Sunday, February 27, 2011

Ancient Mesopotamian tablets reveal “complex” anti-witchcraft ceremony

The sun rises over modern day Iraq. The long version of the
anti-witchcraft ceremony was performed during the night and into the following
morning. Photo by Todd Morris CC Attribution share-alike 2.0 generic

O Samas (Sun God) these are the images of my sorcerer;
These are the images of my sorceress...
You, Samas the judge, know them, but I do not know them.
These are they, these are their images.
Since they are not present, I bear aloft their images.
You, Samas the judge ... overwhelm them so I not be wronged!
(All translations in this article are by Professor Tzvi Abusch)
About 3,000 years ago Mesopotamian rulers, and other elite members of society, feared that witches were working against them.
Ancient records say that witches had the ability to use magic to harm those whom they wanted too. Stories say that a witch could make “an image in the likeness of her victim and then twist his limbs so that he suffers agony and debilitating disease,” said Professor Tzvi Abusch of Brandeis University.
Another gruesome tale says that “the witch may even open up a grave and place the representation of her victim in the lap of a dead person.”
The fear of Mesopotamia’s rulers was such that an elaborate ritual called maqlu (which means “burning”) was created to combat this perceived threat. The ceremony was used in the region throughout the 1st millennium BC, and appears to have died off sometime before AD 1.
It was developed and used by a group of exorcists known as “asipu.” An early version of the ceremony had 10 incantations and was performed in the morning. Later it evolved into a 100 incantation long ritual that started in the night and went through dawn. Tablets describing maqlu have been found in Nineveh, Assur and Uruk, among other Mesopotamian cities.
 “In the main the incantations and rituals of maqlu are directed against witches and witchcraft” said Professor Abusch. “The ceremony was intended to counter-act and dispel evil magic, and its effects, to protect the patient, and to punish and render ineffectual those responsible for the evil.”
Abusch has been studying the maqlu tablets for nearly 40 years. He said that these documents were “long thought to be a random collection of witchcraft materials (however) an important breakthrough in the understanding of maqlu came with my discovery – some years ago – that it was a single, complex, ceremony.”
This discovery means that he is now able to put the ceremony together and come up with a translation. Recently he gave a presentation at the University of Toronto where he discussed his findings. His work has appeared in scholarly publications but so far has received little attention in popular news media. 
Why were witches vilified?
From the maqlu tablets, and stories told about witches, it is clear that Mesopotamia’s rulers and nobility felt that they posed a real threat. But were the stories true? Or were witches persecuted for other reasons?
“As an explanation for misfortune witchcraft had the advantage of shifting much of the responsibility for one’s suffering away from oneself and onto other human beings,” said Professor Abusch.
The use of magic, in itself, would not have made them outcasts. “In contrast to some later western societies, magic in Mesopotamia was regarded as legitimate and as part of the established religion,” said Abusch.
He believes that the witch started out as a “neutral character,” someone who was “sometimes bad, sometimes good.” References in ancient documents suggest that most of these witches were women.
In contrast the asipu, the exorcists, were men, something that may have played a role in the vilification of the witches. What “the asipu did, I think, is to transform this woman – who (is) I said sometimes good, sometimes bad, into a bad person,” said Abusch. “This is genderized in the sense that the asipus are, as far as I know, always male.”
Their efforts were certainly effective. The references to witches in the maqlu ceremony are chilling.
Judge my case, render my verdict!
Burn the warlock, and the witch!
Devour my enemies, consume my oppressors!
Let your fiery red light overwhelm them!
May they come to an end in a trickle like water from a waterskin!
The ceremony
The shorter 10 incantation long ceremony was performed in the morning and involved four basic actions.
-Judging the witch before the sun god Samas
-Burning a representation of her
-Dowsing the remains with water
-Disposing of the remains 
There were two participants in the ceremony, the exorcist (asipu) and the patient. Since they would not have known who in the community was a witch, the two of them created figurines to represent them.
“Raising up statues to the sun, the plantiff identifies the statues that he holds as representations of witches who have performed acts of witchcraft against him and have harmed him unjustly,” said Abusch. “The statues are then bound and placed in a brazier.”
Nusku, god of light and fire, is then invoked to protect the victim and counteract the witches.
A warlock has bewitched me; bewitch him with the witchcraft with which he bewitched me,
A witch has bewitched me; bewitch her with the witchcraft with which she bewitched me...
 “The playfulness of these lines should not obscure their power,” said Abusch.
After Nusku is invoked the speaker sets statues of the witches ablaze.
I am raising the torch and burning their statues
(Those) of the demon, the spirit, the lurker, the ghost...
The next section focuses on the release of the witchcraft and liberation of the victim. The last incantation in this section is particularly important, although difficult to translate exactly.
[Ea has (now) unbound] the ligaments that you have bound up,
[Asalluhi has (now) released] the images that you have twisted and fettered.
The knot that you have knotted against me, the pl[lot that you have plotted against me]
May blazing Girra [use the wind to carry off]...
“As the brazier in which the statues have been burning is stirred, and the fire comes forth in a final climatic blaze, the victim speaks this incantation, and recalls that everything that the witches have done, has been undone and has been bounded against them,” said Abusch.
The third section focuses on the use of water to extinguish the fire and what’s left of “the life of the witch.” By the end of it “The witches are pacified and become harmless ghosts.”
...My mouth is water, your mouth is fire:
May my mouth extinguish your mouth,
May the curse of my mouth extinguish the curse of your mouth,
May the plot of my heart extinguish the plot of your heart!
The final section of the short version of maqlu deals with the disposing of the remains of the witches. In this case the charred and washed out figurines. “A mountain stone is placed on the brazier containing the charred and sodden remains of the statues. The speaker here expresses the wish that the mountain confine and pulverize the witches,” said Abusch.
May the mountain cover you,
May the mountain hold you back,
May the mountain pacify you,
May the mountain hide you,
May the mountain enshroud you,
May the mountain turn you back
May the mountain pulverize you...
During the final incantation “A circle of flower is linked out and the speaker commands the ghosts to depart and adjures them never to return,” said Abusch.
Be off, be off, begone, begone,
Depart, depart, flee, flee!
Go off, go away, be off, and begone! ...
“The ashes from the brazier are then cast out through the gate, thus the witches are separated from the (community).”
An evolving ceremony
Professor Abusch’s research indicates that over time this short 10 incantation long ceremony evolved into a 100 incantation long ritual. It started in the night and went into the dawn. It was carried out during the month of Abu, that’s July/August “a time when spirits were thought to move back and forth between the netherworld and this world,” said Abusch.
“The main activities of the ceremony are the recitation of the incantations and the performance of such rites as burning of figurines, fumigation... washing, disposal and protection against future attack.”
The start of the ceremony is beautifully written:
I call upon you, Gods of the Night,
With you I call upon Night, the veiled bride,
I call upon you Twilight, Midnight and Dawn...
The ceremony also ends on an interesting note. As the sun rises, and a new day begins, the plantiff washes and welcomes the morning.
At dawn my hands are washed.
May a propitious beginning begin (the new day) for me,
May happiness and good health ever accompany me,
Whatsoever I seek, may I attain...
“Not only does washing cleanse one of evil, it also serves as an act of punishment and revenge for it carries the evil back to the one who initiated it,” said Abusch.


  1. The Asipu were not created merely for the reason of exorcism. They were a high class that dealt with difficult decisions and problems.

  2. Very interesting in that the Biblical Hebrew word for sun transliterates as "shemesh." The extent to which the proto-Aramaens developed their theology/soteriology vis-a-vis the practice of witchcraft in their communities is an area of interest for me.

  3. 40 years ! Witch hunting and exorcism did not change much ,ask anyone from Salem Mass. the only change in venue was to burn the accused instead of a representation. WOW think some other documents survived ? Flour/Flower ? SALT now that has power!

  4. @cvnxme: No one was burned at Salem...