S07 – Ritual, Magic & Medicine


  1. Gershon Galil (University of Haifa) and Ursula Schattner-Rieser (Universität Innsbruck)
  2. Andréa Vilela (Université de Lyon)
  3. Laura S. Wisnom (University of Cambridge)
  4. Netanel Anor (Freie Universität Berlin)
  5. Troels P. Arbøll (Københavns Universitet = University of Copenhagen)
  6. András Bácskay (Pázmány Péter Katolikus Egyetem = Pázmány Péter Catholic University)
  7. JoAnn Scurlock (Elmhurst College)

Paper Titles and Abstracts

To view the abstracts, please click on the titles:

Symbolism, Symbolic Acts and Magic in Ancient Near Eastern Cultures
Gershon Galil (University of Haifa) and Ursula Schattner-Rieser (Universität Innsbruck)

Symbolic acts are well known in ancient Near Eastern cultures. The prophetic books in the Bible are full of symbolic acts (see e.g., Jeremiah 19, 1–2, 10–11; 2 Kings 13:15–19 and more). Dozens of symbolic acts are described and depicted in ancient Near Eastern art and literature; a few examples from Egypt and Mesopotamia will suffice. The first is the Egyptian execration texts, attested from the Old Kingdom until the Late Period (747–332 BCE). These texts now number in excess of 1,000 exemplars mostly from cemeteries. They were first written on figurines of bound foreign rulers, but later also on potsherds which were subsequently and ceremonially destroyed. The breaking of the figurines and the pots inscribed with the names of the enemies was a symbolic act intended to be a sympathetic magic that would affect the kings and the kingdoms named on these execration texts. The Mesopotamian examples are related to rituals against lamaštu. These terrifying female demons (depicted as lion-headed creatures with dog’s teeth, donkey’s ears, and eagle’s talons), attack infants and women before, during and after childbirth. Rituals against lamaštu include destruction of a figurine representing her, crushing of amulets showing her, and stabbing to death with a thorn a figurine that replaced her. The paper will present a new epigraphic text from Jordan (8th century BCE), and a few Aramaic magical texts from Qumran, e.g., Tobit and other magical texts.

Of Dogs and Medicine in Mesopotamia and Beyond: Gula’s Inheritance
Andréa Vilela (Université de Lyon)

In many ways, traditions from Ancient Mesopotamia have had an impact not only on neighbouring civilizations, but also on those that succeeded them. This can be seen with literary texts like myths, but such a situation can also be found elsewhere in more peculiar ways. It is the case with some aspects of medicine or, more exactly, aspects of a symbolic vision of medicine. Indeed, we find from early periods in Mesopotamia a clear association between the medicine goddess Gula and one specific animal, the dog. This is attested in all kinds of sources, from iconography to texts, and also through archaeological evidence. How such an association came to be, deserves to be given some thought. Indeed, cuneiform sources often depict dogs in a very negative way, presenting them as aggressive and dangerous, well aware of their role as a vector for diseases such as rabies. In the present work, we will focus on how such an animal could be associated with a goddess like Gula and medicine in general. To do so, we will work on a large scope of texts such as incantations, hymns and ritual descriptions related to the symbolic utility of the dog on this matter. We will then see how the relationship dog/medicine can be found in neighbouring civilizations in a way that leads us to think that a transfer occurred from Mesopotamia and was then assimilated in other cultural systems.

Reading the Signs: the Liver as a Manuscript in Ancient Mesopotamia
Laura S. Wisnom (University of Cambridge)

Divination from animal entrails was considered one of the highest branches of scholarship in ancient Mesopotamia. While the concept of ‘reading the signs’ is found across various cultures, in Mesopotamia this metaphor has a special importance, as the materiality of the liver strongly resembles the medium and methods of cuneiform writing.
The liver was called the ‘tablet of the gods’, and treated as a manuscript that could be read in a literal as well as metaphorical sense. Not only does the liver itself look like a fresh clay tablet, but the natural creases which occur on the organ’s surface form cuneiform wedges – the building blocks of the Mesopotamian writing system. In the omen series that contains the interpretations of these signs, many entries can be found that describe features in the forms of cuneiform characters. This paper examines how the material features of the liver exerted a strong influence on Mesopotamian divinatory thought and interpretation, perhaps revealing the origin of the metaphor of reading the signs.

Babylonian Seers as Medical Practitioners
Netanel Anor (Freie Universität Berlin)

This Presentation will focus on the role of the seer (bārû) as medical practitioner in the ancient Babylonian society. It will discuss the cases in which this expert used the oracle techniques at his disposal in order to offer diagnosis and prognosis to his clients. The attention here will be given to passages from the seer’s professional literature which deal with the destiny of the patient (marṣu). As it happens protases which mention suffering patients are common among the variety of omens genres related to oracle. For example, an omen dealing in its protasis with a part of the liver called bāb ekallim, "the palace gate," can state, in its apodosis, "the patient, during his illness, he will die."
The fact that prognosis was a common purpose for oracle is made explicit by a passage from the seer's manual, multābiltu. There it is said: "If you perform an extispicy for the well-being of the patient .... and there are two paths (padānu), the calmed patient who ate bread and drank water will relapse to his illness and die." The manual continues as following: "If you perform (the extispicy) concerning the 'hand of the god' (a disease), he (the patient) will live until the day that was appointed for him, but after that day, he will die." It has recently been pointed out that this passage, as well as other passages from the extispicy literature are, in fact, allusions to the Babylonian Diagnostic Handbook, which meant that seers were well acquainted with the literature of other professionals, that of the medical practitioners. The fact that many names of disease, known also from the ancient medical literature, appear in extispicy-omens apodoses points towards a fruitful interaction between these two bodies of knowledge. Hence, the talk will discuss the three following questions:

  1. What were the methods that allowed seers to offer prognosis and diagnosis to patients?
  2. To what level were seers acquainted with the ancient medical literature and which type of use were they making of it?
  3. What were the measures taken after having offered prognosis or diagnosis and were seers then communicating this information to other healing expert?

A microhistorical Study of the Neo-Assyrian Healer Kiṣir-Aššur
Troels P. Arbøll (Københavns Universitet = University of Copenhagen)

Over recent decades, important studies have enhanced our knowledge of the education and careers of first millennium BCE scholars and scholarship in general. Yet, coherent groups of texts written by a specific individual with a certain purpose in a particular context have only rarely been investigated. My dissertation, Medicine in Ancient Assur: A Microhistorical Study of the Neo-Assyrian Healer Kiṣir-Aššur, provides the first detailed analysis of a single āšipu-exorcist’s education and practice in ancient Mesopotamia. The work investigates how the exorcist Kiṣir-Aššur from the so-called “Haus des Beschwörungspriesters” in Assur was educated, how he practiced his craft, and how he produced and organized his knowledge. By analyzing 66 texts securely assigned to Kiṣir-Aššur and allocated to six specific phases of his career, ranging from “junior apprentice” (šamallû ṣeḫru) to “exorcist of the Aššur temple” (mašmaš bīt Aššur), the study provides a holistic analysis of an ancient healer’s profession.
This paper will outline the background and framework of the dissertation in order to discuss Kiṣir-Aššur’s education. The talk will focus primarily on Kiṣir-Aššur’s šamallû ṣeḫru-phase, particularly on the possible role of treatments for snakebites, scorpion stings, and a horse illness in relation to his training of physiological knowledge and practical skills. 

Scientific Glosses in Mesopotamian Therapeutic Texts
András Bácskay (Pázmány Péter Katolikus Egyetem = Pázmány Péter Catholic University)

The glosses inscribed between the lines of cuneiform texts or on the edge of the tablet belong to the most widely attested and oldest exegetic and philological methods of the textual scientific tradition in Mesopotamia. My presentation deals with a specific group of the glosses, namely glosses which was written in the so called therapeutic texts. In consideration of the huge amount of therapeutic prescriptions, the number of prescriptions included glosses is small. My corpus includes 125 glosses attested in 108 prescriptions and in 51 cuneiform tablets. Although the relevant percentage of the glosses in the therapeutic texts could have motivated the more intensive research into this topic, a monographic publication of the glosses in therapeutic texts or at least the systematic database of the sources is still a desideratum in the literature and only short discussions about individual glosses on a single therapeutic texts can be found sporadically in the literature. In my lecture I would like to provide the formal and functional characteristics of this text material.

From SA.GIG to Ovid’s Metamorphoses: Transformation and Diffusion of the Ancient Mesopotamian Commentary
JoAnn Scurlock (Elmhurst College)

Far from being the pointless mind game designed to create a sense of group solidarity among a scholarly elite that cognitive linguistic theory would have us imagine, ancient commentaries were a window by which the scholarly community of late Antiquity generally sought to discern ultimate truths.  Giving heed to Socrates' warning in the Cratylus, those Muslim commentators who were heirs to this tradition, despite firm adherence to monotheism, rose above the common believer's search for single answers to difficult questions. Or to put it differently, what the commentary tradition discovered over the course of its long history was the fact that, in this world, absolute certainty can be achieved only through multiplicity, since having four or five ways of understanding a given passage is as close as the ephemeral human mind can reach to that eternal truth which is God.

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