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.
Reviewed by Scott Noegel
University of Washington

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 central government.

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 second millennium.

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 (parþu) 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 () 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 (pp. 28–29).

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:

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. 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:

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 self-awareness.

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 (p. 51).

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 (p. 55).

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 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. 114).

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. 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:

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. 132).

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

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 explains.

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 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.