Sunday, January 27, 2013

Book Curses

Before electromagnetic security strips and RFID devices, ancient texts were susceptible to theft. To discourage theft and mutilation, many colophons contained curses. A curse from Ninevah states:

Whoever removes [the tablet], writes his name in the place of my name, may Ashur and Ninlil, angered and grim, cast him down, erase his name, his seed, in the land. (Casson, 2001, p.12)

Others were more discreet: “He who fears Anu, Enlil, and Ea will return it to the owner’s house the same day” and “He who fears Anu and Antu will take care of it and respect it” (Casson, 2001, p.13).
Because these tablets were made of clay, and thus easily vandalized, there were specific curses to protect against such acts: “In the name of Nabu and Marduk, do not rub out the text!” A more detailed curse to prevent vandalism went as follows:

He who breaks this tablet or puts it in water or rubs it until you cannot recognize it [and] cannot make it to be understood, may Ashur, Sin, Shamash, Adad and Ishtar, Bel, Nergal, Ishtar of Ninevah, Ishtar of Arbela, Ishtar of Bit Kidmurri, the gods of heaven and earth and the gods of Assyria, may all these curse him with a curse that cannot be relieved, terrible and merciless, as long as he lives, may they let his name, his seed, be carried off from the land, may they put his flesh in a dog’s mouth” (Casson, 2001, pp. 13-14).
While these curses are interesting and somewhat comical today, one has to think about what a literate Assyrian would have thought at the time. Further, what do curses like these say about the importance of written texts (e.g., books)? I submit that the ancients revered them, the same we do today. In facts, bibliophiles may be as old as the book itself.

Casson, L. (2001). Libraries in the ancient world. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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