On Not Looking Back!

As many abnormal readers know, for the last couple of years I’ve been interested in the role of Mesopotamian divination in the develop of the formative literatures of Western Civilization: one paper on a passage in the Hebrew Bible published, one paper on divination in Homer in review and another one on a passage in the Hebrew Bible in development. Once one starts down such a research path two related things follow. First, you read much of this formative literature through new eyes. Second, confirmation bias continually raises its ugly head.
So I post the following observation with my usual trepidation concerning confirmation bias. It’s also possible that this isn’t an original idea. I tend to post crazy ideas here before I’ve researched them with care. Be warned.
The text for today is Genesis 19:12-26. Look carefully at the command in Geneses 19:17, “Flee for you life. Do not look behind you, nor stop anywhere in the Plain; flee to the hills, lest you be swept away.” Why do the “men” give the fleeing family the command, “Do not look behind you”? On one reading, this makes good enough sense. Looking behind you wastes precious time. But the result for breaking the command, Lot’s wife being turned into a pillar of salt, seems to imply that there’s a little more to it than just the risk of wasting time.
Having this in mind, I read with abnormal interest a passage from an Akkadian medical text whose goal is to get a ghost into a sealed hole thus relieving a patient of a ghost induced disease. JoAnn Scurlock, 56, translates part of it as follows:

He says (this) [an incantation] seven times and while he removes the bird’s heart and lays it on the ground, a woman who is past childbearing age picks (it) up and (does so) without looking behind her.

Of whole ritual Scurlock, 58, says,

The magnetite and dirt from the temple of the goddess responsible for physical (sexual) attraction would, no doubt, have caused the ghost to be irresistibly, magnetically attracted into the hole. The instruction to not look behind, then ensures that the evil did not escape in the process.

The idea of not looking behind comes up in at least one other Akkadian medical ritual, “He must not look behind him. He goes straight to his house [Scurlock m. 833].” According to Scurlock, similar expressions are also in Greek medical texts. Even Virgil says, “Carry forth the embers, Amaryllis, and toss them over your head into a running brook; and look not back. With their aid I will assail Daphnis; he recks naught of gods or songs. [Eclogues 9. 101].
Mesopotamian medical practitioners were generally not diviners. These where separate professions. But much of their training, particularly their advanced scribal training, was identical. Hmmmm.

Scurlock, JoAnn, Magico-medical Means of Treating Ghost-induced Illnesses in Ancient Mesopotamia, (Leiden: Brill, Styx, 2006).

One thought on “On Not Looking Back!”

  1. This seems likely. The critical points to check would of course be the dating and plausibility of the cultural connection, which I don’t know enough of. But anyway, this might be a way of strengthening such a link.

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