Month by Month

Še-numun / Šu-numun

Še-numun / Šu-numun “The Month of Barley Seed”

The Summer Solstice marks the mid point of summer. This is known to many as the ‘longest day’ of the year, as it is the day that provides the most daylight than any other in the year. This is because the tilt of the Earth’s axis on this one day of the year is most aligned with the sun.

The term ‘solstice’ itself derives from the Latin word ‘solstitium’, meaning ‘sun standing still’. Astrologers say the sun seems to ‘stand still’ at the point on the horizon where it appears to rise and set, before moving off in the reverse direction. Pagans of many paths have always believed the summer solstice, also known as midsummer as it was the midpoint of the growing season in their agricultural calendar, holds a special power.

To Sumerians the Summer Solstice marks the lead in to the month of Še-numun, which begins on the first new moon after the Summer Solstice, their calendar being lunar as opposed to solar. The Summer Solstice, then, would be the point when preparations for the month ahead would begin, with Še-numun beginning properly on the first day after the new moon’s appearance. Like the Summer Solstice, Še-numun was also an important time in the agricultural calendar. Še-numun was the fourth month in the Nippurian Calander.

In ancient Nippur during the Third Millennium BCE this month was focused on preparation of the fields, and culminating in their seeding, therefore the cultic practices and observations during this month were focused on agricultural festivals. The month of Še-numun is when the actual plowing would take place, beginning on the date of the A-ki-ti Še-numun festival on the 8th day of the month, with plowing going on for four months until the festival on the month of Apin-du-a.

The most famous piece of literature set around this time is “The Dispute between the Plow and the Hoe”, in which the seeder plough boasts “my festival, in the month of Šu-numun, is when the fields are worked”. The Hoe then brags that it is used all year round, whereas the Plow is only used for four months, and then put away. This verse indicated the Plow was only used between months four and eight of the calendar, which would make sense since, month eight ‘Apin-du-a’ meaning ‘The month the seed plow is let go’.

There were four main phases in the agricultural cycle for the Sumerians. First, acquisition, removal from storage and retooling of equipment, and acquisition of animals to pull it, which took place in the second month of Ezem Gusisu. This was marked by gu-si-su festival. Second, preparation of fields to get ready for the actual seeding took place during the fourth month of Še-numun. This was started with the a-ki-ti Še-numun festival. Third, early and late seeding which occurred in what we might think of as the fall. Fourth and finally, the actual harvesting in the twelfth month of the year. This was marked by the Še-kig-ku festival.

From the Second Millennium BCE, following on from the fall of Ibbi-Sin of Ur, and during the reign of Isbi-Erra, a unification of Sumer was taking place, and the Calendar of Nippur was adopted throughout most of Southern Mesopotamia. During this time the month of Šu-numun would be adopted into the Calendars of Ur, Larsa, Umma, Lagash, and most of the other cities of Sumer.

Cultic Dates

1st day of this month (25th June) – The ‘Festival of the Canebrake’ would be observed. The canebrake was one of the locations where the dead, wrapped in a shroud, were released. It should be noted that in Southern Sumer there were two methods of burial, of which little is known. The first type, much like that of today’s burial practices was in the ground, the second of which was known as “laying the body in the reeds of Enki”, which may have denoted the wrapping of the body in a ritual shroud, and taking it into the river or marshes, and floating the body into the canebrakes.

This festival coincides with Netherworld festivals being observed in other cities around the same time, indicating that this festival would have been a Netherworld Observance. This seems more appropriate when you consider we are now only a month away before the month of Ne-Izi-Gar begins, when the braziers would be lit to guide the dead back from the Netherworld to their ancestral homes.

An interesting observation of this date, falling on the first New Moon after the Summer Solstice, was that it also coincided with the ‘Elunum Festival’ observed at Sippar and Larsa. There is a possibility that The ‘Festival of the Canebrake’ was another name for the ‘Elunum Festival’. This festival was observed in the temple of the Sun God Utu (Akkadian Šamaš ), which seems appropriate given its relationship to the Solstice, and the longest day of daylight. The Sun God Utu being the only God who could journey to the Netherworld, and return. At sunrise Utu was known to emerge from his Netherworld and take a daily path across the skies, and to which he returned to at sunset each evening. The spirits of the dead were also thought to enter the netherworld through a passage on the horizon at the point where the Sun set. In some traditions, this point was the same entrance that led to The Sun God’s underground resting place. This seems fitting, seeing as it was the sunset of their life.

During the Second Millennium BCE in the City of Ur, Še-numun would be seen as the beginnings of the time of the ’Great Wailing’. It was seen as a time of great sadness, and again this may be connected to the Netherworld observance at the beginning of this month. However Ur was also focused on Moon worship, and the prominence of the Moon God Nanna in cultic activities, so many have proposed that this time was seen as a time of great sadness as a response to the shortest duration of the moon in the sky. Later the Great Wailing would become intertwined with the great devastation of Ur during the reign of Ibbi-Sin, with laments being written in their memory. Two of these compositions in particular being “Lament over the Destruction of Ur” and “Lamentation over the destruction of Sumer and Ur”, which would have been recited as part of the observation on this date.

It might be appropriate on this night to light a candle, and make a small chthonic offering to the Gods of the Netherworld, those who have passed who had touched your life, and to your ancestors.

8th Day of the month (2nd July) to the 15th day of the month (ending on the full moon – July 9th) – The Šu-numun festival would be celebrated, with the main focus of the A-ki-ti Šu-numun festival taking place between the 8th day (2nd July) and the 11th (5nd July). This would be a time of great celebration as the work was being done in the fields to prepare the fields for seeding, and seed them over the dates of the festival, with presumably the full moon being the sign that the festival was over.

During these dates it would be appropriate for offerings to be presented to the Gods Enlil, Ninlil, the Sacred Mound, Ninhursag, Nuska, Ninurta, Inana, the mother and father of Gilgamesh Ninsumun and Lugalbanda, and the Goddess of healing Nintinugga / Bau / Gula. In Umma the Šu-numun festival was mainly focused on the worship of the war God Šara, who is identified in some texts as the son of Inana.

From a Sumerian Reconstructionist viewpoint it would also be appropriate to read from “the debate between the plow and the hoe”, as this tale gives the reader some respect for the fundamental processes involved from the point of view of the spirit of the plow and the spirit of the hoe.

Sources –
Cohen E M – Festivals and Calenders of the Ancient Near East
Wagenaar J A – Origin and Transformation of the Ancient Israelite Festival Calendar
Kuiper K – Mesopotamia: The World’s Earliest Civilization
Jacobson T – The Treasures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion
Vanderjagt E – Temple of Sumer Archives