Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Digging for the Dead with a Dagger

On page 185 of Life and Society in the Hittite World (2002), Trevor Bryce makes an interesting comparison of a Hittite ritual with the journey of Odysseus to the underworld.

In order to make sacrifice to the deities of the Dark Earth (thereby ensuring the fertility of the soil and new growth) the Hittite priest must first summon them. They would do this beside a river, because rivers were "important links between upper and lower worlds". First the priest would dig a pit with his dagger. The blood of a sacrificial sheep was mixed with liquid offerings such as wine and beer and poured into the hole; bread and meal were also added to the pit. Then Lelwani was invoked and asked to open the gates of the underworld, so that the infernal deities could come forth and partake.

Compare this with Od.11.20-37:

νῆα μὲν ἔνθ᾽ ἐλθόντες ἐκέλσαμεν, ἐκ δὲ τὰ μῆλα
εἱλόμεθ᾽: αὐτοὶ δ᾽ αὖτε παρὰ ῥόον Ὠκεανοῖο
ᾔομεν, ὄφρ᾽ ἐς χῶρον ἀφικόμεθ᾽, ὃν φράσε Κίρκη.
“ἔνθ᾽ ἱερήια μὲν Περιμήδης Εὐρύλοχός τε
ἔσχον: ἐγὼ δ᾽ ἄορ ὀξὺ ἐρυσσάμενος παρὰ μηροῦ
βόθρον ὄρυξ᾽ ὅσσον τε πυγούσιον ἔνθα καὶ ἔνθα,
ἀμφ᾽ αὐτῷ δὲ χοὴν χεόμην πᾶσιν νεκύεσσι,
πρῶτα μελικρήτῳ, μετέπειτα δὲ ἡδέι οἴνῳ,
τὸ τρίτον αὖθ᾽ ὕδατι: ἐπὶ δ᾽ ἄλφιτα λευκὰ πάλυνον.
πολλὰ δὲ γουνούμην νεκύων ἀμενηνὰ κάρηνα,
ἐλθὼν εἰς Ἰθάκην στεῖραν βοῦν, ἥ τις ἀρίστη,
ῥέξειν ἐν μεγάροισι πυρήν τ᾽ ἐμπλησέμεν ἐσθλῶν,
Τειρεσίῃ δ᾽ ἀπάνευθεν ὄιν ἱερευσέμεν οἴῳ
παμμέλαν᾽, ὃς μήλοισι μεταπρέπει ἡμετέροισι.
τοὺς δ᾽ ἐπεὶ εὐχωλῇσι λιτῇσί τε, ἔθνεα νεκρῶν,
ἐλλισάμην, τὰ δὲ μῆλα λαβὼν ἀπεδειροτόμησα
ἐς βόθρον, ῥέε δ᾽ αἷμα κελαινεφές: αἱ δ᾽ ἀγέροντο
ψυχαὶ ὑπὲξ Ἐρέβευς νεκύων κατατεθνηώτων.

[Arriving there, we beached our ship, and unloaded the sheep. Then we went beside the river Ocean, until we came to that place of which Kirke spoke. There Perimedes and Eurylochus held the sacrifical animals, and, drawing my sharp sword from beside my thigh, I dug a hole the length of a forearm both ways. Around it I poured a drink-offering to all the dead, first with milk and honey, then with sweet wine, and thirdly with water. I sprinkled white barley on it. And I appealed eagerly to the heads of the powerless dead, that upon returning to Ithaka I would sacrifice the best heifer, and load the altar with goods, and for Teiresias alone I would sacrifice separately a black ram, the most distinguished of our flock. When I had pleaded with prayers and promises to the tribes of the dead, I took the sheep and cut their throats into the hole, and the black blood flowed. The souls of the dead gathered from out of Erebeus.]

The intentions are different, but the Hittites too would sometimes seek to question the spirits of their ancestors (who were said to "become gods") about the future. Aeneas also seeks the advice of his father when he visits the underworld, and the same kind of evocation of the dead for questioning is found in Babylonian and neo-Assyrian traditions according to Bryce. But despite any differences, the common details of the procedure are outstanding.


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