The Semites
This entry on the Semites applies to the more ancient divisions
of the race, such as the Babylonians and Assyrians, and
the Hebrews in Biblical times. For later Semitic occultism, see
Arabs and Kabala.
In ancient Babylonia and Chaldea, magic was a department
of priestly activity. In Mesopotamia a sect of priests named the
Asipu were set apart for the practice of magic, which in their
case probably consisted of hypnotism, the casting out of demons,
the banning of troublesome spirits and so forth.
The caste of priests called the Baru consulted the oracles on
the future by inspecting the entrails of animals, the flight of
birds, ‘‘the observation of oil in water, the secret of Anu, Bel,
and Ea, the tablet of the gods, the sachet of leather of the oracles
of the heavens and earth, the wand of cedar dear to the
great gods.’’
These priests of Baru and Asipu wore clothing peculiar to
their rank, which they changed frequently during the ceremonies
in which they took part. In ancient tablets we find kings
making frequent inquiries about the future through these
priestly castes in a tablet of Sippar, we find treated the royal
Sennachrib seeking through the Baru the causes of his father’s
violent death. The Asipu were exorcists, who removed taboos
and laid ghosts. An Asipu’s functions are set forth in the following
incantatory poem
[The man] of Ea am I,
[The man] of Damkina am I,
The messenger of Marduk am I,
My spell is the spell of Ea,
My incantation is the incantation of Marduk,
The circle of Ea is in my hand,
The tamarisk, the powerful weapon of Anu,
In my hand I hold,
The date-spathe, mighty in decision,
In my hand I hold.
He that stilleth all to rest, that pacifieth all,
By whose incantation everything is at peace,
He is the great Lord Ea,
Stilling all to rest, and pacifying all,
By whose incantation everything is at peace.
When I draw nigh unto the sick man
All shall be assuaged.
I am the magician born of Eridu,
Begotten in Eridu and Subari.
When I draw nigh unto the sick man
May Ea, King of the Deep, safeguard me!
O Ea, King of the Deep, to see. . . .
I, the magician, am thy slave.
March thou on my right hand,
Assist [me] on my left;
Add thy pure spell to mine,
Add thy pure voice to mine,
Vouchsafe (to me) pure words,
Make fortunate the utterances of my mouth,
Ordain that my decisions be happy,
Let me be blessed where’er I tread,
Let the man whom I [now] touch be blessed.
Before me may lucky thoughts be spoken.
After me may a lucky finger be pointed.
Oh that thou wert my guardian genius,
And my guardian spirit!
O God that blesseth, Marduk,
Let me be blessed, where’er my path may be!
Thy power shall god and man proclaim;
This man shall do thy service,
And I too, the magician thy slave.
Unto the house on entering. . . .
Samas is before me,
Sin [is] behind [me],
Nergal [is] at (my) right hand,
Ninib [is] at my left hand;
When I draw near unto the sick man,
When I lay my hand on the head of the sick man,
May a kindly Spirit, a kindly Guardian, stand at my side.
The third caste was the Zammaru, and its members sang or
chanted certain ceremonials.
The lower ranks of sorcery were represented by the Kassapu
and Kassaptu, the wizard and witch, who, as elsewhere, practiced
black magic and were fiercely combated by the priestmagician
caste. In the code of Hammurabi there was a stringent
law against the professors of black magic
If a man has charged a man with sorcery and has not justified
himself, he who is charged with sorcery shall go to the
river, he shall plunge into the river, and if the river overcome
him, he who accused him shall take to himself his house. If the
river makes that man to be innocent, and he be saved, he who
accused him shall be put to death. He who plunged into the
river shall take to himself the house of him who accused him.
This recalls the water test for a witch in the seventeenth century
if she sank when thrown in a pond, she was innocent, but
if she floated, she was a witch.
Another series of tablets dealt with the black magician and
the witch, who were represented as roaming the streets, entering
houses, and prowling through towns, stealing the love of
men, and withering the beauty of women. The exorcist made
an image of the witch and he called upon the fire-god to burn
it. He seized the witch’s mouth, tongue, eyes, feet, and other
The Semites Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
1384
members and prayed that sin would cast her into an abyss of
water and fire, and that her face would grow yellow and green.
He feared that the witch was directing a similar sorcery against
himself, but sent the haltappan plant and sesame to undo her
spells and force the words back into her mouth. The exorcist
trusted that the images she had fashioned against him would
assume her own character, and her spells would be turned back
on her.
Another tablet expressed the desire that the god of night
would strike the witch’s magic, that her mouth become fat and
her tongue salt, that the words of evil she had spoken be
poured out like tallow, and that the magic she was working be
crumbled like salt.
The tablets abound in magical matter, and in them we have
a record of the actual wizardry in vogue at the time they were
written, which runs at least from the seventh century until the
time when cuneiform inscription ceased to be used.
Chaldean magic was renowned throughout the world, especially
for its astrology. The book of Isaiah states ‘‘Let now the
astrologers, star-gazers, monthly prognosticators, stand up and
save thee from the things that shall come upon thee.’’ In the
book of Daniel, magicians are called Chaldeans, and even in
modern times occultists have praised Chaldean magi. The
Greek geographer Strabo and the Roman rhetorician Ælian alluded
to Chaldean knowledge of astrology, and it is supposed
to have been the Chaldean magician Œthanes who introduced
his science into Greece, which he entered with Xerxes.
The great library of Assurbanipal, king of Assyria, who died
in 626 B.C.E., affords first-hand knowledge of Assyrian magic.
Assurbanipal gathered together numerous volumes from the
cities of Babylonia, stored them in his great library at Nineveh,
and had them copied and translated. In fact, letters have been
discovered from Assurbanipal to some of his officials, giving instructions
for the copying of certain incantations. Many grimoires
also come from Babylonia, written during the later empire,
the best known of which are the series entitled Maklu
(burning), Utukki limnuti (evil spirits), Labartu (hag-demon),
and Nis kati (raising of the hand).
There are also many ceremonial texts available that throw
considerable light on magical practice. The Maklu, for example,
contains eight tablets of incantations and spells against wizards
and witches—the general idea running through it being
to instruct the bewitched person how to manufacture figures of
his enemies and thus destroy them.
The series dealing with the exorcism of evil spirits enumerates
demons, goblins, and ghosts, and consists of at least sixteen
tablets. They were for the exorcist’s use in driving devils
out from possessed people. This was to be accomplished by invoking
the aid of the gods, so that the demons might be placed
under a divine taboo. The demon who possessed the unfortunate
victim had to be described in the most minute manner.
The series dealing with the Labartu or hag-demon, a kind of
female devil who delighted in attacking children, gave directions
for making a figure of the Labartu and the incantations to
be repeated over it. The magician and philosopher appear to
have worked together in Assyria, for medical men constantly
used incantations to drive out demons, and incantations were
often associated with prescriptions. Medical magic indeed appears
to have been of much the same sort as we find among the
Native American.
The doctrine of the ‘‘Incommunicable Name’’ was established
among the early Semites, as among the Egyptians. It related
to the secret name of a god that, when discovered, gave
the speaker complete power over him by its mere utterance.
Knowing the name or description of the person or demon
against whom the magician directed his charm was also essential
to success. Drugs were originally ascribed the power vouchsafed
by the gods for the welfare of mankind and were supposed
to aid greatly in exorcism.
In Assyrian sorcery, Ea and Marduk were the most powerful
gods, Marduk being an intermediary between human beings
and their father, Ea; indeed the legend of Marduk going to his
father for advice was commonly repeated in incantations. When
working magic against an individual it was necessary to have
something belonging to him or her—clippings of hair, or fingernails
if possible. The possessed person was usually washed,
the principle of cleansing probably underlying this ceremony.
An incantation called the Incantation of Eridu was often prescribed,
and this must have related to some such cleansing, for
Eridu was the Home of Ea, the Sea-god.
A formula for exorcising or washing away a demon named
Rabesu stated that the patient was to be sprinkled with clean
water seven times. Of all water none was so sacred as that from
the Euphrates river, and its water was frequently used for
charms and exorcisms.
Fumigation with a censor was also employed by the Assyrians
for exorcism, but the possessed person was often guarded
from the attack of fiends by being placed in the middle of an
enchanted circle of flour, through which it was thought no spirit
could break. Wearing the glands from the mouth of a fish was
also a charm against possession. In making a magic circle, the
sorcerer usually formed seven little winged figures to set before
the god Nergal, blessing them with a long spell that stated he
had completed the usurtu or magic circle with a sprinkling of
lime. The wizard further prayed that the incantation might be
performed for his patient by the god. This would seem to be
a prototype of the use of the circle among magicians of medieval
times.
R. Campbell Thompson, in his book Semitic Magic (1908),
stated
‘‘Armed with all these things—the word of power, the acquisition
of some part of the enemy, the use of the magic circle and
holy water, and the knowledge of the magical properties of substances—the
ancient warlock was well fitted for his trade. He
was then capable of defying hostile demons or summoning
friendly spirits, of driving out disease or casting spells, of making
amulets to guard the credulous who came to him. Furthermore,
he had a certain stock-in-trade of tricks which were a
steady source of revenues. Lovesick youths and maidens always
hoped for some result from his philtres or love-charms; at the
demand of jealousy, he was ever ready to put hatred between
husband and wife; and for such as had not the pluck or skill
even to use a dagger on a dark night, his little effigies, pierced
with pins, would bring death to a rival. He was at once a physician
and wonder-worker for such as would pay him fee.
‘‘Among the more modern Semites magic is greatly in vogue
in many forms, some of them quite familiar to Europeans indeed
we find the Arabian Nights edited by Lane, a story of old
women riding on a broom-stick. Among Mahommedans the
wizard is thought to deserve death by reason of the fact that he
is an unbeliever. Witches are fairly common in Arabic lore, and
we usually find them figuring as sellers of potions and
philtres. . . . In Arab folk tales the moghrebi is the sorcerer who
has converse with demons, and we find many such in the Old
and New Testaments, as well as diviners and other practitioners
of the occult arts. In the Sanhedrin, Rabbi Akiba defines an enchanter
as one who calculates the times and hours, and other
rabbis state that ‘an enchanter is he who grows ill when his
bread drops from his mouth, or if he drops the stick that supports
him from his hand, or if his son calls after him, or a crow
caws in his hearing, or a deer crosses his path, or he sees a serpent
at his right hand, or a fox on his left.’ ’’
The Arabs used to believe that magic would not work while
he that employs it was asleep. In this belief system it is possible
to overreach Satan himself, and many Arabic tales exist in
which men of wisdom and cunning have succeeded in accomplishing
this. The Devil Iblis once sent his son to an assembly
of honorable people with a flint stone, and told him to have the
stone woven. He came in and said, ‘‘My father sends his peace,
and wishes to have this flint stone woven.’’ A man with a goatbeard
said, ‘‘Tell your father to have it spun, and then we will
weave it.’’
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. The Semites
1385
The son went back, and Iblis was very angry and told his son
never to make any suggestion when a goat-bearded man was
present, ‘‘for he is more devilish than we.’’
Curiously enough, the rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah made a
similar request in a contest against the wise men of Athens, who
required him to sew together the fragments of a broken millstone.
He asked in reply for a few threads made of the fiber of
the stone. The good folk of Mosul, too, always prided themselves
on a ready wit against the Devil. Once upon a time, the
devil Iblis came to Mosul and found a man planting onions.
They fell to talking, and in their fellowship agreed to divide the
produce of the garden. On the day when the onions were ready,
the partners went to their vegetable patch and the man said,
‘‘Master, wilt thou take as thy half that which is above ground
or that which is below’’
The Devil saw the green shoots of the onions sprouting high
and carried these off as his share, leaving the gardener chuckling
over his bargain. But when wheat time came round, the
Devil looked over the land and complained that he had made
nothing out of their previous compact. ‘‘This time,’’ he said,
‘‘we will divide differently, and thou shalt take the tops,’’ and
so the bargain fell to the gardner’s advantage again.
When they visited the land together when the corn was ripe,
the man reaped the field and took away the ears, leaving the
Devil stubbing up the roots. After he had been digging for a
month, he began to realize his error and went to the man, who
was cheerily threshing his portion.
‘‘This is a paltry quibble,’’ said Iblis, ‘‘thou hast cozened me
this twice.’’ ‘‘Nay,’’ said the former, ‘‘I gave thee thy desire, and
furthermore, thou didst not thresh out thine onion-tops, as I
am doing this.’’ So it was a hopeful Devil that went away to beat
the dry onion-stalks in vain. Iblis left Mosul sullenly, stalking
away in frustrated anger, stopping once in a while to shake his
hand against so crafty a town. ‘‘Cursed be he, ye tricksters! who
can outmatch devilry like yours’’
‘‘In modern times in the East,’’ stated R. C. Thompson,
‘‘from Morocco to Mesopotamia, books of magic are by no
means rare, and manuscripts in Arabic, Hebrew, Gershuni, and
Syriac can frequently be bought, all dealing with some form of
magic or popular medicine. In Suakin in the Soudan I was offered
a printed book of astrology in Arabic illustrated by the
most grotesque and bizarre woodcuts of the signs of the Zodiac,
the blocks for which seem to have done duty in other places.
Such books existed in manuscript in ancient days, as is vouched
for by the story of the Sibylline books or the passage in Acts
XIX, 19; ‘Not a few of them that practised curious arts brought
their books together, and burned them in the sight of all.’ ’’
It is curious to find the charm for raising hatred was practically
the same among the Semites and the peoples of Hungary
and the Balkan States—that is, through the agency of the egg
of a black hen.
We find, too, many minor sorceries the same among the
Semites as among European races. To be invisible was on attainment
much sought after, and it was thought that if one wore
a ring of copper and iron engraved with certain magic signs
this result would be secured. The heart of a black cat, dried and
steeped in honey, was also believed to be effective.
(For various instances of potent enchantments, see Solomon.)
Sympathetic magic was often resorted to by the Arabic witch
and wizard, just as it was among the ancient Hebrews and Assyrians.
The great repertory of Semitic occultism is the Kabala,
but here the occult has been transmuted into Hebrew mysticism.
Sources
Thompson, C. J. S. The Mysteries and Secrets of Magic. London
Allen Lane, 1927. Reprint, Causeway, 1973.
Thompson, R. C. Devils & Evil Spirits of Babylonia 2 vols.
London Luzac, 1903–04
———. Semitic Magic. London Luzac, 1908.

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