Which Way Are They Facing?

Take a look at these sections from two different Akkadian ritual texts.

He says (it) [an incantation] seven times and while he places the heart [of a bird] in a hole on the east (side), she [a women past childbearing age] close its [the hole’s] opening with dough made from šigūšu-flour and (does so) without looking behind her. [LKA 85:16-18]

You move the censer and the torch past him [the patient], and you purify him with holy water. He much not take (to get home) the street which he took (to get there). He must not look behind him. He goes straight to his house. [composite text from LKA 88, 87, 86:51-52]

Is the women in the first ritual facing the hole and restricted from looking away from it? Or must she back up to it? Is the patient in the second ritual required to back all the way home or is he restricted from looking back in the direction from which he came. I think the restrictions are quite different. In the first case, the woman faces the hole (the site of the ritual) and should not look back. In the second case, the patient looks in the direction he is going away from the site of the ritual and must not look back. I think these two “looking behinds” have two quite different functions in their respective rituals.
Now let’s try two examples from Greek magical papyri.

[But] when you are dismissed, [go without shoes] and walk backwards and set yourself to the enjoyment of the food [and] dinner and the prescribed food offering, [coming] face to face as companion [to the god]. [PGM I:38-40]

Throw the head [of a cock] into the river and drink up the blood, draining it off into your right hand and putting what’s left of the body on the burning altar. Then jump into the river. Immerse yourself in the clothes you have on, walk backwards out of the water, and, after changing into fresh garments, depart without turning around. [PGM IV:40-45a]

Hmmm. I thing in both these cases the person is to face the ritual site. But I see the prohibition “depart without turning around” after the instruction to change garments as somewhat ambiguous. Does “walk backwards out of the water” completely disambiguate it?
Oh yeah, another question. To want extent are the Akkadian rituals and Greek rituals in the same tradition? If they are in the same tradition, what is the vector connecting them over time (depending on how you count, 700 plus years) and distance?
Note: the translations of the Akkadian ritual segments are from JoAnn Scurlock,Magico-medical Means of Treating Ghost-induced Illnesses in Ancient Mesopotamia, (Leiden: Brill, Styx, 2006) and the translation from the Greek Magical Papyri are by E. N. O’Neil and Marvin E. Meyer respectively in Hans Dieter Betz, ed., The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, Including the Demotic Spells (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986). I’ve worked up my own translation of the Akkadian but they don’t differ from Scurlock in any meaningful way. I have the texts of the Greek papyri on order from ILL. They could be really hard to read (for me)!

5 thoughts on “Which Way Are They Facing?”

  1. Duane, I think you’ll find connecting links for walking backwards in some magical papyri of the New Kingdom period. The two specialists you should contact are Kasia Szpakowska (Univ. of Wales, Swansea) and Rita Lucarelli (Univ. Bonn).

  2. I’m confident that the vast majority of rituals across the classic Mediterranean all the way to the Near East are interrelated. How can they not be?
    I look at these rituals from what I study, the Etruscans, and so I get the impression that this might somehow allude to the division of the cosmos into the “illuminated” and the “hidden”, the celestial and the chthonic.
    Whether we call him Apollo, Shamash or Tinia, the source of prophetic illumination is ultimately deemed in all of these ancient cultures to be from the above. Likewise, I could swear that “veiled” or “hidden” is in itself a reference to the earth and underworld since the earth veils the hidden dead. Coincidentally Egyptian Amon, Greek Hades and Etruscan Velchan all mean “Hidden One” in their respective languages and all happen to be connected with the underworld.
    So when I read the instruction to walk backwards, it suggests to me concealment and the underworld. If anybody has any other interpretations that shed better light, I’m all ears.

  3. Glen,
    I think there are varying levels in the symbolic function of much of this. You may be correct in seeing “concealment and the underworld” in this. I also think there could well be other, perhaps related, things going on. For example, Scurlock sees the risk of an evil thing escaping in an unexpected or dangerous way as the motivation for at least some of these prohibitions on not looking back. As she says with reference to the first Akkadian example, “The instruction to not look behind, then ensures that the evil did not escape in the process.” I think one can see this in the case of Lot’s wife and perhaps in the case of Orpheus’ wife.
    By the way, part of my motivation in asking which direction the participants were facing came from trying to figure out how and if any of this related to Lot or Orpheus.

  4. You know, all this time I never thought about the general ritual of “veiling” in connection with the story of Lot’s wife. I love the idea. Now I have a lot to chew on today, tomorrow, and possibly for a good week. ;o)

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