The ancient world was a dangerous place, with potential enemies at every turn, as well as a wide array of monsters, demons and illnesses waiting to prey on the unwary. Fortunately, there were many ways to fight back, including writing and related practices. By coincidence, I recently learned about three of these in two days.
Lots of ancient societies had magical rituals for execration – banishing enemies or evil forces – which are described in instruction-texts. At a recent seminar by Fredrik Hagen of the University of Copenhagen, I learned about an Egyptian method for dealing with Apep or Apophis, the evil snake who personified chaos and battled the great god Ra every night. An Egyptian text known as The Book of Overthrowing Apep gave detailed instructions on actions humans could take to aid in this. One of these involved drawing an image of Apep (and sometimes its children) on a piece of papyrus in red ink, writing its name on it, and burning it. Some fragments of such papyri have survived, so we know the ritual was put into practice. Similar magical rituals also existed for banishing other foes, sometimes with the drawing replaced by a wax figurine.
The violent potential of cylinder seals
I have Dr Selena Wisnom to thank for telling me about these during an Akkadian class. Cylinder seals are just what they sound like – little stone cylinders carved with designs which can be rolled across clay or another soft surface to impress a distinctive seal. They’re often used on clay tablets, and can also include writing as part of their designs. Sealing practices aren’t writing as such, but they are related. As a form of administration and way of ‘signing’ things, sealing is often seen as a precursor to the development of fully-fledged writing.
Cylinder seals were wildly common across the Near East and at first appearance are not particularly threatening objects. This didn’t stop not one but two Sumerian kings apparently suffering Death by Cylinder Seal. Historical omen texts say that both Rimuš (brother of Enheduanna, the first named author in human history) and Šar-kali-šarri were murdered by courtiers using their seals. The king-list has a particularly nice turn of phrase to describe the confusion following the latter’s death: ‘Who was the king after that? Who wasn’t the king?’
But how do you murder someone with their own cylinder seal? The Sumerian texts don’t actually specify. The Assyriologist Holly Pittman has speculated that it actually means the pins that were used to fasten the seals to people’s clothes. Other scenarios are imaginable, but I leave those as an exercise to the reader’s own morbid imagination.
So, cylinder seals are apparently good for a bit of good old-fashioned palace murdering. But what about something more adventurous? Suppose you want to go into battle against a monster? Not to worry, they have you covered there too! Cylinder seals could also be used as magical amulets and called upon for protection and aid against your foes. We have two such cases from Mesopotamian mythology: the god Marduk’s battle against Tiamat, and Tišpak’s slaying of the Labbu-monster. The latter is instructed to use his seal as follows:
Hold the seal of your mouth before your face;
Throw it, slay the Labbu!
The phrase ‘seal of your mouth’ may come from the practice of wearing seals on a string around the neck. We actually have Marduk’s divine seal – or at least a ninth-century version of it from Babylon. According to its inscription it would have been worn around the neck of his cult statue.
So writing and seals could be used for much more than just recording words and administration. Needless to say, we don’t recommend trying any of these!
~ Philip Boyes (Research Associate on the CREWS Project)