Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.07.04

Irene Huber, Rituale der Seuchen- und Schadensabwehr im Vorderen Orient und Griechenland. Formen kollektiver Krisenbewältigung in der Antike. Oriens et Occidens 10.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner, 2005.  Pp. 287.  ISBN 3-515-08045-7.  €60.00.  

Reviewed by Eleni Hatzimavroudi, Aristoteles University of Thessaloniki (
Word count: 1437 words

In the Iliad the plague that breaks out among the Achaeans on account of Apollo's anger raises some interesting issues about collective disaster and its confrontation. The four main chapters of the present book are devoted to the examination of the stance of ancient civilizations against massive catastrophes and focus on the collective attempt to avert the influence of evil on the community through religious and magical processes. Placing special emphasis on the interrelationships between Greece and the Near East, the book is a significant contribution because it introduces students to the subject, while scholars can also obtain a general overview and benefit from some of the observations.

After a short Prologue (p. 8) and a useful List of Abbreviations (pp. 9-12) the Introduction ("Einleitende Bemerkungen", pp. 13-21, in fact 'chapter 1') defines the main objective of the study, namely the description of the ancient civilizations' reaction against massive catastrophes such as plague, famine, drought or various dangerous natural phenomena. The author acknowledges the determinative impact of religion and magic in such cases as well as the decisive role of other social, psychological and medical factors. As far as the rites organized are concerned the religious principle "do ut des" seems to be replaced by an assumed "do ut abeas" outlook in such a way that the negative result can be transmitted to another bearer.

The observation of interrelationships among different civilizations proves to be very important for the present research; it is remarked, for instance, not without raising some reasonable objection, that during a crisis people seem to accept more eagerly ideas taken from other civilizations. Comparison and antithesis are highlighted as helpful means of interpreting parallel motifs emerging in different cultures. The recognition of analogies and differences is facilitated by the temporal and local breadth of the evidence that form the basis of the study, from the first half of the second millennium in Mesopotamia and Ugarit to the Roman Empire. The author assumes that religion and rituals were normally conservative,and so such a study can encompass a wide historical and geographical frame. However, this assumption seems to contradict what author says about the eager acceptance of ideas drawn from other civilizations in periods of crisis.

The next part of the Introduction is devoted to the method and the structure of the study. The distinction between various kinds of averting (for example substitution, death, elimination and evocatio) enlightens the similarities of different cultures' reactions to natural disasters.

In the course of the second chapter ("2. Rituale der Seuchenabwehr im Vorderen Orient", pp. 22-86), the author defines the meaning of the Near East, a task that would be more appropriate to the Introduction. The main body of the material comes from Assyria of the first millenium B.C. Mesopotamia offers a "Namburbi-ritual for the royal army", based on elimination, which aims at confronting the sickness of horses and the military forces. Another ritual is used to face "shêp lemutti", massive deaths, described as the "foot of evil" and expected to cause the death of men as a kind of enemies' attack. The intention of "defence" in this case is not only to stop the present disaster but also to prevent the outbreak of analogous suffering in the future. The author depicts the process by taking into account texts and archeological evidence. Some motifs are not unfamiliar to the ancient Greek tradition: reference to number "seven", honey, wine and water. Various practices lead to the prevention of evil; the house for example must be cleaned and purified. People try to avert the plague through rituals against Asakku and against Namtar (the much-feared god of plague, who could let loose sixty different kinds of disease). The amulets also serve as a kind of protection against wide-spread disease and also against evil caused by magic.

Analogous behavior and treatment against the "materia peccans" is attested for the Hittite culture. Much of the evidence is drawn from the archives of Hattusa (now Boghazköy), dated to the second half of the second millennium B.C. (pp. 48 ff.). The "materia peccans" is either eliminated or substituted, and scapegoat rituals are also attested. A ritual against Namtar is also recognized there, drawn from the Mesopotamian world and copied by the Hittite scribes; it is interesting to read the ways mentioned to deal with the recrudescence of the epidemic. Another ritual is also associated with the military sphere and the state of the army: a disease believed to derive from a foreign god attacks the troops returning from a successful expedition. In the course of the ritual the king is treated as a substitute for the whole army; the substitution is associated with the function of the king as representative of the people (pars pro toto). The process is repeated twice so that both men and animals can be protected. The action of Iarri (p. 58) provides an interesting parallel to the fatal appearance of Apollo in the Iliad, when he punishes the Achaeans for not satisfying the request of Chryses. Both gods carry a bow, a feature that underlines their interrelationship. In contrast to what happens in Mesopotamia, the practice among the Hittites seems to be based on elimination and substitution.

The next chapter ("Griechenland", pp. 87 ff.) examines analogous phenomena in Greece. While the same need is being faced, namely the threatening appearance of an epidemic or a famine or a natural catastrophe and its confrontation, the situation differs from the Orient as far as the religion and the access to writing is concerned. The author correctly distinguishes between historical events and stories narrated in literary texts (e. g. Iliad book I, the Oedipus rex of Sophocles). The protection from plague is also attested in myth: the author comments on the cult-legend of Artemis Munichia, on the cult-aition for Dionysus in Potniai, on the aition of the rite in honor of Artemis Triklaria and Dionysus Aisymnetes and on other aetiological stories about the sacrifice of young maiden of noble origin in Athens and Orchomenus.

An attempt to locate analogous historical cases in Greece leads to study of the archaic wandering priests (pp. 109 ff.) and the investigation of pharmakoi (pp. 115 ff.). Legendary motifs and real events seem to be interwoven in the lives of religious experts; this is what happens usually with all famous people (real or legendary) in the ancient world. Epimenides from Crete and Thaletas from Gortyn function as rescuers for the community of Athens and Sparta respectively. According to such legends, the priest confronting this kind of danger could use a variety of methods. The author also discusses the complex issue of pharmakoi and examines the use of animals as purifying means and personal or communal amulets (e. g. from Phalasarna). A magical process for protection against the plague is not attested in Greece, but many other rituals known from the Near East do occur.

The fourth chapter ("4. Rituale zur Abwehr kollektiven Uebels", pp. 144 ff.) refers to other threatening catastrophes. The transition to a new year was usually regarded as a cause of insecurity. The Babylonian Akîtu-ceremony for instance, based on an ancestral Sumerian one, alludes to the creation of chaos and the subsequent restoration of order. The Hittites regarded celestial phenomena as possible causes of a crisis for the community. The ancient Greeks had similar beliefs about Sirius. Drought and famine led to rituals that entailed evocatio. These rituals are attested in the Old Testament and in texts from Mesopotamia. The myth of the sacrifice of Athamas is an interesting Greek parallel. The search for vanished gods can also be noted; among the Greeks and the Hittites it is connected with rituals based on evocatio. The author rightly notes that in Hittite religion the weather gods (for example Telipinu and the weather god from Nerik) play a crucial role because of the life's connection to the rain. The saga of Telipinu presents similarities with the myth of the Greek Goddess Demeter Melaina.

The last chapter ("5. Rituale als Systeme der Krisenbewaeltigung", pp. 202 ff.) focuses on overpopulation as possible cause of outbreaks of plague. While such hypotheses can not be excluded for Mesopotamia, they are out of the question for Greece until the Hellenistic age because of the limited population. The cultures discussed in this book often assumed that diseases occurred by divine will and intervention. The Hippocratic doctors were the first to investigate non-divine causes. The conclusions ("6. Schlussbetrachtungen", pp. 250 ff.) are followed by a List of iconographic material, a large bibliography and two useful indices. The present book is a useful addition to the field and will certainly spur further research on the topic.

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