late babylonian

“Her hands are stained with flesh and blood.” (TCL 6 49 r.13-29)

This incantation includes a common magical element: a deity showing how to solve a problem, so the petitioner can follow their example.  In this case, the demoness Lamashtu is diverted from her bloodlust by equipping her to be an ordinary woman rather than a monster.


She is furious, she is fierce, she is divine, she is dazzling —
        and she is a she-wolf, the daughter of Anu!
Her feet are talons [1]; her hands are unclean;
        her face looks like the face of a savage lion.
She rose up from a reed-thicket,
        her hair hanging loose, her panties cut away.
She travels the tracks of cattle; she follows the tracks of sheep.
        Her hands are stained with flesh and blood.
She enters through the window;
        she slithers in like a snake.
She moves in and out of houses.

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“Slave! Heed me again!” (The Dialogue of Pessimism, BWL 139)

This dialogue between a flighty master and his longsuffering slave has been read by scholars as a nihilistic philosophical treatise, a comic skit, and a Saturnalia-like celebration of social subversion.  The first four interactions of this text are broken, but they follow a script similar to the rest.


“Slave!  Heed me again!”

“Yes, m’lord, yes!”

“I plan to commit a crime.”

“Then commit it, m’lord, commit it!  If you don’t commit a crime, what will you have to wear?  Who will give you anything to fill your belly?”

“No, slave, I shall not commit a crime.”

“The man who commits a crime gets either killed, or flayed, or blinded, or arrested, or tossed in prison.”

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The Babylonian Theodicy, lines 243-297

Note how in each stanza (the sections divided by lines), the leftmost sign is the same.  Over the course of the poem, these signs spell out an acrostic message: “I am Saggil-kīnam-ubbib the priest, devotee of god and king.”

Today’s translation is the final stanzas of the “Babylonian Theodicy,” a lengthy philosophical poem from between 1100-800 BCE.  “Theodicy” is the branch of theology that asks why a good deity lets bad things happen to good people, so the poem’s author joins thinkers like Job and the Buddha in trying to understand the purpose of suffering.  This poem is constructed as a dialogue between two parties (the Sufferer and the Friend), and it does not offer a definitive answer to the problem; modern scholars still argue about its ultimate message.


I sought signs across the world, but nothing made sense. [1]
        The gods do nothing to thwart the devils’ plans.
A patriarch drags boats through the canals,
        while his son lounges in his boudoir.
The elder brother hunts as fiercely as a lion,
        but the younger finds success while herding cows.
The heir trudges through the streets like a peddler;
        the second son donates largesse to the poor.
How could I surpass the luminaries to whom I grovel,
        (when) I must kneel even to my inferiors?
Lowlifes sneer at me while they prosper and thrive. [2]


You “perceptive genius,” you “sovereign of sagacity” —
        you disrespect the gods because of your angry heart.
The divine mind is as remote as the zenith of the sky;
        perceiving it is more arduous than people can understand. [3]
Everything that has breath, every handicraft of the mother-goddess:
        why are all offspring unpredictable? [4]
Look at a cow; her first calf is inferior,
        while her second offshoot is twice as good.
A fool can be a firstborn son,
        while the second (son) achieves perceptiveness and valor.
However much they try, people cannot understand the logic of the gods.


My friend, listen closely, so you can understand my argument.
        Pay attention to every word I have chosen.
People revere the words of the influential, even known murderers,
        but revile the penniless who did nothing wrong.
They champion the apostate whose “justice” is abomination
        but exile the just who obey the gods’ commands.
They fill the wrongdoer’s treasury with gold coin
        but strip every provision from the grain bins of the poor.
They bolster the leader who is guilty to his core
        but destroy the helpless and trample the weak.
So here I am, disempowered, while the elite torment me.


The king of the Ancient Ones, Enlil, creator of the multitudes,
        proud Ea, who measures out the (primordial) clay,
                 her Majesty who forms them, Mistress Mami:
                          they saddled humanity with serpentine speech.
                 Mendacity, not truth, was their constant gift.
        Proudly, they speak of the fortune of the wealthy:
“The king receives riches at every turn!” [5]
They abuse the penniless like thieves; [6]
        they saddle them with slander and plot their deaths.
They cultivate misfortune for them like criminals, because they have no guidance; [7]
        they sap their last strength, then extinguish them like embers.


My friend, you are compassionate: try to comprehend my depression.
        Come help!  See my suffering and understand it well.
I am a mere slave, “perceptive” and pious, [8]
        and I have not seen one iota of loyalty or help.
Silently I walked my city’s streets;
        my cries were inconspicuous, my speaking hushed.
I stared at the ground, never raising my head;
        I did not fawn over my colleagues in the assembly like a slave.
May the god who rejected me grant help;
        may the goddess who abandoned me show compassion;
        may the king, sun of the people, guide (us) like a god. [9]

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An Egalitarian Marriage Contract (VAS 6 61)

Today’s text is a Babylonian marriage contract from 556 BCE, regarding a young woman named Immertu.  Her name means “ewe,” just like the biblical Rachel, and she seems to have had similar good luck in finding a husband.

“Egalitarian” is, I admit, both anachronistic and inaccurate, but the contract has a number of unusual features.  First, the bride’s mother was a woman of independent wealth who could afford a substantial fine if she cancelled the marriage.  (The fact that the bride’s father is never mentioned may indicate that Ms. Qudashu was an unmarried woman, such as a priestess, who adopted Immertu — a not uncommon arrangement.)  Second, the contract establishes equal penalties if the marriage is cancelled, whether on the groom’s side or the bride’s side; this parity was quite rare, especially considering the bride’s small dowry and her possible past (see below). Finally, the groom was head of his own household, even though his father was still alive (he was first on the list of witnesses); he negotiated his own marriage contract and possessed his own independent wealth, separate from his upcoming inheritance.

One may speculate about why Mr. N., a man of independent wealth, agreed to such a generous contract.  Perhaps the marriage brought him social status that money alone could not, or perhaps his personal feelings for Ms. Immertu were strong enough to motivate him to provide legal protections that many ancient women did not receive.

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