Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria

Page: 108

The Terror of Eclipse

The terror of eclipse of the sun or moon was a very real one to the ancient Babylonians. The tablet with the history of the seven evil gods or spirits, though much mutilated, gives us a hint of the attack made by them upon the moon. They dwelt in the lower part of heaven, and were rebellious in heart. Shaped like leopards, serpents, and angry beasts of prey, they went from city to city on the wings of an evil wind, destroying and smiting. And into the heaven of Anu they burst, but Bel and Ea took counsel, and set Sin the moon, Shamash the sun, and Ishtar the planet Venus in the lower part of heaven to govern and control it along with Anu. No sooner had this been accomplished than the seven evil spirits fiercely attacked the moon-god. But Bel saw the peril of Sin, and said to his attendant, the god Nusku, "Carry word of this thing to the ocean, to the god Ea." Ea heard the message, and called his son, the god Merodach. "Go, my son Merodach," quoth he, "enter into the shining Sin, who in heaven is greatly beset, and expel his enemies from heaven." It is impossible to decipher the context from the mutilated remains of the tablets, but we may take it for granted that the pious efforts of Merodach were rewarded with success.

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An eclipse to most primitive peoples means that the sun- or moon-god has either met with disaster or has withdrawn his face from his worshippers. The monthly waning of the moon made the ancients believe that it would be entirely blotted out unless the god was pacified. Thus if no eclipse took place it was considered that the efforts of priests and people had prevailed; otherwise they were held to have failed, and panic ruled supreme. In a certain prayer Sin is adjured not to withhold his face from his people. The day of the monthly disappearance of the moon is called a day of distress, but a season of jubilee followed upon the advent of the new moon next day.

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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 mediæval 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,[1][Pg 258] 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 mediæval magic as apart from popular sorcery and witchcraft is instanced not only by the similarity between the systems but by the introduction into mediæval 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[Pg 259] 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.

The Roots of Science

In these Babylonian magical records we have by far the most complete picture of the magic of the ancient world. It is a wondrous story that is told by those bricks and cylinders of stamped clay—the story of civilized man's first gropings for light. For in these venerable writings we must recognize the first attempts at scientific elucidation of the forces by which man is surrounded. Science, like religion, has its roots deep in magic. The primitive man believes implicitly in the efficacy of magical ritual. What it brings about once it can bring about again if the proper conditions be present and recognized. Thus it possesses for the barbarian as much of the element of certainty as the scientific process does for the chemist or the electrician. Given certain causes certain effects must follow. Surely, then, in the barbarous mind, magic is pseudo-scientific—of the nature of science.

There appears a deeper gloom, a more ominous spirit of the ancient and the obscure in the magic of old Mesopotamia than in that of any other land. Its mighty sanctuaries, its sky-aspiring towers, seem founded upon this belief in the efficacy of the spoken spell, the reiterated invocation. Thousands of spirits various and grotesque, the parents of the ghosts and goblins of a later day, haunt the purlieus of the temple, battening upon the remains of sacrifice (the leavings of the gorged gods), flit through the night-bound streets, and disturb the rest of the[Pg 260] dwellers in houses. Demons with claw and talon, vampires, ghouls—all are there. Spirits blest and unblest, jinn, witch-hags, lemures, sorrowing unburied ghosts. No type of supernatural being appears to have been unknown to the imaginative Semites of old Chaldea. These must all be 'laid,' exorcised, or placated, and it is not to be marvelled at that in such circumstances the trade of the necromancer flourished exceedingly. The witch or wizard, however, the unprofessional and detached practitioner with no priestly status, must beware. He or she was regarded with suspicion, and if one fell sick of a strange wasting or a disease to which he could not attach a name, the nearest sorcerer, male or female, real or imaginary, was in all probability brought to book.

Priestly Wizards

There were at least two classes of priests who dealt in the occult—the barû, or seers, and the asipû, or wizards. The caste of the barû was a very ancient one, dating at least from the time of Khammurabi. The barû performed divination by consulting the livers of animals and also by observation of the flight of birds. We find many of the kings of Babylonia consulting this class of soothsayer. Sennacherib, for example, sought from the barû the cause of his father's violent death. The asipû, on the other hand, was the remover of taboo and bans of all sorts; he chanted the rites described in the magical texts, and performed the ceremony of atonement. It is

He that stilleth all to rest, that pacifieth all.
By whose incantations everything is at peace.

The gods are upon his right hand and his left, they are behind and before him.

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The wizard and the witch were known as Kassapu or Kassaptu. These were the sorcerers or magicians proper, and that they were considered dangerous to the community is shown by the manner in which they are treated by the code of Khammurabi, in which it is ordained that he who charges a man with sorcery and can justify the charge shall obtain the sorcerer's house, and the sorcerer shall plunge into the river. But if the sorcerer be not drowned then he who accused him shall be put to death and the wrongly accused man shall have his house.

A series of texts known as 'Maklu' provides us, among other things, with a striking picture of the Babylonian witch. It tells how she prowls the streets, searching for victims, snatching love from handsome men, and withering beauteous women. At another time she is depicted sitting in the shade of the wall making spells and fashioning images. The suppliant prays that her magic may revert upon herself, that the image of her which he has made, and doubtless rendered into the hands of the priest, shall be burnt by the fire-god, that her words may be forced back into her mouth. "May her mouth be fat, may her tongue be salt," continues the prayer. The haltappen-plant along with sesame is sent against her. "O, witch, like the circlet of this seal may thy face grow green and yellow!"