Slapping the king on the cheek in ancient Babylon

The humiliation of the king during the New Year ritual served a double purpose.

The ancient custom of striking the king on the cheek and bringing him to tears on the fourth day of the Babylonian New Year celebrations deserves some attention. It might be interesting to note that a great Babylonian king like Nebuchadnezzar II (605-562 BCE), well known in our chronicles as the destroyer of Judea and of the First Jerusalem Temple in 597 BCE, the mighty conqueror of the entire ancient world who considered himself to be the king of kings, would willingly and meekly, once a year, submit himself to such a humiliating procedure, a standard New Year’s proceedings in the ancient Assyrian and Babylonian world.
And yet this is well known from the original tablets found in the temples of ancient Assyria and Babylonia, containing all the details of their extensive rites welcoming and observing the New Year.
They were written in cuneiform by their temples’ priests, are still well preserved and were translated in the London and Paris Oriental Institutes. In Israel, Chaim Tadmor described, translated and interpreted in great detail all the prayers and procedures of the Babylonian New Year. There can also be little doubt that the Judean exiles, brought to Babylon by force after the fall of Jerusalem in 597 BCE, might have been at least partly influenced by the observance of the extensive Babylonian New Year ceremonies, which lasted for several days, with a special program prepared ahead for each particular day.
On the fourth day of the celebrations the chief priest himself assisted in the cleaning and purifying of the main Babylonian temple.
He prayed for a long time, before he called upon the slaughterer to decapitate a ram, the body of which the priest used to make the “kuppuru” ritual, the sanctification of the temple’s premises. He then came out of the temple’s holy of holies to greet the king, took away his staff, crown and godly scepter and put them on a chair before the idol of Bel. The priest then dragged the king by his ears up to the very image of Bel and made him kneel down. The king had to say that he had not been neglectful of his requirements, including the conquest of foreign lands; had not commanded that Babylon and its temples be destroyed; forgotten the temple’s rites and obligations; struck on the cheeks holders of special rights or humiliated them; and many more, all included in a previously prepared list. The list of the king’s promises and assurances was long and contained all that both clergy and the ordinary people usually demand from their ruler.
It was only after the king finished this list of assurances, well prepared ahead of time, that the chief priest struck him hard upon the cheek, with an open hand but as strongly as he could. The blow had to be decisive and hard, for according to tradition tears had to flow from the king’s eyes as an indication that Bel (and his wife Beliya) were friendly, an omen which purported to assure king’s future success and the prosperity of the country. If there were no tears, this signified that Bel was angry, and thus that enemies were expected to rise up and bring about the king’s downfall. It is not known whether the rite could be repeated if tears failed to appear at the first stroke. But if the performance was satisfactory, and there was a steady flow of tears, then the arms, the scepter and the crown were restored to the king, who was now expected to be prosperous and could rule safely for another year.
The priests of the huge Assyrian or Babylonian temples were rather a sophisticated lot. Their knowledge of writing, astronomy and the basic rules of a prosperous religious establishment, their role as teachers, top officials in a good and efficient government, secured for them the top position on the social scale. They were the real power behind the throne and could postpone a new king’s official coronation and recognition for several years, until he had proved himself successful in battle, in the taxation of his own people and the well-organized armed plunder of foreign lands. The priests and their temples were the first to receive a share (the largest) of the tribute and plunder: innumerable slaves, gold, silver, wood, concubines and singers brought to them by the king’s conquests and robberies of the foreign lands. The priests taught the king and his chosen ancestors how to discipline the people and the army, all for their own benefit.
However, the humiliation of the king during the New Year ritual served a double purpose: It demonstrated to the king that without his crown, sword and scepter he was just another ordinary mortal, whose fate depended on the mighty gods and their humble servants.
He might have been all-powerful, ruling over the entire world, but the pain of being hit in the face in this manner was meant to make him humble, more aware of his duties and obligations, inspiring him to take care of his promises, or face consequences.
How many times have we felt, during the past year, like striking and humbling all those bureaucrats who so often wield extraordinary power, forget their humble roots, forget the people who got them elected and to whom they owe their careers, and continue to annoy us by their forgotten promises? How many of our top people became proud, inaccessible strangers, as if they lived on another planet? How many times have we wanted to punish our leaders for their mistakes, committed after they lost their contact with the real world and served only themselves, while we suffered the consequences? It seems, after all, quite likely that all those Babylonian priests weren’t such fools after all. They, too, firmly believed that on the eve of the New Year we should, without exception, all wake up, as if hit by our conscience, and reexamine ourselves.