Sunday, August 29, 2021


Scapegoat - Photo by Natesh Ramasamy

TODAY’S BLOG is about how I found, to my amazement, a very clear and specific ritual practice shared by ancient Mesopotamia and Tibet until modern times. Looking back on it, I shouldn’t have been so surprised since it fits into a tight semantic circle of Tibeto-Mesopotamian word-connections earlier defined as “Bricks, Brilliance and Baking.” But I’m convinced there is one thing that makes this new revelation special: It not only connects a discrete ritual practice in both localities done with closely identical motives, it also goes along with a striking word borrowing. This co-incidence goes far toward confirming a transmission from Iraq to Tibet that may otherwise seem too far fetched to consider.

One Losar (“New Year”) I was celebrating at the home of a Tibetan friend, a layman who was not all that religious, perhaps even borderline agnostic. Still, he served us the Guthuk Soup and “most importantly” (his words) he took our sins outside. ‘How did he do that?’ you may well be thinking. He gave us each a small ball of dough which we rubbed on our necks to pick up some of the filth that does tend to accumulate there and then we handed them back to him. He took them with a small tray holding a rudely fashioned dough figure outside, and even if I didn’t see it done this time, he should have taken the whole lot to a crossroad and set it on fire. I hoped he wouldn’t get caught doing it. It wasn’t exactly a Tibetan cultural crossroad we were living in, after all. People would have looked askance, to say the least, at any bonfires blazing up at a busy traffic interchange.

The scapegoat complex came up in a recent blog, in the comments section, and I may not even need to point out that placing your sins (ethical impurities, pollutions, ills) onto something else that will take it away from you is very much along the lines of what we mean by a scapegoat ritual. The original (?) scapegoat ritual may have involved an actual goat for all we know, but we do use the term for a wider range of ritual actions that work analogously, with or without the goat. Indeed, in the contemporary language of corporate blame assessment, the word scapegoat is used quite a lot... Really, far too much.

Of course, the very term scapegoat puts us to thinking about the Middle East where such complexes are still common enough, and where we popularly imagine it all originated. So I shouldn’t have been too surprised to come across doughballs there. Here is how it happened.

I was reading a chapter from the Cambridge Histories Online, in a volume entitled The Cambridge History of Magic and Witchcraft in the West from Antiquity to the Present, the first chapter entitled “The Ancient Near East” composed by Daniel Schwemer. Schwemer distinguishes two types of rituals, the first one, ‘witch purifications’ that involves incinerating an effigy of the witch made of clay and wax. This kind of ritual is called maqlû. But the one that concerns us more at this moment is the other, different but related, type of ritual called šurpu. Let me quote p. 35, in the general context of undoing curses by ritual means: 
“Whereas the burning of the witches’ figurines dominates the proceedings of maqlû, the ritual šurpu aims at removing the patient’s impurity that has been caused by his or her own transgressions. It is not figurines representing the patient’s enemies, but the consequences of his or her own actions that have to be eliminated and are destroyed by fire. Thus, the performance of šurpu includes the burning of dough that is applied to and wiped off of the patient’s body. The patient throws various items representing his or her crimes into the fire, among them garlic peels.” [The added emphasis is my own.]
As if the identity of ritual actions, objects and objectives weren’t enough, Tibetan has borrowed this very word šurpu from Akkadian, and it fits into another (similar yet not identical) ritual context done with a different motive — food offerings to hungry ghosts and the spirits of the departed — in which barley flour (perhaps mixed with butter and/or other food substances to make a dough) is singed rather than incinerated.

The Tibetan word (or words) that means to singe or scorch in that ritual by the same name is bshur-ba, with imperative form shur-cig! And it obviously belongs to the same verb group as another verb with similar meaning gsur-ba. I won't bother you with the lexicons and what they say, but save the philological exercises for another time. The gsur ritual itself involves burning grain, but the motive is feeding hungry spirits. It was long ago described by Panglung Rinpoche in a short essay on the subject.

So to sum up, here is why I think here we have an excellent case for Mesopotamia-Tibet transmission. First, an identical object, the doughball, is made use of in closely identical ritual actions, the rubbing and the burning. Secondly, both rites are done out of the same motives, to purify the person of sin and similar blights. Third, we see that a different Tibetan grain burning rite, one with a different aim, bears the name of the very Mesopotamian rite that involves the rubbing and burning of the doughball. And the final blow to skepticism, I think, is the fact that this word that means ‘burning’ in Akkadian and ‘scorching, singeing’ in Tibetan fits seamlessly inside of an already-identified semantic circle of apparent borrowings that include words for blazing (bar|’bar) and brilliance (zil|zil).

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Further ruminations, a little bibliography, and a few significant links

Sometimes, in order to switch gears and get a fresh start, we need to clean up some of the messes from the past. Rituals — as well as confession, restitution and reconciliation not accompanied by rituals — can certainly help. Notice how Leviticus 5 is immediately followed by a chapter on actual (not just ritual) restitution.* Apologies done, regrets expressed, while giving people back what is rightfully theirs usually must precede other efforts to smoothe things over between us.
(*The actual annual scapegoat ritual that used a real goat, intended for collective iniquity, is not all that relevant for us right now. For it, see Leviticus 16.)

To see how the very important Bon monastery known as Menri (སྨན་རི་) celebrates New Year, look here. Here they use strings instead of doughballs, but I do remember participating in a community ritual at Dolanji many years ago (not at New Year, n.b.) in which both strings and doughballs were used (everyone holds the same string, which is then cut so that each person is left holding a piece of it).

You can find other elaborate accounts of New Year rituals, including more than one way of using the doughballs, here.

With Rosh Ha-Shana upon us, to some of us it will be of special interest that the traditions of making challah bread for ritual purposes include a step in which a small doughball is taken from the large one and purposely burned. It’s this small doughball that the word challah properly refers to. This post-temple practice is consciously connected with a temple practice of daily incinerating doughballs on the fire altar.

As part of the sin purifying atonement practices leading up to Rosh Ha-Shana, many have the practice of throwing small crumbs of bread into a stream of flowing water while reciting confessional prayers. For more, try Schmoogling for "Tashlich" (send off, dispatch) or have a quick look at this news story. And if you have a little more time a particularly well done essay is this one. It’s a popular practice, and as such it doesn’t receive blanket approval from all religious authorities. It’s interesting how it uses the element of water, not fire, and crumbs instead of dough or grain, but anyway, I think you can sense a connection.

Tibetan names for dough are zan and spag. Uses include as a kind of cotton ball for spreading oil on babies, or animals, especially horses to make their fur coats shine. Also, for divination (or drawing of names from a hat). “Aleuromancy” is a word I wanted to slip into the discussion somewhere, so this is as good a chance as any. It’s supposed to be a type of divination done by slipping inscribed slips of paper into doughballs, kind of like the fortune cookies distributed after meals at Chinese restaurants in the U.S. The Guthuk dumplings of Tibetan New Year have objects, not inscriptions, placed in them.

John V. Bellezza, “Zenpar: Tibetan Wooden Moulds for the Creation of Dough Figures in Esoteric Rituals,” Collector's World. Color illustrations of zan-par. I believe this was also published in Arts of Asia, vol. 47, no. 5 (September 2017), p. 132. There is a bibliography on the subject here:

Isabel Cranz, Atonement and Purification: Priestly and Assyro-Babylonian Perspectives on Sin and Its Consequences, Mohr Siebeck (Tübingen 2017). I’d like to say I’ve read this book, since it is precisely on topic, but anyway I hope I can read it soon and get back with you.

Zara Fleming, “An Introduction to Zan par (Tibetan wooden moulds),” Tibet Journal, vol. 27, nos. 1-2 (Spring 2002), pp. 197-216.

Zara Fleming, “The Ritual Significance of Zan-par,” contained in: Erberto F. Lo Bue, ed., Art in Tibet: Issues in Traditional Tibetan Art from the Seventh to the Twentieth Century, Brill (Leiden 2011), pp. 161-170. I’m not sure how these stamped dough figures figure into our discussion, but I imagine they ought to, somehow, if not now, some other time.

Jampa L. Panglung, “On the Origin of the Tsha-gsur Ceremony,” contained in: Barbara N. Aziz and Matthew Kapstein, eds., Soundings in Tibetan Civilization, Manohar (Delhi 1985), pp. 268-271. There is a Tibetan controversy within the Gelugpa school about whether “Hot Sur” (or as Panglung suggests, perhaps “Burnt Food”) ritual offering is Buddhist in its origins or not, with the Fifth Dalai Lama saying it’s not justifiable in Buddhist scripture, while the later Bstan-dar Lha-rams-pa argues it is. The brief essay ends with notice of a Dunhuang text nicely demonstrating that the word and its associated context goes back at least to the Tibetan imperial era.

Erica Reiner, Šurpu: A Collection of Sumerian and Akkadian Incantations, Weidner (Graz 1958). This includes English translations.

Francis James Michael Simons, Burn Your Way to Success; Studies in the Mesopotamian Ritual and Incantation Series Śurpu, doctoral dissertation, University of Birmingham (2017). I list this because of its useful survey of the literature. It doesn’t seem to have anything else specifically relevant for us at the moment. Tibetanists will find instruction in Mesopotamian use of juniper as an incense or fumigant for purifying large areas, just as Tibetans do in bsangs burning rites. The Mesopotamians even had a way of blessing the juniper for use in ritual. This study emphasizes juniper and cedar use for controlling and repelling insects, although this has never, as far as I know, featured in discussions about the Tibetan practice.

Wikipedia has a worthy entry on the Mesopotamian rite that you can see here.

Alexandra Witze, “Barley Fueled Farmers’ Spread onto Tibetan Plateau: Cold-Tolerant Crop enabled High-Altitude Agriculture some 3,600 Years ago,” Nature News, an internet journal. Try this link. Well, I for one regard the knowledge of just when barley cultivation started in Tibet as key to the issue of when grain baking, toasting, barley beer making and the like could have also had their start. I doubt this article will have the final word on the subject, but it does give us food to think about.

The Tibetan conversant can benefit from this video that depicts and interviews people about several of the dough-related parts of Tibetan New Year rituals. Go ahead and click on it:


This video of Gutor (Torma Rite of the Twenty-Ninth Day, just before New Year) shows outstandingly astounding cham dances, but you have to wait to the very last minute to see the torma burning.

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Particularly for people who are not confirmed Bible-lovers I recommend, as a friend already recommended to me, to go read Leviticus chapter 5 carefully. There you will see that its sin-dispelling practice had both a bloody meat aspect and a bread-dough/grain aspect. This dyad of red and white elements, the blood and the grain, the wine and the bread, can be traced back to the original sacrifices of Cain and Abel in Bereshit, with Cain representing the preoccupation with field agriculture, and Abel the animal husbandry. There is a lot to puzzle over regardless of your beliefs, but I suggest putting on alien binoculars for a change before switching back to normal setting.

And finally, especially for the Tibeto-theoreticians, I’d like them to observe something. We’ve probably become too comfortable in our view that the ancient blood sacrifices were (entirely or largely) ‘replaced’ by grain and dough sacrifices as time went on, particularly the dough figures of animals and so on that we often see in Tibetan rituals. Even if there may be grains of truth in this common idea, we should permit ourselves to be bewildered by the simultaneous presence of dough and blood sacrifice that we see in Leviticus 5. I mean, the doughballs and dough figures could have been there all along, am I right? One didn’t have to replace or substitute for the other.

PS: These days I have so much tedious work to do I don’t have time to read books much, but before I go to sleep at night I read some pages of two very different books about Genesis: Gary A. Anderson’s The Genesis of Perfection and Catherine L. McDowell’s The Image of God in the Garden of Eden. I’ve already found dozens of subjects for a Tibeto-logician to blog about, but if I don’t promise to write them, I won’t commit any sin if I don’t, will I? Each of the two books is mind-altering in its own way. I’ve always been intrigued by the creation account, so much that I have trouble reaching other parts of the Hebrew scriptures. It doesn’t matter if you think it presents a true history of things, to me it’s more about how it provokes a lot of questions and presents a number of puzzles. Even if you were to read it as the opening of a best-selling novel.

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