Everyone knows the Minotaur or the Cyclops, or the various strange creatures of ancient Egypt. In this occasional series I’m going to shine the spotlight on some of the other mythological nasties of antiquity, who are just as cool in their own ways but don’t get nearly enough love.
Today, The Sucker, or ‘Old Big-Eye’.
Not long after I started my current research project on the ancient Syrian city of Ugarit, I came across KTU 1.96, a tablet written in the Ugaritic language and alphabetic cuneiform script. It’s clearly a magical incantation of some sort – those are pretty common in the ancient Near East – and while its exact meaning has been debated, most people now interpret it as an incantation against the evil eye. Here’s Gregorio del Olmo Lete’s translation:
The restless eye that also transforms
the beauty of its brother so comely,
of its brother so handsome
consumes its flesh without a knife,
drinks its blood without a cup.
Distort/face does the eye of the evil-doing man/sorcerer,
the eye of the evil-doing woman/sorceress does distort/face
the eye of the tax-collector,
the eye of the potter,
the eye of the gate-keeper.
May the eye of the gate-keeper revert to the gate-keeper;
may the eye of the potter revert to the potter;
may the eye of the tax-collector revert to the tax-collector;
may the eye of the evil-doing man/sorcerer revert to the evil-doing man;
may the eye of the evil-doing woman/sorceress revert to the evil-doing woman.
Incantation against the evil eye/the evildoer (?)
So far, so weird. But where’s the monster, I hear you ask. Writing in Wilfred Watson and Nicolas Wyatt’s monumental Handbook of Ugaritic Studies, Klaas Spronk suggests a parallel with a much later inscription in Phoenician (what’s not clear here is that while it’s written in Phoenician, a script and language originating in modern Lebanon used widely across the Mediterranean and Near East, it was actually found on a seventh-century BC amulet from Arslan Tash, which is in northern Syria, in a region closer to Mesopotamia than Phoenicia):
‘A clear example is also found in a later Phoenician incantation against “the coming of the big eye”. […] Even more interesting within this comparison is that on the tablet of the Phoenician incantation we see a drawing of a demon devouring the one he attacks. In the heading the demon is called mzh, ‘sucker’, namely of blood. This has a counterpart in KTU 1.96 which states that the demoniac power eats the flesh and drinks the blood of his victim.’
Naturally, the prospect of an actual ancient drawing of a monster midway through eating victims was far too lurid not to chase up, however tangential it ended up being to my research. One rummage around in the library later, and here we go:
He has scorpions for feet. Scorpions. For. Feet.
Here’s a translation of the text, courtesy of Johannes de Moor:
Incantation against the Blood-sucker.
The Lord has tied up his chariot, yea, Big-eye is coming!
The murderous god has gone out, he who roams in the field.
Yea, Open-eye is in the field, woe to the murderous god in the camp.
I have bolted the door.
Flee, you who are casting the evil eye!
Keep away from the head of him who is gaining insight, from the head of him who dreams.
When I hit this eye, for the integrity of my eye, the integrity of your eye!
My incantation is according to the scroll.
If that sounds like it doesn’t make a lot of sense, then do bear in mind that (a) it’s a magic spell, and (b) Phoenician, like Ugaritic, doesn’t write any vowels, so it can often be difficult to reconstruct the meaning exactly, especially in poetic and religious texts like this (we can generally do better with the letters and administrative texts).
The Sucker isn’t the only weird and obscure monster we know from ancient Near Eastern incantations. I’ll be back soon with more, so in future you can expect to hear about the Devourers, the Strangler, the Fog, Utukku, the Flying One, Sasam, and doubtless more that I don’t even know about yet. Plus maybe this thing:
I love that thing.
 Del Olmo Lete 2010 – ‘KTU 1.96 Once Again’, in Aula Orientalis 28, 39-54
 ‘The Incantations’, by Klaas Spronk, in Watson & Wyatt (eds). – The Handbook of Ugaritic Studies, p282 (1999).
 ‘Demons in Canaan’ by Johannes C. De Moor, in Jaarbericht Ex Oriente Lux 27, p111 (1981-2).