old akkadian

“Ea Loves Seduction-Magic” (MAD V 8)

Note: This is the oldest surviving love-incantation in the world.  Because of its age (at least 4200 years old), many of the terms and idioms are obscure, so I have more footnotes than usual.  Ea/Enki is the god of magic; Ishtar/Inanna is the goddess of sexuality and love.  In general, “she/you” is the female target of the spell, and “he/I” is either the magician (casting the spell) or the client (securing the woman’s affection); the descriptors of “the magician/the client” are my own, and are tentative.


Ea Loves Seduction-Magic

[The magician]

Seduction-magic, the child of Ishtar,
dwells between her thighs.
They swell up with fragrant nectar.

Oh lovely maidens, you are both blossoming;
you came down to the garden.
To the garden you came,
and you produced the fragrant nectar.[1]

[The client]

I seize your nectar-filled mouth;
I seize your openings of every color;
I seize your wet genitals.[2]
I mount on the “garden of Sîn”;
I “cut down the poplar-tree for her day.”[3]
Fence me in amidst the boxwood trees,
like a shepherd fences in a flock,
a goat her kid, an ewe her lamb,
a jenny her foal.[4]

[The magician]

Adorned are his hands,
harpweed oil on his lips,[5]
a cup of oil in his hands,
a cup of cedar on his shoulders.

The seduction-magics have whispered to her,
and they have driven her crazy.[6]

I hereby seize your mouth of lovemaking.
By the goddesses Ishtar and Ishara,
I adjure you:
Until your neck and his neck are pressed together,
you shall have no relief!


[1] In my view, the “two beautiful maidens” are metaphors for the woman’s labia, which enlarge and grow wet as she becomes aroused.  (This is not a view shared by other scholars, but their interpretations, which tend to take this as a literal story about two young women, have little relevance to the rest of the love-charm.)  “Fragrant nectar” is a translation of “saliva of the incense-tree,” which I view as a poetic metaphor for the fluids of female arousal, as they have a consistency like saliva and a notable scent.

[2] “Seize” is the same verb used when a man “takes” a woman in marriage, but here it refers to acquiring magical control over her body parts.  All three of these lines have difficulties or obscurities, so my translation is tentative.  Nonetheless, I believe this to continue the quasi-metaphorical description of a woman’s arousal.  Her “mouth of saliva/sap” is her aroused vulva; her “multi-colored eyes” refer to her various orifices (“eye” can mean “spring, portal”).  The third line most literally translates to “genitals of urine,” which scholars usually interpret as an abruptly derogatory description of her.  But since the fluid of female ejaculation is often mistaken as urine, even in recent years, this interpretation seems more likely.  Moreover, the combination of these interpretations makes for a much more natural sequence.  Instead of giving two odd descriptions of the woman’s face and one insult to her genitals, the client is staking his claim on the progressive stages of sexual intercourse: arousal, penetration, and ejaculation.

[3] These two metaphors are obscure.  In the light of the “Cow of Sîn” story (for which, to be fair, our copy is over a thousand years later), I wonder whether “mounting the garden of Sîn” is an allusion to copulating like animals.  “Poplar-tree” (ṣarbatum) could be a pun on *ṣarpātu, “red dye”; if so, “cutting down the poplar-tree for her day” could mean that he is deflowering her, i.e. stopping her from having a blood-stained marriage bed.  But this is pure speculation.

[4] “Fence in” is otherwise unattested in Akkadian as a verb, but it has parallels in other languages, and it’s connected to the Akkadian word for “wall.”  Thus, all four lines talk about the action of enclosing something securely, just as the client hopes that the woman’s vagina will enclose him.  Boxwood was a luxury wood that did not grow natively in Mesopotamia and had to be imported; thus, the allusion to it may add exoticism to the text, or it may compare the woman’s vagina to a precious container.

[5] “Harpweed” is my translation of tibuttum, a word that could mean a musical instrument or an unknown kind of herb.  We actually have an Akkadian medical text that talks about mixing tibittum-plant with grease to make a soothing salve to put on the anus, so it makes sense to me that “oil and tibittum” would describe some sort of known lubricant or soothing ointment.

[6] Literally, “they have made her into a religious ecstatic.”  “Drive her crazy” is the equivalent modern idiom.

Udug-hul Rituals

Udug-gul (”Evil Demons”) is a serialized composition of apotropaic rituals against demons and the sorcerers who manipulate them. Preserved on sixteen tablets, the collection contains rituals that span from the Old Akkadian (2300-2200) to the Seleucid periods (300-200). It is in the context of Udug-hul that the asipu most foreshadows the New Testament exorcist in his attribution of affliction to the demons, in his dependence upon divine powers to treat those afflictions, and in his own role as the mediator between that divine assistance and the human victim which includes a confrontation with the demonic antagonist.


As in Surpu, the incantations of Udug-hul help to restore the proper cosmic order. In this case, however, the order has been disrupted by one’s personal transgressions. Tablet 4 of Udug-hul concerns the identification of demons who have come up from the netherworld and their return by Enki to their proper place. Tablet 5 illustrates this in its description of the activity of seven demons called the “watchmen”:

The watchmen (demons) pursue anything

created in the Netherworld, the seed of An.

The watchmen constitute a sort of netherworld police force, but have left their proper domain and are misusing their authority in the upper world. In a case where the literary presentation may actually document the course of a disease, one by one the demons assault the patient in worsening stages:

the fifth lays him there on his bed.

As the sixth one approached the distraught man, he lifts his head from his belly

As the seventh one approaches the distraught man, (the patient) had already set his mind on

the Netherworld.

Udug-hul includes several passages which illustrate well the confrontation between the asipu and the demonic presences he seeks to drive out. These passages refer to the asipu’s making known his source of authority, and threats made against the demons not to harm him. From Tablet 6 of the collection we read:

I am the incantation priest, the sangamah of Enki.

The Lord (Enki) sent me to him (the victim), he sent to him me, the vizier of the Abzu.

You shall not shriek behind me,

nor shall you shout after me.

O evil man, may you not lift your hand (against me).

O evil demon, may you not lift your hand (against me).

Udug-hul also makes known the asipu’s uncompromising stance against the demons’ requests. From Tablet 8 the priest adjures the demon to depart:

Do [not say, “let me] stand [at the side].”

[Go out, [evil Udug-demon,] to [a distant place],

[go] away, [evil Ala-demon], to [the desert].

These passages show the asipu’s dependence upon and confidence in divine support for his craft, and an aggressive attitude toward the demons that one also finds in connection with the New Testament exorcists.

Source: Siebeck, 2.2.1.2

Image: Clay tablet; a Greek student’s exercise; on the front of this tablet is part of a cuneiform incantation against evil spirits written in both Sumerian and Babylonian; on the back the text has been repeated phonetically in Greek script. (Clay cuneiform tablet. Graeco-Babyloniaca; bilingual incantation, Udug-hul 9.) 3rdC BC-1stC BC.

Two Babylonian Lullabies (BM 122691 and OECT 11 002)

This first lullaby is a loose translation, in order to fit a modern musical meter.  It can be sung to “Nettleton” (Come Thou Fount) or Joyful, Joyful (Ode to Joy) — I recommend singing lines 1-8, then repeating 1-6 and finishing with 9-10.  A closer translation of the same text is at the end, followed by a different, longer incantation to help a crying baby sleep.


Little one, who dwelled in darkness,
       now you’ve come and seen the sun.
Why the crying?  Why the worries?
       What has made your peace undone?

You have roused the household spirits;
       you have scared the guardian-gods.
“Who has roused me?  Who has scared me?”
       “Little baby woke you up!”

May you settle into slumber,
       sweet as plum-wine, deep as love.

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Mattu and Sha-Nanaya (UET 5 87)

This is another short Old Babylonian contract in which a woman legally takes responsibility for another woman.  I commented on the last one that it wasn’t good evidence for same-sex marriage, but the practice depicted in this contract is much more intriguing.  In the process of creating a polygynous marriage (one husband, two wives), a woman first legally attaches herself to another woman, and the contract makes it clear that their bond as “sisters” supersedes their individual relationships with their husband.

It’s worth noting that, unlike certain other polygynous marriage contracts, this one mentions nothing about childbearing or inheritances.  We’re left to speculate about the reason for marrying Mattu and the exact relationships between the three parties, but if one wanted to explore ancient non-heterosexual relationships, this would certainly be an intriguing data point.




Regarding Ms. Mattu [1]:

Ms. Sha-Nanaya hereby takes her from her father Nidnat-Sin and her mother Beltum-Reminni, to be her sister.

Ms. Sha-Nanaya, her sister, hereby gives her to Mar-Ertsetim, her husband.

“Marrying one marries the other; divorcing one divorces the other.” [2]




[1] “Mattu” probably meant “abundance.”

[2] This is a clunky translation of the Akkadian legal phrase āhissa ihhassi ēzibša izzibši: “the one who marries her, will marry her; the one who divorces her, will divorce her.”

In other words, now that Sha-Nanaya has “taken Mattu as a sister,” they come as a pair; their husband cannot choose to divorce only one of them.  In a very similar contract, BIN 7 173 (written in Sumerian, but from the same time period), Tayatum takes Ali-abi as her sister, gives Ali-abi’s parents her bride-price, then “gives Ali-abi to Imgurrum [her husband] for marriage.”  After citing the same legal phrase as this text, it makes it explicit: “If in the future Imgurrum says to his wife Tayatum, ‘You are not my wife,’ she shall take the hand of her sister Ali-abi and leave.”

I just love the image of the two women walking into the sunset together, hand in hand.

Atrahasis: Belet-ili Creates Humanity


What follows is one Mesopotamian version of how and why humans were created.  It’s a bit like Genesis 2 (humans are shaped out of clay), but with more blood, deicide, and divine laziness.

When this excerpt starts, the ruling gods are dealing with a crisis: in a world without humans, the deities have to do all the work, and they’re exhausted.  After they go on strike and rebel, the ruling gods propose a solution.  




Atrahasis, Old Babylonian Version (seventeenth century BCE)

“Belet-Ili, the Divine Womb, is here.  [1]
Let the Divine Womb create new offshoots;
       let humankind carry the gods’ burden of labor.”

They called over the goddess to ask her —
       the gods’ midwife, wise Mami.
“You are the Divine Womb, creator of humankind!
       Create a primal human to carry the yoke.
Let him carry the yoke that Enlil assigned;
       let humankind carry the gods’ burden of labor.”

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