Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The First Re-Election Campaign (As Far As We Know)

In ancient Babylon, the new year, at least according to their calendar (think about the time of the spring equinox), was marked by the Akitu Festival. The festival lasted for 12 days, or nearly a third of our modern year-ending Christmas festival. As part of this festival, the king had to face re-election.

Democracy, however, had not been invented yet. Early in civilization, rulers positioned themselves as having the favor of the gods as rationale for being ruler. If things were going well, the gods must like the man in charge. This led to some quick deposings when things weren't going well, because the rest of the populace could figure out for themselves what that must have therefore meant.

On the fifth day of the Akitu festival, the king was therefore required to present himself inside the temple of the primary Babylonian god, Marduk, and the temple's high priest. The priest would strip the king of all his vestments, his crown, his scepter, anything that would identify him as a king.

Then the priest would slap the king in the face. Hard. Just rear up and let him have it. Potentially, he'd be slapped again, and again, and again, until the pain caused him to produce tears. According to Julye Bidmead in The Akitu Festival: Religious Continuity and Royal Legitimation in Mesopotamia, the king was actually slapped at two separate points during the ritual, the first prior to even entering the temple. There was also ear-pulling, just in case the slapping didn't do it.

This was done to humble the king. You may be a king, but your god can and will backhand you on an annual basis and you can't do anything about it. You still answer to someone. Keep that in mind when you get back to work.

At this point, the king would, in tears of course, kneel before Marduk and proclaim to the people that he had not done anything wrong in the previous year. He had not stolen from the treasury. He had not allowed Babylon to be conquered, or its city walls to be breached. He had not lied to the people. He had not humiliated the people, or struck them in the face.

How ironic.

After this proclamation was complete, then, and only then, was he given back his vestments and allowed to resume his regency.

The end result was a foregone conclusion, the humiliation a mere prelude to another year of rule. But some people would still probably trade their current election cycle for a chance to slap the guy in charge once a year with no repercussions.

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