How ancient Near Eastern magicians soothed crying infants
Parents worldwide and through the ages have longed for a magical cure for their crying babies. David Bosworth, Catholic University Associate Professor of Old Testament, suggests that the ancient Mesopotamians had such spells thousands of years ago. In his Archaeological Views column “Magical Cures for Crying Infants” in the March/April 2016 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Bosworth explores the contents of these magical ancient lullabies and the reasons why they were effective.
Ancient Near Eastern magicians likely used maternal wisdom to develop baby incantations. According to some scholars, these incantations may have been based off of the ancient lullabies Mesopotamian mothers sang to their babies to quiet them down at night.
“Lullabies are ‘anonymous’ texts in the sense that their creators are no longer known, and ritual experts might have modified existing lullabies to suit their needs,” Bosworth explains. “Across cultures, mothers sing to their infants in part because infants can be soothed by song (as well as touch and rhythmic rocking, which often accompanies such singing).”
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The mother’s singing, rocking and touching provided the baby with a sense of calm and security (at least if hunger or a dirty diaper were not the root cause). Bosworth argues that Mesopotamian magicians adopted these ancient lullabies, wrote them down and sold them to parents who could afford to pay. References to wet-nurses and nannies imply the wealth of some clients, as seen in this incantation:
You, baby, newborn human: you have now emerged, you have now seen the sun, the light. Why in the womb of your mother did you not treat her like this? Instead of treating your father well and allowing your mother to lead a normal life, you have terrified the nanny and kept the wet-nurse awake. With your noise, the household god is no longer sleeping, the household goddess cannot grab sleep.1
Like many modern lullabies, ancient lullabies paired care–evidenced by the very act of performing a lullaby–with a touch of darkness. Parents who are frustrated and tired can feel resentment toward a crying child, even in the midst of love and concern. This dichotomy is also present in ancient baby incantations. When it comes to child-rearing, the temporal distance is minimal.
The ancient Mesopotamians appealed to some gods to quiet babies out of fear that other gods would turn their wrath on the infants for their noisy tears. Ancient parents—as modern ones—might have been afraid that infant crying was indicative of a serious medical issue or unexplained distress. High infant mortality was, after all, common in antiquity.
“The relief offered by the magician was not only a quiet baby, but less anxious parents,” Bosworth explains of ancient Mesopotamian baby incantations. “Even if the ritual did not work, it could provide parents with the sense that they had done all they could to quiet their baby and ward off disease.”
Learn more about ancient lullabies in Mesopotamia by reading the full Archaeological Views column “Magical Cures for Crying Infants” by David Bosworth in the March/April 2016 issue of BAR.
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This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on March 28, 2016.
1. Translation from Akkadian; see W. Farber, Schlaf, Kindchen, Schlaf!: Mesopotamische Baby-Beschwörungen und –Rituale (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1989), pp. 34–36.
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