Exorcism and Magic

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Exorcism and Magic


Sickness. For the theologian, sickness was a perplexing matter. Minor illness was attributed to random occurrences that all humans suffer, but serious health problems were attributed to external, supernatural forces. Each person was protected by a personal god or goddess, but because of unforeseen circumstances or sin, one’s god could flee, leaving the unprotected individual vulnerable to attack by demons, ghosts, and other evil forces. Healers needed to determine if a “Hand of a Ghost” or an unknown human agent, such as a witch, had caused illness. Treatment was in the hands of the asu, “physician,” and the ashipu, “magician or exorcist.” Each had a role in healing the sick, and they often worked together to treat difficult cases. The physician prescribed salves and potions, and the magician battled the demons with spells, incantations, amulets, and rituals to exorcise evil forces.

Diagnosis. Not all sickness was believed to have been caused by misdeeds. One could be injured in a fight or simply be sick with a cold. A letter to the king of Assyria informed him not to be alarmed; his present illness was merely the result of a seasonal bug that had been going around:

To the king, my lord: your servant Marduk-shakin-shumi. Good health to the king, my lord! May Nabu and Marduk bless the king, my lord!

Concerning the chills about which the king, my lord wrote to me, there is nothing to be worried about. The gods of the [king] will quickly cure it, and we shall do whatever is relevant to the matter. [It is] a seasonal illness; the king, my lord, should not [wor]ry (about it). (Parpola)

If the ashipu believed that the “Hand” of a god or ghost has caused suffering, he could consult with a tablet series entitled Enuma ana bit marsi ashipu illaku, “When the Exorcist goes to the House of a Sick Person.” This document includes a lengthy list of symptoms and a prognostication. For example,

If (the patient) is stricken at his head, and he is afflicted by one attack after the other, and his face is (alternately) red and greenish; whenever he has an attack, his mind becomes deranged, and he has convulsions: (It is the) grip of the lamashtu-demon—his days may (still) be long, but (eventually) he will die. (Farber)

Incantations. It was commonly understood that to keep demons and ghosts at bay it was necessary to employ magic and hope that the recitation of spells or incantations would repel evil forces. Entreating demons to flee and take away their evil, incantations were performed by specialists trained in the cultic arts, who also used rituals to expel the evil and effect cures. The series Uttuku lemnutu, “The Evil Udug-Demons,” includes a detailed description of a group of udug demons known as the “evil seven.”

They are seven, they the seven,

They are seven in the springs of the depths,

They are seven, adorned in heaven.

They grew up in the springs of the depths, in the cella.

They are not male, they are not female,

They are drifting phantoms,

They are not male, they beget no son.

They know neither sparing of life nor mercy,

They heed no prayers nor entreaties.

They are steeds that grew up in the mountains,

They are the evil ones of Ea,

They are the prefects of the gods.

They loiter in the side streets to make trouble on the highway.

They are evil, they are evil!

They are seven, they are seven, they are twice seven!

Be conjured by heaven, be conjured by the netherworld! (Foster)

Incantations against Illness. Many incantations deal with a wide variety of conditions, such as impotency, headache, fever, eye disease, misshapen fetuses, misery, excessive anger, and flatulence. An incantation against toothache explains that this affliction originates from a worm placed in the mouth by the gods. The cure is to extract the tooth:

After Anu created heaven,

Heaven created earth,

Earth created heaven,

Rivers created watercourse.

The worm came crying before Shamash,

Before Ea his tears flowed down,

“What will you give me, that I may eat?”

“What will you give me, that I may suck?”

“I will give you a ripe fig and an apple.”

“What are a ripe fig and an apple to me?”

“Set me to dwell between teeth and jaw,

that I may suck the blood of the jaw,

that I may chew on the bits of (food) stuck in the jaw.” (Foster)

Conjurations. Some incantations were directed against illness caused by witchcraft. If a person had a terrifying dream, the nightmare was thought to have been sent by a demonic witch. Burning was necessary to ward off the evil. The magical tablet series Maqlu, “Burning,” includes incantations and rituals directed against witches and witchcraft. A ceremony was performed beginning in the night and ending the next morning. The exorcist met the afflicted patient in his home and began the ritual with an invocation to the gods of the night. Later a representation of the witch and other objects were burned in a brazier. The remains were then stirred, and water was poured over the smoldering embers. The rite of burning and dousing with water was intended to destroy evil magically and quell the witch’s life force. Acts performed at dawn included ritual cleansing and throwing an edible representation of the witch to dogs.

Shurpu Incantations. In the incantation series called Shurpu, “Burning (away the curse),” misfortune is ascribed to a victim’s intentional or unintentional sins. When the sufferer did not know what he had done to bring on his affliction, he recited a long list of misdeeds with the hope that it would include his relevant offense. The list includes serious offenses such as murder, robbery, and adultery, as well as lesser offenses such as eating prohibited foods, gossiping, lying, and showing lack of respect for family members. Incantations were designed to purify the sinner ritually. For example,

Incantation. Be it released, great gods,

god and goddess, lords of absolution. …

his sins are against his god, his crimes are against his goddess,

He has eaten what is taboo to his god,

He is full of contempt against his father, full of hatred against his elder brother,

He despised his parents, offended the elder sister,

gave with small (measure) and received with big (measure),

he said “there is,” when there was not,

he said “there is not,” when there was;

he pointed his finger accusingly behind the back of his fellow man; who calumniated, spoke what is not allowed to speak; who as a witness, caused wicked things to be spoken; who caused the judge to pronounce incorrect judgment,

who scorned his god, despised his goddess,

he used an untrue balance, but did not use the true balance,

he took money that was not due to him, but did not take money due to him,

he disinherited the legitimated son and did not establish (in his rights) the legitimated son. …

He entered his neighbor’s house,

had intercourse with his neighbor’s wife,

shed his neighbor’s house,

took his neighbor’s wife,

and did not clothe a young man when he was naked. …

His mouth is straight, but his heart is untrue,

when his mouth says “yes” his heart says “no”

altogether he speaks untrue words. (Reiner, 1958)

Shurpu Rituals. In Shurpu the offender sought to rid himself of sin by transference of the evil to materials such as wool, an onion, or part of a date. The object was held in the sufferer’s hand while the ritual took place. Purification resulted from the destruction of the object by ritual burning, which released the sufferer from the evil spell.

Just as this flock of wool is plucked apart and thrown into the fire, (and just as) the Firegod consumes it altogether,

just as it will not return to its sheep,

will not be used for the clothing of god or king.

May invocation, oath, retaliation, questioning,

the illness which is due to my suffering, sin, crime, injustice and shortcomings, the sickness that is in my body, flesh and veins, be plucked apart like this flock of wool, and may the Firegod on this very day consume it altogether.

May the ban (curse) go away, and may I (again) see light (!) (Reiner, 1958)

Purification. Mesopotamian litanies include a long list of mamitu, lesser offenses against the gods. They include inadvertent contact with unclean people or objects, accidentally touching an accursed man while crossing the street, stepping in dirty water, walking on nail clippings or armpit shavings, stepping on old shoes with holes in them, touching an object associated with black magic, inadvertently brushing against a person with a skin disease, breaking promises, releasing confidential information, and speaking intemperately. The sufferer sought relief from his ills by appealing to his gods and goddesses for purification from misdeeds. The following excerpt from a collection of texts known as Lipshur Litanies describes some offenses and the sufferer’s call for absolution:

May the tamarisk tree purify me …

may the pure river water carry away my sin!

O, Shamash, you are supreme judge of the great gods,

whether, while I was walking in the street, an accursed man touched me,

whether, while I was crossing the square,

I stepped upon (someone’s dirty) washwater which did not drain away,

whether I have walked on nail-parings, (or) armpit shavings

or shoes with holes in them, (or) a tattered belt, (or) a leather bag with (material for) black magic, or scales (from a person afflicted with skin disease), (all these) things unlucky for human beings,

let it be released for me, let it be absolved for me!

O, Shamash, if I have been neglectful today in your presence, if I have committed grievous sins,

let it be released for me, let it be absolved for me!

(Through) all my sins, all my errors, all my crimes

may the unbeliever learn from my example,

who was neglectful, who committed grievous sins against his god and his goddess

I have made promises, but changed my word, I had people put their trust in me, but did not give,

I did unfitting things, my mouth was full of improper words, I repeated confidential information,

… I am dazed … I do not know where I am going,

the sins and crimes of mankind are more numerous than the hair of its head;

I tread upon my sins, my errors, my crimes that are heaped up like chaff,

let it (the evil) be released from me, let it be absolved from me! …

O Shamash, I prostrate myself before you (asking you) to judge my cause, wipe out my sins, drive away my errors, direct me on the right way

O Shamash may the angry heart of my god and my goddess be pacified

Oh Shamash, you are the supreme judge, you bring justice to the land,

… I have sinned against my god, I have sinned against my goddess. (Reiner, 1956)

Purification Rites. Purification rites were held in ancient Near Eastern temples and palaces. Their purpose was to cleanse those affected by pollution resulting from transgressions, sin, or exposure to demons. Buildings also had to be cleansed after contact with impure substances or polluted people or to rid them of evil effects from earthquakes or eclipses. Purification was needed to make rites effective. Liquids such as water and oil were used in ceremonies that involved washing and bathing. Specialized priests performed the ceremonies. During the Babylonian New Year’s Festival, an executioner was ordered to behead a sheep. The sheep’s body was used to wipe away pollution and purify the temple. An exorcist then threw the polluted carcass into the river, whose flowing waters magically carried away its impurities.


I. Tzvi Abusch, Mesopotamian Witchcraft: Toward a History and Understanding of Babylonian Witchcraft Beliefs and Literature, Ancient Magic and Divination, no. 5 (Leiden: Brill Styx, 2002).

Walter Farber, “Witchcraft, Magic, and Divination in Ancient Mesopotamia,” in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, 4 volumes, edited by Jack M. Sasson (New York: Scribners, 1995), III: 1895–1909.

Benjamin R. Foster, Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature, 2 volumes (Bethesda, Md.: CDL Press, 1993).

Markham J. Geller, Forerunners to Udug-hul: Sumerian Exorcistic Incantations (Stuttgart: F. Steiner, 1985).

Jørgen Læssøe, Studies on the Assyrian Ritual and Series “Bit Rimki” (Copenhagen: Munksgaard, 1955).

Guido Majno, The Healing Hand: Man and Wound in the Ancient World (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1975).

Simo Parpola, Letters from Assyrian and Babylonian Scholars, State Archives of Assyria, volume 10 (Helsinki: Helsinki University Press, 1993).

Erica Reiner, Astral Magic in Babylonia, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, volume 85, part 4 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1995).

Reiner, “Lipšur Litanies,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 15 (1956): 129–149).

Reiner, Šurpu: A Collection of Sumerian and Akkadian Incantations, Archiv für Orientforschung, supplement 11 (Graz, 1958).

Reiner, Your Thwarts in Pieces, Your Mooring Rope Cut: Poetry from Babylonia and Assyria (Ann Arbor: Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies, University of Michigan, 1985).