Witchcraft in Ancient Mesopotamia

Posted in: Ancient Near East Today, ASOR
Tags: Ancient Near East, Archaeology, Babylonian, Daniel Schwemer, Europe, Mesopotamia, Where witches real?, Witch hunt, Witchcraft, Witchcraft in Ancient Mesopotamia, Witches, Würzburg University

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By: Daniel Schwemer

Belief in witches was as widespread in Mesopotamia as it was in Europe. Incantation and ritual texts preserved on cuneiform tablets provide a vivid image of witchcraft in 2nd and 1st millennium Mesopotamia. But a closer look reveals fundamental differences between Babylonian witches and their European counterparts. 

Cuneiform source of an anti-witchcraft ritual. Hand-copy by D. Schwemer.

Court records of witch trials and theological treatises are key sources for studying witchcraft beliefs in Medieval and early modern Europe. In contrast, very few texts of this kind have survived among the ever-increasing number of cuneiform texts from ancient Mesopotamia. In both places witchcraft was a well-known cause of illness and harm. But the Mesopotamian texts that provide insight into fear of witches and the workings of witchcraft do not come from courts of law, but from the ‘book shelves’ of healing experts.

A large body of cuneiform texts provides first-hand information on the remedies and rituals used by Babylonian and Assyrian experts to cure illnesses, avert calamities, and protect people from harm. These magical and medical texts are usually written in Akkadian, the main Semitic language of ancient Mesopotamia, though incantations in Sumerian and other languages are also used.

The Tablet of Shamash from Sippar (ca. 888-855 BC), showing Shamash the sun god seated beneath astral <a href=(more…)

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