Standard Babylonian Magic of the First Millennium BC

Notes from the book “Mesopotamian Witchcraft” by Tzvi Abusch

(Please remember that words tend to change meanings over the years. We here in neo-Paganism do not view the word witch in a negative sense anymore. In fact, witch and exorcist have become synonymous. We must also remember that these words are being translated by people using modern definitions of past roles, which is not very accurate and does little justice to the intent. -Michele)

There are two major types of therapeutic practitioners: the ashipu, the exorcist or magician, and the asu, the physician or herbalist. In the traditional texts that preserve the lore of the physician, descriptions of symptoms are followed by instructions for preparing and administering medications. The material medica consist in the main of plant and animal substances and some minerals. The physician employs potions, bandages, lotions, suppositories, enemas, etc. The asu’s job is that of the practical physician.

The exorcist is an expert in dealing with supernatural forces such as demons. He is concerned with etiology and theory. In contrast to the asu, the ashipu may be regarded as a member of the clergy, or, at least, of temple personnel. The activities of the more learned members of the ashipu group comprise both theological scholarship and practical ministry. Yet, though the exorcist does have temple affiliations and may participate in cultic activities, he generally performs his craft on behave of private clients.

In the course of a ritual, he recites one or more incantations and performs accompanying rites; the performance may range from relatively simple rituals to extensively elaborated ceremonies. The ritual normally involves only the exorcist and his client or patient. The action may last only a few hours or continue for a day or more.

The recitation of incantations forms an important part of the exorcist’s activities. This is consonant with the fact that the words shiptu, “incantation,” and ashipu derive from the same root. The oral rites of the exorcist may serve a number of purposes. They legitimate the speaker, call upon the divine powers, identify the purpose of the ritual, and specify the rites that are being performed. Actually, the oral rites include both incantations and prayers. These may take the form of addresses to beneficent natural forces and ceremonial objects or to the evil itself. The former will be called upon to help the client or patient; the latter will be expelled, chased away, or even destroyed. The beneficent force will often appear as a well-rounded divine figure; sometimes, however, this force will be only slightly anthropomorphized. Thus, for example, oil will be addressed as a sanctified ceremonial ingredient; water or fire may be addressed as natural forces or as the water-god Ea or the fire-god Girra. The address to the god may even take the form of a hymn and prayer. There ceremony itself may involve purification, offering food and drink to the gods, burning incense, a central operation directed toward significant objects or symbols (e.g., the destruction of figurines), tying and untying knots, washing, setting up protective devices, applying amulets, and the like.

The worldview of the exorcist seems to combine two possibly contradictory notions. Normally, ominous chains of events proceed on predetermines courses to outcomes that can be predicted by the reading of signs in the present, a reading which is not dissimilar from the way in which a modern physician regards the onset or symptoms of a disease. This view is joined with the beliefs in causation and in personalized supernatural powers. These powers may initiate or cut off chains of events. The world is alive with forces, and those nonhuman forces imbue and govern nature. These powers include gods, demons, and sometimes certain types of witches. Although not human, these supernatural powers act and may be approached like human beings. Hence, a mechanistic world is also a very personal world.

The supernatural world is inhabited by gods and demons. The exorcist regards himself as being in the service of the gods; often he defines himself as their messenger.

As the messenger of the gods, the exorcist cares for human beings and confronts the evil forces that can harm them.

The ashipu is a legitimate practitioner of magic. He operates constructively and destructively on behalf of this clients. He attempts to free his client from malevolent forces that grip him, and occasionally he provides protective devices against future attracts. He is regarded as well intentioned, certainly not malicious. On a cosmic level, the main enemies of the exorcist are demons. On a human level, he contents with the witch or sorcerer.

The witch, kashapu (m), kashaptu (f), performs destructive magic. According to the standard view, witches are illegitimate practitioners of magic. Normally, they are regarded as antisocial and as motivated by malice and evil intent.

Initially, the ashipu, a main-stream ‘white magician’, was probably not the primary person who fought against witchcraft. But at some point, perhaps in the early 2nd millennium, witchcraft became a concern of the ashipu, perhaps because the female witch had changed her character, but more likely because of the expanding role of the male ashipu as a result of the increasing centralization and stratification of state, temple, and economy.

There is no mention of female ashipu. A witch is usually represented as a female.

Perhaps because the witch was often a woman how possessed knowledge and power, the female witch eventually became a focus of interest and even a threat to the prerogatives of the male exorcist. This antagonism may have been a function or result of increasing centralization and stratification of state, temple, and economy. For, as part of such developments, exorcism (ashiputu), especially as a healing profession, expanded its role at the expense of other cultic and healing specialties.

Suffering was thought to be from outside sources. There was no sense of self-responsibility. As the society developed, there was an emergence of the individual as both the subject and object of his own actions.

As people moved away from self and family, and began to identify with community, blame began to shift from outside forces to self-responsibility.

The centrality and power of the personal god who punishes the individual of infractions that he has committed is a Semitic feature, it reflects the life of the Semitic tribal/rural family or clan and should probably be understood in the context of the tribal family culture in Old Babylonian times. It is a conceptual intrusion into the Mesopotamian urban landscape.

Originally, then, the witch was not primarily a doer of evil, and thus there was no need for anyone to fight against her; in any case, the ashipu would not have been the main personage to play that role, for he dealt primarily with supernatural opponents (rather than with human ones).


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