An Ancient Babylonian Diviner’s Prayer
September 15, 2012 1 Comment
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,
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):
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
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
ina têrti eppušu
ina puḫād akarrabu
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.