Just In Case

In case Halloween doesn’t turn out all that happy, you might need this.

If a ghost has seized a man, coral, sulfur, yellow sulfur, cedar resin and mandrake: five plants, you mix in blood of a black snake and then you smear it on wherever it hurts him and he will get well.

I suppose it works just as well on women. Are the five plants really plants? Don’t ask. Trick or treat.

Scurlock, Jo Ann, Magical Means of Dealing with Ghosts in Ancient Mesopotamia, 1988, 2 volumes, University of Chicago, 1988, 275-276 (KLA 84 r. 13-15 & KAR 56:1-4)

5 thoughts on “Just In Case”

  1. “sulfur, yellow sulfur”? Is it the same noun with an apparently superfluous adjective, or could there some mistranslation?

  2. Dan,
    There is an issue with the translation but perhaps not the issue you are thinking of.
    Two different ideogram strings are involved. Their Akkadian equivalents are undisputed. The first equals kibritu, the second ru’tītu.
    kibritu (CAD K, 333) is almost unquestionably sulfur and used to make fire, for fumigation and various magical and medicinal uses.
    ru’tītu (CAD R, 433) is some kind of mineral. Some ancient vocabulary texts equate it with kibritu. It too is used for fumigation and medicinal purposes in almost exactly the same way as kibritu. How they differ and exactly what ru’tītu is is unknown. Black, et al. define both terms with the English word “sulfur.” I haven’t checked von Soden but Black et al.. tends to follow him where they differ with CAD. CAD defines it only as a mineral. But translates it “sulfur” in a few places.
    After a little vacillation, I decided to solve the problem the way Scurlock solved it and translate the first one “sulfur” and the second one “yellow sulfur” and hope no one noticed. I was clear wrong as to the last point. You did notice.

  3. Aydin,
    Yes, mandrake is indeed a plant and since it is the last thing in the list, I think that is why all five are called “plants” even if only one of them is. The problem is I can’t find another example of this kind of usage or structure. That’s why I said, “Don’t ask.”
    The main reason that it is extremely unlikely that any of these are symptoms rests in the lexicography of both “symptoms” and, may I say, “medications.” There are of the order of 100 texts that have to do with curing people of problems caused by ghosts. Scurlock worked with 88 of them. In addition, there are 100’s of other Akkadian medical texts. While I’ve studied only a fraction of these texts, in no other case that I know of are any of the five things mentioned in this text symptoms of Ghost infestation or any other disease. There may be exceptions but based on very comprehensive dictionaries like CAD, I doubt it. Having five of them in a row would be next to impossible. But these terms, whatever they may mean exactly, are known medications for Ghosts and/or other ailments. They are also known in non-medical contexts. In addition, common determinatives and the various placements of these words in canonical vocabulary texts argue against their being disease symptoms. There is also the witness of KAR 56. With a little help from Scurlock, I used KLA 84 as the basis of my translation. However, the same text with a few minor variations is also on tablet KAR 56. Where KLA 84 reads, 5 šammī, “5 plants,” KAR 56 reads šammī annûti, “these plants.” The only things that define annûti, these, are the previous five things (coral . . . mandrake). Finally, while there are several words that clearly stand for symptoms in related texts that we do not fully understand, the ones we do understand fall into two groups: those that we would think of today as symptoms (paralysis, diarrhea, etc) and names of various demons that appear to be associated with specific symptoms even if we don’t know in most cases what symptoms they designate.
    Is it possible that a word like coral or sulfur might have been used metaphorically for some symptom? Sure? Is it likely that five such words would be used in such a metaphorical way with no other clearly indicated symptoms? Not very likely!
    I chose this little cure for Halloween thinking it was short and rather fun. It also happens to be one of the few ghost cures that does not involve ritual and is thus more like a medical cure than an elaborate ritual with a dash of medicine thrown in for good measure. I never dreamed that it would engender so much interest in the details of its philology, not that I mind.

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