An Ancient Babylonian Diviner’s Prayer

A while back, I recall hearing about a collection of Babylonian and Assyrian poetry and prayers being made public by some university or other, along with recordings of them being said aloud in their original tongue, long extinct though it was.  It was awesome, but I left it behind, not really having much to do with it besides it sounding really cool.  More recently, while I was enjoying myself on a weekend night, I was talking to a friend about ancient scripts, which led me to look up some of the finer nuances of cuneiform writing, which led me to the Babylonian language, which reminded me of this collection of prayers.  Being a magician and occultist, more so than I was before when I first found this site, I did some brief searching and found the collection again.  It’s a fantastic resource, though small, for people wanting to do research in this field; one of the more famous texts, the Ludlul bēl nēmeqi or “I Will Praise the Lord of Wisdom” a.k.a. Babylonian Job, is also available in various forms.

One of the prayers in the collection is called The Diviner’s Prayer to the Gods of Night, and it’s a fantastic bit of prayer and literature.  For background’s sake, divination was often done in daytime under the omens and oversight of the big gods like Šamaš and Ištar, and official religious activity often ceased at nightfall when things generally calmed down.  (This is still the case in some divination systems like sikidy, a Madagascan form of geomancy.)  However, if one needed answers immediately and it just happened to be nighttime, they were often out of luck.  The Diviner’s Prayer to the Gods of Night got around this by appealing to the nighttime gods, the constellations that watched over the world in the absence of the big guys.  Artistically, it sets things up quite nicely and illustrates how the dark of night usually closes all available avenues for help and assitance: officials retire into their palaces, the gods retire to their abodes, doors are shut, courts are closed, and all goes dark.  Except, of course, those remaining lights in the sky, the stars themselves.

Anyway, a few guys at some fancy-pants university went ahead and made recordings of these texts, and you can find the recording for this prayer here.  The prayer, in English, is rendered like this:

The princes are closely guarded,
The bolts are lowered, rings set in place.
The noisy people are fallen silent,
Gates once opened are locked.
The gods of the land, goddesses of the land,
Šamaš, Sîn, Adad and Ištar
Have gone off into the lap of heaven.
They will give no judgment, they will decide no cases.
Veiled is the night.
The palace, its chapel, and sanctuary are dark.
The wayfarer calls out to the god, the petitioner keeps on sleeping.
The judge of justice, father of the destitute,
Šamaš has gone into his sanctuary.
May the great gods of the night,
brilliant Girra, warrior Erra,
the Bow, the Yoke, Orion, the Dragon,
the Wagon, the She-Goat, the Bison, the Horned Serpent,
stand by!
In the extispicy which I am performing,
In the lamb which I am offering,
place for me the truth!

And in Babylonian (a macron or circumflex over a vowel lengthens it, a carat over an S turns it into a “sh” sound, and a carat under an H makes it guttural like “ch” in German or Scottish):

pullulū rubû
wašrū sikkūrū šīrētum šaknā
habrātum nišū šaqummā
petûtum uddulū bābū
ilī mātim ištarāt mātim
šamaš sîn adad u ištar
īterbū ana utul šamê
ul idinnū dīnam ul iparrasū awâtim
pussumat mušītim
ekallum šaḫurša kummu adrū
ālik urhim ilam išassi u ša dīnim ušteberre šittam
dayyān kīnātim abi ekiātim
šamaš īterub ana kummišu
rabûtum ilī mušītim
nawrum girra qurādum erra
qaštum nīrum šitaddarum mušḫuššum
eriqqum enzum kusarikkum bašmum
lizzizūma
ina têrti eppušu
ina puḫād akarrabu
kittam šuknān

The “gods of night” were ancient Babylonian constellations watching over the world in the night sky.  Although a lot of our astronomical and astrological lore comes from Babylon, especially in Western systems of knowledge, a lot has changed over the past 3000 or so years, and not all the constellations recognized back then remain as such in the eye of skywatchers today.  Below is a rough correspondence, as far as I can tell, between the constellations mentioned in the prayer and modern constellations:

  • Girra ↔ Jaw of Taurus
  • Erra ↔ A star above the bridge of Ursa Major
  • Bow ↔ Puppis, the poop deck of the Argo
  • Yoke ↔ Part of Boötes, the central stars around Arcturus
  • Dragon ↔ Draco, or another name for Hydra?
  • Wagon ↔ Seven principal stars of Ursa Major
  • She-Goat ↔ Lyra
  • Bison ↔ Centaurus and Lupus
  • Horned Serpent ↔ Hydra

You’ll notice in the final lines of the prayer the mention of extispicy and a lamb.  This refers to a common method of divination back in the ancient world, the inspection of the innards of a sacrificed animal to determine omens.  Lambs were common for this across the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern world, and especially involving the liver.  Splotches of color, deformities, tumors, hard spots, infections, and the like could all signify different things depending on where they might be found, and in some stories there was even a complete lack of the organ to be inspected (unspeakably bad omen).  I’m not aware of the existence of modern practitioners in this art, though I’d love to learn how it’s done, and I’m sure that some enclaves of society still perform extispicy or haruspicy in some form or another in what might be called traditional ways.  That said, some people may not like the idea of using animal parts so viscerally for divination, and might find these lines distasteful.  A translation that makes it a little cleaner might be as follows:

In the divination that I am performing,
In the spirit that I am offering,
place for me the truth!

Now that we’re getting to the dark time of the year with longer nights than days, and with Samhain just around the corner, I figure this whole prayer might not be a bad one to use in my practice.  If you like to do a lot of your workings and divination at nighttime, leaving occult matters for occult times, you might find this prayer nifty to pick up, too.

Also, as a side note, it seems like I’ve been digging up a fair bit of ancient material lately for modern uses.  I normally stick to Renaissance stuff, but this all has its origins in eastern Mediterranean lore and practice that spread out and developed on its own.  There’s another prayer I want to get to eventually, the Prayer of Jacob from PGM XXIIb.1-26, but it’s going to take some good research and revelation before I can divine what goes in some of the lacunae and its purpose.  What sorts of ancient practices, prayers, or techniques do you use in your work, if any?  Although a lot has changed in the past 3000 years or so, I claim that humanity hasn’t really changed in any significant way; the old techniques still work, the old words still ring true, and old problems cause the same issues year after year, century after century.

Skill points in potionmaking

So I’m making natron tonight for the first time for use in cleaning and cleansing. Natron is a dried powder, a mixture of sodium carbonate (washing soda), sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), and sodium chloride (salt), and has been used since Ancient Egypt in mouthwash, bleaching, baths, and mummification, that last one because this stuff is powerfully dehydrating. Unfortunately, I’m having to omit the washing soda since I can’t find it nearby, but Kemetic practitioners seem to do well with just a baking soda and salt mixture.

To make natron, mix the dried ingredients together (one part baking soda and one part salt, or four parts washing soda to one part baking soda to one eighth part salt), and mix in water until completely dissolved. Bring to a rapid boil uncovered and stir frequently until it evaporates to about a third the original volume; around this point, the solution will thicken very quickly to a consistency of very thick oatmeal. Turn off heat, spread out in a baking pan, and bake at 250 deg F for several hours until completely dry, taking care not to burn the top. Alternatively, you could set out the mixture until dry, but take care to cover the top with cheesecloth to keep out dust; because of its dehydrating properties, you may not be able to dry it out in the air depending on the humidity.

Protip: use a stew pot or a pot with very tall sides, since the bubbles from stirring and the fizzing will get salt water everywhere, leaving residue all over the pan, the stove, and the spoon. It comes off easily enough, since it can dissolve in water readily, but it may take some scratching off with a nail or knife in the crevices of a pot. I’m told that even small measurements of the ingredients used will go a very long way; some first batches made in 2005 only just now ran out even with constant use.

Why might you use natron, you ask? One book on Hermetic ritual, using sources from the Greek Magical Papyri, says that natron can be used to form a ritual circle for protection by sprinkling the powder around in a circle around the ritual space, or can be used in a dilute solution to purify an area by sprinkling it around the place. (I read an article earlier about melting natron with sand and other ingredients to make glass for ritual mirrors, finding it fascinating but then finding myself embarrassed when I realized that, after it discussing that it took 3d4 hours to make the mirror, it was talking about Dungeons and Dragons. Fah.)

This is easier to prepare in some ways, at least compared to holy water (which involves literal questing across Northern Virginia to find in some out-of-the-way botanica), but takes longer, involves more cleanup (scrubbing off encrusted natron from the pots and stove compared to straining out some herbs from a pot), and I don’t get as much experience in chanting a prayer.

The parallels to an RPG are striking.

Update 4/1/2011: Epic fail. Turns out that, as a cleansing agent, natron kicks ass. When I put it in the baking pan in the oven to dry out, I noticed it started turning brown, which was confusing since it was too wet to be burned. Later, I noticed that the baking pan, which was a hand-me-down from my mother and was ancient beyond recognition, was cleaner than it had been when it was first bought, and the natron simply lifted off the years’ worth of grease. Whoops. Another batch, then, will be attempted soon.