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A New Explanation, Based on Near Eastern Sources, for the Greek Use of Squill in Purification Rituals

Maddalena Rumor

Case Western Reserve University

This talk will begin by quickly presenting the main arguments that support an identification of the (previously unidentified) Akkadian plant sikillu with Greek σκίλλα (En. “sea squill,” or “onion squill,” Scilla Maritima Linn.). These include etymology, similarity of habitat, physical characteristics and specific medical and magico-religious applications. To anticipate one example, the Babylonian handbook on medicinal plants known as Šammu šikinšu (Stadhouders, ed., 2011 and 2012) describes sikillu as “a plant for purification” and states that it should be used on the last day of the lunar month. This information is matched by the use of σκίλλα in early Greek purification rituals (cf. Diphilus, fr. 125 [126]; Hipponax fr. 6 [West, 1971-2]; Theophrastus etc.). In addition, the proper time of administration is also confirmed by a later, 2nd century AD story (Lucian, Nec. 6-7), in which the cynic philosopher Menippus is described as being purified with squills, on the last day of the month, by a Chaldean priest from Babylon.

The remainder of the talk will discuss the implications of this identification, which are important inasmuch as they operate in two directions: on the one hand, they help explain details of Mesopotamian culture that were previously unexplained, and on the other hand they provide a background against which the Greek use of the squill can now be interpreted.

For instance, Greek and Latin sources (which are characteristically more descriptive than cuneiform texts) inform us that σκίλλα was a plant that naturally fought off decay and repelled vermin (Theophr. Hist. pl. 7.13.4; Plin. NH 17.87). These sources, therefore, supply us with a justification of the origin of the Sumerian name, SIKIL, meaning “pure/purifying plant,” which is otherwise inexplicable.

Conversely, the puzzling presence of σκίλλα in early Greek magico-religious rituals has been discussed by several scholars (Burkert 1975, 1979; Parker 1983; West 1971-2, 1997, and many others), and yet no fully convincing reasons for this use have been found. In our Mesopotamian sources, however, sikillu was recognized to have specific medical, and in particular emetic, properties (as it still does today). These properties were exploited for a variety of cures, including for the physical expulsion of symptoms of “witchcraft” (cf. Abusch and Schwemer 2011), which entered the body either by means of eating or drinking, likely referring to cases of food poisoning or heartburn. Because of its reputation for being medically purifying (i.e., an emetic), sikillu, so it will be argued, also began to be applied in a translated, apotropaic way to dispel evils that were understood as being external to the inner workings of the body. While both the medicinal and magical aspects are attested in the Babylonian tradition, only the symbolic/apotropaic uses seem to be attested in early Greek sources. This may partially be an accident of preservation, although it seems reasonable to suggest that the Greeks may have inherited the idea of using squills in purification practices, either directly or indirectly, from the Near East, but probably at first without a full comprehension of the original medicinal rationale behind its magical/symbolic uses.

In other words, the Mesopotamian reputation of this plant as being “pure/purifying,” as its etymology suggests, and its resulting applications in a variety of cleansing rituals, may help explain its association in Graeco-Roman sources with magico-religious purification.  As such, the identification of sikillu with σκίλλα has then even bigger implications, as it adds another piece of evidence to our more general understanding of the relationship between the Eastern and the Western cultures of the ancient World.

Session/Panel Title

Ritual and Magic

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