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Institut Français d'Études Anatoliennes Georges Dumézil

[FLEUVES] Treaty, Ritual, Ordeal: Rivers in Hittite Anatolia

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[FLEUVES] Treaty, Ritual, Ordeal: Rivers in Hittite Anatolia

Anatolian Rivers between East and West

Axes and Frontiers Geographical, economical and cultural aspects of the human-environment interactions between the Hebros and Tigris Rivers in ancient times The Cultural Aspects of Rivers 28th September-1st October 2017 Istanbul (French Institute of Anatolian Studies) Enez (Enez Excavations Directorate)

Perceptions and Representations of Western Asiatic Rivers

İlgi Gerçek (Bilkent University, Ankara, Treaty, Ritual, Ordeal: Rivers in Hittite Anatolia

Hittite archives and monuments dating to the Late Bronze Age (c. 1650-1200 BCE) provide us with ample evidence to study the economic and cultural significance of sources of water—from rivers and springs to man-made pools and water reservoirs. Recent studies have focused particularly on the effective water management strategies developed by the Hittite polity to cope with the unstable climatic conditions of central Anatolia, and the monuments built in or around water sources, which incorporated these sources into the Hittite state cult. The present paper will explore instead the cultural significance of rivers in Hittite Anatolia—their diverse and sometimes contradictory roles in the (1) cultic practices, (2) myths, and (3) geographical perceptions of its inhabitants, as summarized below. As prominent features of the topography of central Anatolia, rivers framed and defined the Hittite homeland in the Kızılırmak river basin. They were perceived as deities and at the same time served as the setting for rituals, festivals, and judicial ordeals. Rivers featured in numerous myths; they were associated with purification and creation, and provided links to the underworld.

  • (1) Rivers, along with mountains and springs, were venerated as deities in Hittite Anatolia. Like other deities in the Hittite pantheon, they received offerings and were invoked as witnesses to treaties and oaths. Instructions written for Hittite officials specify that the rites that were performed for rivers, springs, and mountains from ancient days were to be continued, which indicates that the veneration of natural sources of water had a long tradition in Hittite Anatolia. The role of rivers in the Hittite cult may best be illustrated by the following excerpt from a river ritual: “When they established heaven and earth, the gods divided (them) up among themselves. The upper-world gods took heaven for themselves, and the underworld deities took the earth (and) the underworld for themselves. Each took something for himself. But you, O river, took for yourself purification, life of the progeny, and procreation). (If) he says something to someone, (and if) it becomes terrible, he goes back to you, O river, and to the Fategoddesses and Mother-goddesses of the Riverbank, who created man.” This excerpt demonstrates that rivers were associated with purification and procreation, and were viewed as the abode of Fategoddesses
    and Mother-goddeses, who had created mankind. Owing to their association with purification as well as their connection to the underworld, rivers and springs functioned as the setting for a number of rituals and festivals; riverbanks were frequently the place where the gods were invoked to participate in the ritual. In Hittite rituals, water was the cathartic material par excellence and as a ritual ingredient, pure water was collected from rivers and springs. Furthermore, clay acquired from riverbanks and clay from springs were regularly used in purification rituals. Clay from riverbanks and springs were also used to fashion figures and objects to be used in diverse rituals. Specific rivers, such as the Marassanta (Kızılırmak), Zuliya, or the Mala (Euphrates) occupied a special place in Hittite cult. We know, for instance, that an offering ritual for the Mala River was performed against plague. Textual evidence indicates that the “river ordeal,” a juridical practice commonly attested in the ancient Near East, existed in Hittite Anatolia as well, at least during the Old Kingdom. A reference in an Old Assyrian letter from Kültepe/Kanesh mentions “going to the river,” suggesting that this judicial practice was already attested in Anatolia at the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC. There are only a handful of references to the river ordeal in the Hittite archives, which render it difficult to discern the particulars of the practice or to infer whether the practice was widespread or confined to the upper echelons of Hittite society. In principle, the defendant was thrown into the river and the river determined whether the defendant was “pure” or “impure,” that is, “innocent” or “guilty.”
  • (2) Rivers feature in diverse Hittite mythological narratives. In one of the best-known examples, the Queen of Kanesh places her 30 sons in baskets filled with oil and releases them into the (Kızılırmak) river. The river carries them to Zalpa on the Black Sea coast, where they are rasied by the gods. In another, somewhat fragmentary mythological/ritual text, the Marassanta (Kızılırmak) is invoked to aid in the search of the Storm-god of Nerik, when this god is angered and leaves his abode in Nerik. The text describes how the Strom-god had once changed the course of the Marassanta River. The Marassanta River, described as “close to the soul of the Storm God of Nerik” is then asked by the Storm God of the Sky to swear an oath never to alter its course.
  • (3) As prominent features of the landscape of Anatolia, rivers (along with bodies of water, mountains, or mountain ranges) were perceived as natural frontiers that framed and defined the Hittite heartland and the territories subordinate to the Hittite polity. However, the stipulations in Hittite treaties against the crossing of rivers imply that these were insufficient as actual physical barriers, but functioned more as organizing features. For instance, according to the Sunassura treaty (between the Hittite king and the king of Kizzuwatna), the Samri River was Kizzuwatna’s frontier, and neither king was allowed to cross the river to the other side. Moreover, access to rivers and springs were strictly regulated in treaties.


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