Mesopotamian Magic: Ancient Tablets Reveal a World of Witches, Sorcerers and Exorcists
Ancient Mesopotamia was a vast region in Western Asia which has become known as the ‘cradle of civilization’ due to the huge number of feats the culture achieved. Agriculture, animal herding, and domestication had developed there by 8000 years ago. By 3000 BC they had created the world’s oldest known cities and invented the wheel. And along with their advanced solutions to the practical needs of a society, ran sophisticated traditions of occult rituals and witchcraft, which is clearly documented in the Maqlú tablets.
A Rich Record
A deep insight into the Mesopotamian civilization has been gained from the hundreds of thousands of clay tablets inscribed with cuneiform, one of the earliest forms of writing, that they left. When cuneiform was deciphered by archaeologists in the middle of the 19th century it meant that texts like the Epic of Gilgamesh could be finally be accessed and appreciated.
The Gula incantation. The writing on this tablet asks Gula and Marduk (identified by his Sumerian name, Asalluhi) to help cure a patient who is thought to have been attacked by a ghost. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
The Mesopotamians were prolific in the scope of their writing, and along with the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Library of Ashurbanipal also contains tablets detailing military campaigns, treaties, detailed accounts of a monarch’s reign, the Enûma Eliš (Babylonian creation myth), and astronomical observations. Tablets found elsewhere discuss codes of laws, maps, medical manuals, trade, domestic disputes, and diplomatic correspondence.
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The texts help to understand Mesopotamian culture and society, but among thousands of relatively mundane inscriptions, there are some which stand out and highlight the more unusual aspects of life in Ancient Mesopotamia.
What is the Maqlú?
Maqlú, which means ‘burning’, is a work composed around 700 BC spanning nine tablets. It details a ceremony which was supposed to thwart and drive away evil magic, protect the intended target from the bad magic, and weaken the person who was responsible for casting the malevolent spell or curse. The first eight tablets feature almost 100 incantations, and the ninth gives directions for the ritual. It is a work intended to aide an exorcist and his patient.
Assyrian Cylinder depicting an exorcism. (Wellcome Images/ CC BY 4.0 )
The Maqlú tablets give detailed instructions to burn a figurine representing the witch in order to dispel the effects of their magic, and this ritual is what gives the inscription its name.
For a text like Maqlú to have been created, there has to have been some need in Mesopotamian society for a guide like this. What can Maqlú tell us about witchcraft in Ancient Mesopotamia?
The Practice of Mesopotamian Witchcraft
One of the main aspects of witchcraft that Maqlú highlights is the anonymity of the witch. It is interesting to note the ceremony is not fixated on discovering who has been practicing witchcraft and wronged the patient, it chooses instead to replace the witch with a nameless effigy and trusts that the Gods will know who the intended target is.
We can also learn a lot from the fact that to counteract evil magic, a magical ceremony was undertaken by an exorcist. Maqlú, along with several other Mesopotamian texts, paint a picture of a society where magic was practiced both legitimately and openly, and illegitimately and maliciously.
Fragment of talisman used to exorcise the sick, Assyrian era. (Rama/ CC BY SA 2.0 )
It is implied that evil magic worked as the practitioners tricked the Gods into believing they were assisting a genuine need. The ritual in Maqlú was supposed to work by revealing the deception to the Gods so they would reverse what they had done to help the evil doer. But we can also build up a picture of a society in which ‘good’ magic was an everyday part of life for many people.
Akkadian was the language of Ancient Mesopotamia, and although cuneiform was used over several millennia by a number of different ancient cultures, it is estimated that 30% of the surviving Akkadian cuneiform inscriptions are about witchcraft and the supernatural. A lot of these are not witchcraft in the way we may think of it today in the form of magic spells and rituals, but things surrounding the unknown.
Cuneiform tablet: fragment of a liver omen. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Although Mesopotamia was remarkably advanced in many respects, things such as celestial bodies and unpredictable natural phenomena were not fully understood. These things were often looked to as a way of trying to predict and avoid negative events and a lot of the surviving inscriptions are very detailed attempts to list omens and help evade disaster.
One notable mystical text was the Enuma Anu Enlil, which is details around 7000 celestial omens relating specifically to the king and state. The king was sent regular updates and reports from the predictions by his personal scholars, who were tasked with deciphering the premonitions.
Ceramic incantation bowl from the Sasanian Period, 6-7th century AD. (Signposts to Eden)
Another set of omens is the Šumma ālu ina mēlê šakin, which consists of 120 clay tablets and over ten thousand ill omens linked to there being too many of one kind of person at any given time. Perhaps today these particular omens would be seen as common sense more than esoteric.
One of the more unusual set of omens is the Šumma izbu. These are omens which are connected to deformed human births and bizarre animal births such as conjoined animals. They were not always negative and they were often linked to the side of the body the deformity related to – a deformity on the right hand side was bad, but on the left it may have been seen as lucky.
Although many people believed in or even practiced rudimentary magic, there were also professional magicians in ancient Mesopotamia. These professional magicians would have been specialists in a particular field of magic. Some would have been specialists in divination, while others would have been professional exorcists. As with some other ancient societies, many of those who worked in a field that was not fully understood were considered to be magicians; so scientists, doctors, and astronomers were placed alongside mystics and exorcists.
Apkallu figure male with a fish-skin hood. During the Neo-Assyrian period, practitioners of magic protected interior spaces of buildings by depositing an assemblage of figurines beneath the room’s floor. This artifact probably served that function. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
It was also possible to specialize within these fields. One set of mystics who specialized in a particular form of divination were the bārû, who made predictions based on reading the livers of sacrificial animals.
Evidence of Magic in Day to Day Life
There is one tablet which provides evidence of everyday witchcraft, listing types of stones and their magical associations so the user would know what kind of stone to carry to attract or dispel particular Gods and Goddesses.
Cuneiform tablet with a list of magical stones. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Further evidence of the everyday belief in and practice of witchcraft is visible in a plethora of surviving artifacts. Clay figurines representing gods, animals, and mystical creatures have been found at homes across Mesopotamia and they were often kept hidden in areas of the house that could have been seen as prone to access by spirits and demons.
And just as a representation of an evil witch could be used to repel their magic in an exorcism, there is evidence that pregnant women wore pendants with representations of the demoness Lamashtu, who was known to attack pregnant women and infants, in an attempt to ward off her spirit and provide a wearable form of protection against her.
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Amulet with a Lamashtu demon. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
When cuneiform was first decoded in the mid-19th century it made it possible to access hundreds of thousands of texts for the first time. It must have been surprising to learn people in ancient Mesopotamia were so advanced and made so many significant discoveries. It must also have been a major juxtaposition that a society which made so many logical and intellectual leaps would also believe so widely in magic, which is perceived by many today as irrational.
But perhaps the Mesopotamian belief in magic should be seen instead as further evidence of their rationality and intelligence. The ritual exorcism described in Maqlú might be easy to scoff at today, but it provided comfort and reassurance to the victim. Perhaps more importantly it dispelled and punished the witch anonymously, which avoided any need for a public witch hunt – something that would have ended in violence and confrontation.
Top Image: Sorcerer in hood standing in front of an ancient destructed Babylon tower with flood, fire & hurricane illustration (breakermaximus / Adobe Stock)
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