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The Magic of Babylon


Magic was an integral part of everyday life in Babylon and the whole Mesopotamian region in ancient times. This essay covers the various types of magic which were performed then.

The traditions, conventions, crafts etc. we know from the World of Darkness rules books for the most part did not exist at that time, but there were precursors. Magicians were much more accepted (and feared) than today, and magic was still part of consensual reality.

For the purpose of this essay, hedge magic, true magick and thaumaturgy will not be differentiated. The following types of magic are all more or less covered by hedge magic paths you will find in "World of Darkness: Sorcerer". The spheres from Mage will also do the trick, and vampiric or mummy thaumaturgy can also be adapted for it. All magical styles should be able to copy these forms of magic, and they should, in the case of True Magick, be considered coincidental if the appropriate rituals are observed.

As a side note, magic pervaded daily life to a degree that even mundane people will have dabbled in it - curses can be uttered, warding gestures made, etc. This should be considered an application of True Faith, maybe connected to the expenditure of Willpower. Magic was stronger in those days, and even mundanes could sometimes make it work.

While some magic, such as the use of herbs for medicine, may actually work even in our scientific paradigm, most of the following magic will be seen as superstition in our days. But for roleplaying purposes, treat everything as if it could actually work.

While I use male forms mainly in the following text, there is nothing to indicate that women could not also practice magic. Priestesses were known, and magic rituals would have been theirs to perform. Specific mention of evil sorcerers and sorceresses is made, and it seems only probable that women were also capable of benign magical effects.

1. The gods and the stars

Two concepts are inseparable from all kinds of magic in Mesopotamian culture: the gods and the stars. All magic is connected to one, the other or both.

Magic rituals were often connected to the invocation of the gods who were likened to star constellations observed in the night sky, the planets, or the sun and moon. For the purpose of this setting, the gods correspond not the vampires using their names but to the actual divinities and thus are a matter of faith. This makes for two things: first, the magic may still work after the fall of the gods of the cities, and second, the magic may work for the gods of the cities themselves. It is a matter of faith that the actual gods have moved from earth to the skies and are identical to certain constellations, planets or other phenomena: Anu, Enlil and Ea are represented by the whole sky, having their three regions staked out on the night sky the so-called Paths of Anu, Enlil and Ea respectively; Venus is Inanna / Ishtar in her female aspect as morning star and goddess of love, Mercury is the same god(dess) in her male aspect as evening star and god of war; Mars is the destroyer and god of pestilence Nergal; the Moon is Sin / Nanna, the sun is Shamash, and both are male gods; Marduk was Jupiter. The names for gods and planets can be used interchangeably.

The stars are seen as mediators between gods and men. They do not, however, influence everything as they do in modern astrology. This school of thought has yet to develop. Rather, the stars may influence things if asked for assistance. They may also portend things to come, guard against evil etc. The stars are prayed to, usually accompanied by a hand-lifting gesture.

While individual stars are often used in incantations, it is also possible to address the stars as a whole as those who see everything (at least at night). The stars are the 'brightly shining gods who are judges'. It is important to keep in mind that specific stars or planets may not be visible every night. For instance, the constellation of the pleiades, which was identified with a corn stalk, drops under the horizon for a period of roughly half a year, the time for harvest has come; the time to sow the new seeds begins when the constellation returns to the night sky. In between, prayers to these stars cannot have any effect, as the stars are not in the heavens at the time.

2. Plant magic and medicine

One magical tradition which was quite widespread in Mesopotamia is that of the herbalist. Herbalists had access to long lists of plants which gave the names of plants, how they were to be prepared and what ailments they were to be used for and in what way. Plants could be administered 'as is' or chopped, ground, as a potion with beer or oil, as a poultice etc.

Yellow saffron - for constricted bladder - to chop, to administer as a potion in fine beer
Garlic - for the same - to chop, to administer as a potion in oil or in fine beer
Pistachio herb - for the lungs - to chop, to administer as a potion without chewing
Dog's Tongue - herb for cough - to press out its juice and administer as a potion

Plants were seen to come in two varieties: male and female. This is not connected to any actual sex, but rather refers to potency, with 'male' usually referring to greater potency. The potency could be affected by the place where the plant grows and by the time it was harvested.

The herbalists did not only have to know his herbs but also when best to harvest them and had to observe the correct rituals when doing so. Also, there was a correct time when to administer the medicine to the patient. This timing was usually connected to celestial phenomena.

Ritual prescriptions included time and mode of harvesting, for example:

Look for a gourd which grows alone in the plain;
when the sun has gone down,
cover your head with a kerchief,
cover the gourd too,
draw a magic circle with flour around it,
and in the morning, before the sun comes out,
pull it up from its location,
take its root.

Often, the plant or its root may not be exposed to the sun or daylight at any time. The magic circle is a kind of thanksgiving ritual to make the plant well-disposed towards the herbalist. Sacrifices of water, oil or any other stuff may also be used. The plant may also be addressed in speaking, asking it to give up its life or part of its substance for benign purposes.

Plants growing in remote places such as on mountains may be seen as more potent than easily collectable plants. In addition, plants on mountains are nearer to the stars and thus more potent.

While herbs were used as medicine, they could also assist in diagnosis. Irritating herbal substances could be used in poultices, and the outcome after wearing such a poultice for a period (e. g. three days), was then studied and interpreted. For example, a blister formed under such a poultice on a man with digestive problems was interpreted in regard to its colour:

If the blister is white, his intestines will quiet down;
if it is red, his intestines 'hold too much heat';
if it is green, the affliction is due to overexposure to the sun;
if it is black, the affliction will cause him suffering and he will not live.

For medicinal purposes, two different types of magicians were consulted. One was the Ashipu, a ritual magician whose task consisted of warding rituals, incantations, and the actual diagnosis; the other was the Ashu, whose domain was the actual treatment which was prescribed by the Ashipu.The Ashipu made the preliminary work of finding out just what the affliction was and how it was to be treated, while the Ashu prepared the medicine or magical rituals which were then administered to the patient.

Medicine was not solely herbal; ground minerals, charms, amulets and exorcisms were also used. The latter was especially used against such illnesses as were attributed to malefic ghosts or magic; later chapters will deal with these.

Another interesting ritual involved first calling upon the most recently deceased relative, and then transferring the illness or black magic to the spirit to take back into the underworld. The recently deceased were supposed to be able and have the responsibility to take the burden of the sins of those left behind with them.

3. Divination

Divination is another important facet of magical practice in Mesopotamia. It is, however, important to note that predictions were not necessarily made to find out what was inevitable, but it was believed that the predicted future could be changed by observing the appropriate rituals in many cases. Magical countermeasures could be undertaken to avert ill omens (see next chapter).

One basis for predictions were portentuous happenings. This could be celestial phenomena such as moon or sun eclipses (which were themselves predicted), natural phenomena such as thunderstorms, earthquakes or floods, but even everyday occurences such as creaking pots (no joke!). Long lists of 'If X happens, then Y will be the outcome' exist. Probably a diviner's task was to keep an open eye for occurences and subsequent happenings. While there may not be a cause-and-effect relation between portent and outcome, for magical purposes the connection in the magician's mind is sufficient. This has some impact on coincidental magick: while in modern times a repeated conicidental effect eventually becomes vulgar, repetition here may in fact generate a self-sustaining coincidental effect, if it is recorded and spread among diviners (called Baru in Mesopotamia).

Early divinatory practices included observing the shapes oil formed on the surface of water or the coils of smoke rising from incense or a fire. Foremost is the reading of the future from the innards of sacrificial animals, mostly the lamb. While a variety of organs was used for that purpose, the liver stands out; stones in the shape of lamb livers are preserved with inscriptions stating the regions and meaning inscribed on them. Of course, this method was not for poor people who could not afford the ritual slaughter of a lamb. Most of these had to make do with the portents they encountered.

A special group of diviners were called Tupshar Enuma Anu Enlil which translates as 'Writers (of the omen series entitled) 'When Anu and Enlil...'. Such diviners were common at every court and were chief counsellors to kings. It is safe to assume that the gods of the cities also had their Tupshars. The Tupshars predicted celestial events from eclipses to moonrise and moonset etc. and interpreted their portentuous content.

Necromancy, asking the spirits of the dead (mainly the most recently deceased relative) for counsel, was also common in Babylon. These spirits were called Etemmu. The necromancers themselves were called Manzazuu or Sha'etemmu. The dead are considered to be closer to the gods and thus know things and can utter warnings about things to come.

The patron god of the Baru is Shammash, the sun god. He is usually invoked before a divination takes place. Another tradition uses all the stars at patrons; the Baru has to pray for to the stars a full night before finally undergoing the actual divination ritual in the morning.

Divinations for answers to specific questions were often done in a yes-or-no fashion. This was also a means used by people who did not have the resources to call upon a Baru's services. For example, a prayer was spoken to a star or a god asking for a specific dream vision. The sign would be specified in the prayer, for example 'if I receive something in my dream, I will succeed; if I give something, I will fail'.

Of course the interpretation of dreams is another topic filling numerous lists of cuneiform tablets. Another way of finding yes-or-no answers was pouring water over the head of an animal and observing if it reacted or not. Other binary decision helpers have been used; usually this was accopmanied by a prayer to gods or the stars.

Double-checking was not uncommon. If one Baru said something, it was possible that another was consulted to see if he came to the same conclusions. In addition, it was possible to send something of the first Baru (e. g. a hair, a thread from his clothing and son on) to another to get a divination about his abilities.

Portents are not related in level to the means of acquiring them. Simple omens can portend dire consequences, while night-long, complicated rituals may only yield inconsequential predictions.

4. Warding rituals

All sorcery was the domain of the god Ea. Ea therefore was usually prayed to when an omen was to be dispelled.Certain rituals were included in the omen lists; these rituals were countermeasures, to be performed when a certain omen predicted a certain ill effect. Rituals against 'all evil' were also known. Many rituals go hand in hand with sacrifices of drink, food and other things.

The word for such warding rituals was 'namburbu', which translates as 'the loosing'. Such rituals may have been simple gestures or short utterances for everyday omens at home (such as saying 'bless you' when someone sneezes), which could be performed by everyone.

A ward can also be an amulet of stones (see below) or other magically imbued objects, such as bird heads.

Not every omen could be averted. There are no known rituals against omens resulting from the reading of oil shapes on water or smoke curls. While body language, greeting formulas etc. exhibited by a person could be portentuous, their outcome could not be influenced. likewise, if a magic ritual performed to diagnose an illness, the outcome could not be changed by magical means, although a magical treatment of the illness was still possible.

Warding is only effective against such omens as give warnings.

An example: when a fungus portending evil appears on a wall in a house, the following ritual is to be observed: a male goat is to be sacrificed before the Pleiades (visible and thus available only half a year!), while a prayer to the seven gods / stars in the constellation is uttered, and a yellow she-goat is sacrificed to Gula, goddess of healing, whose constellation is Lyra, the Goat star.

Warding can also be done against black magic (see next chapter); an extensive ritual called 'Maqlu' - 'Burning' is known, which begins with a prayer to the gods of the night and lasts for a whole night.

5. Black Magic

Black magic is the use of magic to evil ends. Although such magic is punishable by death, there are practitioners of the black arts of cursing and enchanting. Male sorcerers of that type are called Kashshapu, females are Kashshaptu.

Black magic is often connected to stars as well. The rituals involve elements known from sympathetic magic such as voodoo and witchdraft. Often, figurines or dolls resembling the victim and often containing a piece of the victim's body or clothing are presented to the stars, accompanied by a curse (Kishpu). Likewise, food, water, ointments etc. may be cursed and then given to the victim.Especially attacks on the physical and psychological health of the victim are commonplace. It is safe to assume that the rituals mimick the desired effect. For example, to put someone to death it would be advisable to bury a figurine of the victim in the grave of a dead person.

Black magic may also affect the spirits of the dead which may be called from the underworld and bound to living persons whom they haunt and make ill. Some of these spirits may qualify as spectres rather than wraiths, although the number of mindless and easily manipulated drones in comparison to wraiths is very high (see the accompanying text on the Babylonian Underworld). Against such evil spirits exorcisms are performed.

There are special days which are considered dangerous (such as Friday 13th), namely the 7th, 14th, 19th, 21st and 28th of each month (a month being closely connected to the moon and beginning on the first day after new moon). Various other days and occurrences are considered bad, especially in regard to food and sex. So, on the 7th day of month 7 one may neither eat fish and leeks nor have intercourse with one's wife because such acts will anger the gods. While this is not strictly black magic it is surely a way to curse oneself (remember the self-fulfilling effect mentioned above).

6. Stones and amulets

The role of stones in Babylonian magic is comparable to the role of herbs. Stones can have magical properties which are also collected on long lists. The names of most stones are quite obscure; possible connections between stones and related effects can easily be taken from modern day books on the subject.

Stone, precious or not, could be used for figurines and statues who then had magical properties (e. g. guarding a place). Various metals such as gold and silver were also considered imbued with such properties. More often, however, stones were used for amulets on a piece of string or tendon (which in itself might be part of a charm) or could be tied onto the body with a strip of cloth, usually in the area which was supposed to benefit from the influence of the stone. Thus, a stone supposed to remedy stomach cramps might be worn in a bandage around the hips. Stones could be used as remedies and as prophylactic means.

Magnetite is known as a stone evoking the truth; he who carries it is obliged to speak nothing but the truth. Stones may be male and female just as herbs; this applies especially to the tone of colour, paler colours being female and usually less potent.

The power of the stones is supposed to be derived from the stars. Amulet stones are exposed to starlight over night to be 'charged', there is no connection to spirits as was usual in other cultures.

7. Other magic

Some of the various states of magic practiced at later times are not extant in Mesopotamia. For example, there is no alchemy; this art is not known yet. On the other hand, the animistic view (i. e. adoration of spirits rather than gods) has been surpassed already; there is next to no tradition dealing with this type of spirits (the Middle Umbra). The gods can be seen as manifestations of beings in the High Umbra, while the wraiths from the underworld may also be contacted. As a rule, Hermetic or Dreamspeaker magic may be considered vulgar.

Qabbalistic magic is closely connected to the Hebrew language, but the Sumerians were already well-versed in mathematics - it is known that as early as 2500 BC the Sumerians could deal with equations containing two unknown elements. Some numerological means of performing magic, especially divinations, may have existed. The Technocracy and the newer traditions such as Virtual Adepts and Sons of Ether do not exist yet either, although there obviously are forerunners to the Artificers, and the predilection for the stars may be a hint of early Void Engineer / Celestial Masters - related cults. It is not known whether fighting styles could have been used for magickal purposes Akashic-Brotherhood-style. It is probably safe to assume that this type of magic is vulgar. Ecstatic magic, however, does exist - temple rituals show that as well as some divinatory methods.

Cannabis was well-known to the Babylonians as a herb devoted to Ishtar / Inanna.

Especially within the temples of Inanna / Ishtar sex magic may have been performed.

Marauders and Nephandi both may exist; both will be equally hunted as they are today.

Infernalism is known - infernal investments and disciplines as well as dark thaumaturgy may be used but will be prosecuted as well.An exception may be made in the city of Cutha which may even be a hotbed of Infernalism.

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