Thursday, October 26, 2006

Old Women

In Hittite society there were experts who were hired to perform rituals in order to ensure their effectiveness. There were many male experts, but there was also a group of female experts whom we call Old Women. This name comes from the Sumerogram MUNUS.ŠU.GI, which means old. The Hittite term for them is hasawa, which literally means she of birth, and might have originally been used of midwives. Gurney (1977) suggests that the term might be related to, or even synonymous with, hasnupallas, which means midwife. Pringle (1993) points out that hasawa is alternated with ŠU.GI in a ritual text, and cites Otten, suggesting that the Hittite term is a phonetic version of the Sumerogram.

They were involved in ritual performance, healing, and divination, and probably collaborated with doctors and priests in various functions. It is possible that, like scribes, the profession was passed down through the family. The women were almost certainly literate, according to Bryce, and probably were multilingual, since many incantations were written in Hattic, Luwian, Palaic, Hurrian, or Babylonian, and the sound of the words was considered integral to the effectiveness, so translations would not be adequate. The names of 14 individual Old Women have survived as authors of rituals; and of 71 named authors of rituals, 38 were women.

This reminded me vaguely of Demeter, who goes in disguise among men as γρηΰς, old woman, and is called μαῖα, old mother, by the daughters of Keleos. She even repeats four lines that are widely thought to reproduce or mimic a magical spell, which touts her powers to protect the child of Keleos and Metaneira from witchcraft. But, of course, she is hired to raise the child, not as a performer of rituals, and there is no justification for making too much of the comparison.


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