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Tag: François Lenormant

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.

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.

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