Ancient Religion and Magic
Magic was integral to the religion of ancient Babylonia. All
the deities (the most prominent ones being Ea, Anu, and Enlil,
the elder Bel) retained, even in the last centuries of Babylonian
development, traces of their early demonic character. Ea, Anu,
and Enlil formed a triad at the dawn of history and appear to
have developed from an animistic group of world spirits. Although
Ea became specialized as a god of the deep, Anu as a
god of the sky, and Enlil as an earth god, each also had titles
that emphasized that they had attributes overlapping those of
the others. Thus Ea was Enki, earth lord, and as Aa was a lunar
deity; he also had solar attributes. In the legend of Etana and
the Eagle, his heaven is stated to be in the sky. Anu and Enlil
as deities of thunder, rain, and fertility are closely linked to Ea,
as Dagan, of the flooding and fertilizing Euphrates.
Each of these deities was accompanied by demonic groups.
The spirits of disease were the ‘‘beloved sons of Bel’’; the fates
were the seven daughters of Anu; the seven storm demons, including
the dragon and serpent, were of Ea’s brood. The following
description of Ea’s older monstrous form occurs in one
of the magical incantations translated by R. C. Thompson
The head is the head of a serpent,
From his nostrils mucus trickles,
The mouth is beslavered with water;
The ears are those of a basilisk,
His horns are twisted into three curls,
He wears a veil in his head-band,
The body is a sun-fish full of stars,
The base of his feet are claws,
The sole of his foot has no heel;
His name is Sassu-wunnu,
A sea monster, a form of Ea.
Ea was ‘‘the great magician of the gods;’’ his sway over the
forces of nature was secured by the performance of magical
rites, and his services were obtained by humankind, who performed
requisite ceremonies and repeated appropriate spells.
Although he might be worshipped and propitiated in his temple
at Eridu, he could also be conjured in reed huts. The latter
indeed appear to have been the oldest holy places. In the Deluge
myth, he makes a revelation in a dream to his human favorite,
Pirnapishtim, the Babylonian Noah, of the approaching disaster
planned by the gods, by addressing the reed hut in which
he slept ‘‘O, reed hut, hear; O, wall, understand.’’ The sleeper
received the divine message from the reeds. The reeds were to
the Babylonians what rowan branches were to northern Europeans—they
protected them against demons. Thus, for example,
the dead were buried wrapped in reed mats.
The priesthood included two classes of magicians the ‘‘Ashipu,’’
who were exorcists, and the ‘‘Mashmashu,’’ the purifers.
The Ashipu priests played a prominent part in ceremonies,
which had for their object the magical control of nature; in
times of storm, disaster, and eclipse they were especially active.
They also took the part of ‘‘witch doctors.’’ Victims of disease
were supposed to be possessed of devouring demons. In
Thompson’s translation
Loudly roaring above, gibbering below,
They are the bitter venom of the gods . . .
Knowing no care, they grind the land like corn;
Knowing no mercy, they rage against mankind,
They spill their blood like rain,
Devouring their flesh and sucking their veins.
The Ashipu priests bore the responsibility to drive out the
demon. Before doing so, the demon had to be identified. Once
the priest did so, he had to bring it under his influence. He accomplished
this by reciting its history and detailing its characteristics.
The secret of the magician’s power was his knowledge.
To cure a toothache, for instance, he had to know the ‘‘Legend
of the Worm.’’ The worm was vampire-like and absorbed the
blood of victims, but specialized in gums.
The legend relates that the worm came into existence as follows
Anu created the heavens, the heavens created the earth,
the earth created the rivers, and the rivers created the canals,
then the canals created marshes, and the marshes created the
worm. In due time the worm appeared before Shamash, the
sun god, and Ea, god of the deep, weeping and hungry. ‘‘What
will you give me to eat and drink’’ it cried. The gods promised
that it would get dried bones and scented wood. The worm realized
that this was the food of death, and answered ‘‘What are
dry bones to me Set me upon the gums that I may drink the
blood of the teeth and take away the strength of the gums.’’
When the worm heard this legend repeated, it came under the
magician’s power and was dismissed to the marshes, while Ea
was invoked to smite it. Different demons were exorcised by
different processes. A fever patient might receive the following
Sprinkle this man with water,
Bring unto him a censer and a torch,
That the plague demon which resteth in the body of the
Like water may trickle away.
Demons might also be attacked by a form of image magic.
The magician began by fashioning a figure of dough, wax, clay,
or pitch. This figure might be placed on a fire, mutilated, or
placed in running water to be washed away. As the figure suffered,
so did the demon it represented, by the magic of the
word of Ea.
In treating the sick, the magician might release a raven at
the bedside of the sick person so that it would conjure the
demon of fever to take flight likewise. Sacrifices could also be
offered, as substitutes for patients, to provide food for the spirit
of the disease. A young goat was slain and the priest repeated
The kid is the substitute for mankind;
He hath given the kid for his life,
He hath given the head of the kid for the head of the man.
A pig might be offered
Give the pig in his stead
And give the flesh of it for his flesh,
The blood of it for his blood.
The cures were numerous and varied. After the patient recovered,
the mashmashu priests purified the house. The ceremony
entailed the sprinkling of sacred water, the burning of incense,
and the repetition of magical charms. People protected
their homes against attack by placing certain plants over the
doorways and windows. The halter of a donkey, or ass, was apparently
used, in the same manner that horseshoes have been
used in Europe to repel witches and evil spirits.
The purification ceremonies suggest the existence of taboo.
For a period, the sick were ‘‘unclean’’ and had to be isolated.
The recently recovered could make their way to the temple. A
House of Light was attached, where fire ceremonies were performed,
along with a House of Washing, where patients bathed
in sacred water. The priest would anoint the individual with oil
to complete the release from uncleanliness. Certain foods were
also taboo at certain seasons. It was unlawful for a man to eat
pork on the thirtieth of Ab (July–August), the twenty-seventh
of Tisri, and other dates. Fish, ox flesh, and bread were similarly
forbidden on specific dates.
A person’s luck depended greatly on the observance of these
rules. Still, even if all the ceremonies were observed, one might
still meet with ill fortune on unlucky days. On the festival day
of Marduk (Merodach) a man must not change his clothes, nor
put on white garments, nor offer up sacrifices. Certain disaster
would overcome a king if he drove out in a chariot, or a physician
if he laid hands on the sick, or a priest who sat in judgment,
for example. On lucky days good fortune was the heriBABYLONIA
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
tage of everyone. Good fortune meant good health in many
cases, sometimes assured by worshiping the dreaded spirit of
disease called Ura.
A legend related that this demon once made up his mind to
destroy all humankind. His counsellor, Ishun, however, prevailed
upon him to change his mind, and he said, ‘‘Whoever
will laud my name I will bless with plenty. No one will oppose
the person who proclaims the glory of my valor. The worshiper
who chants the hymn of praise to me will not be afflicted by disease,
and he will find favor in the eyes of the King and his nobles.’’
Among the spirits who were the enemies of humans the
ghosts of the dead were most dangerous, especially the ghosts
of those who had not been properly buried. These homeless
spirits—the grave was the home of the dead—wandered the
streets searching for food and drink, or haunting houses. They
often injured humans seriously.
The ghosts had a scary appearance. When they appeared
before children, they frightened them to death. They delayed
travelers and mocked those who were in sorrow. The screechowl
was a mother who had died giving birth, and wailed her
grief nightly in solitary places. Occasionally she appeared in
some terrible form and killed travellers.
Adam’s first wife Lilith was a demon who had once been
beautiful and was in the habit of deceiving lovers, working evil
on them. A hag, Labartu, haunted mountains and marshes and
children had to be charmed against her attacks. She also had
a human history.
Another belief prevalent in Babylonia was that the spirits of
the dead could be conjured from their graves to make revelations.
In the Gilgamesh epic, the hero visits the tomb of his old
friend and fellow warrior Ea-Bani. The ghost rises like a ‘‘weird
gust’’ of wind and answers the various questions with great sadness.
Babylonian vision of the future life was colored by profound
gloom and pessimism. It was even the fate of the ghosts
of the most fortunate and ceremonially buried dead to live in
darkness, amid dust. The ghost of Ea-Bani said to Gilgamesh
‘‘Were I to inform thee the law of the underworld which I have
experienced, Thou wouldst sit down and shed tears all day
long.’ Gilgamesh lamented ‘‘The sorrow of the underworld
hath taken hold upon thee.’’
Priests who performed magical ceremonies had to be
clothed in magical garments. They received inspiration from
their clothing. the gods derived power from the skins of animals
in a similar way, with which they were associated from the
earliest time. Thus Ea was clad in the skin of the fish—probably
the fish totem of the Ea tribe.
The dead were not admitted to the heavens of the gods.
When a favored human being, like Utnapishtim, the Babylonian
Noah, joined the company of the gods, he was assigned
an island paradise where Gilgamesh visited him. He lived there
with his wife. Gilgamesh was not permitted to land, and conversed
with his immortal ancestor while sitting in his boat. The
deities secured immortality by eating the ‘‘food of life’’ and
drinking the ‘‘water of life.’’
The ancient Babylonians were credited with some of the first
correct astronomical observations. They were also pioneers of
astrology, which they attributed to the god Marduk or Bel, said
to have created the sun, moon, stars, and five planets. They
knew that the length of the solar year was approximately 365.4
days and had divided the period of 24 hours into 12 beru (double
hours) in accordance with the divisions of the equator, each
of which was divided into 60 minutes, and each minute into 60
seconds. Such data were recorded on clay tablets in the library
of the Babylonian king Assurbani-pal, around 668 B.C.E. Babylonian
astrologers attributed human characteristics to planetary
influences at birth, and laid the foundation for modern astrologers.
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New York Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1992.
Jastrow, Morris. Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia
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Kramer, Samuel N. From the Tablets of Sumer. Falcon’s Wing,
———. Gilgamesh and the Huluppu-tree A Reconstructed Sumerian
Text. Chicago University of Chicago Press, 1938.
Lenormant, Francois. Chaldean Magic Its Origin & Development.
London Samuel Bagster, [1877].
Spence, Lewis. Myths and Legends of Babylonia & Assyria. London,
1916. Reprint, Detroit Gale Research, 1975.
Thierens, A. E. Astrology in Mesopotamian Culture. Leiden E.
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