Unveiling the Hittite Hasawa – A Forgotten Priestess, Healer, and Oracle
The term hasawa means ‘ she of birth' , and might have originally been used to refer to midwives. But hasawa is also a name applied to old, wise women. According to the few resources which described them, they were diviners and healers.
Magic was a very important part of Hittite culture. Similar to other civilizations, they created their own style of rituals, a very specific world of symbols, and visions related to the cult of deities, organization of temples, hierarchy, and the function of healers. A woman’s place in the temple always appears to be connected with healing, but there are few resources related to this topic.
A Mysterious Priestess
Hittites believed that the gods were present in their world. They were a part of daily life, not spirits located far away who had to be persuaded to interact with humans. Hasawa was the name used for a woman who was a healer and mysterious priestess. The position of hasawa was one of the highest in ritual life. The lack of services of these key women could even influence the Hittite world by unbalancing it.
The more one starts to understand the reality of a hasawa's life, the more one can see that the term ''old woman'' is not precise enough. It is possible that a group of hasawas could have been one of the most influential priestess organizations in the ancient world. This means that they probably couldn't have been only old women because all of the rituals and life in the temple needed people of different ages. Of course it is possible that like modern times, the leaders of the hasawas were old women, but details about the process of woman’s preparation for this role is unknown. It is, however, realistic to believe that an individual needed to start on the hasawa path much earlier – likely as a young woman.
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Few authors have tried to explain the role of hasawas in Hittite society. One of the researchers who has explored the real purpose of these women in the Hittite world is Trevor Bryce. He has written that they probably
''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.''
Modern society may find it especially difficult in understanding the bizarre rituals hasawas practiced. It seems that apart from having her ritual role, a hasawa was sort of like a modern family doctor. She was visited and went to see people who struggled with different diseases. They are not called physicians, but it looks as if that this was one of the hasawa’s functions. The Hittites believed that gods sent things like disease to people who sinned. Therefore, to heal such a punishment, the hasawa couldn't only apply medications, but had to please the gods too.
Artistic representation of a priestess. ( CC BY 2.0 )
The hasawa analyzed problems with the help of animals, stars, and dreams. Apart from this, they told the gods about patients’ problems and it was believed they would receive an answer on how to heal them. However, they were also well educated in medicine and the ritual mysticism may have only been used as a way to make people trust them more.
Hasawas undoubtedly knew something about human psychology as well. Putting the responsibility of therapy on a deity was a very smart idea to help the hasawa survive if the healing wasn't good enough. Many ''treatments'' they applied were more like ceremonies than real medicine.
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Hittite sites have not brought researchers enough information to conclude much on the topic of hasawas. However, they are a fascinating part of Hittite temple history and they were appreciated by all members of society. Hasawas may have also incited fear because they were believed to be in contact with the gods.
A Forgotten Priestess
Reconstructing the story about these fascinating women is like putting together a huge puzzle without any pattern to help visualize the end product. It is very difficult to understand Hittite reality, especially as there are not many resources about some aspects of their lives.
Women in Hittite society were very important and they were even legendary warriors. However, there are still many questions related to the hierarchy of this civilization and women’s roles during the times when their kingdom flourished.
Hittite chariot, from an Egyptian relief. ( Public Domain )
The names of fourteen hasawas have survived until today. They are known as the authors of texts with descriptions of the rituals they practiced. Hasawas were literate women and it is possible that they were also multilingual. The ritual texts which have survived show the instructions they used while preparing some ceremonies. Hasawas had a very well prepared system to follow rituals, which may have looked similar to acts in a play.
The rituals were very demanding on a priestess, so they could only do a limited number of them daily. They also appear to have had a lot in common with women who were later called witches. Finally, hasawa practices look similar to some other circles of wise women around the world.
Top image: Consulting the Oracle by John William Waterhouse. Source: ( Public Domain )
The Hittite hasawa: priestess, therapist, healer, diviner, and midwife by Judith Starkston, available at:
Stephanie Lynn Budin, Jean Macintosh Turfa, Women in Antiquity: Real Women across the Ancient World, 2016
Trevor Bryce, Life and Society in the Hittite World, 2002.
Maciej Popko, Magia i wróżbiarstwo u Hetytów, 1982.