Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Hittite Mythology on the Subject of Women (guest post by Judith Starkston)

Trojan Women: Women’s Roles in Ancient Anatolia and Mycenaean Greece Part V

You may wish to read  the introduction of this series Trojan Women: Women's Roles in Ancient Anatolia and Mycenaean Greece or Part I What Hittite and Mycenaean Women "Did" or Part II A Woman's View From the Top: Hittite and Mycenaean Queens or Part III The Hittite Hasawa: Priestess, Therapist, Healer, Diviner, and Midwife or Part IV Hittite Women as Reflected in the Laws of Marriage, Adultery and Rape

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  book cover Harry Hoffner Hittite Myths“You are a woman and think like one. You know nothing at all.” (Hittite Myths, Hoffner, 83) So, in a Hittite myth, says a very grouchy husband to his wife when she has asked yet again about his inability to get her pregnant (or so I interpret the extant portion). Does this show that Hittite men had a decidedly low view of women? Given the context, I’d hesitate to draw too broad a conclusion.

Another pronouncement from Hittite mythology on the state of women’s thinking and supposedly subservient role occurs in a tale about a fisherman who desperately wants to have a child but hasn’t succeeded (hmm, there seems to be a theme here when men are dumping on women). He finds an abandoned baby and brings it home to his wife. He tells her to cry out and pretend she’s in labor so that the neighbors will think she has delivered the baby herself.

image Hittite Goddess and Child 15-13 century BC in the Metropolitan Museum photo © PHGCOM Wikimedia Commons
Hittite Goddess and Child 15-13 century BC in the Metropolitan Museum photo (Copyright PHGCOM Wikimedia Commons)
In his advice to her he includes this: “An ideal woman’s mind is clever. She has cut herself off from commanding others. She is dependent on the authority of the god. She stands in woman’s subordination, and she does not disobey her husband’s word.” (Hoffner, 87) This husband believes a woman is clever, but in the context of following her husband’s advice to deceive the community. Clearly he views women as inferior to their husbands. It seems likely that was a widely held view, but we don’t know to what extent it was expressed in the real relationships between Hittite husbands and wives. Of the public marriages that we hear about, some, at least, were between equals. (See Queen Puduhepa in A Woman's View from the Top Hittite and Mycenaean Queens.)

These two passages from Hittite mythology offer a perspective into the Hittite mind, but it’s a fragmentary view from a specialized context. However, since we rarely or never get the “big picture” of ancient cultures, this is a worthwhile and pretty amusing tidbit when considering the role of women in ancient Anatolian culture.


Again we welcome Judith, who brings us this final installment of her fascinating series of articles.  Judith is a novelist and book reviewer who sets her historical fiction and mysteries in the period of the Trojan War and the Hittite Empire.  She blogs on these and other topics, as well as reviewing books, here.  She can also be found on Twitter and on Facebook.  Thank you again, Judith, for this look at women in the ancient world.  

Judith Starkston

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Hittite Women as Reflected in the Laws of Marriage, Adultery and Rape (guest post by Judith Starkston)

Trojan Women: Women’s Roles in Ancient Anatolia and Mycenaean Greece Part IV

You may wish to read  the introduction of this series Trojan Women: Women's Roles in Ancient Anatolia and Mycenaean Greece or Part I What Hittite and Mycenaean Women "Did" or Part II A Woman's View From the Top: Hittite and Mycenaean Queens or Part III The Hittite Hasawa: Priestess, Therapist, Healer, Diviner, and Midwife 
image Man and Woman from an exhibit in Istanbul, prehistoric statuettes, photo by Dick Osseman
Man and woman from an exhibit in Istanbul, prehistoric statuettes (photo by Dick Osseman)

The Hittite law codes offer more protection for a woman than, if I’m remembering correctly, Victorian England, in the sense that a Hittite woman could both initiate a divorce and keep her inheritance and half her husband’s estate if she divorced. On the other hand, the expressions used in Hittite for marriage—there is no one abstract word for “to marry”—reflect the control men exercised over women, “to take a wife” “to take as his own wife” “to make her your wife.” (Imparati, 572) A woman is never described as “taking a husband.” The laws of adultery and rape present a similarly mixed bag.

Generally, a woman’s marriage was arranged by her parents. The woman’s own agreement to the marriage does not seem to have been required. (Imparati, 572-573) Early on in a girl’s life she might be promised to a particular boy/man. From this stage of “promise,” she was “bound” in the second stage of marriage by the first of two financial transactions. Her groom’s family paid a substantial sum (more or less, depending on the family’s wealth) in the form of a kušata or “bride price”. Then to seal the marriage contract, a woman brought to the deal an iwaru, which literally means “gift” and scholars translate as “dowry.” In this practice the Hittites acted as did other Near Eastern cultures. Unfortunately, no marriage contracts have surfaced yet in Hittite archaeology so we do not know exactly what kinds of arrangements they specified, although we know they must have existed and would had various reciprocal obligations between spouses and have been validated by witnesses and a seal. (Imparati, 573)

image Necklace with gold and cornelian beads Cypriot with Mycenaean influence, ca. 1400-1200 BC in the British Museum
Necklace with gold and cornelian beads such as would be included in dowries, Cypriot with Mycenaean influence, ca. 1400-1200 BC, in the British Museum

A woman usually went to live in her husband’s house, although Hittite law provides for a kind of adoption of the husband into the wife’s family when his family was too poor to provide a kušata. Since the children of a free man were free, a wealthy slave (yes they did exist a great deal in the ancient world) could thus acquire freedom for his grandchildren through such an adoption/marriage.

image Hittite King and Queen making an offering to the Stormgod photo by Dick Osseman
Hittite King and Queen making an offering to the Stormgod (photo by Dick Osseman)

Monogamy appears to have been far and away the most common state of marriage. The only regularly polygamous marriages we hear about are in the case of the Hittite king. His first wife had a special status with the others as a species of concubine.
Since the Hittite king required prodigious numbers of offspring, both male and female, to govern and militarily protect the empire, as well as to form alliances with other kingdoms, his polygamous marriage status appears to have been a special case for the most part. For those of you who remember that in the Iliad, Priam, the King of Troy, had fifty sons and fifty daughters, this will sound vaguely familiar. In the Iliad, Priam also seems to have only one queen, Hecuba, and she certainly didn’t give birth to one hundred children, so this kind of acceptance of concubine’s children as members of the royal family seems to be reflected in the epic tradition.

Hittites adopted a “liberal and pragmatic approach to the institution of marriage” (Bryce, 119). “Divorce was apparently not uncommon, and divorce proceedings could as easily be initiated by a woman as by a man” (Bryce, 119). “It seems that in a divorce between persons of equal status, the couple’s assets were generally divided equally and all the children but one remained with the mother; if the wife was of lesser social status [slave/free], the husband retained the custody of all but one of the couple’s children” (Collins, 24). In addition to the equitable division of assets, the wife had another sizable financial advantage in the case of divorce: She retained both the kušata and the iwaru. Her dowry represented her share of her father’s estate and remained her property throughout her married life and divorce. While married, her husband acted as custodian of the dowry, but it only became his if she died before him, and in this case, it appears it passed to the children, as in Babylonian law. (Bryce, 130)

Stone relief of children playing (Carcemish 8th cent BC), photo by Dick Osseman
Stone relief of children playing (Carcemish 8th century BC) (Photo by Dick Osseman)

There were also provisions that a widow be adequately provided for after her husband’s death. Among other things, she had the legal right to disinherit her sons if they failed to take care of her. (Bryce, 132)

There are two key law codes to consider regarding rape and adultery, which in the Hittite mind, appear to be closely tied ideas. Here are the relevant codes:

Clause 197 “The Laws” If a man seizes a woman in the mountains (and rapes her), the man is guilty and shall die, but if he seizes her in her house, the woman is guilty and shall die. If the woman’s husband catches them (in the act) and kills them, he has committed no offence.

image Reconstructed walls of Hittite palace at Hattusa © Rita1234 Wikimedia Commons
Reconstructed walls of Hittite palace at Hattusa (Copyright Rita1234, Wikimedia Commons)

Clause 198 “The Laws” If he (the husband) brings them to the palace gate [the royal court] and says: “My wife shall not die,” he can spare his wife’s life, but must also spare the lover. Then he may veil her [his wife]. But if he says, “Both of you shall die”, and they “roll the wheel”. The king may have them both killed or he may spare them. (Hughes, 190)

In Clause 197, if the sexual encounter occurs in an isolated place where the woman could not call out for help, it is assumed that it is rape and the man is guilty and the penalty is death (Imparati, 574). If, on the other hand, the sexual encounter occurs in the woman’s house (it is probably good not to take these exemplar places too literally), then the law assumes she was committing adultery, not being raped, and for that, she pays with her life.

image The Lion Gate of Hittite palace at Hattusa © 2001 User:China_Crisis Wikimedia Commons
The Lion Gate of Hittite palace at Hattusa (Copyright User_China_Crisis, Wikimedia Commons)

The husband, if he catches a man with his wife, is justified under Hittite law in killing them, but only in the heat of the moment. Clause 198 indicates that if he stops to think about it, he must bring the two before the king for the court’s decision. Interestingly, he cannot request that only one of the adulterers be killed. It’s an all or nothing decision. The king can override the angry husband’s decision and spare both.

As I said, Hittite law is a mixed bag as far as women’s rights. Certainly rapists paid a high penalty for their crime, but we cringe at the idea of defining rape by location. In addition, a married man could have sex with another woman without it being counted as adultery as long as the woman was not married. That is, only a woman was bound in marriage to the one sexual partner. Clearly the Hittites operated under a “double standard” like so many other cultures through time.

Bibliography for this article:
book cover Trevor Bryce Life and Society in the Hittite World

Bryce, Trevor. Life and Society in the Hittite World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Collins, Billie Jean. The Hittites and Their World. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2007

bookcover image Helen of Troy Bettany Hughes
Hughes, Bettany. Helen of Troy. New York: Knopf, 2005.

Imparati, Fiorella. “Private Life Among the Hittites.” In Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, edited by J.M. Sasson, K. Rubison, J. Baines, 571-585. New York: Scribner’s, 1995.


We welcome Judith back to this blog to continue this fascinating series of articles.  Judith is a novelist and book reviewer who sets her historical fiction and mysteries in the period of the Trojan War and the Hittite Empire.  She blogs on these and other topics, as well as reviewing books, here.  She can also be found on Twitter and on Facebook.  Thank you again, Judith, for this look at women in the ancient world.  And readers, we'll have one final post in this series coming soon. 

Judith Starkston

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Medieval Organs

See that pretty instrument?  That's my baby - my gorgeous handmade portative organ, created in the Netherlands by a master organmaker (Winold van der Putten), owned by another musician before me, and constructed based on information contained in a 15th-century treatise.

I play it a lot.  It's tuned to a period-appropriate Pythagorean scale, and it makes a perfectly lovely sound.

Most of the time.

But lately it developed an alarming air leak.  The bellows pressure dropped so rapidly that I'd be flapping my left arm like a hysterical one-winged chicken, just trying to keep enough air flowing to make some noise.  (The bellows is in back; I pump it with my left hand and play the keys with my right.  The instrument sits perpendicular to my body.)

Then, to add to my dismay, it started whistling a rather whiny-sounding E-flat every time I pumped the bellows.  I could gently whack the key and it would stop, but it kept starting up again.  When it started whistling a D as well, we could no longer ignore the problem.  After all, there isn't much medieval music that works with an involuntary drone of D and E-flat, played simultaneously.

Organ, fooling around

To make this long story shorter, my clever husband eventually figured out that the poor organ was protesting the low humidity in our house.  Once we hauled a humidifier into the living room, the instrument, now happy once more, miraculously healed itself and stopped whistling unpleasant intervals while hemorrhaging air.

But it's taken a while to sort it out, which means I've been thinking about portative organs a lot of late.  Hence this little post, which may well turn out to be mostly pictorial, because there are so many illustrations of these instruments available.

First, though, let me provide you with some YouTube links, in case you are unfamiliar with the sound of this instrument.  In all cases, the organist is Jankees Braaksma, founder and leader of the Netherlands-based medieval music group Ensemble Super Librum.  He plays a different instrument in each of these three performances; all are made by Winold van der Putten, who you can see in the third example.  Enjoy!

Jankees Braaksma 1
Jankees Braaksma 2
Jankees Braaksma 3

The organ is a very ancient instrument, invented - some say - in Alexandria in the third century BC by one Ktesbios, a Greek engineer.  Pliny the Elder called that instrument "one of the wonders of the world."

Hydraulic organs were well known to the Romans.  Cicero said their sound was "as agreeable to the ear as the tastiest fish is to the palate" (Pliny and Cicero quotes are from David Munrow's book Instruments of the Middle Ages and Renaissance).

Water organ

These early instruments did not have a keyboard.  The notes were sounded by pushing or pulling wooden "sliders," and it was a tricky and cumbersome process.

Note the "sliders"

The evolution of the instrument is frustratingly difficult to reconstruct, with stops along the way in Byzantium, the Middle East, and the court of Pepin the Short.  So let's focus on small organs from around 1300 - not big church organs, but the kind that can be moved around and played without a committee.  (Some of the earliest larger organs required as many as four men to pump the bellows and two more to work the sliders.)

At this point (turn of the 14th century), we encounter two basic types of small organs:  portative organs and positive organs.  What's the difference?

A true portative is small, and light enough to be played on one's lap, or to hang from a strap around the player's neck.  It is monophonic - it may have a couple of drone pipes, but otherwise the player will only be sounding one note at a time.  It may well be diatonic (no sharps or flats).  It's played by a single musician, who pumps the bellows with one hand and plays the keyboard (which has evolved by now into something we would recognize) with the other.  It's in the treble range.

Portative organ

A positive organ is portable in the sense that it can be moved, but not by one person alone.  The instrument rests on a table or other surface while being played; multiple notes can sound simultaneously; the player sits in front of the instrument and uses both hands on the keys, while someone else pumps the bellows from behind.  It has a larger range than the portative, being substantially bigger, and may be more likely to include sharps and flats, though by the time we get to the 15th century all sizes will have become all or mostly chromatic. 

Positive organ

Often you will see angels or saints playing portative organs in late medieval and Renaissance art.  Saint Cecilia, in particular, is associated with the instrument.

St. Cecilia

St. Cecilia

St. Cecilia

Angel musician

St. Cecilia

Musicians in the 14th and 15th centuries took pride in being organists.  The blind Florentine composer Francesco Landini is shown with the portative that was his trademark instrument, both on his tombstone (in San Lorenzo, in Florence) and in an illustration of the pages devoted to his compositions in the ornate Squarcialupi Codex.

Landini's tombstone

Landini in Squarcialupi
David Munrow quotes a novella by Giovanni da Prato concerning Landini:  "... a thousand birds were singing.  Francesco was ordered to play on his organetto to see if the singing of the birds would lessen or increase with his playing.  As soon as he began to play, many birds at first became silent, then they redoubled their singing and, strange to say, one nightingale came and perched on a branch over his head."

(Personally, I don't know if I'd want a bird perching over my instrument, but so far it hasn't come up as an issue.)

In this picture of 15th century composers Guillaume Dufay (ca. 1400-1474) and Gilles Binchois (ca. 1400-1460), we see Dufay standing next to a positive organ, while Binchois grasps his harp.

Dufay and Binchois

And here we see Paul Hoffhaimer (1459-1537), Austrian composer and organist, who served at the court of Archduke Sigismund and, later, at the court of the Emperor Maximilian.  Hoffhaimer, who was knighted for his musical prowess, here has figured out a way to make a positive organ truly portable.

Paul Hoffhaimer

And my instrument?  It seems it's neither fish nor fowl.  Like a medieval portative, it is played and pumped by the same person, but it can also be played as a positive, with a second person pumping.  It is far too large and heavy to set on my lap, or to walk with in a procession.  It plays (or will, if I ask it to) more than one note at a time.  It can be lifted by one person - a strong one, because those pipes are lead, and they're heavy - but not carried far.  It is almost fully chromatic (minus a B-flat at the very top of the range).  It is in many ways more positive than portative, but it seems actually to be somewhere in between.

I would guess that there may have been many instruments in the 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries that were also hybrids, with characteristics of both types.  I'll finish this post with a few more illustrations to show the many variations in size and design that we find in the iconography.

And whatever mine is, I'm just glad it stopped being OCD about E-flats!

King David - illustration of "De institutione musica" by Boethius

St. Cecilia (detail)

Cantoria, Duomo, Florence - Luca Della Robbia

The Lady and the Unicorn (and the organ)

Note the fireplace-style bellows

Illustrations in this post are in the public domain (because of copyright expiration, more than 100 years having passed since the death of the creator, or because the creator has released the image into the public domain) with one exception:  the angel musician is copyright Carlets, via Creative Commons Attribution - Share Alike 3.0 Unported license (Wikimedia Commons).  All captions (except our own photos) have links to their Wikimedia Commons pages for more information. 

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Hittite Hasawa: Priestess, Therapist, Healer, Diviner, and Midwife (guest post by Judith Starkston)

Trojan Women: Women’s Roles in Ancient Anatolia and Mycenaean Greece Part III

You may wish to read  the introduction of this series Trojan Women: Women's Roles in Ancient Anatolia and Mycenaean Greece or Part I What Hittite and Mycenaean Women "Did" or Part II A Woman's View From the Top: Hittite and Mycenaean Queens

Describing the Hittite hasawa to a modern audience is a challenge. Much of what she does seems utterly bizarre to us, and the variety of her duties appears to escape logic as a single profession. To understand the role of the hasawa is to begin to see through ancient Hittite eyes.  book cover Trevor Bryce Life and Society in the Hittite WorldTrevor Bryce, one of the pre-eminent historians of the Hittites, describes the hasawa in this way:

“Prominent amongst the experts in ritual procedure, which included many males, were a group of female practitioners whom we commonly refer to as the ‘Old Women’, misleadingly so if the term conjures for us the notion of a pack of toothless, half-crazed old crones. The Hittite term for them is hasawa, perhaps originally used of midwives, since it literally means not ‘old woman’ but rather ‘(she) of birth’. At all events the women so designated were multi-skilled professionals who may often have collaborated with doctors, augurs, incantation priests, and other practitioners in the arts of ritual performance, healing, and divination. As was the case with scribes, many may have been continuing a family tradition, inheriting an occupation which in some cases at least appears to have been passed down through successive generations of the same family. The names of fourteen of these women have survived, as authors of rituals which they practiced. The women in general were almost certainly literate, and may well have been multilingual to a greater or lesser degree. …

image close up of Hittite cuneiform writing like the tablets the hasawa composed © J. David Hawkins Wikimedia Commons
Closeup of Hittite cuneform writing like the tablets the hasawa composed (Photo copyright J. David Hawkins, Wikimedia Commons)

image Sheep for Sacrifice and Wool © Jack Hynes Wikimedia Commons
Sheep for sacrifice and wool (Photo copyright Jack Hynes, Wikimedia Commons)

 “It is not unlikely that the ‘Old Women’ (to keep the conventional term) had a regular consultancy practice covering a wide range of situations, and presumably access to a considerable source of material on which they could draw in performing a ritual appropriate to a particular situation. Even at the humblest level rituals were complicated affairs, given all the paraphernalia required for their successful accomplishment, including foodstuffs and other consumable items of clay, wax, tallow, and wool, animals for sacrifice, and a range of ritual instruments. The slightest error could invalidate the whole procedure. Ritual texts … have the appearance of step-by-step instruction manuals, for careful consultation by the practitioner at every stage of the process—the collection of all the materials required for the ritual, their conveyance to the place where the ritual was to be performed, the time of the performance, the words to be uttered, the chants to be sung, the procedures to be followed in meticulous detail. There was obviously a limit to how much the ritualists could commit to memory, even when they themselves had authored a particular ritual. And there may have been many cases where a situation arose with little or no warning. Almost certainly there was a large stock of recorded material on which they could call, to ensure that they always had something ready to hand for every conceivable occasion.” (Bryce, 201-202)

To refer to the hasawa as the “Old Woman” is not useful at all—her age can be young or old and it does not describe what she does—but a good translation is hard to come by. I came up with the term “healing priestess” when depicting my legendary/fictional hasawa, Briseis, in my novel. I’ll organize this article by describing the different duties—or at least a selection of them—which we find in the Hittite records for a hasawa.  

Priestess of Divine Reconciliation and Ritual User of Myth

This “duty” of a hasawa is perhaps the toughest one for us to understand. It is also, I think, the most essential if we are to grasp the importance of this woman in Hittite society. Without the services of the hasawa, Hittites believed the human and divine worlds would be fatally out of harmony, and they would have no means to restore balance.

Hittite cuneiform court record with figures made with stamp or cylinder seal photo by Dick Osseman
Stone relief of a Hittite god standing on a stag (Photo by Dick Osseman)

 For the Hittites, the gods had to be present in their world for prosperity and well-being to flourish. They feared the departure of the gods, or of any one god, and the dire consequences that would result (Popko). One common thread in Anatolian (i.e. Hittite and surrounding peoples) mythology is the vanishing god who retreats from the world in anger. One version describes the results of the god’s withdrawal in this way: “Mist seized the windows, smoke seized the house. In the fireplace the logs were stifled…The god went away and removed grain, animal fecundity, luxuriance, growth…Therefore barley and wheat no longer ripen. Cattle, sheep, and humans no longer become pregnant…The pastures and the springs dried up, so that famine broke out in the land. Humans and gods are dying of hunger” (Popko). One thing to notice in this description is the interdependence of gods and humans—gods can starve just as humans can, and they both have to solve the crisis.

The hasawa laid out apple blossoms as a path to bring home the angry god, photo © Fir0002 Flagstaffotos Wikimedia Commons
The hasawa laid out apple blossoms as a path to bring home the angry god (Photo copyright Fir0002 Flagstaffotos, Wikimedia Commons)

 It became the job of the hasawa to release nature from this stifling and starvation. The hasawa attempted to bring the god back through “attraction” by laying out good food and drink and sweet honey.  She marked the path “back home” by laying out branches and textiles stretching in all directions. She performed a variety of elaborate procedures such as sacrifices. But more important than any of these actions, she accomplished her goal primarily through her words. There was a Hittite proverb, “the tongue is the bridge”—that is, the bridge between god and mankind. She told the story of finding the missing god, appeasing him, and releasing his anger. Indeed, we have these myths preserved because they were included in the directions for her rites. The telling of the myth itself acted as magic by analogy. Just as in the myth where the gods and goddesses find and sooth the angry god and return him to his proper place, so the hasawa’s telling accomplished the same role for any god who might be out of harmony, whether the hasawa knew the identity of this god or not. Her role as reciter of the tale was parallel to the gods and goddesses within the myth. Thus the hasawa ensured the community’s (or sometimes an individual’s) well-being through her ritual practice.

image Hittite god of the young warrior type such as Telipinu photo by Dick Osseman
Hittite god of the young warrior type such as Telipinu (Photo by Dick Osseman)

 The most common “vanishing” god was Telipinu, who as the son of the Stormgod (the closest thing to a “chief” god in the Hittite “pantheon of a thousand gods”) was in charge of rain, crops and herds. In one of these rites to appease the god and reconcile him with humans, the hasawa addressed Telipinu with these words: “Just as an olive holds its oil in its heart, just as a grape holds its wine in its heart, so you must hold goodness in your soul and heart in the same way….Telipinu, let anger go, let wrath go. And just as the water in a drain pipe doesn’t flow backward, so may the anger, wrath, and sullenness of Telipinu likewise not come back” (Popko). The ritual continued with a description of idyllic reconciliation and fertility. By saying it, the hasawa made it true. Her words had tangible power.

I find this use of myth fascinating. We tend to think of mythology as a sort of literature vaguely associated with religion in some distant time, but not really. book cover Harry Hoffner Hittite MythsFor the Hittites, the sacred tales were the source of their connection to the gods. I suppose this is not entirely unlike a Catholic priest announcing that the wine and bread are now literally the blood and body of Jesus, but for the most part, I think we have lost this sense of the power of word and story. If you are interested in Hittite myth, read my review of Hittite Myths, Harry Hoffner, Jr..  

Family Therapist

For the hasawa, a quarrel within a family was an illness just as much as a swollen eye. To our modern mind and procedures, these are definitely different—talk therapy treats one and an ointment applied to the eye or a swallowed pill cures the other. But to the Hittite these problems were caused by a mixture of contamination and disharmony, and their cures used a similar array of tools. A potion or poultice might be involved for either, and words were always the most powerful medicine. The hasawa created substitutions—a model of a tongue, for example—onto which the source of the disagreement could be placed and then removed from the quarreling parties. The logic went, if two people hurt each other by saying mean words, we can put the mean words onto a substitute tongue and fling it away. And as long as the hasawa announced to the gods with her words exactly what she intended to accomplish with this procedure—she never left it up to the gods to figure this out—the quarreling parties would be reconciled. You can see where this might indeed be powerful psychological medicine.

Here are excerpts from one text in which the hasawa acts as “family therapist.” The whole procedure in the version I have lasts for three pages, so I’ve selected only some highlights. Generally speaking, in Hittite religious procedure if something worked well once, it would work even better repeated/varied one hundred times. Days and weeks long rituals were not at all uncommon.

“These are the words of Mastigga, the woman from Kizzuwatna: If a father and (his) son, or a husband and his wife, or a brother and (his) sister quarrel, when I reconcile them, I treat as follows:

She takes black wool and wraps it in mutton fat; tissatwa they call it. She presents it to the sacrificer [i.e. the quarreling persons who asked for this procedure] and speaks as follows: ‘Whatever thou spokest with (thy) mouth (and) tongue—see, here is tissatwa! Let it be cut out of your body these days!’ She throws the tongues into the hearth.

image Drawing reconstruction of a megaron hall found in Mycenaean and Hittite palaces © Ken Russell Salvador Wikimedia Commons
Drawing reconstruction of a megaron hall with central hearth found in Mycenaean and Hittite palaces (Copyright Ken Russell Salvador, Wikimedia Commons)

The Old Woman speaks as follows: “In whatever curses you indulged, let now the Sun-god turn those curses (and) tongues toward the left!’ And she throws them into the hearth.
Sun Disk representing the Hittite Sungod © Şahin Şeker Wikimedia Commons
Sun disk representing the Hittite Sungod (Copyright Sahir Seker, Wikimedia Commons)

The red wool (and) the blue wool that had been placed upon the bodies of the two sacrificers, the two figures of dough that had been placed before them, and the hands and tongues of dough that had been placed upon their heads, those the Old Woman removes. She cuts the strings off them, the Old Woman breaks the two hands and the tongues of dough to pieces.

She then waves them over them and speaks as follows: ‘Let the tongues of these [days] be cut off! Let the words of these days be cut off! And she throws them [into the hearth].

They drive up a (white) sheep. The Old Woman presents it to the two sacrificers and speaks as follows: ‘Here is a substitute for you, a substitute for your persons. Let that tongue and that curse stay in (its) mouth!’ They spit into its mouth.

She speaks as follows: “Spit out those evil curses!’ They dig a hole in the ground, cut the sheep up over it, and then put it into it.

They put 1 thin sacrificial loaf down with it, she also pours out a libation of wine and they level the ground.

She speaks as follows: ‘Let the evil words of mouth (and) tongue be rubbed away from you!” (Unal, 67-69)

In these excerpts of the ritual, you can see the hasawa creating a substitution upon which the harm can be attached and then sending it away. In this ritual these substitutions, such as the “tongues” made of fat and black wool or the figures of dough or the sheep’s mouth, are also examples of curing by analogy. This tongue is like the ones that said hurtful words, so if I cure this substitute tongue, I will also cure the real “tongues.” I am reminded of the old punishment of washing a child’s mouth out with soap when they have used a curse word. The hasawa had a similar notion of purification, only without the vindictiveness!

Healer and Medical Practitioner

image Mullein flowers, an herb used in the ancient world to cure breathing problems © Alvesgaspar Wikimedia Commons
Mullein flowers, an herb used in the ancient world to cure breathing problems (Copyright Alvesgaspar, Wikimedia Commons)
In the Hittite records we read of more than one kind of medical person or healer, both male and female. Sometimes more than one of these practitioners would assist each other with a patient. The hasawa used things we would call “medicine” or “medical procedures” although many of these may not have been terribly effective. She, like many healing practitioners in traditional societies, had a store of knowledge about medicinal herbs, roots, and minerals. Throughout the Near East, beer, wine, and oil occur frequently in medical prescriptions. All are known to have genuine healing properties. Linen bandages would be laid upon wounds or swollen areas often with a poultice of some sort (animal fats, wine dregs, sulfur, ground roots are mentioned in various Hittite and Near Eastern texts). In traditional societies herbal medicines were most commonly used to treat gastrointestinal, dermatological and respiratory ailments (Biggs, 1914).

The hasawa used the principle of analogy in these cures just as she did with curing a quarrel or the disappearance of a god. “For example, fat, tallow, or wax might be melted or objects might be crushed underfoot or incinerated. The objects to be melted, crushed, or burned represented the evil to be eliminated, so that these actions were seen as diverting the evil from the [sick person]. Analogic magic always includes an oral component, an incantation, that establishes the magical connection between the evil and its model” (Frantz-Szabo, 2012).

Here is a description from the tablets of one healing procedure the hasawa performed on the royal family (and apparently their palace!):

“Then the hasawa takes a soap plant … and crushes it underfoot, thereby flattening it. A single lump is fashioned from this. Then she presses this on all the limbs of the king and queen…and she speaks as follows: As this soap plant cleanses soiled garments and these (thereby) become white, (thus) may it likewise purify the limbs of the king, the queen, the princes, and also the palace” (Frantz-Szabo, 2012).

image mouse © Jens Buurgaard Nielsen Wikimedia Commons
Mouse (Copyright Jens Buurgaard Nielsen, Wikimedia Commons)

 Pain and other illness could be sent away on a “carrier” such as a mouse. The hasawa “wraps up a small piece of tin in a bowstring and attaches it to the patients’ right hands and feet; then she takes it off again and attaches it to a mouse, saying: ‘I have taken the evil off you and attached it to this mouse. Let this mouse carry it on a long journey to the high mountains, hills and dales’”(Gurney, 50).

 As a remover of evil, the hasawa also undid any “black magic” such as a curse, which was often seen as the underlying cause of illness. Because caves and springs were understood to give access to the Underworld, the hasawa would go to one of these places, take the impurity caused by sorcerers from the patient and condemn it to never-ending isolation in the depths of the earth buried in bronze vessels called palhi that were sealed with lead and latches of iron (despite being the “Bronze Age” the Anatolians already used iron in some limited ways) (Popko).

image cave with a spring such as those where Hittites believed curses could be locked away in the Underworld photo © Helmut Schültz Wikimedia Commons
A cave with a spring such as those where Hittites believed curses could be locked away in the Underworld (Photo copyright Helmut Schütz, Wikimedia Commons)

The hasawa was trained to devise new cures and rites as needed, to apply the myths in creative ways in order to restore the well-being of the sick individual or community. We have as much information about these women as we do because they authored new rites and recorded them, both, we assume, for their own personal reference and for the use of future generations of healers.   


image Minoan statue of either a snake priestess or snake goddess showing the importance of snakes in ancient Mediterranean religions © George Groutas Wikimedia Commons
Minoan (not Hittite) statue (ca. 1600 BC) of either a snake priestess or snake goddess, showing the importance of snakes in ancient Mediterranean religions (Copyright George Groutas, Wikimedia Commons)

For the Hittites, the gods sent illness or other misfortune when a man or woman sinned. In order to heal or avert the anger of the gods for this sin, a diviner had to read the will of the gods. There were many kinds of seers and diviners in ancient Anatolia. They consulted the stars, birds, the innards of sacrificial animals, and dreams among other things. We hear of the hasawa mostly in terms of two kinds of divinations: “lot-oracles” and “snake divinations.” The lot oracle seems to have involved some kind of board with symbols drawn on it representing various aspects or activities in life (Bryce, 151) and perhaps dice, but it also lasted for multiple days, so put aside your vision of a Ouija board!  The snakes were released into a basin filled with water and marked out in sections such as ‘life’ ‘sin’ ‘temple’ (Bryce, 151 and Frantz-Szabo, 2017). In both of these the format appears to have been a series of yes and no questions asked by the hasawa or the “sinner,” and then the answer was interpreted by the hasawa from the movement of the lots or the snakes. I assume this was a very embarrassing process in which the “sinner” had to ask such things as “When I ordered my older brother killed so I could take over the kingdom, did I anger the gods?” For the “sinner” it was either reveal old crimes and misdemeanors or die of excruciating disease. It makes the indignities of hospital gowns and blood drawings sound pleasant.   


It is likely that the hasawa originated as a midwife. The Hittite verb “has” means “to give birth” and, indeed, the hasawa attends on women in labor as one of her duties. There are other midwife attendants in the Hittite lexicon such as “hasnupallas” which means “one who is skilled in causing to give birth” (Pringle). The texts that mention these women come from different periods, so perhaps terms changed over time. Occasionally two different attendants are present, other times the hasawa or the hasnupallas works alone. Nowhere are their duties clearly delineated. But a job description for the hasawa would include some version of midwife.

image Hittite midwives recited the myth of the Moongod Armas, photo © Adam Cebula Wikimedia Commons
Hittite midwives recited the myth of the Moongod Armas (Photo copyright Adam Cebula, Wikimedia Commons)
The midwife’s duties included preparations before, during and after the birth. Presumably she had practical knowledge about delivering babies—we know she used a birthing stool for the mother and sat on a stool herself, used three pillows and a knife in the project—but what we hear about from the tablets are rites to purify and protect the mother and child. Rites were performed to purify the birth stool and wooden pegs that were bound somewhere, perhaps to the birth stool itself. “She beseeches the gods to remove evil influences and to grant a desirable fate to the child” (Beckman 1993, 38). The midwife recited the myth of the Moongod Armas who protected the mother of his child in her difficult delivery, another example of using myth to bring about magic by analogy. In one tablet she takes the combs used to card sheep’s wool and “combs” the body parts of the child to heal them after birth. There was an “Incantation of Crying Out” and one to induce the child to leave the body of the mother. (Beckman 1983)

The blessing which the hasawa said over the new baby is a fitting way to end an article examining the remarkable importance of this woman’s job in Hittite society. If the baby was a boy, the hasawa said, “Let a female child be born in a year forth.” Female children were apparently as welcome to a Hittite family as a male child (Pringle).    

Bibliography for this article:  (Click on book covers to browse or purchase at Amazon)

Beckman, Gary. “Hittite Birth Rituals” in Studien zu den Bogaskoy-Texten 29. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1983.

Beckman, Gary. “From Cradle to Grave: Women’s Role in Hittite Medicine and Magic,” Journal of Ancient Civilizations 8, 1993, 25-39.

Biggs, Robert. “Medicine, Surgery, and Public Health in Ancient Mesopotamia” in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, edited by J.M. Sasson, K. Rubison, J. Baines, 2007-2019. New York: Scribner’s, 1995.
book cover Trevor Bryce Life and Society in the Hittite World

Bryce, Trevor. Life and Society in the Hittite World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Frantz-Szabo, Gabriella. “Hittite Witchcraft, Magic, and Divination” in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, edited by J.M. Sasson, K. Rubison, J. Baines, 2007-2019. New York: Scribner’s, 1995.

Popko, Maciej. Religions of Asia Minor. Warsaw, 1995.

Gurney, O.R. Some Aspects of Hittite Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Book cover image Images of Women in Antiquity A. CameronImages of Women in AntiquityImages of Women in Antiquity A. Cameron

Pringle, Jackie. “Hittite Birth Rituals” in Images of Women in Antiquity, edited by A. Cameron and A. Kuhurt, Chapter 9. London: Routledge, 1993.

Űnal, Ahmet. “The Role of Magic in the Ancient Anatolian Religions” in Essays on Anatolian Studies in the Second Millenium B.C., edited by H.I.H. Prince Takahito Mikasa, 64-75. Bulletin of the Middle Eastern Culture Center in Japan, Vol. III, 1988.


Once again we welcome Judith back to this blog.  Judith is a novelist and book reviewer who sets her historical fiction and mysteries in the period of the Trojan War and the Hittite Empire.  She blogs on these and other topics, as well as reviewing books, here.  She can also be found on Twitter and on Facebook.  Thank you again, Judith, for this fascinating look at women in the ancient world.  And readers, we'll have one more post in this series coming soon. 

Judith Starkston