Corpus of Akkadian Shuila Prayers Online

Alan Lenzi, University of the Pacific (Stockton, CA)

Shuila-prayers in Historical Context:

In contemporary religion Jews, Christians, and Muslims lift their hands in prayer. Although its significance differs between traditions, the basic hand-raising gesture has a common origin in the ancient Near East, dating back to the third millennium BCE. Hand-raising was an interpersonal greeting in ancient Near Eastern society (Frechette 2012; →library). When a social inferior approached a person of higher social rank, the inferior greeted the superior with up-raised hands to establish a rapport and to gain a favorable hearing. When the ancient Mesopotamians raised their hands as they addressed their high gods in prayer—a gesture ubiquitously depicted in ancient Mesopotamian art (e.g.→here)—they were adapting this social custom to their religious activities. The same is true for the hand-raising gesture in other Near Eastern cultures; see, for example, the biblical adaptation of the gesture in 1 Kings 8:22 and 1 Timothy 2:8. The salutatory gesture of hand-raising (in Sumerian, šu-il₂-la(₂)) became so characteristic of supplication that the Mesopotamians named an entire genre of prayer after it, the shuila-prayer. The genre dates back to the second millennium BCE, though nearly all of the tablets preserving these prayers come from first millennium BCE Mesopotamian sites.

Shuilas are liturgical ritual-prayers that were directed to the high deities of the Mesopotamian pantheon such as Marduk, Shamash, and Ishtar, among others. A ritual official (i.e., an exorcist) recited these prayers to assist a troubled client, often a Babylonian or Assyrian king. The exorcist would read the prayer aloud and the (presumably illiterate) client would repeat the words after him.

The wording and ritual instructions of the shuila-prayers provide an important resource for insight into officially sanctioned religious practices and concepts. The prayers consist of several standard components arranged in a common form, though components are sometimes lacking and their order can differ somewhat from prayer to prayer. Every prayer invariably begins with a hymnic introduction that lauds the addressee’s divine attributes and position within the pantheon. After the hymnic introduction, the prayers may provide a generic identification formula (literally, “so-and-so, son of so-and-so,” etc.) into which the supplicant would substitute his/her name. The prayers then move on to voice complaints that typically relate to the supplicant’s health, social alienation, and feelings of divine abandonment. Petitions seeking remediation and reconciliation for the supplicant may then follow the complaints or be interspersed among them. The prayers conclude with a promise to praise the deity for hearing and responding to the supplicant.

The actual wording of the prayers draws from a common stock of formulaic phrases and motifs (Mayer 1976; →library). The texts implore the god(s) to look kindly upon the supplicant, quell the anger of the supplicant’s personal gods (responsible for health, security, and social standing), and restore wholeness to the supplicant’s life. The prayers present confessions of sin, claims of bewitchment, descriptions of bodily pain and disease, and even questions of divine beneficence. The prayers also describe ritual actions the supplicant would presumably enact during the recitation (e.g., bowing, seizing the hem of a deity’s garment, raising hands, etc.). In exchange for the deity’s favor the petitioner promises to praise the deity.

Ritual instructions, if any, were provided in a separate section after the wording of the prayer. The instructions may include the preparation of ritual paraphernalia, the offering of food stuffs, specific requirements of bodily comportment, and the number of times the supplicant should recite the prayer.

Although a shuila-prayer could be performed as a self-contained rite, many of the prayers were incorporated into larger ritual ceremonies used for the king. In fact, some prayers were used in more than one such ceremony, though the precise wording of the prayer might vary according to ritual context. For example, the shuila-prayer to the moon god, designated Sîn 1 in our catalog, is known from ten different tablets. Among these textual witnesses are instructions for the prayer’s use in a dream ritual, a ritual to ward off the evil of a lunar eclipse, and a royal lustration. The prayer’s wording varies according to the ritual in which it is embedded. The analysis of the ritual uses and re-uses of the shuila-prayers is still in its beginning stages.

Shuila-Prayers in Contemporary Scholarship and Their Significance:

Akkadian tablets from ancient libraries inscribed in cuneiform provide important textual evidence for understanding the various shuila-prayers. The present project will collect the wording and ritual instructions of these prayers and thereby make them available for study in their original language and in translation. Currently, the project is using the tools provided by the Open Richly Annotated Cuneiform Corpus (→Oracc) to present the Akkadian text of each prayer and an English translation. Eventually, Oracc tools will be used to provide a lemmatization (morphological analysis) of every word in the corpus, which will allow linguistic searches, making grammatical and text-linguistic research much easier. The project also envisions using software to create a content tagging system that will index the ritual content and gestures within each prayer (and perhaps thematic motifs). This searchable index will enhance the usefulness of the prayer corpus to fields such as Comparative Religion (e.g., to study the role of penance and contrition in various religious traditions) and Ritual Studies (e.g., to investigate the use of the body in ritual acts). Finally, the project will provide general readers with an opportunity to explore ancient religious practices that were contemporary with events described in the Bible and textualized in biblical texts, especially the Book of Psalms.

Assyriological Significance of This Project:

The last comprehensive collection of the shuila corpus appeared in German (Ebeling 1953; →library); it made use of fewer than half of the tablets presently known to attest a shuila-prayer. Moreover, previously unknown prayers have been identified since Ebeling’s edition, including one Lenzi happened upon in the spring of 2012 during a visit to the British Museum. New critical editions of individual prayers have appeared only sporadically in specialized publications, but some of these are already outdated. For example, the prayer we classify as Gula 1a in our catalog was last edited in 1976. New textual witnesses have been identified since then, making the edition outdated. English translations of representative examples of the prayers are available, too. Most notably is Benjamin Foster’s popular anthology of Akkadian literature (Foster 2005; →library), providing translations of a representative selection of shuila-prayers in English. But his selection is but a fraction of the corpus, does not contain the rituals attached to most texts, and cannot convey to the reader the fullness of the prayers’ textual diversity among witnesses—something clearly beyond Foster’s purpose. For these reasons, an up-to-date critical edition of the entire shuila-prayer corpus, utilizing all of the new tablet discoveries and research of the last sixty years, is a widely recognized need in Assyriology. The present project is a significant step toward that goal.

As matters stand today, no one knows precisely how many shuila-prayers actually exist on the tablets preserved in museums around the world, though one informed opinion would put their number around eighty discrete prayers attesting a shuila-label and another forty-two that probably belong to the group despite the absence of the label (often due to tablet damage; see Frechette in Lenzi 2011, 27, n.70; →library; →full text). The present project is working tentatively with a catalog of slightly more texts, 137 prayers. The number of tablet manuscripts that bear witness to these prayers is more than twice as large—the project’s on-going catalog contains over 300 tablets—because many prayers are represented on several copies from different ancient libraries. But it is difficult to know how accurate this is since there are still many unpublished and/or uncataloged tablets and even some unpublished catalogs of tablets. This state of affairs has unfortunate results for scholars wishing to consult these prayers. For example, many unpublished textual witnesses fill gaps in otherwise incomplete prayers or present alternative readings. Often only a few specialists know about these tablets. A new edition of all shuila-prayers is therefore a pressing desiderata in Assyriology.

Creating a new critical edition of Babylonian texts is a daunting task because cuneiform tablets are housed in many different museums around the world. An Assyriologist could spend a decade collecting material and still overlook some relevant tablet. Online publication will ameliorate this problem. As an open-access web-based project, “Corpus of Akkadian Shuila Prayers Online” aims to foster international scholarly communication and cooperation by sharing data on the internet. Putting all of the shuila-prayer tablets online here will create a much needed digital resource among specialists in Mesopotamian religion and will lay the foundation for a comprehensive critical edition of the material that will allow periodic updating.

Broad Significance of This Project:

Scholars of the Bible, ritual, religion, and social history will also benefit from the shuila-prayer corpus presented here. Comparatively inclined scholars in various fields of Religious Studies have used shuila-prayers to shed light on other religious corpora. For example, biblical scholars have been making comparative observations between the biblical psalms and the shuila-prayers in terms of both form and content since the late nineteenth century (Zernecke in Lenzi 2011, 61-68; →library; →full text). But finding accessible, up-to-date editions and contemporary translations of the Akkadian prayers has been a problem for this work. Putting the shuila-prayers online will increase the accessibility and utility of this material to such scholars. Therefore, specialists and non-specialists alike will always have access to up-to-date treatments of the prayers.