Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 3 (2000-2001) - Review
T. Abusch and Karel van der Toorn, eds., Mesopotamian Magic:
Textual, Historical, and Interpretive Perspectives (Studies in
Ancient Magic and Divination, 1; Styx, 1998), xvii, 299 pp. ISBN
This unique volume of sixteen articles derives from a conference on
Mesopotamian magic and divination held June 6-9, 1995 at the
Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social
Sciences (NIAS) at Wassenar, The Netherlands.
The uniqueness of this book lies in its foregrounding the theoretical
over the philological. Thus, with a few exceptions (which appear
mostly at the end of the volume in a section marked "texts"),
articles with a philological focus, or whose approach is primarily
descriptive, take a back seat to those that consider the interpretive
framework of ancient magic.
A case in point is Wim van Binsbergen and Frans Wiggermann's, "Magic
in History: A Theoretical Perspective, and Its Application to Ancient
Mesopotamia," the piece that opens the book. Since it is the longest
and most theoretical piece in the volume, my comments on it are by
necessity more extensive.
After surveying the current state of Assyriology with regard to
theoretical approaches (or lack thereof) that have been applied to
the data, the authors alter the Frazierian model in which magic seeks
to conceptualize and effect control by recognizing the heterogeneous nature of the human experience of control, for which they posit the
presence of at least four basic domains:
(a)...instrumental control, or man's interaction with nature; (b)
volitional bodily control by the emerging self; (c) interactive
control, or man's effect upon his immediate environment; (d)
hegemonic control of, and through, large-scale formal political
institutions (p. 11).
They augment their observations by noting that "...the human
experience of control has always been heterogeneous-there is not one
original form of control from which all others, including that which
we may choose to call magic, are derived" (p. 14). Their research
leads them to the conclusion that the "...experiences of control in
the instrumental and interactive domain, as alternative domains of
action and experience rival to the political domain of hegemonic
control, are enshrined in the magic which we have sought to identify
and define" (p. 16). Thus, they argue, not that magic constitutes a
"rebellious counter-ideology," but rather that "...magic is a
dislocated sediment of pre-hegemonic popular notions of control which
have ended up in the hegemonic corpus" (p. 16).
For van Binsbergen and Wiggermann, the change in position of magic
to the center of the ideological system
signals a major defeat of the gods' hegemonic aspirations that in
the end would result in their total subordination to the eternal
forces of nature...in astrological cosmology. These changes are
rooted in the shift from a national state to empire, and in the
concomitant universalisation of hegemonic claims implying a relative
loss of control by the central powers (p. 29).
The change in the placement of magic within the central ideological
system is accompanied by a concomitant gradual privileging of the
concept of divine shimtu (NAMTAR) "fate" over that of the ME (parsu),
which the authors equate with the essentially non-theistic world
magic and divination. According to the authors, these concepts and
changes correlate with the organization of tribal villages into a
The idea of a traditional timeless world is less capable of being
manipulated for hegemonic purposes than anthropomorphic myth; it fits
the loose association of small-scale village societies largely
organized by kinship, while the obviously more hegemonic divine
government exemplified by NAMTAR fits their reorganisation into
cities and later a nation (p. 21).
This development can be seen in the changing mythologies of the
After Marduk's rise to cosmic rulership, the place of magic in
the ideological system changed. In the myth upon which Marduk's
universal rule is founded, Enuma Elish, both Enlil and the ME (parşu)
as a cosmological principle have completely disappeared. The Fates
(NAMTAR, shimtu), once Enlil's instrument of rule, have now taken the
place of the ME as the cosmic organising principle, and pertain to
the primordial universe. It is only by his superior wisdom and by his
incantations (t) that Marduk could defeat the gods of chaos, whose
power stems from their possession of the Tablet of Fates-a thoroughly
revised version of the Enmesharra myth. Thus, although it is still the
power of the word that rules the world, from now on, this word is
'incantation,' the same thing that is used by the magical specialist
The centering of white magic among the hegemonic principles demanded
also that the practitioner of black magic, i.e., the witch, be
elevated "...from being one among many, to constituting the cosmic
enemy par excellence of hegemonic rule" (p. 29).
As to the somewhat the ambivalent position of Mesopotamian magicians
existing between the hegemonic and the non-theistic worlds, the
On the one hand they were champions of the theistic system,
composing and adapting texts, and educating the public while making
house calls; on the other hand they kept lapsing into holistic modes
of thought and presentation. A likely explanation for this remarkable
ambivalence lies in their position betwixt centre and population.
They catered not only to the needs of the state, but also to that of
the public, where at least part of their pay and unavoidably some of
their ideas came from (p. 34).
Despite the ambivalent role of magicians, magic remains, for the
authors, "...a flexible reaction of uncaptured domains to a process
of political and economic domination-a challenge to a theistic
ideology of hegemony by reference to another, non-anthropomorphic,
non-personalised, source of knowledge and power" (p. 32).
From this point onward, the articles in the volume are shorter and
become increasingly less concerned with theoretical frameworks.
Nevertheless, many offer significant insights. My comments on these
articles will by necessity be more cursory.
Nick Veldhuis', "The Poetry of Magic," suggests that a clearer
understanding of Mesopotamian magical texts can be obtained only by
reconsidering the cultural context of their use. Veldhuis asserts:
...if we want to incorporate incantation texts into the literary
corpus, we are not likely to receive support from our ancient
colleagues. Incantations are not literary texts. ...Incantations are
not meant to entertain, to display verbal virtuosity, or to construct
imagined worlds. They are meant to be used in magic rituals, in order
to influence the course of events (p. 36).
Nevertheless, as Veldhuis demonstrates, magical texts often contain
features which we today might classify as literary, such as chiasm,
parallelism, rhyme, and word play. The reason for this, Veldhuis,
posits, lies in the close relationship of the so-called literary
features to the realm of rhetoric. Consequently, "Poetic language,
used in support of an argument, is fairly common in incantations" (p.
The rhetorical context, Veldhuis suggests, when coupled with the
principle of transfer by association so fundamental to the magical
process, determines, in part, the magician's poetic needs:
Similarity and contrast are the two basic mechanisms for the
transfer of meaning in poetic language. Similarity and contrast
provide the building blocks of metaphor and simile, but also engender
features like rhyme and parallelism (p. 41).
Though it is not considered in the article, Velhuis'
recontextualization begs the question of how to understand literary
(i.e., non-magical texts) that employ the same devices he discusses.
Do they too reflect or deploy the mantic tools of persuasion?
Veldhuis' piece, therefore, provides a new direction for scholarly
studies of literary devices.
M. J. Geller's, "Freud and Mesopotamian Magic," adopts a rather
exploratory psychological approach to Mesopotamian magic by examining
the psychological and social roles that magical incantations filled
in Mesopotamia. Both demons and the magical incantations used to
expel them are viewed for their psychologically therapeutic
functions. So for example, elaborate descriptions of demons may serve
to aid the patient from denial of repressed anxieties to a state of
The process of denial can now be influenced by focusing on the
demon as the cause of the anxiety, particularly if it reminds the
patient of those intimate feelings which were originally repressed
Thus, Geller concludes:
So in effect, there is no magic in magic. The incantations
provide the defense mechanisms which are specific to Mesopotamian
culture against various forms of anxiety, repression, and neurosis
While Geller's experiment pushes the envelope in its theoretical
approach, and thus, must be appreciated for its attempt to move
Assyriology outside of the box, as it were, its conclusions must
remain speculative, if not doubtful. Our inability to fully
comprehend the social matrix of ancient Mesopotamia generally, much
less that of the mantics, will not benefit from the imposition of
modern Western notions of psychological states. The problematic
inherent in such an approach, therefore, renders the piece somewhat
Marten Stol's, "Psychosomatic Suffering in Ancient Mesopotamia,"
examines the symptoms of impotence, dejection and rejection, fear and
its symptoms in Mesopotamian magic texts. It concludes that fear
itself could be debilitating on social and cultural levels, thus
resulting in the eventual alienation of one with irrational fears
from normal society. Stol sees such fears represented in expressions
relating the fear of death as well. Being saved from death,
therefore, could mean also being saved from social death and the
freedoms that come with living a normal community life. Stol's
insights represent an important first step toward a redefinition of
the mantic social context and a significant reassessment of the power
that mantics held in ancient Mesopotamia.
In "Physician, Exorcist, Conjurer, Magician: A Tale of Two Healing
Professionals," JoAnn Scurlock offers a critical assessment of the
various attempts to separate the functions and duties of the
asu and ashipu.
In addition to finding colophons a useful and untapped resource for
information on these professions (and criticizing previous work that
has ignored them), Scurlock suggests that our misconceptions are
based on a preconceived binary opposition between the two
practitioners-an opposition that the evidence does not support.
Instead, according to Scurlock's we should identify the ashipu as a
physician and the asu as a pharmacist. Accordingly,
It follows not only that there is no justification, on these
grounds, for separating the 'diagnostic omens' from the therapeutic
texts, but that, of the latter may be considered 'medical' on
grammatical grounds alone, then the former (with the exception of the
first two tablets) qualify as 'medical' as well (pp. 73-74).
It is unclear to me why Scurlock does not incorporate the work of
Hector Avalos, whose book (Illness and Health Care in the Ancient
Near East: The Role of the Temple in Greece, Mesopotamia, and
Israel [Harvard Semitic Monographs, 54; Atlanta, GA: Scholars
Press, 1995]) appeared the year this conference convened. Avalos, in
fact, covers much the same territory, albeit coming to a slightly
different conclusion. Nevertheless, Scurlock's article represents an
important contribution to the subject.
Zvi Abusch's, "Witchcraft and the Anger of the Personal God," opens
the second section in the book on "Surveys and Studies." Here Abusch
investigates the interesting situation in which compositions that
originally attributed misfortune to a god were later revised to
attribute the cause to a witch. Abusch sees these changes as
symptomatic of "...an increasing concern or belief in witchcraft and
a change in Mesopotamian religious thought" (p. 104).
Specifically, Abusch sees the entrance of the witch into the system
of the ashiputu during the second millennium as representing "an
integration of witchcraft beliefs into a belief system in which power
belongs to and derives from the gods" (p. 114). Originating in a
system of "popular belief" (a phrase which Abusch does not define),
the witch, once integrated into the mainstream belief system, became
vilified. In effect,
...the legitimacy of magic depended on its use or commission by
the great gods, and thus the witch who drew upon different sources of
power and validation became, by definition, an opponent of the gods
and an enemy of both human and cosmic order (p. 114).
Abusch argues that this shift was accompanied by a loss of individual
power, since a belief in the efficacy of witchcraft attributes the
responsibility for human suffering to humans and not gods. Thus, the
fusion of the witchcraft belief system into that of the
ashiputu and the divine realm represents an attempt to
reassert individual control.
...the witch's growing power over humans and their personal gods
is recognized but is, then, overcome by the great gods and their
priestly emissaries, to whom individual members of the community can
now turn for justice and assistance. This, too, constituted one more
way of coping with an increasingly complex and hostile world (p.
Stefan M. Maul continues the volume with "How the Babylonians
Protected Themselves against Calamities Announced by Omens," an
investigation into the social function of the namburbi rituals. After
surveying the various aims that the namburbi rituals hoped to achieve
(e.g., placating of divine anger, the persuasion of gods to change
the omenistic verdict, the removal of all impurity, a return to
normalcy, and the rendering of permanent protection), Maul
demonstrates how these aims correspond exactly to the components
comprising the ritual itself.
Throughout the article, Maul shows how certain aspects of the
namburbi ritual had a social impact in the communities in which they
were performed. Thus, for example, when discussing a namburbi for
ridding impurity Maul notes:
This symbolic act must have made a deep impression on the person
involved, since it had its 'Sitz im Leben' not only in the rituals
but also in profane jurisprudence. In manumissions of slaves for
example this act has the function of emphasizing that the enslavement
had been terminated, that is to say, had been smashed (p. 127).
The namburbi similarly had a social impact on the institution and
person of the king. By ridding the impending evil inherent in a bad
omen, a namburbi "...bolstered the king's self-confidence,
strengthened his resolution, and steeled his will to fight" (p.
Maul's contribution offers many insights into the social mechanics of
the namburbi rituals and helps to sever them from an unfortunate
association with "superstition," a classificatory hangover of early
scholarship. Thus, Maul concludes that the namburbi rituals "...were
by no means a hindrance born of superstition. Instead, they were a
stabilizing factor in the history of Assyrian Empire" (p. 129).
Alasdair Livingstone's, "The Magic of Time," explores the function of
mythological time in magical texts. He demonstrates how
"...mythological sections can play a role in legitimizing the force
of the actual magical procedure that follows" (p. 131). As
Livingstone is careful to point out, this does not mean that time
itself was divine:
Generally, at least, it seems that units of time were not deified
in ancient Mesopotamia, although they had a numinous quality and an
individual character which...was made use of in magical contexts (p.
Livingstone also discusses the conception of time in hemerologies and
menologies which attest the intrinsic magical quality of time, e.g.,
periods of lunar darkness or brightness, and the practice of certain
rituals to ensure the propitiousness of a specific time. As
Livingstone notes, "In this case time is not being used to abjure,
but is itself the object of enchantment" (p. 135).
He goes on to adduce additional elaborate examples of the impact of
hemerologies and menologies in the magical literature by focusing on
three types of evidence: (1) a magical text in which a magician
identifies himself with a festival day; (2) a festival list for major
deities in which "...the language and imagery of magic is being drawn
out of a terminology which belongs to the cultic calendar" (p. 137);
and (3) the ancient scholarly extrapolation of philological and
mathematical insights from the names and numbers of the days of the
Livingstone's analysis marks an important step in the examination of
the Mesopotamian conceptions of cultic time and their relation to
magical praxis. It is a welcome and significant addition to this
Karel van der Toorn's, important article "Magic at the Cradle: A
Reassessment," continues the volume. Contra previous scholarship on
the subject of the so-called magical lullabies, van der Toorn sees no
humor in their repeated mention of demons and the dead in these
By examining the connection between this incantation and another
contained on the reverse of the tablet which aims to combat the evil
eye of a Lamashtu, van der Toorn notes that the problems they detail
are fundamentally similar: "the god of the house is disturbed, either
by the excessive crying of babies or by Lamashtu (or their combined
effect), and threatens to go away or has in fact departed" (p.
Van der Toorn goes on to examine the figure of the god of the house,
whom he identifies with the departed ancestor(s) of the home.
Consequently, he argues, the incantation against the crying of a baby
should be seen as a means of avoiding the waking of the dead
ancestors who "sleep" beneath the homes' floor boards. Van der Toorn
The excessive crying of babies is taken as a potential threat to
the harmony between the dead and the living. Should the ties between
the ancestor and his offspring dissolve, the family is doomed to
dispersion and annihilation. Old Babylonian family religion, in its
aspect of the cult of the ancestors, produced and maintained in its
participants a sense of historical identity: they belonged to a
close-knit social group firmly anchored in the past. When this sense
of identity is put in jeopardy, the very existence of the family
becomes problematic. (p. 147).
Eva A. Braun-Holzinger, "Apotropaic Figures at Mesopotamian Temples
in the Third and Second Millennia," brings together archaeological
and philological evidence for apotropaic figures. After discussing
the materials used to make such items, in themselves not without
magical significance, Braun-Holzinger surveys the types and
development of apotropaic figures. One of the most interesting
conclusions of Braun-Holzinger's study is that "Many of the
apotropaic figures set up at the facades of Mesopotamian public
buildings derive from the figure types of the Early Dynastic and
Akkadian contest scenes" (p. 167).
The adoption of these contest or battle scenes is not without its
symbolic import, as Braun-Holzinger concludes:
The symbolic meaning of the struggle is that of chaos against
civilization, of foreign aggression against the country-Babylonia.
The monsters were defeated by heroes, later by gods; as defeated
enemies they entered the service of the gods, as trophies they gained
apotropaic power and gradually became beneficent demons. As guardian
figures of various shape and size they protected temples, palaces,
and private houses. On seals they performed this duty toward the seal
owner, giving him a long and happy life (p. 167).
Shaul Shaked, "The Poetics of Spells: Language and Structure in
Aramaic Incantations of Late Antiquity. 1: The Divorce Formula and
its Ramifications," contemplates the performative language of the
Aramaic incantations. Shakedremarks:
...words are of crucial importance for the sorcerer. They are not
only the tools with which he works, but constitute, quite literally,
the power that he is trying to activate. A proper use of the words is
therefore essential to the trade of the sorcerer, but the rules
governing their efficacy are not necessarily the same as those that
apply in other spheres of life (p. 174).
Interestingly, like some of the conclusions reached other authors in
this volume (see, e.g., the pieces by Veldhuis and Maul above),
Shaked sees the rhetorical arts of jurisprudence as influential in
the conception of these magical texts - specifically in the texts'
use of formulaic language.
The spells are like legal documents, of example, in that they have
the tendency to use formulaic language, and that the language they
use creates, by its mere utterance, a new legal situation (p. 174).
Indeed, as Shaked points out, the legal divorce formula is used to
exercise demons. Nevertheless, creating a new legal situation does
not in itself constitute the function of the magical words, as Shaked
It will not do to label all magical utterances 'performative,'
without further specification. Often magical utterances are not
regarded as effective by the mere fact that they are uttered: they
are addressed to certain powers, benevolent or malevolent, whose
action is not mechanically the outcome of the magician's words. In
order to achieve his aim the magician has to use a combination of
appeasement and cajoling. The term 'persuasive,' statement comes
close to expressing this situation (pp. 174-175).
Shaked's study of the legalistic conception of formulaic magic
provides an insightful new direction for future scholarship.
Christa Muller-Kessler's, "Interrelations between Mandaic Lead Rolls
and Incantation Bowls," examines the use of earlier demon lists in
the composition of the Mandaic bowls by demonstrating
...how the scribe employed the demon-list for writing such bowl
texts. He selected a demon name, his abode, and his misdoings (if
known), and entered then into the formula of a bowl, while retaining
the same sequence as in the demon list (p. 205).
Muller-Kessler's study also reveals that in the Mandaic bowls "Most
demons have their background in earlier Mesopotamia or Iran. They
took their names quite often from former gods and goddesses" (p.
208). Thus, the Mandaean magician was able to create a standard magic
text based on a mixture of previously existing incantations and older
The third and final section of the volume labeled "Texts" contains
four articles that offer philological analyses of various magical
texts. Since they do continue the volume's interest in theoretical
frameworks for Mesopotamian magic and divination, and thus lie
outside the scope of this review, I shall suffice here with listing
them in order of their appearance: Irving L. Finkel, "On Some Dog,
Snake and Scorpion Incantations"; Antoine Cavigneaux, "A Scholar's
Library in Meturan? With an edition of the Tablet H 72 (Textes de
Tell Haddad VII)"; William W. Hallo, "More Incantations and Rituals
from the Yale Babylonian Collection"; W. G. Lambert, "Marduk's
Address to the Demons."
Viewed as a whole, this excellent volume is the first in what
promises to be a wonderful series. It represents a transitionary
phase in the study of Mesopotamian magic and divination in that it
moves beyond the purely descriptive mode of analysis so common to
Assyriology generally and embraces the more recent theoretical
advances well-known to other fields such as anthropology and the
history of religions. As the dialogue between Assyriology and these
other disciplines continues, our understanding of ancient magic and
divination will only benefit.
University of Washington