Review: “The Anti-Witchcraft Ritual Maqlû: The Cuneiform Sources of a Magic Ceremony from Ancient Mesopotamia” by Daniel Schwemer

Schwemer2017Tzvi Abusch and Daniel Schwemer are two of the most prolific writers with regard to Maqlû¸ the well-known Mesopotamian anti-witchcraft ritual. Already in 2016, Tzvi Abusch published the long-awaited critical edition of Maqlû, a remarkable editorial achievement [1]. This volume, then, serves as a supplement to the critical edition of Maqlû. Instead of focusing on translations and transliterations like Abusch’s critical edition, this volume focuses on the epigraphy and history of transmission of Maqlû.

Chapter One introduces Maqlû. First, he briefly describes the matter of witches, withcraft, and anti-witchcraft rituals in the ancient Near East, a particularly succinct summary which provides (a) scholarship history and (b) a summary of Maqlû. Subsequently, he describes the role which the Maqlû-ceremony played culturally, describing the prestige of Maqlû in Mesopotamian tradition and how it was incorporated into other rituals and texts. Shifting to textual transmission and dates, he suggests that the exact composition date is unknown; however, on the basis of linguistic forms, development of Babylonian literature, and extant MSS, it was likely composed between the 13th and 11th centuries BCE, with a fixed length of eight tablets, followed by the Ritual Tablet. Even so, evidence from rituals like Bīt Rimki and SpTU 4, 128 point towards “the plurality of maqlû rites used in the ritual practice of āšipūtu” (4). At last, Schwemer provides a thorough synopsis of the maqlû-ceremony.

Whereas Chapter One provides an overview, Chapter Two discusses the MSS of Maqlû. This discussion of MSS also includes, of course, a helpful discussion of the history of scholarship. Figures in this include Fracois Lenormant (1875), George Smith (1875), Theophilus G. Pinches (1891), James A. Craig (1895), and, most importantly Knut Tallqvist (1890s). It was Tallqvist who first reconstructed tablets I and II, some of Tablet III-VII, and a “Tablet VIII,” which he had not yet identified as the Ritual Tablet. After exploration of the Kuyunjik Collection and subsequent work, Meier identified that the maqlû-series was composed of 8 incantation tablets and one ritual tablet. Meier’s work, Schwemer comments, “reflects, on the whole, an understanding of the Akkadian text that is still valid today” (24).

Of those fragments discovered at Nineveh, only 46/221 were known by Meier. Wilfred Lambert and Rykle Borger, though, helped to identify many of these fragments. The fragments were eventually joined together and ordered in Abusch’s critical edition. Subsequently, Schwemer describes the various locations from which other fragments were recovered, such as at Sultantepe, Uruk, Kish, and Nimrud. Other fragments, such as two NB MSS from Nippur, were identified; however, they remain unstudied. Finally, he lays out the distribution of canonical MSS, based on tablet.

Next, he considers source typology, for which he distinguishes between the Maqlû-text and parallel sources. Parallel sources “include text portions or passage that are identical or similar to passages in Maqlû. Those portions, however, are not presented as part of Maqlû, but are embedded in a different literary and ritual context” (26). As for sources who wrote Maqlû proper, he divided these into two categories: full-text tablets and excerpt tablets. The latter includes school texts and commentaries, for which we have 17 school tablets, two commentaries, and a LB explanatory text, demonstrating an understanding of Maqlû as “authoritative textual tradition that could be used as a witness in theological arguments” (27). The former, namely full-text tablets, include the vast majority of MSS. On the basis of the spread of these tablets, Schwemer suggests that they were not complete sets; rather, they were “individual assignments by advanced students of cuneiform” (28). Finally, he provides a chart organizing the MSS by Tablet, Siglum, Museum number and bibliography, Provenance, and Plate number.

Chapter Three attempts to group the various fragments on the basis of palaeography, tablet formatting, physical properties, colophon, and findspot/museum collection context. These categories enable to him to propose 5 plausible full-sets of Maqlû from Kuyunjik. He then proposes some smaller text groups for MSS from Ashur, Sultantepe, Nimrud, and those of unknown provenance, or in some cases no group. He does the same with MSS from Babylonian libraries at Babylon and Borsippa, Sippar, Kish, Nippur, Ur, and Uruk.

Chapter Four describes the variants and versions of Maqlû. In doing so, he distinguishes between the multiple levels of variation: section level, line level, word level, and morphological variation. For variations at each of these levels, he further distinguishes between legitimate variants, inferior variants, and scribal errors. Moreover, on the basis of the “comparatively homogeneous group of manuscripts with a low incidence of scribal errors,” Schwemer views the Kuyunjik Maqlû sources as the textual standard. In laying out the information as such, he effectively demonstrates the variation in Maqlû MSS through time and space. Perhaps more importantly, his analysis uncovers important morpho-syntactic patterns and peculiarities from Maqlû MSS, patterns which may help to make sense of morpho-syntax in other Assyrian and Babylonian texts.  

Chapter Five, forms a brief supplement to the critical edition by Abusch. Schwemer offers readings of cuneiform signs different from those of Abusch on the basis of hand copies in this volume. This is followed by hand copies of 126 Maqlû MSS.

Overall, Schwemer’s presentation of Maqlû MSS and variation within them is extremely valuable. His organizing MSS into tablet groups and subsequent tracking of variants between Maqlû MSS offers a helpful reconstruction of how texts were received and copy in Mesopotamia. Furthermore, his analysis of the variants by group has much potential for strengthening our understanding of various Akkadian dialects. For example, he notes that “The attestations for the nominative in -a­ found in the Maqlû manuscripts would suggest that scribes were prone to use them in intransitive clauses or in semantic contexts with low transitivity, but future studies based on a more comprehensive dataset of pre-Late Babylonian manuscripts of Standard Babylonians texts may invalidate this observation” (70). In other words, the spelling conventions and linguistics variations may be helpful data in elucidating how Akkadian developed in space and time.

I only noted a single typo on pg. 66. In the left column, the paragraph beginning with “The addition of ina before ŠU.[SI in RT 66′” does not include a final ] bracket after SI.



[1] Tzvi Abush, The Magical Ceremony Maqlû. A Critical Edition (Leiden-Boston: Brill, 2016).

Magic in the Anti-Witchcraft Rituals

One the topics I am exploring extensively right now is the topic of magic. It is a hotly debated topic, with a wealth of data to draw from an develop our understanding of it. So, I am currently reading one of the most well known “magic” texts from the ancient world, namely the anti-witchcraft ritual. It is more commonly referred to as Maqlu.

What I find interesting, though, is the way that language is employed in the text. Near the beginning of the text, we read the following:

I have made an image of my witch and my warlock

Of the one who made my image and the one who performs (witchcraft) against me.

(Tablet 1, Lines 15-16)

What I find interesting in these lines is the parallelism at play. In line 15, a G Preterite 1CS form describes the patients as “making” an image of the witch and warlock. Here, the verb epēšu is used in relation to the creating an image of the respective witches.

In line 16, the verbal form switchs from a preterite to two participial forms from the root epēšu. On each form is a 1CS possessive suffix. What is not identified is an object concerning what is epēšu-ed in line 16. Because line 15 uses a finite form of the verb in relation to creating a image, this notion appears to carry over from line 15 into line 16.

Moreover, in line 16, the participial forms function as substantivized participles, denoting an agent noun (cf. Huehnergard 20.1). So, the implication is that the participles communicate “the one made my image,” albeit without explicitly stating “image.”

Now, what is particularly interesting about this is that the patient performs the same basic activity which is performed by the witch and warlock. This is evident because of the parallelism in the lines. What this points towards, then, is something well-developed in scholarship: “magic” is problematic category for describing certain phenomenon because it historically carries an negative connotation. In reality, when we look at texts like Maqlu, the afflicted patient appears to be performing rituals similar to that of the “witches” themselves, or at least employing the same material means for rituals.

Therefore, while “magic” is a necessary category for interpreting texts, people, events, and things in history, we must always be conscious of what we mean by “magic.” Do we assume certain things about magic, which ultimately causes us to misrepresent the texts or cultures on hand? So, by being attentive to what we mean when we say “magic,” we can have (a) a better appreciation for other cultures and societies and (b) a more precise and accurate understanding of other cultures and societies.