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Conflation of Languages

“The beliefs which produced the magical texts must still have been active, although the hymn belongs to a late period of Babylonian history; the old doctrine of an inexorable fate, even if degraded into a belief in the witch’s art, still existed along with the worship of a god who restored the dead to life and was supreme in mercy to those that were in trouble.

We have only to turn to our modern newspapers to discover how slowly such primeval beliefs die out, and how long they may linger among the uneducated and superstitious by the side of the most exalted faiths and the mightiest triumphs of inductive science.

The fact that one text is magical, while another contains a hymn to the deity, does not of itself prove the relative ages of the two documents. Then, thirdly, it has become increasingly manifest that a good many of the so-called Accadian texts are not Accadian in their origin.

As I pointed out several years ago, the old Accado-Sumerian language was learned by the Semitic Babylonians as Latin was learned by the mediaeval monks, and for much the same reasons. It was the language of the oldest sacred texts; it was also the early language of law; and both priests and lawyers were accordingly interested in its preservation and use.

What happened to Latin in the Middle Ages had already happened to Accadian in Babylonia. The monks spoke and wrote in a language which was Latin indeed, but which had lost its classical purity; monkish Latin was full of modern words and idioms, and its grammar was not always scrupulously accurate.

On the other hand, it contributed multitudes of words, and even forms of expression, to the languages of every-day life that were spoken around it, and the words were frequently modified to suit the pronunciation and genius of the languages that borrowed them, just as the modern words which monkish Latin had itself adopted were furnished with classical terminations and construed in a classical fashion.

The case was precisely the same in ancient Chaldea. Here, too, there was a monkish Accadian, both spoken and written, some of which would have shocked the Accadian speakers of an earlier age. The literati of the court of Sargon of Accad had been partly Accadian, partly Semitic; the Accadian scribes wrote and spoke Semitic, the Semitic scribes wrote and spoke Accadian.

The result was necessarily a large amount of lending and borrowing upon both sides, and the growth of an artificial literary language which maintained its ground for centuries. The way for the rise of this artificial dialect had already been prepared by the long contact there had been between the two chief languages of primitive Chaldea.

When two languages thus exist side by side–like Welsh, for example, by the side of English–they will borrow one from another, the language of superior culture and organisation being that which exerts the greatest influence.

The pupils will imitate the speech of their masters in art and science even if, as in the case of Greece and Rome, the masters in art and science are the subjects in political power.”

A.H. Sayce, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by the Religion of the Ancient Babylonians, 5th ed., London, 1898, pp. 322-3.

Lenormant on the Great Babylonian Work on Magic

“The great work on magic, many copies of which had been executed by the scribes of Ashurbanipal, according to the pattern placed centuries since in the library of the famous school for priests at Erech in Chaldea, was composed of three different books.

We know the title of one of the three, “The Wicked Spirits,” for we find at the end of each of the tablets, which come from it and which have been preserved entire, “Tablet No. __ of the Wicked Spirits.”

As the title shows, it was filled exclusively with formulae of conjurations and imprecations, which were designed to repulse demons and other wicked spirits, to avert their fatal action, and to shelter the invoker from their attacks.

Portions of a second book exist, and, judging from what remains of it, it would seem to be formed of a collection of these incantations, to which was attributed the power of curing various maladies.

Lastly, the third book contained Hymns to certain gods. A supernatural and mysterious power was attributed to the chanting of these hymns, which are, however, of a very different character from the regular liturgical prayers of the official religion, a few of which have been preserved to us.

It is curious to notice that the three parts composing thus the great work on magic, of which Sir Henry Rawlinson has found the remains, correspond exactly to the three classes of Chaldean doctors, which Daniel (ii, 2; v. II) enumerates, together with the astrologers and divines (Kasdim and Gazrim), that is, the Khartumim or conjurors, the Chakamim or physicians, and the Asaphim or theosophists.”

François Lenormant, Chaldean Magic, “The Magic and Sorcery of the Chaldeans,” Chapter I, 1878, pp. 13-4. Originally published as La Magie Chez Les Chaldeens, 1847.

An Excerpt from Lenormant’s Chaldean Magic, Contrasted with Egyptian Magic

“After having put the reader in the way of comparing for himself the Egyptian and Chaldean magical formula, there is no need for me to pursue further the marked difference between the two systems, for this is evident to all students. The fundamental beliefs and ideas of magic superstition in Egypt and Chaldea were as different in their character as were the forms of their incantations.

In the Egyptian documents we perceive no trace of those elementary spirits, some good and some bad, endowed with a distinct personality, which Chaldeans believed to have been spread all over the world, the objects either of propitiatory incantations or the most terrible exorcisms.

On the other hand, the Chaldeans in no way entertained the idea of being able to elevate a man into a kind of demigod by means of their formulae, and of identifying him with the greatest personages of the celestial hierarchy.

Neither did they pretend that those formulae had any power to command the gods or to compel them to obey. Their magic belonged to the intermediate spiritual state, and there its powers were displayed.

If they required the help of the supreme gods, that was to be obtained by means of prayers and supplications; and not by compulsion; indeed, and we shall refer to this idea again, even their prayers were not all powerful to accomplish the desires of the suppliant unless they were presented to the gods by a mediator.

True indeed there was a supreme name which possessed the power of commanding the gods, and exacting from them a perfect obedience, but that name remained the inviolable secret of Hea.

The initiated need never hope to attain to such an awful height of knowledge as he might in the Egyptian system. In exceptionally grave cases he besought Hea, through the mediator Silik-mulu-khi, to pronounce the solemn word in order to reestablish order in the world and restrain the powers of the abyss.

But the enchanter did not know that name, and could not in consequence introduce it into his formulae, even although they were tested to remain for ever concealed in mystery.

He could not obtain or make use of it, he only requested the god who knew it to employ it, without endeavoring to penetrate the terrible secret himself.

The primitive simplicity of the incantations of Chaldean magic strikes us forcibly when we compare them with those of the Egyptian magic, and this fact gives to them a stamp of greater antiquity.

Every thing is expressed very clearly and simply without any attempt at obscurity, or premeditated complications. The belief in spirits is seen there in its most ancient and perfect form, without any philosophical refinement as to the divine substance, without a single trace of mysticism, and above all without any allusions to the vast number of mythological legends which fill the Egyptian formulae, and render them perfectly unintelligible without a voluminous commentary.

It is easy on the contrary to understand the magical formulae in the Accadian language, which were preserved in Chaldea until the breaking up of the sacerdotal schools on the borders of the Euphrates, and which Ashurbanipal had copied for the royal library in Nineveh about the VIIth century, BCE.

They contain no mysteries, and the sacerdotal secret, if there were one, consisted in the precise knowledge of the exact terms of the incantations, sacred from their antiquity, and no doubt also from the idea that they were of divine origin.

The formulae were the work of a people who possessed as yet no esoteric doctrines and no mystical initiations; amongst whom the science of magic consisted simply in a practical acquaintance by the priests with certain rites and words, by means of which they fancied themselves able to establish a communication with the world of spirits, whilst at the same time their conception of those spirits difference from the popular superstitions only by a little more systematic regularity in their position, hierarchy and privileges.

It is for this reason that the Accadian magic preserved, even during the centuries of the greatest splendor of Babylon and Assyria, the appearance of extreme antiquity and the spirit of the earliest ages, by the side of the learned religion which sprang up later in the same places, and which accepted the existence of this magic by placing in the canon of its sacred books the old Accadian incantations, and giving a place, though indeed an insubordinate one, in its theological system to the genii who were invoked in these incantations.

At the bottom, as we shall see, magic was not separated in Chaldea from the religion of the historical centuries; it was a new twig from an entirely different plant which was grafted for good or for evil upon the trunk from the time that its existence was recognized, and tolerated instead of being annihilated.

But facts oblige us to see in it also the remains of an earlier religious system, of a still rudimentary and coarse naturalism, which arose from the ideas of a primitive population belonging to a race entirely different from that among which the Chaldaic-Assyrian religion existed.

In the civilization which gradually spread over the borders of the Tigris and Euphrates from the fusion of the Sumerians, and the Accadians, the Semit-Kushites and the Turanians, religion and magic were peaceably united, although they originated in the two opposing elements of the people.

This I think will be made evident by placing the doctrines of the magic books which were originally written in the Accadian language, and the discovery of which we owe to Sir Henry Rawlinson, in comparison with those of the later official religion and of the public worship, as they appear in many documents.”

François Lenormant, Chaldean Magic, “Contrasts between the Accadian and Egyptian magic,” Chapter VIII, 1878, pp. 107-110. Originally published as La Magie Chez Les Chaldeens, 1847.

Babylonian Magical Incantations

“The relation between the magical texts and the hymns of ancient Babylonia is now, therefore, clear. In many cases, at least, the hymns formed part of the magical texts; they were the mystical incantations around the recitation of which the rites prescribed in the texts were intended to revolve.

The magical text was not complete without the repetition of a form of words as well as a direct appeal to the names of certain supernatural beings; and the form of words was in many instances furnished by hymns to the gods or analogous kinds of composition.

It is not only the magical texts, however, in which we find the hymns embedded and prefaced by the significant word siptu, “incantation.” They are still more numerous in the ritual texts–in the texts, that is to say, which describe the religious ceremonies the Babylonian was called upon to perform.

These ceremonies had for the most part the same end and object as the magical texts; they were not so much a communion with the deities of heaven, as an attempt to compel them by particular rites and words to relieve the worshipper from trouble, or to bestow upon him some benefit.

Divine worship, in short, was a performance rather than an act of devotion, and upon the correctness of the performance depended entirely its efficacy. The mispronunciation of a single word, the omission to tie a knot at the right moment, would invalidate the whole ceremony and render its repetition necessary.

The ritual, therefore, was a sort of acted magic, and it is consequently not surprising that the hymns should play the same part in it as they did in the incantations of the magical texts.

It follows from all this that many of the magical texts are, like the ritual texts, later than many of the hymns. The fact must necessarily introduce some modification into Lenormant’s theory of the origin of the sacred books of Chaldaea.

In the second place, not only the hymns, but even the magical texts are at times composed in Semitic Babylonian only. There is no trace of an Accadian original of any kind whatever. And not only is this the case, but these purely Semitic hymns occasionally glide into what is neither more nor less than unadulterated magic.”

A.H. Sayce, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by the Religion of the Ancient Babylonians, 5th ed., London, 1898, pp. 319-20.

The Sacred Books of Chaldea and the Long Shadow Cast by Francois Lenormant

“To François Lenormant, whose untimely death was an irreparable loss to the progress of Assyrian research, belongs the merit of first describing and defining the sacred books of ancient Babylonia.

With the keenness of perception that characterised him, he pointed out two main collections of Babylonian sacred texts; one containing magic incantations and exorcisms; the other, hymns to the gods.

The magical texts obviously belong to an earlier and less advanced stage of religious belief than the hymns; they presuppose, in fact, a sort of Shamanism, according to which each object and power of nature has its zi or “spirit,” which can be propitiated only by a sorcerer-priest and certain magical rites; while the hymns, on the other hand, introduce us to a world of gods, and their language from time to time approaches a high level of spiritual expression.

The collection of hymns Lenormant very happily named the Chaldean Rig-Veda, and to them he subsequently added a third collection, consisting of penitential psalms which in many respects resemble the psalms of the Old Testament.

All three collections are generally composed in both Accadian and Semitic Babylonian, the Semitic Babylonian being a translation of the presumably older Accadian text which is written line by line above it.

It was natural to suppose that what has happened in the case of other sacred books happened also in Babylonia; that the magical texts were first collected together, the collection subsequently acquiring a sacred character; and that a similar process took place in the case of the hymns.

The whole work would have been complete before the culture and literature of the Accadians were handed on to the Semites: in this way the preservation of the Accadian originals would be accounted for, the very words of the primitive documents and their correct pronunciation having come to be looked upon as sacred and inspired; while the Semitic interlinear translation served, like the Aramaic Targums of the Old Testament, to assist the priests in understanding the object of their recitations.

As time went on, the religious beliefs which underlay the magical texts became so far removed from those of a later age that the texts themselves gradually passed into the background, the collection of hymns taking more and more their place as pre-eminently the Babylonian Bible.

The theory as thus stated is at once simple and probable. But although in its main outlines it is no doubt correct, further research has shown that its simplicity is due to the imperfection of the materials upon which Lenormant had to work, and that it will have to be very considerably modified before all the facts now known to us are accounted for.

In the first place, there are numerous magical texts which are later, and not older, than many of the hymns. Nothing is more common than to find a magical text breaking off into a hymn or a fragment of a hymn the recitation of which forms part of the spell or ceremony.

A large number of the hymns that have come down to us are thus embedded in the magical documents of which they form an integral part. The hymn to the seven evil spirits, for instance, quoted in a former Lecture, is really a portion of one of the most famous of the magicaI texts.

In such instances there can be no question that the hymn is older than the text in which it is found. Moreover, it is difficult to distinguish the hymns when used in this way from similar poetical addresses to divine beings, which, so far from being especially sacred, were employed as spells in medical practice.”

A.H. Sayce, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by the Religion of the Ancient Babylonians, 5th ed., London, 1898, pp. 315-7.

Sins of Man

Merodach mourned over the doom pronounced against his city, and apparently with some effect; for after a good many broken and lost lines, the tablet goes on to describe the despatch of the terrible plague-god to Erech, “the seat of Anu and Istar, the city of the choirs of the festival-makers and consecrated maidens of Istar,” who “dreaded death,” for the nomad ‘Suti of the desert had combined against their state.

The eunuch-priests were now compelled to bow the face before another deity than the peaceful Istar, who “cried and was troubled over the city of Erech.” Eventually, however, Nerra was “quieted” by “Isum his councillor, the illustrious god who goes before him,” “and the warrior Nerra spake thus:

“Sea-land against sea-land, ‘Sumasti against ‘Sumasti, the Assyrian against the Assyrian, the Elamite against the Elamite, the Kossaean against the Kossaean, the Kurd against the Kurd, the Lullubite against the Lullubite, country against country, house against house, man against man, brother against brother, let them destroy one another, and afterwards let the Accadian come and slay them all, and fall upon their breasts.”

The warrior Nerra (further) addresses a speech to Isum, who goes before him:

‘Go, Isum, incline all thy heart to the word thou hast spoken.’

(Then) Isum sets his face towards the land of the west; the seven warrior gods, unequalled, sweep (all things) away behind him.

At the land of Phoenicia, at the mountains, the warrior arrived; he lifted up the hand, he laid it on the mountain; the mountain of Phoenicia, he counted as his own soil.”

In thus marching to the west, the minister of the Babylonian god of death approaches the country in which another angel of pestilence was seen by the king of Israel.

“By the threshing-floor of Araunah the Jebusite,” David had beheld the angel of the Lord “stretching out his hand upon Jerusalem to destroy it.”

As in Babylon, so too in Israel, the plague had been a visitation for the sins of man. It was the instrument of God’s anger wielded by the hands of his angel-minister. That same angel-minister had once before stood before Balaam, and with a drawn sword in his hand had threatened the Syrian prophet with death.

He was not a demon from the lower world, like the old Chaldean plague-spirit Namtar; he was not the inexorable law of destiny, before whom even the gods had to submit their wills; but a member of the celestial hierarchy, the messenger of a beneficent God.

He came to destroy, but it was to destroy the guilty. The sins of man, and not the malevolence or passionless law of a supernatural being, brought death and suffering into the world. The Babylonian legend of Nerra, like the records of the Old Testament, tells the same tale as the Babylonian story of the Deluge.”

A.H. Sayce, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by the Religion of the Ancient Babylonians, 5th ed., London, 1898, pp. 312-4.

A Babylonian Incantation

“In the hymns the mamit occupies a conspicuous place. Thus we read:

“0 curse, curse, the boundary that none can pass!

The limit of the gods (themselves) against which they may not transgress!

The limit of heaven and earth which altereth not!

The unique god against whom none may sin!

Neither god nor man can undo (it). A snare not to be passed through, which is set for evil.

Whether an evil utuk, or an evil alu, or an evil ekimmu, or an evil gallu, or an evil god, or an evil incubus, or a labartu, or a labatsu, or an akhkharu, or a lilu, or a lilat, or the maid of a lilu, or the evil plague-demon, or a disease-bringing asakku, or a bad sickness, which has set its head towards the dropping water of Ea, may the snare of Ea seize it! which has stretched its head against the wisps of Nirba (the Corn-god), may the lasso of Nirba bind it!

Against the limitation (of the curse) it has transgressed. Never may (the limitation) of the gods, the limitation of heaven and earth, depart from it. (The limitation of the great) gods it reverences not. May (the lasso of) the great gods bind it! May the great gods curse it! May they send back (the demon) to (his) home! The home of (his) habitation may they cause him to enter!

As for him who has turned to another place, to another place, a place invisible, may they bring him!

As for him who has turned into the gate of the house, the gate of a place from whence there is no exit may they cause him to enter! As for him who has stationed himself in the door and bolts, in the door and bolts may they hind him with bonds from which there is no release!

As for him who has blown (?) into the threshold and socket, who into threshold and hinge has crept, like water may they pour him out, like a cup may they shatter him, like a quarry-stone may they break him to pieces! As for him who has passed across the beam, his wings may they cut!

As for him who has thrust his neck into the chamber, may they twist his neck!”

H.C. Rawlinson, The Cuneiform Inscriptions of Western Asia, 1886, iv, 16, No. 1.

This is a fair sample of the incantations by means of which the Babylonians believed that they could free themselves from the demoniac agencies that surrounded them. The power of the mamit was such that the gods themselves could not transgress it, and the mamit was accordingly invoked to protect the mortal from the demons of plague and sickness.

But the plague itself might be regarded as a mamit or “doom” inflicted by heaven upon the guilty earth.”

A.H. Sayce, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by the Religion of the Ancient Babylonians, 5th ed., London, 1898, pp. 307-9.

On Assyrian Curses

“Closely connected with the mystical importance thus assigned to names was the awe and dread with which the curse or excommunication was regarded. Once uttered with the appropriate ceremonies, the binding of knots and the invocation of divine names, it was a spell which even the gods were powerless to resist.

In Assyrian it was called the mamit, in Accadian the śabba, and was naturally considered to be divine. In Accadian, Mami had been a goddess; the borrowed Assyrian deity, therefore, assumed the Semitic feminine termination.

In the tenth book of the Epic of Gisdhubar (Epic of Gilgamesh), the goddess Mam-metu, as her name is there spelt, is called “the maker of fate” who “has fixed the destinies” of mankind, “along with” the spirits of the earth; “she has established death and life, but the days of death are unknown.”

Mamit thus bore a striking resemblance to the Fate of the Romans and the Atê of the Greeks. Like Atê, her operations were usually conceived of as evil. Just as Namtar, the plague-demon, was also the personification of doom and destiny, so too Mamit was emphatically the concrete curse.

If she established life as well as death, it was only because the term of life is fixed by death; death, and not life, was the real sphere of her work. Hence the mamit was known among the Accadians as the (nam)-eríma or “hostile doom;” and though Anu, as we have seen, might as the pole-star be called “the mamit of heaven,” it is in no friendly guise that the mamit is presented to us in the magical texts.

It was, in fact, like the power of excommunication in the Middle Ages, the most terrible weapon that could be used by the priestly exorcist. For the power of invoking the aid of the goddess Mamit by pronouncing the curse was completely in his hands.

All that was needed was the performance of certain rites and the repetition of certain words. Armed with the magic wand, he could lay the terrible excommunication on the head of his enemy, and cause it to issue forth from the body of his friend.

“Let the mamit come forth that I may see the light,” is one of the petitions we meet with in the tablets; and Tiglath-Pileser I states that after his conquest of the kings of Nahri he “freed them, prisoners and bound as they were, in the presence of the Sun-god (his) lord, and made them swear to be his servants from henceforth and for ever, under pain of the curse (mamit) of (his) great gods.”

A.H. Sayce, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by the Religion of the Ancient Babylonians, 5th ed., London, 1898, pp. 305-7.

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