The Other Side and the Occult Thread

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Lofgeornost

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Over the next several months, I plan to read, or re-read, some books on the occult--mainly pre-modern European, but not exclusively. I thought I might post some reviews, summaries, that sort of thing. I was wondering if I should do it in this thread, or make a new one in the 'Media' subforum?
 

Klibbix!

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Here would be great, very interested in this.
 

Ronnie Sanford

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As long as there's sex, drugs and skyclad dancing round midnight bonfires, I can live without the religious and spiritual bit.
As a 26 year old Engineer working for Xerox, myself and three friends were backpacking in the Catskills Mountains when we came upon a very large clearing, more like a meadow, where more than ten older (I would guess the women were in their sixties) women were nude and dancing in what we gaithered was an attempt to cure one of their company from cancer. Once we figured out what was going on we didn’t spy on them and instead took a long circuitous route around the clearing. Never seen anything like that again.
 

Lofgeornost

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Sorry that it's taken me more than a month to type up some reactions to reading I've been doing on the occult--some other projects, and summertime languor, got in the way. In any case, here's the first installment:

Michael D. Bailey, Magic: The Basics (London: Routledge, 2018).

As its title implies, this is a brief introduction to the subject, part of ‘the basics’ series published by Routledge. Its author, Michael Bailey, is a historian who specializes in Early Modern European magic who has written studies of the Malleus Maleficarum and of the idea of superstition, as well as an earlier textbook on magic in European history, which I’ve read and liked. Though this book is not a history—its chapters (except the last) are thematic rather than chronological—its outlook is more historical than, say, psychological, anthropological, or sociological, albeit Bailey draws on work in all those fields. Unsurprisingly, he also pays a good deal of attention to Early Modern European ideas about magic and witch-hunting. As Bailey notes, though, there has been a vast amount of scholarship written on the latter topic, so it is not simply a case of an author emphasizing his own specialty.

After a short introduction that notes the ubiquity of magic, the book offers six chapters (see below for titles). It concludes with a glossary, which includes some terms not actually used in the text, like ‘Enochian magic,’ a short guide to further reading, and an index. A real bibliography might have been more useful, but on the plus side the volume has chapter endnotes that give its sources. Since the work surveys a lot of terrain, though not in great depth (the text runs only to 160 pages), I won’t try to summarize all Bailey’s points. Some of them will be pretty familiar to anyone who has read much on the subject, which is not surprising in an introduction. Instead, I’ll highlight a few of his remarks that I found interesting or debatable.

Chapter 1: The Meanings of Magic​

Magic as a cultural category is defined largely by its relation to two others, religion and science—the latter defined not narrowly as modern science but more broadly as ‘theories about the functioning of the natural world.’ So an attempt to deal with the spiritual or divine may be either religious or magical, and an attempt to control or manipulate the world may be scientific or magical. This seems valid for European civilizations, at least, but I wonder if it applies as well for other cultures? From what little I know, it seems that much of what gets discussed as ‘magic’ for Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt (for example) is actually the purview of priests or similar religious officials. As Bailey makes clear, monotheistic religions and especially Christianity have been most insistent in dividing religion and magic (and declaring magic evil), while modern science (i.e. from the 18th century onward) has likewise rejected magic more thoroughly than similar bodies of knowledge elsewhere or in earlier times.

Bailey’s initial chapter also includes a useful brief survey of “Universalizing Attempts in Anthropology and Sociology” that deal with magic as category. This has good capsule accounts of some key writings on the subject, including those of Frazer, Mauss, Durkheim, Malinowski, and Evans-Pritchard. Bailey notes that some scholars reject ‘magic’ as a term of analysis altogether, because it is inchoate and may be misleading in many contexts, but rejects this view largely on practical grounds. As an interesting final point in this chapter, he argues that a degree of incoherence or conceptual slipperiness is built into magic as a phenomenon, even when one studies it in a single, distinct culture and situation: magic is by its nature ill-defined. As he puts it, “Secrecy, uncertainty, and mysterious changeability are important hallmarks of magic around the world.” A corollary of this that he develops later in the work is that magic that lacks this quality—that is too well-defined, too understandable—is likely to be absorbed into the categories or religion or science for its culture.

Chapter 2: Magical Acts​

This was the weakest chapter, in my opinion. It surveys briefly the uses to which magic has been put, types of magic and practitioners, the use of materials (including texts) in magic, and the sources that have been posited in different cultures for magical power. Bailey’s discussion is sound (as far as I can tell) and interesting enough, but since his remit is the entire world throughout history, it is hard to come up with much in the way of generalizations that are not pretty commonsensical. So, for example, the section on practitioners notes that some types of magic may be done by anybody (like throwing salt over one’s shoulder to avert bad luck), while other types are more elaborate requiring involved rituals and specialist knowledge. Professional magicians may be part of an educated elite or less learned ‘cunning people.’ Though in some societies (or for some types of magic) education and resources are all that it necessary, in other cases magicians have some innate (and often inborn) special characteristic, like being born ‘in the caul’ or being descended from another magician. And so on.

Chapter 3: Magic Contested and Condemned​

The third chapter stresses well a point that it too easy to overlook. Rather than modern cultures being incredulous about magic while premodern ones believed in it, in any given society there will be a range of credulity about different magical phenomena. Thinkers may cast scorn on much that passes as magical in their civilization while accepting some other magical phenomena as real. This chapter also notes that most cultures have seen magic as morally ambiguous and created legal penalties only for maleficent magic. Christian Europe is something of an exception here—though there were Christian intellectuals who defended some sorts of magical practice—and Bailey concludes the chapter with a brief resume of the Early Modern witch-hunts.

Chapter 4: Magical Identities​

Bailey’s fourth chapter economically unites a variety of topics (magicians as ‘outsiders, the ‘social strain gauge’ approach to magic, the gender of magical practitioners, etc.) through a discussion of what people have been labeled or self-identified as magicians. The book notes that in some African and Asian societies, evil magicians (‘witches’) are considered capable of doing their harm completely involuntarily—indeed, they may not even be aware that they are ‘witches.’ I found this interesting since European ideas about magic normally treat it as volitional, with maybe a few exceptions like the evil eye.

Chapter 5: The Reality of Magic​

The fifth chapter begins with some straightforward ways in which magic can ‘work’: some magic draws on what we would think of as real properties of plants or minerals, some may involve the use of hallucinogens which could lead participants to perceive things, and some relies on deliberate trickery. A more interesting question that Bailey pursues is why people might ascribe some harms or outcomes to maleficent magic, instead of to natural causes or bad luck; a key factor seems to be the presence of unusual levels of stress, or threats that cannot be met by normal means. Drawing on a study of ritual magicians in late 20th-century England, Bailey also suggests that the practice of magic itself may ‘train’ people to see it in operation around them, accepting cause and effect relationships that other would not. An important part of this is viewing magic’s outcomes as possibly indirect instead of direct. Also, these ritual magicians accept that particular magical procedures may fail as well as succeed, “experiencing magical rites that fail critically reinforces the magicians’ conviction that they are engaging in a serious activity that operates in an objective and not merely and imagined way.”

This chapter also briefly discusses psychological studies of magical thinking and superstition. Bailey notes work which suggests that people are more likely to engage in this if they are in fields or situations where the outcomes are unusually random (like gambling, or some sports) and that therefore greater control over the environment may have produced a decline in belief in magic. He is skeptical (rightly in my view) about the latter idea, though, noting that surveys from the early 20th century onward have not shown any straightforward drop in belief in magic, and that European elites rejected magic considerably before modern technology rendered life more predictable. He puts more credence in work which tends to show that people in modern Western societies may act as though they believe in magical phenomena or processes while explicitly proclaiming they do not, what he calls ‘dual-process thinking.’

Chapter 6: Magic in the Modern World​

Bailey’s final chapter is largely concerned with the ‘disenchantment of the world’ that Weber identified as characteristic of modernity. He provides a useful brief account of occult traditions in the modern West which of course show that magic did not entirely disappear, but he does not really engage with scholarship that argues that occultism may have been influential in the creation of modernity. The chapter also deals with reactions to ‘disenchantment’ beyond the West, exploring both acceptance and resistance to it. Here I was surprised to learn that some non-European societies welcomed the idea of disenchantment as they thought it would end the depredations of witches, only to be disappointed when it failed to do so.
 

Klibbix!

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Sorry that it's taken me more than a month to type up some reactions to reading I've been doing on the occult--some other projects, and summertime languor, got in the way. In any case, here's the first installment:

Michael D. Bailey, Magic: The Basics (London: Routledge, 2018).

As its title implies, this is a brief introduction to the subject, part of ‘the basics’ series published by Routledge. Its author, Michael Bailey, is a historian who specializes in Early Modern European magic who has written studies of the Malleus Maleficarum and of the idea of superstition, as well as an earlier textbook on magic in European history, which I’ve read and liked. Though this book is not a history—its chapters (except the last) are thematic rather than chronological—its outlook is more historical than, say, psychological, anthropological, or sociological, albeit Bailey draws on work in all those fields. Unsurprisingly, he also pays a good deal of attention to Early Modern European ideas about magic and witch-hunting. As Bailey notes, though, there has been a vast amount of scholarship written on the latter topic, so it is not simply a case of an author emphasizing his own specialty.

After a short introduction that notes the ubiquity of magic, the book offers six chapters (see below for titles). It concludes with a glossary, which includes some terms not actually used in the text, like ‘Enochian magic,’ a short guide to further reading, and an index. A real bibliography might have been more useful, but on the plus side the volume has chapter endnotes that give its sources. Since the work surveys a lot of terrain, though not in great depth (the text runs only to 160 pages), I won’t try to summarize all Bailey’s points. Some of them will be pretty familiar to anyone who has read much on the subject, which is not surprising in an introduction. Instead, I’ll highlight a few of his remarks that I found interesting or debatable.

Chapter 1: The Meanings of Magic​

Magic as a cultural category is defined largely by its relation to two others, religion and science—the latter defined not narrowly as modern science but more broadly as ‘theories about the functioning of the natural world.’ So an attempt to deal with the spiritual or divine may be either religious or magical, and an attempt to control or manipulate the world may be scientific or magical. This seems valid for European civilizations, at least, but I wonder if it applies as well for other cultures? From what little I know, it seems that much of what gets discussed as ‘magic’ for Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt (for example) is actually the purview of priests or similar religious officials. As Bailey makes clear, monotheistic religions and especially Christianity have been most insistent in dividing religion and magic (and declaring magic evil), while modern science (i.e. from the 18th century onward) has likewise rejected magic more thoroughly than similar bodies of knowledge elsewhere or in earlier times.

Bailey’s initial chapter also includes a useful brief survey of “Universalizing Attempts in Anthropology and Sociology” that deal with magic as category. This has good capsule accounts of some key writings on the subject, including those of Frazer, Mauss, Durkheim, Malinowski, and Evans-Pritchard. Bailey notes that some scholars reject ‘magic’ as a term of analysis altogether, because it is inchoate and may be misleading in many contexts, but rejects this view largely on practical grounds. As an interesting final point in this chapter, he argues that a degree of incoherence or conceptual slipperiness is built into magic as a phenomenon, even when one studies it in a single, distinct culture and situation: magic is by its nature ill-defined. As he puts it, “Secrecy, uncertainty, and mysterious changeability are important hallmarks of magic around the world.” A corollary of this that he develops later in the work is that magic that lacks this quality—that is too well-defined, too understandable—is likely to be absorbed into the categories or religion or science for its culture.

Chapter 2: Magical Acts​

This was the weakest chapter, in my opinion. It surveys briefly the uses to which magic has been put, types of magic and practitioners, the use of materials (including texts) in magic, and the sources that have been posited in different cultures for magical power. Bailey’s discussion is sound (as far as I can tell) and interesting enough, but since his remit is the entire world throughout history, it is hard to come up with much in the way of generalizations that are not pretty commonsensical. So, for example, the section on practitioners notes that some types of magic may be done by anybody (like throwing salt over one’s shoulder to avert bad luck), while other types are more elaborate requiring involved rituals and specialist knowledge. Professional magicians may be part of an educated elite or less learned ‘cunning people.’ Though in some societies (or for some types of magic) education and resources are all that it necessary, in other cases magicians have some innate (and often inborn) special characteristic, like being born ‘in the caul’ or being descended from another magician. And so on.

Chapter 3: Magic Contested and Condemned​

The third chapter stresses well a point that it too easy to overlook. Rather than modern cultures being incredulous about magic while premodern ones believed in it, in any given society there will be a range of credulity about different magical phenomena. Thinkers may cast scorn on much that passes as magical in their civilization while accepting some other magical phenomena as real. This chapter also notes that most cultures have seen magic as morally ambiguous and created legal penalties only for maleficent magic. Christian Europe is something of an exception here—though there were Christian intellectuals who defended some sorts of magical practice—and Bailey concludes the chapter with a brief resume of the Early Modern witch-hunts.

Chapter 4: Magical Identities​

Bailey’s fourth chapter economically unites a variety of topics (magicians as ‘outsiders, the ‘social strain gauge’ approach to magic, the gender of magical practitioners, etc.) through a discussion of what people have been labeled or self-identified as magicians. The book notes that in some African and Asian societies, evil magicians (‘witches’) are considered capable of doing their harm completely involuntarily—indeed, they may not even be aware that they are ‘witches.’ I found this interesting since European ideas about magic normally treat it as volitional, with maybe a few exceptions like the evil eye.

Chapter 5: The Reality of Magic​

The fifth chapter begins with some straightforward ways in which magic can ‘work’: some magic draws on what we would think of as real properties of plants or minerals, some may involve the use of hallucinogens which could lead participants to perceive things, and some relies on deliberate trickery. A more interesting question that Bailey pursues is why people might ascribe some harms or outcomes to maleficent magic, instead of to natural causes or bad luck; a key factor seems to be the presence of unusual levels of stress, or threats that cannot be met by normal means. Drawing on a study of ritual magicians in late 20th-century England, Bailey also suggests that the practice of magic itself may ‘train’ people to see it in operation around them, accepting cause and effect relationships that other would not. An important part of this is viewing magic’s outcomes as possibly indirect instead of direct. Also, these ritual magicians accept that particular magical procedures may fail as well as succeed, “experiencing magical rites that fail critically reinforces the magicians’ conviction that they are engaging in a serious activity that operates in an objective and not merely and imagined way.”

This chapter also briefly discusses psychological studies of magical thinking and superstition. Bailey notes work which suggests that people are more likely to engage in this if they are in fields or situations where the outcomes are unusually random (like gambling, or some sports) and that therefore greater control over the environment may have produced a decline in belief in magic. He is skeptical (rightly in my view) about the latter idea, though, noting that surveys from the early 20th century onward have not shown any straightforward drop in belief in magic, and that European elites rejected magic considerably before modern technology rendered life more predictable. He puts more credence in work which tends to show that people in modern Western societies may act as though they believe in magical phenomena or processes while explicitly proclaiming they do not, what he calls ‘dual-process thinking.’

Chapter 6: Magic in the Modern World​

Bailey’s final chapter is largely concerned with the ‘disenchantment of the world’ that Weber identified as characteristic of modernity. He provides a useful brief account of occult traditions in the modern West which of course show that magic did not entirely disappear, but he does not really engage with scholarship that argues that occultism may have been influential in the creation of modernity. The chapter also deals with reactions to ‘disenchantment’ beyond the West, exploring both acceptance and resistance to it. Here I was surprised to learn that some non-European societies welcomed the idea of disenchantment as they thought it would end the depredations of witches, only to be disappointed when it failed to do so.

Your summery is much appreciated and enjoyed. Dual-process thinking, in particular, seems very interesting.
 

Lofgeornost

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Your summery is much appreciated and enjoyed. Dual-process thinking, in particular, seems very interesting.
It is; I wish Bailey had discussed it in more depth, but of course this is a short introduction. His example comes from psychological experiments where people are given lottery tickets and then provided with incentives to exchange them for other tickets. On rational/probabilistic grounds they should agree to do this, but many people will not. Bailey notes that some explain this by saying they would feel worse if they gave a way a winning ticket, which is a recognized psychological principle (regret avoidance), but that some other findings indicate that people are acting as though they thought exchanging tickets would lower their chance of winning.

I know that, personally, I don't believe in the occult, but I can have a strong sense that the universe is perverse. So, for example, if I may sometimes take an umbrella with me on iffy days not to prepare for rain but as a prophylactic against it. I don't really think my preparedness has any effect on the weather, but I act as though I did.
 

Klibbix!

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It is; I wish Bailey had discussed it in more depth, but of course this is a short introduction. His example comes from psychological experiments where people are given lottery tickets and then provided with incentives to exchange them for other tickets. On rational/probabilistic grounds they should agree to do this, but many people will not. Bailey notes that some explain this by saying they would feel worse if they gave a way a winning ticket, which is a recognized psychological principle (regret avoidance), but that some other findings indicate that people are acting as though they thought exchanging tickets would lower their chance of winning.

I know that, personally, I don't believe in the occult, but I can have a strong sense that the universe is perverse. So, for example, if I may sometimes take an umbrella with me on iffy days not to prepare for rain but as a prophylactic against it. I don't really think my preparedness has any effect on the weather, but I act as though I did.

Well, I can definitely agree that the universe tends towards perversity. What will you read next? I have a few books that might fit this thread and if I get around to actually finishing one of them I'll post my thought. As an aside, I bought The Mask of the Sorcerer on your recommendation. It's staring at me as I type this and I'll read it sometime soon, hopefully.
 

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I have always thought that the Creator would have a perfect set of emotions. No one could get angrier, no one could be sadder, no one could be funnier, no one could be happier.
 

Lofgeornost

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Well, I can definitely agree that the universe tends towards perversity. What will you read next? I have a few books that might fit this thread and if I get around to actually finishing one of them I'll post my thought. As an aside, I bought The Mask of the Sorcerer on your recommendation. It's staring at me as I type this and I'll read it sometime soon, hopefully.
I hope you like Mask of the Sorcerer--Schweitzer deserves to be better known, IMO.

As for the next thing on my occult reading list, I'm not sure. I recently purchased the Cambridge History of Magic and Witchcraft in the West, From Antiquity to the Present, on Kindle. I actually read the introduction to it this morning over coffee, but I'm not sure it would make a good entry for this thread, since it is a collection of chapters by different authors and hence hard to review or summarize. So I'm currently waffling between Chris Gosden's Magic: A History, from Alchemy to Witchcraft, from the Ice Age to the Present, which is another big survey but single-authored, and Geraldine Pinch's Magic in Ancient Egypt, which is shorter and more focused.
 

Lofgeornost

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Collins, David J., ed. The Cambridge History of Magic and Witchcraft in the West: From Antiquity to the Present. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

I decided to include some posts on this after all. It occurred to me that the best way to deal with this lengthy multi-authored work would be to make individual posts for each chapter as I read it. I doubt if I will work through the entire book before moving on to something more monographic, but I’ll deal with it all eventually.

The work begins with an introduction by the editor, who specializes in learned magic and religion in the Renaissance. This previews briefly each of the six sections and twenty chapters of the book; I won’t summarize that material here. According to Collins, this synthetic work differs from some of its earlier competitors, like the 6-volume Witchcraft and Magic in Europe set edited by Bengt Ankarloo and Stuart Clark and published 1999-2002, in several ways. First, it includes sections which expand the geographical focus somewhat from previous discussions. Part III, ‘Parallel Traditions,’ provides chapters on magic in Byzantium, Islamic civilization, and Jewish cultures during the Middle Ages, and part V, ‘Colonial Encounters,’ deals with Spanish Mexico, British North America, and the Dutch East Indies as examples of the way European traditions influenced and were influenced by indigenous magical ideas in colonized regions. Second, the Cambridge History rejects chronologies that place a fundamental break in European ideas and practices about magic around 1400 or 1500; instead, part IV of the book deals with ‘Old Europe,’ that is, from c. 1100 to c. 1700, as a unity. I’ll admit to having reservations about this, but I’ll have to see how it pans out in the actual chapters. The book ‘shrinks’ diabolic witchcraft and witch-hunting in Europe c. 1400-1700 to a single chapter, or perhaps part of one. The aim is to avoid over-stressing what was after all only a single topic in a much wider field. That makes sense, but because there is a huge scholarly literature on witchcraft and witch-hunting in Early Modern Europe, it might easily have rewarded more extensive coverage. Collins also states that, to maintain unity in the chapters, each focuses to some degree on issues of how to define magic, and approaches magic taxonomically—that is, asks what types of magic were held to exist and how they were classified.

The work uses footnotes for references, at least in my Kindle edition—they might be chapter endnotes in the paper version. Unfortunately, the notes are in very brief format, typically giving only author and page. That means that to identify the work cited you must use the chapter bibliographies, which come at the end of the whole book. So despite having footnotes one can summon by selecting the note number, you still have to jump to the back of the volume frequently.
 

Lofgeornost

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Schwemer, Daniel. “The Ancient Near East.” Chapter 1 in The Cambridge History of Magic and Witchcraft in the West (2015).

A professor at the University of Würzburg in Ancient and Near Eastern Studies, Schwemer has published extensively in German and English on Mesopotamian and Hittite religion and magic. He is one of the team responsible for the Corpus of Mesopotamian Anti-Witchcraft Rituals Onlineand co-editor of one of the print publications from Brill associated with that project. By the way, the project has an interesting set of brief online essays by Schwemer on Magic and Witchcraft in Mesopotamia that are well worth reading. The chapter in the Cambridge History is divided into subsections, which I’ll use to organize this summary as well.

Magic: Origin and Meaning​

This introductory section notes that the word magic itself, in its Greek form mageía, originally referred to the rituals of the Zoroastrian mágos; magic is the religion of outsiders. In Greek, though, the word soon shed its close connection to Persia, instead it served in Classical texts as “a derogatory label for ritualistic activities that are … characterized as obscure, irrational, or impious.” Schwemer invokes the triadic coupling of religion, science, and magic that shows up in early anthropological work on the subject, like Frazer’s Golden Bough (we’ve seen this already in Bailey’s Magic: The Basics), but interestingly adds that one can find this as early as c. 400 B.C. in the Hippocratic work On the Sacred Disease. Although Schwemer notes that many scholars have rejected ‘magic’ as an analytical category, he finds it irreplaceable, and suggests a tentative pragmatic definition for use with Ancient Near Eastern materials:
…an activity consisting of symbolic gestures (e.g. the burning of a substitute figurine), usually accompanied by recitations, performed by an expert (relying on transmitted knowledge) with the goal of effecting an immediate change and transformation of the object of the activity (e.g. the cure of an ill person or the removal of an agent of evil from a house.
He notes that the actual content of the magic, the supernatural powers it invokes, and the status of the performer can vary widely, while remaining essentially the same activity. (As an aside, I hope every chapter in the book does not begin with wrestling with the definition of magic.)

The World of Cuneiform Cultures and the Nature of the Sources​

This section argues that, although the Ancient Near East includes many different societies and cultures over several thousand years, there are reasons to treat its magical tradition as relatively unified. The cultures involved were connected in trade and other exchanges and the widespread use of Babylonian cuneiform meant texts could travel as well as individuals. Thus, the Hittite capital at Hattusa, not Mesopotamian by any definition, housed in its libraries magical texts of Sumerian and Akkadian provenance. In fact, it is often difficult in these materials to “distinguish between cross-cultural universals, long-term shared traditions, and evidence of the specific adaptations of foreign texts, motifs, or practices.” This tradition had a long life; some of its basic elements (even sections of text) were set as early as c. 2000 B.C., and assumed canonical forms in the later second millennium, then were collected in standardized forms by the Assyrians in 600s B.C., and were still being copied and studied in the Hellenistic period. Our evidence for it comes above all from the magical writings themselves, which are found both in the remains of private libraries (like that of the ‘house of the exorcist’ in Ashur) or in royal tablet collections. But royal letters, legal materials, vocabulary lists, and texts recording myth all shed light on magic as well. These various materials survive in many different languages.

Non-textual evidence also testifies to magical beliefs and practices. Amulets survive, as do apotropaic figurines and depictions on the walls of palaces (especially by their gates). These might be modeled on watch-dogs (with names like ‘Don’t think, bite’) or protective demons, like the lion-shaped ugallu, or of the gods themselves, like Enki-Ea or Lugal. Some bells actually used by magicians as part of their trade survive, as do images of magic being done on cylinder seals. Rarely, ritual deposits associated with magic have been found by archaeologists, like a pig embryo pierced with nails and buried at a Hittite sanctuary, probably as a ‘scapegoat’ in a magical ceremony.

Exorcists, Physicians, Snake Charmers, and Witches​

This part of the chapter outlines different types of magical operators, though some of the vocabulary is actually introduced in the previous section. Mesopotamian magic rituals were associated with specialists known as āšipu or mašmaššu (usually translated as ‘exorcist’). Their lore (āšipūtu) was thought to be of great age and originally written by Enki-Ea personally. Usually court or temple officials, these male magicians took part in a variety of rituals, but their specialty was curing or preventing illness or harm, which they did by detecting its source, purifying the afflicted individual, and protecting him or her from future assaults. So much of their work fell into the realm of healing. There was another type of medical professional, though, called asû (‘physican’) who typically dealt with conditions whose physical cause was more evident, though physicians too could employ incantations as part of their work.

The āšipu produced and transmitted much of the Ancient Near Eastern written tradition of magic. We know from texts that there were other, less prestigious magical specialists, including the eššebû (‘owl-man’) and mušlahhu (‘snake-charmer’), but little about their practice has survived. In addition, there were—or were thought to be—the kaššāpu and kaššāptu, or warlock and witch, whose magic was harmful and illegal. In Mesopotamia, exorcists and physicians were always male, but this was not so in Hittite civilization, where women figure among physicians and other ritual experts—one type of ritualist is even known as the ‘old woman.’

Categories of Magic, Sources of Affliction​

This section begins with the key concept of purity, “undisturbed, flawless perfection,” which is normal in the divine world but only rarely achieved by humans. Disease, bad fortune, and lack of success are all characteristic of purity’s opposite, impurity. This may have many causes, including moral transgression. Magic rituals are largely concerned with removing impurity and returning the client to a state of purity, with symbols and actions derived from physical cleaning and washing. Some materials, including bodily effluvia like saliva and urine, are seen as impure while cleansing substances like water, oil, and also silver, promote purity.

Schwemer distinguishes four types of Ancient Near Eastern magic:
  1. Liminal, used in transitions from one state to another (i.e. ritual cleaning before entering a temple, or rites of induction for priests, etc.);
  2. Defensive, which removes a present or threatened evil;
  3. Aggressive, which increases strength, standing, beauty, etc.;
  4. Witchcraft, which harms its target.
This seems to be an etic breakdown of types of magic, rather than one used by the Mesopotamians themselves. Schwemer notes that actual magical texts describing how to do witchcraft have not survived, but its methods can be inferred from anti-witchcraft rituals, which do exist. This of course raises the question of whether, or to what extent, witchcraft existed as a real practice at all, something the chapter does not really take up.

Along with symbols and rituals of washing, some liminal rites employ images or practices related to passage through a gate. In some Hittite magic, the client passed through a gate of hawthorn; the thorns were supposed to ‘catch’ any impurities and keep them from accompanying him or her. Or items might be used as gateways because they represented a divided substance that, once rejoined, would prevent further traverse. So a client might walk between two fires, or between halves of an animal or even human corpse.

Defensive magic was the exorcist’s main stock-in-trade, and the chapter describes it in some detail. Freeing the client from impurity required knowing what force had brought the evil, and magical collections were arranged by causes—a different spell or ritual for each. These included demons (and angry gods), ghosts, evil omens, curses arising from breaking a taboo, and witchcraft. Demons were “low-ranking, often monstrous creatures of the divine sphere,” associated with the netherworld and wilderness areas, who sometimes afflicted people with the civilized realm. Schwemer discusses several, including Lamaštu, a lion-ish creature that attacked women and infants around the time of childbirth, Ardat-lilî, representative of girls who remained ever-virginal, who drifted with the winds causing disease, and Sāmānu (‘Redness’) who caused ailments associate with that color. Spells against dog and snake bite and scorpion stings also sometimes ‘demonize’ these animals, and the evil eye and tongue of witches can also be treated as demonic.

Alternatively, humans might be the source of impurity. Clients might have brought this on themselves by transgressing some taboo and thereby becoming māmītu (‘cursed’), or kišpū (‘witchcraft’) might have been done against them. Near Eastern magic treated these as similar conditions. Some texts claim to be valid against both and the most extensive rituals for dealing with them, Maqlû (‘Burning’ for witchcraft), and Šurpu (‘Incineration’ for curses) are similar and often paired in collections. Schwemer describes both of these rituals in some depth and detail. Maqlû especially seems to have been a very impressive rite, requiring an entire night and featuring a hundred or more incantations. Through it, the witch or warlock’s magic was supposed to be reflected back on the original caster. The ceremony required a magic circle and a special crucible, in which figures of the evil magician made of clay and tallow were heated and consumed. A figurine representing the witch or warlock’s fate-goddess also had black liquid poured on its head, symbolizing his or her death. The ritual’s end invoked the god of the sun (which would then be rising) as the client’s deliverer, and had the client peer into his or her reflection in pure water. For Šurpu, since it was the client’s own actions rather than an evil magician’s actions that had brought impurity, the key ritual action was ‘peeling off’ those layers of wrong, symbolized by dough that was applied to the client’s body, scraped off, and consumed by fire along with other symbols of crimes (and garlic peels—it must have smelled pretty good).

Exorcists also dealt with ailments caused by ghosts. These might have left the netherworld because they did not receive the funerary offerings they were due, or because their deaths had in some way kept them from reaching the afterlife. Generally speaking, ghosts were ‘laid’ by providing them with offerings and then relegating the spirits to the netherworld. For ghosts of the client’s parents, this could involve fairly gentle treatment: hot soup as an offering and figurines representing them placed in a boat and sent off. For less-welcome ghosts, the fluids could be things like donkey urine, and the figurines might be buried rather than sent on a sea excursion. In either case, the ghosts would be put under oath not to return. Hearing a ghost in one’s home was an ill omen, and some of the exorcist’s rites were designed to remove this kind of evil sign.

Schwemer gives a bit of detail about other rituals for defusing evil omens, but spends most of his time on those designed to rescue a king from the evil portended by a solar eclipse. This was done by installing a substitute while the real king, now called ‘farmer,’ underwent purification rites. The substitute might be killed, but in at least one Hittite ritual the substitute was a prisoner of war who was sent home at its end, to carry off the evil omens as a scapegoat. Schwemer provides some discussion of the purification rituals used for kings, noting their analogical nature.

This section of the chapter concludes with some consideration of ‘aggressive’ magic. There are some hints that this was seen as only semi-legitimate. Texts for it certainly exist, but some seem quite close to the effects attributed to witchcraft in anti-witchcraft rites; also, some collections of exorcist’s spells omit aggressive magic altogether. At its base, it aimed to give the client power, success, and mastery over others. So there were love spells, rituals to attract business to a tavern or gain a merchant profit on his voyages, for patching things up with an adversary or making oneself more eloquent in court. There were also spells to bind one’s courtroom adversary in advance, rendering him unable to argue his case. Some rites aimed to make runaway slaves reappear, using the symbol of a door that swings but ultimately remains in place, while others would cause slaves to treat their masters with respect. The latter involved burying figurines representing the slaves at the foot of one’s bed, so that the master’s wash water would flow over them.

Gods, Stars, Monsters, Nature, and Man​

Near Eastern magical rituals often call on divine power, or conclude by claiming they are the incantations not of the magician but of some divinity, which the magician is only re-enacting. The main gods invoked are Enki-Ea, god of wisdom and magic, his son Asalluhi-Marduk, seen as a god of exorcism, and Utu-Šamaš, god of light and justice, approached as a divine judge who will free the client. Other gods figure in magical rituals too, of course, like Ningirima, an incantation-goddess in charge of the holy water container, or Siriš, the divine beer, “releaser of god and man.” Heavenly bodies of the night-time, like the moon and stars, may also be invoked, and water for purification may be left out under the stars overnight to absorb their influence. These various powers, though, may also have been invoked in witchcraft done against the client—they are not necessarily favorable to him or her. Healing rites might aim at convincing gods of the client’s innocence, so that they would remove their punishment. Further, apsû, the underground sea where Enki-Ea dwelt, was also the home of demons. Yet not all demons and monsters were seen as evil. Pazuzu, who controlled evil wind-demons, was often invoked as a protective spirit in the first millennium B.C.

Reality, Efficacy, Limitations, and Risks​

In Schwemer’s view, though people in the Ancient Near East believed implicitly that various supernatural forces could at times harm them, this did not translate into anxiety in everyday life. Religious cult and funeral offerings kept gods and ghosts happy and in their proper places, and various divine defenders or apotropaic forces kept the demonic at bay. Only unusual, counter-intuitive harms demanded supernatural explanations like angry ghosts or witchcraft, and people seem to have turned to them on such occasions. From our perspective, exorcists could not ‘really’ have dealt with their clients’ problems, but Schwemer notes factors that may have ameliorated this. Magicians could blame their failures on mistaken diagnosis of causes, or the overwhelming power of a given demon or divinity. Further, natural recovery from disease might well happen in any case, and the exorcist could take credit for it. Even if the problem did not objectively improve, the clients might still feel satisfied, because the exorcist could inform them that their ailment was no longer caused by supernatural forces, but had been reduced to a natural sickness, which was (in mental terms) much more acceptable. Further, there is some evidence for skepticism and satire of exorcists for claiming knowledge and power they lacked.

As to witchcraft, Schwemer states that accusations did not normally arise from actual magic intended to harm, but because “social and personal conflicts escalated and certain people, especially women, became marginalized. In such exceptional circumstances, legal proceedings were initiated and actual people brought to trial as alleged witches.” I wish he had expanded on these comments a bit. I assume the idea is that, when people found themselves in personal conflicts involving ‘likely’ witchcraft suspects and suffered an appropriate harm (some unusual personal disaster) they sometimes brought accusations against those they thought responsible. As Schwemer notes, though, the usual response to the fear one had been bewitched was not legal action but some sort of anti-witchcraft ritual.
 

Lofgeornost

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A couple more remarks prompted by Schwemer's article that occurred to me after I made the above post:
  • Because Schwemer defines magic in operational terms--it is an attempt to do something, make a change in something--the chapter does not discuss divination at all. That's defensible, but it would have been useful to say something about divination too, I think, particularly since it seems that people might approach diviners for a diagnosis of the magical harm they were experiencing before consulting an exorcist for a cure.
  • Schwemer's approach makes exorcists more like general-purpose magicians, with a focus on healing, than they are presented in the recent Mythras supplement Mythic Babylon, which treats them as spirit magicians who engage in combat with demons, ghosts, etc.

Geller, M.J. “Freud, Magic, and Mesopotamia: How the Magic Works.” Folklore 108 (1997): 1-7.

Reading Schwemer’s chapter led me to this brief article, although indirectly—Schwemer does not cite it. Its author, Geller, taught in the department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at University College, London, and published editions of Sumerian magical texts. He must have been an acknowledged authority, since this piece had its origin as an invited lecture for the Folklore Society—the Katharine Briggs Memorial Lecture for 1996.

I will admit that I did not get a great deal out of it. As its title implies, the article is basically an attempt to use Freud’s concepts to elucidate Mesopotamian magic. So Geller presents examples from those texts which, in his view, illustrate the role of ego, superego, and id, and which show the functioning of mental mechanisms like denial, displacement, projection, and reaction formation. But, as far as I know, Freud’s ideas do not receive much credence these days in psychology, or really anywhere outside certain strands of literary and cultural criticism. Further, the source material is not very amenable to a Freudian treatment, and Geller’s interpretations sometimes seem forced. For instance, his example of projection is Egalkurra incantations, which were designed to help a courtier who feared the slander of his rivals; they assert his innocence and bind the tongues of his enemies. Geller claims that
Rivals or enemies may only have existed in the patient’s mind; in other words, such incantations are treating a mild form of paranoia. Moreover, they were probably not composed for someone who actually faced intrigues at court. It is more likely they were used by ordinary individuals in the Mesopotamian bureaucracy who imagined they had rivals.

This is possible, of course, and some studies of Early Modern witchcraft accusations have made good use of the idea of projection. But there is absolutely no evidence that these incantations were not designed to deal with real rivals, and I see no reason to assume this was the case. Even “ordinary individuals” may have had their competitors in the office or court; ‘the lower the stakes, the more vicious the struggle.’

The most useful thing about the article, from my perspective, was the material it gives from Mesopotamian texts. There are some interesting descriptions of demons and excerpts from various incantations.Some of these are quite earthy, or NSFW if you prefer, like this one designed to secure a man’s love for a woman:
I hold you fast, just like Ishtar held Dumuzi,
And the beer god (Siraš) holds her drinker.
I have bound you with my hairy mouth,
In my urine(-filled) vulva,
In my saliva(-filled) mouth,
in my urine(-filled) vulva.
May no strange woman go behind you.
The dog is crouching, the wild boar is crouching,
But you are crouched down at my crotch.
 
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