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Tag: Hammurabi Code

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.

Legal Rights of Women and Vestal Virgins

” … A girl might also obtain a limited degree of freedom by taking vows of celibacy and becoming one of the vestal virgins, or nuns, who were attached to the temple of the sun god. She did not, however, live a life of entire seclusion.

If she received her due proportion of her father’s estate, she could make business investments within certain limits. She was not, for instance, allowed to own a wineshop, and if she even entered one she was burned at the stake. Once she took these vows she had to observe them until the end of her days.

If she married, as she might do to obtain the legal status of a married woman and enjoy the privileges of that position, she denied her husband conjugal rites, but provided him with a concubine who might bear him children, as Sarah did to Abraham.

These nuns must not be confused with the unmoral women who were associated with the temples of Ishtar and other love goddesses of shady repute.

The freedom secured by a married woman had its legal limitations. If she became a widow, for instance, she could not remarry without the consent of a judge, to whom she was expected to show good cause for the step she proposed to take.

Punishments for breaches of the marriage law were severe. Adultery was a capital crime; the guilty parties were bound together and thrown into the river.

If it happened, however, that the wife of a prisoner went to reside with another man on account of poverty, she was acquitted and allowed to return to her husband after his release. In cases where no plea of poverty could be urged the erring women were drowned.

The wife of a soldier who had been taken prisoner by an enemy was entitled to a third part of her husband’s estate if her son was a minor, the remainder was held in trust. The husband could enter into possession of all his property again if he happened to return home.

Divorce was easily obtained. A husband might send his wife away either because she was childless or because he fell in love with another woman. Incompatibility of temperament was also recognized as sufficient reason for separation. A woman might hate her husband and wish to leave him.

“If,” the Code sets forth, “she is careful and is without blame, and is neglected by her husband who has deserted her,” she can claim release from the marriage contract. But if she is found to have another lover, and is guilty of neglecting her duties, she is liable to be put to death.

A married woman possessed her own property. Indeed, the value of her marriage dowry was always vested in her. When, therefore, she divorced her husband, or was divorced by him, she was entitled to have her dowry refunded and to return to her father’s house. Apparently she could claim maintenance from her father.

A woman could have only one husband, but a man could have more than one wife. He might marry a secondary wife, or concubine, because he was without offspring, but “the concubine,” the Code lays down, “shall not rank with the wife.”

Another reason for second marriage recognized by law was a wife’s state of health. In such circumstances a man could not divorce his sickly wife. He had to support her in his house as long as she lived.

[ … ]

The legal rights of a vestal virgin were set forth in detail. If she had received no dowry from her father when she took vows of celibacy, she could claim after his death one-third of the portion of a son. She could will her estate to anyone she favoured, but if she died intestate her brothers were her heirs.

When, however, her estate consisted of fields or gardens allotted to her by her father, she could not disinherit her legal heirs. The fields or gardens might be worked during her lifetime by her brothers if they paid rent, or she might employ a manager on the “share system.”

Vestal virgins and married women were protected against the slanderer. Any man who “pointed the finger” against them unjustifiably was charged with the offense before a judge, who could sentence him to have his forehead branded.

It was not difficult, therefore, in ancient Babylonia to discover the men who made malicious and unfounded statements regarding an innocent woman. Assaults on women were punished according to the victim’s rank; even slaves were protected.

Women appear to have monopolized the drink traffic. At any rate, there is no reference to male wine sellers. A female publican had to conduct her business honestly, and was bound to accept a legal tender. If she refused corn and demanded silver, when the value of the silver by “grand weight” was below the price of corn, she was prosecuted and punished by being thrown into the water. Perhaps she was simply ducked.

As much may be inferred from the fact that when she was found guilty of allowing rebels to meet in her house, she was put to death.”

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

Marriage Babylonian Style

” Of special interest are the laws which relate to the position of women. In this connection reference may first be made to the marriage-by-auction custom, which Herodotus described as follows:

“Once a year in each village the maidens of age to marry were collected all together into one place, while the men stood round them in a circle. Then a herald called up the damsels one by one, and offered them for sale. He began with the most beautiful. When she was sold for no small sum of money, he offered for sale the one who came next to her in beauty. All of them were sold to be wives.

The richest of the Babylonians who wished to wed bid against each other for the loveliest maidens, while the humbler wife-seekers, who were indifferent about beauty, took the more homely damsels with marriage portions.

For the custom was that when the herald had gone through the whole number of the beautiful damsels, he should then call up the ugliest–a cripple, if there chanced to be one–and offer her to the men, asking who would agree to take her with the smallest marriage portion. And the man who offered to take the smallest sum had her assigned to him.

The marriage portions were furnished by the money paid for the beautiful damsels, and thus the fairer maidens portioned out the uglier. No one was allowed to give his daughter in marriage to the man of his choice, nor might anyone carry away the damsel whom he had purchased without finding bail really and truly to make her his wife; if, however, it turned out that they did not agree, the money might be paid back. All who liked might come, even from distant villages, and bid for the women.”

This custom is mentioned by other writers, but it is impossible to ascertain at what period it became prevalent in Babylonia and by whom it was introduced. Herodotus understood that it obtained also in “the Illyrian tribe of the Eneti,” which was reputed to have entered Italy with Antenor after the fall of Troy, and has been identified with the Venetians of later times. But the ethnic clue thus afforded is exceedingly vague.

There is no direct reference to the custom in the Hammurabi Code, which reveals a curious blending of the principles of “Father right” and “Mother right.” A girl was subject to her father’s will; he could dispose of her as he thought best, and she always remained a member of his family; after marriage she was known as the daughter of so and so rather than the wife of so and so. But marriage brought her freedom and the rights of citizenship. The power vested in her father was never transferred to her husband.

A father had the right to select a suitable spouse for his daughter, and she could not marry without his consent. That this law did not prevent “love matches” is made evident by the fact that provision was made in the Code for the marriage of a free woman with a male slave, part of whose estate in the event of his wife’s death could be claimed by his master.

When a betrothal was arranged, the father fixed the “bride price,” which was paid over before the contract could be concluded, and he also provided a dowry. The amount of the “bride price” might, however, be refunded to the young couple to give them a start in life.

If, during the interval between betrothal and marriage, the man “looked upon another woman,” and said to his father-in-law, “I will not marry your daughter,” he forfeited the “bride price” for breach of promise of marriage.”

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

The Stele of Hammurabi

Cuneiform Excerpt Stele of Hammurabi

Our knowledge of the social life of Babylon and the territory under its control is derived chiefly from the Hammurabi Code of laws, of which an almost complete copy was discovered at Susa, towards the end of 1901, by the De Morgan expedition.

Full Stele of Hammurabi

The laws were inscribed on a stele of black diorite 7 ft. 3 in. high, with a circumference at the base of 6 ft. 2 in. and at the top of 5 ft. 4 in. This important relic of an ancient law-abiding people had been broken in three pieces, but when these were joined together it was found that the text was not much impaired.

On one side are twenty-eight columns and on the other sixteen. Originally there were in all nearly 4000 lines of inscriptions, but five columns, comprising about 300 lines, had been erased to give space, it is conjectured, for the name of the invader who carried the stele away, but unfortunately the record was never made.

Apex Stele of Hammurabi

On the upper part of the stele, which is now one of the treasures of the Louvre, Paris, King Hammurabi salutes, with his right hand reverently upraised, the sun god Shamash, seated on his throne, at the summit of E-sagila, by whom he is being presented with the stylus with which to inscribe the legal code.

Both figures are heavily bearded, but have shaven lips and chins. The god wears a conical headdress and a flounced robe suspended from his left shoulder, while the king has assumed a round dome-shaped hat and a flowing garment which almost sweeps the ground.

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

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