Sorcerers and Sorceresses
Witches, Demons, Gods, Power, Witch, Incantation
A widespread and apparently very ancient belief among the Babylonians and Assyrians was that certain human beings possessed demoniac power, and could exercise it for evil purposes over whomsoever they pleased. This belief may have originated in the abnormal appearance presented by certain individuals in consequence of physical deformities or peculiarities. The uncanny impression made by dwarfs, persons with misshapen limbs, with a strange look in their eyes, and, above all, the insane would give rise to the view that some people, for the very reason of their variation from the normal type, possessed peculiar powers. But by the side of such as were distinguished by bodily defects, those who outranked their fellows by virtue of their prowess or of natural gifts, by keenness of intellect or cunning, would also be supposed to have received their power through some demoniac source. With the giant and the artificer there would thus be associated ideas of sorcery and witchcraft, as with dwarfs, the deformed, and insane. The sorcerers might be either male or female, but, for reasons which are hard to fathom, the preference was given to females. Accordingly, it happens that among the Babylonians, as in the Middle Ages, the witch appears more frequently than the male sorcerer. The witches have all the powers of the demons, and in the incantation texts the two are often thrown together. Just as the demons, so the witches take away the breath of man, defile his food and drink, or close up his mouth. They are able to penetrate into the body of men, and thus produce similar physical and mental disturbances as the animalic demons. In view of this close relationship between witches and demons, we are justified in regarding the two as varying aspects of one and the same belief. The witch appears to be merely the person through whom the hitherto 'invisible' demon has chosen to manifest itself. From being identical in character with the demons, the witches reached a stage which made them superior to the former. They could not only do everything that the demons did, but they could also control the latter, whereas the demons had no power over witches. Witches could invoke the demons at their will and bring such persons as they chose within the demons' power. Various means were at their disposal for bringing this about. The glance of a witch's 'evil eye' was supposed to have great power. Terrible were the sufferings of the one on whom a witch threw the glance that kept the person under her spell. The 'evil word,' as it was called, and by which the use of certain magic formulas was meant, was another effective means at her command for inflicting all manner of evil. Magical potions, too, compounded of poisonous weeds, appear to have been prepared by them, and which, entering the body of those whom they desired to punish, had a disastrous effect. Such means might be denominated as direct. There were others indirect which were even more effective, and which rested upon the principle commonly known as 'sympathetic magic.' Under the notion that the symbolical acts of the sorcerers would have their effect upon the one to be bewitched, the male sorcerer or the witch, as the case might be, would tie knots in a rope. Repeating certain formulas with each fresh knot, the witch would in this way symbolically strangle the victim, seal his mouth, wrack his limbs, tear his entrails, and the like.
Still more popular was the making of an image of the desired victim of clay or pitch, honey, fat, or other soft material, and either by burning it inflict physical tortures upon the person represented, or by undertaking various symbolical acts with it, such as burying it among the dead, placing it in a coffin, casting it into a pit or into a fountain, hiding it in an inaccessible place, placing it in spots that had a peculiar significance, as the doorposts, the threshold, under the arch of gates, would prognosticate in this way a fate corresponding to one of these acts for the unfortunate victim.
As a protection against the demons and witches, small images of some of the protecting deities were placed at the entrances to houses, and amulets of various kinds were carried about the person. Tablets, too, were hung up in the house,—probably at the entrance,—on which extracts from the religious texts were inscribed. These texts by virtue of their sacred character assured protection against the entrance of demons. But when once a person had come under the baneful power of the demons, recourse was had to a professional class of exorcisers, who acted as mediators between the victims and the gods to whom the ultimate appeal for help was made. These exorcisers were of course priests, and at an early period of Babylonian culture it must have been one of the main functions of priests to combat the influence of evil spirits. It was for this purpose chiefly that the people came to the temples, and in so far we are justified in regarding incantation formulas as belonging to the oldest portion of the Babylonian temple rituals. In the course of time, as the temples in the great religious centers developed into large establishments, the priests were divided into classes, each with special functions assigned to them. Some were concerned with the sacrifices, others presided over the oracles, others were set aside for the night and day watches which were observed in the temple, and it is likely that the scribes formed a class by themselves. To this age of differentiation in priestly functions belongs the special class who may be regarded as the forerunners of the eastern magi or magicians, and who by powers and methods peculiar to them could ward off the dangerous attacks of the demons and witches. The means employed by them may in general be described as forming the complement to those used by the witches,—the reverse side of the picture,—only that they were supposed to be effective against sorcerers, witches, and demons alike. Against the incantation formulas of the witches, incantations of superior force were prescribed that might serve to overcome the baneful influence of the former. The symbolical tying of knots was offset by symbolical loosening, accompanied by formulas that might effect the gradual release of the victim from the meshes of both the witches and the demons; or the hoped-for release was symbolized by the peeling of the several skins of an onion. Corresponding to the images made by the witches, the exorcising priests advised the making of counter images of the witches, and by a symbolical burning, accompanied by certain ceremonies and conciliatory gifts to the gods, hoped to destroy the witches themselves. Since, moreover, the favorite time chosen by the demons and witches for their manifestations was the night, the three divisions of the nights—evening, midnight, and dawn—that correspond to the temple watches were frequently selected as the time for the incantations and the symbolical acts. The address was often made to the gods of night. A series of incantation formulas begins:
I call upon you, gods of the night,
With you I call upon the night, the veiled bride,
I call at evening, midnight, and at dawn.
The formulas themselves, as we shall see, are characterized by their large number rather than by any elements that they have in common. At times they constitute a direct appeal to some god or gods, to some particular spirit, or to the associated spirits of heaven and earth, together with a direct indication of what is desired. An incantation addressed to Nusku, the god of fire, closes:
Fire-god, mighty and lofty one of the gods,
Who dost overpower the wicked and the hostile,
Overpower them (the witches) so that I be not destroyed.
Let me thy servant live, let me
unharmed stand before thee,
Thou art my god, thou art my lord,
Thou art my judge, thou art my helper,
Thou art my avenger.
Preceding the direct appeal, there is usually a recital more or less detailed of the woes with which one is afflicted. The victim tells of the pains which torture him. Says one bewitched:
I stand upright, and cannot lie down,
neither night nor day. The witches have filled my
mouth with their knots.
With the aid of upuntu weed,
they have stuffed up my mouth.
The water that I drink have they diminished,
My joy is changed to pain, my pleasure to sorrow.
This recital, which is often wearisome by its length, may or may not end in a direct appeal to some god or gods. The narrative of woes, however, is merely introductory to the incantation itself. To prescribe the formula to be used to the one appealing for help, is the special function of the priest acting as exorciser. He recites the formula, which is then repeated by the communicant.
Instead of an appeal to the gods for help, the incantation often embodies threats hurled in the name of the gods at the demons or witches in case they do not release their victim. Such incantations appear to derive their power chiefly through the personage of the exorciser, who believes himself to be able to control the evil spirits. So in one case, after the sufferer has poured out his troubles, the exorciser replies, threatening the witches with the same evils that they have inflicted:
They have used all kinds of charms
to entwine me as with ropes,
to catch me as in a cage,
to tie me as with cords,
to overpower me as in a net,
to twist me as with a sling,
to tear me as a fabric,
to fill me with dirty water as that which runs down a wall (?)
to throw me down as a wall.
At this point the exorciser takes up the thread and declares:
But I by command of Marduk, the lord of charms,
by Marduk, the master of bewitchment,
Both the male and female witch
as with ropes I will entwine,
as in a cage I will catch,
as with cords I will tie,
as in a net I will overpower,
as in a sling I will twist,
as a fabric I will tear,
with dirty water as from a wall I will fill,
as a wall throw them down.
Accompanying these threats, the actions indicated were symbolically performed by the exorciser on effigies of the witches made, in this case, of bitumen covered with pitch.
Corresponding again to the potions prepared by the witches, the priests prepared draughts compounded of various weeds and herbs that were given to the victim, or concoctions that were poured over his body. This constituted the medicinal phase of the priest's labors, and marks the connection between magic and medicine. Naturally such herbs and weeds were chosen as through experience had proved effective.
|Written By Morris Jastrow|
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