Ancient Hittites and a Crocus Festival

This is a short post about crocuses and the ancient Hittites.

Okay, you say, “I am aware of those darling flowers that break forth from the cold, dark earth as harbingers of spring — but who are the Hittites and how are they related to crocuses?”

The ancient worldview — that people, things, and physical spaces could be divinely inhabited — is foreign to us and verges into the category of irrational and unscientific. But spending time sorting out those ancient ideas — that a divine being could possibly and for some, did actually inhabit the earth, a building, an animal, or a person — can actually give us richer insight into many passages in the Bible.

What does this have to do with Hittites and crocuses?

The other day, while poring through articles on tabernacles, temples, and other sacred spaces where gods and God could dwell, I stumbled across a reference by Gary Beckham, a Hittite scholar from the University of Michigan, to a festival celebrated by the ancient Hittites. 1 I took note of it because friends on social media sites were posting questions about and pictures of crocuses.

Apparently every spring, the residents in the “Bronze Age metropolis” of Hattusa — the capital city of what used to be the Hittite Empire — held a Festival of the Crocus. (You can read more about the significance of the Hittite empire on the Unesco website).

The dawning of spring was just as important to these ancient Hittites as they are for us today. According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, for those of us living in the northern hemisphere, spring will officially spring forth on March 20 at 5:37 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time. The sun will start heading north after crossing the equator. I recommend taking a browse through the online version of the Farmer’s Almanac for more information or to simply enjoy the colorful photos of spring.

Most of us enjoy the first day of spring because it means summer is right around the corner. We pull out our grills, run to the local store for veggies and meats to barbecue with friends giving little thought to where these have come from.

Some gather round the picnic tables with folded hands and bowed heads to thank God for the bounties provided. Others are not as apt to be grateful to anyone other than themselves for that bounty — proud of the fact that their diligence at works pays off with dividends to not only put dinner on the table, but to build up storehouses for the pantry and the freezers.

We often overlook the significance of the seasonal changes. We are governed by our digital alarms, not the rising and setting of the sun. Our modern existence in cities, suburbs, and metropolitan areas are eons removed from the agricultural community that defined the ancient past.

No doubt for the Hittites, and any other ancient agricultural community, spring meant the long, dark days of winter and worry were over. Spring brought hope. Dwindling food bins could be replenished. Root cellars could once again be restocked. Thanks be to God (or the gods) life will continue and our little ones will be fed for another year at least — if the gods or God allows.

I anticipate objections in regard to learning anything from the Hittites. I’ve had concerns as well. “The Hittites worshipped idols and other gods! There is nothing we can or should learn from them!” I now think otherwise.

According to Gary Beckman, a specialist who studies the Hittites, “the universe was a continuum … with no strict separation between gods and humans.” He explains how “the gods were literally dependent on the offerings presented by humans, who, conversely, could thrive only when the deities who controlled the basic process of nature were well disposed toward the agriculturists and stock-breeders.” 2

We see here an ancient culture aware that their daily existence on earth required daily reliance upon something or someone beyond themselves. Hum, this sounds very similar to what we find in the Lord’s Prayer. I am aware they (the Hittites) expressed their interpretation of god/gods and their gratefulness and reliance upon them in a way very foreign to our Christian worldview.

Who are the Hittites?

The Hittites, were a “powerful people, centered in Asia Minor, who dominated much of Canaan from c. 1800 to c. 1200 BC.” 3.

We first read about the Hittites in Genesis chapter ten which is strategically situated between two familiar stories—the story of the Noah and the flood (Gen 6-9), and the account of the Tower of Babel (Gen 11). We learned about those two stories in our childhood Sunday School classes, but were less concerned about the emerging nations from Noah’s sons. A fun bit of information is how the Hebrew word for flood (mbl) sounds similar to the word Babel. 4.

When Sarah, Abraham’s first wife died, she died within the territory of the Hittites, in the land of Canaan. Long before the Isrealites conquered the promised land, Abraham purchased a large piece of real estate from a wealthy Hittite for Sarah’s burial spot (Gen 23). The burial spot, now known as The Cave of Macphelah, is where the Patriarchal family — Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Rebekah, and Leah — were all buried (Gen 49).

I continue to study and read about the Hittites. Ancient cultures and history give insight into understanding the narratives in the Bible. We also gain insight into the nomadic tribes and the move from tribal life towards city-dwelling in a city called Jerusalem. They can inform (or misinform) how we reason about the rise of nations and race relations today — sometimes making wrong conclusions because we let our modern perspective dominate our hermeneutics.

But there is much to learn and I realize I am treading in the deep ends of a subject I little understand. I promised this post to be short, full of fun and flowers in celebration of spring, so the look at the ancient world of the Hittites will be saved for another day.

Let Spring Burst Forth

Since Spring is right around the corner it seemed appropriate to find out what the Festival of the Crocuses was all about.

My curiosity got the best of me and off I went on a google search. I learned about a ‘blooming park’ in Germany.

There is an amazing Castle of Husan, built in 1577-1582 in the region of Schleswig-Holstein, Germany. Every spring 5 hectares — more than 12 acres — becomes a purple ‘blooming park,” when over five million wild crocuses bloom from March through April.

The Festival of AN.TAH.ŠUM

Imagine my delight when I discovered there was a “Festival of the Crocuses” held at the University of Illinois back in 2019. This celebration is quite different from the one celebrated in Germany that I mentioned above.

According to the flyer announcing the festival, the significance of the event was an attempt to simulate the ancient Hittite Crocus Festival, to ‘celebrate the return of spring and explore the cultic practices of the Hittites,” by replicating what might have taken place thousands of years ago. This reminded me of the reenactments at Deutsch Country Days in Missouri and those at Williamsburg, Virginia, minus the worship of deities.

The Hittite festival lasted over 30 days and was performed for the Sun Goddess of Arinna and for other Hittite deities. The crocus festival was most likely an opportunity to entice the weather-gods for a smooth transition from the harsh winter into spring. According to the event-flyer, “the weather gods … controlled such natural phenomena as crop, livestock, human fertility, as well as wind, rain, and flooding” all concerns for an agrarian community. The 2019 celebration in Urbana, Illinois provided guests with the option to “evoke the Storm God from subterranean.” 5.

One thing I’ve learned already from this short foray into the fields of the ancient Hittites is that they knew their daily existance rested on the provision of something beyond themselves. That is one thing we have in common with those ancient worldviews. Jesus reminded his followers of the very same thing in the beautiful discourse on the mount (Matt 6:25-34), although, different from the Hittites, Jesus acknowledged God the Creator of the universe as the sole providor for all inhabitants on earth.

So in the next few weeks, while I am gently hiding my flower seeds into the dark earth, I will remember those from long ago and will turn my thoughts to the present, rejoicing that the Creator has allowed the warmth of the Sun to shine forth on all peoples of the world.

“The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come!”

Song of Solomon 2:12

  1. Gary Beckham, “Intrinsic and Constructed Sacred Space in Hittite Anatolia,” in Heaven on Earth: Temples, Ritual, and Cosmic Symbolism in the Ancient World, ed. Deena Ragavan.
  2. Gary Beckman, The Religion of the Hittites, Biblical Archaeologist, June/September, 1989, pg. 98-108.
  3. NIV Study Bible notes
  4. Genesis 1-15, Gordon J. Wenham (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987) 216.

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