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Category: Curses

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.

Magical Practices in Ancient Babylonia

” … magic flourished like tropical fungi. Indeed, the worker of spells was held in high repute, and his operations were in most cases allowed free play.

There are only two paragraphs in the Hammurabi Code which deal with magical practices. It is set forth that if one man cursed another and the curse could not be justified, the perpetrator of it must suffer the death penalty.

Provision was also made for discovering whether a spell had been legally imposed or not. The victim was expected to plunge himself in a holy river. If the river carried him away it was held as proved that he deserved his punishment, and “the layer of the spell” was given possession of the victim’s house.

A man who could swim was deemed to be innocent; he claimed the residence of “the layer of the spell,” who was promptly put to death.

With this interesting glimpse of ancient superstition the famous Code opens, and then strikes a modern note by detailing the punishments for perjury and the unjust administration of law in the courts.

[ … ]

When a patient was wasted with disease, growing thinner and weaker and more bloodless day by day, it was believed that a merciless vampire was sucking his veins and devouring his flesh. It had therefore to be expelled by performing a magical ceremony and repeating a magical formula. The demon was either driven or enticed away.

A magician had to decide in the first place what particular demon was working evil. He then compelled its attention and obedience by detailing its attributes and methods of attack, and perhaps by naming it.

Thereafter he suggested how it should next act by releasing a raven, so that it might soar towards the clouds like that bird, or by offering up a sacrifice which it received for nourishment and as compensation.

Another popular method was to fashion a waxen figure of the patient and prevail upon the disease demon to enter it. The figure was then carried away to be thrown in the river or burned in a fire.”

Donald A. Mackenzie, Myths of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915.

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