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Corpus of Akkadian Shuila Prayers Online

[First posted in AWOL 22 May 2017, updated 17 February 2022]

Corpus of Akkadian Shuila Prayers Online
Alan Lenzi, University of the Pacific (Stockton, CA)
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.
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