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Tag: Ghosts

Spence on Babylonian Religion and Magic

“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.

Desecration of the Dead, Depredations of the Dead

” … Sometimes the bodies of the Sumerians were placed in sarcophagi of clay. The earlier type was of “bath-tub” shape, round and flat-bottomed, with a rounded lid, while the later was the “slipper-shaped coffin,” which was ornamented with charms. There is a close resemblance between the “bath-tub” coffins of Sumeria and the Egyptian pottery coffins of oval shape found in Third and Fourth Dynasty tombs in rock chambers near Nuerat. Certain designs on wooden coffins, and tombs as early as the First Dynasty, have direct analogies in Babylonia.

No great tombs were erected in Sumeria. The coffins were usually laid in brick vaults below dwellings, or below temples, or in trenches outside the city walls. On the “stele of victory,” which belongs to the period of Eannatum, patesi of Lagash, the dead bodies on the battlefield are piled up in pairs quite naked, and earth is being heaped over them; this is a specimen of mound burial.

According to Herodotus the Babylonians “buried their dead in honey, and had funeral lamentations like the Egyptians.” The custom of preserving the body in this manner does not appear to have been an ancient one, and may have resulted from cultural contact with the Nile valley during the late Assyrian period. So long as the bones were undisturbed, the spirit was supposed to be assured of rest in the Underworld. This archaic belief was widespread …

… In Babylonia the return of the spirits of the dead was greatly dreaded. Ishtar once uttered the terrible threat: “I will cause the dead to rise; they will then eat and live. The dead will be more numerous than the living.”

When a foreign country was invaded, it was a common custom to break open the tombs and scatter the bones they contained. Probably it was believed, when such acts of vandalism were committed, that the offended spirits would plague their kinsfolk.

Ghosts always haunted the homes they once lived in, and were as malignant as demons. It is significant to find in this connection that the bodies of enemies who were slain in battle were not given decent burial, but mutilated and left for birds and beasts of prey to devour.

The demons that plagued the dead might also attack the living. A fragmentary narrative, which used to be referred to as the Cuthean Legend of Creation, and has been shown by Mr. L.W. King to have no connection with the struggle between Merodach and the dragon, deals with a war waged by an ancient king against a horde of evil spirits, led by “the lord of heights, lord of the Anunaki (earth spirits).” Some of the supernatural warriors had bodies like birds; others had “raven faces,” and all had been “suckled by Tiamat.”

For three years the king sent out great armies to attack the demons, but “none returned alive.” Then he decided to go forth himself to save his country from destruction. So he prepared for the conflict, and took the precaution of performing elaborate and therefore costly religious rites so as to secure the cooperation of the gods.

His expedition was successful, for he routed the supernatural army. On his return home, he recorded his great victory on tablets which were placed in the shrine of Nergal at Cuthah.

This myth may be an echo of Nergal’s raid against Eresh-ki-gal. Or, being associated with Cuthah, it may have been composed to encourage burial in that city’s sacred cemetery, which had been cleared by the famous old king of the evil demons which tormented the dead and made seasonal attacks against the living.”

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

Nether Cuthah

” … In the Descent of Ishtar the Babylonian Underworld is called Cuthah.

This city had a famous cemetery, like Abydos in Egypt, where many pious and orthodox worshippers sought sepulture. The local god was Nergal, who symbolized the destructive power of the sun and the sand storm; he was a gloomy, vengeful deity, attended by the spirits of tempest, weariness, pestilence, and disease, and was propitiated because he was dreaded.

In Nether Cuthah, as Ea-bani informed Gilgamesh, the worm devoured the dead amidst the dust and thick darkness.

It is evident that this Underworld was modelled on the grave. In early times men believed that the spirits of the dead hovered in or about the place of sepulture. They were therefore provided with “houses” to protect them, in the same manner as the living were protected in their houses above the ground.

The enemies of the human ghosts were the earth spirits. Weapons were laid beside the dead in their graves so that they might wage war against demons when necessary.

The corpse was also charmed, against attack, by the magical and protecting ornaments which were worn by the living–necklaces, armlets, ear-rings, &c.

Even face paint was provided, probably as a charm against the evil eye and other subtle influences.

So long as corpses were left in their graves, the spirits of the dead were, it would appear, believed to be safe. But they required food and refreshment. Food vessels and drinking urns were therefore included in the funerary furniture, and the dead were given food offerings at regular intervals.

Once a year the living held feasts in the burial ground, and invited the ghosts to share in the repast. This custom was observed in Babylonia, and is not yet obsolete in Egypt; Moslems and Coptic Christians alike hold annual all-night feasts in their cemeteries.

[ … ]

According to Babylonian belief, the dead who were not properly buried roamed through the streets searching for food, eating refuse and drinking impure water.”

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

Ancient Animism

” … The memorable sermon preached by Paul to the Athenians when he stood “in the midst of Mars’ hill,” could have been addressed with equal appropriateness to the ancient Sumerians and Akkadians.

“I perceive,” he declared, “that in all things ye are too superstitious…. God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; neither is worshipped with men’s hands as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things … for in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring. Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s device.”

Babylonian temples were houses of the gods in the literal sense; the gods were supposed to dwell in them, their spirits having entered into the graven images or blocks of stone.

It is probable that like the Ancient Egyptians they believed a god had as many spirits as he had attributes. The gods, as we have said, appear to have evolved from early spirit groups. All the world swarmed with spirits, which inhabited stones and trees, mountains and deserts, rivers and ocean, the air, the sky, the stars, and the sun and moon.

The spirits controlled Nature: they brought light and darkness, sunshine and storm, summer and winter; they were manifested in the thunderstorm, the sandstorm, the glare of sunset, and the wraiths of mist rising from the steaming marshes.

They controlled also the lives of men and women. The good spirits were the source of luck. The bad spirits caused misfortunes, and were ever seeking to work evil against the Babylonian. Darkness was peopled by demons and ghosts of the dead. The spirits of disease were ever lying in wait to clutch him with cruel invisible hands.”

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

Mirrors Reflect the Soul

” … We can now understand why it was a maxim both in ancient India and ancient Greece not to look at one’s reflection in water, and why the Greeks regarded it as an omen of death if a man dreamed of seeing himself so reflected. They feared that the water-spirits would drag the person’s reflection or soul under water, leaving him soulless to perish. This was probably the origin of the classical story of the beautiful Narcissus, who languished and died through seeing his reflection in the water.

Further, we can now explain the widespread custom of covering up mirrors or turning them to the wall after a death has taken place in the house. It is feared that the soul, projected out of the person in the shape of his reflection in the mirror, may be carried off by the ghost of the departed, which is commonly supposed to linger about the house till the burial. The custom is thus exactly parallel to the Aru custom of not sleeping in a house after a death for fear that the soul, projected out of the body in a dream, may meet the ghost and be carried off by it.

The reason why sick people should not see themselves in a mirror, and why the mirror in a sick-room is therefore covered up, is also plain; in time of sickness, when the soul might take flight so easily, it is particularly dangerous to project it out of the body by means of the reflection in a mirror. The rule is therefore precisely parallel to the rule observed by some peoples of not allowing sick people to sleep; for in sleep the soul is projected out of the body, and there is always a risk that it may not return.”

James George Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, 1922, The Soul as a Shadow and Reflection, np.

The Ka, the Ghost of the Egyptians

The peculiar ideas which the Egyptians held about the composition of man greatly favoured the belief in apparitions and ghosts. According to them a man consisted of a physical body, a shadow, a double, a soul, a heart, a spirit called the khu, a power, a name, and a spiritual body.

When the body died the shadow departed from it, and could only be brought back to it by the performance of a mystical ceremony; the double lived in the tomb with the body, and was there visited by the soul whose habitation was in heaven.

The soul was, from one aspect, a material thing, and like the ka, or double, was believed to partake of the funeral offerings which were brought to the tomb; one of the chief objects of sepulchral offerings of meat and drink was to keep the double in the tomb and to do away with the necessity of its wandering about outside the tomb in search of food.

It is clear from many texts that, unless the double was supplied with sufficient food, it would wander forth from the tomb and eat any kind of offal and drink any kind of dirty water which it might find in its path.

But besides the shadow, and the double, and the soul, the spirit of the deceased, which usually had its abode in heaven, was sometimes to be found in the tomb.

There is, however, good reason for stating that the immortal part of man which lived in the tomb and had its special abode in the statue of the deceased was the “double.”

This is proved by the fact that a special part of the tomb was reserved for the ka, or double, which was called the “house of the ka,” and that a priest, called the “priest of the ka,” was specially appointed to minister therein.

The double enjoyed the smell of the incense which was offered at certain times each year in the tomb, as well as the flowers, and herbs, and meat, and drink; and the statue of the deceased in which the double dwelt took pleasure in all the various scenes which were painted or sculptured on the walls of the various chambers of the tomb, and enjoyed again all the delights which his body had enjoyed upon earth.

The ka, or double, then, in very early times was, to all intents and purposes, the ghost of the Egyptians.

In later times the khu, or “spirit,” seems to have been identified with it, and there are frequent allusions in the texts to the sanctity of the offerings made to the khu, and to their territories, i.e., the districts in which their mummified bodies lie.

E.A. Wallis Budge, Egyptian Magic, London, 1901. Pp. 217-8.

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