01 December 2006


Chris Noessel reports that he's planning on celebrating Zagmuk instead of Christmas this year.

I was doing a little research on Zagmuk and how it might be celebrated. Here's the skinny. First, a recounting. Then, at the end, a wrap up of the important bits that might make it into some modern celebration.

Zagmuk was the 12-day Mesopotamian winter solstice festival. It's the first winter solstice festival that humans have recorded in history. It might have borrowed a lot from Egypt. Many of its traditions will strike the modern observer as a little wacky, but others are strangely familiar, discernible within some of the West's oldest and most revered celebrations such as Yule, New Years Day, Easter, and Carnevale.

Online accounts of this festival are all over the map. I've done some necessary paring down and then retold it with a certain degree of flippancy, trying to get the spirit of the thing. If you want to get all academic about it, this is not the place.

The story goes like this. Marduk, the god of growing things, had (just like last year) gotten himself imprisoned in the underworld, and in his absence the gods of chaos were slowly devouring the sun. This “explains” why the days were getting shorter after the vernal equinox and why this festival was particularly important. It was about continuing to exist. To make sure the sun would come back and give life to the growing things, Babylon didn't just lament and hope, they did something about it.

Days 1-4

Wail for Marduk, he's captured in the underworld. Wail for the King, he's going to die. Get yourselves ready. Sacrifice and atone.

Day 5

Get ready for the gods, who are coming tomorrow. Leave out some sacrifices for them. Doll the place up.

Prep the King: Smack him around a bit, take away his power, and make him swear that he's been doing his job as best he can, with his priorities in the right place. Forgive him his past sins, and by extension, his subjects, i.e. everyone.

Day 6

At this point it becomes useful to distinguish what's happening in the mythical realm, and what's happening on Earth.

Here comes the son: Nabu, Marduk's son, and the rest of the gods arrive to free Marduk.

Pull the statues of the gods out of their own temples. In a parade (in Babylon they carried them across a river in barges first) move them into the single, festival temple.

Day 7

Nabu leads the gods down to the underworld where they free Marduk from captivity in a big fight.

Compete amongst yourselves for the fun of it.

Day 8

The gods all give Marduk their powers, whence he becomes this giant Voltron-esque über god, fit to fight the good fight and bring back the light.

Put the gods in order of preference. Hold silent reverence for the awesome kewl powerz that Marduk has right now. We all need to be together in this. Withhold all enmity amongst yourselves. Don't fight.

At one time in the evolution of this thing, the priests would kill the king so that his soul might help in the fight. This was a good way to enforce term-limits and ensure the power of the theocracy, but made the king job a lot less appealing. Plus, they kept losing good kings. So, sometime later they would instead free a prisoner at the beginning of the festival and name him king for the festival, and then kill him as a proxy, after which they would reinstate the real king.

Day 9 (The actual solstice)

The juiced-up Marduk fights his Boss Fight against the monsters of chaos. He wins.

Early on, parade behind the Marduk statue until he's set in the feasting temple. This precession was the earthly representation of the fight, with stations for various acts that represented what was happening. Do this right, or it'll bode poorly for the fight and the coming year.

Day 10

Marduk feasts and parties with the gods, celebrating his victory. Marduk gets it on with his wife.

People feast and party with each other, celebrating his victory. The king has sex with a priestess. Copulation ensues.

Day 11

The gods pow-wow, to determine the city's destiny in the upcoming year. They consider in their decision how well the city helped the fight.

Perform augries and divinations, see if you can peek into their decisions.

Day 12

The gods, their business done, go to their homes and return to doing their god things.

The statues are returned to their own temples. Life returns to the everyday.

Some online sources cite Zagmuk as the source of gift-giving and caroling, but in reading the sourciest things I can find, this wasn't actually in there. Maybe in one of its later incarnations?

How would this play out in modern practice? I don't know. We don't really believe that the sun is being devoured by the monsters of chaos anymore (did they ever, really?) but it certainly can be an opportunity for review and personal renewal. Here's the core of this thing as I see it:

  • Suspend the rules
  • Review the past year, identify what needs work
  • Establish priorities and goals for the next
  • Enjoy: Games, Food, Drink, Company, Sex, and Divination
  • Reinstate the rules

Without getting too far into oppressive structure and symbolism, you could loosely contain these things in the season. Decorations of Mesopotamian winter would set aside the time as special. Rearranging the furniture would also help in a Feng-shui-ey way, too. If you started on Dec 22 then day 5 falls on Christmas, and you can give gifts. In between there should be plenty of game playing, tasty meals, and if not sex, some fun porn with quality alone time. New Years would fall on the day of combat and you can do the traditional review and resolutions, and be comfortable in the larger cultural goings-on. I don't know how to celebrate and “kill the king.” Also, there should be Zagmuk carols. On January 3 you put the furniture back and take down the decorations.

I know some pagans who celebrate Christmas night with sort of syncretic seder where they mark the coming transition from the Piscean Age to the Aquarian Age by eating fish. I used to think this was the weirdest winter holiday plan I knew.

No longer.


Reya Mellicker said...

I like it. It has a great name, it goes on and on and the best part is it provides context for the inevitable family melodramas and conflict. It's all for the gods. Cool.

Marcia Landa said...

Thanks for the informative and funny article. Could you post your references? I'm doing some research on Zagmuk, myself and would like to go back to your sources.

Jonathan Korman said...

Can't help you much, I'm afraid. I got my long quote from an email from Mr Noessel, and I don't know his sources at all.