Snakes That Cannot Be Conjured

Irving Finkel published several Old Babylonian incantations against snakes, mostly, but not exclusively, against snake bits. One of the most interesting is CBS 7005. Here is Finkel’s translation. Pay special attention to line 13. This post is (mostly) about it.
1) Elongated of form,
2) Beauteous in body,
3) His (rotten) wood shavings are (rotten) shavings of palm-wood,
4) The snake (MUŠ = erû) waits coiled in the dwelling;
5) The serpent (bašmu) waits cooled among the rushes
6) As for the serpent (bašmu), two are
7) his heads,
8) Seven are his forked-tongues, seven are his par’ullu’s
9) of his neck.
10) I smote the parbalû(?) (snake),
11) Šammānu, the forest snake,
13) Šubādu, the snake that cannot be conjured away (šubādu eri lā šiptim)
14) (Even) the wine snake, who does battle with the exorcist (summoned against) him!
For amusement, I’ve added the Akkadian in parentheses. Parbalû, Šammānu, and Šubādu are no doubt types of snakes. Not too surprisingly, bašmu is also the Akkadian name for the constellation Hydra (CAD B, 141-42). Another text cited by Finkel, 226, (IM 51292 and IM 51328) tells us that the bašmu had six mouths with seven tongues. I wonder if this isn’t the same usage of six, even seven, that we see in Proverbs 6:16-19 for example. Finkel doesn’t speculate on the meaning of par’ullu. The usually helpful CAD is, on this occasion, unhelpful. Equally unhelpful in this regard is AHw.
Concerning the snake that cannot be conjured away, šubādu eri lā šiptim, in line 13, compare Jeremiah 8:17b, צפענים אשר אין להם לחש, “Adders that cannot be charmed (JPS).” Hmmm. At best, this is a semantic parallel rather than a cognate parallel, not that I think all that much of cognate parallels when there are not other markers. But it is an interesting comparison none-the-less.
Finkel, 226, also notes that the expression eri lā šiptim also occurs in IM 51292:2 and duplicate where it refers to a kuriindu snake. A kuriindu is some kind of a viper.
More out of abnormal interest than anything else, the Akkadian cognate of לחש is lišu which, like the Hebrew, has a semantic range centered around “whisper.” In both the Hebrew and the Akkadian, “a whispered prayer” is within their semantic ranges. The verb on which the Akkadian is based, laḫāšu, means “to murmur a prayer” (in the D-stem, often simply to “to whisper”). One sometimes whispers a šiptu, an incantation. See CAD Š3, 90 and L, 40-41. Line 13 of the Old Babylonian text quoted above uses šiptu with the negative particle, in much the same way as Jeremiah 8:17b used the negative particle, אין, with לחש. Is all this a bit of a stretch? Yeah, a bit of a stretch, but not all that much of a stretch. I’ve seen (and proposed) a lot worse.
How can one account of the apparent parallel between CBS 7005:13 and IM 5192:2 and Jeremiah 8:17b?

  1. It’s delusional. With rest, medication, and possibly therapy, the parallel will no longer be apparent.
  2. It’s purely coincidental. The parallel is only apparent. It lacks any associating mechanism.
  3. It’s a example of what Daniel Dennett might call a Good Trick, parallel developments that arise independently under similar circumstances. Both the Hebrew and the Akkadian expressions are pretty much what one would expect to arise from cultures where there is belief that snakes can be conjured. Sometimes they can’t.
  4. It’s the result of cultural borrowing broadly conceived. The author of Jeremiah 8:17b (or his Hebrew source) had shared intuitions based on common cultural experience that he and the Babylonians shared.
  5. It’s the result of cultural borrowing narrowly conceived. The author of Jeremiah 8:17b (or his Hebrew source) adopted the Hebrew expression from his knowledge of Babylonian cultural.
  6. It represents literary borrowing. The author of Jeremiah 8:17b (or his Hebrew source) knew it from Babylonian literature.

There may be other choices. But, barring additional evidence, my guess is that something in the neighborhood of 3 or 4 best accounts of the parallel.

Irvine L. Finkel, “On Some Dog, Snake and Scorpion Incantations” in I. Tzvi Abusch, K. van der Toorn, eds, Mesopotamian magic: textual, historical, and interpretative perspectives (Groningen: Styx Publications, 1999). 211-252, here 223-29.

4 thoughts on “Snakes That Cannot Be Conjured”

  1. Such a snake is not uncommon in Mesopotamian lit. cf. e.g., Gilgamesh Enkidu and the Netherworld 42 (and repeated three more times): ur2-bi-a muš tu6 nu-zu-a-e gud3 im-ma-ni-ib-us2 ‘In its roots, a snake immune to incantations had set up a nest’

  2. Jay,
    Thanks. I had forgotten about that example.
    Do you, or anyone else for that matter, know of any literature where Jeremiah 8:17b is discussed in the context of the Mesopotamian snake traditions. I’m just beginning a literature search. As you can see I follow the methodology of post first and ask questions afterwards.

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