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  • Transgression and Curse: Conceptions of Sin and Divine Punishment in the Mesopotamian Exorcistic Corpus

    This book, based on my doctoral thesis (2021, University of Oxford), examines Mesopotamian approaches to sin, guilt, and divine punishment through the lens of the corpus of exorcistic ritual and incantation texts. The rituals that aim to reverse the effects of divine punishment reference a wide range of terminology and concepts, but a couple in particular come to the fore and therefore form the basis of my analysis: : māmītu and arratu, both conventionally translated ‘curse’ but covering a broad range of ideas from a broken oath to an illness and even a demon.

    The rituals and incantations themselves provide a great deal of information about the conceptualization of transgression, curse, and divine punishment. Questions that are asked of these sources include: what sort of transgressive actions might unleash māmītu-curse? What can these transgressions tell us about the perceived structure of society and the universe and an individual’s place within it? How would the curse or divine punishment manifest through illness and other forms of suffering? How did this differ from the suffering caused by other illnesses and sources of evil, like witches and ghosts, and how could the exorcist identify specific cases resulting from transgression? How was the anger of the gods pacified and the effects of the curse removed by ritual and/or medical means?

    By offering answers to these questions, I reveal in the exorcistic corpus an approach to transgression and divine punishment characterized not by guilt and confession, but rather by the inevitability of human error, which can be undone by appeal to the gods and performance of the appropriate rituals. At the same time, I examine the underlying systems of thoughts behind the exorcistic texts which, although never explicitly set out in theoretical treatises, can be found visible in the logic and structure of the more practical ritual texts. The book will be of interest to scholars of Mesopotamian ritual and religion as well as those interested in theology and religion in the ancient world more generally.

  • Mesopotamian Scapegoat Rituals

    My habilitation project will examine the evidence for ‘scapegoat’ rituals in Mesopotamia. This word is highly loaded, but there has been no detailed study into the meaning and context of the Sumero-Akkadian term usually translated ‘scapegoat’: máš-ḫul-dub-ba / mašḫultuppû, literally ‘goat that expels evil’. Alongside this goat, some other animals with special names and similar functions are attested, including sheep, goats, and gazelle. This are employed in a number of rituals (e.g. Bīt rimki, Bīt mēseri, and Udug-ḫul) as substitutes to remove evil from a person, along with accompanying incantations explaining these animal’s significance and mythological background.

    This project will edit these Sumerian incantations for the first time, as well as re-editing and commenting on relevant passages from the ritual instructions. The text editions will provide the basis for a reconstruction and analysis of these ‘scapegoat’ rites, including their use-context and the symbolism of the animals involved. This will be situated within the context of the use of animals as substitutes in the ritual practice of Mesopotamia, as well as in the wider ancient Near East, and the broader ritual and mythological significance of goats, sheep, and similar animals.

    The resulting book will represent a detailed case study of an aspect of Mesopotamian ritual practice that has no dedicated textual sources of its own. It will thus provide insights into the way Mesopotamian exorcists standardized and combined different elements of their rituals, as well as the importance of the underlying symbolism of ritual acts and their part in the overall experience of the ritual. The work will also be of interest outside of Assyriology, due to the enduring impact of the idea of the ‘scapegoat’ in the study of religion as well as in wider socio-cultural discourse.