Freitag, 26. April 2019

A Note on Spirits

"Spirit", although now typically used in a generic and ostensibly culturally neutral way, had four major senses in ancient thought:

(1) In pagan philosophy, Greek pneuma or Latin spiritus was thought to be an especially fine substance, which played an important role in the functioning of the body and in the workings of steam-powered machines. In Stoicism, pneuma was thought to be not only the medium of the brain's control over the body, but also the stuff of the so-called World God, the active part of the universe. In late Platonism, it was also thought to be the material of the so-called vehicle of the soul, connecting it to the body. The idea was that the finest material was closest to the immaterial.

(2) In Greek-language Judaism, pneuma served as the translation of Hebrew rûaḥ, based on their common everyday meaning of "breath, wind". Unlike in Stoicism, there was no idea that the pneuma of individuals was divine in the sense of being parts that in concert make up God. Rather, pneuma comes from God, but is sometimes thought of as a part of living creatures (as with Adam), sometimes as an additional influence from God, in other instances again as an intermediary entity (or activity) through which God inspires people.

(3) In Christianity, a novel sense emerges - but one that draws on both the pagan and the Jewish sense -, according to which the immaterial is spirit, and so God, angels, demons and human souls are wholly spiritual or partially spirit, partially material.

(4) In late antiquity, pneuma was also used - e.g. in the Greek Magical Papyri - as a term for individual beings, also called gods or daemons, but without much terminological precision. How much this comes out of Judaism, how much out of pagan thought, cannot (I think) be known with any certainty, because of the strong influence of Jewish thought on pagan magic. But it is important that, as I said, spirits did not emerge as a kind of entity with their own profile, nor did pneuma become a popular umbrella or a clear synonym of daemon. It also did not imply incorporeality.

Unfortunately, while it is useful to know these different meanings to historicize our own usage of the word, it does not help us very much with the later history of the term, because the neutral sense of spirit - which needn't be either an angel or a demon, but might be - comes from (just) outside the Greco-Roman world. The appearance of ritual magic invoking spirits or spiritualities (rūḥāniyya, related to the Hebrew rûaḥ), often associated with the elements or the stars rather than with God, angels, or demons, was a novelty in Arabic-language literature produced in Iraq around the 9th century, and while the connections to earlier Greco-Roman and local Mesopotamian practices (Jewish and non-Jewish) are evident, their exact nature is obscure.

Both in Islam and - after a large number of translations from Arabic to Latin introduced the idea to Latin Christendom around the 12th century - in Catholicism, the existence of spirits distinct from good angels and evil demons (or devils, or jinn) was a matter of controversy. Some, in a defensive tone, argued that they were angels, others thought they were deceptive devils.

In conclusion: spirit is not a culturally neutral term or a close equivalent of the Greek daemon.

(And incidentally, although daemons could be contrasted with gods, the general term for both was god [θεός], so it is rather disingenuous to divorce pagan philosophy about daemons from polytheism and associate it with a trend toward monotheism. Similarly, the switch from, say, describing the Japanese kami as false gods to calling them spirits is barely an improvement.)

Freitag, 19. April 2019

The Mesopotamian Planetary Gods #10.5a: Lost books attributed to Ibn Waḥšīya

Lost books attributed to Ibn Waḥšīya (Ibn al-Nadīm's Fihrist, transl. Dodge p. 731f, 743):
  • Expulsion of the Devils, also known as Secrets
  • the large book of magic
  • the small book of magic
  • Giddiness (Duwār) [or Revolving (Dawwār)], according to the doctrine of the Nabataeans—it is in nine sections
  • The Doctrines of the Chaldaeans about idols
  • Advice about Magic
  • The Secrets of the Stars (= Secrets of the Celestial Sphere?)
  • of al-Kasdānī about the second category of talismans, translated by Ibn Waḥšīya
  • Life and Death, about the treatment of diseases, by Rahṭā ibn Samūṭān al-Kasdānī
  • Idols
  • Offerings
  • Disposition
  • the Names
  • of his conversations with Abū Jaˁfar al-Umawī and Salāmah ibn Sulaymān al-Ikhmīmī about the Art [alchemy] and magic
  • Amulets and Charms

The Mesopotamian Planetary Gods #8a: Pagan philosopher Thābit ibn Qurrah (ca. 834–901 CE)

On his life and Syriac-language works, from Syriac

“At this time” – the 890s CE – “ˀAbû al-Ḥasân Tabith,” – Thābit, father of Ḥasān – “one of the heathen of Ḥârrân became known (or, famous); he was the son of [Q]ûrah, the son of Marwân, the son of [Q]îûrâ, the son of ˀAbrâhâm, the son of [Q]îûrâ, the son of Mârînôs, the son of Sôlômôn. Originally he was a money-changer in the bazâr of Ḥârrân. Then he occupied himself in a marvelous degree with philosophy, and he was adequately acquainted with three languages—Greek, Syriac, and Arabic. He composed in Arabic about one hundred and fifty books on logic, and mathematics, and astrology, and medicine. And in Syriac he compiled about sixteen books, the greater number of which we” – the Christian historian Gregory Gregory Bar Hebraeus writing around 1273 CE – “have seen and possess, viz.
  1. a Book on the Laws and Canons of the heathen;
  2. a Book on the Burial of the Dead;
  3. a Book on the certainty of the Confession (i.e. Faith) of the heathen;
  4. a Book on Purity and Impurity;
  5. a Book on the Animals which are suitable for offering up as Sacrifices;
  6. a Book on the Times of Prayer;
  7. a Book on the Readings which are suitable for the Seven Stars in Prayer;
  8. a Book on Repentance and Supplication;
  9. a Book of Music;
  10. a Book on the Chronology of the ancient kings who were Chaldaeans;
  11. a Book on the Confession (i.e. Faith) of the Ṣabâyê (Sabae[a]ns);
  12. a Book on the division of the days of the week according to the Seven Stars;
  13. a Book on the renown (or, purity) of his Race,” – I doubt ‘race’, much less ‘purity of race’, captures the meaning – “and on his Ancestors, and from whom they were descended;
  14. a Book on the Laws of Hermes and his Prayers which the heathen pray;
  15. a Book on the statement ‘two straight lines being extended diminishingly from two straight angles, meet together’;
  16. and another Book on Metre*.”
(*Rashed, Thābit ibn Qurra : From Ḥarrān to Baghdad, in: Thābit ibn Qurra. Science and Philosophy in Ninth-Century Baghdad, 2009, p. 20, n. 9 translates: “and another book on the same subject”; I don’t know which is correct.)

(transl. E. A. Wallis Budge, The Chronography of Gregory Abû'l Faraj, the Son of Aaron, the Hebrew Physician, Commonly Known as Bar Hebraeus: Being the First Part of his Political History of the Word: Translated from the Syriac, vol. 1, 1932)

Except for one fragment that Bar Hebraeus himself quotes, nothing of these Syriac texts remains, although the Book on ‘two straight lines, etc.’ still exists in Arabic. (A list of the many, many known Arabic works will be part of a future post.)

Bar Hebraeus’ fragment (from an unnamed work)

“And in one of his dissertations praising Ḥârrân and heathenism he spake thus:” (transl. Budge)

“Whereas many submitted to the false doctrine under torture, our ancestors held out with the help of God and came through by a heroic effort; and this blessed city has never been sullied by the false doctrine of Nazareth. Paganism (hanputa), which used to be the object of public celebration in this world, is our heritage, and we shall pass it on to our children. Lucky the man who endures hardship with a well-founded hope for the sake of paganism! Who was it that settled the inhabited world and propagated cities, if not the outstanding men and kings of paganism? Who applied engineering to the harbors and the rivers? Who revealed the arcane sciences? Who was vouchsafed the epiphany of that godhead who gives oracles and makes known future events, if not the most famous of the pagans? It is they who blazed all these trails. The dawn of medical science was their achievement: they showed both how souls can be saved and how bodies can be healed. They filled the world with upright conduct and with wisdom, which is the chief part of virtue. Without the gifts of paganism, the earth would have been empty and impoverished, enveloped in a great shroud of destitution.” (transl. in Fowden, Empire to Commonwealth. Consequences of Monotheism in Late Antiquity, 1993)

“These things we have quoted from the words of this man so that we may make manifest his great ability in writing the Syriac language; and his discourses in Greek and Arabic were even more elegant.” (transl. Budge)

Greek works by Thābit are not, I think, mentioned by other authors, but there is nothing improbable about the idea.

Another account of his life, from Arabic

“A Sabian from the people of Ḥarrān, he moved to the city of Baghdad and made it his own. With him, it was philosophy that came first. He lived in the reign of al-Muˁtaḍid. We are indebted to him for numerous books on different branches of knowledge such as logic, arithmetic, geometry, astrology and astronomy. We owe to him an amazing book: the Introduction to the Book of Euclid (Kitāb mudkhil ilā K. Uqlīdis), and a book: the Introduction to Logic (Kitāb al-Mudkhal ilā al-manṭiq). He translated the book on al-Arithmāṭīqī and summarized the book on The Art of Healing (Kitāb Ḥilat al-burˀ). In his knowledge he ranks among the most outstanding. He was born in the year two hundred and twenty-one at Ḥarrān, where he worked as a money-changer. Muḥammad ibn Mūsā ibn Shākir brought him back when he returned from the country of the Byzantines, for he had found him eloquent. He is said to have gone to live with Muḥammad ibn Mūsā and to have pursued his studies in his house. He thus had some influence over his career. Muḥammad ibn Mūsā put him in touch with al-Muˁtaḍid, and introduced him to the astronomers’ circle. He it was [Thābit] who introduced Sabian management to Iraq. In this way their social position was determined, their status raised, and they” – the Sabians, i.e. pagans – “attained distinction. Thābit ibn Qurra achieved so prestigious a rank and so eminent a position at the court of al-Muˁtaḍid that he would even sit down in his presence at any time he wished, speak with him at length and joke with him, and come to see him even when his ministers or his intimates were not there.”

(Al-Qifī, Taˀrikh al-ḥukamāˀ, transl. Rashed, Thābit ibn Qurra : From Ḥarrān to Baghdad, in: Thābit ibn Qurra. Science and Philosophy in Ninth-Century Baghdad, 2009, p. 15, n. 1)

Anecdotes about Thābit’s marvelous knowledge

“1 . Ṯābit ibn Qurra, the Harrānian, told the following story: "The spirits [arwāḥ] of Saturn were united with me and were helping me against everyone who was opposing me. It happened that  an invidious person incited al-Muwaffaq against me in the affair of his son, al-Muˁtaḍid, and claimed that I had incited him to do something vile. Consequently he [al-Muwaffaq] was very angry with me, and I thought he was going to kill me. As I was sleeping on my bed my spirit [ruḥānīya] came to me, aroused me from my slumber, and ordered me to flee. So I left my house and went into die house of a friend. Just before dawn a messenger from al-Muwaffaq came and looked for me, but did not find me either in my own house, or in those of my neighbours. When I got up, I received the news from mv house that the messenger of al-Muwaffaq had looked for me; then he looked for my son Sinān. He was in his bed, but thev did not see him. Then I received the news that [the spirit] concealed him from the search. Moreover, the torches that he [the messenger] had with him, went out, and thev [the messenger's entourage] tried to re-light them but failed. Mv son was coming and going among them in the house and thev did not recognise him, but thev thought that, he was one of their own number. Then I questioned my spirit, saving: "Whv did you not do the same for me as you did for mv son?" Thev [the spirits] replied: "Your hayhāǧ* was in opposition to Mars and to a fixed star of Mars' complexion. So we did not feel secure in vour case as we did in that of your son Sinan; for his hayhāǧ was safe from the malefics".

(*the point on the zodiac to which an individual is connected; fuller explanation in Burnett.)

2. Then I made a talisman and it overcame the enemv after 40 days. I got help against him [my enemv] from one of mv brothers, over whom Mars was dominant, and he met with a dreadful end. Then mv spirit was angrv with me and punished me so that I feared for mv life. So I apologised to her and told her: "I thought you were too important to be concerned with affairs like those for which I was asking help from others". I did not stop trying to placate her with sacrifice and prayer until she stopped harming my condition.

3. Then I asked him [the spirit of Saturn] to mend the heart of al-Muwaffaq towards me. But Saturn is a cold planet by nature and slow in movement, and so was taking a long time to deal with my case. So I asked Venus for help and made a sacrifice to her. At the same time I made a sacrifice to niv spirit so that she should not harm me for asking for Venus' help. The aim was achieved and I was saved".

4. From her [the spirit] <it resulted> that he [Ṯābit] was able both to save the oppressed from the hands of the oppressors and to see far-off things and to act on them. Ṯābit ibn Qurra said: "One of the Ancients has described an eye-ointment which makes you see everything distant from you as if it is right in from of you". He said: "I prepared this ointment [?], and one of the people of Babylon (=Baghdad) used it on himself and he told me that he saw all the wandering and fixed stars in their positions, and die light of his eyes penetrated through thick bodies and he could see what was behind them. So Qustā ibn Lūqā al-Baˁlabakkī and myself tested him. We went into a house and wrote something, and he read it out and stopped at the beginning and end of every line, as if he were with us. Then we took a sheet of paper and wrote on it, with a thick wall between us, and he took a sheet and copied what we had written as if he were looking at what we had written. Finally, Qustā ibn Lūqā asked for news about a brother of his in Baˁlabakk. He looked hard; then he told us that he was ill and that he had produced a child whose ascendant was Taurus 3°. We investigated this and found that it was as he had said".”

(Faḥr ad-Dīn al-Rāzī’s kitāb al-sir al-maktūm, ‘Book of the Hidden Secret’, transl. Burnett, Ṯābit ibn Qurra the Harrānian on Talismans and the Spirits of the Planets, in: La corónica. A Journal of Medieval Hispanic Languages, Literatures, and Cultures, vol. 36.1 (2007), 13–40; Faḥr ad-Dīn al-Rāzī, who lived centuries later, is not the “myself” of the fourth paragraph)

The interactions with a spirit of Saturn is not something that can be explained simply as practices inherited from ancient Greek or Mesopotamian usage; I will return to this issue in the part #8b, about Thābit’s book on talismans (De imaginibus or Liber prestigiorum).

Dienstag, 16. April 2019

The Mesopotamian Planetary Gods #7c: The Festival Calendar of the Ḥarrānians, according to Wahb ibn Ibrāhīm

One of the sources for the festival calendar of the pagan Ḥarrānians in Northern Mesopotamia is the Christian Wahb ibn Ibrāhīm’s “About Offerings” (?), from which excerpts were preserved in Ibn al-Nadīm’s monumental Fihrist, a great bibliographical encyclopedia of all Arabic-language literature available to the author. In book 9, there is a long section on Sābians (roughly “pagans”), and particularly of the Ḥarrāniyyah or Ḥarrānian sect. Wahb’s text could, I believe, be as early as the 8th century, but is usually taken to be from the 9th or early 10th. (Green, The City of the Moon God. Religious Traditions of Harran, 1992, p. 146).

The translation I am using here is largely that of Dodge, The Fihrist of al-Nadīm: A Tenth-Century Survey of Islamic Culture, 2 vols., 1970. I have, however, changed several of the transliterations where I find another construal of the same letters more plausible, or where there is an obvious and easily explainable spelling mistake (e.g. Nābiq for Nābū).

The arrānian weekdays

“A Manuscript Which I Read Written in the Handwriting of Abū Saˁīd Wahb ibn Ibrāhīm, the Christian, about Offerings”:

“Sunday (is sacred?) to al-Shams (Arabic for ‘the sun’), whose name is ˀĪlīyūs (< Greek Helios);
Monday to al-Qamar (the moon), whose name is S
īn (< Akkadian Sīn);
Tuesday to al-Mirrīkh (Mars), whose name is Ārīs (< Gr. Ar
Wednesday to
ˁUārid (Mercury), whose name is Nābū ( < Akk. Nabū);
Thursday to al-Mushtarī (Jupiter), whose name is Bāl (< Akk. B
Friday to Zuharah (Venus), whose name is Balthā (< Akk. Beltia or a similar form);
Saturday to Zu
al (Saturn), whose name is Q r * s (< Gr. Kronos).” (translation strongly modified)

(The third letter in the transcription of Kronos varies; it was presumably originally n, with the vocalization Qrunus.)

The situation of three Greek gods (Helios, Ares, Kronos) and four Mesopotamian ones (Sin, Nabu, Bel, Beltia) making up the ‘canonical’ planetary gods at Ḥarrān is unusual, but in a bilingual city, we can well imagine that a local cult of Ares came to outshine that of Nergal, etc.

The arrānian year and its festival cycle (“Knowledge of Their Feasts”)

As in the ancient Babylonian calendar, “the beginning of their year is Nīsān.” The month names do not entirely line up with the Babylonian ones, however, but rather with the Christian Assyrian calendar. (Or are these month names used by the translator in place of the original ones?)

Nīsān (roughly April), also called the month of al-Tamr

1–3: “they pray humbly to their goddess, Balthā, who is al-Zuharah (Venus). When entering the shrine of the goddess on these days, group by group in a scattered way, they slaughter sacrificial victims and burn animals alive.”

6: “they slay for their divinity, the Moon, a bull, which they eat at the end of the day.”

8: “they fast and then break the fast with the meat of lamb. On this day they also hold a fest in honor of the seven deities,” – the planets? – “the devils, jinn, and spirits1. They burn seven lambs for the seven deities, a sheep for the Lord of the Blind2, and a sheep for the deities [which are] the devils.”
  1. From the calendar, it is impossible to say what Aramaic terms are being represented here; ‘devils’ is more literally ‘satans’, common in the plural. (There is no exact equivalent to ‘devil’ in Arabic.)
  2. Ares; see section on Nīsān 20.
15: “they celebrate the mystery of the North1, with offerings, sun worship, sacrificial slaughter, burnt offerings, eating, and drinking.”
  1. A central but mysterious feature of Ḥarrānian religion, but not one on which to enlarge here; suffice it to clarify here that North was worshipped as a god in the city.
20: “they go out to Dayr Kādī, which is a sanctuary near one of the gates of arrān known as Bāb Funduq al-Zayt (Inn of the Oil Gate). They slaughter three zabrukh, a zabrukh being a bull. One is for the god Q r * s (Kronos), who is al-Zual (Saturn); one is for Ārīs, who is al-Mirrīkh (Mars), the Blind God; and one is for the Moon, which is Sīn. They also slay nine lambs: seven for the seven deities, one for the god of the jinn, and one for the Lord of the Hours (or: of Time)1. They also burn [offerings of] many lambs and cocks.”
  1. Scholarly identifications with Iranian Zruvan or Greek Aion or Khronos is entirely speculative, and an unnecessary assumption. The nature of the deity is simply unknown.
28: “they go out to a sanctuary of theirs in a village named Sabtā, near to one of the gates of arrān called Bāb al-Sarāb (Gate of Mirage; or Sharāb, Gate of Drinks?). They slay a large bull to Hirmis (Hermes1), the god, and they also slaughter nine lambs for the seven deities, with one also for the god of the jinn and one for the Lord of the Hours. They eat and drink, but on this day they do not burn any animals.”
  1. Possibly a mistake for Ares, as it is in the passage that mentions a sacrifice of “many small chickens to Ares”. But in this case, he is mentioned alongside the “seven deities”, i.e. the planets, so it is unlikely that he is one of them.
Ayyār (May)

1: “they make the offering of the mystery to the North, worship the Sun, smell the rose, eat, and drink.”

2: “they hold a feast for Ibn al-Salm1 and make vows. Then, loading their tables with all kinds of rare things, fruits, and sweetmeats, they eat and drink.”
  1. Obscure, possibly corrupt.
azīrān (June)

27: “they perform the worship of the mystery to the North, for the deity who makes the arrow fly. On this day also they set up a table on which they place seven portions for the seven deities and the North. The priest brings a bow which he strings, and into which he fixes an arrow to which there is attached a firebrand. It has a flame at its head and is made of wood which grows in the region of Ḥarrān. On it there is a piece of cloth upon which the flame is ignited, just as it lights a candle. The priest shoots twelve arrows. Then the priest walks as a dog does on his hands and feet, until he fetches the arrows. he does this fifteen times and then makes an augury, that is, he divines that if the firebrand is extinguished, the feast in his estimation is not acceptable. But if it is not put out, then the feast is accepted.”

Tammūz (July)

15 (?): “In the middle of the month there is the Feast of al-Būqāt, that is, of the weeping women. It is the Tāwuz, a feast celebrated for the god Tāwuz1. The women weep for him because his master slew him by grinding his bones under a millstone and winnowing them in the wind2. So the women eat nothing ground by a millstone, but rather moistened wheat, chick-peas (ḥimmaṣ), dates, raisins, and similar things.
  1. No other than the god Tammūz, after whom the month is named; Tāwuz is from the Late Akkadian pronunciation (which changes intervocalic -m- to -w-), while Tammūz represents an older Aramaic adaptation of the same name.
  2. Like in Ibn Waḥshiyya (as will come up in a future post), the story has changed drastically from what we know from cuneiform literature.
17: “the men perform the mystery of the North to the jinn, the devils, and the deities. They make a great deal of urmūs from fine flour, terebinth, raisins, hackberry, and shelled walnuts, as the shepherds do. They slaughter nine lambs to Hāmān1, the chief and father of the gods, and also make an offering to N m z y ˀ 2. On that day also, the headman takes two silver coins from each of the men and they all eat and drink.”
  1. According to Dodge, he “is very likely meant to be the god Hamon or Khammān, worshipped at Palmyra”. But the real spelling is Bēl Ḥamon, and the change to ‘H’ has to be accounted for. The only thing that makes this identification plausible, to my mind, is that it would explain why this obscure figure is “the chief and father of the gods”, a title one would expect to refer to Bēl.
  2. Obscure, perhaps misspelled. Identification with Nemesis (suggested by Dodge) is possible but not particularly likely.
Āb (August)

?: “During eight days they tread new wine for the gods. They call it by many varied names. On this day they sacrifice an infant boy1 when he is born to the gods who possess the idols. They slaughter the boy and then boil him until he disintegrates. Then the flesh is taken and kneaded with fine flour, saffron, spikenard, cloves, and oil, and made into cakes as small as figs, which they bake in a new clay oven. This takes place every year for those who observe the mystery of the North. No woman, slave, son of a slave girl, or lunatic eats it [the cake] or watches the slaughter of this child. When carried out, the rite is performed by only three priests. The priests burn whatever remains of the bones, the organs, the cartilages, the veins, and the jugular veins as an offering to the gods.”
  1. Human sacrifice was certainly practiced by Canaanites (incl. Phoenicians and the audience of some early Biblical texts), but it is unlikely that the custom should have been preserved through the centuries of Hellenization, when Greeks and Romans saw it as the peak of barbarism. More likely, Wahb ibn Ibāhīm is misinterpreting or misrepresenting a ritual that few were privy to. (Perhaps one involving symbolic human sacrifice, as in Greek Bacchic mysteries.) Similar libel attached itself to the temple of YHWH in Jerusalem and the Serapeum of Alexandria.
Aylūl (September)

?: “During three of its days they heat water in which they bathe (as?) a mystery to the North, the chief of the jinn, who is the greatest divinity. They throw into this water some tamarisk, wax, pine, olives, cane, and caustic. Then they boil it, accomplishing this before the sun rises, and they pour it over their bodies as magicians do. At this time they slaughter eight lambs, seven to the deities and one to the god of the North. They eat in their assembly and each one drinks seven cups of wine. The headman takes two silver coins for the treasury from each of them.”

26: “they go forth to the mountain and observe the opposite position (al-istiqbāl) of the sun and Saturn and Venus. They burn [as offerings] eight young chickens and grown cocks, as well as eight lambs. Whoever is bound by a vow to the Lord of Good Luck1 takes either a grown rooster or young chicken. On its wing he fixes a firebrand, the top of which has been kindled with a flame, and he sens forth the chick to the Lord of Good Luck. if the whole chicken burns up, the vow is accepted but, if the firebrand is extinguished before the chicken is burned, the Lord of Good Luck does not accept from him either the vow or the offering.”
  1. “This was evidently Gad, a god of fortune and fertility”, says Dodge. I would not be as confident, although this may well be correct.
27–28: “they have mysteries, offerings, slaughters, and burnt sacrifices to the North, who is the greatest god, as well as to the devils and the jinn whom he has controlled and scattered, giving them good luck.”

Tishrīn al-Awwal (October)

15 (?): “In the middle of this month they make burnt offerings of food for the dying. That is, each one of them buys a bit of every kind of edible meat and fruit to be found in the market, whether fresh or dried. Then they cook varieties of cooked food and sweetmeats, all of which are burned during the night for the dying. With this food there is also burned (cooked) a bone from the thigh of a camel, which is given to the dogs of persons in affliction so that they will not bark and terrify the dying. They also pour mixed wine over the fire for their dying to drink, in the same way that they eat the burnt food.”

Tishrīn al-Thānī (November)

9–29: “During twenty-one of its days they fast. Nine days, the last one of which is the twenty-ninth, are for the Lord of Good Luck. Every night they break soft bread with which they mix barley, straw, frankincense, and fresh myrtle, and over which they sprinkle oil. Then they mix it and distribute it among their houses, saying,

‘Oh diviners of good luck, here is bread for your dogs, barley and straw for your beasts, oil for your lamps, and myrtle for your crowns (wreaths). Enter in peace, go forth in peace, and leave a good livelihood for our children and ourselves.’”

Kānūn al-Awwal (December)

4: “they erect a dome which they name the Chamber of Balthā who is al-Zuharah (Venus), the flashing goddess, whom they call al-Shaḥmīyah (the Glowing). They erect this dome on the marble of the inner shrine, hanging many kinds of fragrant fruits on it, with dried roses, citrons, small lemons, and such other fruits as they can obtain, whether dry or fresh.

“In front of this dome they slaughter sacrificial beasts chosen from as many kinds of animals as possible, four-footed beasts and birds, saying

‘They are slaughtered for our goddess Balthā,’

“who is al-Zuharah (Venus). They do this for seven days and during these days they also burn many offerings of animals for the gods and goddesses who are hidden, far removed, but substituted for. They also [offer] plants of the water.”

30: “the beginning of the month of the Raˀīs al-Ḥamd (the Head of Praise). On this day the priest sits on [the top step of] an elevated pulpit with nine steps. He takes a tamarisk rod in his hand and then, as the procession passes by him, he strikes each one of them with the stick three, five, or seven times. Then he preaches a sermon to them, in which he calls (prays) for all of them to live, to increase the number of their offspring, and to gain power and superiority over all nations, that their sovereignty and days of rule may return to them and that the congregational mosque of Ḥarrān may be destroyed, as well as the Greek Orthodox Church and the market street known as the Women’s Market. Before the Byzantine kings uprooted them when they were conquered, it was in these places that their idols used to be. He also calls for the revival of the religion of ˁUzūz1, which used to be in the place of these things that we have described. Then he descends from the pulpit and they eat the slaughtered victims and also drink. On this day the headman takes two silver coins for the treasury from every man.”
  1. Multiple suggestions for this name’s meaning exist, none particularly satisfying.
Kānūn al-Thānī (January), also called the month of the Raˀīs al-Ḥamd

24: “the birthday of the Lord, who is the Moon. At this time they observe the mystery to the North, slaughtering sacrificial victims and burning eighty creatures, both four-footed beasts and birds. They eat and drink and for the gods and goddesses they burn al-dādhī, which are rods of pine.”

Shubā (February)

9–15: “They fast […]. This fast is for the Sun, the great lord, the Lord of Well-Being. During these days they eat no meat and drink no wine. During this month, moreover, they pray only to the North, the jinn, and the devils.”

Ādhār (March)

Ādhār 8 – Nīsān 7 (?): “They hold a fast to the Moon from the eighth day, for thirty days. On the twentieth day the presiding headman breaks barley bread for their assembly to Ares, the god who is al-Mirrīkh (Mars).

30: “the beginning of the month of al-Tamr, I mean of the dried dates, and [during] this [month] is the marriage of the gods and goddesses They divide in it the dates, putting kohl [antimony powder] on their eyes. Then during the night they place beneath the pillows under their heads seven dried dates, in the name of the seven deities, and also a morsel of bread and some salt for the deity who touches the abdomens1. The presiding headman, moreover, takes two silver coins from each one of them for the treasury.”
  1. “This evidently refers to women who wish to become pregnant.” (Dodge)
Monthly rituals (?)

27–28: “Every twenty-seventh day of the month, I refer to the lunar month1, they go out to their sanctuary, which is known as Dayr Kādī. They slaughter and burn offerings to the god Sīn, who is the Moon. They also eat and drink. Then on the twenty-eighth day they go forth to the Cupola of al-Ujurr, where they slaughter and burn sheep, cocks, and many small chickens to Ārīs, who is all-Mirrīkh (Mars).”
  1. I take this to meant that these rituals are repeated monthly, but perhaps I am misunderstanding something.
On ritual practices

“If they wish to slay a large victim like a zabrukh, which is a bull or a sheep, they pour wine over it while it is still alive. If it quivers they say,

               ‘This offering is received,’

“but if it does not quiver they say,

               ‘The god is angry and will not receive this offering.’

“Their way of slaughtering every kind of animal is to cut off its head with one blow. Then they carefully observe its two eyes with their movements, as well as its mouth, its convulsions, and how it quivers. They draw an augury from it, employ magic, and seek an omen about what will happen and take place.

“If they wish to burn a large animal, such as one of the cows, sheep, or cocks, while it is alive, they hang it up with clamps and chains. Then a group of them exposes all sides of it to the fire until it burns. This is their great offering, which is for all of the gods and goddesses together. They state that the seven heavenly bodies, that is, the deities, are males and females who marry and have passions for one another, and also have bad and good luck.”

Montag, 15. April 2019

The Mesopotamian Planetary Gods #10a: Ibn Waḥšīya’s Book on Poisons (first part)

I think, my dear son Aḥmad, I must make a bequest that you preserve this book, conceal it, and not give it to anyone except to one who is mild, sympathetic, and who has drawn away and separated himself from anger and nastiness. I mean one who does not anger quickly; on the contrary, he must be one of those who control their passion and are not malicious and envious.

[…] Now I suggest that you have more compassion and mercy, conceal the secret of this book, keep it from any but those I have described to you. Those I have described to you are rare but non-existent. Be attentive to Allah and be niggardly with this book. Do not give it away.

(Source of translation, throughout this post, is Levey, Medieval Arabic toxicology: the Book on Poisons of Ibn Waḥšīya, 1966)


The Book on Poisons is part of the important but understudied Nabatean corpus – a number of Arabic books translated from Mesopotamian Aramaic (“ancient Nabatean”) originals by Abū Bakr Aḥmad ibn ˤAlī (and so on), known as Ibn Waḥšīya (also spelled Ibn Waḥshiyya). But the situation is a little more complicated, since the Book on Poisons is actually based on two different Aramaic works, and the text as we have it was not written by Ibn Waḥšīya himself, but by his student (not literally his son) Abū Ṭalib Aḥmad ibn ˤAlī ibn Aḥmad ibn ˤAbdalmalik, who had the text dictated to him. As a result, “I” in the text can be Aḥmad, or Ibn Waḥšīya, or one of the two Nabatean authors. A further problem is that these original authors in turn either quote or pretend to quote earlier Aramaic-language authors, and it is basically impossible to determine what historical depth this layer has.

Since we know little about Aḥmad, I will start with what Ibn Waḥšīya tells us about his motivations for translating, before I talk more about his sources:

Know, my son, that I felt it essential to translate this book and others also into Arabic from language of this Nabatean people. I listened to people calumniate them and perpetrate evil on them; these people were praising themselves, increasing their slanders, and saying, “We did not receive any science or philosophy from them nor moral virtue, nor any praiseworthy scientific work.”

They ridiculed other things and scoffed at them; they made much of faults in their words and blamed them for their language, and made the Nabateans shameful as Nabateans.

These calumniators are Arabic-speaking Muslims, people who consider themselves Arabs, but many of whom have “Nabatean” ancestry, especially on their mothers and grandmothers’ sides, which are often hidden behind the line of patrilineal names. Ibn Waḥšīya himself might be assumed to be fully Arabized if we judged from the names of his fathers’ fathers. As he says:

They calumniate the Nabateans since they are in pure ignorance as to themselves, and are in a state of forgetfulness. If they would but know that they are their descendants, that they came from the Nabateans who are their ancestors, and have taken the place of the Nabatean, […]

So much for the context of our translator. What of his sources? First of all, rather than Nabateans, which invites confusion with the Arab-ruled Nabataean kingdom – much earlier and further west –, I would like to call Ibn Waḥšīya’s Aramaic-speaking sources by their endonym, Kasdānians (Arabic Kasdā). This is the same word, in origin, as Chaldaean, but I would like to use this dialectal form to name the specific community whose texts Ibn Waḥšīya used. Rather than simply recording Mesopotamian traditions, the Kasdānian authors (living at some point between the 5th and 9th century, it seems) wrote treatises that combined traditional knowledge, information from Greek-language sources, and novel ideas, attributing them exclusively to Kasdānians, often with outlandish invented names. In my ignorance of Semitic linguistics, I cannot say for certain that Yārbūqā and Sūhāb Sāṭ are such invented names, but Yārbūqā at least cites several of them, and it is not unlikely that “Yārbūqā” and his sources are the invention of the same person or persons. “Our Lord Dawānāy”, for example, is in all likelihood an invented (if not exactly fictional) figure in a history newly created for a community that had lost cuneiform literacy centuries prior, which had undergone some degree of Hellenization (such that their scientific and philosophical knowledge was largely Greek), and whose local traditions were situated in a largely Christian and Jewish world. The Kasdānians in central Mesopotamia thus seem to fall in between the more thoroughly Hellenized Ḥarrānians in the North and the loss of a self-consciously pagan identity in the South.

Ibn Waḥšīya’s intellectual context

Ibn Waḥšīya spoke Arabic and Aramaic, but the latter less fluently. Unlike his Kasdānian authorities, who had been influenced by Greek learning quite directly, he could only access it through Arabic translations. Nevertheless, he was clearly not ignorant of those translations that did exist:

There are also those books [on poisons] which are from the Greeks. One of them contains two treatises on poisons of Dioscorides appended to a book on hashish. There is a pleasant book of Theophrastus. […] Then there is a treatise on poisons attributed to Galen. Also, there is a book on poisons attributed to a man called Alexander. I do not know whether he is Alexander the physician or the other one who is a philosopher. I know two Alexanders aside from Alexander, the king, and the Alexander who compiled a book on art. The latter is an Egyptian, and is a philosopher and scholar.

Among toxological authors, he also lists “genuine Arabs, who were from Yemen”, and later Muslims, including Qusṭā b. Lūqā (latinized Costa ben Luca) and the Philosopher of the Arabs, al-Kindī (latinized Alkindus); Egyptians, namely Cleopatra (referring to a pseudo-Cleopatran treatise translated from Greek) and “the books on Egyptian agriculture”; three Indian books, which he read in Arabic translation; and three old books in Persian, which he seems to have read in the original? At any rate, there are several remarks which seem to suggest that Persian culture had a similar status in the region as Arabic, making this a priori plausible.

His personal appreciation of Persian literature may be judged from the following:

The knowledge […] of the Persians in astrology and its prerequisite, the motions of the stars, is paramount in this field over all peoples.

This was a relatively recent advance, as Persians had been largely dependent on Greeks (and Indians), and the Greek authors on Egyptians and Babylonians. Clearly, knowledge is passed on in complicated ways, and not simply through bloodlines or diffusion within the “body” of a people.

Ibn Waḥšīya’s learning thus seems wider but qualitatively different than that of the older Kasdānians. He considered them a noteworthy addition to the Persian-Arabic mainstream, and his translation efforts – clearly a labor of love – did save unique and valuable cultural knowledge from total obliteration.

Was Ibn Waḥšīya a Pagan?

Our translator saved texts written by pagan authors, and – unlike many translators from Greek – preserved their pagan character. He also mentions contemporary pagan informers without criticism of their holding on to ancestral tradition, even if he usually seems to speak as a Muslim. There are some suggestions, however, that his sympathies were not only with his fellow Kasdānian Nabateans and against the Arabs, but also with the Kasdānian pagans and against Islam. This is the only interpretation I can come up with for the following passage, at least, although for all I know the reference may well be to an Arab ruler later than Muhammad:

What do you think [of the king] who threatened people with murder unless they embraced the religion of Zoroaster[?] He probably did away with millions of people. Another, at a time closer to ours, prohibited us from perpetrating evil, but he himself did so. He prohibited us from abducting people by violence but he himself did so. He upset people and smote them with the sword until he became chief, until he acquired the power, until he appointed his people the heir of it, until he attained the tastes of the world according to his wishes, and until he achieved all he desired. I hope to Allah that his religion be exterminated, that his name be erased, and that his traces be obliterated. […] They are like [the prominently irreligious] Murādīdaq (?), [Mani], Paul who spread Christianity, Mazdak, Pharaoh, Ḥarramān (?), and those like them who followed the same course as they.

Whether Ibn Waḥšīya was a crypto-pagan or not, let’s now turn to the open paganism of the Kasdānian Yārbūqā.

Kasdānian Paganism

He commenced his book with a beginning with was then current as a custom of those from Kasadān, glorifying the sun, revering it, and praying to it as did other authors.

Thus Yārbūqā’s work is markedly pagan from the outset, and in line with the opening prayer to the sun, the only gods mentioned – excepting mentions of Allah added during and after the translation – are the planets, whom Ibn Waḥšīya calls by their ordinary Arabic names.

One of the first “poisons” relates to the Sun, as well:

After this is a more wonderful poison which kills by means of its sound. This should perhaps not deserve the name “poison” for it is something arising originally from the voice. It could affect the heart so that a weak-hearted one often will die and a strong-hearted person is seldom affected. At the least, it can cause serious illness or faintness depending on the health of the heart and body. I do not like to ignore it, for to abandon it would not account for a poison which could kill many.

Have recourse to the God of the Gods (the Sun) from these injuries and ask him that he do away with the deceit of the envious of the enemy, of those close to the enemy, and of the neighbor of the enemy. Ask him to protect you as he protected his slave Farghīlā, the King, when he besought him and presented an offering to him of three hundred and sixty-five victims. When he asked him to save him from the wickedness of Kūkāsh al-Bīlqānī, he heard his prayer and ordered Saturn, the great God, to kill him, to make him fall. He made hisarmy shiver from cold until it was disordered and dispersed while they themselves were in good order. This is because the Sun is a compassionate, generous, and excellent God.

It is important to note here that the book does not make categorical distinctions between the effectiveness of prayers, “natural” remedies and other methods, or between physical and psychological effects. This explains the presence of observations like the following in a book on poisons:

When a man loves and desires one, and when he hears her voice, his color changes. Often he trembles and he becomes languid when exposed to that.

The focus is not on the underlying mechanisms, but on efficacy: “There are wonders […] that the hearer would find impossible to believe unless he himself observed them […]. It is like the characteristics of witchcraft, the talisman, and others related to these, in the act.”

The historiola of Farghīlā is slightly reminiscent of another hero connected to the sun:

I (Yārbūqā) extracted this (recipe) from the poetry of Fashūqūnyū (?) who appeared on top of the sun and was the chief of his time and lord of his age. I have added to it what I have invented […]

But the most interest pagan feature of the text, to my mind, are the prayers, which show the creative renewal of Mesopotamian ideas about the planetary gods, in some part through the appropriation of elements from Greek philosophy. These prayers are embedded in recipes for “poisons” and “cures”:

Second Chapter on the Preparation of What Kills People and Others by Sound

This gives the instructions for the creation of a set of castanets to be cast from a mixture of many different models, which are then put in a large copper pot, into which a mixture of plant juices is poured while the moon is opposite to Saturn. Then certain seeds, leaves and roots are thrown into the juice, the pot’s contents are boiled for a long time until all liquid is gone. “Then remove the castanets and have them in sight of Saturn for one night. Take them away before the sun can shine on them.” The castanets are put in another vessel with oils, and the contents are boiled until the oil is gone. “Wash with pure water and good alkali until the odor of oil and its power disappear from everything. Expose them to the power of Saturn—if the moon was with Saturn the night before these nights then it is best—for three nights. Retrieve it at the end of every night while the world is becoming light before the rising of the sun. If it is the night of Saturday and if Saturn is situated before the moon when the evening twilight is disappearing and when the darkness is becoming confused, then raise the two castanets in your hand and with a voice which can be heard say:

[here follows a corrupt Aramaic prayer to Saturn in Arabic letters, which Levey does not print; then, an Arabic translation:]

O God of the sky and earth! O the Mighty! O the Violent! O whose power is perfect and whose action is piercing! O Glorious One, Strong, Great! Take[] quickly the soul of everyone who hears the sound of these castanets—without any delay! Amen, amen, amen.

“Then, make it stink with the hide which is dead but untanned, and with dry suet, and gum Arabic, and then repeat the prayer in Nabatean. Abū Bakr b. Waḥšīya said, You may utter it in Arabic also. Let the smoke rise until ten dirhams of this incense is burned up. Do this with prayer, incense, and raising the two castanets with your hand for three consecutive nights. Then put them in a red copper vessel, plunging them into bovine urine. Leave the vessel so. Do this if the sun is in the second [part of] Scorpion, in the sign of Sagittarius, in the sign of Capricorn, or in the sign of Aquarius, leaving the vessel in the sun for seven days.”

I am uncertain whether these rather foul materials relate more to the purpose of the recipe, or whether this is an example of the association of Saturn with pungent smells and unpleasant tastes (e.g. in the Picatrix). At any rate the castanets are dried for three days and nights; “[t]hen take two black woolen strings” – black being Saturn’s color – “and hang the castanets by them in the air. Do not clean them of the bovine urine.”

The castanets are supposed to be effective when the moon “is with Saturn where Saturn is. If it is returning, that is better; otherwise it is not so good.” Depending on the humors in the body of the victim, the effect will kill within the next few days. In addition to people, it “can kill some animals and cannot kill others”. “Whenever you want to play them, do this only when the moon is with Saturn, either when going into the quartile aspect or in the opposite direction.”


For the one who wishes to make this castanet and to play it to kill one, it is necessary to manufacture this [antidote] first.

Six hazelnut-like objects are made from silver and gold (again under specific astrological circumstances), and “stones of the sun” (or a certain type of bezoar stone as a replacement) are inserted in each, then the ‘hazelnuts’ are soldered with gold solder and bound up with green silk string, “in such a manner that the string may be seen on the four sides of every one of the hazelnuts. Then, in the middle of each of these hazelnuts a red ruby of any size, a diamond or a pure green emerald is attached. When this is done, a coal-burning censer is taken. On it is thrown one dirham of aloeswood which has a good odor, fresh or not, some camphor, hair saffron, and one drop of balsam oil. Take the string by which the hazelnuts are held by your hand, and when the smoke rises, say,

O God of the sky and earth, God of the elements and natural things. O God of matter and classes, God of the species and all individuals, God of what is seen and unseen! O Sun, the great bright one! He is the light over the light and over all lights! He it is who removes all darkness and attracts all brightness! I ask of Thee in Thy name, the kept one, the hidden one, in Thy unending knowledge to hear my prayer, and to save me from the evil of Saturn, the old chief, the great one, the bright one, the luminous one and from his killing, mortifying, and torturing my soul, and to keep my life in my body. Thou lengthenest my life with the soul of what is in Thy presence with Thy power, with Thy might, with Thy glory, and with Thy majesty! O God of life, Thou who keepest the souls in everyone alive, my life, my power, my soul, and lengthenest my life by what is in Thy presence, and makest me to live with thy power, and makest these hazelnuts of gold and silver the oath of thee to me in salvation and redemption from death, O, God of life! O whose life is endless! O who lengthenest life. O old one who passest not away, hear[] me! Amen, Amen, Amen!

“Repeat this charm until the smoke stops. If the incense is consumed, renew it until this sacred charm has been uttered three times. Then place it by the string upon your neck until it reaches your breast, and play the castanets. If you like, leave it on your neck permanently providing it is easy for you do to so; otherwise remove it from your neck and place it in a scent box which contains perfume.”

Description of Another Operation Which Kills by the Sound When It Is Heard

This is even much more convoluted than the previous recipe, but simply put, it involves the creation of a drum and stick.

“Then take the stick with your left hand such that the outside of your hand with the stick and drum agree with Mars” (whatever that means) “, and say,

O God, the powerful, who makes one thirst violently, the arrogant, the killer of all, who flings factions and disturbances among people! O God who delights in shedding blood and [spreading] death, the high position of the peace is thine now and for all time in regard to me and thy slaves. Kill[] with this drum who hears it sound quickly, immediately! O the destroyer, the arrogant, the killer, the cruel, the bloodthirsty, the troublous to manking who impairs their health, reason, and action, kill with this drum everyone who hears its voice!

“Repeat your word,

               Kill with this drum everyone who hears its voice!,

“eight times, then say,

O God of death, God of fire, God of heat, the destroyer and strength and power, who sends everyone death and killing and the corruption of life to everyone who hears the sound of this drum. That is this drum.”

“Repeat your words,

               It is this drum

“forty times. Then, in a censer, smoke seed of laurel, seed of mustard, and storax. When the smoke begins to appear, stand upon your feet and make the stick agree with Mars. Then say,

Hear me O God of the sky, earth, and blue, brown, and green eyes. Thou must hear me and kill everyone who hears this drum except the one who protected himself from thee, and from sound with the power of Jupiter opposing you, and whichever way he is afraid of thee, O God of evils, of glory of evils, and that strengthens evils day and night. Now, I stand before thee in the darkness of this night. I fear thee, and hope from thee, and ask of thee, and understand thee that when thy names are used in prayer, then thou hearest when it is asked on them. Thou givest. O God, the powerful, the violent, hear[] my prayer! Amen, amen, amen!

“Then set down the drum and stick before Mars until it sets and until morning breaks, until you see that the sky is quite bright. Then take the drum and the stick with which you strike the drum. If you wish to kill one, strike the drum with it when the moon is associated with Saturn, while it confronts it from every direction except the opposite one. The situation of the opposite direction is not appropriate for this. Sing while you strike it with the words which praise Mars. Whoever hears this voice dies either on the same day or after three hours following the darkness of night have passed.”

Description of the Cure of Whoever Makes This Deadly Drum

 “Look [at the sky] when the moon is in conjunction with Jupiter while they are in a masculine zodiacal sign, especially in Areis, Leo, and Sagittarius. Take some white silk in a sufficient quantity to be twisted into a thread of medium thickness. Then take three stones of white ruby, three beads of pure rock crystal, and one bead whose size must be equal to that of the six. [The latter] is molded of silver in the form of a small walnut. It may be either hollow or solid; do not pay attention. All of them, I mean the seven beads, must be bored. Arrange them on the circular silk thread so that the silver is in the middle and three of the beads are on one side and the rest on the other side. Then knot the thread with the beads on it and hang it on sandalwood. Perfume it with the bark of the camphor tree, sandalwood, and in a species of Cakile wood, especially by these three, in the amount of two and one-fourth dirhams each. The time of perfuming must be when the moon faces Jupiter. Then after the perfuming wrap up the thread together with what is on it in a clean rag. When night comes, take ten dirhams each of aloeswood, sandalwood, wood of the cucumber plant, and seeds of the poppy. Then sit down facing Jupiter and put some of the incense on the embers. Take the thread, which you arranged, in your hand. Beckon to Jupiter, saying,

O God of life, permanence, happiness, joy, and goodness: I ask of thee by thy stored and hidden name that with which Mercury prayed to thee and thou cheerest him in what he asked of you. And with thy called name God, Sun, it is the name which effects consent so that thou causest those who wear this necklace to die, and all dangerous harm and fearful danger. O God of the world! O Jupiter, the auspicious! Thou art a God of which one hopes, a God whose power is perfect and whose act is penetrating. [Thou art one] who subdues Mars and steerest him, and is high over him. Thou are more great, grand, and bigger than he, and more strong and violent. With the two names which I use to implore [thee], thou behaves to hear my prayer and to prevent whoever wears this necklace from all harms and fears, and to lengthen his life, forget his dying, repel death from him, and increase his power of life. Thou makest this necklace an oath of thee for thou makest him to live, repellest death from him, sendest all artifices from him, lengthenest his good life, repellest perishableness from him to a distant limbo! O the powerful, the overpowering! O who allows one to live! O the sympathetic! O the all-wise, the just, the generous! O doer of all goodness and who repels all dangers and fears! Thou repellest all dangers from the wearer of this thread, lengthenest his life, repellest death from him, overcomes Mars and Saturn for thou art able to overcome them and they cannot overpower thee. Thou canst overcome them and they cannot overpower thee with thy two names which I mentioned earlier. I ask of thee by them [that thou] repellest all dangers, evils, death and perishableness from whoever wears this thread! O powerful one whose power is the power of the thousand gods! Listen[], hear[], and have[] sympathy for who puts on this thread, and repel[] death always from him if thou willst; if not, it is possible for thee to overcome thy opponents! Amen, amen, amen!

“This incantation is repeated until the incense is consumed. Repeat it once again after the incense has been consumed. Then hang the thread as it is on sandalwood. Leave it in the censer until morning. When the sun is about to rise, draw back the thread with the sandalwood and the censer. Throw the censer with its contents into running water and hang the necklace on the wood. When you wish to kill one with this drum hang the thread on your neck. It must be when the moon is with Jupiter. If it faces Mars, it is the best. Take some sandalwood which can be burned in a censer and strike the drum. Indeed, one whose constitution is hot and dry, dies after four hours. Or, it may be late at night and one’s constitution may be contrary to that one, then when three hours have passed, he also will die.”

Description of the Manufacture of the Drum Which When Struck and the Sound is Heard, Mice Die if They Are Standing. If They Escape, They Are Saved

This drum is made of a cat’s skin (for obvious reasons), again prepared in an elaborate series of operations, several of them under specific astrological conditions, until “it is placed in front of Saturn for three nights.”

In the next step, “a stick for striking the drum is obtained. It is straight, slender, and without any crookedness in it. It is placed with the drum in front of Saturn. When the third night comes, whoever performs this operation must obtain a censer with embers in it. On the fire are thrown seven dirhams each of black cumin, yellow pottery, asafetida, seeds of the onion, and leaf of the garlic.” (Onion and garlic are associated with Saturn in the later Picatrix, as well.)

“Then with the olive-tree stick, it is turned toward Saturn, and he says with an audible voice,

O God, the great, the violent, the powerful, the luminous, the killer of all who have been killed, and who brought all the dead their deaths. Thou art always obedient to thy God, the Sun, for by the Sun thou killst all mice, whether rat or weasel, mole or field rat, whatever dwells in the earth, and homes. [This occurs] when they hear the sound of this skin when it is struck with this stick. The emitted sound kills them quickly. Thou makest them perish and separatest their souls and bodies and makest them perish so that they become soil and ash. O God, the violent, the worshiped, the God of danger who causes death, who annihilates, who destroys the mice and rats in quick death in the earth or homes without delay. O God, the powerful, the old, the wise, the mighty, whose act is penetrating, whose power is perfect, whose cunning is violent, whose artifice is power. All cunning things are thine! The artifices are all thine! Who is it who can rise against thee or could endure thy cunning and power which is penetrating and quick, and the penetration of thy action. When thou willst its penetration, thou sendest thy cunning, thy source, thy sagacity, and thy artifice so that thou destroyest their destroying whenever thou willst and annihilates their perishableness whenever thou wishest. Thou canst destroy all of what thou willst. There is no one who could interfere in thy action and could rise against thy power and might. Makest thy power to penetrate in order to destroy the mice and rats, small or large, strong or weak, and causest not one to remain. With thy glory and power, amen, amen, amen.

“He says this prayer while the incense is smoking. When the smoke is no more, read this charm and pray once again. Then throw the censer in a ruin or in a river left void, or in a conduit of a bathing place. Then you abandon the drum and stick until the end of the night. When it is light, take and keep them. When you wish to destroy the mice with them, strike the drum with the stick as it is a skin placed on a wash tub. The moon must face Saturn or be in his house, at the time. Indeed, the mice and rats, small or large, die if they remain in their places. If they go as far as possible to escape this sound, then they become ill and die. Further, all of the rats and mice which smell the odor of the dead ones, also die.”

Apart from the prayers in Aramaic which Levey does not give, this is all of the addresses to the planet gods in the book. In closing, I want to append another piece of Mesopotamiana:

The story of scammony

Tales of discussions between plants or animals and the like were an important genre of cuneiform literatures. And so it was still for the Kasdānians, as this passage shows. Only the astrological opening and the openly aporetic closing situate it clearly in the context of late antiquity:

Our friends have some fine tales which they tell about scammony but I (Yārbūqā) do not know them. I have heard mention of one of these stories. They say that one of the old women of the people Jarāmiqa was crossing a desert in which tere was scammony. The sun was at the point of scorpion and the plant spoke in the language of al-Khābūtāy in which the chief men of Jarāmiqa speak. They assert that the star, Mercury, suggested this language to them thousands of years ago.
The old woman spoke to the scammony, “I see that you are pale while this season is spring for you and for other plants.”
The scammony said to her, “I am so because of my anger toward you, O community of mankind! How do you live after you see me while your eyes are filled with me!”
The old woman said, “Would you like us all to die so that only you would remain?”
The scammony said, “Yes! If I would remain alone, then I could cover the world with my roots and branches and leaves.”
And so it went, the humorous talks, of whose reality I am not certain. It may or may not have a meaning; I do not know.