Mating Snakes

Far into her life, Shirley has decided to become a Late Medievalist. And apparently I must join in this advanced pursuit. So we are both reading Dante’s Divine Comedy and listening to a lecture series on it. This is not the first time for either of us but every time one reads something one read it with fresh eyes. In Inferno, canto 20 lines 40-45, Dante – actually Virgil is speaking at this point – tells of Tiresias, the paleo-sex reassigner. The story comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses III:316-38. It seems that Tiresias change to the opposite sex in every particular by striking two mating snakes with a stick. Later he/she reversed the process using the same tried and true technique.
Naturally, as soon as I read this canto I headed for omen series Šumma ālu. As far as I can find, there is only one extant omen that specifically mentions mating snakes. Others may be lost and there are several omens that mention entangled snakes. Because of the fragmentary nature of the tablets in this part of the series it’s not completely clear which fragment belongs to which tablet. The mating snake omen is found on K 8038 (CT 40 24) rev. 8’-9’ which Freedman assigns to tablet 25 or 26.

DIŠ MUŠ.MEŠ ina É.DINGER it-ta-ka-bu / ta-zi-im DINGER.MEŠ NUN ár-ni [DIB-su]
Šumma ṣīrū ina bit ili irtababu tazim ilī rubā arni iṣabbassu
If snakes are mating in a temple, a complaint of the gods [will detain] a guilty ruler.

I’m not as sure of the reconstruction of DIB-su as Freedman, 80, seems to be. But it does work and I have nothing better to suggest. Because there are so few parallel markers between Ovid’s story of Tiresias and this omen and several counter markers, I doubt that there is any meaningful intertextual relationship between them. But it is fun to start 20112012 off with sex, snakes and guilty rulers.

Freedman, Sally, If a City Is Set on a Height: The Akkadian Omen Series Shumma Alu ina mele Shakin Vol. 2: Tablets 22-40 (Occasional Publications of the Samuel Noah Kramer Fund, 19; Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum / Babylonian Section, 2006)

2 thoughts on “Mating Snakes”

  1. Judith – Thanks, I’ll check it out. While I believe that Dante got his material on this from Ovid, I should have at least remembered that Hesiod, “The Melampodia,” 3, mentions Teiresias. There is so much to remember and so much yet to learn!

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