Studia Antiqua et Archaeologica 27(2): 301-330

DOI: 10.47743/saa-2021-27-2-5



The concept of trial by water or water ordeal is best known to the wider public through European witch
trials from the Late Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period, but the practiced is first attested in near eastern texts
from the Middle Bronze Age (2200–1550 BCE). The depiction of the medieval trials is largely folkloric, such trials were
nonetheless known throughout the ancient world. The best evidence for ordeal by river is found in the letters from
the clay tablet archives of Mari on the Upper Euphrates. A central site for divine arbitration among the Amorite
kingdoms, the practice seems to have dwindled after the destruction of Mari and its cultic sites in 1759 BCE. Reviewing
the ancient evidence for trial by water, this article demonstrates how the trials were used for a particular purpose: to
verify the truth statements of compromised witnesses in legal cases that for lack of credible witnesses could only be
solved by divine arbitration. The ancient background of the concept will help us better understand why the practice
was later connected with witches in the European context.



Trial by water, water ordeal, ancient arbitration, divine judgement, Mari letters, Mari kingdom, witch
trials, Euphrates.



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