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 90-5693-033-8 .

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:

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

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 central government.

This development can be seen in the changing mythologies of the second millennium.

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 authors remark:

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:

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. 39).

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:

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 self-awareness.

Thus, Geller concludes: 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 inconclusive.

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 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 " 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,

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. 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:

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. 129).

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:

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 month.

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 volume.

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 texts.

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. 141).

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 concludes that

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:

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: 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 explains.

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

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 Babylonian traditions.

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.

Scott Noegel
University of Washington