Hello, and welcome to the Thin End of the Wedge. The podcast where experts from around the world share new and interesting stories about life in the ancient Middle East. My name is Jon. Each episode, I talk to friends and colleagues, and get them to explain their work in a way we can all understand.
The world can be a scary place. Human cultures have tried to understand it in all sorts of different ways. One of the hardest things to let go of is the idea of causation: everything happens because someone or something made it happen … for a reason … that relates to us.
The Mesopotamian world was full of signs—messages from their gods, or clues to what might happen next. Some signs you asked for. Others just happened around you. They all had meaning. Interpreting those signs was the primary focus of Mesopotamian scholarship. Many centuries of effort amassed a vast and complex body of knowledge, divided into different disciplines, but all targeting the same goal.
Today we move to northern Iraq, and visit the Assyrian capital of Nineveh in the 7th century BC. There, we browse the library of its last great ruler: Ashurbanipal. And flip through the pages of the longest book ever written in cuneiform. Our guest is an expert in omens based on curious things that happened during the course of a normal day. She guides us through what might happen, and what it might mean.
So get yourself a cup of tea, make yourself comfortable, and let’s meet today’s guest.
Hello, and welcome to Thin End of the Wedge. Thank you for joining us.
Hi, Jon. Thank you for inviting me.
Can you tell us, please: who are you, and what do you do?
My name is Fabienne Huber Vuillet. I’m working at the University of Geneva. I am researcher and senior lecturer, teaching Akkadian.
You’re currently working on a project about omens, aren’t you? Could you give us a brief introduction to that please?
This project is led by Professor Catherine Mittermayer and funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation. The aim of this project is to publish an online edition of a divination compendia. In our discipline, and in antiquity, the series has been called Shumma Alu. Shumma Alu means “If a city”. Those are the first words of the first omen of its first tablet. The series has until now only been half published, so we are doing the whole series.
What we call a divinatory series or omen compendia is a corpus of omens gathered in a thematic compendia during the many centuries in which omens have been passed down. So those collections have result into more or less standard forms. We call this canonical version in the first half of the first millennium before the Common Era.
Could you explain briefly about divination in Mesopotamia please?
Yes, divination is based on the Mesopotamians’ conception of their environment. There was no such thing as a chance. It was by the will of the gods that the universe and all living beings were created. So any event, past, present or future, was therefore their doings. As such, they were potentially carrying a message about the divine purpose beneath it. So with the appropriate tools and knowledge, Man could discover the divine plans the god had for him. Divination has a long tradition in Mesopotamia. The earlier written witness comes from the beginning of the second millennium before the Common Era.
Several forms of divination were very popular, such as divination by entrails of a sacrificial animal, the observation of celestial phenomena, the abnormal birth of human and animal beings, and calendar divination for good and bad days, to mention only some. All of which have been serialised into omen compendia like Shumma Alu. These omen compendia have been widely distributed from Babylonia in the south to Assyria in the north, and even way beyond. Traditionally, Shumma Alu is labelled as terrestrial divination, because it’s of use concerned with terrestrial phenomena. That is, with signs that could be observed by everyone in his daily environment.
What kinds of things might happen in daily life that would be thought to have meaning?
Shumma Alu is structured in chapters following kind of progression. It begins with two tablets of omens concerning signs observed in the city and among its population. Then it continues with a rather long part of omens about the house and its inhabitants. After this, we have omens dealing with animals in the city. Then we have luminous phenomena; fires in relation to the house and the palace. Well, then we have tablets — it concern royal prescription. The series continue with the crops, the fields, the gardens, and logically the next omens deal with the sign observed in the rivers and among the fauna. So that was the part which was published by Sally Freedman.
After this, we have a group devoted to omens concerning birds. Then we have what seems to be a turning point in the topics of the series, because it is introducing a large crop of omens devoted to the human behaviour in the broader sense. So tablet 80 is beginning with the following omen: “If a dog approaches a woman”–meaning for sex–the prediction is “end of a reign, worry, or pestilence for the land”. So these tablets also deal with supernatural meteorological phenomena. But as well with sleep omens and omens about a man acting abnormaly. Thus the common thread seems to be more generally that of a phenomenon–behaviours deviating from the norm.
After this, it’s followed by a group treating about religious and divinatory practices. For example, the next tablet is devoted to the observation of fire and flame. And as in this last section, it deals with the appearance of a flame placed at the head of the sick person. For example, we have: “If the fire is placed at the head of a sick person, its light is bright, that sickness will stay for six days or seven days”. Mainly this group concerns omens about the man washing himself, about various phenomena when he’s going to the temple prostrating in front of the god, praying to this god.
There are also omen of purity, which are rather strange and formulated in the tone of cultic prescription, such as this one: “If a man sets out for the temple of his god, he will touch bronze, then he will be pure”. Or another one: “If a man again sets out to the temple of his god and he eats leek, watercress, onion, shallots, flesh of beef or pork, then he will not be pure”. Within this group, we also find what we call the saliva omen. So something like: “If a man spit his saliva and it’s curled like a snake, that man will find his lost things”. We have also a sub-theme, which seems to be the noise heard during various different activities, ending with ominous noises heard when the man is praying. Then we have a gap.
The next group deals with the relation within the family, and more generally in respect to social norms, such as marriage, divorce, inheritance, as well as sexual practices. For example, we have omens like: “If a man has intercourse with a daughter of his brother, wherever he will go, there will be losses”. Or: “If a man grabs a woman at the crossroad and approaches her for sex, that man will not prosper”. And another one: “If a father and a son get angry with each other, an oath will seize the family”. And then suddenly the topic switching to star omens. That was quite a surprise to have those star omens in Shumma Alu, because we know that there was a whole series devoted to celestial phenomenon. They are concerned with observation about star falling in, or changing into something when they fall on, the ground. “If a man sets out on an errand and a star flares from the right to the left side of the moon, it is favourable”. After those two chapter, we have omens dealing the various topics such as dreams, number of children, or inheritance. The last well-known chapter of the series is concerned with the observations made before and during the New Year’s procession of the god Marduk in Babylon.
How did divination work? How did they determine what the significance of a given phenomenon was?
Yes, that’s a good question. The principle of Mesopotamian divination was to connect to observations or phenomena in a conditional way. That is, if something happened, then such other thing will occur. Thus if we take our first omen of Shumma Alu–“If a city is set on a height”, the outcome, so the prediction, was “the inhabitants of that city will not be happy”. The Mesopotamians might have originally linked to observed phenomena and drawn a simple causality between those. But divination quickly freed itself from pure observation, and developed its own enunciative system in order to enclose all possible situation.
This was not done freely, of course. Divination rules had to be applied. Thus as the outcome was a positive or negative one, divination rules were essentially based on a binary system. The second omen of Shumma Alu, the one right after “If a city is set on a height”, we have: “If the city is set on a depression, the ambience of that city will be good”. So we have two antithetic sentences combined to give an interpretative case within a binary system. So high is sad, then negative. Low is happy, then positive.
Mesopotamians had a way to develop sequences of omen. That was to create a progression from a semantically related unit. Let’s take four observations. So we have: “If Luhushshu–that is, a demon–footprint is seen in the city”; “If a ghost is constantly crying out at the city gate”; “If a corpse like a living person is seen in the city”; and finally, “If a female hallulayah-demon is repeatedly leaning into the window of a city”. So we saw this progression from the footprint which was seen to the demon leaning into the window. Of course, you can imagine that none of those signs was positive. Omens were also using analogy to trigger the prediction. And that, of course, is the hardest part, because it’s calling association on cultural background we don’t often have.
There was another one, which really very productive, which is called the left/right symbolism. It has also related pair like front/back, low/high and so on. It was an old principle, which has been expressed is in what we call “The Diviners Manual”: “The right middle is mine, the left pertains to the enemy”. This means that when the sign with no negative value was seen in the diviner’s symbolic area, so the right one, it induced a positive prediction. And when the same sign was observed in the left area, it was positive for the enemy, and hence negative for the diviner’s part. So for example: “If a man spills beer on his left side, he will not know the word of the god. His justice will approach him”, which is a negative prediction, of course. And so on by association move of animals or insects from right to left were positive, and negative when occurring from left to right.
Of course, this looks very simple, but no situation was that simple. Usually the context or some additional sign and even reverse symbolism were modifying it. So we have complex prediction, complex observation. For example, like: “If a man sets out to sacrifice to his god, and a bird crosses from the right to the left of the man and catches a fish, an income of foreign territories will enter the house of that man”. On the contrary: “If a man set out to sacrifice to his god, and the bird crosses from the right to the left of the man and catches a fish, he will die in that year”. So that’s the very hard prediction. The reason is that the additional sign–the catching of the fish–the fish add forces to the area where it occur. When it was added to the sign already observed in the left part, that is in the enemy area, it was extremely bad omen for the diviner’s part. We also have belonging to the diviner’s part–so the front area– this could as well be reinforced or weakened by additional signs. So for example: “If a raven in front of a man stands on the pig’s head, attaining of a wish”. But the symbolic value of the sign, here the raven, is not always clear to us. For example, in another omen, the raven appears to be negative. “If a man goes off on his errand, and a raven stays and caws to the left of the man, that man will go where he decides, and he will enjoy profits”. So the negative value of the raven at the left is reinforced by the cawing, and is located in the enemy area. Thus, the diviner could issue a positive prediction for his client.
We have several other means to create sequences of omens. For example, the use of colours in a tablet. We have the observation of the colour of the face of the statue of the god Marduk. There we have black, white, green, which were all negative, and red only was positive. But the same colours when they are associated with the fungus appearing in a man’s house, there only the black fungus turn into a good sign. We have many examples where the positive/negative value of the right/left pair is reversed by the general context of the observation. The case in the sleep omen where the sign observed on the right generate a negative prediction.
Who used these omens and what do they use them for?
In Shumma Alu, most omens concern the commoner, the simple individual. Sometimes the city, rarely the country or the king. The series was devoted to trivial everyday signs in people’s life. The phenomena observed in terrestrial divination were accessible to everybody. And therefore, the answers sought in those omens has to meet the everyday situation one might encounter. But of course, some sign could be seen as potentially concerning the whole community, and thus they were reported to the king. The main purpose, of course, was to provide relevant information for everyday decision, such as the appropriate time to undertake a journey or any other activity. The very common prediction was, “That man will attain his wish”.
So by definition, unexpected signs occur anywhere and at any time, but in some cases, men will actively looking for those signs. To know for example, whether the god was going to accept an offering or a prayer, the devotee was paying a rather good attention to any potential signs nearby. So for example: “If a man, an egerru–that is an ominous noise–of a donkey has answered in front of him, the prayer of that man, the god did not hear.
According to several omens, another important purpose might have been to diagnose the cause of illness or misfortune. This is also confirmed by other means, and there by the letter of a well known man named Ishtar-shum-eresh, answering to the king who asked about his illness. “Somewhere, it is said as follows: ‘If he’s doing very well, his days will be short. If he keeps falling ill, his days will be long'”. And it is indeed in cases of illness that we have testimonies in the series itself of that kind of elicited divination. For example: “If the fire that is placed at the head of the sick person keeps going out and flaring up, that sick man will recover soon”. So despite the huge amount of omen recorded in Shumma Alu, diviners did not always find the one fitting the request they were asked. The reasoning by analogy was applied in such instances. And we have another letter which shows us how it goes. In this letter, our scholar, the same Ishtar-shum-eresh, states that the portent of an animal passing between the legs of a man could be applied to an animal passing beneath a chariot. So this letter also shows us the diviner’s intervention was probably the most solicited after witnessing something unusual.
We usually translate omens “If x, then y will happen”. How fixed was the prediction? Was it certain or possible? And was there anything you could do to influence the likelihood of it happening?
Yes, there was. But of course, due to the complexity of the operators acting in divination, and specifically in Shumma Alu, it seems that there were no ways to prevent bad omens by acting appropriately. The terrestrial omens were not meant to prevent, but to list all possible signs and their outcome. This was probably not the case for things like calendar omens, which are listing good and bad days, because there of course, it was possible to ask before any undertaking whether it was the appropriate time to do it. But if there were no way to anticipate a bad sign, it was possible to thwart the god’s plans of course. A special feature of Shumma Alu is that the series incorporates rituals after omens that were considered to be particularly negative: bad omens, death omens and so on. These rituals–they are called namburbu–were intended to avoid the misfortune of a death prediction announced by a sign.
We even have some tablets where the ritual was incorporated after almost every omen. So that’s very specific to Shumma Alu. For example: “If a man falls on his back, Ishum–that is a usually benevolent and protective, god–Ishum pushed him away. For 100 days, he will repeat doing it.” Then we have this ritual, a very complex and lengthy procedure, to be followed to avoid misfortune predicted by the omen. So that it–meaning the evil–does not approach, he will not enter his house. For seven days, he will sit and wait–that is, the man–for nine days, he will sit and wait”. And then it’s a bit broken. “He will not go out the door. He will sit down in a reed enclosure”. And then it’s again broken. “He will (do something) with a yarn. An exorcist will recite an incantation for him. And daily, he will set out food and a censer with sesame for Ishum. Then it–the evil–will not approach him”. So that was a rather complicated procedure. But sometimes it was way more easy. And it was: “If a man pulls out his beard on the right side for 100 days, that man will not attain what he strived for”. And the ritual answering the procedure was more like an evasive measure than an apotropaic ritual. And it was written: “So that it does not approach, that man will at that very time shave his beard and it will not approach him”. So they are always speaking about the evil, the bad or the misfortune, which was announced by the omen. So as you can see, the Mesopotamians were indeed not fatalist. We know a lot of those rituals. Some of them were very specific, but others were having a more general application and can therefore be used for many, if not every, situations.
Who was writing these omens down?
It is unclear whether those who copied the Shumma Alu tablets were also involved in the redactional process or if they were the one practicing terrestrial divination. In most cases, when they are named, they call themselves scribes. If I give an example to illustrate the problem we are facing. For example, the owner of one Shumma Alu tablet coming from Uruk in the south, was high official and the city ruler of Uruk. He was great, great grandson of a man named Ekur-zakir. This is a well known temple exorcist, and other descendants of the same Ekur-zakir are known to have copied tablets of Shumma Alu. And one of those descendant was himself calling a mashmashu, so an exorcist. We have another case, with Nabu-zuqup-kenu–which has copied many tablet of Shumma Alu–seems to be quite similar. He called himself scribe, but he wrote down his own redaction of Shumma Alu, and one of his sons became the king’s exorcist. The other one was the king’s scribe. So that was a very important person and he is connected too with the practice of exorcism or divination. Thus for the profession of those who copied as well as their family ascendance, the expertise in terrestrial divination seems in the hands of the exorcist, who will also engage in a ritual procedure and purifications, but also in the hands of their family members, who were called only simply “scribes”, if we can say simply scribe, because they were scholars, of course,
All sorts of things can happen in daily life. How many omens were there in the series, and how are they organised?
Shumma Alu was far too large to be written on a single clay tablet, of course. The series until now is known to have been recorded on 120 tablets, at least in one of its versions. Tablets could vary in size and contains about 30 to 220 omens. That’s rather big. This gives us about 10,000 omens which belonged to the series. So that’s a pretty huge compendia. During the stabilisation process, each tablet was receiving a number within the series, as we do when, for example, we are numbering chapters in a book. And to show the succession in a work written on several clay tablets, the scribes adopted a simple and effective system. At the end of the tablet, they were adding a line giving the first line of the next tablet. This line was called the catchline. Those catchlines were mostly given on a colophon, and the colophon was visually ruled off from the main text appended to the end of the tablet.
The most developed colophon could include the serial number of the chapter, and the name of the composition to which it belonging, the total amount of omens recorded on it, and of course, the catchline. We also could have additional information, such as the identity of the owner, or of the copies of the tablet, and the place and the date of the copy and so on. But sadly enough, the colophons are mostly broken. Shumma Alu was a huge series, and thus it has been excerpted. The greatest part are sequences of omens, which was selected from one or several chapter of Shumma Alu. They usually follow the same order as the standard edition. And those except tablets have also been gathered into a collection–we call it nishu–and have received a serial number of the own. We have several explanations for writing excerpts. One of course, is to create a kind of overview over those collections. Another possibility was to serve as a tool for study and training, in divination, in writing, in specific terminology, and so on. Another explanation was to serve as reference work for divination purposes.
Did everyone agree on the same version of the text or were there competing versions in circulation?
Yes, we have several reduction of Shumma Alu. Over the course of the centuries, the series has been recopied and edited a number of times of course. The canonical version is considered to be the one housed in Ashurbanipal’s library in Nineveh. We do have several colophons which identify them. They share the same layout. That is, they have a cacheline, they have the serial number of the tablet with the name of the composition. And finally the owner’s identity, which is always of course, “Palace of Ashurbanipal, King of the world, King of the land of Ashur”. So this is the label of Ashurbanipal’s library. The highest tablet number on those colophons from Ashurbanipal’s library is the number 105.
But thanks to the colphons, we can also identify another Nineveh version, which was housed in the same library, but has been originally written in Kalhu by a scholar named Nabu-zuqup-kenu. Nabu-zuqup-kenu is a well-known scholar we already have talked about. We know that during at least two years, he has been actively involved in his own redaction of Shumma Alu. And with his own colophons, we have tablets 10 to 120. Not all, but we can safely assume that he wrote down a full version of the series. And his own version involved different numbering of the tablets. So when we don’t have those colophons, the tablets being of the same provenance–that is Nineveh–it’s very complicated to distinguish between these two editions.
We have the south<ern> tradition, if there was one. It is mainly known from tablets from Uruk. We have almost only excerpt collections from there. And the numbering does not help for the standard version. But we also have tablets from other Babylonian cities, such as Babylon and Sippar. And there too they only rarely follow the standard version. So, we cannot say for sure if there was a complete south<ern> production of Shumma Alu or if we have only local variation and occasional adjustment based on the main redaction, the standard redaction from Nineveh. And then finally, we also have from Ashur a slightly different version, but it is almost known from what we call a catalogue.
Given these complications, how confident are you in the reconstruction of the series so far?
Yeah, the reconstruction is a puzzling work. We should have 120 tablets, but we have a lot of gaps. Let me explain a little bit why. We have two catalogues: one from Ashur, I talked about, partly broken, is listing in the part which is preserved the tablets 1 to 20 and 30 to 62. The second catalogue, from Nineveh, was supposedly following the canonical version and reflecting the one housed in the library of Ashurbanipal, but there we have only tablet 20 to 41. So with the help of the catalogue with the colophons and the catchlines, the succession in this area has been reconstructed up to tablet 107. But neither the catalogues or the catchlines do suffice for the reconstruction. And we have to rely on the excerpt tablets. Longer sequences can be established by combining information from several partly overlapping excerpt tablets. But of course aiming at filling all the gaps in the series would be actually an unrealistic goal.
How can we follow your work?
You can follow me as well as the Shumma Alu editions project on the web page of our institute, which is named Unité d’études mésopotamiennes here in Geneva. There will be uploaded by the end of the next month preliminary online editions of several tablets. But the final edition will be asked by the Electronic Babylonian Literature online database, which will be soon open to access maybe by the end of the year or next year.
Thank you very much.
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