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Category: Romans

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.

Conquering the Gods

“Even Bel-Merodach was absorbed into the Assyrian pantheon. To the Assyrians, Babylonia was the country of Bel, and they referred to their southern neighbours as the ‘subjects of Bel.’ This, of course, must be taken not to mean the older Bel, but Bel-Merodach. They even alluded to the governor whom they placed over conquered Babylonia as the governor of Bel, so closely did they identify the god with the country.

It is only in the time of Shalmaneser II— the ninth century b.c. —that we find the name Merodach employed for Bel, so general did the use of the latter become. Of course it was impossible that Merodach could take first place in Assyria as he had done in Babylonia, but it was a tribute to the Assyrian belief in his greatness that they ranked him immediately after Asshur in the pantheon.

Austen Henry Layard. A Popular Account of Discoveries At Nineveh. London. John Murray. 1852, p. 211.

Austen Henry Layard. A Popular Account of Discoveries At Nineveh. London. John Murray. 1852, p. 211.

The Assyrian rulers were sufficiently politic to award this place to Merodach, for they could not but see that Babylonia, from which they drew their arts and sciences, as well as their religions beliefs, and from which they benefited in many directions, must be worthily represented in the national religion.

And just as the Romans in conquering Greece and Egypt adopted many of the deities of these more cultured and less powerful lands, thus seeking to bind the inhabitants of the conquered provinces more closely to themselves, so did the Assyrian rulers believe that, did they incorporate Merodach into their hierarchy, he would become so Assyrian in his outlook as to cease to be wholly Babylonian, and would doubtless work in favour of the stronger kingdom.

In no other of the religions of antiquity as in the Assyrian was the idea so powerful that the god of the conquered or subject people should become a virtual prisoner in the land of the conquerors, or should at least be absorbed into their national worship.

Some of the Assyrian monarchs went so far as to drag almost every petty idol they encountered on their conquests back to the great temple of Asshur, and it is obvious that they did not do this with any intention of uprooting the worship of these gods in the regions they conquered, but because they desired to make political prisoners of them, and to place them in a temple-prison, where they would be unable to wreak vengeance upon them, or assist their beaten worshippers to war against them in the future.

It may be fitting at this point to emphasize how greatly the Assyrian people, as apart from their rulers, cherished the older beliefs of Babylonia. Both peoples were substantially of the same stock, and any movement which had as its object the destruction of the Babylonian religion would have met with the strongest hostility from the populace of Assyria.

Just as the conquering Aztecs seem to have had immense reverence for the worship of the Toltecs, whose land they subdued, so did the less cultivated Assyrians regard everything connected, with Babylonia as peculiarly sacred.

The Kings of Assyria, in fact, were not a little proud of being the rulers of Babylonia, and were extremely mild in their treatment of their southern subjects—very much more so, in fact, than they were in their behaviour toward the people of Elam or other conquered territories. We even find the kings alluding to themselves as being nominated by the gods to rule over the land of Bel.

The Assyrian monarchs strove hard not to disturb the ancient Babylonian cult, and Shalmaneser II, when he had conquered Babylonia, actually entered Merodach’s temple and sacrificed to him.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp.  225-7.

The Puzzle of Marduk

“Was Merodach himself an Accadian or a Semitic deity? The names of the kings belonging to the first dynasty of Babylon are mostly Semitic; it might therefore be supposed that the deity they worshipped was Semitic also.

And so undoubtedly was the Merodach of the historical age, the great Bel or Baal of Babylon. But we must remember that the foundation of Babylon went back into the dim night of the past far beyond the era of its first dynasty of Semitic kings, and that its very name was but a translation of the older Ka-dimira, “gate of the god.”

Large bas-relief of Marduk, Louvre.

Large bas-relief of Marduk, Louvre.

The temple of Merodach, moreover, bore, up to the last, not a Semitic, but an Accadian designation. As we shall see, along with the older culture the Semitic settlers in Babylonia borrowed a good deal of the theology of the Accadian people, modifying it in accordance with their own beliefs, and identifying its gods and demons with their own Baalim.



It would not be surprising, then, if we found that Merodach also had once been an Accadian divinity, though his attributes, and perhaps also his name, differed very considerably from those of the Semitic Bel.

Even after the Romans had identified their Saturn with the Kronos of the Greeks, the essential characteristics of the two deities remained altogether different.”

A.H. Sayce, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by the Religion of the Ancient Babylonians, 5th ed., London, 1898, p. 105.

Marduk of Babylon: Baal

” … Nebuchadnezzar may invoke Merodach as “the lord of the gods,” “the god of heaven and earth,” “the eternal, the holy, the lord of all things,” but he almost always couples him with other deities–Nebo, Sin or Gula–of whom he speaks in equally reverential terms.

Even Nabonidos uses language of Sin, the Moon-god, which is wholly incompatible with a belief in the exclusive supremacy of Merodach. He calls him “the lord of the gods of heaven and earth, the king of the gods and the god of gods, who dwell in heaven and are mighty.” Merodach was, in fact, simply the local god of Babylon.

Events had raised Babylon first to the dignity of the capital of Babylonia, and then of that of a great empire, and its presiding deity had shared its fortunes. It was he who had sent forth its people on their career of conquest; it was to glorify his name that he had given them victory.

The introduction of other deities on an equal footing with himself into his own peculiar seat, his own special city, was of itself a profanation, and quite sufficient to draw upon Nabonidos his vindictive anger. The Moon-god might be worshipped at Ur; it was out of place to offer him at Babylon the peculiar honours which were reserved for Merodach alone.

Here, then, is one of the results of that localisation of religious worship which was characteristic of Babylonia. Nabonidos not only offended the priests and insulted the gods of other cities by bringing their images into Babylon, he also in one sense impaired the monopoly which the local deity of Babylon enjoyed. He thus stirred up angry feelings on both sides.

Had he himself been free from the common belief of the Babylonian in the local character of his gods, he might have effected a revolution similar to that of Hezekiah; he had, however, the superstition which frequently accompanies antiquarian instincts, and his endeavour to make Babylon the common gathering-place of the Babylonian divinities was dictated as much by the desire to make all of them his friends as by political design.

Now who was this Merodach, this patron-god of Babylon, whose name I have had so often to pronounce? Let us see, first of all, what we can learn about him from the latest of our documents, the inscriptions of Nebuchadnezzar and his successors.

In these, Merodach appears as the divine protector of Babylon and its inhabitants. He has the standing title of Bilu or “lord,” which the Greeks turned into βμλος, and which is the same as the Baal of the Old Testament. The title is frequently used as a name, and is, in fact, the only name under which Merodach was known to the Greeks and Romans.

In the Old Testament also it is as Bel that he comes before us. When the prophet declares that “Bel boweth down” and is “gone into captivity,” he is referring to Merodach and the overthrow of Merodach’s city.

To the Babylonian, Merodach was pre-eminently the Baal or “lord,” like the Baalim or “lords” worshipped under special names and with special rites in the several cities of Canaan.”

 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. 90-2.

Name Magic

” … In Egypt attempts like that of Isis to appropriate the power of a high god by possessing herself of his name were not mere legends told of the mythical beings of a remote past; every Egyptian magician aspired to wield like powers by similar means.

For it was believed that he who possessed the true name possessed the very being of god or man, and could force even a deity to obey him as a slave obeys his master. Thus the art of the magician consisted in obtaining from the gods a revelation of their sacred names, and he left no stone unturned to accomplish his end. When once a god in a moment of weakness or forgetfulness had imparted to the wizard the wondrous lore, the deity had no choice but to submit humbly to the man or pay the penalty of his contumacy.

The belief in the magic virtue of divine names was shared by the Romans. When they sat down before a city, the priests addressed the guardian deity of the place in a set form of prayer or incantation, inviting him to abandon the beleaguered city and come over to the Romans, who would treat him as well as or better than he had ever been treated in his old home.

Hence the name of the guardian deity of Rome was kept a profound secret, lest the enemies of the republic might lure him away, even as the Romans themselves had induced many gods to desert, like rats, the falling fortunes of cities that had sheltered them in happier days.

Nay, the real name, not merely of its guardian deity, but of the city itself, was wrapt in mystery and might never be uttered, not even in the sacred rites. A certain Valerius Soranus, who dared to divulge the priceless secret, was put to death or came to a bad end.

In like manner, it seems, the ancient Assyrians were forbidden to mention the mystic names of their cities; and down to modern times the Cheremiss of the Caucasus keep the names of their communal villages secret from motives of superstition.”

James George Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, 1922, Tabooed Words, np.

Persistence of the Cult of the Great Mother

“But the Great Mother lived on, being the goddess of the land. Her cult, modified, in some cases profoundly, by time and changed political circumstances, was found surviving at the dawn of Greek history in several places in the interior. Prominent among these sites is Pessinus in Phrygia, a sacred city, with which the legend of Kybele and Attis is chiefly associated.

Other districts developed remarkable and even abnormal tendencies in myth and worship. At Comana, in the Taurus, where the Assyrian armies were resisted to the last, and the ancient martial spirit still survives, she became, like Isthar, a goddess of war, identified by the Romans with Bellona: 50 In Syria, again, a different temper and climate emphasized the sensuous tendency of human passions.

In all these cases, however, there survived some uniformity of ceremonial and custom. At each shrine numerous priests, called Galli, numbering at Comana as many as 5,000, took part in the worship. Women dedicated their persons as an honourable custom, which in some cases was not even optional, to the service of the goddess. The great festivals were celebrated at regular seasons with revelry, music, and dancing, as they had been of old, coupled with customs which tended to become, in the course of time, more and more orgiastic.

These are, however, matters of common knowledge and may be studied in the classical writings. Lucian himself adds considerably to our understanding of these institutions; indeed his tract has been long one of the standard sources of information, supplying details which have been applied, perhaps too freely, to the character of the general cult.

Religion in the East is a real part of life, not tending so much as in the West to become stereotyped or conventionalized, but changing with changes of conditions, adapted to the circumstances and needs of the community. 51 So, wherever the goddess was worshipped there would be variety of detail. It is, however, remarkable in this case, that throughout the Hittite period, though wedded and in a sense subordinate to a dominant male deity, and subsequently down to the age at which Lucian wrote, she maintained, none the less, her individuality and comprehensive character.

Thus, while Lucian is concerned in his treatise with the cult of an apparently local goddess of northern Syria, we recognize her as a localised aspect of the Mother-goddess, whose worship in remoter times had already been spread wide, and so explain at once the points of clear resemblance in character and in worship to other nature-goddesses of Syria and Asia Minor.”

Herbert A. Strong and John Garstang, trans., The Syrian Goddess, by Lucian, 1913, pp. 17-20.

The Most Religious Nation of Antiquity

“Now the Egyptians believed that as the souls of the departed could assume the form of any living thing or plant, so the “gods,” who in many respects closely resembled them, could and did take upon themselves the forms of birds and beasts; this was the fundamental idea of the so-called “Egyptian animal worship,” which provoked the merriment of the cultured Greek, and drew down upon the Egyptians the ridicule and abuse of the early Christian writers.

But if the matter be examined closely its apparent stupidity disappears. The Egyptians paid honour to certain birds, and animals, and reptiles, because they considered that they possessed certain of the characteristics of the gods to whom they made them sacred.

The bull was a type of the strength and procreative power of the god of reproduction in nature, and the cow was the type of his female counterpart; every sacred animal and living thing possessed some quality or attribute which was ascribed to some god, and as each god was only a form of Râ, the quality or attribute ascribed to him was that of the Sun-god himself.

The educated Egyptian never worshipped an animal as an animal, but only as an incarnation of a god, and the reverence paid to animals in Egypt was in no way different from that paid to the king, who was regarded as “divine” and as an incarnation of Râ the Sun-god, who was the visible symbol of the Creator.

The relation of the king to Râ was identical with that of Râ to God. The Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans never understood the logical conception which underlay the reverence with which the Egyptians regarded certain animals, and as a result they grossly misrepresented their religion.

The ignorant people, no doubt, often mistook the symbol for what it symbolized, but it is wrong to say that the Egyptians worshipped animals in the ordinary sense of the word, and this fact cannot be too strongly insisted on.

Holding the views he did about transformations there was nothing absurd in the reverence which the Egyptian paid to animals. When a sacred animal died the god whom it represented sought out another animal of the same species in which to renew his incarnation, and the dead body of the animal, inasmuch as it had once been the dwelling-place of a god, was mummified and treated in much the same way as a human body after death, in order that it might enjoy immortality.

These views seem strange, no doubt, to us when judged by modern ideas, but they formed an integral part of the religious beliefs of the Egyptians, from the earliest to the latest times.

What is remarkable, however, is the fact that, in spite of invasions, and foreign wars, and internal dissensions, and external influences of all kinds, the Egyptians clung to their gods and the sometimes childish and illogical methods which they adopted in serving them with a conservatism and zeal which have earned for them the reputation of being at once the most religious and most superstitious nation of antiquity.

Whatever literary treasures may be brought to light in the future as the result of excavations in Egypt, it is most improbable that we shall ever receive from that country any ancient Egyptian work which can properly be classed among the literature of atheism or freethought; the Egyptian might be more or less religious according to his nature and temperament, but, judging, from the writings of his priests and teachers which are now in our hands, the man who was without religion and God in some form or other was most rare, if not unknown.”

E.A. Wallis Budge, Egyptian Magic, London, 1901. Pp. 232-4.

On Magical Figures in Ancient Egyptian Magic

“IT has been said above that the name or the emblem or the picture of a god or demon could become an amulet with power to protect him that wore it, and that such power lasted as long as the substance of which it was made lasted, if the name, or emblem, or picture was not erased from it.

But the Egyptians went a step further than this, and they believed that it was possible to transmit to the figure of any man, or woman, or animal, or living creature, the soul of the being which it represented, and its qualities and attributes.

The statue of a god in a temple contained the spirit of the god which it represented, and from time immemorial the people of Egypt believed that every statue and every figure possessed an indwelling spirit.

When the Christianized Egyptians made their attacks on the “idols of the heathen” they proved that they possessed this belief, for they always endeavoured to throw down the statues of the gods of the Greeks and Romans, knowing that if they were once shattered the spirits which dwelt in them would have no place wherein to dwell, and would thereby be rendered homeless and powerless.

It will be remembered that it is stated in the Apocryphal Gospels that when the Virgin Mary and her Son arrived in Egypt there “was a movement and quaking throughout all the land, and all the idols fell down from their pedestals and were broken in pieces.”

Then all the priests and nobles went to a certain priest with whom “a devil used to speak from out of the idol,” and they asked him the meaning of these things; and when he had explained to them that the footstep of the son of the “secret and hidden god” had fallen upon the land of Egypt, they accepted his counsel and made a figure of this god.

The Egyptians acknowledged that the new god was greater than all their gods together, and they were quite prepared to set up a statue of him because they believed that in so doing they would compel at least a portion of the spirit of the “secret and hidden god” to come and dwell in it.

In the following pages we shall endeavour to describe the principal uses which the Egyptians made of the figures of gods, and men, and beasts, to which magical powers had been imparted by means of the performance of certain symbolic ceremonies and the recital of certain words of power; and how they could be employed to do both good and evil.”

E.A. Wallis Budge, Egyptian Magic, London, 1901. Pp. 65-7.

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