Adam Howe

Title: Conceptions of Transgression and Its Consequences in the Mesopotamian Exorcistic Corpus

University: University of Oxford

Supervisors: Dr Frances Reynolds (Oxford), Prof Daniel Schwemer (JMU Würzburg)


My doctoral research examines the portrayal of suffering in the Mesopotamian exorcistic corpus (āšipūtu) that was attributed to the consequences of an individual’s transgressive actions. Key to the āšipūtu rituals’ conceptualization of transgression and its punishment is the concept of ‘self-curse’, represented by the Akkadian terms māmītu and arratu, and these therefore form the main focus of my research. Recently published namerimburruda-rituals, which target māmītu-curse and its effects, allow for a reassessment of this concept, while previously unpublished material demonstrates that arratu-curse occasionally had a complementary function. Throughout my research, these concepts are situated within their wider intellectual context, in relation to other causes of suffering addressed by the āšipūtu corpus as well as conceptions of divine punishment in other areas of Mesopotamian literature.

The body of my dissertation has a tripartite structure. First, I examine the portrayal of the ultimate causes of suffering, namely the possible acts of transgression that are listed in incantations. I also consider elements that problematize a direct link between these actions and the resultant suffering: the sufferer’s ignorance of possible transgressions; the possibility of contracting the suffering through contagion; and the portrayal of ‘self-curse’ as externalized, demon-like entities. Second, I look at the manifestation of suffering as a state of ‘reduced existence’. This includes physical and psychological ‘medical’ symptoms, as well as damage to the victim’s socio-economic standing and relationship with the gods. Finally, I assess the methods employed by the exorcist to remove the patient’s state of suffering. The way these methods were understood to work provides further insight into the exorcist’s conceptualization of transgression and its consequences.

Overall, my findings suggest a significant new approach to the theology of sin and divine punishment in late Mesopotamian scholarship and give insights into the theoretical background of the āšipūtu corpus.

Keywords: transgression, curse, divine punishment, ritual, religion, history of medicine