The King who would be slapped

Esagila. The shrine to the god Marduk, the savior of cosmic order and the creator of mankind. Built by Marduk himself, Esagila is the center of the universe, and dominates the heart of its premier city, Babylon. Nearby, the Etemenanki, multicolored seven leveled pyramid like ziggurat of Marduk, rears 300 feet into the Babylonian sky, its massive bulk encompassing 13 acres, its tiers a veritable stairway to the heavens and the inspiration for the Biblical Tower of Babel. Atop the ziggurat, whose grandeur culminates a century of effort, a temple complex that is the dwelling on Earth of the great Marduk.

It is the fifth and climactic day of Akitu, the most important of Babylon’s many religious festivals. The new year has dawned, bringing with it a new spring, new beginnings and a spate of ritual activity. The temple priests, whose mythologies sculpt the Babylonian intellect, execute a series of elaborate and arcane procedures, sacrifices and purifications in preparation for the main event of the day. The temples have been exorcised of the year’s accumulated evils, Marduk fed his morning meal, and the king is on his way.

Cyrus the Great is not of Babylon, but he is its new king. His Persian armies have exploded out of their hinterland of Paras, smashed the Empire of the Medes and in 539 BC, conquered Babylon, a city of fabulous wealth, decadence, mystery and sorcery, a city with a history that is already ancient. Cyrus is a shrewd politician who knows that the king who rules Babylon must do so with the approval of Marduk. The vengeful and sulky god who reacts as poorly to disrespect as a gangland don, must be appeased, as kings of Babylon have done annually since their inception. But Marduk is no easy god to appease. It takes more than prayer and spectacular sacrifice to earn the favor of this deity.

Once a year, during Akitu, Marduk definitively shows the ruler of Babylon who is boss. He imposes a ritual humiliation designed to rip the king’s royal hauteur to shreds. However, since Cyrus is also the King of a host of other Kings, this maltreatment, even at the hands of a god, is tantamount to political suicide. At the same time, to defy Marduk is to be cast a heretic, anathema in a Babylon obsessed with its religion. Cyrus cleverly solves the problem by sending his son Cambyses to Esagila in his place.

Cambyses arrives at the gates of Esagila in full royal regalia, his royal circlet on his head, his scepter and symbolic mace in his hands. He is met at the gates by the sesgallu, the high priest, who escorts him into the temple’s sacred inner  sanctuary. The prince’s considerable entourage and bodyguard who surely accompany him everywhere are left behind, for what is to follow is a private matter between Marduk and Cambyses. Only the god’s wily priests receive the privilege of the enjoying their ruler’s embarrassment.

The process starts mildly enough when Cambyses is asked to purify himself by washing his hands. Then – the first shock – and Cambyses, who is no doubt prepared for what is to come (the details are no secret to Babylonians) is surely rattled. The high priest peremptorily strips the symbols of office from the king – an offence that in any other situation would result in the priest’s prolonged and excruciating death. The circlet, the scepter,  the mace, are all taken from Cambyses and placed at the feet of Marduk’s towering golden statue. Then, the priest tenses, focuses his energies and unleashes something unthinkable, unforgivable in any other time, in any other place, in any other land. The priest slaps Cambyses on the cheek as hard as he can. Whack! The slap echoes one the temple’s stone walls in a cruel simile of Marduk’s laughter. The prince of Persia can only swallow his pride and hope his father knows what he is doing.

The sesgulla is not finished. He now reaches out and grabs Cambyses by the ear! He boxes the prince’s ear as one would a mischievous boy, then drags him by the ear into Marduk’s inner sanctuary and casts him before the god. In one symbolic move, the king is no longer king. The king has been dethroned and reduced to groveling for Marduk’s mercy.

Cambyses’s face blazes with fury, but politics is politics, Babylon priceless and the priest granted implicit immunity from being flayed alive and then impaled. Cambyses kneels before the god, a supplicant,  praying that his powers and privileges to rule be restored. Marduk’s domination over him is complete. All that remains is for the god to raise a leg and mark the prince with his scent.

Yet, Marduk is not satisfied. Cambyses now recites a standardized prayer in which he reassures Marduk that despite what the god may think, he has not sinned, has not violated his religion and stayed true to his royal charter of nurturing his charge, Babylon. Miraculously, this magical prayer does the trick and the surly god’s mood turns. Speaking through the voice of the high priest (for high priests everywhere have a private line to their bosses), Marduk informs Cambyses that he has, in his infinite mercy, decided to let his father keep his job for another year. The stewardship of Babylon is summarily restored to the Persians.

Cambyses steps out of Marduk’s sanctuary, his royalty restored, mace and scepter in hand, glad that the ordeal is almost at an end. Almost – because a final humiliation remains.

Whack! The high priest plants a crucial second slap on the prince’s still stinging cheek. The blow so stuns Cambyses that it brings tears to his eyes. The courageous Prince of Persia, future ruler of the largest and most powerful state in the world, reduced to tears by a slap! Amazingly enough, the priests rejoice at the sight, for they have been watching Cambyses for precisely such a reaction. The tears are a sign of Marduk’s favor. The thicker the tears, the happier the god.

In a nation obsessed with foretelling the future, the tears of the king who would be slapped are the truest sign of good fortune to come. No amount of astrology, star gazing, soothsaying or sorcery can come close to the potency of this augury. And the universal relief it brings. For in Babylon, the ultimate harbinger of disaster, the dread beyond all dreads is the the king who would not be slapped.

For ritual details, refer to The Akitu Festival, by Julye Bidmead.

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