Corpus of Mesopotamian Anti-Witchcraft Rituals

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Tzvi-AbuschBy: Tzvi Abusch, Brandeis University
Annual Professor

I was in residence at the Albright Institute in Jerusalem from January – May, 2014 as the Annual Professor. During my stay, I continued to work on the preparation of critical editions and studies of Mesopotamian Anti-Witchcraft Rituals. But I should preface my report on this work with a few words of introduction about Mesopotamian magic and witchcraft and about the ancient literature that centers upon such concerns.

Among the most important sources for understanding the cultures and systems of thought of the ancient world is a large body of magical and medical texts written in the Sumerian and Akkadian languages. Over the course of some 2500 years (ca. 2600-100 BCE), numerous cuneiform texts written in both the Sumerian and Akkadian languages refer to personal crisis and individual suffering. By and large, the most important sources detailing ways to cope with illness, danger, and personal difficulties are the various types of texts that describe symptoms, provide etiological or descriptive diagnoses, and prescribe ways to deal with evil and suffering. These treatments include medical therapies, ritual prescriptions, and oral rites (prayers and incantations). Procedural texts prescribe the treatment of problems either by means of various ritual or ceremonial therapies (āšipūtu) or by means of traditional herbal therapy (asûtu).

Most magical and medical texts treat one or another of the principal agencies of evil. Some of these agencies are: gods, demons, ghosts, tutelary gods, witches, evil omens, curses, and sins. One especially significant branch of this magical and medical literature centers upon witchcraft. Mesopotamian anti-witchcraft literature attributes misfortune and ill-health to the machinations of a special class of people designated as witches and prescribes the various ceremonies, devices, and treatments for dispelling witchcraft, destroying the witch, and protecting and curing the patient.

This literature makes explicit some of the understandings of human life and of the supernatural that underlie the Mesopotamian cuneiform tradition. Mesopotamian anti-witchcraft literature includes a large body of very significant and interesting prayers, incantations, magical rituals, and medical prescriptions. This very important body of magical texts from early antiquity sheds invaluable light on many aspects of ancient life and thought and helps us to understand the development of later literary (e.g., biblical psalms of lamentation, Greek and Latin defixiones), social, and intellectual forms. I should add that the witch was generally viewed as female, and for this reason, the texts are invaluable for the study of attitudes toward women and gender construction in ancient Mesopotamia.

The corpus is divided into two major parts: a) the Maqlû (“Burning”) series, the longest and most important magical anti-witchcraft ritual from Mesopotamia (which I am editing by myself); b) the Corpus of Mesopotamian Anti-Witchcraft Rituals (which I am editing together with Daniel Schwemer, Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Studies in Würzburg) includesall other magical and medical texts against witchcraft.

a) Maqlû. During my stay at the AIAR, I completed and submitted: 1) A volume for the SBL Writings from the Ancient World series: The Witchcraft Series Maqlû: Transcription and Translation. This volume contains a transcription of the full text of Maqlû with notes, a translation, and detailed introduction. 2) A volume for students in the State Archives of Assyria, Cuneiform Texts series, Maqlû: A Student Edition and Selected Commentary containing an edition of the Maqlû standard text in transliteration together with the cuneiform text. This volume will also provide both historical/critical and exegetical commentaries on selected incantations. These commentaries will draw upon and synthesize the many individual studies that I previously published.

I continued to work on The Magical Ceremony Maqlû: A Critical Edition (Ancient Magic and Divination; Leiden: Brill), which will contain the main edition of Maqlû. I reviewed and made some last minute corrections to the synoptic edition (“score”), revised the bibliography of sources, and drafted the preface.I hope that this volume will be submitted to the publisherby the end of June, 2014.

b) Corpus of Mesopotamian Anti-Witchcraft Rituals. Some of my time was spent working on the textual editions of the second volume of the Corpus of Mesopotamian Anti-witchcraft Rituals (CMAwR). CMAwR will be published as three volumes in the series Ancient Magic and Divination 8/1-3 (Leiden: Brill). The first volume was published as Abusch / Schwemer, Corpus of Mesopotamian Anti-witchcraft Rituals, volume 1 (AMD 8/1; Leiden: Brill, 2011) (xiv, 484 pp., 134 pls.). A draft of the second volume should be ready by March, 2015, and the final revised version will be submitted to the publisher in 2016. I will return to Würzburg to work there (with my collaborator and two post-doctoral researchers) on the volume in summer 2014 (and again in 2015-2016 for a longer period).

In addition to my work on Mesopotamian Anti-Witchcraft Rituals, I completed and submitted two articles (“Cultures in Contact: Ancient Near Eastern and Jewish Magic,” in The Handbook of Jewish Magic, eds. Siam Bhayro and Ortal-Paz Saar, Leiden, Brill.; “Speaking to God(s). Prayers and Incantations” in Mesopotamia in the Ancient World: Impact, Continuities, Parallels. vol. 7, eds. Robert Rollinger and Erik van Dongen, Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 2014); drafted a third article (“Fortune and Misfortune of the Individual: Some Observations on the Sufferer’s Plaint in Ludlul bēl nēmeqi II 12-32”); revised the introduction to a volume on the Gilgamesh epic; and read proofs of two articles.

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4 Comments for : Corpus of Mesopotamian Anti-Witchcraft Rituals
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