The Problem With Snakes

I’m back reading snake omens. I found these two of particularly abnormal interest. Both are from Šumma ālu ina mēlê šakin.

23:111. DIŠ MUŠ ina UGU GIŠ.NÁ NITA u MUSUS ŠUB-ut ZI-ib ḪUL- ZI-šú :: KI.DÚR-su KÚR-ir

While this is a compost text based on Freedman’s MS X2 [VAT 10481+] iv 4, the writing is somewhat fuller than the composite text Freedman, 48, suggests. Both texts amount to the same thing. I understand this omen as follows:

Šumma ṣeru ina muḫḫu erši zikari u sinništi imqut tīb lemutti napištišú :: šubutsu inakkir
If a snake falls upon the bed of a man and woman, he leaves – attack of misfortune (upon) his life, i.e. his residence will change.

And if that doesn’t provide enough anxiety, think about this.

šumma ṣeru ina muḫḫu erši amēli irbuṣ aššāt amēli panīša utirra(?)-ma mārēšu ana kaspi inaddin
If a snake lies on a man’s bed, the man’s wife will be distracted (turn her face) and sell her children for silver.

Just how distracted can she get?
I really don’t have anything to say about these at this time other than that they are abnormally interesting. I reserve the right to make some profound point at some later time.

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

Update: fixed typo

5 thoughts on “The Problem With Snakes”

  1. Erh, I think you meant “both are from Šumma ālu ina mēlê šakin.” You must have been hungry when you typed this. Lol! At any rate, I’m sure you’re already reminded, as I am now, of the biblical motif where that wacky talking snake comes between Adam and Eve in the magical land of Oz. Once all the serpentine hijinks is said and done, it’s written rather cryptically: “I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed. It shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.”
    I’m sure there are more than a few ancient word-puns or symbolisms in that Genesis passage that were lost over time but I’ve never come across a full explanation of it yet. Maybe today’s the day for me to do a little digging.

  2. Glen,
    The r and the t are very near each other on my keyboard. After I got a snack, I fixed this problem.
    I am working on exactly the issue you mention. In fact, I have a paper about two thirds finished on the subject of the snake in Genesis 3 and omens such as there. I’ll be presenting a preview of paper at the regional SBL meeting in March. My main problem is that my paper has been about two thirds finished for over a year now.
    I’m sure you know that puns are linguistically quite complex things. We tend to think in terms of phonetic puns but both Hebrew and, even more so, Akkadian scribes also played with purely orthographic puns or mixtures of orthographic and phonetic puns. Deficient writing systems that nonetheless have considerable complexity lend themselves to some interesting things.

  3. Typos happen; I was just being silly. But yes, I’m aware of orthographic puns too. They exist even in modern Chinese and ancient Egyptian writing systems, the two things I’ve been striving to learn for a while. I know of an interesting Mandarin example, the use of 偶 for ‘I, me’ online instead of standard 我. The two symbols are similar in sound and it’s becoming chique to use the former. I guess it’s a form of subtle youth rebellion like thumbtext spellings in English.
    I would hesitate to call these writing systems “deficient” though. Anything but. I suppose you mean though that it’s easier to memorize an alphabet or syllabary than a hieroglyphic or cuneiform system. Granted, but the Egyptian writing system for example is wondrous in the amount of possibilities in representing a single word or name. Surrounding textual context can play some part in the choice of that representation. I’d say that in terms of this visual poetry, alphabetic systems are deficient.

  4. Glen,
    What I meant by “deficient” is that at least in the case of Hebrew and more so, but for different reasons, in the case of Akkadian, the writing system fails to capture the phonetics of the oral language in quite significant ways. At one level or another I guess most writing systems are deficient in this way.

  5. In that sense, no writing system is “sufficient” then. The primary task of any writing system or orthography is to distinguish words from each other to a reasonably unambiguous degree. The exact sounds of a language aren’t the primary concern of a writing system; it’s a simple matter of parsimony and efficient communication.

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