17 November 2014

Curing the Hittite Way: Analogical Magic and Powerful Words

Hittite Mother Goddess Figurine

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
The 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:  

Briseis 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.”
She ran 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 portico’s shelter.
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 sister.
Briseis 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 her head.
“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:
Judith 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.
Find an excerpt, Q&A, book reviews, ancient recipes, historical background as well as on-going information about the historical fiction community on Starkston’s website www.JudithStarkston.com
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