The Kettledrum Ritual

The kettledrum was made of bronze and covered with the skin of a bull.  It is mentioned in texts dating to the Neo-Assyrian period (8th – 7th centuries BC) and the Hellenistic period but it may be much older than that.  The drum was used by temple exorcists in religious ceremonies as a means of averting divine anger.  An important cuneiform text found at Uruk describes an elaborate ritual used to cover the kettle-drum with a new skin.   The tablets makes it clear that these were secret ‘mystery’ rites that could not be spoken of to the uninitiated.   The magical power associated with these rituals is evident in the words the priest recited upon completion of the ritual: ” these ritual acts the totality-of-the-gods has performed, I did not perform (them).”   Once these rituals were completed, the kettle-drum received the status of a god and was ‘taken by the hand’ and led into the temple to take its place alongside other images of the gods.

The following is a summary of the ritual as it is described in texts from Uruk dating to the Hellenistic period (The translation of the text is from Linnsen – see Bibliography):

1. Two bricks were set up on either side of the entrance to the temple workshop upon which images of the deities Kusug and Ningirim were placed.

2. Flour was to be scattered for the gods of heaven, the gods of heaven and earth and the ‘great gods’.

3. Two stands were placed in front of the two deities for the placing of offerings: seven loaves of barley bread, seven loaves of emmer bread, a paste of honey and cream, dates, sasqu-flour. The thigh of a lamb, roasted, and a libation of beer, wine and milk was to be offered. The gods were given the full meal deal!

4. A black bull was selected and brought into the temple workshop on an ‘auspicious day’.

5. The instruments for the ceremony were to be purified with a censer.

6. Another 12 bricks were placed in the temple workshop, each covered with linen, for the 12 great gods.

1-3. Anu, Enlil, Ea the great gods

4-5. Lugalgirra and Meslamtaea

6. Zisummu or Ninsig from Nippur

7. Bigirhush or Shuzianna, of the apsu-ocean

8. Sabarragimgimme or Ennugi, who cultivates the fields.

9. Urbadda or Kusug – the exalted lord

10. Urbadgumgum or Ninsar – son of the temple Eshabba

11. Gubbagarrae or Ninkasi, the son of the new city

12. Abarralah or Nusku, born on the thirtieth day (of the month, when the moon is) invisible.

7. Purify the equipment for the ceremony with water from an egubbu-vessel belonging to Ningirim.

8. Sprinkle barley seed and set up the kettled drum.

9. Set up another brick for the deity Lumha and erect a stand for the offerings.

10. As was done previously for Kusug and Ningim, sacrifice a sheep and roast its thigh as an offering.  Likewise, offer libations of beer, wine and milk.

11. Place water before the gods and draw the curtain shut.

12. Place a reed tube into bulls left ear and right ear.

Bull, you are the offspring of { the deity Zu. You have been chosen for the rites and ceremonies.

The deity Ningizzida is your friend for eternity. The great…, guard the (heavenly) plans. . . fix the

scheme of heaven and earth!. . . be entrusted to the god Lumha! … be. .. to the god Bel. (Text D)

13. Draw a ring of zisurra flour around the bull.

14. Stand at its head and sing a composition called nitugki niginna to the accompaniment of a bronze halhallatu and then recite the composition dimmer ankia mundimma.

15. Cut open the bull and roast the bull’s heart with cedar, cypress and mashatu-flour before the kettle drum.

16. Kalu priest remove the bulls head, bow down and remove his head,… recite three times the

composition entitled “Mulu na” and recite three times “These acts-it is the totality of the gods who have

performed (them); it is not (really) I who performed them.” (Text B)

17. Take away the water and open the curtains.

18. Remove the tendon of the left should and bury the body of the bull wrapped in a single red cloth.

19. Throw some gunnu-oil on it and arrange it so that its face points to the west.

20. Take the hide of the bull and dip it in fine flour, water, prime beer and wine and then lay it in the pure

fat of a bull and aromatic ingredients taken from the hearts of plants, with four qa-measures of ground

malt, four qa-measures of bitqa-flours.

21. press it with gall-nuts and alum from the land of the Hittites.

22. cover the kettle drum with the skin and make drum-sticks from mastu-wood… tendon of th ebull is used

hold the skin on the mouth of the drum.

23. Prepare sacrifice to the god Lumhh- a sheep and libations of beer, wine and mild

24. On the 15th day, cause the bronze kettle drum to be brought forth to the presence of the Shamash.

25. prepare five sacrifices for the deities Ea, Shamash, Marduk, Lumha and the Divine Kettle-Drum

26. sheep, offer the thigh, roasted meat, libation of prime beer, wine and milk

27. Recite the composition entitled Enki-Utut… zaded.”

28. Perform the rite of Washing of the Mouth on the kettle drum

29. Anoint it with animal fat and filtered oil

30. The kalamahhu priest shall lay… upon the bronze kettled drum.

31. purify the drum with brazier and torch

32. You shall grasp the “hand” of the kettle-drum and bring it to the presence of the gods

33. set it on a bed of aromatic? barley seed

34. perform the lamentation called lugale dimmer ankia

Colophon:  Only a qualified person may view. An outsider has nothing to do with the ritual shall not view it… if he does, may his remaining days be few! Informed person may show (this tablet) to the informed person. it is among the forbidden things of Anu, Enlil and Ea.

Incantation: You are the Exalted Bull, created by the great gods.

You were created for the service of the great gods…

In the heavens your image… for the rites of divinity.

When the gods Anu, Enlil, Ea, and Ninmah [decreed] the estinies of the great gods,

Your skin (and) your muscles were destined for the secrets of the great gods.

Remain for everlasting days in this secret!

(o great gods,) fix the destiny of this image with the gods, his brothers!

As for this god, may his temple be holy and pure!

May the evil tongue remain outside!

You shall perform the rite of washing the mouth.



Linssen, M. J. H. (2004). The cults of Uruk and Babylon : the temple ritual texts as evidence for Hellenistic cult practices. Leiden ; Boston, Brill, Styx.