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Namburbi and Talmud rituals (3)

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05 Scientific knowledge and scholarly lore

05 Scientific knowledge and scholarly lore

Neo-Assyrian Empire
Jewish philosophers and scholars
Neo-Assyrian texts

The following Talmudic ritual concerns the anxiety of being bitten by a snake, rather than the reality of being bitten, since it involves a sexual encounter between a woman and a snake, in rather Freudian terms. Although no exactly parallel idea presents itself within Namburbi rituals, nevertheless many of the individual elements can be identified in Akkadian:

“If a woman sees a snake and does not know whether (the snake’s) attention was turned to her or not, let her remove her garments and throw them in front of it; if (the snake) winds itself around them, its attention is turned to her; if not, its attention is not turned to her. What is the remedy? She should have sex in front of it. (There are those who say, That will strengthen (the snake’s) inclination all the more.) Rather she should take some of her hair and nails and throw them at (the snake) and say, ‘I am urinating’.”

The necessity for the victim to strip is known from Snake-Namburbi no. 1, which instructs the victim to strip off his garments (Maul 1994: 274.43’), and after being anointed he changes into a clean garment, for purposes of purification or to avoid recognition. In the Talmud this divesting of clothing was interpreted as a means of testing the snake’s intent, since it obviously showed excessive interest if the snake coiled around her garment. This situation somewhat resembles a type of snake omen recorded in Snake-Namburbi no. 4, which concerns an evil portent occasioned by a snake seeing a man before the snake itself is seen (Maul 1994: 292 1’), an idea similar to the anxiety aroused in the Talmud in which the victim is the sole focus of the snake’s attention. If the woman is, indeed, the object of the snake’s gaze, one solution suggested in the Talmud was for her to have sex in its presence, although others objected that this might somehow arouse the snake even further.

Once again the Namburbis come to the rescue in helping to explain the Talmud. An important aspect of Namburbi texts is that the victim must not return home directly after the ritual and must somehow escape from his own identity, to avoid being recognised by the evil portent; to some extent the Talmud passages have this in common, although this notion is interpreted too literally in the Talmud as an attempt to escape from the snake itself, rather than from the evil portent that it represents. One way that the Namburbis advise the victim to alter his identity is to have sex with a strange woman, as in Snake-Namburbi no. 3: ‘he should enter another house (i.e. not his own) and spend the night and have sex with a strange woman’ (Maul 1994: 285 14’). This is probably the basis for the Talmud instruction for the woman to have sex in front of the snake. The idea of having sex with a stranger is not likely to have been recommended by the rabbis, particularly for a woman, which makes it likely that this type of remedy was later edited into its present form.

The solution provided in the Talmud - that she take some of her hair and nails and cast them at the snake–has partial parallels in Snake-Namburbi texts. Generally in Namburbi rituals, hair and nails from the victim were used to put the evil off the track (Maul 1994: 76f.); and in fact in Snake-Namburbi no. 5 the victim’s hair is sealed into a jar, although the ritual use is not explained (Maul 1994: 294 7-8). The victim’s hair and nails were removed or distanced from the victim in order to guide the evil away from its intended goal. In a similar vein in the Talmud, the victim’s hair and nails are used to represent the woman’s own person, while she says, ‘I am urinating’. The idea in the Talmud is that she will be undesirable to the snake, but this is probably a misinterpretation of the ritual here. Although no exact parallel for this statement can be found, one Namburbi ritual concerns the evil which comes from a victim’s bed, including one bad omen which says, ‘[if] a man urinates while [in] his bed - in order that the evil of the that bed should not reach the man … ‘ (Maul 1994: 379 3). The idea may be here that the woman claims to be already suffering from the effects of a bad omen (resulting from urinating in an inappropriate place), and hence she does not deserve any additional misfortune from a snake omen. The Talmud, of course, misinterpreted this passage to mean that she is less attractive to the snake as an object of sexual desire.

Sources (list of abbreviations) (source links will open in a new browser window)
Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 110a
Namburbi Texts


Geller 2004, 51-52Geller, Mark J. Akkadian Healing Therapies in the Babylonian Talmud. Preprint 259. Berlin: Max-Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte 2004. [PDF]
Maul 1994Maul, Stefan M. Zukunftsbewältigung. Eine Untersuchung altorientalischen Denkens anhand der babylonisch-assyrischen Löserituale (Namburbi). Mainz am Rhein: Von Zabern 1994.

Links (external links will open in a new browser window)
Cf. Namburbi and Talmud rituals (1)
Cf. Namburbi and Talmud rituals (2)
Cf. Namburbi and Talmud rituals (4)

Mark Geller

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