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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Mesopotamian Magic in the First Millennium B.C.

Two thousand years after the end of the Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian empires (ca. 883–539 B.C.), it can be difficult to grasp Mesopotamian magic as a cultural concept. Steeped in the philosophical traditions of Western dualism, we often view magic in a binary relation to religion, yet no such distinction existed in Mesopotamia. For people living in ancient Iraq and the imperial peripheries in Syria, Anatolia, and Iran during the first millennium B.C., magic was a part of everyday life. Far from being considered irrational, it was the guiding principle by which Mesopotamians understood various natural phenomena and their positive and negative consequences. For example, celestial omens could reveal the Assyrian king to be in imminent danger, or portend fortuitous circumstances in war. Magic could also be used to combat the negative actions of ghosts, demons, and human sorcerers, as well as protect against the curse (Akkadian mamitu) that resulted from unknowingly committing a sin, and thus losing the favor of one’s personal god or goddess. The responsibilities of a Mesopotamian magician could come under the umbrella of a number of specialties that we might refer to as magical, scientific, medical, literary, and religious.

During the first millennium B.C., expert practitioners of magic performed rituals and practiced other facets of magic production in private and public contexts. Our knowledge of these practices comes from extensive cuneiform records that preserve descriptions of these specialists, their technical knowledge, the spells they recited, the medicinal substances they made, and the knowledge necessary to interpret signs in the natural world. Under the direction of the Assyrian kings, many of these spells and practices became standardized, and texts were formalized into several canonical series referred to as “handbooks,” many of which were recovered from the famous Library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh and from the city of Sippar, one of the great Mesopotamian centers of learning.

These handbooks give us the names and responsibilities of various kinds of magical practitioners. Experts called ashipu (41.160.234) were responsible for performing all nonprivate magical acts in elite contexts, such as funerary and mortuary rites, or renewing images of the gods on behalf of the king. The ashipu could also act as an advisor to the Assyrian king. Additionally, physicians, or asu, could treat people suffering from ailments using salves and other remedies, but would also practice their trade alongside the ashipu in ritual performances (86.11.130). Finally, diviners, or baru, solicited omens from gods and interpreted the resulting signs. Often, this was done through a practice known as extispicy, the action of reading the entrails of a sheep (86.11.378b), or reading celestial and terrestrial phenomena. The baru typically worked for the Assyrian king as either a court scholar or a member of a military retinue. All these specialists were the beneficiaries of years of training and centuries of knowledge production. Many of the incantations and their attendant rituals—recorded in such places as the Maqlu texts, a collection of antiwitchcraft rituals dating back to the Old Babylonian period (ca. 1894–1595 B.C.)—were passed down in secret over the course of several centuries.

In addition to texts and ritual practices, there were objects that worked alongside, or independently of, textual traditions. Images were believed to have been enlivened and capable of acting of their own independent wills. Hence, objects were also used to magically avert many crises. The size of these objects varied. They could be small enough to be held in one’s hand or significantly greater than lifesize—and everything in between. Monumental sculptures were carved and installed throughout the palaces of the Neo-Assyrian capital cities. The lamassu (32.143.1)—massive, winged composite creatures with the head of a man and features of a bull or lion—guarded gateways to throne rooms and other important spaces and routes throughout palace complexes. From the front, these creatures appeared as steadfast guardians of what could be a potentially fragile or significant threshold; from the side, the creative execution of the legs gives the illusion of a striding beast ready to move against any metaphysical enemy. Neo-Assyrian kings had the benefit of populating their palaces with a panoply of monumental mythical creatures for protection and favor, like the powerfully muscled, eagle-headed hybrids carved in stone from the Northwest Palace at Nimrud (32.143.7). Also shown striding in profile and decorated in a rich array of jewelry with divine connotations, creatures such as these were associated with purifying rituals and the wisdom of the antediluvian sages. The multivalent powers of these supernatural creatures were meant to bolster and protect the king’s reign.

In contrast to these monumental reliefs, people from humbler circles used more modest clay figurines as a means of guarding their homes. Found at a number of Neo-Assyrian sites—including Ashur, Nineveh, Nimrud, and Babylon—these clay figurines were made in the forms of gods, animals, and hybrid creatures (54.117.24; 54.117.25; 54.117.26). These objects were deposited in boxes beneath the floors of homes in locations believed to be the most accessible to malevolent spirits: corners, doorways, and other permeable thresholds between the human realm and the underworld. Since this level of the earth was thought to be vulnerable to malevolent spirits, ancient Assyrians conversely used this space to insert representations of benevolent spirits made from clay (one of the primordial materials of creation) to avert evil in perpetuity. Figurines of dogs (54.117.23) in clay or bronze were also deposited beneath the earth, and in some cases they were inscribed with explicit instructions to act on behalf of the persons for whom they were carved or cast. Dogs in particular were associated with healing goddesses, notably Gula (“The Great One”), who was often addressed as a great physician. Gula was often invoked in healing rituals and incantations, and the image of the dog was emblematic of her protective and healing presence (1989.233).

The human body was also considered susceptible to harm from demons and other malevolent forces, so various adornments were created as a safeguard against such events. Small pieces such as amulets depicting the demon goddess Lamashtu (1984.348), who attacked pregnant women and infants, and pendants of the ferocious wind demon Pazuzu (1993.181) would have been worn by a person as a form of portable protection. These amulets show, in miniature, the creatures whose powers the amulet was meant to deflect. In the case of Lamashtu, her image was often surrounded by depictions of ritual offerings and an incantation appealing to the powers of beneficent gods, possibly to neutralize the harmful effects of this vicious, sickness-inducing demon. Furthermore, the materials used for the creation of amulets and other magical adornment was not random, but followed culturally meaningful practices of production. Texts from the first millennium B.C. tell us which stones were appropriate for various magical and prophylactic purposes (86.11.64). The portability of small-scale, magically efficacious materials would have meant that the average Mesopotamian could have carried a bit of magical protection with him or her everywhere—which was especially necessary in a world beset by everyday dangers.