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The concept of magic, occultism and protection from demons in daily life lies at the heart what the Arslan Tash amulets provided to the ancient Phoenician and Assyrian peoples.                       Source: Sergei / Adobe Stock

The Mystical Arslan Tash Amulets: Protection From Night Demons

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The culture of Phoenician civilization was one of the most inspiring and influential in the ancient world. Through maritime trade and over many centuries, the Phoenician writing script, their language, and their culture spread to many corners of Europe and the Near East. For archaeologists and history lovers, the diverse mythologies and beliefs of the Semitic civilizations of the Near East were always a big source of inspiration and knowledge. Excavations of the major ancient metropolises of that region resulted in the discovery of many marvelous artworks. But what about the artifacts that relate specifically to the lives and beliefs of everyday life in ancient societies? The unique and enigmatic Arslan Tash amulets certainly give us some insight into that. In the most general sense, the Arslan Tash amulets functioned as protection from the supernatural world, especially night demons!

The Origins of Arslan Tash, Long Buried By The Sands Of Time

The ancient town of Arslan Tash is located in modern day Syria in the northern Aleppo Governorate and close to the town of Ayn al-Arab (Kobanî). Arslan Tash was once the location of an important center known as Hadātu (meaning “New Town” in Aramaic). Once the center of an Aramean kingdom, the town was conquered by the Assyrians in the 9 th century BC. Hadātu was the home of several changing cultures and civilizations, and it steadily rose to prominence as an important city during the Assyrian period. It stood close to the ancient Hittite town of Masuwari (Til Barsip, modern Tell Ahmar), some 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) away, on the left bank of the Euphrates River . Hadātu enjoyed good relations with all the major cities of the region and southern parts of Anatolia. Today, this town is known as Arslan Tash.

The name Arslan Tash comes from the Turkish Arslan Taş, meaning “Stone Lion,” and refers to a monumental Assyrian lion sculpture that guarded the town’s ancient gateway. But the lion was not the only thing found at this ancient site. Since the first excavations in 1836, and then again in 1928, the site has produced many remarkable ancient artifacts, including the so-called Arslan Tash amulets .

The AT1 Arslan Tash amulet: A divine contract for household protection (Slightly Alive Translations)

The AT1 Arslan Tash amulet: A divine contract for household protection ( Slightly Alive Translations )

The Arslan Tash amulets were purchased in 1933, by Comte Robert du Mesnil du Buisson, a French historian and archaeologist. While visiting the site of ancient Hadātu, du Buisson was approached by a Syrian peasant, who offered to sell him a pair of tablets from the site. They were purchased for a very low price and it was quite likely that the peasant simply stole them from the site. Either way, du Buisson recognized their worth and made the purchase, nonetheless. He announced the discovery in 1937 at a meeting of the Societe Nationale des Antiquitaires de France . The detailed descriptions and research into the tablets were published soon after in 1939 in Melanges Syriens offerts a M. Rene Dussaud. Comte du Buisson made detailed photographs of both tablets, and also created cuts, drawings and casts. He also attempted to translate the inscriptions on the tablets.

The two inscribed limestone tablets were termed as AT1 and AT2 (for Arslan Tash), with only AT1 having writing on it. AT1 measures 8.5 by 7 centimeters (3.4 by 2.7 inches) and features a round hole in its top portion, indicating its role as an amulet to be worn on a string. On the obverse side is a crude relief of a winged beast with a lion’s body and a man’s head – a protective Sumerian being known as a Lama or Lamassu. This talismanic figure stands over a relief of a she wolf with a scorpion’s tail as it devours a human being.

This protective spirit known as a lamassu is a composite being with the head of a human, the body and ears of a bull, and the wings of a bird. (Trjames / CC BY-SA 3.0)

This protective spirit known as a lamassu is a composite being with the head of a human, the body and ears of a bull, and the wings of a bird. (Trjames / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

On the reverse side of the AT1 tablet is a tall figure of a man – a marching god dressed in the short Assyrian tunic and a long cloak, brandishing an axe and wearing a characteristic late-Assyrian period turban with a lily.

Both sides of the tablet feature extensive inscriptions that – in relation to the imagery – have been determined to be a powerful incantation, making the tablet a protective talisman. The translation of the inscriptions revealed the nature of the incantation and what it was to protect the wearer from.

The Incantation Was A Powerful Spell For Home Protection

The writing on the tablet is in Aramaic script , itself a derivative of the ancient Phoenician alphabet. And it shows a distinct transition from the ancient Canaanite and Aramaic script in its more classic form to one that leans toward the cursive Aramaic characters. The language of the inscriptions on the other hand is Phoenician – but written in the Aramaic script. The text was subject to extensive research that spanned decades. Ultimately, it has provided remarkable insights into the region of that period. Although the language used is Phoenician, the text has several borrowed Aramaic words, and in a few places, it slips into Aramaic orthography and morphology. Scholars generally agree that this suggests the text was written by an Aramaic scribe.

The Phoenician alphabet, the world’s first written language. (DaneeShe / Adobe Stock)

The Phoenician alphabet, the world’s first written language. (DaneeShe / Adobe Stock )

The incantation itself is a powerful spell for home protection. It was written to protect the wearer from demons – in particular, demons of the night – who could not enter wherever the wearer of the amulet was. The whole inscription reveals an interesting belief and the wearer’s “alliance” with the cosmos itself, which it uses as a legitimate way to enforce the spell. The translation of the incantation on the reverse side is as follows.

“Incantations: O Fliers, goddesses,
O! Sasam son of Pidrišiša, god,
and O! Stranglers of Lambs,
The house I enter, ye shall not enter
And the court I tread, ye shall not tread.
The Eternal One has made a covenant with us,
Asherah has made a pact with us,
And all of the sons of El,
And the great of the council of all the Holy Ones,
With oaths of Heaven and Ancient Earth,
With the oaths of Baʿl, Lord of Earth,
With oaths of Ḥawrān whose word is true,
and his seven concubines,
And the eight wives of Baʿl Qudš”

Several interesting aspects can be observed from the first part of the inscription. First, we can understand its protective nature against demons of the night. They are here referred to as “fliers, stranglers of lambs” and are akin to the Lamashtu demons in Mesopotamian beliefs. The incantation invokes a deity known as Sasam. A lot of mystery surrounds this name, as it is a rarely invoked or mentioned deity. It is generally agreed that Sasam is a protective deity invoked to intervene in favor of humans. Some say that Sasam is a deity of non-Semitic origin known as Shashmai in Assyrian texts.

The goddess Asherah, a Canaanite (and generally Semitic) mother goddess and queen consort of El, God of creation, is also mentioned in the incantation text. Several sources incorrectly translate this word – originally ʿlm ʾšrt – to be the Assyrian deity Assur (Aššur). Most scholars agree that this interpretation is incorrect, as this deity does not fit well within a Phoenician incantation, especially not when connected with the god El and the other deities of the Canaanite pantheon.

Another unique deity mentioned here is Ḥawrān, known also as Horon. He is the deity of the underworld, a co-ruler of it, and the twin brother of Melqart, a major deity and the god of the city of Tyre in present-day Lebanon.

The Arslan Tash Amulets: Written To and Against Demons
The obverse side of the AT1 tablet has somewhat shorter writings, but nonetheless important ones. Here, the short spells and incantations are inscribed directly onto the lamassu protective spirit, as well as the demonic wolf.

O Fliers, from the dark room pass away!
Now! Now! Night demons.

From my house, O crushers, go forth!

As for Sasam, let it not be opened to him,
And let him not come down to my door posts.
The Sun rises, O Sasam:
Disappear, and fly away home.

From the entirety of this text we can understand that the text is addressed to and against demons. They are referred to as “divine fliers” and “lamb stranglers.” Focusing on the original Phoenician word for “fliers,” scholars generally agree this a reference to “ Lilits,” the notorious night demons mentioned in numerous magical texts. Lilītu are female demons from the ancient Mesopotamian religion, and often mentioned in texts from Sumer, Babylonia, Assyria, etc.

Protective spells on an ancient Jewish occult incantation bowl from the Sassanid Empire. These bowls were buried upside down below the structure of the house or on the land of the house to trap demons. The center of the inside of the bowl depicts Lilith, or the male form, Lilit. Surrounding the image is a spiral form incantation inscribed in Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, Syriac, Mandaic, Middle Persian, and Arabic. (Marie-Lan Nguyen (2011) / CC BY-SA 2.5)

Protective spells on an ancient Jewish occult incantation bowl from the Sassanid Empire . These bowls were buried upside down below the structure of the house or on the land of the house to trap demons. The center of the inside of the bowl depicts Lilith, or the male form, Lilit. Surrounding the image is a spiral form incantation inscribed in Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, Syriac, Mandaic, Middle Persian, and Arabic. (Marie-Lan Nguyen (2011) / CC BY-SA 2.5 )

The word denoting “stranglers” is almost equal to the Ugaritic word for their two strangler goddesses – which connects perfectly with the translation and the nature of the incantation.

On the whole, the spell is aimed to protect the wearer from these beings, and to forbid them from entering his or her household. It states that the enchanter is in league with El and Asherah themselves and protected by the oaths of Heaven and Earth. The wearer is further protected by Baal – who here bears an older, Ugaritic epithet “Lord of the Earth” – and the god Ḥawrān and his wives, denizens of the underworld.

One of the famous ivories of Arslan Tash depicting a cow suckling its calf, a spoil of war taken from the palaces of the Aramaic and Phoenician princes during the conquests of the Assyrian rulers. This popular ancient theme is interpreted as a form of divine symbolism. (Claude Valette / CC BY-SA 2.0)

One of the famous ivories of Arslan Tash depicting a cow suckling its calf, a spoil of war taken from the palaces of the Aramaic and Phoenician princes during the conquests of the Assyrian rulers. This popular ancient theme is interpreted as a form of divine symbolism. (Claude Valette / CC BY-SA 2.0 )

The spell demands that these demons of the night depart from the wearer’s household or not venture beyond the threshold, or the door entrance. This again reveals an interesting belief and the importance of the threshold in ancient civilizations. The threshold was an important part of the house, imbued with ritualistic significance. It was believed that such powerful incantations and magical spells would not allow evil spirits to cross the threshold and enter a home.

The inscriptions were heavily researched and from a linguistic perspective they provided a wealth of unique information – especially in regard to the Semitic languages of the ancient world. The orthography of the entire text is standard Phoenician, that is, there are no final vowel letters, which is characteristic of this language. But interestingly, the text has several “Aramaisms” such as the word pt (fliers), the word llyn (Aramaic plural of Lilit), as well as the qudš epithet. Furthermore, several Phoenician word spellings suggest Aramaic usage, and the unique spelling of the god Ḥawrān may be Aramaic or South Canaanite.

An Almost Baffling Mixture Of Dialects And Scripts

What does this tell us? Since the language used is Phoenician but with many Aramaic touches, it is supposed that the inscription was the work of an Aramaic scribe for a Phoenician household. Now, the Arslan Tash amulets have been subject to much debate and many think they are fakes. Several leading scholars argue against this. To have created this text in the 1930s would have been virtually impossible due to the complexity of the text, and the fact that it features Aramaic orthography in a Phoenician text.

The Aramaic alphabet (drutska / Adobe Stock)

The Aramaic alphabet (drutska / Adobe Stock )

Were the Arslan Tash amulets meant to be worn around the neck? Leading scholars suggest that this was not the case. The tablets are somewhat bulky to be worn as a regular necklace. If we connect the dots and the nature of the incantation, it becomes pretty obvious that this protective talisman for the home was meant to be hung over the doorway, a place of ritual significance where demons of the night could see the spell.

Furthermore, the text provides an important insight into the beliefs of ancient Semitic cultures. The common folk had a colorful set of beliefs, as can be seen from the emphasis on the demons of the night. Hung in a doorway or at the threshold to the home, the amulet clearly warns nocturnal visitors to flee. And if they didn’t “listen” they would be vanquished by the powerful light of the morning sun.

The Sun Versus The Night

The civilizations of the Near East were undoubtedly some of the oldest and most inspiring in the ancient world. From these desert regions and fertile river valleys, cultures and technologies, industries and trade all spread to the east and the west and shaped the emergence of the world as we know it. And amongst the Phoenicians, Arameans, Assyrians and Canaanites mythologies overlapped. For people who knew little of the natural world, the supernatural was certainly believable. The enigmatic incantations and protective spells of the Arslan Tash amulets provide valuable insights into how the worlds of the supernatural and the profane interacted in daily life so long ago.

Top image: The concept of magic, occultism and protection from demons in daily life lies at the heart what the Arslan Tash amulets provided to the ancient Phoenician and Assyrian peoples.                       Source: Sergei / Adobe Stock

By Aleksa Vučković

References

Brown, W. 2019. Arslan Tash Amulet. Ancient History Encyclopedia. [Online] Available at:
https://www.ancient.eu/Arslan_Tash_Amulet/
Cross, F. 2018. Leaves from an Epigrapher's Notebook: Collected Papers in Hebrew and West Semitic Palaeography and Epigraphy. Eisenbrauns – Penn State University Press.
Dijk van, J. The Authenticity of the Arslan Tash Amulets. Jacobus Van Dijk.
Noll, K. L. 2006. Canaanite Religion. Blackwell Publishing / Brandon University. [Online] Available at:
https://people.brandonu.ca/nollk/canaanite-religion/
Torczyner, H. Journal of Near Eastern Studies A Hebrew Incantation Against Night-Demons from Biblical Times” . University of Chicago Press

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