Thursday, May 5, 2016

Going out in stele


A dear friend died suddenly last month, not long after we had discussed the necessity of putting his affairs in order. Regrettably, he had not committed his estate management plans to writing by the time he was taken short. The same cannot be said of Esarhaddon, who ruled Assyria for a dozen years in the seventh century BCE. Wishing to secure the succession on behalf of his son Ashurbanipal, the king directed that his allies and vassals affix their names to a declaration of loyalty to the heir. What makes it particularly memorable is the length and detail of the sixty-two no-contest provisions appended to the oath. Here they are, as published in Horizon Magazine (see my entry for Mid-Century Middlebrow) in 1959, transcribed and translated by Donald J. Wiseman of the British Museum (lacunae indicate lost bits of the original):


You will not make a claim against this document bearing the seal of the god Ashur, king of the gods. It has been applied in your presence, you will serve him as your own god. 
You swear that you will not alter it, nor consign it to the fire, nor bury it in the earth, nor destroy it by any cunning device, nor make it disappear nor sweep it away. If you do so may Ashur, king of the gods, who decrees the fates, decree for you evil and not good. May he grant that you never become a father nor reach old age. 
May Ninlil, his beloved wife, interpret the utterance of his mouth as evil, may she not intercede for you. 
May Sin, the bright luminary of heaven and earth, clothe you with a leprosy. May he forbid your entering into the presence of the gods or king, saying “Roam the desert like the wild ass and the gazelle.” 
May Shamash, the light of the heavens and earth, not judge you justly, saying “May it be dark in your eyes. Walk in darkness.” 
May Ninurta, chief of the gods, fell you with his swift arrow; may he fill the plain with your corpses; may he feed your flesh to the eagle and the jackal. 
May Venus, the brightest of the stars, make your wives lie in the lap of your enemy before your very eyes. May your sons not inherit your house; may a foreign enemy divide your goods. 
May Jupiter, exalted lord of the gods, not show you how to enter the temple Esagila, may he destroy your life. 
May Marduk, the eldest son, assign for your fate a serious punishment and an indissoluble curse. 
May Sarpanitum, who gives name and seed, destroy your name and seed from the land. 
May the Lady of the Gods, mistress of creation, cut off birth from your land; may she make rare the cries of little children in the streets and squares. 
May Adad, controller of the waters of heaven and earth dry up your ponds…may he submerge your land with a great flood. May the locust which diminishes the land devour your harvest. May there be no mill or oven in your houses; may there be no grain for grinding and instead of grain may they grind your bones and those of your sons and your daughters. May your fingertips not dip in any dough, may dough be lacking from your kneading troughs; may a pregnant mother [and] her daughter eat the flesh of your sons; in your extremity may you eat the flesh of your sons. Through hunger may one man eat the flesh of another; may one man clothe himself in another’s skin; may dogs and swine eat your flesh and may your ghost have no one appointed as a funeral-libation pourer. 
May Ishtar, lady of battle and war, smash your bow amid a fierce battle. May she bind your arm and so may she end your life in the presence of your enemy. 
May Nergal, hero of the gods, extinguish your life with his merciless dagger; may he send slaughter and pestilence among you. 
May Ninlil, who dwells in Nivenah, tie a flaming sword at your side. 
May Ishtar, who dwells in Erbil, not grant you mercy and kindness. 
May Gula, the great physician, put sickness, sleeplessness, poison, and torment in your body, may she make you sweat blood instead of water. 
May the Sibitti…[two curses here broken]. 
May Ishtar of Carchemish put a strong rimtu-disease within you, so that your flesh sinks in like…to the ground. 
May the great gods of heaven and earth who inhabit the world, as many as are named in this tablet, strike you, look grimly at you, and curse you angrily with an evil curse. Above, may they take possession of your life; below, in the underworld, may they make your ghost thirst for water, may they make you grope in shadow and twilight, yet may you never stand in privacy. May food and water abandon you, may want and famine, hunger and plagues never be removed from you. May your maidservants be ever feeble and your male workers perpetually hostile. May dogs and swine drag you to-and-fro in the public squares of Ashur. May the earth not receive your corpse in burial; may you be food in the belly of a dog or pig. May your days be dark, your years be dim, may they decree dimness without any brightness. On a bed may sleeplessness put an end to your life. May an irresistible flood come up from the earth and devastate you. May anything good be an abomination to you and anything ill your share. 

May tar and pitch be your food, may the urine of an ass be your drink, naphtha your ointment, and duckweed your covering. May demon, devil and evil spirit choose your houses. 
[Here follows an affirmation to abide by the treaty.] 
If you transgress against this treaty, which Esarhaddon, king of Assyria, has made with you…  
May Ashur, father of the gods, shatter you with his weapons.
May Palil, lord… 
May Ea, king of the Deep, the lord of springs, give you unhealthy water to drink; may he fill you with dropsy. 
May the great gods of heaven and earth set water and oil… 
May Girra, who gives food to small and great, burn up your seed and your seed’s seed. 
May as many gods as are cited in this tablet cut up your ground into as many bricks, may they make your ground as hard as iron so that none of you flourish. 
As rain does not fall from a brazen heaven, so may rain and dew not come upon your fields and your meadows; may it rain burning coals instead of dew on your land. 
As lead melts before a fire, so may you not stand before your enemy; you will take your sons and your daughters in your hands [to flee]. 
As a hinny is sterile, so may your name, your seed and the seed of your sons and your daughters be destroyed from the land. 
As the horn of…grows in when it does not flourish, you will not turn… 
May your seed and the seed of your sons and your daughters be destroyed from the land. 
May Shamash with his iron plough cut up your cities and country regions. 
As a starving ewe puts the flesh of her young in her mouth, so may he feed you in your hunger with the flesh of your brothers, your sons, and your daughters. 
As when male and female kids and male and female lambs are slit open and their entrails roll down over their feet, so may the entrails of your sons and daughters roll over your feet. 
As a snake and a mongoose do not enter and lie down together in the same hole without thinking of cutting off each other’s life, so may you and your womenfolk never enter the same room without thinking of cutting off each other’s lives. 
As bread and wine enter the intestines, so may they cause this curse to enter into your intestines and into those of your sons and daughters. 
As you blow water out of a…so may they blow you, your women, your sons, and your daughters…May your streams, your springs, and their sources be dried up. 
May they make the working of gold go from your land. 
As honey is sweet, so may the blood of your women, your sons, and your daughters be sweet in your mouth. 
As you do not eat shazpu raw, so may you taste and eat, while you are alive, your own flesh and the flesh of your wives, your sons, and your daughters. 
May they shatter your bow and cause you to sit beneath your enemy; may they cause the bow to come away from your hand; may they cause your chariots to be turned upside down. 
As a stag is overtaken and killed, so may the avenger overtake and kill you, your sons, and your daughters. 
As a butterfly which leaves its chrysalis does not return to its cocoon, so may you not return to your wives in your homes. 
As one seizes a bird in a trap, so may brothers and your sons place you in the hands of the avenger. 
May they make your skin and the skin of your wives, your sons, and your daughters dirty. May they be black as pitch and crude oil. 
As a…is caught in a snare, so may you, your brothers and your sons and your daughters be seized by the hand of your enemy. 
May the flesh and the flesh of your women, your sons, and your daughters change color like the chameleon. 
As a honeycomb is pierced with holes, so may they pierce your flesh, the flesh of your women, your brothers, your sons, and your daughters with holes while you are alive. 
As locusts and caterpillars eat up vegetation, so may they cause your towns, your land, and your district to be devoured. 
May they treat you as a fly caught in the hand; may your enemy squash you. 
As urine stinks, so may you smell before god, king, and mankind. 
May they strangle you yourself, your women, your sons, and your daughters with a cord. 
Just as one burns a wax image in fire and dissolves one made of clay in water, so may your figure burn in the fire and sink in the water. 
As this chariot with its base-board is spattered with blood, so, in battle with your enemy, may they spatter your chariots with your own blood. 
May they pin you down with a distaff. May they treat you like a woman in the presence of your enemy. 
As for you, your brothers, your sons, and daughters, may they cause you to be turned upside down like a tortoise. 
Like fire, may something neither good nor pleasant come upon you. 
As oil enters your flesh, so may they cause this curse to enter into your flesh, the flesh of your brothers, your sons, and your daughters. 
Just as they who sin against a god or lord are cursed and thus their arms and their legs become stiff and their eyelids twitch, so may they annihilate you. May they rot you like a reed-bucket in water; may your enemy wring you out like blood from a bandage. 
You swear that you will not lose yourselves from Esarhaddon, king of Assyria and Ashurbanipal, the crown prince. You will not go to the right or to the left. May scorpions devour him who would go to the right and may scorpions devour him who would go to the left. 
As an insect which slips into a grinding mill, so may you, your women, your sons, and your daughters have no rest or sleep. May your bones never rest together. 
As the inside of a hole is empty, may your inside be empty. 
When your enemy runs you through, may there be no honey, oil, or cedar resin available to place on your wound. 
As a gall bladder is bitter, so may you, your women, your sons, and your daughters be bitter towards each other. 
May Shamash clamp a bronze trap over you; may he throw you into a trap from which there is no escape; may he never let you out alive. 
As the water leaks out of a split leather water bottle, so in a place of thirst and want may your water bottle be broken so that you die from lack of water.

The exhaustiveness of this catalogue of maledictions makes me suspect that Esarhaddon was able to draw upon the services of a crackerjack legal team, In fact, for a matter of this import he probably didn’t rely on in-house talent: I see him bringing in some powerhouse counsel to put it together, and imagine this scene at the venerable firm of Tigris, Euphrates, Nivenah, Sidon & Tyre, LLP as a senior partner (SP) confers with a trusted associate (TA) on the final wording:

SP: This will do, I think. Very thorough. Crops blighted, fields flooded, daughters raped, sons eaten, flesh devoured by jackals, land afflicted by famine and plague. Military setbacks, economic dislocation, rectoccygeal violation on the battlefield. Disembowelment, edema, psoriasis, gangrene, blindness, severe B.O., terminal dessication. Infidelity and domestic discord. Locusts, caterpillars and scorpions. Nice work with the scorpions, by the way. Ashur, Marduk, Ishtar, Gula, Sarpanitum and the other heavy hitters in the pantheon all on board. All good. Have we left anything out?
TA: Feet, sir.
SP: Feet?
TA: We should include a noncompliance curse on feet.
SP: Good thought. Who, ah, remind me, which one does feet?
TA: That would be Mukluk, sir.
SP: Mukluk, of course. Draw something up.
TA: I’ve taken the liberty of drafting some language, sir: May Mukluk, podiatrist to the gods, afflict your feet with fallen arches and painful bunions.
SP: Excellent, Smithers. Just…punch it up a little. Don’t say feet, say “nether extremities.” Sounds more wrath-of-the-gods, don’t you know, and half of those illiterate yokels will think we’re talking about their dicks. Lose the arches, throw in some gout. Maybe a touch of toenail fungus and a couple of lesions.
TA: Right, sir.
SP: Have a draft stele on my desk tomorrow morning by ten.
TA: By ten. Yes sir.

(This obviously would have been one of the missing curses.)

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