Magic in history
A theoretical perspective, and its application to Ancient Mesopotamia
Wim van Binsbergen & Frans Wiggermann


One of the stumbling blocks in the study of religion in Ancient Mesopotamia is that of the theoretical approach to magic. The analyst has a choice of various theoretical positions, each with a venerable ancestry to recommend it. Without trying to be exhaustive, we shall review a number of typical approaches in this connexion. This will make us aware of the specific epistemological and analytical difficulties associated with the various definitions of magic. We propose yet an alternative model, which, however, retains the notions of coercion and mechanicism as habitually associated with magic; and we seek to appreciate these aspects by exploring four interrelated, but mutually irreducible domains in which actors have experiences of control. One of these domains is that of the hegemonic process by which the state imposes its dominance, and since the historical outlines of that hegemonic process are more or less known in as far as the Ancient Near East is concerned, we have the means to situate magic in Mesopotamian history — even if this leaves us with three other dimensions of control which as yet elude a historical treatment. In the first half of this paper we shall present a tentative theoretical framework for such an approach; in the second half we argue its applicability to Ancient Mesopotamia by reference to selected textual evidence. Fully aware that this is only a tentative first formulation of a new theoretical perspective, in the conclusion we review a few topics for further research.

© 1995-99 W.M.J. van Binsbergen & F.A.M. Wiggermann.

Frans Wiggermann is Senior Lecturer, Department of Semitic Languages, Free University, Amsterdam; for bio-bibliographical details on Wim van Binsbergen, see elsewhere in this Website

A much shorter version of this paper is in press in: T. Abusch & K. van der Toorn (eds.), Magic in Ancient Mesopotamia, Groningen: Styx

In this Internet version, we have not been able to retain all the typographical conventions of Assyriology; Assyriologists may appreciate such solutions as we have improvised

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Definition of magic: the descriptive position

The descriptive definitional approach to magic has been by far the most popular in the context of Ancient Mesopotamia. 2 This approach takes ‘magic’ as a relatively self-evident term, by which we may conveniently label genres of texts, and identify the practices referred to or implied in those texts as ‘magical’: curses, incantations and spells; divination; human attempts at interaction with invisible beings of a minor order (‘demons’); charms, amulets, talismans; and finally cures involving materia medica whose imputed effects are not corroborated by the natural science of the twentieth century CE.

The orientation of such an approach is exploratory rather than interpretative and analytical. Hence some the most interesting questions pertaining to the corpus thus designated ‘magical’ remain out of scope: that corpus’ relation with other forms of symbolic production in the same culture, its place in history, the extent to which, and the reasons why, it is secret or public, etc.

One can understand what recommended the descriptive approach in the first, founding phase of assyriology, when the task of opening up the texts, their vocabulary and imagery, and the creation of such basic tools as the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, had to take precedence over more theoretical, analytical and comparative concerns. This approach reveals assyriology as essentially a ‘positivist’ or non-theoretical project. Its acknowledged core activities have revolved around texts and their translation. For the wider historical and sociological interpretation of these texts Assyriologists have relied either on common-sense ideas as circulating in nineteenth and twentieth-century North Atlantic cultured society, or (more rarely) on a highly eclectic and unsystematic selection of conceptual and theoretical positions scraped from a variety of academic disciplines ranging from anthropology to comparative religion and linguistics; just like assyriology, these other disciplines have seen a tremendous growth since the late nineteenth century, but their growth has largely remained without impact on assyriology itself.3

This position has dramatically limited the scope for explanation in assyriology. In any empirical science, including assyriology, if we want to explain an individual case, we do so by generalisation: the case is shown to display certain features, and we argue the applicability to the case of generalisable, systematic relationships between such features as revealed by the study of a number of other cases considered to be similar. In order to be able to do so we need four things:

• a consistent and developed conceptual or definitional apparatus,

• a theory,

• procedures of operationalisation, and

• data.

With the data at long last becoming increasingly available, assyriology can now begin to contemplate the other three necessary steps towards more incisive understanding of the societies of Ancient Mesopotamia. It is in such a context that the present argument, however tentative and preliminary, situates itself.

The error of reductionism

To seek and understand ancient texts and practices involves both

• the ability to appreciate them in their own language and cultural setting, and

• their rendering, as faithfully and subtlily as possible, into a lingua franca of scholarly discourse, where analytical terms (concepts, ideal types, definitions) are employed which on the one hand are arguably (yet always at the cost of considerable simplification) applicable to the case under study, but which at the same time have a wider range of applicability, involving other cultures, other settings in time and space.

In the process, we seek to avoid a number of errors. The translation towards a lingua franca of twentieth-century scholarship should be made in such a way that the culture-specific concepts and practices of our own culture and times are not unduly projected onto the material under study, and the latter should not be evaluated in the light of our own accepted beliefs.

This helps us to appreciate a distinct advantage of the descriptive approach to magic: shunning all theory, it at least keeps us from asking the wrong theoretical questions. In the context of the study of magic the avoidance of ethnocentric projection turns out to be very difficult to achieve and maintain. Many scholars today would consider not the internal ramifications of the magical world-view, or its connections with the publicly mediated religion, with the state, family life and the economy, but the magical nature of that world-view itself, as the most puzzling aspect, the one most in need of explanation. How is it possible, such scholars insist on asking, that otherwise sane and intelligent people could believe in such obvious figments of imagination, and how could they allow their lives to be largely governed by such collective fantasies? This line of religious scholarship has a honourable ancestry, going back to Hellenistic theories on the nature of the gods, and leading to 19th and 20th century attempts to explain away religion, and magic: for instance as products of group life creating the essential conditions for its own emergence and persistence, by arbitrarily endowing certain aspects of reality with sacred qualities (Durkheim); or as products of individual (Freud) or collective (Jung) sub-conscious psychological conditions which regulate man’s functioning by confronting him with images which are as indispensable as they are unreal, etc.4 Certainly in the anthropology of religion, we have reached a stage where the sub-discipline’s basic stance is that of mainly agnostic or a-religious scholars studying the believers’ beliefs and practices with a view of taking them apart, and reductionistically explaining them away.

The point is not at all that we as analysts of ancient religions seek to apply non-religious categories to the religious phenomena under study, and thus try to look for relationships of a correlative or even causal nature between religious and non-religious aspects of a given culture; this is what we can do and must do. The point is that we overplay our hand as empirical scientists when in the process we turn the phenomenon of religion itself into our central explicandum. Scholarship should study aspects of religion in their context; if it seeks to explode that context by reducing religion to some other, supposedly more fundamental, category of being human, we are merely borrowing the authority of empirical science under false pretences — for what we produce in such a case is no longer empirical science but theology or philosophy.

This means that we cannot define magic simply by reference to a cognitive sub-system (‘modern science’) of our own North Atlantic late second millennium CE culture. Frazer’s characterisation5 of magic as pseudo-science is untenable — even if other aspects of the Frazerian approach to magic may yet continue to inspire us, as we shall see below. Taking modern science as our touchstone would reduce the analytical exercise to a simple act of ethnocentric projection on our part, taking for granted the structure of the physical world as portrayed by our own natural sciences, philosophy and theology of today, and evaluating other cultures’ conceptualisation of the world in the light of that criterion.

The descriptive position thus has the redeeming advantage that, taking the ancient actors’ own construction of their world-view more or less as self-evident, it cannot be accused of seeking to impose upon the magical material the dismissively agnostic view of twentieth-century global intellectual culture. But let us hope that the approach to magic in Ancient Mesopotamia as proposed in the present argument, may be equally capable of avoiding such reductionism, while at the same time aspiring to somewhat greater theoretical sophistication.

Anthropological positions6

The understanding of symbolic production in a cross-cultural and / or historical context always involves a negotiation between the alien actors’ views (more or less distant from the analyst in time and space) on the one hand, and the conceptual tools of a community of contemporary scholars on the other. In the anthropological usage introduced in the 1960s, such understanding always involves complementarity between ‘emic’ and ‘etic’ perspectives. This pair of concepts plays on a linguistic analogy: the difference between phonetic and phonemic approaches to language. A phonetic study relies on external assessment, often by natural-science means, of features whose recording does not require one to share the perceptual and evaluative patterning by native speakers; while these do constitute the focus of a phonemic approach. The ‘emic’ approach in other words, tries to arrive at a valid and insightful description on the basis of primarily the local actors’ concepts and symbols, while the ‘etic’ remains external and distant. It is amazing to see the prominent classics scholar Versnel deny this in an otherwise inspiring attempt to revive the debate on magic. 7 He proclaims the etic position as the only tenable one. Coming from a classicist, it would effectively amount to advocating the study of the classics through English translations rather than in the original Latin and Greek. Fortunately, Versnel does not do what he preaches: he makes a point of stressing that the analytical distinctions (‘etic’) which he chooses to impose upon classical magic, coincide with those made by the ancient actors themselves (‘emic’)!

More in general, the task of anthropological understanding is further complicated by the fact that the community of scholars, at least in the social sciences and the humanities, is divided as to the central concepts of its discipline — so further negotiation is required. In this process of negotiation, philologists and historians tend to take a more subtle, more historically informed position than anthropologists. This is one major reason why Oppenheim’s8 plea to bring more anthropology to assyriology, has never worked; the other major reason lies in the a-theoretical and inward-looking nature of assyriology as discussed above.

The social sciences have often been tempted to resort to a rather shallow form of epistemological nominalism, claiming that any concept can be defined in whatever arbitrary way, provided the definition is technically, logically well formed. The aim of anthropological analysis would then be:

• not primarily to convey, with the greatest possible precision, the meaning and structure of an aspect of the culture under study as lived and expressed by the actors themselves, but

• to argue, for that culture, the applicability of some alien, abstractly defined concept.

Within anthropology, a standard way of going about cross-cultural comparison has been to abstractly define, without specific reference to any existing culture, the social phenomenon under study (e.g. ‘patrilineal descent group’, ‘ancestor worship’, ‘magic’); then translate this abstract definition operationally into criteria which would allow us to identify the phenomenon in a number of actually attested cultures where of course it may occur under totally different names or in forms scarcely recognised or institutionalised by that culture’s actors themselves; and finally, to link up the occurrence and non-occurrence of this phenomenon with other phenomena, similarly defined. The advantage is that such an approach involves a number of human cultures at the same time in the context of methodologically falsifiable hypotheses (which for the influential epistemologist Popper9 is the hallmark of science). But its weakness of course is that in the operationalisation the specific actual features of each of the cultures involved are only approximated and often distorted, in order to match the abstract definitions. The historical specificity of each culture (let alone, of each actor) is sacrificed for the sake of an aggregate discussion, and after the enthusiasm for this kind of analysis in the middle of the present century, structuralism and historical research have sufficiently enriched main-stream anthropology to allow us to admit that the results of culture-unspecific, nominal approaches (like those en vogue in the time of comparative structural-functionalism)10 have been very disappointing. Presumably these disadvantages are particularly great in the field of religious studies, where an appreciation of the subtle interplay of multiple references and of superimposed layers of meaning is essential.

In the anthropological study of magic, a few nominalist approaches have dominated the field. We have already referred to Frazer’s approach, highly aggregative in general and almost totally unaware of the implications of cultural specificity and spatio-temporal context, which (on the basis of a now obsolete evolutionist perspective justifying the assumption of comparability within each evolutional phase) projects the same, limited repertoire of mythical and ritual scenario’s all over the globe, and insists on the haphazard comparison of isolated, totally de-contextualised shreds of cultural and mythical material in interminable succession. Satisfied that ‘magic’ is, or represents, a universal concept having to do with man’s attempted control over nature through means which nineteenth-century science claimed to be ineffective, Frazer postulated that such attempts essentially take two distinct forms: imitation and contagion. The distinction appeared to hold true for a great many cultures, and any field-worker could and still can quote convincing examples of contagious and imitative magic from his or her own experience. In retrospect one would say, with Tambiah,11 that the distinction Frazer captured, admittedly felicitously and with rare intuition, reveals not so much ‘traits’ of any one specific culture, nor the universality of ‘magic’ (under whatever local vernacular name) as a cultural category, but far more fundamentally, two major ways in which the human mind can process sense impressions into language: metaphorically, and metonymically. What yet seems to remain of the Frazerian edifice is his emphasis on actors’ notions of coercion and mechanicism as characteristic of magic:

‘Thus in so far as religion assumes the world to be directed by conscious agents who may be turned from their purpose by persuasion, it stands in fundamental antagonism to magic as well as to science, both of which take for granted that the course of nature is determined, not by the passions or caprice of personal beings, but by the operation of immutable laws acting mechanically. In magic, indeed, the assumption is only implicit, but in science it is explicit. It is true that magic often deals with spirits, which are personal agents of the kind assumed by religion; but whenever it does so in its proper form, it treats them exactly in the same fashion as it treats inanimate agents, that is, it constrains or coerces instead of conciliating or propitiating them as religion would do.’ 12

Another, rather less interesting yet immensely influential nominal approach to magic stems from Hubert and Mauss,13 who were so impressed by anthropologists’ and travellers’ accounts of the Polynesian concept of mana (some sort of free-floating, eminently powerful natural life-force) that they formulated nothing less than a universal theory of magic, according to which we have to do with magic whenever the actors in a culture can be shown to believe in a local equivalent of a concept of mana which, needless to say, was de-contextualised and nominally redefined for subsequent anthropological consumption. Whatever the disadvantages of the nominalist approach, strictly speaking we are all party to it from the moment we set out to study, e.g. in the context of Ancient Mesopotamia, not so much ashiputu, barutu, asutu etc., but rather ‘magic’, an alien, imposed concept. Our reliance on ‘magic’, not just apologetically and self-consciously as a loosely descriptive marker, but as an emphatic analytical category, risks to involve the same operational distortion familiar from anthropological cross-cultural studies.

While Durkheim, apparently much influenced by Hubert and Mauss,14 made the concept of magic a cornerstone in his sociologistic theory of religion as being, ultimately, a celebration of the social itself, Malinowski15 became the first major theoretician in anthropology to approach the study of magic on the basis of personal prolonged field-work outside his own society. Malinowski affirmed both the practical rationality of non-European man, and his awareness of the limitations of his knowledge, inducing recourse to practices of personal encouragement and anxiety reduction. Such practices, considered universal by Malinowski, he did not hesitate to call ‘magic’.

In a way, the best informed, and least theoretically warped, use of the concept of magic in the formative years of the anthropological discipline, in Malinowski’s hands, already spelt doom for its future within anthropology. From the centre of the discipline’s attention, it gradually moved to the periphery. Already for Malinowski it was part of a more general concern: man’s psychological make-up, viewed in relation to man’s selective productive interest in nature. Structuralism subsequently allowed us to describe and understand much better the subtle play of metaphor and metonym on which magical rites and imagery revolve,16 but such understanding could be achieved without reserving for magic (as Frazer had done) a truly distinct domain of its own — for the same structuralist methodology was claimed to elucidate myth, ritual, dreams, arts, drama and narrative literature. The 1960s and 1970s saw a number of incisive critical theoretical discussions of the concept of magic in anthropology,17 and from then on the concept was not only impopular but even slightly suspect in the discipline — although very much the same kinds of topics as were earlier covered by the term ‘magic’, would continue to be studied under such more accepted labels as witchcraft, sorcery, rationality, thought processes, and collective fantasies; the continued studies of these topics is often cast in the interpretative framework of the expansion of the money economy, the capitalist mode of production, ‘modernity’ and North Atlantic civilisation. The well-known anthropological collections published in later decades with the word ‘magic’ featuring prominently in their titles 18either mainly reprint much older material, or turn out to hardly discuss magic at all.

An intensive bibliographical search confirms this pattern for the first half of the 1990s.19 On the one hand, historical studies of the magical tradition from Ancient Mesopotamia to modern Europe, the Arabian world, India and Africa continue to be undertaken often with new insights and theoretical positions. 20At the same time there is very little on the topic of magic in contemporary anthropology. One major field of exception consists of highly descriptive ethnography. 21 Another exception consists of the re-publication of classic theoretical statements on the anthropology of magic and reflextions on the history of the concept in anthropology.22

Most of the time, when the word ‘magic’ is being used in titles of scholarly publications these days, it is in a loose metaphorical sense, evoking dazzling effects of sleight-of-hands, 23 particularly of the kinds characteristic of globalising electronic technology and media industry in the late twentieth-century CE. It is the conventionalized, colourful, bowdlerized ‘magic’ (emphatically called thus by its producers) of Walt Disney productions, exuding the proud rationality by which modern technology has captured space and time. Interestingly, this specific form of the actor’s concept ‘magic’ — largely inapplicable when it comes to understanding the magical tradition which started in the Ancient Near East — was already discussed by the anthropologist Hortense Powdermaker in 1951.24

The continuity of the Middle Eastern / European magical tradition

Why do we not simply follow the example of anthropology and do away altogether with the analytical concept of magic?

To abandon the concept of magic with regard to Ancient Mesopotamia would mean denying a historical usage which has persisted over the past two millennia. 25 During almost that entire period first-hand textual evidence concerning the symbolic production of Ancient Mesopotamia had to be lacking since scholarship had no longer access to the cuneiform tablets nor to the language and script for which they had served as medium. Even so, distinct echoes from that symbolic production filtered through to Hellenic and Hellenistic (and ultimately Arabian, Indian and Christian) texts and practices, and here they tended to be subsumed under the heading of a complex actors’ concept, that of ma±geiva: a word deriving from an Iranian linguistic and religious context but under which — by implying, at the same time, a vague category of Chaldaeans whose actual cultural, ethnic, linguistic and religious associations with Ancient Mesopotamia may often have been more fictitious than real — also the afterlife of Mesopotamian magic was subsumed. When, in 1900, R.C. Thompson published The reports of the magicians and astrologers of Nineveh and Babylon, he used the word ‘magician’ not so much in a general, universally applicable abstract sense but in one that, for two millennia, had been used for, among others, Ancient Mesopotamian religious specialists as seen from a European perspective. In other words, Ancient Mesopotamian magic is not just one particular form of magic — it is one of the few original forms of magic as recognised in the European tradition. The history of the concept through Hellenism and Late Antiquity right down to the present day contains much of the European encounter with modes of thought which for two millennia had occupied a central position in esoteric scholarly culture, and which only in the last one or two centuries were relegated to a peripheral position. The continued dominance, in North Atlantic culture, of the Bible with its layers of Ancient Middle Eastern world-views; the survival and even twentieth-century revival of astrology; 26 the tremendous Renaissance success of GHayat al-/Hakim / Picatrix as a medieval re-formulation of Hellenistic magic with a considerable input from Ancient Mesopotamia; 27 the even greater success of geomancy, which with a similar background spread not only to Europe but also to most of Africa, the Indian Ocean region and parts of the New World:28 all this shows that the symbolic production of Ancient Mesopotamia has, albeit very selectively, filtered through to our times. Having been the science par excellence during the greater part of these two millennia (as it was in Ancient Mesopotamia, in the first place), this ancient magical tradition helped to engender modern science. Thus it can even be said to have contributed to the emergence of the intellectual stance from which we are now critically and agnostically looking at that very same symbolic production.

By now our sources, as unearthed and deciphered since the middle of the nineteenth century, have become incomparably more direct, abundant, with far greater time depth, and far more complex, then anything which seeped through in the course of European cultural history. However, to continue to apply the term magic to this newly emerged, puzzling body of assyriological material may be more nostalgic than it is revealing, unless we find a way of accounting for the dynamic historical development of this corpus and for its peculiar position vis-à-vis other ideological stances within Ancient Mesopotamia. This requires looking afresh at the concept of magic.

The comparative and historical position

An obvious way out from the nominalist dilemma of distortion is to compare only cultures that are arguably comparable: that are close to one another, for instance because they share the same region and historical period, use related languages, the same productive technologies etc. Under such conditions of closeness, historical links reduce the operational distortion and make the comparison far more meaningful. In Southern African anthropology this has proved a useful line of comparative studies.29 In this way it becomes much more likely that justice is done to local perspectives and concepts, and that, in the negotiation process between the culture under study and its academic rendering, the inherent logic of the former is not light-heartedly sacrificed. Within one extended region and one extended period, it is often possible to trace in detail the historical ramification of essentially the same cultural complex (e.g. oxen traction, kin endogamy, or magic), and to reveal both its qualified continuity and its response to situationally different social, economic and political conditions within constituent part-regions and part-periods; the result is a greater understanding of the region and its history, and of the cultural complex under study — perhaps even beyond those spatio-temporal confines.

In potential, such a position is historical rather than anthropological, since it concentrates on the differential, largely unpredictable and far from systematic, unfolding of historical concepts and institutions, against the background of other historical processes in the same geographical context. The conceptual perspective adopted tends to lean heavily on that of the historical actors involved, since it is largely in terms of their own perceptions and motivations, and changes therein, that their changing life-world can made sense of.

Ideally, if both our time and the necessary data would be plentiful, this is the kind of study of magic in Ancient Mesopotamia which we would like to undertake. But let us first try and construct a tentative theoretical perspective without which, as argued above, no meaningful explanation could be attempted.

Four domains for the experience of control

We return for a moment to what would appear to be of lasting value in Frazer’s approach, the notion of magic as being coercive and mechanistic. Many students of magic tend to agree, with Frazer, that the concept of magic seeks to describe actors’ ways of conceptualising and effecting control. Such conceptualising can be relegated to a limited number of contexts in which human individuals have primary experiences of control. Let us try to list the most obvious of these contexts here, with implicit reference to the town-dwelling agriculturalists of Ancient Mesopotamia:30

instrumental control, or man’s interaction with nature

volitional bodily control by the emerging self

interactive control, or man’s effect upon his immediate social environment

hegemonic control of, and through, large-scale formal political institutions

instrumental control, or man’s interaction with nature

Through technology man seeks to control nature outside himself, in such activities as hunting, collecting, agriculture, animal husbandry, house construction, pottery, weaving, basketry, metallurgy, and other crafts. At the same time man has an overwhelming experience, certainly in the period indicated, of the limitations of his control: in hunting accidents; crop failure; domestic animals breaking away, attacking their masters, or dying; materials being spoiled, tools breaking, technological problems remaining unsolved, etc. Besides, there is the experience that only a small segment of the non-human world is at all open to human control: celestial and meteorological phenomena, the rhythm of night and day and of the seasons, occur with such rigid periodicity that only with a considerable effort of imagination can man boast to have any influence on these natural phenomena. However, the existence of seasonal and meteorological magic shows that man has been capable of such imagination, and therefore it is perhaps a more valid point to say that, while man created a humanised habitat through clearing, agriculture, irrigation, house construction etc., by the end of the fourth millennium he was nowhere far away from an un-transformed landscape that was virtually unaffected by him.

Although the non-human elements (materials, tools, animals) involved in post-Neolithic technology may conceivably be personalised and addressed in an anthropomorphic fashion, by and large the everyday technical experience in the sphere of production is more likely to represent a factual, mechanistic conceptual domain of its own. It is here, probably, that the notions of instrumentality and coercion originate that many of us would prefer to retain in any approach to magic. If we may adhere to the old definition of man as the tool-maker, such instrumentality could have a very long history indeed, going into many hundreds of thousands of years; but with reference to times before the last few millennia, we can only guess at the specific phases which notions of instrumentality have gone through.

volitional bodily control by the emerging self

The second domain comprises man’s effect on his own body, e.g. motor patterns which may involve wielding tools including arms, the bodily experience of breathing, feeding, eliminating, sexuality, childbirth, nursing, etc. Also here sensations of control are offset by overwhelming experiences to the contrary: of lack of control, through infancy, old age, through lack of experience and of physical strength, or in sleep, drunkenness, fatigue, mental disturbance, sexual arousal, illness, — with death as the ultimate ceasing of all self-control. To modern man, this domain of bodily experience implies a personal awareness of self and at least a partial dissociation between self and one’s own body; yet (as studies in historical psychology have argued)31 the emergence of self and personhood as a distinct, conscious category may well be a relatively recent cultural product, and it would be rash to attribute a universal, basically identical experience of self-control to human beings regardless of time and place, cultural history and human evolution. Meanwhile the hallmark of bodily control is volition, the (however qualified) subjugation of bodily processes to the human will, and this is in principle an experience of control rather similar to the instrumental control exerted over extra-human nature: it resembles the wielding of voiceless and unmotivated tools more than the mobilisation, management or subjugation of fellow humans.

interactive control, or man’s effect upon his immediate social environment

Our third domain involves controlling other people, and being controlled by them, in the face-to-face context of the kin group and the localised community (let us call it the domestic domain), 32 by such social mechanisms as language use, kinship rules and etiquette, the division of labour in productive arrangements inside and outside the kin group, patronage, contracts, formal and informal judicial negotiations, physical violence, etc. Physical violence incidentally is a borderline case in that it applies the forms of instrumentality within the social domain of social interaction — which is precisely why most face-to-face groups based on kinship or co-residence make a point of declaring intra-group violence out of bounds. Somewhat in the same way the even more widespread regulation of sexuality through incest prohibitions within face-to-face kin-groups might be considered an attempt to create a boundary between the social domain of interactive control and that of bodily experience inimical to control. If we may not assume a timeless, constant quality for such actors’ notions as the self and the person, it would be dangerous to characterise the experience of control in this domain as personalistic. But what we certainly can say is that here we meet control as a result of the interaction between humans, which also implies the differential distribution of power and status springing from such interaction. It is here that practices of gift giving, address, negotiation, propitiation, supplication, are found — as ubiquitous forms of more or less oblique interactive control between group members, and as obvious models for the interaction between man and god. The latter in its turn may provide models for the interaction between juniors and seniors, patrons and clients, and between the genders. But while the gods may be models of, and for,33 a group’s most senior members, interactive control is not the prerogative of dominant elders, as is clear from the effective demands babies make upon their environment. Babies’ survival depends on interactive control (through crying, grabbing, sucking and other forms of behaviour triggering adult responses). At the other end of the human life-span, it is interactive control which ensures access to food and shelter, and thus survival, in the case of elders whom old age has rendered unfit for productive work. In general, interaction in the domestic domain entails a rather reticent and uncertain control, a give-and-take based on direct or deferred social reciprocity; it is persuasive, never absolute, and often lacks effective physical sanctions. Again, along with other anthropomorphic features, such reciprocity may be projected onto man’s instrumental action upon nature, without, however, assuming the same indispensability which interactive exchanges have in the small human group. The sphere of interactive control, the closely-knit human group, makes for internal production, circulation of products and consumption within the group, defining various roles and statuses. Access to the latter largely depends not only on gender but also on age, so that group members may occupy them successively in the course of their lives. To the extent to which status differences depend on age, they are rotating with the individual’s climbing years. At the same time, the domestic sphere is the locus of biological reproduction.

hegemonic control of, and through, large-scale formal political institutions

Superimposed upon the interactive, domestic domain we can discern a fourth domain of control, typically associated with a form of organisation centring on formal institutions, such as the temple and the palace. For its own biological and material reproduction this domain is not self-supporting: it feeds upon the product and the personnel of the interactive, domestic domain. For it is from the latter that the human material comes that peoples the formal institutions, even if these do invest in their own reproduction (e.g. through formalised instruction in writing, ritual, etiquette, martial skills) once the personnel has been acquired. The ideological orientation in this fourth domain departs from that of the domestic domain in that hierarchy tends to be absolute and enduring rather than rotative and generational. By the same token, bureaucratic and legal rules rather than kinship obligations govern social relations within the hegemonic sphere. While the hegemonic apparatus consolidates itself it seeks to impose its control ever more effectively over an ever larger number of people involved in the interactive domestic domain. The control it seeks is formal and absolute, and its sanctions often include physical violence leading to loss of life. In short this is the process of state formation, state consolidation, the supplanting of one state by another, and the emergence of imperialism in the history of Ancient Mesopotamia. The hegemonic domain unavoidably imposes severe constraints on the nature and the extent of interactive control in the domestic domain: for whatever product is realised in the latter (basically through instrumental control over nature), risks to be appropriated or destroyed as an effect of hegemonic control; likewise, although biological human reproduction exclusively takes place in the domestic domain, the hegemonic domain appropriates human personnel as captives, soldiers and clerks, as well as destroying humans in military campaigns.

A number of observations may be made at this point.

First, the human experience of control has been always heterogeneous — there is not one original form of control from which all others, including that which we may choose to call magic, are derived. Always we have various idioms of power, which depending of the situation shade over into each other or emphatically contrast with each other.

Secondly, these various experiences of control are intimately linked; within the span of one life, even of one day, people typically operate within most if not all of these spheres. Instrumental control may invoke well-known older academic notions of magic; interactional control may appeal to us as a likely context for the emergence of ancestor worship; the hegemonic sphere may seem to breed fully-fledged gods, distanced from humans and with claims to impersonal, absolute respect. Yet these modes of control, and the ways in which in which they have been conceptualised by actors at the time, do not represent successive stages in an evolutionary scheme, but complementary modes within one and the same time frame, one and the same historic culture. At the same time there is a temporal sequence here, not for reasons of blind evolutionary necessity, but in reflection of the historical fact that technology, personhood, group processes in the domestic domain, and state formation (to sum up our four domains) each have gone through a history (which includes complex interrelations), and each have had an origin. For technology en personhood this origin may go back hundreds of thousands, not to say several million years — to man’s very origins as a species; face-to-face social organisation is likely to have an even more remote origin in Primate socio-biology. But state formation is a relatively recent phenomenon, and its origin coincides with the historical baseline we have chosen, that of the fourth millennium BCE. In this respect it eminently makes sense (archaeologically, for instance) to speak of ‘pre-hegemonic’, without implying an evolutionist’s frame of analysis. The distinctive feature of evolutionism in the social sciences and humanities, of course, does not lie in admitting the well-established facts of man’s biological evolution as a mammal species, but in assuming that the history of human societies, and their comparison, can be understood by reference to the same classificatory and dynamic models that elucidate biological evolution.

Thirdly, for an appreciation of the emergence of magic from the interplay of these domains, it is relevant to look not just at experiences of control, but also at their counterparts: experiences of failure of control, and of the anxiety this creates; here Malinowski continues to be inspiring.

Fourthly, and that is our main point, despite the entanglement of these four spheres, yet it is possible to proceed, in this perspective, from the timeless and universal, to the historical and the specific.

Magic in history

Archaeology informs us on the increasing achievements regarding instrumental control in the various domains of technology. Coming to the second domain, however, it is extremely difficult to gauge historical developments in the field of bodily experience, volitional self-control and self-awareness. With regard to the formation and evolution of the third, domestic domain we are on slightly more solid historical grounds. Finally, with the hegemonic domain history properly begins, since writing, and the bureaucratic power it engenders, is one of the hallmarks of the hegemonic process, certainly in Ancient Mesopotamia; the texts record the ins and outs of the hegemonic process, and the archaeological record fills in the material details.

If magic is an idiom of control, it could in principle refer to any of the four domains identified here, and possibly others which we have overlooked. Given the defectiveness of our historical data on some of these domains, we could not hope of ever writing anything near a full account of magic in history. However, as an idiom of control magic must of necessity be caught up, in one way or another, in the relatively well-attested hegemonic process, which is merely the sustained attempt of one particular form of organised extraction to impose itself upon the domestic communities of a region.

If there is to be a product in the first place, so that the hegemonic domain can appropriate it, the latter’s control over the domestic domain can never be so tight as to destroy the typical forms of interactive control on which domestic productive relationships largely depend. Therefore implied in the very hegemonic process is the continuing existence of an embedded or encapsulated, yet partly uncaptured, interactive logic of control fundamentally irreducible to the hegemonic idiom of control.

The situation becomes even more complicated, and more promising from a point of view of situating magic in history, when we realise that the productive success of the interactive, domestic domain also depends on the extent to which that domain continues to be the social context for activities entailing instrumental control over nature (in the form of production in agriculture, hunting, crafts etc.), while its members pursue volitional bodily self-control (as essential for both material production and biological reproduction).

In other words, the control as pursued in the hegemonic process is necessarily accompanied by various, rival experiences of control which stand on a totally different footing, which express a totally different coherence and imagery (see below), and which refer to contexts and situations of production and reproduction outside the hegemonic domain and (as the very condition for the latter’s success) only partially subjected to it. We submit that these experiences of control in the instrumental, bodily and interactive domain, as alternative domains of action and experience rival to the political domain of hegemonic control, are enshrined in the magic which we have sought to identify and define.

If this theoretical reasoning is correct, we should be able to pinpoint the vestiges and indications of rival forms of control within the very expressions of hegemonic political control which the textual material can offer. And to the extent to which we are capable of writing a history of that hegemonic process, we may also become capable of identifying, decoding, and analysing, magic in history.

Let us stress that these rival vestiges of pre- and para-hegemonic control are embedded within hegemonic ideological expressions. Only a theoretical perspective coupled to a process of textual decoding , of close reading, can throw them in relief. They are therefore merely implicit, not explicit, challenges of the ideological component of the hegemonic process. Of course the hegemonic process may often call for counter-action in the form of passive resistance, rejection, rebellion, civil strife, and groups moving away outside the state’s effective territory. But that is rather a different matter. What we are emphatically not saying is that magic is a consciously rebellious counter-ideology as carried by identifiable subjugated groups; rather, it is a dislocated sediment of pre-hegemonic popular notions of control, which have ended up in the hegemonic corpus.

From structure to contents: magical imagery versus theistic imagery

Thus we have theoretically defined a structural and historical context for magic. Before we now turn to the case of Ancient Mesopotamia in order to apply this theoretical framework, let us finally try to make a few pronouncements about the specific contents, the mythical imagery, that might in principle be characteristic of the four domains of control distinguished here. Here, a note of caution is in order: religious imagery almost by definition lacks a solid anchorage in empirical reality (even though it is ultimately inspired by the latter). Among human symbolic production religion is particularly open to free variation and creativity. Therefore structural aspects may never more than suggest, and never determine, symbolic contents in this field.

The domestic (preponderantly feminine) domain of the production and processing of raw materials (grain, oil, wool etc.) for the immediate family, is also the domain of biological and (as far as socialisation in early childhood is concerned) cultural reproduction. As a mode of production and reproduction, the domestic domain is highly resilient in itself, as well as highly resistant to effective hegemony from the political and economic centre. Even when processes of material domestic production are assaulted and virtually destroyed, — as has been effectively the case in the North Atlantic region in the last few centuries under the impact of urbanisation, industrialisation, proletarianisation and state control over education — the domestic domain remains the virtually autonomous locus of biological reproduction, which even the wilder Orwellian or Huxleyan34 nightmares of human reproduction in a state context have never been able to appropriate. No system of slavery or imprisonment has ever been able to effectively and lastingly replace the human family as a locus of biological reproduction. The domestic domain is also the most obvious context of interpersonal care in times of illness and death. Thus, implicitly, the domestic domain represents a power-house independent from the political and economic centre of the society, and a challenge of the latter’s premises of control. Quite likely, the domestic domain has been one of the main contexts in which the old holistic world-view and a variety of non-hegemonic cults have been preserved. In general the domestic domain has been a major locus of magic, folklore and uncaptured ‘paganism’ throughout human history.35 A similar argument could be made for the relatively outlying, rural sections of Ancient Mesopotamian society, which in effect amounted to domestic communities. These features would perhaps favour a symbolic repertoire highlighting images of fecundity, femininity, continuity, and wholeness.

While rejecting the assumptions of intra-group reciprocity and insisting on a one-way process of extraction based on assumptions of absolute bureaucratic control, the hegemonic domain tends to constitute itself ideologically and mythologically after the model of the domestic domain. It is in the latter that the hegemonic domain finds, and exploits for its own interests, the imagery of legitimate authority, and of justified exchange of material products for immaterial services such as management, knowledge, ownership of means of production, protection, purification and intercession. While in the domestic domain supernatural beings (tutelary gods, ancestors) tend to provide models of, and for, the authority of living senior kinsmen, the function if not the nature of the gods undergoes profound changes when appropriated by the hegemonic domain: for there the gods come to represent the logic of extraction, its inescapability, absolute nature, violence and unaccountability — and from the domestic sphere notions of hierarchy and supplication are hegemonically transformed into an absolute distinction between god and man, into submission and total, impotent dependence.

But the domestic domain is not only subservient to the hegemonic domain; it also forms a context for productive and reproductive activities in which instrumental and volitional modes of control are pursued. Thus the domestic domain essentially mediates between two main models of control, on the one hand a theistic model with personalistic overtones which is pressed into service in the hegemonic process, and on the other a mechanistic, volitional (from the point of view of the actor) and thus coercive model governing the relation between man and nature, and between self and body. Here, personalism and instrumentalism, supplication and coercion may take turns in what is a composite mode of conceptualising control. While the hegemonic idiom would emphasise distance, absolute difference and total submission between god and man, the domestic domain, which also enshrines instrumental and volitional modes of control, would tend towards far greater horizontality, complementarity if not interchangeability between man and nature, between body and consciousness, between person and object; such complementarity would stress the community not only between humans, but also between humans and the non-human aspects of nature involved in human production, while at the same time situating humans also in the context of the bodily processes associated both with production and reproduction. As an expression of the successful negotiation of these contradictions, the term ‘holism’ would seem to sum up the non-hegemonic, domestic idiom.

We have speculated enough. Let us see if the theory presented above gets us anywhere closer to an appreciation of magic in the history of Ancient Mesopotamia.



Magic in Mesopotamia: modes of holism and uncapturedness

Throughout the corpus of Ancient Mesopotamian symbolic production, 36 the evidence of the hegemonic, theistic half of our fundamental contradiction is overwhelmingly present, with references to the king, his works for the gods, and particularly the pious, self-effacing references to these gods themselves, without whose exalted presence and condescending intervention no order or power can exist on earth. Yet inside this collection of ideologically and politically ‘correct’ statements, elements can be detected that fit in only superficially, and implicitly challenge the hegemonic process that lends structure and direction to the royal and priestly extracting process governing Mesopotamian society. Viewed in isolation these embedded elements add up to a holistic world-view in which the boundaries between man and nature are far less strictly drawn than in the orthodox theistic repertoire, and where on the basis of methods manipulating metaphor and metonym, much as described (but wrongly interpreted) by Frazer, man identifies, utilises and redirects the forces around him without divine interference.

It will be argued that these holistic passages, with their alternative view on the sources of cosmic power, are the truncated and re-ordered remnants of a pre- and para-hegemonic world-view, picked up, developed and guarded by specialists applying themselves nominally to the hegemonic order, while in fact channelling an anti-hegemonic sentiment that is actualised in crisis situations in which the theoretically infinite power of the gods fails and man has to take care of himself. Since this holistic alternative to hegemonic power is very close to what would commonly be called magic, we see no objection to applying this term also to the Mesopotamian material, provided that our theoretical stance is not obscured by the use of such a conventional term. It is the interaction between this type of alternative material, and divine rule, that will guide our analysis of the Ancient Mesopotamian ideological system.

Aspects of the hegemonic history of Ancient Mesopotamia

Before we can set out to interpret whatever textual evidence we have in the light of a hegemonic history of magic, let us first sketch the bare outlines of such hegemonic processes as are discernible in the political and economic history of the Ancient Mesopotamia since the late fourth millennium.

In the southern part of the alluvial plains we see the emergence, from that early date, of city states. The organisation of these early urban communities is in the hands of an elite associated with the temple as well as (somewhat later in the third millennium) with the palace and a system of law enforcement. The unifying efforts of these agencies may be detected from the fact that despite evidence of cultural and linguistic heterogeneity in the region at the time, yet the religious and political idioms are unified and more or less constant. One has the impression of an explosively expanding society trying to create a new social order out of the scattered debris of pre-existing organisations (in the fields of kinship and politics) that no longer served its needs. Although the city’s public institutions (temple and palace) demonstrably established themselves as structures of production, extraction and domination, it is the imposition of this complex as a whole upon other, earlier domains of human organisation and activity which marks the hegemonic nature of the process involved. These earlier domains would include: agricultural production; the processing of food in the family which is also the main locus of biological reproduction; petty commodity production; exchange of products between settled and pastoralist elements; etc. Within the social, political and economic life of the society a number of domains become discernible whose interrelationship consists in the fact that one domain (that of temple and palace) reproduces itself mainly on the basis of surplus extraction from the other domains. It is perhaps useful (but no more than that) to designate these domains ‘modes of production’, and their asymmetrical exploitative relationship as ‘articulation’. We note that as a mode of production the temple and palace domain, far from being internally undifferentiated and egalitarian, has its own internal hierarchical structure, from the ruler to lower officials and priests; but all share in the extraction from other, pre-existing domains. At the same time this extraction process, which an outside observer might be inclined to call exploitative, conceals its exploitative nature (and perhaps even the violence facilitating that exploitation) under an effective ideology: that of the city god, for the fulfilment of whose needs man was created in the first place. Even regardless of the conscious legitimation of this structure in religious terms, it is clear that the temple and palace domain delivers an essential service probably well worth the input in terms of surplus extraction: it creates a viable social order ensuring production and security, as well as an urban and ethnic identity that people are proud of.

In the first half of the third millennium the political ideology was centred on the axis: city-god / city-ruler; there is not yet a national state, but the notion of a national religious unity is maintained by the centrality of Eridu and its god E n k i / Ea. The second half of the third millennium sees the development of a national kingship centred on Nippur and E n l i l . When during the second millennium Babylon becomes the uncontested capital of the nation, its god Marduk rises with it; at the end of the millennium the political situation is formalised in a newly created myth, En™uma Elish, in which Marduk’s rulership is made independent of E n l i l .

From the second half of the third millennium onwards there is an ever increasing quantity of evidence relating to the ins and outs of the hegemonic process. The outline of the development of the ideological system stems from (more or less) datable mythological texts linked to archaeological and historical fact, but cannot be discussed here in detail. Our opinions on magic are based less on specific texts, which are often fragmented, hybrid, and undatable, than on a contrastive grouping of the types and themes that dominate the corpus as a whole. Since it is not so much the inner development of magic, but rather its place in the ideological system that interests us here, the loss of historical detail implied by the distant view does not detract from the argument.

The present argument aims at a deep-structural reading and seeks to reconstruct a subconscious level of structuration which as such is not open to conscious reflection by the subjects themselves. A rather similar case is presented by iconography, which also revolves on our external reading of meaning and implications which are seldom explicitly indicated by the actors. Thus, something as abstract as an alternative notion of control should not be expected to have left a precise and detailed textual formulation, the absence of which therefore cannot be construed as an argument against our reconstruction.

From political hegemony to religious concepts

What emerges from the evidence as the religious counterpart of political centralisation, is a centralistic idiom focusing on the god E n l i l . E n l i l , and less prominently the other gods, govern by n a m t a r / shimtu,37 that is by ‘allocating tasks’, ‘determining the fates / destinies’ of gods, man and the universe. An earlier layer of centralisation in the South focuses on E n k i and his city Eridu. It would seem, however, that Eridu was a religious centre, the touchstone of tradition (m e ), rather than a political centre. That the Sumerian King List lists Eridu as the seat of the earliest kingship is undoubtedly an anachronism related to the nature of this text.

In ways which are eminently important for an understanding of Mesopotamian magic as part of a historical process, the concept of n a m t a r / shimtu contrasts with another normative principle, that of m e / partsu. While n a m t a r / shimtu connotes the governmental decisions made by E n l i l , m e / partsu38 evokes an impersonal and timeless order, the non-volitional state of equilibrium which the universe and its constituent parts are subjected to. They are at home in the old religious centre Eridu, and guarded by its god E n k i / Ea. The m e / partsu are not created, but they are simply there as part of the universe; they are the rules of tradition, the unchanging ways in which the world of man and things is supposed to be organised; they can be disused or forgotten, but never destroyed. Together they constitute natural law, a guideline for behaviour untainted by human or divine interference. As an impersonal cosmological principle m e / partsu (and the similar Egyptian concept of ma’at (‘right order’, ‘truth’) 39 would appear to stem from a religious repertoire predating the third millennium and rather of a Late Neolithic signature; early in the second millennium the concept looses its cosmological significance. The idea of a traditional timeless world is less capable of being manipulated for hegemonic purposes than anthropomorphic myth; it fits the loose association of small-scale village societies largely organised by kinship, while the obviously more hegemonic divine government exemplified by n a m t a r / shimtu fits their reorganisation into cities and later a nation.

The opposition of m e / partsu and n a m t a r / shimtu is not just conceptually implied, but turns out to be made explicit in third millennium cosmogony. 40 Herein a cosmic ocean, N a m m a , produces a proto-universe, Heaven and Earth undivided. In a series of stages, all represented by gods, Heaven and Earth produce the Holy Mound (d u k u g ), which in its turn produces E n l i l , ‘Lord Ether’, who by his very existence separates Heaven and Earth. E n l i l , representing the space between Heaven and Earth, the sphere of human and animal life, organises what he finds by his decisions (n a m t a r / shimtu), and thus puts everything into place: the universe becomes a cosmos. Before being permanently subjected, however, the primordial universe (Heaven and Earth) rebels; its representative, a member of the older generation of gods, E n m e sh a r r a , ‘Lord All M e ’, tries to usurp E n l i l ’s prerogative to n a m t a r / shimtu (i.e. prerogative to make decisions). He is defeated by E n l i l and incarcerated in the netherworld for good. The myth can be read as a theistically-slanted argument on two modes of defining order: an immutable cosmological order (m e / partsu) whose unmistakable champion is E n m e sh a r r a , against a protean, individual-centred, volitional, anthropomorphic order, whose champion is E n l i l . The latter reflects, on the religious and mythical plane, the hegemonic process revolving on the imposition and expansion of the centralised mode of production upon an earlier concept of the organisation of social life, production and reproduction.

The tension between divine rule and the universe to be subjugated is the theme of yet another third millennium myth, Lugale. 41 In this myth an alliance of stones is led by A z a g , ‘Disorder’, a version (individualised for the occasion) of a common demon of untimely disease and disorder in general. The stones rebel against having their tasks allocated (n a m t a r / shimtu) by Ninurta, E n l i l ’s strong arm. Needless to say their resistance proofs futile, and the myth ends with a long list of stones, all given their proper functions by Ninurta. The difference between this myth and the one about E n m e sh a r r a lies in the specific moment of mythical time in which the confrontation takes place. Whereas E n m e sh a r r a belonged to the primordial universe that was subjugated when E n l i l organised the cosmos, the stones belong to a periphery of the universe: to rebellious mountain lands that continue to exist. Apparently the universe prior to divine rule and that outside divine rule share a tendency to rise against the prerogatives of the gods of order; and although in each case the rebellion is quenched, the very fact of its occurrence shows that divine rule is not beyond question, and that order is not completely secured. In other words, the way in which the uncaptured elements appear in the symbolic system reveals their continuing existence as a feared anti-social force and a threat to the hegemonic order.

A further development of the relation between universe and divine rule can be observed in Enuma Elish, and will be briefly discussed below, under the heading ‘the nature of Mesopotamian holism’

M e / partsu and the holistic world-view

If n a m t a r / shimtu is the historical agency characterising the hegemonic process of which holism is the prehistoric counterpart, and if the untamed primordial universe of the m e / partsu is subjugated by the same agency, then we are tempted to equate the universe of the m e / par_u with that of holism and magic. In fact there is evidence supporting this point of view.

A first indication lies in the fact that the specialist concerned with magic refers, for the foundation of his art, mainly to E n k i / Ea (and members of his circle: his son A s a l u kh i , the half-god Oannes, and the sage Adapa, whom we shall discuss below). E n k i is the very same god that guards the m e / partsu; in this connection it is also significant that an old form of the word for this specialist, i sh i b , is written with the same sign used to spell m e / partsu.

More important is the Anzu myth 42 in which the monster bird Anzu, who stole the Tablet of Destinies from E n l i l , is confronted by Ninurta, E n l i l ’s son and warrior. When asked for his credentials Ninurta identifies himself as the emissary of the gods that rightfully determine the fates. Anzu, however, is not impressed since he is in actual possession of the Tablet of Fates, which makes his word as powerful as that of E n l i l and enables him to rule the m e / partsu. By the power of his word (n a m t a r / shimtu) he now performs a trick against his adversary: he decomposes the latter’s arrows into their natural constituent parts which are then sent back to their place of origin:

‘reed that approaches me, return to your thicket
frame of the bow to your forest
string, to the back of the sheep, feathers return to the birds’43

N a m t a r / shimtu here is the power to operate the universe of inanimate things and make them change their normal ways, their m e / partsu, or, in other words, to perform magic. The loss of the tablet of destinies did not affect the gods’ ability to act, only their mastery over nature, and another text explains that the possession of the Tablet of Fates involved the ‘secret of Heaven and Earth’,44 the knowledge of which in fact entails this mastery, as we will see below. Normally this power over nature, symbolised by the possession of the Tablet of Fates, is a divine prerogative, but it can fall into the hands of malicious outsiders like Anzu, who use it for their own purposes. Especially in the Anzu myth E n l i l is surnamed ‘the god, Bond-of-Heaven-and-Earth’ (ilum Duranki). This is undoubtedly no coincidence, but related to the theme of the myth: the epithet denotes metaphorically how E n l i l keeps the universe from disintegrating, rather than a cosmic element that prevents Heaven and Earth from drifting apart. In the same vein Marduk warns that if he leaves his seat of government ‘the rule of Heaven and Earth will be torn asunder’.45 The demons, adversaries of divine rule, are said to tear out the ‘exalted cord, bond of Heaven and Earth’.46

Again, and as concluded above, the hegemonic rule of the gods appears to be not completely secured against the forces of reaction.

The ability to perform magical tricks can also be acquired without possession of the Tablet of Fates. This is the case in the legend of Adapa,47 one of the models of the incantation specialist. Adapa, (E n k i / )Ea’s favourite servant and endowed by him with great wisdom, goes out to the sea one day in order to catch fish for the table of his divine lord, and runs into the fury of the South Wind who nearly drowns him. Adapa reacts with a curse: ‘may your wing be broken’, and indeed, contrary to normal experience, ‘as soon as he had said it, the wing of the South Wind was broken’. By the wisdom given to him by (E n k i / )Ea Adapa has unexpectedly stumbled upon a way to operate nature without divine help, or in the words of Anu considering his decision in the matter:

‘Why did Ea reveal to an imperfect human being
that of Heaven and Earth,
and did he endow him with an arrogant (kabru) heart’

Anu’s speech shows that what we have called ‘the way to operate nature’ is the ‘secret of Heaven and Earth’ (‘secret’ is implied by ‘reveal’ in the previous line), the secret of the universe regulated by the m e / par_u and turned into an insecure cosmos by the hegemonic rule of the gods. Now, since death is among the fates decreed by the gods for mankind and since Adapa is able to dodge those fates, we are entitled to expect that in the end he obtained eternal life. That this is yet not the case is due to his instructor (E n k i / )Ea who exactly at this point closed the book of wisdom by feeding Adapa misleading information. Even E n k i / Ea’s humanism has its limitations, and so has the magic of the incantation specialist: he cannot revive the dead. 48

Theism in the arcane arts of Mesopotamia

The Akkadian ‘secret of Heaven and Earth’ (pirishti shamê u er_etim) which we encountered above in relation to Anzu’s and Adapa’s magic, is exactly parallel to the Latin arcana mundi used to denote magic and divination. 49 This secret recurs in the aetiology of the arts of the diviner, the art of interpreting ‘the signs of Heaven and Earth’.50 In this text E n m e d u r a n k i , an ancient king of Sippar, is called before Íamash and Adad who seated him on a throne of gold, and

‘showed him how to observe oil on water, the privileged property (ni_irtu) of Anu, [ E n l i l , and Ea ], and gave him the tablet of the gods, the liver, a secret (pirishtu) of Heaven and [ Earth ].’ 51

Later on in the text astrology is mentioned as well. Apparently knowledge of the ‘secret of Heaven and Earth’ enables not only a sage like Adapa to perform his magic tricks, but also the diviner to interpret the signs. In both cases this knowledge stems from the gods, and becomes, as is evidenced by a variety of other texts, the privileged property (ni_irtu) of the guild of scribes, among whom magical and divination experts: ashipu and baru respectively. In this way potentially dangerous and anti-social knowledge is encapsulated and made subservient to the public cause represented by the rule of the gods, just as the primordial universe itself. In line with the precarious nature of divine rule over the universe, however, this optimistic presentation has not banned out the fear of an unauthorised use of this knowledge.

Earlier on we saw that the operation of nature, or briefly magic, was thought to be a prerogative of the gods and related to the way they govern Heaven and Earth by ‘deciding the fates’ (n a m t a r / shimtu). The canonical interpretation of divination links up with this view by presenting the signs (that is whatever departs from the normal order of things) as divine operations on the inanimate world; these operations encode messages concerning the governmental decisions of the gods (n a m t a r / shimtu). Like magic based on the ‘secret of Heaven and Earth’, the skills of understanding fate and decoding the divine message are revealed by the gods and guarded by the scholars. This is clear for instance from the Catalogue of Texts and Authors which starts off with works ascribed to dictation by (E n k i / )Ea: magic, (works about) divination, and the myth Lugale (with its companion Angim), which, as we saw above, is concerned with Fate and its adversary, the individualised demonic power A z a g .52 For one of the divination series mentioned in this text, the physiognomic omens (alamdimmu), we have a very explicit statement in a Middle Babylonian colophon:

alamdimmu (concerns) external form and appearance (and how they imply) the fate of man which Ea and A s a l u kh i / Marduk (?) ordained in Heaven’.53

Holism in the arcane arts of Mesopotamia

Although the canonical view understands omens as messages of the gods concerning their decisions, the

‘great mass of Mesopotamian omen material was basically non-theistic’. 54

Omens take the normal, eternal order of things as their point of departure, and seek to derive information from whatever deviates from the normal state and course of things. A cracking beam in the house’s roof, 55 intertwined lizards falling down from that beam, 56 monstrous births, discolorations of the sky, it all upsets the natural order of the universe and is therefore held to be meaningful to all those dependent on this order. This idea of a mutual dependency of man and his surroundings, which above we have called holism, is not limited to Ancient Mesopotamia, and similar omens are found in India, China, and the Arabian world; they constitute an old and widespread substratum in Old World cosmology.57

Besides a general lack of reference to the gods, a further clue to the non-theistic dimension of divination lies in the measures prescribed to avert a predicted evil. For whereas the theistic response would necessarily be in terms of supplication and propitiation, this is regularly not what is prescribed. Instead one finds magical action which seems to dissimulate the power and even existence of personalistic gods whimsically shaping man’s destiny: the ominous sign (or a model representation of it) is destroyed, the predicted evil is redirected to a substitute or countered by material objects to which amuletic properties are ascribed.

The methods used by the diviner to interpret the signs are based mainly on verbal or material association. For instance, in extispicy a sign in the form of a wedge is called kakku (Akkadian loan-word from Sumerian g a g , ‘wedge’) and generally leads to forecasts involving weapons (kakku) or war. Examples for material association can be found in an Old Babylonian liver model in the British Museum.58 It treats the sign ‘hole’ on a number of different locations, and derives its divinatory value from various metaphoric plays on the notions hole, tunnel, breach: a priestess will have illicit sexual intercourse, a secret will come out, a stronghold will be taken by the enemy, a prisoner will escape. Such associative methods try to specify a sympathetic relation between man and matter, a typical feature of the holistic world-view.

A similar case as for the diviner can be made for the incantation specialist (ashipu), who nominally attributes his art to the gods, but in fact uses methods that stem from the holistic rather than from the theistic repertoire. This is clear especially in incantations of the Marduk Ea type and in the Kultmittelbeschwörungen. In the latter type of incantations plants, minerals and animal substances are addressed and given their effectiveness as materia magica by a series of mythical statements relating them to the pristine purity of Heaven and Earth.

Often the k u r , ‘mountain lands’, appear in this context as well. The grouping of Heaven, Earth and mountain lands as the place of origin both of the demons and of the materia magica reveals that what we have called ‘pristine purity’ and the demonic share the same pre-hegemonic holistic qualities. The subject of purity, and its relation to the knowledge of the ‘secret of Heaven and Earth’, one of the themes of the Adapa legend, cannot be discussed here.

In the Marduk-Ea type of incantations the specialist justifies his choice of actions and materials by a brief, standardised mythical introduction deriving his knowledge from the humanitarian gods A s a l u kh i ( / Marduk) and E n k i ( / Ea). A similar case can be made for the formula shiptu ul iatun shipat [ DN ] (‘the incantation is not mine, it is the incantation of [ Deity’s Name ] ’ that occurs in many Akkadian incantations. There is an essential non-sequitur here between the theistic idiom of the mythical introduction, and the denouement in terms of a manipulation of inanimate matter constituting an application of the ‘secret of Heaven and Earth’, the ancient science that the theistic idiom had been unable to eradicate. Here we witness the same shift of perspective as in man’s evasion of fate through destruction of the sign or through amulets.

By choosing E n k i / Ea as its main patron, magic reveals its foundation in the universe of the m e / par_u and the antiquity of Eridu, E n k i / Ea’s city. Thus, although E n k i / Ea is a full member of the pantheon and as such fulfils his role as embedding agent, a certain tension is expected between him, the ancient guardian of the m e / par_u ordered universe, and the representatives of theistic hegemony. In fact, as we will see below, this tension, which from a different perspective S. N. Kramer59 has called ‘E n k i / Ea’s inferiority complex’, is attested in the demonisation of E n l i l ’s rule.

The evil u d u g and a z a g demons which the incantation specialist confronts in the older magical texts, belong to the same holistic world as his counter-measures: they are the non-anthropomorphic breed of Heaven and Earth, a-moral outsiders sharing neither the burdens nor the profits of civilisation. They attack man indiscriminately, not because of his sins (a hegemonic concept), but in order to take by force what they do not get by right: food and drink. The essential characteristic of these demons is that they do not have a cult, so that they cannot profit from the co-operation with man on a regular basis as the gods do. They are not members of the civilised centre, and in many incantations the specialist adjures them by the non-theistic entities they belong to: Heaven and Earth, the untamed universe.

Surprisingly there is a second class of demons in the early incantation material, the enforcers of E n l i l ’s rule: the personified n a m t a r / shimtu, ‘Destiny’, himself, the g a l l a / gallu policemen, and the m a sh k i m / rabi_u inspectors. These essentially legitimate spirits do not have a cult either, but are expected ‘to eat at the table of their father E n l i l ’. They have a demonic quality because their commander E n l i l shares an important characteristic with real demons: beyond being served in an orderly fashion, he has no interest in man. E n l i l ’s lack of interest in the fate of mankind is exemplified by the creation myths, in which man is created as a work force to replace the demurring lower gods whose task it is to serve under E n l i l . When later the noise of man disturbs E n l i l ’s sleep he is immediately ready to destroy his human servants, for whether by man or by the lower gods, E n l i l will be served anyhow. Thus, although framed in a theistic idiom, ashiputu encodes a tension between the humanitarian gods of white magic and E n l i l ’s legal but oppressive rule, a clear anti-hegemonic tendency. It is undoubtedly to redress this evil that some very early incantations replace E n k i / Ea by E n l i l .60

Like the diviner, the incantation specialist uses methods based on verbal or material ‘sympathies’. An example of verbal sympathy is the use of the anameru plant in a ritual ‘to see’, ana amari, ghosts. Material sympathies lie at the basis of substitution of the threatened person by images of various materials, especially clay.

The nature of Mesopotamian holism

Taken together these non-theistic modes of action (the interpretation of signs, the reaction to adversity) suggest a more or less coherent alternative to theistic power, one in which man is an integral part of a ‘pure’ universe (Heaven and Earth) without abnormalities (signs) and adversities (disease, demons). The presence of such disorders signals an impure or even demonic deviation from the norm, which can be interpreted and readjusted by the correct application of a secret knowledge concerning the ‘design’ (g i sh kh u r / u_urtu) of Heaven and Earth.61 From what actually perspires of this secret knowledge it must be concluded that it was based on the verbal or material association of man and matter. There are many examples of this mode of thought, especially in the commentaries.

Heaven and Earth, the universe of the m e / par_u, represent an empirical a-moral world that precedes and underlies the cosmos structured in theistic terms, with its personal, moral, and transcendent leadership. It is through immanent concatenation of agency that man pertains to that world of the senses, and may interpret or re-direct it by using the powers that permeate it. Such a use of power, however, becomes an usurpation of divine prerogatives from the moment the concept of a personal god gains prominence; no theistic system can afford to accept such usurpation. The subjugation (n a m t a r / shimtu) of that amoral realm escaping divine control is as imperative as the incorporation of uncaptured modes of production at the peripheries and in the hidden folds of the centralised system, and in fact is its ideological double. The specialists at incantation and divination are the typical embedding agents, who, by vesting holistic power with a theistic idiom, effect its survival and development. By themselves the survival of holistic notions and the growing importance of the embedding agents ashiputu and barutu reveal the weakness of the theistic project, and the continuing existence of uncaptured elements in the centre of civilisation. As we have seen above, the texts recognise this by implying a tension between E n k i / Ea and E n l i l and between m e / par_u and n a m t a r / shimtu, as well as by repeatedly commenting on the precarious nature of divine rule over the universe. The embedded and therefore acceptable survival of holistic magical power, and the concomitant recognition of the uncertainty of divine, moral rule, imply the peripheral existence of a non-embedded, immoral magic. This immoral and inexcusably non-theistic magic, the black counterpart of ashiputu, defines witchcraft, at least from the point of view of the centre.62 In this definition witchcraft is an imaginary anti-institution just as permanent as ashiputu, and coincides with the other counter-forces of hegemonic rule: foreign enemies, primordial gods, demons, and wild animals, the whole undomesticated universe. As we will see below, however, there is reason to believe that the centralistic view on witchcraft was not universally held, and that among the population there still existed forms of magic that were not embedded and yet not witchcraft. Of course this non-embedded magic too has a black and anti-social application, which can be called witchcraft as well; in this definition, however, witchcraft is rather something incidental, something depending on judgement, and lacks the permanence and cosmic moral dimension of witchcraft defined in opposition to ashiputu.

After Marduk’s rise to cosmic rulership, the place of magic in the ideological system changed. In the myth upon which Marduk’s universal rule is founded, Enuma Elish, both E n l i l and the m e / par_u as a cosmological principle have completely disappeared. The Fates (n a m t a r / shimtu), once E n l i l ’s instrument of rule, have now taken the place of the m e / par_u as the cosmic organising principle, and pertain to the primordial universe. It is only by his superior wisdom and by his incantations (tu) that Marduk could defeat the gods of chaos, whose power stems from their possession of the Tablet of Fates: a thoroughly revised version of the E n m e sh a r r a myth. Thus, although it is still the power of the word that rules the world, this word is from now on ‘incantation’, the same thing that is used by the magical specialist. The earlier (Old Babylonian) identification of Marduk with A s a l u kh i , E n k i / Ea’s son and one of the patrons of white magic, together with the decisive role of his incantations in Enuma Elish, imply a solution of the tension between, on the one hand, the magic of E n k i ( / Ea) and A s a l u kh i ( / Marduk) and, on the other hand, E n l i l ’s hegemonic rule as attested in the earlier material: E n l i l has lost his mythological significance, and one of the patrons of magic has taken over cosmic rule. In other words, magic is elevated to a hegemonic principle. This shift in the position of white magic must have corresponded to a shift in the position of its black counterpart, witchcraft, and have elevated the witch from being one among many, to constituting the cosmic enemy par excellence of hegemonic rule. 63

The elevation of magic, however, did not rob it from its non-theistic foundations. Implicitly it remains a counter-force of theistic rule, and its presence now at the heart of the ideological system signals a major defeat of the gods’ hegemonic aspirations that in the end would result in their total subordination to the eternal forces of nature (Fate, replacing the earlier m e / par_u) in astrological cosmology. 64These changes are rooted in the shift from national state to empire, and in the concomitant universalisation of hegemonic claims implying a relative loss of control by the central powers. A detailed discussion of this very basic shift in the ideological system, however, falls outside the scope of the present study.

Non-embedded forms of Mesopotamian magic

So far we have been concerned with forms of magic embedded in a theistic framework, which for obvious reasons is textually the more common type. There are other forms of Mesopotamian magic, however, less well adapted to the hegemonic enterprise, and therefore less well attested, but especially worthy of attention in the present context. All of them seem to stem from a rural or popular background. It must be remembered here that the king, his family, and his courtiers are not only officials but also common people, and that they had problems and projects that did not derive from their official functions. This perhaps explains the interest of the scribal community for the more popular types of magic, like the potency incantations and even ‘Entering the Palace’, which the Assyrian king (or rather court) wants for his library.65

Embedded magic, orthodox ashiputu so to speak, contrasts with another, complementary genre, the Art of the Healer, asutu.66 This art shows a number of peculiar features that distinguish it from ashiputu and refer it to a more popular Sitz im Leben. In the first place, while basically using the spoken language of the nation, Akkadian, it contains a fair amount of corrupt, misspelled and puzzling Sumerian phrases and incantations, quite in contrast to the Sumerian of the ashiputu corpus, which through the ages retains a high degree of correctness and intelligibility. The difference is due, we would suggest, to a difference in transmission: whereas the ashiputu corpus was written down early and transmitted in a more or less fixed form through the schools, the asutu corpus was transmitted orally by its practitioners and thus only contained spoken Sumerian, which for a variety of reasons is something quite different from written Sumerian and easily corruptible. Generally speaking, and in contrast to ashiputu with its recognisable themes and series, the whole corpus of asutu is one big mess, which confirms its lateness as a scholarly interest. In the second place, it contains a large amount of near duplication both of incantations and prescriptions, which again suggest a background in actual practice, with different healers using variant forms of the same theme, all indiscriminately petrified in writing; we find here an illustration of the general principle pointed out by the famous anthropologist Evans-Pritchard, who concludes that multifarious variation of incantations points to a less guarded and more variegated context of transmission. 67 Thirdly, the corpus contains a number of (especially cosmological) incantations that represent heterodox mythologies; and finally, up to the end the ashipu with his theological affiliations has a much higher status than the asu.

It would seem that this non-consensual, crude, fragmented asutu corpus comes closer to the world-view and the medical practices, not of specialists, but of the general lay population. Typical for asutu, and in accordance with the above, is the avoidance of the theistic model. Afflictions are generally not attributed to gods, demons, or sin, but simply to sometimes personified entities coterminous with the names of the affliction itself. When it is stated, their aetiology resembles that of the demons, but whereas the demons are the personified breed of Heaven and Earth, the diseases are simply pieces of nature that have gone astray: fire that drips down from the stars, wind that has entered a man’s body, weeds that have burst the surface of the earth. Treatment in the asutu complex makes use of the very same materia magica as are being used in ashiputu: plants, minerals, and animal substances. But whereas in ashiputu the incidence of sin and sanction, propitiation and supplication is growing through time, such moral and ultimately theistic references are virtually absent from asutu. Nonetheless asutu has its patron gods (Ninazu, Ninisina / Gula, and Damu), and so did not completely escape theistic interference; its gods, however, did not belong to the ruling class of the pantheon.

More folk magic can be found in a wide variety of incantations to work on someone, for potency, love, and various favours. One example from a series of such texts that entered the canonical corpus will suffice:

‘Incantation: Wild ass who had an erection for mating, who has damped your ardour ?
Violent stallion, whose sexual excitement is a devastating flood, who has bound your limbs ?
Who has slackened your muscles ? Mankind has ... your ...
Your goddess has turned to you. May A s a l u kh i , god of magic
Unbind you by means of the plants of the mountain and the plants of the deep, and
May he give your limbs (back their) abundance through the charms of Ishtar.
Incantation for Potency. Its ritual: you crush magnetic iron ore, put it into oil;
He should rub his penis, chest, and waist, and then he will recover.’ 68

Unavoidably there are references to gods here, but the magic lies in the image of the sexually excited equids with their impressive members, and the use of iron to strengthen the man’s potency. The incidence of love incantations and related material is rather low, and most types are either isolated or known only by title from a late text that matches magical activities with stars and constellations in order to fix the best time for performance. 69 The scarcity of actual texts is undoubtedly explained by the fact that such activities enter the twilight of socially acceptable and unacceptable applications of magic, or in other words, carry the suspicion of witchcraft.

The persistence of a ‘magical’, holistic perspective can be gleaned from the series E g a l k u r a , ‘Entering the Palace’, which in actual fact constitutes a special case of the former group of magical activities.70 The antiquity of this type of activity is hard to ascertain, but the Sumerian name and the occurrence of the land Emutbal in one of the incantations 71 point to its existence in the earlier part of the second millennium. A prescription of nine amuletic stones for a ‘courtier entering the palace’ has been preserved,72 in between a number of like prescriptions for amulets for a variety of occasions, such as anger of a god, bad dreams, and demonic threats.73 The use of magical stones and plants in a context where we expect prayers and confessions, that is in texts dealing with (the consequences of) divine anger , is not uncommon. 74 This series of prescriptions caters for the needs of the ordinary citizen when entering the palace, the world of civil servants upon whom he is dependent for administrative and legal action. In view of our present argument this context is all the more interesting because here we deal with the very embodiment of the hegemonic process: the organisational forms and their personnel through which the complex of temple and palace imposes its hegemony. Strikingly, the prescriptions in this series read as if, in this confrontation between subject and hegemonic apparatus, the subject implicitly rejects the ideological idiom of the latter including its theistic overtones. These magical instructions make practically no reference to divine authorisation, but instead take recourse to magical objects made effective by a spell (a kind a Kultmittelbeschwörung sometimes even addressing Heaven and Earth): a thread thrice twined to bind the mouth of your opponent in court, a salve of powdered metals and stones to enhance your strength, or an amulet of askhar-stone that, on the basis of verbal association, is expected to ‘turn away’ (sakharu) your adversary and appease his anger. Normally the consequences of such activities are dealt with in the context of anti-witchcraft rituals. ‘Binding of the mouth’ (k a d i b e d a ), ‘appeasing of anger’ (sh u r kh u n g a ), and ‘entering the palace’ (e g a l k u r a ) occur together in an anti-witchcraft incantation edited by W.G. Lambert. 75Generally speaking it is clear from the anti-witchcraft texts that the witch was supposed to use the same methods as the ashipu: substitute images, plants, minerals, and animal substances. Like the ashipu she could work on ghosts and demons, but she used her ability not to chase them away and cure the patient, but to do harm to her victims.

A final application of magic that remained mostly free of theistic framing is the confrontation of snakes, scorpions, dogs, and field pests, typically rural activities. It is telling that this type of incantations that is well attested in the older material, virtually disappears from the canonical corpus.



The data presented in the second section of this paper would seem to indicate the potential of the general theoretical position advocated here: that which sees magic not as a universal of human action, but as a flexible reaction of uncaptured domains to a process of political and economic domination, — a challenge to a theistic ideology of hegemony by reference to another, non-anthropomorphic, non-personalised, source of knowledge and power. In Ancient Mesopotamia the latter source was designated ‘the secret of Heaven and Earth’.

Limitations of space do not permit to work out these ideas more fully, and more reflection will be required before we can hope to convince the reader that the fairly limited amount of data presented and interpreted here, is best explained by application of the theoretical model presented in the first part of our argument. On the other hand, we do not feel that we have exhausted the explanatory potential of our approach, and suggest that its application to the history of theistic cults and to witchcraft in Mesopotamia may open up new historical perspectives.

Meanwhile a number of additional general points may be made.

One concerns the flexibility of the ideological component of the hegemonic process, which contrasts so strikingly with the dogged intransigence of the holistic pre-theistic world-view of in the local society. In the earlier history of Mesopotamia, mythology (one of the main instruments of hegemonic ideology formation), shows a perplexing malleability and lack of definition. Rather than constituting a corpus of ex cathedra truths it offers a productive grammar of possible interrelations between divine characters and thus between the societal sections that have associated with certain gods and appropriated them for their own hegemonic purposes; e.g. the genealogical relations claimed to exist between the gods keep shifting, and this allow to redefine the relationships between the localized communities and polities associatied with them. This feature of the theistic idiom in itself already reveals it as an instrument of ideological control: its very flexibility is part of the ideological technology, and enables it to cope with ever changing situations of alignment and opposition within the evolving power structure of the regional society.

We should also consider the potential of the magical, holistic world-view for shedding its prehistoric reference, and developing into a systematic body of thought and imagery, an ideological genre in its own right. This tendency is already detectable in the various textual examples we have considered above, where whenever we encounter evidence of the holistic world-view, it turns out to be embedded in theistic terminology. Such embeddedness indicates that the ideological contents of the system have in effect been severed from the modes of production and reproduction they once served; without their former constraints they can freely develop in any viable direction. One example of this capability for systematisation can be detected in the relations between stars and other elements of the natural world that are formulated towards the end of Mesopotamian ideological history. This systematisation amounts to the rise of astrology as an increasingly integrated and sophisticated system, which imposes itself upon a whole range of pre-existing sciences, from hepatoscopy to herbalism, mineralogy and dream interpretation. 76 Despite a spate of studies, since the late nineteenth century, on the early history of astrology, few attempts have been made to explain this amazing success of ‘the queen of sciences’.

In terms of the perspective offered in the present argument, two opposite interpretations would be possible.

On the one hand astrology with its emphasis on cosmological holism (the famous Hermetic adage ‘as above, so below’) could be viewed as the revival of an archaic world-view hidden underneath the ideological sediment of hegemony. A Babylonian attempt at the integration of celestial and terrestrial omens is preserved in a canonical text from Nineveh called by its editor a Babylonian diviners manual. Here we read:

‘The signs on earth just as those in the sky give us signals. Sky and earth both produce portents, (and) though appearing separately, they are not, (because) sky and earth are interrelated (itkhuzu)’. 77

The final phrase seems to imply a form of the same cosmic holism as attested in the Hermetic tradition.

Or, on the other hand, astrology could be seen as the decaying aftermath of hegemonic theism, giving on to hegemonic aspirations of such universalist, i.e. (in political terms) imperialist, dimensions that no longer individual gods, but the impersonal mechanism of the heavens as a whole, would offer the appropriate imagery. In the latter case the rise of astrology would be intimately related to claims on universal hegemony, cf. its central role in the state religion (when it was still mundane astrology, catering for the state and not yet for individuals) and its suitability for political imagery in the Persian, Seleucid and Roman empires. Perhaps we need not even choose between these alternatives: the success of astrology may have consisted in the fact that it combined, in a unique fashion, both hegemonic and pre- or para-hegemonic references. Certainly, more is involved here than merely a mutation in the hegemonic process: the expansion of astrology involved a shift from mundane to personal astrology, and may be in part attributable to this very shift. 78 Baigent’s claim that this change came about as a result of Persian influence cannot be supported, since there is no evidence of personal astrology in the Zoroastrian corpus. 79

Finally a word on the authors of the corpus we have tried to elucidate: the magicians, diviners and healers of Ancient Mesopotamia. On the one hand they were the champions of the theistic system, composing and adapting texts, and educating the public while making house calls; on the other hand they kept lapsing into holistic modes of thought and presentation. A likely explanation for this remarkable ambivalence lies in their position betwixt centre and population. Not only did they cater to the needs of the state, but also to that of the public, where at least part of their pay and unavoidably some of their ideas came from.

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