Review: Corpus of Middle Babylonian and Middle Assyrian Incantations by Elyze Zomer

Elyze Zomer. A Corpus of Middle Babylonian and Middle Assyrian Incantations. Wiesbaden: Harrassowtiz Verlag, 2018. 470 pp.

Corpus of Middle Babylonian and Middle Assyrian Incantations (henceforth CMBMAI) is a systematic analysis of the MB and MA incantation corpus. Chapter One addresses standard questions and issues: types of incantations, historical setting, previous scholarship, and the scope of the study. Here, two details are central. First, Zomer’s incantation typology is based on paratextual comments (ÉN; KA.INIM.MA; etc.) and distinguishes between incantation prayers and regular prays via paratextual comments (ÉN vs. uninnuteslītuikrubu, etc.). Other incantation prayers are based on recitation in a ritual or medical agenda and incantation prayers with 1st millennium parallels. Second, she excludes non-Mesopotamian, local incantations. As for incantations presented in an edition, she only include particularly relevant texts and previously unedited texts.

In Chapter Two, Zomer classifies all 184 tablets and 336 incantations according to whether they are single/collective, part of a ritual, therapeutic text, diagnostic omina, lexical list, or other. Next, expanding on Wasserman’s (2014) OB text classifications, she divides texts into tablets (with multiple sub-divisions), amulets, cylinder seals, prisms, and cylinders. Though less emphasized, Zomer notes various types of drawings on tablets. Finally she identifies a variety of rubrics for incantations.

In Chapter Three, Zomer describes the geographical settings and archival contexts for texts, dividing her discussion as texts from the Mesopotamian heartland and texts from peripheral areas.

In Chapter Four, Zomer addresses problems of the social settings of incantations. She establishes magic and medicine as “two complementary strategies in the healing of a patient” (60). Though she draws from the traditionally authoritative works by Ritter (1965), Biggs (1995), Heeßel (2009), and Scurlock (1999), more recent theoretical discussions on magic would be beneficial for her overall presentation. Likewise, though I think she is right to claim that incantations were not really effective and clients/experts would create excuses, this notion should be substantiated via brief comments on cognitive dissonance. Next, she notes how magico-religious texts represent magic experts and how they are represented outside magico-religious texts in the heartland and peripheral regions, the notion of magic experts as scholars, and iconography of magic experts. For the receiving end, namely clients, she identifies public clients and private clients, evidenced in amulets or incantations for domestic spaces. The relation between expert and client is evident in the way incantation texts involve clients. Finally, she describes how incantation texts function for private contexts (burial, foundation deposits, domestic contexts, necklaces), reference work contexts, incantations for curriculum, and texts as spoils for war.

Chapter Five details texts by thematic grouping, bilingual and unilingual incantations, and local scribal influences, wherein she addresses paleography and orthography of provenanced texts.

In Chapter Six, Zomer explores issues of standardization and serialization of Mesopotamian texts and how 2nd millennium Assyrian and Babylonian incantations fit into the picture. First, though Assyriologists sometimes refer to texts as canonical, Zomer uses standardization (following Rochberg-Halton 1984) to highlight the common form without any official edition. This relates to content. On the other hand, serialization refers to the established sequence of tablets of a text. Second, drawing from Esagil-kīn-apli’s colophon on SA.GIG, a colophon of hemerology (KAR 177), and previous scholars, she suggests serialization and standardization began in the Kassite era or Second Isin period. Her suggestion, though fails to consider such colophons as literary constructions. That is to say, colophons are not necessarily historical. Third, she defines essential terms: forerunner, though admittedly a problematic terms, “denotes an earlier stage (i.e. precursor) of a text that was later standardized.” Forerunners may be canonical, “those incantations which show distinct similarities with their counterparts in later standardized series and can be designated as an antecedent version” (180), or non-canonical, “a group of incantations that are thematically-related to later series, but were not incorporated as such” (180). Stock-incantations “denote the interchangeability of incantations between various series” (181) . Finally, she discusses all forerunners from the 2nd millennium BCE.

Chapter Seven offers a selections of text editions. Chapter Eight is a catalogue of all Middle Babylonian and Middle Assyrian incantations.

As a whole, CMBMAI is a welcome addition to scholarship, this being the first comprehensive study of the corpus. Most notably, her attempt to identify and discuss forerunners to ritual-series and compendia is admirable. Additionally, in Chapter Four, wherein she describes the social setting of the incantations, Zomer lays out multiple contexts for them: private, reference works, curriculum, and spoils of war. Such categories are particularly helpful for understand how incantation texts functioned socially.

Even so, a two aspects of the volume raised questions, namely her discussion of standardization (Chapter Six) and magic (Chapter Four). First, Zomer acknowledges problems with terms like ‘canon’ or ‘canonization,’ indicating a preference for the term standardization; however, in order to discuss forerunners, she uses the terms canonical and non-canonical. This discontinuity results in muddled terminology and definitions.

Moreover, Zomer does not establish clear standards for what constitutes a canonical or non-canonical forerunner. As a result, she makes unsubstantiated claims about Akkadian compendia and what constitutes a forerunner, whether canonical or non-canonical. For example, in discussing Sag.gig, she makes the following claim: “As for Emar, the small fragment Emar 732 is clearly concerned with Sag.gig and its incipit recalls Sag.gig I/a, where it is stated that the Sag.gig-demon comes from Ekur, whereas in Emar 732 it is said that the Sag.gig comes from the Netherworld, what can be further read of Emar 732 does not correspond to incantations known from the Sag.gig-series, hence Emar 732 is here considered a non-canonical forerunner” (208). Though she provides surface level reasoning about why Emar 732 is a non-canonical forerunner to the Sag.gig-series, her reasoning is relatively weak and should be further substantiated. Issues similar to this exist, I suggest, primarily because she does not clearly define how to identify what constitutes non-canonical forerunners as opposed to canonical forerunners.

Second, Zomer’s discussion about magic lacks important historical and theoretical considerations. Concerning magic and the division between the āshipūtu and asûtu, she rightly notes the well-known works by Ritter (1965), Stol (1991), Biggs (1995), Scurlock (1995), and Heeßel (2009); however, her perspective on the relationship between magic and medicine, if these terms are even helpful, would be significantly strengthened by more recent theories on magic (see references and discussion in David Frankfurter (ed.) 2019).

Aside from the content, I found multiple typographical errors throughout the volume: missing quotation marks (76) and missing indent (80). Other errors are mainly misplaced commas and similar issues, not worth noting here in detail.

In conclusion, Corpus of Middle Babylonian and Middle Assyrian Incantations is highly recommended, with the caveats of Zomer’s underlying theory concerning magic and the lack of clarity concerning forerunners. As the first comprehensive analyses of Middle Babylonian and Middle Assyrian incantations, it fills an important lacuna within the field of Assyriology.

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