Priests of Babylon

Priests of Babylon January 13, 2015

Ancient Babylonian temples were busy places. There were butchers and cooks for the meat, bakers for the bread and brewers of beer. The temple was supplied by farmers and milkmen, fishermen, oxherds, orchard keepers. Some were specialists in setting the table of the god, and others artisans who work with reeds, clay, gold, jewels or wood. There were weavers and there are washers. To entertain the god during his daily meals, there were singers, singers who specialized in lamentations, acrobats. Gatekeepers guarded the gates of the temple and keep out the unwanted people. Barbers were there to ensure that all of the priests were pure.

Not just anyone could become a priest of a temple of Babylon. They had to possess a isqu, a prebend or share of the priestly service. Sometimes a priest inherited his isqu from his father. At all times, the priests had to be born from the proper line. Their fathers had to be priests, and they had to be born within a marriage. Their mothers had to wear the medallion of virginity when they were married, or their sons could not be priests. There were times when a man received a share in priesthood without being descended from priests. If there was a new temple, new priests were made. 

To qualify as a priest, a man had to go through an elaborate purification rite, which varied depending on the degree of access that a priest was going to have in the temple. Workmen who went in and out of the outer court did not have to be as pure or consecrated as others. Those who came to the inner court had to be clean but not as clean as the erib-biti, the ones who entered the temple. They were the highest priests who came into the presence of the gods each day to care for the gods. They had the right of qurrubu sa naptani, the privilege of bringing the meal near to the god.

Before the ritual of consecration, a candidate for a priesthood had to be examined. He had to be completely without blemish or disfigurement. He could not have squinting eyes, or chipped teeth, or a finger that had been damaged, or a ruptured stone, or skin disease,  bad eyesight or kidney stones. If one side of his face did not match the other side, he was disqualified from appearing before the face of the god. The gods did not wish to see disfigured men and would become angry and leave their house during the night.

They not only had to have the right heritage and be perfect in body, but they were required to be upright in life and must know how to perform their duties in the temple. They had to be trained in whatever craft they were selected to perform, and witnesses brought testimony about their skills. It is not only the perfect of body who could be priests, but the perfect of mind.

During the rite, they were shaved, their nails were clipped, and they were washed with soap and water in the bath-house. While that happened, the asipu, the exorcist, recited sixteen prayers over them, chasing away the evil as their hail and nails and dirt were removed. Pollution was a danger, and the pollution had to be be removed before they were permitted into the presence of the god. Then they were given the kubsu, a pure white wool turban that marked them as servants of the gods. When anyone else was a man wearing a kubsu, he knew that the man is a servant of the gods.

When the priest had been purified and prepared for his service to the gods, he was pure in hands and in feet. His mouth was pure by being washed, like the mouth of the god himself. He was ready to speak to the god, as the god was ready to receive his service. When the man became pure, he became a godlike servant of the gods. Babylonian priests were specialists in brightness, for Babylonians believed that whatever was pure was pure as light. Whatever was pure was bright.”

Temple barbers were busy all the time, shaving the heads of the erib-biti whenever they must go into the temple to serve the god. Temple bath houses were always busy with priests cleansing themselves in soap and water to purify themselves. The diviners had to be especially pure when they appeared before the god, or before the king. They had wash with water, and anoint themselves with oil in which they have mixed grass. They had to wear clean garments, and purify themselves with tamarisk and well grass. They could eat nothing, but had to chew cedar to purify their breath. 

A priest who committed a crime could not come into the presence of the god. Everything that came before the god had to be pure—the food, the drink, the servants, everything. Everything had to be prepared in purity, and everything had to be presented in purity. 

Only the priests had to be shaved and only they wear the kubsu, but no one was permitted approach near the god without purity. Every worshiper had to wash and avoid eating and touching anything that makes him impure. If he touched a dog, or chewed tamarisk, he was not impure. If a man drank wine and eats, even if he put meat to his mouth, he was not impure. But if he ate leeks, garlic, onions, beef or pork, he was unclean. Anyone who ate an apple is unclean. His breath was offensive, and he had to wipe himself or must be fumigated by a sagga, a specialist in purifications with incense. 

Pouring beer without washing the hands, to spit without rubbing it out with the foot, to sneeze, to kiss with the tongue in the daytime without a shadow—all this was  forbidden and causes impurity. A woman was impure after childbirth and during her period, and a man and woman were unclean after they had sex. A man with skin disease couldn’t enter before the gods. 

It wasn’t always sufficient to keep oneself pure from foods and touches. Sometimes the impurity came to a Babylonian worshiper unawares. A man becomes impure if he spoke to a tamu man, if he ate his food or drink his water, or spoke with a sinner. Anyone who slept on the bed of a tamu man became impure himself, or if one sat on his chair or ate at his table. Impurity spread from place to place, and Babylonians believed they could become hateful to the gods without even knowing why or how they had done so. Witch cast spells that made the object of the spell impure. 


Caroline Waerzeggers, “The Babylonian Priesthood in the Long Sixth Century,” BICS 54:2 (2011); Waerzeggers and Michal Jursa, “On the Initiation of Babylonian Priests,” ZAR 14 (2008) 1-35; Anne Lohnert, “Manipulating the Gods: Lamenting in Context,” in K. Radner and E. Robson, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Cunieform Culture (Oxford: Oxford, 2011) 402-417; Lohnert, “Scribes and Singers of Emesal Lamentations in Ancient Mesopotamia in the Second Millennium B.C.,” in E. Cingano and L. Milano, eds., Papers on Ancient Literature: Greece, Rome and the Near East (Padova: SARGON, 2008) 421-445; Lohnert, “Reconsidering the Consecration of Priests in Ancient Mesopotamia,” in H. D. Baker, E. Robson, and G. Zolomi, eds., Your Praise is Sweet (London: British Institute for the Study of Iraq, 2010) 183-191; Lohnert, “The Installation of Priests according to Neo-Assyrian Documents,” State Archives of Assyria Bulletin 16 (2007) 273-286; Michael Guichard and Lioonel Marti, “Purity in Ancient Mesopotamia,” in Christian Frevel and Christophe Nihan, Purity and the Forming of Religious Traditions in the Ancient Mediterranean World and Ancient Judaism (Leiden: Brill, 2013) 47-113; K. van der Toorn, “La purete rituelle au Proche-Orient Ancient,” Revue de l’Histoire des Religions 206 (1989) 339-356.

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