Johannes J. van Dijk and Markham J. Geller, with the collaboration of Joachim Oelsner, Ur III Incantations from the Frau Professor Hilprecht-Collection, Jena.
(Texte und Materialien der Frau Professor Hilprecht Collection of Babylonian Antiquities im Eigentum der Friedrich Schiller-Universität Jena 6; Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2003),x + 157 pp, 49 plates. Cloth. €68.00. ISBN 3-447-04707-0.
Reviewed by Martin Worthington
St John’s College, Cambridge

This volume edits 23 Sumerian incantations from the Third Dynasty of Ur (late 3rd millennium) housed in Jena.1 The project was initiated by Jacobus van Dijk, who copied the tablets and undertook preliminary editions, and continued after van Dijk’s death by Markham J. Geller, who not only collated the tablets, but revised and improved the translation and commentary. Several other distinguished Sumerologists were shown the book before it was published, and contributed philological suggestions. Thus while, as Geller modestly notes in his introduction, problems do remain to be solved, it is also true that the editions in the book are of a very high standard.

This is all the more welcome and necessary because the texts are of great, and in several respects unique, interest. To date, only 21 Sumerian (and 2 Akkadian) incantations were known from the Neo-Sumerian period, so the book under review more than doubles the corpus. They bridge the gap between the rather laconic and obscure Early Dynastic incantations from earlier in the third millennium and the stream of tradition originating with the Old Babylonian scribal schools. Moreover, many of them are in a good state of preservation, and students of Near Eastern culture and of the history of Magic will read them with interest and profit (though the philological commentary, mostly in standard Assyriological jargonese, is written for specialists).

We will here discuss a few points of detail. Geller notes (p. 3) that in two incantations (n. 1 and 2) the Ur3 kings Šulgi and Amar-Suen feature as patients. The Šulgi text (n. 2) has an Early Dynastic forerunner, and Geller comments (ibid.): “what this shows … for the first time, is how incantations were recycled from one period to the next, and applied to specific contexts, in this particular case, to an ailment of the great Šulgi himself.” The point is taken up again in the commentary to the text (p. 16): “it seems clear that this incantation was first composed as a single anti-snakebite incantation, then used in the royal court referring to the king by name, and finally the incantation was incorporated into a larger composition with at least two other incantations.” While the point about textual development is well taken, one might question what degree of historicity informed that development. Geller appears to suggest that the incantation attests to an illness truly suffered by Šulgi, the historical person. On the other hand, mention of Šulgi could have been introduced independently of any real historical ailment of his. For example, perhaps we can connect mention of the suffering Šulgi with another unusual feature in this interesting group of texts highlighted by Geller (p. 2): the motif of gods as sufferers. If this was current at the time, portraying Šulgi as sufferer could have aimed to flatter the king’s vanity, and if done after his death could be connected to state propaganda about deification (though his name on the tablet in question lacks the divine determinative).

Otherwise, the very inclusion of Šulgi’s name, regardless of the role in which he featured in the incantation, might have been thought to lend it effectiveness. The mention of Šulgi and Amar-Su’en in incantations which are virtually contemporary with them can be compared profitably with texts which attribute medical recipes to Naram-Sîn and Hammurapi, the extant manuscripts in these cases being considerably later than the real historical figures.2

Other minor points: for the “subtle tension in later incantations between Enlil and Enki” (p. 2) see the theory expounded by van Binsbergen and Wiggermann in the first chapter of Tz. Abusch and K. van der Toorn, eds., Mesopotamian Magic (Brill, 2000); for some background to assessing the literary similarities of the Ur3 incantations with later ones see A. J. Ferrara, “Topoi and stock-strophes in Sumerian Literary tradition: Some Observations, part I”, JNES 54 (1995), 81–117.

The volume’s format and layout are attractive, with noticeably good quality paper, clear photographs of all the tablets, a comprehensive glossary, and hand copies of the cuneiform texts and collations. Regrettably it suffers from a number of typographical errors, but none of these are serious or detract significantly from this welcome and important achievement.


[1] The last, text 23, is actually more likely to be a proverb than an incantation. There are also six re-editions of related texts in an appendix.

[2] For Naram-Sîn see Köcher, “Ein verkannter neubabylonischer Text aus Sippar”, AfO 20 (1963), 156–8, citing Assur 13955/gn ii 5 and Assur 13956/er 5’: 14 NA4.MEŠ GÚ mna-ram-dSîn(BÀ) ‘fourteen stones to be put on the neck’ of (i.e. recipe of) Naram-Sîn and restoring NA4 GÚ mna-r[am-sîn] in K 10220+10463 Rv 3: (Editio Princeps Borger, AfO Bh. 9, p. 118 + pl. v). For Hammurapi see BAM 159 iv 22’ and Köcher, AfO 20, restoring [na4 gú šá mha-am-m]u-ra-pí in K 10220+10463 Rv. 4. Note that a tradition about Naram-Sîn (and other Sargonic kings) also found its way into omen texts. See H. Hirsch, “Die Inschriften der Könige von Agade”, AfO 20 (1963), pp. 1–82. Further references are given by D. R. Frayne, RlA 9, 174a. For another example of the importance of a traditional name in magic see ‘Gilgamesh in exorcistic rituals’ in A. R. George, The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic (Oxford, 2003), vol. 1, pp. 132–5.