Circa 9th century BC, an ancient incantation described the capture of the ‘devourer’ that could seemingly produce ‘fire’. The discovery of the text, made in 2017, pertained to the world’s oldest known Aramaic incantation. The text was found inscribed on a container inside a possible shrine at the Zincirli (or Sam’al – as it was known in the ancient times), in Turkey. And in a recent presentation at the Society of Biblical Literature, researchers talked about how the mysterious incantation was the work of one “Rahim son of Shadadan” and it enigmatically mentioned the “seizure of a threatening creature [called] the devourer”.
The conjuring also makes a point about how the blood of the devourer is needed to treat someone with an ailment caused by the ‘fire’ of the devourer. According to one of the presenters, Madadh Richey, a doctoral student in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago, it is still not clear as to how this blood would be used as a cure – i.e., whether by consuming it or smearing it.
Even more perplexing is the visual representation of various creatures by the side of the small inscription on the container. These illustrations of (possibly) critters like a scorpion, a centipede, and a fish, are found on both sides of the container. Interestingly enough, the container in itself was probably originally used for storing makeup and then repurposed for inscribing the bizarre incantation.
Now the illustrations might just provide a clue as to what this ‘devourer’ entity was. According to one of the conjectures made by the researchers, the devourer and its ‘fire’ might pertain to the scorpion or centipede and its sting. To that end, the archaeologists in the area were actually afflicted by the presence of scorpions, with one of the local workers even being stung by a specimen that crawled through his backpack. Fortunately, the species found here do not possess a particularly harmful venom, and thus the predicament was solved by using first aid.
Reverting to the incantation, the researchers believe it was inscribed sometime between circa 850 – 800 BC, thus making it the oldest known Aramaic invocation. Quite intriguingly, the building (or shrine) that housed the container was probably built around a century later, thus signifying the importance of the incantation long after it was pronounced by ‘Rahim’. The structure additionally revealed a statuette base representing a crouched lion with red inlaid eyes, dating from 10th – 9th century BC – and it might have supported the figure of a striding deity. As for the historical side of affairs, Sam’al was the capital of a tiny Aramean kingdom, between 900 – 720 BC, until it was captured by the Assyrians (Neo-Assyrian Empire).
Image Credits: Roberto Ceccacci/ Courtesy of the Chicago-Tübingen Expedition to Zincirli