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Ancient Religion and Magic

Magic was integral to the religion of ancient Babylonia. All the deities (the most prominent ones being Ea, Anu, and Enlil, the elder Bel) retained, even in the last centuries of Babylonian development, traces of their early demonic character. Ea, Anu, and Enlil formed a triad at the dawn of history and appear to have developed from an animistic group of world spirits. Although Ea became specialized as a god of the deep, Anu as a god of the sky, and Enlil as an earth god, each also had titles that emphasized that they had attributes overlapping those of the others. Thus Ea was Enki, earth lord, and as Aa was a lunar deity; he also had solar attributes. In the legend of Etana and the Eagle, his heaven is stated to be in the sky. Anu and Enlil as deities of thunder, rain, and fertility are closely linked to Ea, as Dagan, of the flooding and fertilizing Euphrates.

Each of these deities was accompanied by demonic groups. The spirits of disease were the "beloved sons of Bel"; the fates were the seven daughters of Anu; the seven storm demons, including the dragon and serpent, were of Ea's brood. The following description of Ea's older monstrous form occurs in one of the magical incantations translated by R. C. Thompson:

   The head is the head of a serpent,
   From his nostrils mucus trickles,
   The mouth is beslavered with water;
   The ears are those of a basilisk,
   His horns are twisted into three curls,
   He wears a veil in his head-band,
   The body is a sun-fish full of stars,
   The base of his feet are claws,
   The sole of his foot has no heel;
   His name is Sassu-wunnu,
   A sea monster, a form of Ea.

Ea was "the great magician of the gods;" his sway over the forces of nature was secured by the performance of magical rites, and his services were obtained by humankind, who performed requisite ceremonies and repeated appropriate spells. Although he might be worshipped and propitiated in his temple at Eridu, he could also be conjured in reed huts. The latter indeed appear to have been the oldest holy places. In the Deluge myth, he makes a revelation in a dream to his human favorite, Pirnapishtim, the Babylonian Noah, of the approaching disaster planned by the gods, by addressing the reed hut in which he slept: "O, reed hut, hear; O, wall, understand." The sleeper received the divine message from the reeds. The reeds were to the Babylonians what rowan branches were to northern Europeansthey protected them against demons. Thus, for example, the dead were buried wrapped in reed mats.

The priesthood included two classes of magicians: the "Ashipu," who were exorcists, and the "Mashmashu," the purifers. The Ashipu priests played a prominent part in ceremonies, which had for their object the magical control of nature; in times of storm, disaster, and eclipse they were especially active. They also took the part of "witch doctors." Victims of disease were supposed to be possessed of devouring demons. In Thompson's translation:

   Loudly roaring above, gibbering below,
   They are the bitter venom of the gods 
   Knowing no care, they grind the land like corn;
   Knowing no mercy, they rage against mankind,
   They spill their blood like rain,
   Devouring their flesh and sucking their veins.

The Ashipu priests bore the responsibility to drive out the demon. Before doing so, the demon had to be identified. Once the priest did so, he had to bring it under his influence. He accomplished this by reciting its history and detailing its characteristics. The secret of the magician's power was his knowledge.To cure a toothache, for instance, he had to know the "Legend of the Worm." The worm was vampire -like and absorbed the blood of victims, but specialized in gums.

The legend relates that the worm came into existence as follows: Anu created the heavens, the heavens created the earth, the earth created the rivers, and the rivers created the canals, then the canals created marshes, and the marshes created the worm. In due time the worm appeared before Shamash, the sun god, and Ea, god of the deep, weeping and hungry. "What will you give me to eat and drink?" it cried. The gods promised that it would get dried bones and scented wood. The worm realized that this was the food of death, and answered: "What are dry bones to me? Set me upon the gums that I may drink the blood of the teeth and take away the strength of the gums." When the worm heard this legend repeated, it came under the magician's power and was dismissed to the marshes, while Ea was invoked to smite it. Different demons were exorcised by different processes. A fever patient might receive the following treatment:

   Sprinkle this man with water,
   Bring unto him a censer and a torch,
   That the plague demon which resteth in the body of the man,
   Like water may trickle away.

Demons might also be attacked by a form of image magic. The magician began by fashioning a figure of dough, wax, clay, or pitch. This figure might be placed on a fire, mutilated, or placed in running water to be washed away. As the figure suffered, so did the demon it represented, by the magic of the word of Ea.

In treating the sick, the magician might release a raven at the bedside of the sick person so that it would conjure the demon of fever to take flight likewise. Sacrifices could also be offered, as substitutes for patients, to provide food for the spirit of the disease. A young goat was slain and the priest repeated:

   The kid is the substitute for mankind;
   He hath given the kid for his life,
   He hath given the head of the kid for the head of the man.
   A pig might be offered:
   Give the pig in his stead
   And give the flesh of it for his flesh,
   The blood of it for his blood.

The cures were numerous and varied. After the patient recovered, the mashmashu priests purified the house. The ceremony entailed the sprinkling of sacred water, the burning of incense, and the repetition of magical charms. People protected their homes against attack by placing certain plants over the doorways and windows. The halter of a donkey, or ass, was apparently used, in the same manner that horseshoes have been used in Europe to repel witches and evil spirits.

The purification ceremonies suggest the existence of taboo. For a period, the sick were "unclean" and had to be isolated. The recently recovered could make their way to the temple. A House of Light was attached, where fire ceremonies were performed, along with a House of Washing, where patients bathed in sacred water. The priest would anoint the individual with oil to complete the release from uncleanliness. Certain foods were also taboo at certain seasons. It was unlawful for a man to eat pork on the thirtieth of Ab (July-August), the twenty-seventh of Tisri, and other dates. Fish, ox flesh, and bread were similarly forbidden on specific dates.

A person's luck depended greatly on the observance of these rules. Still, even if all the ceremonies were observed, one might still meet with ill fortune on unlucky days. On the festival day of Marduk (Merodach) a man must not change his clothes, nor put on white garments, nor offer up sacrifices. Certain disaster would overcome a king if he drove out in a chariot, or a physician if he laid hands on the sick, or a priest who sat in judgment, for example. On lucky days good fortune was the heritage of everyone. Good fortune meant good health in many cases, sometimes assured by worshiping the dreaded spirit of disease called Ura.

A legend related that this demon once made up his mind to destroy all humankind. His counsellor, Ishun, however, prevailed upon him to change his mind, and he said, "Whoever will laud my name I will bless with plenty. No one will oppose the person who proclaims the glory of my valor. The worshiper who chants the hymn of praise to me will not be afflicted by disease, and he will find favor in the eyes of the King and his nobles."


Among the spirits who were the enemies of humans the ghosts of the dead were most dangerous, especially the ghosts of those who had not been properly buried. These homeless spiritsthe grave was the home of the deadwandered the streets searching for food and drink, or haunting houses. They often injured humans seriously.

The ghosts had a scary appearance. When they appeared before children, they frightened them to death. They delayed travelers and mocked those who were in sorrow. The screech-owl was a mother who had died giving birth, and wailed her grief nightly in solitary places. Occasionally she appeared in some terrible form and killed travellers.

Adam's first wife Lilith was a demon who had once been beautiful and was in the habit of deceiving lovers, working evil on them. A hag, Labartu, haunted mountains and marshes and children had to be charmed against her attacks. She also had a human history.

Another belief prevalent in Babylonia was that the spirits of the dead could be conjured from their graves to make revelations. In the Gilgamesh epic, the hero visits the tomb of his old friend and fellow warrior Ea-Bani. The ghost rises like a "weird gust" of wind and answers the various questions with great sadness. Babylonian vision of the future life was colored by profound gloom and pessimism. It was even the fate of the ghosts of the most fortunate and ceremonially buried dead to live in darkness, amid dust. The ghost of Ea-Bani said to Gilgamesh: "Were I to inform thee the law of the underworld which I have experienced, Thou wouldst sit down and shed tears all day long.' Gilgamesh lamented: "The sorrow of the underworld hath taken hold upon thee."

Priests who performed magical ceremonies had to be clothed in magical garments. They received inspiration from their clothing. the gods derived power from the skins of animals in a similar way, with which they were associated from the earliest time. Thus Ea was clad in the skin of the fishprobably the fish totem of the Ea tribe.

The dead were not admitted to the heavens of the gods. When a favored human being, like Utnapishtim, the Babylonian Noah, joined the company of the gods, he was assigned an island paradise where Gilgamesh visited him. He lived there with his wife. Gilgamesh was not permitted to land, and conversed with his immortal ancestor while sitting in his boat. The deities secured immortality by eating the "food of life" and drinking the "water of life."


The ancient Babylonians were credited with some of the first correct astronomical observations. They were also pioneers of astrology, which they attributed to the god Marduk or Bel, said to have created the sun, moon, stars, and five planets. They knew that the length of the solar year was approximately 365.4 days and had divided the period of 24 hours into 12 beru (double hours) in accordance with the divisions of the equator, each of which was divided into 60 minutes, and each minute into 60 seconds. Such data were recorded on clay tablets in the library of the Babylonian king Assurbani-pal, around 668 B.C.E. Babylonian astrologers attributed human characteristics to planetary influences at birth, and laid the foundation for modern astrologers.

Sources: Babylonia. June 26, 2000.

Ferry, David. Gilgamesh: a New Rendering into English Verse. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1992.

Jastrow, Morris. Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia & Assyria. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1911.

Kramer, Samuel N. From the Tablets of Sumer. Falcon's Wing, 1956.

. Gilgamesh and the Huluppu-tree: A Reconstructed Sumerian Text. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1938.

Lenormant, Francois. Chaldean Magic: Its Origin & Development. London: Samuel Bagster, [1877].

Spence, Lewis. Myths and Legends of Babylonia & Assyria. London, 1916. Reprint, Detroit: Gale Research, 1975.

Thierens, A. E. Astrology in Mesopotamian Culture. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1935.

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Babylonia (băbĬlō´nēə), ancient empire of Mesopotamia. The name is sometimes given to the whole civilization of S Mesopotamia, including the states established by the city rulers of Lagash, Akkad (or Agade), Uruk, and Ur in the 3d millennium BC Historically it is limited to the first dynasty of Babylon established by Hammurabi (c.1750 BC), and to the Neo-Babylonian period after the fall of the Assyrian Empire. Hammurabi, who had his capital at Babylon, issued the code of laws for the management of his large empire—for he was in control of most of the Tigris and Euphrates region even before he defeated the Elamites. Babylonian cuneiform writing was derived from the Sumerians. The quasifeudal society was divided into classes—the wealthy landowners and merchants and the priests; the less wealthy merchants, peasants, and artisans; and the slaves. The Babylonian religion (see Middle Eastern religions) was inherited from the older Sumerian culture. All these Babylonian institutions influenced the civilization of Assyria and so contributed to the later history of the Middle East and of Western Europe.

The wealth of Babylonia tempted nomadic and seminomadic neighbors; even under Hammurabi's successor Babylonia was having to stave off assaults. Early in the 18th cent. BC the Hittites sacked Babylon and held it briefly. The nomadic Kassites (Cassites), a tribe from Elam, took the city shortly thereafter and held it precariously for centuries. Babylonia degenerated into anarchy c.1180 BC with the fall of the Kassites. As a subsidiary state of the Assyrian Empire (after the 9th cent. BC), Babylonia flourished once more. It was the key area in the attempted uprising against the Assyrian king, Sennacherib, and Babylon was sacked (c.689 BC) in his reign.

After the death of Assurbanipal, the last great Assyrian monarch, Nabopolassar, the ruler of Babylonia, established (625 BC) his independence. He allied himself with the Medes and Persians and helped to bring about the capture of Nineveh (612 BC) and the fall of the Assyrian Empire. He established what is generally known as the Chaldaean or New Babylonian Empire. Under his son, Nebuchadnezzar, the new empire reached its height (see Babylon). The recalcitrant Hebrews were defeated and punished with the Babylonian captivity. Egypt had already been defeated by Nebuchadnezzar in the great battle of Carchemish (605) while Nabopolassar was still alive. The empire seemed secure, but it was actually transitory. The steady growth of Persian power spelled the end of Babylonia, and in 538 BC the last of the Babylonian rulers surrendered to Cyrus the Great (see also Belshazzar). Babylonia became an important region of the Persian Empire.

See R. W. Rogers, A History of Babylonia and Assyria (6th ed. 1915); D. D. Luckenbill, Ancient Records of Assyria and Babylonia (1926–27); G. R. Driver et al., The Babylonian Laws (1952–55); H. W. F. Saggs, Everyday Life in Babylonia and Assyria (1965, repr. 1987); J. Wellard, Babylon (1972).

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Babylonia Ancient region and empire of Mesopotamia, based on the city of Babylon. The Babylonian Empire was first established in the early 18th century bc by Hammurabi the Great, but declined under the impact of Hittites and Kassites in c.1595 bc. After a long period of weakness and confusion, the Empire eventually fell to Assyria in the 8th century bc. In c.625 bc, Babylon regained its independence and former glory, when Nabopolassar captured the Assyrian capital of Nineveh. In 586 bc, the New Babylonian (Chaldaean) Empire defeated Egypt and took the Jews to captivity in Babylon. In 538 bc, the Empire fell to the Persians.

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