Biblical Archaeology Review 42:2, March/April 2016

Archaeological Views: Magical Cures for Crying Infants

By David Bosworth

Magic rituals for soothing crying babies have survived from ancient Mesopotamia. Walter Farber has edited two Old Babylonian baby incantations of uncertain provenance and several Neo-Assyrian magical rituals on a tablet found at Nineveh.1 All the texts are in Akkadian dialects, and the tablet from Nineveh was part of the learning of the magical expert. New parents who suffer the stress-inducing, sleep-depriving effects of infant cries might like to know: Does this magic work?

Most likely, the magical rituals were effective, but not for the reasons its practitioners may have imagined.

Incantations often are attributed to one or more deities because the texts were understood to be divinely created and revealed spells that had the power to calm crying infants. The accompanying rituals often involve touching the infant (e.g., anointing with oil) and reciting (perhaps singing or chanting) the prayer multiple times. These rituals may have been effective because babies respond to touch and the human voice more than other noises. Furthermore, they enjoy singing more than speech.

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