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Like many ancient peoples, the Hittites of the Late Bronze
Age (13thC BCE) in what is now modern Turkey, along with their semi-independent
ally, Troy, believed that illness came from the gods. Sickness revealed a lack
of harmony between mortal and immortal worlds that once restored would also
restore physical well-being. Their definition of illness was considerably
broader than our modern one often is. A quarrel between a wife and husband was
viewed as needing the attention of the healer just as much as a cough or broken
limb. Perhaps in this respect they had a more progressive, holistic view.
Although there is some evidence of herbal cures, poultices
and brews of various sorts as well as practical wound treatments, most of what
we know about Hittite cures is more magical than practical. They were
particularly drawn to analogical magic. So if a baby in the womb was turned the
wrong direction, they would hold a root vegetable, perhaps an onion, that had
layers within layers and turn the inner layer as they said the proper words,
and the assumption was that the baby also would turn in the same manner as the
onion. This is an example that strains our credulity. Certainly they noticed
the baby didn’t turn? But perhaps they accompanied this magical formula with some
manual procedure and attributed the benefit to the prayer and rite.
Hittite Cuneiform Tablet
cuneiform tablet only mentions rather opaquely an unidentified root vegetable,
turning and special words. For Hittites words were of utmost importance and
power. They had a saying, “The tongue is the bridge.” The words are the
connection between human and divine worlds. Words have transformative power.
The Hittites were also early practitioners of “scapegoating”
as a healing process. If you suffered from a pain in your chest, the healer
would rub a mouse on the source of the pain, transfer some red and green wool
threads from your chest to the mouse, and then send the mouse away—again with
the proper incantations to the gods. Your pain was supposed to wander off with
the mouse. In some cases it probably did, at least temporarily. Modern studies
of placebos show a remarkably high success rate, after all. If your whole
belief system built trust in the efficacy of a rite, it may well have
accomplished pain reduction often enough to sustain the overall belief.
Here is a brief excerpt from my novel Hand of Fire, showing a healer named Briseis trying to use her
array of tools to heal her mother, divinations, rites recorded on tablets,
incantations, and analogical magic:
believed her mother had given in to this illness, accepted defeat from the
beginning. Illness generally came from the gods as punishment for violations
against the gods’ laws. In case her mother had neglected a sacrifice or some
similar affront— any more serious sin seemed unlikely—Briseis performed a snake
divination at the temple to ask Kamrusepa directly how they had offended the
gods. But the swimming snakes had given only a muddled answer as they touched
the words inscribed in the great basin. The snakes failed to identify anything
Briseis could correct. Even before she’d tried the divination it had seemed
impossible to Briseis that her mother could have sinned so greatly that
Kamrusepa sent the illness, but giving in to the disease felt like a sin to
Briseis. Her mother had resigned herself to death too easily, and the gods
abandoned her because she did not love life enough— their gift to all. She
needed to be dragged back to life.
Briseis had an idea. “You two stay with Mama. I need some supplies.”
downstairs to the back storerooms, the sound of the storm growing muted as she
went deeper into the house with its thick walls. Once inside the library, the
comforting odor of clay soothed her. Her mother, Briseis thought, was a mixture
of lavender and earthy clay. She pulled tablets from the wooden pigeonholes,
scanning the words formed with a reed stylus that her brothers said looked like
bird tracks. She found it, “The Breath of Life Incantation.” It hadn’t made
sense to her when she’d been required to copy it for practice three years ago,
but it did now. Her heart felt light. She committed the rite to memory and
tucked the palm-sized tablet back in its place.
She hurried through the megaron hall, the main room of the house with
its two-storied ceiling and circular hearth, out to the main courtyard and into
the kitchen opposite the stables. The wind-driven rain splattered under the
The cook, a middle-aged woman with a kinder heart than her boney, hard
face indicated, looked up in surprise from sorting lentils when Briseis
appeared at the door.
“For Mama, hurry. I need honey, mint and sweet wine.”
The cook quickly gathered everything on a tray, and Briseis carried it
back upstairs. From the carved wooden chest next to the floor-to-ceiling loom
in her mother’s sitting room, she grabbed a sachet of lavender and a clay
incantation jar shaped like a fig.
Iatros and Eurome looked up when she entered the sleeping chamber. She
set down the tray on the table and leaned in close over her mother. Antiope’s
lips were parted, her eyes closed, their lids withered like fallen leaves in
winter. The space between breaths felt impossibly long.
Iatros crouched by the bed, biting his upper lip, eyes fixed on his
shifted her mother’s legs aside and sat down. She closed her eyes and waited
while the fear she felt emptied out with each breath she exhaled. The power of
the ritual’s words filled her mind. She called to Kamrusepa, praying for her to
give power to this rite.
She opened her eyes and placed both hands on her mother’s chest, then
“Antiope, wife of Glaukos, mother of Bienor, Adamas, Iatros, and
Briseis, you have heard death whisper in your ear. You have mistaken that
whisper for the nurturing breath that flows in and out of every human being.
You have gone after death. Return now. Hear the breath of life.”
Briseis poured wine and honey into the fig jar, breathed into it, and
then added the lavender and mint, crushing the leaves to release their scent as
she held the jar close to her mother.
“Antiope, do you smell the spring? The time of new growth and
blossoms? Remember the spring. Remember your children. Remember the sweetness
of life. Remember that you love life. Take a strong breath.”
Silently Briseis added, Come back, Mama, I need you. Remember how
much I love you. Antiope sighed and her eyelids fluttered for a moment.
Iatros cried out.
Briseis’s heart leapt like a deer. “Mama!”
Daughter and son clung to their mother’s hands. They waited for
Antiope to open her eyes and reassure them that she would live. They listened
for the slow rattle to quicken. Instead it faded, caught once, tangled in a
last wisp of life, then fell silent.
Tears ran down Briseis’s face, hot against her skin. Gradually her wet
cheeks grew cold.
About the Author:
Starkston writes historical fiction and mysteries set in Troy and the Hittite
Empire. Ms. Starkston is a classicist (B.A. University of California, Santa
Cruz, M.A. Cornell University) who taught high school English, Latin and
humanities. She and her husband have two grown children and live in Arizona
with their golden retriever Socrates. Hand
of Fire is her debut novel.
excerpt, Q&A, book reviews, ancient recipes, historical background as well
as on-going information about the historical fiction community on Starkston’s