T. Abusch, Mesopotamian Witchcraft: Toward a History and Understanding of Babylonian Witchcraft Beliefs and Literature.
(Ancient Magic and Divination V; Leiden: Styx-Brill, 2002), xvi,
314 pp. ISBN: 90-041-23873. $87
Reviewed by Scott B. Noegel
University of Washington

Zvi Abusch is well known for his many studies on the linguistic, literary, cultural, and sociological aspects of Mesopotamian “magic,” but he is perhaps best known for his more specialized work on the Mesopotamian series of “witchcraft” texts known as Maqlû. The volume under review, a fitting addition to the fine Brill/Styx series on “Ancient Magic and Divination,” compiles fourteen of Abusch’s contributions to the subject of Mesopotamian witchcraft. Some perhaps will be disappointed to learn that all of these studies have been, or will be published elsewhere. In fact, to date, only three of them have not yet appeared in print. Nevertheless, the individual pieces hang well together in this single volume, and offer a more comprehensive and cohesive picture of Mesopotamian witchcraft, and of the author’s views on the subject, than can be gleaned from the individual pieces alone.

Abusch divides the articles into three major units. The first, titled “Mesopotamian Witchcraft” is rather reconstructive in nature and proposes a developmental (some might argue “evolutionary”) model for understanding the nature of Mesopotamian witchcraft. The individual articles in this section aim to demonstrate “how the village witch became the evil counterpart of the exorcist and was turned into a demonic being” (p. 1), and how a “simpler” belief system gradually became more complex under the impetus of changing beliefs about the individual and the universe. Here Abusch also shows how family gods were eventually displaced by witchcraft as a means of punishment, and how the punishment for witchcraft was transformed from a crime against the state to a crime of cosmic significance with a concomitant sentence of banishment to the underworld. Also placed in this first section are studies that outline the Mesopotamian witch’s connection to medicine and healing, the transformation of the witch’s role to one with destructive associations, and the eventual internalization of agents of witchcraft formerly viewed as external to the victim.

The articles that comprise the second major unit in this volume, “The Nature and History of Maqlû,” focus on the witchcraft texts themselves. In this section, Abusch underscores the thematic and structural features of Maqlû to support his argument that the texts do not comprise a collection of random spells, but rather a long and unified ritual script. He details the contents and development of Maqlû, from a short to a long series of incantations, and the various reasons for integrating new and variant materials into the ritual portions of the text. Here Abusch argues that internal inconsistencies, thematic incongruities, and other textual peculiarities constitute evidence for the development of the Maqlû rituals. One example of this is the difference in time sequencing found in the series, which Abusch avers, demonstrates the adaptation of the Maqlû ceremony into a nocturnal rite. As in the previous chapter, the articles in this section are placed in a reconstructed framework that attempts to define how various features of the Maqlû text functioned in changing compositional and ritual contexts.

In the book’s third, and most interpretive, section, “Meaning: The Religious and Intellectual Setting of Maqlû,” Abusch has placed three articles that “attempt to determine the thought and world outlook of this section of the text [i.e., the opening of Maqlû], to make explicit the narrative line that holds the incantations together, and to reconstruct the religious experience of the speaker” (p. 217); a psycho-spiritual experience that Abusch suggests may be related to trances and dreaming (pp. 179–281). Here Abusch argues that the Maqlû rituals have been “overlaid by demonic and infernal imagery and set into a cosmic context, a context informed by many of the thoughts and forms of the political and social ideology of its day” (pp. 245–246). This ideology, Abusch argues, has its home in the Neo-Assyrian period and is defined in part by vassalage covenants in which both the living and the dead could suffer the consequences of punishment. At the end of this section one also finds a convenient schematic summary of the Maqlû texts.

Together, the articles presented here provide many insights into the social, literary, and historical fabric into which the Maqlû texts were woven, and offer the interested comparativist a number of avenues for further research. While not all will agree with every aspect of Abusch’s reconstruction of the history of Maqlû,1 or perhaps will want to refine some of the historical transformations and models that he proposes,2 we nevertheless can appreciate his bold attempt at sketching out the broader contexts that inform this fascinating material. This book takes Assyriology far beyond the mere transcribing and philological study of texts, and for this, the scholarly world can be grateful. One would only hope too, that the author, or perhaps one of his students, will someday create a text critical edition of the entire Maqlû series with a translation and commentary that will supplement this fine series of essays.


[1] As the author admits (p. 101), there are a number of methodological difficulties in reconstructing any compositional development for the ritual and its series of texts, because one must establish such developments by way of references to Maqlû in other texts, or by way of structural and thematic evidence (read: patterns) derived internally from the ritual tablets themselves.

[2] One senses, at times, that Abusch’s model for understanding the changes in the Maqlû rituals and texts derives in part from developmental frameworks employed by historians to understand “witchcraft” in early modern Europe. See, for example, Abusch’s comparison to the imposition of the Catholic Church’s attitudes toward witchcraft upon earlier views on p. 78, n. 37, and his brief discussion of the benandanti on pp. 285–286. Such comparisons, of course, while interesting and heuristically useful, should only be attempted with methodological caution.