Spence on Babylonian Religion and Magic

by Esteban

“LIKE other primitive races the peoples of Chaldea scarcely discriminated at all between religion and magic. One difference between the priest and the sorcerer was that the one employed magic for religious purposes whilst the other used it for his own ends.

The literature of Chaldea—especially its religious literature—teems with references to magic, and in its spells and incantations we see the prototypes of those employed by the magicians of medieval Europe.

Indeed so closely do some of the Assyrian incantations and magical practices resemble those of the European sorcerers of the Middle Ages and of primitive peoples of the present day that it is difficult to convince oneself that they are of independent origin.

In Chaldea as in ancient Egypt the crude and vague magical practices of primeval times received form and developed into accepted ritual, just as early religious ideas evolved into dogmas under the stress of theological controversy and opinion.

As there were men who would dispute upon religious questions, so were there persons who would discuss matters magical. This is not to say that the terms ‘religion’ and ‘magic’ possessed any well-defined boundaries for them.

Nor is it at all clear that they do for us in this twentieth century. They overlap; and it has long been the belief of the writer that their relations are but represented by two circles which intersect one another and the areas of which partially coincide.

The writer has outlined his opinions regarding the origin of magic in an earlier volume of this series, and has little to add to what he then wrote, except that he desires to lay stress upon the identification of early religion and magic.

It is only when they begin to evolve, to branch out, that the two systems present differences. If there is any one circumstance which accentuates the difference more than another it is that the ethical element does not enter into magic in the same manner as it does into religion.

That Chaldean magic was the precursor of European mediaeval magic as apart from popular sorcery and witchcraft is instanced not only by the similarity between the systems but by the introduction into mediaeval magic of the names of Babylonian and Assyrian gods and magicians.

Again and again is Babylon appealed to even more frequently than Egypt, and we meet constantly with the names of Beelzebub, Ishtar (as Astarte), Baal, and Moloch, whilst the names of demons, obviously of Babylonian origin, are encountered in almost every work on the subject.

Frequent allusions are also made to the ‘wise men’ and necromancers of Babylon, and to the ‘star-gazers’ of Chaldea. The conclusion is irresistible that ceremonial magic, as practised in the Middle Ages, owed much to that of Babylon.

Our information regarding Chaldean magic is much more complete than that which we possess concerning the magic of ancient Egypt.

Hundreds of spells, incantations, and omen-inscriptions have been recovered, and these not only enlighten us regarding the class of priests who practised magic, but they tell us of the several varieties of demons, ghosts, and evil spirits; they minutely describe the Babylonian witch and wizard, and they picture for us many magical ceremonies, besides informing us of the names of scores of plants and flowers possessing magical properties, of magical substances, jewels, amulets, and the like.

Also they speak of sortilege or the divination of the future, of the drawing of magical circles, of the exorcism of evil spirits, and the casting out of demons.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 257-9.