Magic of Mesopotamia

Ronald Hutton (1953-, U.K.) in his essay, “Framework for the Study of European Magic,” observed that the materials from Mesopotamia showed “no sign that human beings were believed to be capable of coercing deities… without divine help.” He continues that the peoples of Mesopotamia “made a practice of timing important actions in harmony with heavenly bodies.” Moreover, they had an acute fear of witchcraft (i.e. “magic employed secretly and maliciously by other human beings.”) A few years later, writing in “The Witch” in 2017, Hutton noted that magic was a part of official religion in Mesopotamia. Since the peoples of that region made no distinction between religion and magic, both were a part of their daily lives.

Hutton’s later perception agrees with the various experts of Mesopotamia – Thorkild Jacobsen (1904-1993, Demark), Jeremy Black (1951-2004, U.K.) and Anthony Green (1956-2012, U.K.). Knowledgeable about the cultures of this region, these three Assyriologists stated that the various cultures believed that the world to be numinous and immanent for the Spirits were indwelling. For example, a Babylonian would have regarded the Burning Bush differently from Moses. They would have recognized as Moses did that the God, who was separate from the Bush. However, they would also have worshipped the Bush as a place where the God resided at one time. For a Babylonian, a God could reside in an object without their power diminishing elsewhere. In the mind of a Babylonian, a statue (or bush) could be a repository of the God but not be the God. Therefore, in Mesopotamia, the capture of the statue of a city’s God would be a calamity.

Within the cultures of Mesopotamia, magic consisted of asking for intercession with the Gods (and other Beings). Rituals could involve redirecting a potentially bad event or bringing comfort and healing. Before doing any ritual, divination was used for learning what the person was dealing with. (Divination was also considered to be magic.)

If the signs from the divination were ominous, the ritual of Namburbu (“the undoing of potential evil”) was conducted. In this ritual, people would apologize to the various Gods (known and unknown). Since people could disrupt the order of the universe accidentally, the Surpu (“burning”) would be conducted. This ritual was for the “undoing of unknown ‘sins.’” (Note 1.) During this ritual, a person would peel and onion while reciting their actions, and then feed the fire with the peelings. Once the onion was burnt, the person became “right with the universe.” In the case of illness, a medical magician (Asipu) would divine the problem and address the demons of the illness in the name of the Gods.

My definition of magic is that it how a person participates in the Cosmos with the Holy Powers. For me, magic and religion are the same, since they both entail participation in the ecology of the Cosmos. Therefore, I feel aligned with the Mesopotamian sense of magic. As they did, I believe that we all live under the same universal laws (Gods, Humans, spirits). Sometimes we inadvertently disrupt the order and things happen. One way of setting things right is through offerings and prayers.

For example, when I sustained my brain injury, I did make offerings for healing. Since the injury was a random event, I could have, earlier, disrupted the ecology of the Cosmos, quite by accident. My usual practice is to do divination before deciding what action to take. By conducting rituals and prayers, I have recovered from the trauma of what happened to me. I still have the injury but I now feel “right with the Universe.” Thus, my sense of magic fits well into the cultures of Mesopotamia.

Note 1. In Mesopotamian cultures, a “sin” is an “act or omission of offending the Gods and disturbing the world order.” Prayer can undo “sin.”

Works Used:
Bairgent, Michael, “Astrology in Ancient Mesopotamia.” Bear and Co.: Rochester (VT). 1994.

Black, Jeremy and Anthony Green, “Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia.” University of Texas: Austin. 1992.

Black, J.A., Cunningham, G., Ebeling, J., Flückiger-Hawker, E., Robson, E., Taylor, J., and Zólyomi, G., “The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature,” Oxford University. 2006.,

Davis, Owen, ed. “The Oxford Illustrated History of Witchcraft & Magic.” Oxford University Press: Oxford. 2017.

Hutton, Ronald, “The Witch.” Yale University Press: New Haven. 2017.
—, “A Framework for the Study of European Magic.” Grey School of Wizardry Class Materials. Dell.Urgano, Ombra, “The Development of European Magic.”

Jacobsen, Thorkild, “The Treasures of Darkness.” Yale University Press: New Haven. 1976.

Koutrafouri, Vasiliki G. and Jeff Sanders, eds. “Ritual Failure: Archaelogical Perspectives.” Sidestone Press: Leiden. 2013.

Moro, Pamela, “Witchcraft, Sorcery, and Magic.” International Library of Anthropology., .

Van Buylaere, Greta, Daniel Schwemer, et. al. “Sources of Evil: Studies in Mesopotamian Exorcistic Lore.” Koninklijke Brill NV: Leiden. 2018.

7 thoughts on “Magic of Mesopotamia

  1. Good post. I am quite fascinated by ANE studies and magical systems. I like how they have this idea of making things right in potenial evil. I believe other religions have similar rituals. But off the top of my head, I cannot remember them.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. “However, they would also have worshipped the Bush as a place where the God resided at one time”

    Moses may have had a similar belief to the Babylonian!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s