Mesopotamian Magic, With a Hint of Misogyny

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Mesopotamian tablets

It wasn’t the good witches they were after, you understand – it was the bad ones. And yet…were there any good ones in the ancient Mesopotamian world?

Professor Tzvi Abusch, (The Rose B. and Joseph Cohen Professor of Assyriology and Ancient Near Eastern Religion, Department of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies, Brandeis University) touched on this question and many others when speaking to a keen audience at the most recent lecture hosted by the Canadian Society for Mesopotamian Studies: A Ceremony against Witchcraft: Mesopotamian Magic in Action. Guiding us through a ceremony against witchcraft, Abusch explained the ancient Mesopotamians’ view of magic. They felt it could either be used for good, in the case of herbalists or exorcists, or used for evil by sorcerers and witches. It was all magic; it just depended how you used it. At least, that was how it started.

Abusch took us through excerpts from nine tablets recording an Akkadian ritual conducted through a single night in July or August – the Maqlû, meaning “Burning” – in which a male exorcist worked on behalf of a very ill patient. At the time of these tablets, the view that every person’s fate was determined by the gods had changed to the idea that personal misfortune was caused by another person – a malevolent enemy who could work magic. And the only way to heal oneself was to call upon an herbalist, or in the case of this ritual, an exorcist, who could undo the evil spell and cast it back upon the witch or sorcerer instead. The gods were still very much in evidence – after all, the exorcist could only work by invoking their power – but human action had true significance.

The procedure involved creating a figurine that represented the evildoer, and then ritually burning it in a brazier to break the witch’s power. The flames were doused with water, which both cleansed the victim and carried the evil back to the perpetrator. Specific chants, calling upon the gods, were performed at each stage.

The Akkadian sun god, Shamash

Sun-god, Shamash, who played an important part in the Maqlu ritual

While it was fascinating to go through the ritual step by step and learn what it meant, the real fascination in Abusch’s presentation was what this and similar rituals reveal about the daily life of the ancient Mesopotamians. Incantations like this would have reflected a perceived need in society. In fact, Doctor Abusch took us through two versions of this ritual: an earlier shorter one, and the later nine-tablet version that had become much more elaborate and took much longer to perform. This had to have reflected a greater need to ease the troubles of people who believed they were suffering from the malicious attentions of enemies.

 

Equally as fascinating — though unfortunately predictable — was the status of magic practitioners themselves through Mesopotamian history. In the early stages, magic was regarded as a neutral tool that could be used either for good or evil, by men or women. But over time, it became more genderized: those casting these troubling spells were generally assumed to be women, while all exorcists who undid the evil were men. Herbalists could still be either male or female, and there was still the occasional male sorcerer. But on the whole, this formula became pretty standard: evil women caused the magical trouble, and good men repaired it.

One can ask why this change occurred, and try to follow the texts for hints. But the problem, Abusch said, is that we only have texts from institutional repositories – royal archives or training establishments for exorcists. Neither would retain tablets that contradicted the official view of things. So all we’ve got are tantalizing hints that situations were different and more egalitarian at an earlier time, with existing texts that developed in response to some kind of change whose nature isn’t clear.

Thanks to Doctor Abusch, we were given an intriguing glimpse into the worries occupying the Mesopotamian mind, and the remedies devised to alleviate them. We may think we’ve come a long way since then, though medical science still hasn’t entirely superseded the invoking of deities to solve our ills and punish our enemies. But when we look at how often women are blamed even today for the problems in the world, we might shake our heads and think, “The more things change…”

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