A little while ago an unexpected thing happened to me. While happily going about my research, I recalled something I’d read not long after I started working for the CREWS Project – a reference to a Mesopotamian family who worked as exorcists. I’d always found this a fun concept and tweeted about it. And, well… it turned out a lot of other people liked this idea too.
For a while now I’ve been meaning to dig up the original reference and write something about Mesopotamian exorcists that had a more solid foundation than my off-the-cuff and hazy memories. This is good material for a CREWS Project blog post, because the link between writing and exorcism in ancient Mesopotamia was much closer than you might expect. And what better time than Hallowe’en? Draw the curtains, make your incantations against Pazuzu and rotate your heads 360 degrees (don’t really do this) as we take a trip into the demon-haunted and bewitched world of Mesopotamian exorcism.
In the ancient Near East, witchcraft and demons were very real worries. If misfortune inexplicably befell you, if you got ill or if your animals were acting strangely, the chances were that either a human sorcerer or some fearsome demon had it in for you. Mesopotamian folklore is filled with creatures like the rabiṣu – ‘the Lurker’, ‘The Fog’, ‘the Strangler’ and more. I’ve already alluded to the book and movie The Exorcist, which more than anything else has probably shaped the popular image of the profession. It’s telling that this film and its sequels look to ancient Mesopotamia for their star demon: the entity which possesses the unfortunate Regan is identified as Pazuzu, a very real (or at least, very believed-to-be-real; you know what I mean) Mesopotamian wind demon.
With all these dangers, it’s no surprise that exorcism was a flourishing profession in Mesopotamia and other parts of the Near East. Exorcists could be affiliated with temples and might be involved in some aspects of regular cult, but generally they worked with private clients – in fact, usually only they and their client would be present during a ritual. This could last a few hours or several days, and would usually involve incantation and prayers in which the exorcist both addressed the evil being cast out and invoked benevolent forces for aid. These might be gods or they might be something less animate: an exorcist could call on oil or fire, for example. Alongside this spoken element, there could also be physical practices such as the use of incense and amulets, or tying and untying knots. The aim of the exercise was often to transfer the evil into an inanimate object such as a piece of wool or a figurine, which could then easily be disposed of.
The most detailed exorcism-ritual we have documented is known as the maqlû – The Burning – and probably describes a single complex ceremony from the first millennium BC in order to deliver them from the unwelcome attentions of evil sorcerers. It seems one performance of it occurred in 670 BC on the estate of a high-ranking person, possibly even for an Assyrian or Babylonian king. The ceremony started at night, by invoking the Gods of Night and burning representations of witches.
I raise up the torch and burn the statues of
the demon, the spirit, the lurker, the ghost,
and any evil that seizes mankind.
Dissolve, melt, drip ever away!
May your smoke rise ever heavenward,
May the sun extinguish your embers,
May the son of Ea, the magus (of the gods), cut off your emanations.
Maqlû tablet I, 135-143. From Abusch 2002, 17.
During the course of the night, rituals would continue, centred on the patient’s bedroom. This included anointing with oil, the drawing of magic circles, and the setting-up of magical objects around the room. At dawn, the doors would be opened and the patient ritually washed themselves. All of this was accompanied by appropriate incantations, which would first turn the black magicians incorporeal, then destroy their remains and expel their ghosts.
This all sounds reasonably familiar from the modern popular image of magic and exorcism. What might be seen as odd is that it was, in a sense, a specialisation within scribal training.
We know a lot about how writing was taught in the ancient Near East. We have a lot of information about Sumerian and Old Babylonian education in particular (late third and early second millennia BC), but also quite a bit from the end of the second millennium at sites like Ugarit, and from first-millennium Assyria. There are certain differences across this great span of time and distance, but also a lot of overlap, which indicates that we’re dealing with a fairly standardised and conservative educational tradition. Scribes would begin their training at a young age, either in schools known as edubba (in the earlier periods) or through apprenticeships with established scribes, often in their homes (in later periods). Learning often involved copying word-lists or sample passages in a variety of genres.
Once trainee scribes had mastered the basics of reading and writing, they were given the opportunity to specialise in one of three branches of the scribal arts, which tells us a lot about the kind of work literate people would be expected to carry out once their education was complete. They could learn divination (bārūtu) – interpreting divine omens or questioning the gods on behalf of petitioners, lamentation (kalūtu) – appeasing angered gods by chanting, or exorcism (āšipūtu) – making safe supernatural evil by transferring it into an inanimate object
Our word ‘scribe’ can be misleading, then, conjuring images of subservient secretaries, taking down their masters’ instructions or recording engaged in tedious administrative bureaucracy. Certainly that could be an aspect to the life of the ancient literate, just as the soul-crushing office grind can be a part of modern professional life. But scribal training was also a gateway into intellectual life. This could include genuine scholarship, religious or political office or prestigious practical roles such as being an exorcist. A reasonable modern analogy might be to the medical profession – practical, but revered and rewarded, the result of a ‘higher degree’ that required additional years of advanced study. And just as medical consultants might also be involved in research, Mesopotamian exorcists could also explore the theoretical and intellectual side of their profession, acting almost as theologians as well as practical practitioners.
Looked at that way, scribal education makes sense as a foundation for advanced and potentially esoteric studies. But did exorcists – or diviners and lamentation-priests, for that matter – actually use writing in their day-to-day lives?
Well, this brings us back to that family of exorcists.
I think what I was thinking of was a family that lived in Sippar on the east bank of the Euphrates in the 6th-5th centuries BC, as described in a chapter by Michael Jursa in the Oxford Handbook of Cuneiform Culture (so I was wrong in my tweet – they were Neo-Babylonian, not Old Babylonian). Members of this family held a number of senior religious offices and associated jobs, as well as a good deal of property. And yes, they also worked as exorcists. They had their own archive of around 300 cuneiform tablets, which gives us a very good idea of how they put writing to use. Two-thirds of the tablets were economic in nature, dealing with the management of the family business, their landholdings and taxes. The other hundred or so tablets were magico-medical, including incantations, recipes and prescriptions for dealing with various ailments, both earthly and demonic. As priests and public intellectuals went, though, the family was at the lower end of the wealth bracket. Reading and writing might have had the potential to elevate you into the intellectual and religious world, but it didn’t automatically bring great riches – which might explain why family members did so much freelance exorcism alongside their regular priestly day-jobs.
So, being an exorcist was a complex business. In part, it was the acceptable face of witchcraft – properly trained, working for good and harnessed to the religious establishment. In that respect, there’s a lot of overlap with our modern popular view of exorcists as odd priests working at the weirder margins of organised religion. Many of the rituals, from magic circles in white powder to vehement demands for the evil to depart, are also familiar from modern ideas of how to handle dangerous supernatural forces. But Mesopotamian exorcism wasn’t obscure, exotic or disreputable. These people were also scholars and intellectuals, literates trained to an advanced level in the scribal arts, who kept used writing to record ritual prescriptions and spells, but also to manage their businesses. As ever with the ancient world, the weird and the mundane coexist and overlap, no real distinction between them.
Abusch, T. 2002 – Mesopotamian Witchcraft
Charpin, D. 2010 – Reading and Writing in Babylon
Jursa, M. 2011 – ‘Cuneiform Writing in Neo-Babylonian Temple Communities‘ in Radner & Robson (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Cuneiform Culture, 184-204.
~ Philip Boyes (Research Associate on the CREWS project)