of a double-edged blade with a

distinct midrib. However, the bottom half of the blade is not visible,

and almost certainly the relief as a whole is intended to represent a

dagger plunged into the ground. In discussing the interpretation of

this relief, scholars have drawn attention to a Hittite ritual which

deals with deities banished to the Underworld and describes how an

incantation priest makes clay images of them in the shape of swords

and fixes them into the ground.26 Professor Bittel compared the

relief with a bronze sword found in the region of Diyarbakır with an

inscription dedicating it to Nergal, god of the Underworld.27

The twelve identical gods depicted in both chambers may also

have netherworld associations,and the remains of burials,both inhumations

and cremations, in the niches and crevices of rocks on either

side of the path between Hattusa and Yazılıkaya add further to the

impression of a site that has to do with death and the afterlife. All the

figures in Chamber B face towards the north end of the chamber,and

were probably intended to relate to a monument which once stood

there—a statue of a god, perhaps, or of a king.

It has long been suggested that Yazılıkaya was the principal place

where the Hittite New Year festival was celebrated, the Hittite

‘House of the New Year’, like the bı¯t akı¯tu of Babylonian tradition.

The site’s apparent netherworld associations would not be inconsistent

with this. Death and new life were commonly juxtaposed in the

ancient world, for in the cyclic pattern of things, decay and death are

followed by new beginnings, new growth, new life.We can envisage

that to this, perhaps the holiest of all open-country sanctuaries in the

Hittite world,28 came a procession of celebrants at the year’s beginning.

Here at this time perhaps all the important gods assembled, just

as they are depicted and individually identified in Chamber A, and

just as the statues of the Babylonian gods were assembled in the

Babylonian bı¯t akı¯tu. There was no more crucial time of the year to

seek the gods’ favours.There was probably no more important place

where this was to be done.

Yazılıkaya may thus have served as a place for celebrating the rites

of spring, in the presence of all the chief deities of the land.29 In the

kingdom’s last decades,it may also have served as a mortuary chapel,

a place of ancestor worship where the royal family paid homage to its

dead.30 And here perhaps a Great King was interred.We have noted

in Chapter 10 that after due ceremony a king’s bones were finally put

to rest in a hekur, a ‘stone house’.31 The prominence of the reliefs of

Tudhaliya IV, the only human figure depicted at Yazılıkaya, suggest

that Chamber B may have been his hekur, his tomb.We are told that

his son Suppiluliuma (II) set up a statue to him in his hekur.32

Conceivably, the base at the north end of Chamber B, towards which

all the reliefs are oriented, once supported a monumental image of

Tudhaliya, for veneration and service by that exclusive group of

family members allowed entry to a king’s tomb after his death.


The Hittites drew a distinction between festivals, designated by the

Sumerogram ezen, and rituals, to which the term siskur applied; the

former referred to ‘group religious ceremonies designed to worship

and provide offerings to the gods’, the latter to ‘magical procedures

often performed by and for individuals to address specific maladies’.

33 In a broader sense, the term ‘ritual’ could be said to encompass

any symbolic action or performance aimed at bringing about a

particular outcome, or commemorating or enhancing a particular

event. In any case the distinction between festival and ritual is not an

absolute one since many of the procedures carried out during the

course of a festival—the washing of hands, the drinking of the god,

the breaking of bread, the ceremonial dances—were clearly ritualistic

in character. Indeed a festival programme is to a very large extent

made up of a series of rituals.

On the other hand, many of the recorded rituals from the Hittite

world were clearly designed to cater for the needs of specific individuals

on specific occasions. But in whatever context a ritual is performed,

one of its characteristic features is that it seeks to achieve a

particular result by a procedure or activity which in itself has no

direct practical value. To till the soil and irrigate the fields may be

essential to ensuring a good harvest. But these are not ritual activities.

To conduct a ceremony of the plough and perform a fertility

dance are ritual activities. They will not cultivate the ground or put

seeds in it or water the seeds. But in the belief of the performers they

are just as essential to the harvest’s success. A midwife needs to be

skilled both in practical birthing procedures as well as in the performance

of the appropriate birth rituals to ensure that a baby is safely

delivered. A doctor needs to be skilled both in practical medical

procedures as well as in the appropriate spells and rituals and incantations

in order to effect many a cure. Practical and ritualistic—the

one complements and reinforces the other.

The essence of ritual is activity, often multi-sensory activity: the

actions, gestures, movements of the participants, the sound of invocations,

the herald’s cries, the liturgical chanting with musical accompaniment,

the fragrant odour of aromatic substances, the stench of

sacrificial blood, the sight and sound and smell of fat hissing on the

flames, the taste of holy wine on the tongue as one drinks the god,

the physical sensation of being washed and scraped of all bodily


At the heart of much ritual activity lies the notion of sympathetic

or mimetic magic—involving the belief that a desired result can be

achieved by acting it out in analogy, using token symbols. Thus in a

ritual designed to eliminate a source of pollution:

They make a basin . . . and from it they build a small ditch leading to the

river. Into it they put a boat lined with a little silver and gold.They also make

small ‘oaths’ and ‘curses’ of silver and gold and place them into the boat.

Then the ditch which empties the basin carries the ship from the basin into

the river.When it disappears, she34 pours out a little fine oil and honey, and

while doing so speaks as follows: ‘Just as the river has carried away the ship

and no trace of it can be found any more—whoever has committed evil

word, oath, curse and uncleanliness in the presence of the god—even so let

the river carry them away! And just as no trace of the ship can be found any

more, let evil word no longer exist for my god; neither let it exist for the

sacrificer’s person! Let god and sacrificer be free of that matter!’35

Some of the most interesting rituals are those most closely associated

with the lower levels of society far removed from the world of

the state festivals, for these rituals, collected throughout the

kingdom by royal scribes, afford us rare glimpses into the lives of the

common people of the Hittite world. There were rituals for every

stage in a person’s development, from birth through puberty to

death, to protect that person during his or her transition from one

stage to the next, warding off evil forces, setting right what has gone

wrong. The majority of rituals, comments Professor Beckman, have

the purpose of restoring a person to his/her proper functioning

within a particular sphere of life.36 There is a ritual designed to

restore a man’s sexual potency, another to cure a stomach disorder,

another to restore domestic bliss to a feuding household, another to

purify a household from all evil influences.

The Ritualists

To ensure their effectiveness, rituals need to be carried out by properly

qualified persons hired for the purpose. Prominent amongst

the experts in ritual procedure, which included many males, were a

group of female practitioners whom we commonly refer to as the

‘Old Women’,37 misleadingly so if the term conjures for us the notion

of a pack of toothless, half-crazed old crones. The Hittite term for

them is hasawa, perhaps originally used of midwives, since it literally

means not ‘old woman’ but rather ‘(she) of birth’.38 At all events the

women so designated were multi-skilled professionals who may

often have collaborated with doctors,augurs,incantation priests,and

other practitioners in the arts of ritual performance, healing, and

divination. As was the case with scribes, many may have been

continuing a family tradition, inheriting an occupation which in

some cases at least appears to have been passed down through successive

generations of the same family.39 The names of fourteen of

these women have survived, as authors of rituals which they practised.

The women in general were almost certainly literate, and may

well have been multilingual to a greater or lesser degree. A range of

languages are used in the liturgical and ritual texts, including ancient

Hattic, Luwian, Palaic, Hurrian, and Babylonian. These reflect the

traditional languages of the particular cultic areas where the rituals

originated. Many of the rituals must have required incantations to

be uttered by the performers in languages other than their own

native tongue, even if their knowledge of these languages was confined

to the terminology of ritual. Presumably if a particular situation

called for a ritual which had been composed in Hattic or Luwian

or Hurrian, it would have to be performed in that language to ensure

its effectiveness.

It is not unlikely that the ‘Old Women’ (to keep the conventional

term) had a regular consultancy practice covering a wide range of situations,

and presumably access to a considerable source of material

on which they could draw in performing a ritual appropriate to a particular

situation. Even at the humblest level rituals were complicated

affairs, given all the paraphernalia required for their successful

accomplishment, including foodstuffs and other consumable items

of clay, wax, tallow, and wool, animals for sacrifice, and a range of

ritual instruments. The slightest error could invalidate the whole

procedure. Ritual texts,like records of festival programmes,have the

appearance of step-by-step instruction manuals, for careful consultation

by the practitioner at every stage of the process—the collection

of all the materials required for the ritual, their conveyance to

the place where the ritual was to be performed, the time of the performance,

the words to be uttered, the chants to be sung, the procedures

to be followed in meticulous detail. There was obviously a

limit to how much the ritualists could commit to memory,even when

they themselves had authored a particular ritual. And there may

have been many cases where a situation requiring their services

arose with little or no warning. Almost certainly there was a large

stock of recorded material on which they could call, to ensure that

they always had something ready to hand for every conceivable


Their services, conducted in the open air or in the client’s own

home as the situation warranted, probably did not come cheaply,

especially since the client must also have been liable for the costs of

the consumables required by the ritual. It does seem, however, that

the cost of treatment could be tailored to meet the client’s ability to

pay, with less expensive items being used for a client of modest

means, apparently without affecting, or at least seriously diminishing,

the ritual’s potency. For example, a particular ritual may have

called for the sacrifice of a donkey, a not inexpensive item to judge

from the prices of livestock in The Laws, which would have added

considerably to the cost of the ritual. In place of a live animal,

however, a poor man was permitted to substitute one of clay for the

ritual’s purposes.40

The Substitute

The concept of substitution is embodied in a great many rituals.41

Indeed the concept is a very widespread one, occurring in many

civilizations, ancient and modern, in many different forms. Basically,

it involves the belief that in certain situations a substitute can take

on the identity of some other person or thing.This enables it to serve

as a stand-in when the original is not available, or to assume the original’s

burdens or afflictions, or contrarily to be used as a means of

transferring burdens or afflictions to the original. Sir James Frazer in

The Golden Bough traced the concept back to primitive humankind.

The ‘savage’, he said, recognized that he could relieve himself of a

physical burden, like a load of wood or stones, by getting someone

else to carry the load for him; by extension he thought he could also

transfer to someone or something else other kinds of burdens and

afflictions—physical ailments, grief, and pain. In its more sophisticated

forms, the substitution ritual often possessed a distinct moral

and ethical element, involving the belief that not only one’s physical

afflictions but also the burden of one’s sin or guilt could be transferred

to another being. In Christian theology the martyrdom of

Jesus Christ is the ultimate manifestation of the substitution


From as far back as the Mesopotamian story of the goddess

Ishtar’s release from the Underworld and her replacement by the

shepherd god Dumuzi,literature has abounded in illustrations of the

substitution concept. It surfaces many times, for example, in Classical

Greek literature.Thus in Euripides’ play Alcestis the eponymous

heroine volunteers herself as a substitute for her husband Admetos

when he is told that his death is imminent and can only be avoided if

he finds someone else willing to die in his place. In a quite different

context, an example of substitution is provided by Herodotos, who

records the Egyptian custom of heaping curses upon the severed

head of an ox, praying that any evil likely to threaten the land may

fall upon it; the ox’s head is then thrown into the Nile (or else sold

in a market-place if there happens to be one nearby with Greek

traders present).42 Like the scapegoat of biblical tradition (see

below), the ox serves as a substitute victim, having heaped upon

it and bearing away the afflictions of the people for whom it has been


A substitute ox was a central feature of the procedures which King

Mursili II followed in order to rid himself of his speech affliction (see

Chapter 9).The ox was to be sent to the temple of the Storm God in

Kummanni, along with a wagon-load of the king’s possessions, in

particular the garments and the accoutrements he had worn on two

critical days—the day when the affliction first befell him and the day

when the ritual of appeasement began. Here the ox and the accompanying

items were to be burned as an offering to the Storm God.

In the typically pragmatic Hittite way which left nothing to chance,

a second ox was also sent on the journey—a substitute for the

substitute—in case the first died en route.

Animals commonly featured in rituals as substitute victims—

preferably live ones, though as we have seen above, clay replicas

were permissible for budget-constrained clients. Asses, oxen, birds,

dogs, sheep, and pigs were all considered appropriate for substitution

purposes. Thus in a ritual designed to restore harmony to a

strife-torn household:

They drive up a black sheep, the Old Woman presents it to them (the sacrificers—

i.e. the pair who have hired the Old Woman), and speaks as follows:

‘For your heads and all parts of your bodies the black sheep is a substitute.

In its mouth and its tongue is the tongue of curses.’ She waves it over them.

The two sacrificers spit into its mouth.43 They cut up the sheep and dismember

it.They kindle the hearth and burn it. . . . The Old Woman takes a small

pig, she presents it to them and speaks as follows: ‘See! It has been fattened

with grass and grain. Just as this one shall not see the sky and shall not see the

other small pigs again, even so let the evil curses not see these sacrificers

either!’ She waves the small pig over them, and then they kill it. They dig a

hole in the ground and put it down into it.44

The substitute serves as a kind of receptacle for the pollutants and

evil forces which have been afflicting those for whom the ritual has

been conducted, and the ritual process involves the transfer of these

contaminants from sufferer to substitute. The transfer may be

effected by a number of means—by verbal identification of the

bodily parts of the substitute with those of the sufferer, by fashioning

a substitute image in the likeness of the sufferer,on the principle that

like attracts like, by the sufferer touching the substitute or spitting

into its mouth, or by simply waving the substitute at or over the

sufferer. Of course the process of merely transferring contaminants

to a substitute does not eliminate them, any more than we solve a

garbage problem by tossing our domestic waste into our neighbour’s

backyard. In the course of the ritual, or after it had been completed,

it was essential to ensure the correct disposal of the contaminants.45

Failure to do so could be construed as a wilful act of sorcery, liable for

judgement before the king’s court with possible dire consequences.46

Depending on their nature, the pollutants might be disposed of by

incineration or burial (which thus consigned them to the Underworld),

or by conveying them somewhere else. They could, for

example, be set adrift on a river, like the replica silver and gold curses

and oaths referred to in the pollution ritual we have dealt with

above, or the ox’s head thrown into the Nile. The substitute might

also serve as a removalist, like the ox in King Mursili’s ritual. This

calls to mind Aaron’s ritual with the two goats in Leviticus 16; one

served as an atonement offering to the Hebrew god, the other—the

‘scapegoat’—carried the people’s iniquities into the wilderness.

Mursili’s substitute ox combined both these functions; it conveyed

the affliction away from the king, and served as an atonement offering

to the god. Donkeys and rams could also be used as carriers, to

convey pestilence ritually transferred to them into an enemy’s

country. Even a mouse might serve as a carrier: ‘She (the Old

Woman) wraps up a small piece of tin in the bowstring and attaches

it to the sacrificers’ right hands and feet. She takes it off them again

and attaches it to a mouse, with the words:“I have taken the evil off

you and transferred it to this mouse. Let this mouse carry it on a long

journey to the high mountains, hills and dales!” ’47

Members of the royal family sometimes sought to divert their

afflictions, almost invariably attributable to divine wrath, to a human

substitute. Thus Mursili II’s beloved and desperately ill wife

Gassulawiya sent a woman of great beauty to Lelwani, supposedly

responsible for her ailment, in the hope that she would be accepted

as a substitute for the queen: ‘If you, O God, are seeking ill of

me. . . . this woman shall be my substitute. I am presenting her to you

in fine attire. Compared to me she is excellent, she is pure, she is

brilliant, she is white,she is decked out with everything.Now,O God,

My Lord, look well on her. Let this woman stand before the god,

My Lord.’48We cannot be sure whether the queen’s substitute was to

be offered up as a human sacrifice. The fragmentary nature of the

text leaves this unclear. In any case the deity remained unmoved.

Gassulawiya never recovered from her illness.

There was a substitution ritual designed to protect a king threatened

by an outbreak of plague while returning home from a successful

military campaign in enemy territory.49 In this case the ritual

prescribed that a male prisoner and a female from the enemy land be

seized and brought before the king. The king removed his clothes

and they were put on the male prisoner, and the female was clothed

in female garb. The king uttered the words: ‘If any male god of the

enemy land has caused this plague, thus I have given him a man suitably

attired as a substitute. May you, male god, be fully satisfied with

this man thus attired, and henceforth be well disposed to the king,

the lords, the army, and the land of Hatti, and may this prisoner take

the plague upon himself and carry it back to the enemy land!’ The

procedure was repeated with the female prisoner for the benefit of a

female deity.There were also animal substitutes, a bull and a female

sheep decked out with earrings, and red, green, black, and white

wool, to which the plague was transferred and which would also act

as its carriers back to the enemy land.50

The stability of the kingdom depended to a very large extent on

the health and well-being of its sovereign. But the sovereign was

forever vulnerable to divine wrath, for he was responsible not only

for offences which he himself had committed, but also for those of

other members of his family, including his ancestors, or indeed

for offences committed by his subjects in general. Conscientious celebration

of the festivals in the religious calendar might go a long

way towards keeping the gods on side. But there was no absolute

guarantee of this, and it was as well to take further precautions, anticipating

as far as one could any misfortune or disaster likely to overtake

the king. Sometimes an omen or oracle might give warning of

an imminent threat to his life. That was the signal for prompt preventative

measures, with the appropriate ritual text ready to hand:‘If

death is predicted for the king, whether he sees it in a dream or it is

made known to him by divination from the entrails or by augury, or

if some omen of death occurs in front of him, this is the ritual for it.’51

Thus reads the concluding statement, or colophon, to one of two

recorded versions of the procedures to be followed in a substitute

ritual.52 Extending over two nights, the ritual was triggered by a sign

from the Moon God and involved the use of three substitutes: a live

animal, a live human being, and a life-size wooden image of a human

being, decked in royal robes with eyes and earrings of gold.

Although the sign had come from the Moon God, there could be no

certainty that he was in fact the deity to whom the king had given

offence. All possibilities had to be covered, with substitute victims

appropriate to each of them.The king first addressed the Moon God:

‘Since you, O Moon God, My Lord, have given an omen, if you have

declared evil for me, see! I have provided substitutes in my place.

Now take these and set me free!’53

The animal substitute, a bull, was taken to an elevated place and

there, in full view of the Moon God, was sacrificed and its body

burnt—thus representing the death and cremation of the king. The

live human substitute was for the upper-world gods, the wooden

effigy for those of the netherworld. Allowance had to be made for

the possibility that either one or the other of these groups of deities

had taken offence and needed to be appeased:The king says: ‘This

is the living supernal substitute for me, and this effigy is the infernal

substitute for me. If you,heavenly gods,have afflicted me with evil or

shortened my days, months, or years, this living substitute man shall

stand in my place; mark him well, O heavenly gods. But if the Sun

Goddess of the Underworld and the infernal gods have afflicted me,

then this effigy shall stand in my place; mark it well, O infernal


The ritual required that the king’s substitute actually became king

in his place, for the period in which he was particularly at risk. The

live human substitute was a prisoner-of-war who had been selected

for the occasion and anointed with ‘the fine oil of kingship’.The real

king stripped himself of all his regalia and presented them to the substitute:

‘See, this man (is now) king! I have bestowed on this man the

name of kingship, I have bestowed on him the garb of kingship,

I have put on him the (royal) diadem.’55 The substitute dismissed

the real king from the palace. No longer did anyone even speak his

name. His replacement was king in all respects. He was wined and

dined, he slept in the royal bedroom, he was guarded by the

royal officials.This continued until the seventh day. But his period of

kingship was hardly one of unallayed pleasure, for it had been foretold

that the king’s life would be brief, and if the prophecy was fulfilled,

it would be fulfilled while the substitute occupied the throne. If

he survived to the seventh day,his kingship came to an end.And then

he was sent back to his own land none the worse, it would appear, for

his experience. Perhaps the offering of him as a substitute was

atonement enough for the gods; perhaps like the scapegoat he

served to convey from the palace and the kingdom all trace of the

evil which had initially inspired divine wrath.

The Hittite ritual of the substitute king recalls an earlier

Mesopotamian practice. In accordance with this practice a substitute

was appointed at critical periods, when omens like eclipses presaged

dangers for the real king. But it appears that the substitute,when his

brief period of glory came to an end, was executed, to ensure that the

gods were fully appeased—unless the real king happened to die at

just that time. This did indeed happen when King Erra-imittı¯ of the

Isin dynasty died from quaffing a bowl of hot broth during the ‘reign’

of his substitute, the gardener Ellil-ba¯ ni. Clearly the gods had taken

matters into their own hands. They were now satisfied, and no

further atonement was needed. Ellil-ba¯ ni reaped the benefits of the

situation and continued to occupy the throne—except, no doubt, for

those brief periods when a substitute took his place.56


It is clear that the success of a ritualistic performance depended in

large measure on the potent forces of magic which the ritual activated.

57 In broad terms magic has been defined as ‘a reasoned system

of techniques for influencing the gods and other supernatural

powers that can be taught and learned . . . Magic not only manipulates

occult forces but also tries to master the higher supernatural

powers with which religion is concerned’.58 Healing and purification

rituals involved good magic—white magic—which had the power

to cleanse an afflicted person or building or field or country of the

evil forces which defiled it. This sometimes involved the use of

apotropaic images; for example, figures of animals buried in the

foundations of buildings—or placed at their entrance:‘They make a

little dog of tallow and place it on the threshold of the house and say:

 “You are the little dog on the table of the royal pair. Just as by day

you do not allow other men into the courtyard, so do not let in the

Evil Thing during the night.”’59White magic was used to negate and

expel the counter-influences of sorcery, black magic. These were

generally not demons as they were in the Babylonian conception,

but rather powerful impersonal forces, responsible for many of the

misfortunes and afflictions which plagued humankind—individuals,

families, communities, whole states.60

Their powers might be unleashed through an act of carelessness—

for example, failure to dispose in the correct manner of pollutants

removed from a patient or building during a ritual of purification.

But more often than not, they were deliberately activated with malicious

intent. To do so was an offence dealt with by the highest

authority in the land. The Laws stipulate that those accused of

making clay images for magical purposes will be called to account

before His Majesty’s court.61 A hair from the intended victim’s body,

or an item of his clothing, might also be used by the practitioner of

black magic. Even the act of pronouncing someone’s name while

killing a snake62 resulted in a hefty fine (one mina, or forty shekels,of

silver) for a free man and death for a slave.63 If you were the victim of

such an act, a ritual was necessary to remove the spell or curse from

you, and to cast it back upon the perpetrator: ‘Next she (the Old

Woman) likewise fashions a strand out of green wool and says as

follows:“Whoever has used sorcery against this person (the patient),

and whoever has rendered (him or her) green—I am now removing

the sorcery and the green from him/her and will give it back to its

originator.”Then she wraps the strand around the (magic) figures.’64

It was a charge of witchcraft that led to the downfall of Arma-

Tarhunda, governor of the strategically important Upper Land

during the reign of King Muwatalli (II). As we have noted, Arma-

Tarhunda was related to the royal family, and had the misfortune to

be the arch-rival of the king’s brother Hattusili, later to occupy the

throne as Hattusili III. Prior to this Muwatalli had made his brother

governor of the Upper Land in place of Arma-Tarhunda, much to

the latter’s fury. It was Hattusili who had brought the charge of

witchcraft, to counter an indictment which Arma-Tarhunda had

brought against him:‘Furthermore he and his wife and his son began

to bewitch me. He also filled Samuha,the city of the deity,with witchcraft.’

65 One cannot help suspecting that Arma-Tarhunda’s charge

(whatever it may have been) was not unjustified, and Hattusili’s a

trumped-up one;it was certainly well within the capability of the wily

and ruthlessly ambitious young prince to resort to such measures to

rid himself of an inconvenient rival. In any case Muwatalli found

against the defendant, and handed him over to Hattusili for punishment,

thus ensuring the removal of one of the chief obstacles in his

brother’s career path. Yet Hattusili’s treatment of Arma-Tarhunda

was surprisingly mild: he let him go free and returned to him half his

confiscated property; subsequently he attempted a reconciliation

with his family. All this, he claims, he did out of pity, for Arma-

Tarhunda was now an old man. More likely he was acting out of

remorse—for a charge unjustly laid.

The mere allegation of witchcraft may well have generated concerns

and emotions which were almost sufficient in themselves

to secure a conviction. To judge from the Proclamation of King

Telipinu, even a knowledge of the black arts rendered one liable to

prosecution. And persons who knew of but failed to denounce

those suspected of having such knowledge were themselves liable to

punishment:‘In Hattusa hereafter sorcery must be exorcized.Whoever

in the (royal) family knows about sorcery, you must seize him

and bring him to the gate of the palace. Whoever does not bring

him here—it will come about that things will go badly for this man

and his house.’66

This has a familiar ring about it. Note the progression: practice of

the ‘black arts’ is an offence; then mere knowledge of the black arts

becomes an offence; then knowledge of and failure to report those

who practise or know the black arts becomes an offence. Herein

we have an early attested example of a phenomenon of human

behaviour that surfaces every so often in recorded history. It is what

we call witch-hunting.