A Balancing Act: Institutional religion in Hellenistic Babylon between continuity and change

Dr. Céline Debourse studies Babylonian history and religion in the second half of the first millennium BCE. Her Ph.D. dissertation, written at the University of Vienna, discussed the Babylonian New Year Festival texts and studied them within their Hellenistic context.

In my current research I explore aspects of the cult in Hellenistic Babylon, with the aim of identifying how changing imperial dynamics may have influenced cultic practices. Communis opinio holds that the cult underwent only few changes, even in those periods after the city of Babylon came to be ruled by foreign governments. For example, it is commonly maintained that the Babylonian New Year Festival was still observed at this time and that foreign rulers regularly participated in the event. This focus on continuity is problematic, because cult practice is dependent on a number of contextual factors that are subject to change. It is rooted in a place (the temple) and performed by professional people (the priests) in a distinct form (the rituals) for the worship of specific divinities (the pantheon). All these elements are demonstrably fluid.

One of the main arguments in favor of this idea of cultic continuity has been the existence of cuneiform temple ritual texts. These texts outline the actions to be carried out and prayers to be recited during the performance of temple rituals. Although they only survive on manuscripts from the Hellenistic period, it was always assumed that these texts are copies of older compositions dating back to the time of the Neo-Babylonian Empire or even earlier. The fact that they were still copied at a later date thus served to sustain the idea of cultic continuity. Moreover, it was thought that these ritual texts describe what actually happened in the cult and that they could thus safely be used to study cultic practices in Hellenistic Babylon.

However, these ideas were based on uncritical readings of the sources. Upon close scrutiny, it becomes clear that the ritual texts were created in the Hellenistic period. Linguistically speaking, they are characterized by several elements that can only be reconciled with a late dating, such as their close affinity to the Astronomical Diaries and other typical Late Babylonian genres. Also the texts’ contents, in particular their portrayal of the person of the king on the one hand and the priests on the other, can best be explained in a Hellenistic context (Debourse 2019; Jursa & Debourse 2020). It is true that the ritual texts contain references to some things that are significantly older, such as specific cultic functionaries or locations. These elements can only be considered as “antiquarian”, giving the texts an aura of antiquity that they do not actually possess. This strategy of inserting older things in new texts in order to legitimize them is best known from Hellenistic Uruk (Beaulieu 1992; Frahm 2002).

In summary, the ritual texts do not predate the arrival of Alexander the Great in Babylonia. More importantly, they do not seem to instruct on actual cultic practices, but instead they reflect an ideal(ized) situation that does not necessarily mirror reality. Some of the actions that are described could not be performed, because the locations where they should take place or the functionaries that should perform them no longer existed in Hellenistic times. The primary aim of these texts is therefore to outline how things should be done and as products of priests created in a time of foreign domination, they attest to these priests’ dreams of restoration.

Aside from the ritual texts, other documents have been used to study the cult in Hellenistic Babylon. Astronomical Diaries, chronicles, and Late Babylonian archival texts all contain references to what went on inside the city’s temples. However, here too the focus of research lay on finding aspects of continuity; a bias that has had far-reaching consequences for our understanding of not only the cult in Hellenistic Babylon, but also of Babylonian society at large and of the interaction between foreign rulers and the local community at the time. A telling example is the history of research about the é.ud.1kam—a temple attested only in Seleucid and Parthian cuneiform texts. Based on the traditional reading of its name (literally, “Day One” or “First Day” Temple), this temple was long considered to be another name for the akītu or New Year temple. This was then used to prove the existence of the akītu-temple as well as the continued performance of the akītu-festival at the time. Yet, a closer reading of the sources in which this temple name appears indicates that the é.ud.1kam was located in the center of Babylon, was used throughout the year, and could therefore not be the same as the akītu-temple—since that temple was located outside the city’s walls (Debourse 2020). Recently found evidence also shows that the traditional reading of its name was faulty and that we should understand it to be the bīt ūmakkal, the “Temple of Daily (Worship)” (Hackl 2020).

With my future research I aim to add nuance to the picture of an uninterrupted cultic tradition in Hellenistic Babylon and to navigate a more balanced approach between aspects of change and aspects of continuity.



Beaulieu, P.-A. 1992. “Antiquarian Theology in Seleucid Uruk.” Acta Sumerologica 14, 47-75.

Debourse, C. 2019. “Debita reverentia: Understanding Royal Humiliation in the New Year’s Festival Texts.” Kaskal 16, 2019. 183-200.

Debourse, C. 2020. “The ‘Day One Temple’: A New Home for the Gods of Babylon?” WZKM 110, 145-164.

Frahm, E. 2002. “Zwischen Tradition und Neuerung. Babylonische Priestergelehrte im achämenidenzeitlichen Uruk.” in R. Kratz (ed.), Religion und Religionsakte im Zeitalter der Achämeniden. Gütersloh, 74-108.

Hackl, J. 2020. “Nochmals zum é ud.1.kam und seiner vermeintlichen Rolle im babylonischen Neujahrsfest – ein Beitrag zur Kulttopographie Babylons in hellenistischer Zeit.” ZA, aop.

Jursa, M. & Debourse, C. 2020. “Late Babylonian Priestly Literature from Babylon.” in P. Dubovský & F. Giuntoli (eds.), Stones, Tablets, and Scrolls. Tübingen, 253-281.