Babylonian Magical Incantations

by Esteban

“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.