Assyrian Assignations

Sham Sorcerer Smuggles Secrets Sells Soothing Sooths to Sinful Sennacherib

If they knew I was talking to you, my life wouldn’t be worth an Elamite sand-gnat…but I’ve got to tell someone. Snur-Ag-Ag tells me I’ve been muttering in my sleep, and hints that some of the things I say are subversive (and wouldn’t that scrofulous lice-ridden great-grandson of a sniveling gnu-goat just love my job!!) What was I saying? Ah yes…

You see, just a few years ago, (it was the year of the great fish-stink, I think) I was quietly digging a small burial hole near the outhouse of the Royal Library, (just to set a few trinkets aside for a muddy day), when I hit a large stone with writing on it, and then another, and of course I realised I had uncovered some more of that really ancient stuff the big-shot Royal Astrologers prize so much. I was just about to run to the nearest High and Mighty Sky-skryer and beg a few shekels for my discovery, when something told me to wait. There might be more in this than drinking money. If those sick camel-droppings who call themselves sky-readers get all their good stuff from stones like these, why couldn’t I learn to read them? Then I’d be wearing fine clothes and bathing every sixth moonth too! I covered the hole and grabbed the baubles (no, I didn’t steal them; they were a gift from the gods; if merchants fall asleep at midday, that means they were meant to help support the poor; and who was poorer than me, Um-gudda?) So-o-o, what was I saying? Ah, yes…

I fenced a couple of the best pieces and betook myself to the street of scholars where the young men live on rats so they can learn the old brick-scratchings, and found one who was willing to teach me how to read them (secretly, of course; they’re supposed to be sacred) for a shekel a Moon. Just as I thought, there was nothing to it (and to think those camel-turds in their fine robes put on such airs for knowing so little!): Near the middle of the month, when the great Moon god Sin is coming-to-full, you have to get up before the Sun-god Shamash rises and climb high enough to see whether Sin is still above the horizon when Shamash is fully risen, so that you can see them both at the same time. If Sin is still up and hasn’t set yet, then you check the calendar to see if it is the proper day, that is, the 14th of the month. If it is the 14th, don’t even bother to check the tablets; the news is always good. All you have to do is tell the king he is fortunate and the crops are fortunate and the beasts are fortunate and the rains are just right and the gods love him and favor him, and then he feeds you and clothes you and keeps you hanging around for another year, and you get to hob-nob with Ishtar’s priestesses…So-o-o, what was I saying? Ah yes…

If the Sun-god and the Moon-god are not seen together at full sunrise on the 14th, but are on the 13th or the 15th or even the 16th, then you’ve got to earn your incense, because then the news will not be good. You go to the old texts, and check out what the omens are, according to the month; for instance:

When the Moon and Sun are seen with one another on the sixteenth day, king to king will send hostility. The king will be besieged in his palace for the space of a month. The feet of the enemy will be against the land; the enemy will march triumphantly in his land. When the Moon on the fourteenth or fifteenth of Tammuz is not seen with the Sun, the king will be beseiged in his palace.

You see the problem. How do you (safely) give the king news like this? I asked Tabia (he’s my teacher) and he said that a high-born friend told him that you act even higher and mightier than the king himself (never grovel, the friend said…I like that) and tell him he must make a Na-bul-bi ceremony or a Fla-hu-li ceremony (or whatever) to appease the gods, and then (this is the best part) you can send him a bill for an amount high enough to feed an army for a year for the necessary ceremonial incense, statues, offerings, etc. (And they call us thieves…) So-o-o, what was I saying? Ah yes.

Next lesson: New Moons. Tricky. According to Tabia, the first sliver of the new moon is supposed to be visible on the 1st of the month, but if it isn’t, if it turns up a day or two earlier, for instance, on the 29th or 30th of the month before…or on the 2nd or even the 3rd of the month, that’s not good either. “Wait a minute”, I said, “I thought the first of the month was the first of the month because the new moon appeared on that day!” Well, according to Tabia, that’s the way it’s supposed to turn out, and that’s the way they’d like it to turn out, but all sorts of things can go wrong! The calendar could have been miscalculated, or there could be rain or fog hiding the new Moon, (which, according to Tabia, is a good omen – go figure) or Sin, the Moon God, might be Displeased With The Way Things Are Going Down Here (and who could blame him?) and Show His Mighty Displeasure by turning up early or late, which makes life down here even worse than it already is, because an early or late Moon, new or full, according to the ancient texts, is truly bad news. Tabia gave me a very old tablet to read:

When the Moon appears on the 30th of Ab there will be a devastation of Akkad…

The last time that happened, Tabia told me, the Elamites from the eastern mountains (may diseased slime-beetles spawn in their testicles!) lay waste our great cities, burned what they couldn’t steal, and left mountains of skulls in their wake. (I must tell you, I was beginning to have second thoughts about this astrology scam. Thievery is so simple, so easy and honest, and there are no omens to give you bad dreams). But by this time my sights had been set on a higher station in life, and then there was that new temple maiden, Bu-bu-pa-du…

With the Moon-rules safely between my ears, and the sacred tablets available for a reasonable bribe, I felt ready to sleaze my way to the top; Tabia tried to tell me I wasn’t ready, that I had to learn the star-pictures first, and the names of the wayside inns that the Moon visited each month, but I was too cock-sure to listen to reason. Learn the stars! There are a zillion of them! I hired a bather to scrape and scrub me, and had oils and unguents combed into my beard until I couldn’t even smell my own feet…but something more was needed. Fine clothes were all very well, but I needed a new name as well; Um-gudda just did not have the resonance I sought. Tabia found me a number-namer, and so I am as you know me: Upp-startta, High Priest of the Northern Mountains (who knew?), Soothsayer, Doom-Snitcher, Omen-Master, and Sideromancer to His Royal Highness Sennacherib, King of Kings, Slayer of Lions, Devastator of Condos, etc, etc.

Why the sleep-mutterings then, you say? Ah, well you may ask. It was the 14th of the month of Siwan, when grackles snort gently in the temple eaves and the sweet odor of slug-mush hangs over the courtyard…after several days of clouds and fog, a magnificent full Moon suddenly appeared clear and bright in the sky — so I had Suk-up the Sniveler bring me an appropriate tablet from the king’s Great Library; this is what it said:

When the Moon at its appearance is full, the king will go to pre-eminence, the land will dwell in security…

“He’ll love it”, I thought, and dreamed of new huge baubles I would be dangling under the sweet nose of Liz-tai-lah (and won’t Bu-bu be jealous, and work twice as hard to please me!); life was sweet.

Oh Tabia, I should have listened! No sooner had I told the king the happy news (embellished with sigils, amulets, incantations… you know the drill) than the Amorites from the Western Desert (may festering slug-eels feed in their vitals!) careened across the Tigris, invaded three cities, burned crops, homes and temples, raped grandmothers, and did some other new, original, but not-very-nice things. So you see my problem.

What went wrong? That [deleted by censor] full Moon was in the Sting-Stars of the Great Scorpion, that’s what! How was I supposed to know they were so evil? So I have gone into hiding here in the tiny library closet (just til things blow over), straw for a bed, and star-tablets for pillows, with only Snur-Ag-Ag for company. Tabia thinks I got what I deserved, but I’ll be back…you’ll see. Sennacherib looks older every day, and that young son of his is a total pushover…


*The editors wish to state that they are not responsible for this text. Upp-startta of Babilu is channeled by Di-ur-anna of Nu Yuk.

**The editors further wish to state that they are never responsible. For anything.


1) R. C. Thompson, The Reports of the Magicians and Astrologers of Nineveh and Babylon (London, 1900)

2) A. Pannekoek, A History of Astronomy, (New York, 1961), translated from De Groei van ons Wereldbeeld (Amsterdam, 1951)

3) Own sick mind. (New Rochelle, NY, 1933)

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