Mesopotamian Magic, With a Hint of Misogyny

CunEnv

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…”

Advertisements

Gertrude Bell: a Shaping Force in Iraq

Gertrude Bell in front of her tent in Iraq

Gertrude Bell in Iraq, 1909

Gertrude Bell had a lot of authority in Mesopotamia and Iraq around the time of World War 1. A lot. She hobnobbed with people like the young Winston Churchill and T.E. Lawrence (i.e. Lawrence of Arabia), helped draw the borders of the newly created country of Iraq, and even tried to educate its first king, Faisal I.

But all of this happened in the first two decades of the twentieth century – a time when women having this kind of authority was virtually unheard of, whether it was in Bell’s homeland of Great Britain, or in Mesopotamia. So how did she end up wielding such influence?

According to UBC’s  Dr. Lisa Cooper during a lecture for The Canadian Society for Mesopotamian Studies last Wednesday, what catapulted Ms. Bell into those rarefied levels was her background in archaeology. Bell knew the region intimately, having engaged in extensive travels and making detailed measurements and notes for the important ancient sites she encountered. On one trip, in 1909, she began at Aleppo in Syria, journeyed down the Euphrates to Babylon, came back up along the Tigris River, and then headed west into Anatolia, which is modern day Turkey.

These were not the idle travels of a gentlewoman trying to keep herself amused. Bell’s meticulous measurements and detailed photographs are sometimes all we have left of sites that were later looted or even destroyed. And when modern archaeologists return to many of the sites she described, her descriptions and conclusions still stand, and are often still cited authoritatively.

Dr. Cooper showed us one primary example of Bell’s expertise, on the site of the Ukhaidir Fortress, about seventy five miles southwest of Baghdad. Bell was able to examine the vaulting of the roofs and the types of domes used, and accurately pinpointed the influences — both western and eastern — that went into their construction. She recognized some elements learned from western Iran and others that seemed to have originated in pre-Christian Roman times.

The Newcastle University Library in Britain contains Bell’s archives, including all her photographs, diaries, and letters. In her diary entry of March 25, 1909, you can read how matter-of-factly she decided that Ukhaidir must be mapped:

The size and splendour of the place were a revelation and at once decided that I must plan it. Lunched with Mr Watts and then set to work. He gave me the measurements.

Astonishingly, despite that “size and splendour,” Bell had finished her work in three days. And the entry for the day (March 27) she spent writing out all her observations is very telling:

At night we went into the great hall to hear Ghamin[?] the guide sing to the Rebaba. A wood[?] fire and two wicks placed in the square holes above the columns. Ma’ashi made coffee and Ghamin sang the kasida of Abd ul Aziz ibn Rashid, then the kasida of the the Beni Sakhar and finally that of the Anazeh. There is a song too about this castle. They say it belonged to Na’wan ibn Munthir. Chosroes came and beseiged him here and was put to flight. Then one of his chief men induced him to cut off his ears and send him to Na’wan crying for vengeance against Chosroes. Na’wan received him well and wished him to take up his abode with him. He said in that case he must bring all his goods, 150 camels loads. He brought them and set them down in the big court and in the night armed men stepped out and sacked the castle.

This passage is significant because it shows another aspect of how Bell achieved the authority and influence she did. She didn’t just examine ruins, but she interacted with the people in the areas she studied. She learned the history of these regions not just from dead ruins but from living beings who could tell her stories and legends.

Dr. Cooper brought Gertrude Bell very much to life for the fervent and knowledgeable audience who attended her lecture. With extensive photographs and her own expert storytelling, she helped us understand why this woman stood with Lawrence, Churchill, and others as a historical authority and a nation builder.