Research Showcases Magic

3.1. Burn your troubles away.
The magical ceremony Šurpu

Written by Dr Frank Simons BA (Hons), MPhil.

How to cite:
Simons, F., 2020, “Burn your troubles away: The magical ceremony Šurpu”, REPAC (ERC Grant no. 803060), 2019-2024, at DOI: 10.25365/phaidra.229 (accessed date).

ana anna ulla iqbu ana ulla anna iqbu

He says “Yes” for “No.” He says “No” for “Yes.”

This is one of hundreds of potential transgressions that, if committed by a Mesopotamian, would incur the wrath of the gods. It is taken from a very long list of such offences that forms part of the ritual and incantation series Šurpu ‘Burning’, which, at over a thousand lines, is the longest and most detailed Mesopotamian composition to deal with assuaging divine anger. The text consists of dozens of incantations, spread over 10 tablets (essentially chapters), which were recited with ritual accompaniment during an elaborate ceremony. The majority of the incantations are written in Akkadian, though some also feature interlinear Sumerian translations, and the final chapter of the series is written entirely in Sumerian. The ceremony involved four distinct stages, the first two and the last of which have been known since Heinrich Zimmern’s 1896 editio princeps of the text. The third stage of the ritual was discovered during the course of my PhD research, and I am currently in the final stages of preparing a study and edition of this new material for publication.

Reconstruction and macro-structure

The first stage of the Šurpu ceremony, from which the line above is drawn, consisted of the recitation of several extensive lists of offences that the patient may have committed to bring down the anger of the gods upon himself, coupled with a plea that the sanctions the gods inflicted be removed.

The second stage was the eponymous burning ritual, in which the patient’s offences were likened to various materials, such as garlic, wool, and reed matting, which were then pulled apart and burnt, symbolising the destruction of the patient’s problems and thereby removing them in an act of sympathetic magic.

The third stage is not yet completely known, but approximately three quarters of it, around 150 lines of text, can be reconstructed. From what survives, it appears to have consisted of various acts of magical transference in which the patient’s problems were passed into objects and locations and then absorbed, either by other people, by animals, or into the earth. This differs from the sympathetic magic rituals of the second stage in that the objects involved were not simply likened to the patient’s problems, but actually absorbed them and were then cast away or abandoned.

The final stage of the ceremony involved the invocation of an extensive list of divine figures, and a re-enumeration of some of the sins listed in the first stage, followed by a ritual purification using sanctified water. The series closes with a tablet of Sumerian Kultmittelbeschwörungen – incantations designed to enhance the ritual efficacy of objects, such as juniper and water, used during the ceremony.

The belief, which has persisted since Zimmern’s edition more than a century ago, that the published text was essentially complete, has prevented a clear understanding of Šurpu. In fact, as my work has shown, an entire section of the ceremony – approximately 20% of its total length – has been missing in every publication, and this has rendered substantial chunks of the preserved text practically meaningless. Because the text has been thought of as complete, the “meaningless” sections have been ignored. Indeed, Erika Reiner speaks of the last three tablets in her edition as having ‘defeated the purpose’ of Šurpu, and this belief has doubtless prevented much serious engagement with the text.

With the reintroduction of the missing material, the series can be seen to represent a unified and coherent ceremony. To this end, I am working on a complete re-edition of the text of Šurpu. Over 200 tablets and fragments of Šurpu are extant – nearly twice as many as were known when Reiner published the standard edition of the text. More than half of the manuscripts were found in the 19th century excavations of Assurbanipal’s library at Nineveh, but outside of Nineveh fragments have been found in practically every major literary site in Mesopotamia, as well as at some smaller sites. Tablets and fragments have so far been found at Assur, Babylon, Kish, Khorsabad, Nimrud, Sippar, Sultantepe, Ur and Uruk, attesting to the widespread use of the ceremony.

K. 2467+ – a fragment of Šurpu’s missing tablet
© Trustees of the British Museum

Logic of the text

A major part of my work on the critical edition of Šurpu is an attempt to understand the logic of the text. A good example of this is my study of the final stage of the ceremony, which opens with the line ašši dgamlīya “I am raising my curved staffs.” This chapter of the series has long been understood to consist of a series of short, unconnected incantations. My work shows that it is in fact a single long incantation, which forms a coherent stage of the ritual. In fact, the incantation consists of three closely related sections – very clearly linked by the use throughout of the dgamlu, a curved staff associated with the god Amurru.

The whole incantation works as a sort of Šurpu in miniature – the patient’s sins are listed, they are undone with ritual action and magical recitation, and the stain they left is washed away. The exact nature of the ritual action is not clear as no ritual instructions are preserved for this section of the ceremony. However, several elements are clear from the incantation itself and from the ritual instructions preserved for other ceremonies in which this incantation is incorporated.

In section 1, the priest gives a curved staff to the patient and has him recite the incantation. This brings divine support by enlisting the help of a range of gods, though it is unclear what action is taken with the stick.

Section 2, which more or less resumes the lists from the first stage of the ceremony, presumably utilises similar ritual techniques to those used in the first stage of Šurpu – wiping the patient with flour then burning it, and then sprinkling the patient with water. The action involving flour is plainly another example of transference – the flour absorbs each of the sins as they are listed, then is burned, taking the sin with it. The water is presumably to remove whatever flour is left, as well as for general purification.

This leads neatly to section 3 in which the patient is washed with special water which is then poured on the ground, carrying all the problems with it. This is a sensible conclusion to the ceremony as it not only removes whatever sin-laden flour could not be wiped off, but, by virtue of using special water, it is efficacious in its own right.

Micro-structure and REPAC’s approach

My work on Šurpu will be heavily informed by REPAC’s approach to Ancient Mesopotamian scholarship. The text is riddled with repetitions and parallelisms, and a deeper study of these phenomena using the methods being developed by REPAC should provide many insights not only concerning the basic sense of individual lines, but also the structure and composition of the text as a whole. The aim of Šurpu, and indeed of all Mesopotamian magic, was to convince the gods to take action on behalf of the patient. This was achieved through a variety of means – sympathetic and transference magic, lists of apologies, and direct invocations have all been mentioned in this brief summary – but in all cases, the text of the incantation is our most important witness. Studies of other ancient magical texts have demonstrated that the use of poetic techniques in incantations is fundamental. Such texts are amenable to detailed micro-analyses of their poetic language. Poetical devices in magical texts are not a simple ornamental display of creativity; they add materially to an emotional ritual intended to resolve a crisis, carrying additive, intensifying force. In other words, they aim at increasing a magical text’s persuasiveness. The use of parallelism and repetition transform the recitation of a list of misdemeanours into a piece of persuasive rhetoric.

A simple example can be found in the line with which we began.

ana anna ulla iqbu ana ulla anna iqbu

He says “Yes” for “No.” He says “No” for “Yes.”

It is obvious that the meaning could be expressed in myriad ways – in essence it just says “he lies” – but even in translation the version in Šurpu is more pleasing. In the original, it is almost a tongue twister. This is a single example from a list of over 100 offences, many of which display similarly aesthetically pleasing turns of phrase. This turns what is basically no more exciting than reciting a phone book into something which will catch the attention of the gods, and thereby significantly improves the chances of the patient. Practically no work has been done on the poetic techniques of Šurpu, and investigation is bound to shed light on the methods and the underlying thought processes. My major focus in earlier research has been to establish the macro-structure of the text – through the use of REPAC methodologies, I hope to begin to discern the micro-structure too.

K. 150, a tablet from Ashurbanipal’s library now held in the British Museum, which is Tablet II of Šurpu.
© Trustees of the British Museum

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3.2. Purification Through Word and Deed: Phonological Repetition and Analogical Thinking in Two Maqlû Incantations

Written by Maya Rinderer

How to cite:
Rinderer, M., 2023, “Purification Through Word and Deed: Phonological Repetition and Analogical Thinking in Two Maqlû Incantations, Version 01,” Project REPAC (ERC Grant no. 803060), 2019-2024, at (accessed day/month/year).

1. Introduction

The study of Ancient Mesopotamian magical rituals within the framework of REPAC draws on historical and anthropological comparanda, in particular the work of anthropologist S.J. Tambiah, who demonstrated that magical rituals are distinguished by a ‘reciprocity of word and deed’ (Tambiah 1985: 18). As we extend this hypothesis to Ancient Mesopotamian magical rituals we can show that there, too, by combining verbal and physical acts in a ritual context, their symbolic meaning is translated into a real-world effect via analogical thinking. Purification rites, for example, frequently make use of water – cross-cultural examples are numerous (see, e.g., Bradley 2012). The substance commonly used for washing in day-to-day life receives through its use in a ritual context the power to transform its cleansing properties into a more fundamental purification, such as the purification of patients from their ailments. This insight is highly relevant regarding Ancient Mesopotamian ritual texts:

Although we are willing to admit this as a ‘symbolic’ analogy based on the practice of washing in water, we are reluctant to regard the ritual as “real” in the same sense as the physical cleaning process of taking a shower. And this is precisely where we take issue with the Assyrians. To them the ‘ritual’ performance was as real and effective as the morning ritual is to us. (Ankarloo and Clark 2001: xiii)

An instance of a magical purification making use of water is found in the Babylonian anti-witchcraft series Maqlû ‘burning’ (see Schwemer 2010). Maqlû is a ritual involving the burning of figurines, manipulation of various other substances (materia magica), and the utterance of incantations, performed for patients afflicted by the curse of an evil witch or warlock (Abusch 2002, 2016). As a series, Maqlû consists of eight Tablets (I-XIII) containing altogether almost one hundred incantations, and a ninth Tablet, the Ritual Tablet (RT), containing instructions for ritual actions to be performed alongside the recitation of the incantations.

Since we have the textual sources for both the incantations and the accompanying physical actions, we can investigate the hypothesized reciprocity between the verbal and physical parts of the ritual. For this showcase, we examine two successive incantations in Maqlû, hereafter Inc. A (Maqlû I 37-41) and Inc. B (Maqlû I 42-49), that are assigned the ritual instruction mê tattanaddi ‘You sprinkle water’ (RT 19′-20′).

I will demonstrate that these texts reveal, upon textual analysis, a thick web of associations on the phonological level with the magical objective of this part of the ritual, i.e., the purification of the patient by the gods. To do so, our study is sub-divided in two parts. First, we provide the studied texts in the Akkadian transcription and the English translation. Then, I will focus on phonological repetition, in particular the conspicuous prevalence of repeated phonological elements shared, in the case of Inc. A, by the Akkadian word for ‘water’, , and, in the case of Inc. B, by the Akkadian word for ‘to purify’, ullulu. This study is based on REPAC’s main hypothesis that repetition and parallelism in magical texts contribute decidedly to their meaning construction and effectiveness.

2. Transcription and translation

Below, Inc. A and Inc. B are given in reconstructed transcription and translation, followed by the two corresponding entries in the Ritual Tablet. The most recent edition of Maqlû is offered by Abusch (2016, for Incs. A and B see pp. 32-34, 231-232, 286-287, for the entries on the Ritual Tablet pp. 208, 273, 368). Another translation of the two incantations at hand is provided by Schwemer (2010: 319, 322-323). We also have a German translation by Abusch and Schwemer (2008: 137).

My rendition below is based on Abusch’s transcription and these three translations. The philological details will be discussed in my forthcoming doctoral thesis on repetition and parallelism in Maqlû.

Table 1: Maqlû I 37-41 (Inc. A), Maqlû I 42-49 (Inc. B), Maqlû Ritual Tablet 19′-20′

3. Phonological repetition

All Maqlû incantations are – to varying degrees – characterised by the repetition of sound patterns. Speech sounds are important in incantations which are, at least theoretically, intended for vocal recitation. We argue that, in these texts, phonological repetition has a function that goes beyond the realm of poetic and rhetorical aesthetics: to the texts’ composers, phonological repetition, especially in its ‘associative capacity’ (see below 3.1 and 3.2), was a meaningful device to linguistically enhance the magical efficacy of an incantation. In other words, what presents itself as a literary device to the modern reader had, emically, an extra-linguistic (‘real world’) and performative relevance (see De Zorzi 2022; Noegel 2014).

3.1. Water

In Inc. A and Inc. B, water is especially relevant because it is involved in the physical action accompanying the ritual (RT 19′-20′) and it is mentioned also in Inc. B, mê anamdin ‘I offer water’ (Inc. B, 6). This phrase, in turn, is linked to the ritual instruction mê tattanaddi ‘you sprinkle water’ (RT 19′-20′) through the two phonologically similar verbs, i.e., nadānu ‘to give’ (anamdin is the first-person singular G-stem) and nadû ‘to throw’ (tattanaddi is the second-person singular Gtn-stem).

Most strikingly in Inc. A, verses 3-4 display anaphora: they all begin with the word mimmû ‘everything, something, anything’. The exact repetition of mimmû in such a prominent position at the beginning of verses indicates a strong emphasis on the word. Importantly for our argument, mimmû has a close phonological affinity to ‘water’. The connection is created through the repetition of the consonant /m/ in general and the repetition of the syllable /mû/ in particular.

In addition to the mimmû-mû connection, the lemma māmītīkunu ‘your curse’ (Inc. A, 2) contains the syllables /mā/ and /mī/ (the latter agreeing with the /i/-vowel of /mim/ in mimmû), and the lemma erṣetumma ‘O netherworld’ (Inc. A, 1) contains the syllables /um/ and /ma/. The appearance of these words further strengthens the impression of the purposeful use of words phonologically similar to ‘water’ in Inc. A. The lemmata erṣetumma and māmītīkunu connect by both combining the /Vm/ and /mV/ phonemes with /t/, establishing a further variant phonological parallelism between verses 1 and 2.

In the following simplified representations of the discussed phonemes, long vowels (V̄) and contracted vowels (V̂) are also represented by a simple ‘V’:

Table 2: Phonological repetition of /m/ in Inc. A

Water is also named in Inc. B: ana ilī ša šamê mê anamdin ‘I offer water to the gods of the sky’ (Inc. B, 6). The phrase ša šamê mê, literally ‘of the sky – water’ not only brings out the phonological repetition of the syllables /ša/ and /mê/ but also relates the semantically contiguous and partially homonymous šamû and to each other.

3.2. Purification

The text of Inc. B names both ‘water’ (see Inc. B, 6) and ullulu ‘to purify’ (see Inc. B, 7-8) as a lexical manifestation of the two words at the core of the meaning-construction of both Inc. A and B. Furthermore, Inc. B creates sound-based associations with the lexeme ullulu ‘to purify’ (the D-stem of elēlu ‘to be pure’) and thus with the concept of purification. The repetition of the lemmata ālī and āliya (Inc. B 42-43) contains the syllables /ālī/ and /āli/, the lexeme abullātūšu (verse 2) contains the syllable /ullā/, and the lexeme ilī (verse 6) has the similar phonological profile /ilī/. All of these words have a phonological affinity to ullulu, which appears in the morphological forms ullalukunūši ‘I purify you’ (durative, verse 7) and ullilāʾinni ‘may you purify me’ (imperative, verse 8).

The lemmata ereb and ēra can be counted as a variant phonological repetition of the pattern /VlV/ when considering the phonological properties of /r/, which is, like /l/, a liquid. The phonemes /ere/ and /ēra/ share with /ālī/, /āli/, or /ilī/ the phonological profile VC{+liquid}V.

Table 3: Phonological repetition of liquids in Inc. B

The frequent repetition of the phonological elements shared by ullulu ‘to purify’ is intended to enhance the efficacy of the magical intervention aimed at purifying the bewitched patient. Phonological associations construct meaning that exceeds the semantic range deriving from the basic lexical content of a certain word. For example, in this incantation, the word ālī, which has the meaning ‘my city’, receives an additional meaning by phonological similarity with ullulu ‘to purify’. Words other than ullulu add to the goal of purification by linguistic expression grounded in analogical thinking.

4. Conclusion

Purification was one of the most essential purposes of rituals in ancient Mesopotamia (see Pappi 2016). Several well-known rituals are dedicated specifically to purification (for example, Bīt rimki, see Schwemer 2019), and defensive magic directed against witchcraft also relies on purifying rituals (see Schwemer 2009).

The analysis of the two Maqlû incantations demonstrates that repetition, similarity and analogy are meaning-constructing devices in these texts. From an etic point of view, the examples of phonological repetition that we described play a structuring role by endowing the text with poetic unity. Emically, we argue, phonological repetition is fundamental to establishing the magical persuasiveness of the text.

In addition, a direct semantic link exists between the linguistic expression and the desired magical effect. Not only does the literal mention of ‘water’ (Inc. B, 6) and ullulu ‘purify’ (Inc. B, 7-8) bring about the intended ritual purification of the patient, but the utterance of similar-sounding words that have no semantic association with purity, such as māmītu ‘curse’ or abullatu ‘gate’, also contributes to the force of the incantations.

Our study of two exemplary incantations has revealed a correspondence between the recited words and the accompanying ritual act, the sprinkling of water. The symbolic substance water serves here as a materia magica and an analogy for purification. This reciprocity between words and deeds grounded in analogical thinking is, as Tambiah (1985, 2017 [1973]) has argued, the basis for a magically effective ritual. In etic terms, Mesopotamian thought here reflects, in a culture-specific way, a type of ontology called ‘analogism’ (Descola 2013). In the context of analogism, similarity – such as the similarity of sound between the Akkadian word for ‘gate’, abullu, and the Akkadian word for ‘purify’, ullulu – is ‘a meaningful base for analogical reasoning and the construction of persuasive analogies’ (De Zorzi 2022: 378).

We can conclude from this analysis that phonological repetition in the texts of the incantations creates analogical connections with water and purification, which were deemed effective in bringing about ritual purification of the patient. Thus, through analogical thinking and phonological repetition, we can see that the combination of word and deed is an important part of the Babylonian anti-witchcraft ritual Maqlû. We can gain a better understanding of the power of linguistic force in rituals, as well as the importance of analogical thinking and phonological repetition in Babylonian incantations, by understanding this connection between the words and the physical ritual.

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