Perfunctory Tasks & Sacred Duties

To many Pagans, Samhain marks an important time of the year when one honors their ancestors and departed loved ones. It is said that during this time, the veil between the worlds is thin and spirits may pass between here and there: the realm of the dead and the world of the living.

Some, whether Pagan or Christian, even mark this time of the year by participating in rituals and Dumb Suppers which commence on the first of November for the Day of the Dead. As this time falls upon us, many members of the Sumerian tradition may join in the Halloween festivities, practice divination and scrying on Samhain, or even attend a Dumb Supper. Traditionally, this time of year known to the ancient Sumerians as Apin-du-a, was a period of relative rest as plowing season came to an end.

As a modern Sumerian, or Chaldean (your use of the title and term may vary), I find this time of year to be one of quiet contemplation and Halloween hijinks. I was never entirely close to my family and I only knew my grandparents as the oldest members of my family prior to their deaths. Of my distant ancestors, I know little, but I wish to know more. When I received my DNA results indicating my ancestry and places of origin, I had grand visions of my ancestors, who they were and what they did. I still think of that often, even if I don’t know who any of them were. I’d like to know them, even if only by name. As it is, I only know them as nameless and faceless, but still find it important to honor them.

Last month, on a rather unseasonably hot Sunday afternoon, several members of my local pagan community (including people I’ve never met before), gathered together to celebrate the Autumn Equinox in a ritual observance inspired by Duku, or the Festival of the Sacred Mound, the seventh month of the Nippur calendar, from which we derive a detailed account of festivals and holy days sacred to the Sumerian people. It was during Duku that Enlil’s forebears, Endukuga and Nindukuga, the lord and lady of the Sacred Mound, were honored. According to Mark Cohen’s book, The Cultic Calendars of the Ancient Near East, “Duku, “the holy mound,” was a sacred locality. Originally and basically the term designated the plastered-over pile of harvested grain, but it was extended to underground storage generally. Enlil’s ancestors – powers for fertility in the earth – were located in Duku.” This would have been a somber time, in which one would hear ritual laments and wailing, which has been described by contemporary writers as terrifying to hear.

Our ritual began before sunset; a brief but informative introduction to the Sumerian people, the nature of the festival, and the concepts behind Sumerian mythology, religion, and spirituality was shared with those in attendance. I emphasized the meaning of the ritual and how important it is to honor and worship the gods and the Primordial Ancestors. I also shared the importance of honoring personal ancestors.

A large zisurrû, or circle of flour big enough for everyone to stand within, was made using wheat flour (since we were inviting gods into our presence). We took a few moments to center ourselves and prepare ourselves to enter into ritual with the proper mindset.

I led a brief proclamation of intent, asking for the gods to look favorably upon us as we honor them, the Primordial Ancestors, and our own forebears. I encouraged those present to repeat what was said. We then consecrated our space by speaking an incantation that was translated and shared with me by a friend who is also a Sumerian reconstructionist:

“May this place be as pure as the sky,
May this place be clean as the Earth,
May this place be radiant as the Heart of Heaven.”

Upon consecrating our space, we then proceeded to address all of the gods by way of a very broad invocation of sorts, inviting the gods of highest heaven, the sky, those upon and below the earth, and the gods of the deep:

“We call to this place of worship, the powers above:
Gods of the firmament of heaven and of the starry expanse!
Gods of cloud and life-giving rain; of rolling thunder and brilliant lightning!
We call to this place of worship, the powers of the earth and under the earth:
Gods of mountains and hills, pasture and fertile fields; of the order of civilization!
Gods of the world below; of the realm of the honored dead!
We call to this place of worship, the powers of the deep:
Gods of the primordial sea that encompasses the foundation of the earth!
Gods of rivers and streams; of placid lakes and sacred springs!
Holy powers of heaven, of the sky from horizon to horizon, of the foundation of the earth, and the primeval deep: we welcome you, we worship you, we honor you!”

It was/is traditional to address the gods of the city during Duku and to carry their idols through the city in ritual procession. Millennia ago, it would have been the chief gods of Nippur. I don’t reside in Nippur, but why should that stop me or anyone who wishes to honor the gods? I chose to honor those gods that are dear to me – the gods of my city in the American Midwest: the Seven Who Decree Fate.

A hymn that I had written and agonized over and rewritten several times again was sung. It sounded so different coming from the mouths of others – as though singing it alone in my devotional ritual time wasn’t enough:

“Mighty ones, we call to you.
Seven who decree the fates:
All creation looks to you,
All creation sings your praise.
Hearken to your supplicants,
And come dwell within our midst.
May we ever sing your praise,
May your names be on our lips.”

After singing the hymn, a formal address to the gods by name was recited by all in attendance:

“O great An, enthroned above;
O Enlil and Enki; lords of sky and sea;
Ninhursag, Nanna-Sin, Utu, Inanna:
You are highest among the host of heaven, of earth, and the deep.
You ordain destiny, you decree fate.
You bear the lives of all mankind in your hands.
Your word is life, your proclamation is well-being.
You descend to the depths below to judge the dead
You ascend to the heights above to judge the living.
You oppose evil; chaos flees before you.
You are benevolent; in your right hand is justice, in your left is mercy.
You are radiant; your light pervades all darkness.
You are magnificent; all creation rejoices in your glory.”

With a somber sense of duty, we then welcomed the Primordial Ancestors by way of chant, stamping our feet occasionally:

“Ancestors! O Ancestors!
Hear us, Great Ones, Ancestors!
Hear us, O Endukuga!
Hear us, O Nindukuga!
Dwelling ‘neath the Sacred Mound!
Hear us, Great Ones, Ancestors!
We remember you by name!
Hear us, Great Ones, Ancestors!
You are welcome in our midst!
Hear us, Great Ones, Ancestors!
Sacrifices that we bring!
Hear us, Great Ones, Ancestors!
You are honored with these gifts!
Hear us, Great Ones, Ancestors!”

Once the chant was finished, a traditional offering of milk was dedicated to the Primordial Ancestors and poured out upon the top of the mound on which we stood – the highest hill in the city.

We then took a moment to regroup before finally honoring our own ancestors, also by way of chant:

“Ancestors! O Ancestors!
Hear us, noble ancestors!
You, who passed beyond the veil!
You, who dwell beneath the earth!
You, who watch us from afar!
Hear us, noble ancestors!
We remember you by name!
Hear us, noble ancestors!
You are welcome in our midst!
Hear us, noble ancestors!
Sacrifices that we bring!
Hear us, noble ancestors!
You are honored with these gifts!
Hear us, noble Ancestors!”

Each person then poured out their own milk offering, dedicating it to an ancestor, a close family member, or even a family friend who passed on. Once the offerings were poured, we then took turns and shared what made that person so special to us. The space on the hill seemed to be much more crowded as though by mere mention of names and shared remembrances, the departed made their presence known in small ways. Some said that it seemed as though they could feel someone touching them, while others shed silent tears.

After the ritual had ended and we all went our separate ways after dinner, I returned home but had the very distinct sense that I was not alone. I felt as though I was in the company of a large crowd and had that sense of urgency that one feels when one is entertaining guests. The feeling lasted for several hours and I didn’t go to bed until almost midnight, silently acknowledging the sense that I wasn’t entirely alone.

It was and remains to be moments like that which I want to capture and relive, not because I want the rush that comes with having participated in a meaningful ritual, but because I want the impact of the ritual to last. I want to feel that connection that binds me to my neighbor; that binds me to my ancestors and to the gods.

Perhaps that is why these rituals have meaning. Perhaps that is why honoring our ancestors, visiting their graves when possible, leaving them a place at the table, speaking their names aloud is not merely a perfunctory task, but a sacred duty.

-Sam Jackson
October 30, 2017

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