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Tag: Sumerians

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.

Semites vs. Sumerians

“Each new discovery of cuneiform tablets elicits a wave of publications asserting biblical ‘parallels,’ many of them uncertain and farfetched, even when a millennium or more may have elapsed between the tablets and the relevant portion of the Bible.

The biblical scholar M. Dahood, for example, saw parallels betwen the Bible and cuneiform tablets from Ebla in northern Syria, which date to approximately 1300 years before the kingdom of David. E. A. Speiser insisted that the ‘patriarchal age’ of the Bible was reflected in tablets from Nuzi in northern Mesopotamia (early fourteenth century BCE), although most of his analogies have been discarded in recent years.

The discovery of prophetic documents at Mari (eighteenth century BCE) attracted much discussion, as did comparison of ancient treaties with the biblical covenant.

A subtler interconnection between the worlds of the Hebrews and of the Babylonians was provided by what might be called ‘Pan-Semitism,’ the idea that the Semitic peoples had certain innate mental and emotional characteristics and limitations in common that conditioned their religious values.

A concise statement of this view, which is traceable, for example, to the works of the influential French thinker Ernest Renan, will be found in S. A. Cook’s contribution ‘The Semites, Temperament and Thought’ in the Cambridge Ancient History (1924), chapter V.

Cook held that Semitic thought was verbal rather than visual, emotional rather than systematic or speculative, and so could not have created such a grand astral system of beliefs as the Pan-Babylonianists had imagined underlay modern Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

To Pan-Semitists, Greece, with its alleged superior visual and speculative thought, albeit comparatively shallow religion, was as essential to understanding Christianity as was Judaism.

Scholars wrote of the ‘Hebrew’ and the ‘Greek’ element in Christianity and European culture. The Pan-Semitists bracketed Judaism, Islam and Babylonia as ‘Semitic’ in type, but not Christianity. This left the place of the Sumerians in the equation Babylonian = Semitic difficult to define.

The early twentieth-century historian Eduard Meyer, for example, therefore argued that the Semites were the original inhabitants of Mesopotamia and the Sumerians were later invaders, thereby maintaining the originally ‘Semitic’ character of Mesopotamian civilization.

In the period after World War I, some scholars tried to distinguish ‘Sumerian’ from ‘Semitic’ thought in Mesopotamian culture. Thus discussion of the relations between Babylonia and the Bible proceeded in an atmosphere charged with faith, scepticism and anti-Semitism.”

Benjamin R. Foster, “Mesopotamian Religion and the Bible,” John R. Hinnells, ed., A Handbook of Ancient Religions, 2007, pp. 208-9.

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.

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