Magic: A History - Mesopotamia, Egypt and China

The Magic of the Cities and Deep Participation

In Ancient Mesopotamian society, magic became a highly-regarded and high-status profession, much like a doctor or lawyer today. Āšipu were professional magicians in ancient Mesopotamia. Āšipu were highly trained and educated and spent years acquiring their craft by studying arcane texts and learning esoteric rituals. They performed all sorts of important functions in Mesopotamian society, including functions related to the state.

We know quite a bit about them because of a bunch of clay tablets discovered buried underneath the house of a practitioner called Kiṣir-Nabu, who was the son of a long line of magicians affiliated with the temple of Aššur (or Ashur). This document has become known to archaeologists as the Exorcist's Manual, because driving out demons was one of the main tasks that these individuals were expected to perform on a regular basis. They were also expected to perform temple rituals and rituals for the king, to interpret omens, and to diagnose and treat medical ailments.

From the texts, we know of a number of families who were āšipus for several generations. Being a magician was clearly an honorable profession, one that people took seriously and tried to perfect, as does any other skilled practitioner, past of present...To become an āšipu, the ability to read in a number of languages was needed, including obscure forms of Sumerian, Akkadian and Aramaic. Writing on clay tablets was an important means of learning, but texts were also written as part of a performance for a particular client, showing the power of words to influence the workings of the world... (86-87)

The āšipu was highly trained and operated in the elite stratum of Mesopotamian society, but we can glimpse other, more shadowy figures such as the snake charmer (mušlahhu), the eššebû, or 'owlman', and the qadištu-woman, who offered their services in the streets of cities and villages. It is not always clear what these people did (with the probable exception of the snake-charmer), but magical activities on the streets and in the houses of the Mesopotamian world were an everyday occurrence. (88)

Demons were a constant source of consternation and frustration for the people of the ancient Near East. Demons were seen as being the root cause behind sort of ailments, from headaches to fevers to birthing pains. Medicine consisted primarily of driving out demons. This has an awfully long pedigree—many of the miracles of Jesus consisted of driving out demons including, famously, into a herd of pigs; Gosden informs us that some of his contemporaries accused Jesus of being a magician who learned the magical arts in Egypt (106).

Demons featured prominently and had their own histories, which are still to be fully written. Demons were low-ranking creatures of the divine sphere that roamed the wilderness and mountains, from where they could raid human settlements or houses. Demons flew on the wind, slipped onto the house through a window or unbolted a door.

Many were monsters. Lamaštu was a lion-headed creature with a donkey's ears, dog's teeth, and the claws of an eagle. She was prone to attack infants and women before, during and after childbirth. Preventative rituals against her could be carried out: for example, destroying or removing figures in the form of Lamaštu, or wearing amulets depicting Lamaštu. Once an attack by Lamaštu had occurred, various remedies were possible, especially against fever. A group of amulets depicts Lamaštu being driven out by her fellow demon Pazuzu, forcing her to retreat across the Ulaya river, and back into the wilderness. (88-89)

One magical technique used by cultures throughout the book is divination—the foretelling of the future. In Mesopotamia, this took two basic forms: extispicy and astrology. These two practices will reccur again and again, including in ancient Rome and early modern Europe (and even today—astrology is big business).

Extispicy is the reading of animal entrails to predict the future. In Mesopotamia, this was preceded by a lengthy and elaborate ritual that could last from sunup to sundown. It was practiced in a question-and-answer format, where the āšipu would ask questions of the gods, and the gods would answer based on the entrails of the sacrificial animal. For instance, if the entrails resembled the face of a particular demon, then that demon could be the one causing trouble. A slightly less disgusting version today might be the reading of tea leaves left in the bottom of a teacup.

This practice was very common in the ancient Roman world. Haruspicy is the practice of reading of the liver of a sacrificed animal to divine the future, and the practitioner a haruspex: "Haruspices in the Roman world examined the entrails of animals, often a sheep's liver, to foretell the future from the shape, concentrating on abnormalities, a process we first encounter in the Mesopotamian world." (274) A haruspex named Spurrina is said to have given Caesar the famous warning, 'Beware the Ides of March.' This practice dated back to the Etruscans—the Roman artifact below has Etruscan inscriptions carved on it:

Astrology is, of course, the reading of the stars and planets in order to foretell the future. This, too, was practiced in cultures all over the world. The Babylonians divided the night sky into 12 sectors each containing 30 degrees of arc (for a total of 360) through which the stars and planets passed over the course of a year. The Babylonian priest-scribes compiled star charts and developed sophisticated mathematics in order to predict the movements of stars and planets in the service of divination. The “science” of astronomy was developed for the purpose of astrology, and astrology was used to advise the ruler on the proper course of action. Gosden informs us that The Kings Watch—an observation of the night sky which lasted from the eighth century BCE until the first century BCE—was, "a longer programme of observation than anything in modern science." (90) The first known individual horoscope based on the position of the stars and planets at a person's birth was written in 410 BCE: "Previously prediction had general aims, understanding the likely fate and future of the kingdom as a whole, or some significant segment of it. Now, the individual came to more the fore, a change that was to have considerable later echoes." (90-91)

In Ancient Egypt, the priests were much more tightly bound to the state and the pharaoh's household. While a lot of emphasis has been placed on the kingship of the pharaoh, the essential role of the priesthood in Ancient Egyptian society is all too often overlooked:

Egypt is famous for its pyramids, but the central institution of the Egyptian state was the temple, which housed the gods and the priests who looked after them (96)...Egyptian temples were not designed for congregations to worship; rather the opposite: they were to house gods in seclusion. In the form of their statues, they were clothed, fed and cared for in the temples. Such seclusion was interrupted regularly, when the gods were brought out on festivals, although still concealed in shrines covered in cloth...

Harmony was the aim of the temple, but crisis was built into the magico-religious structure, with the passage of the Sun into the underworld every night a minor threat to life, with no absolute guarantee of return. (97-98) ...Temples were keen to push the importance of the gods they looked after, and pharaohs also played politics with religion, most famously Akhenaten, who attempted a fundamental reform of religion around the Sun god, Aten. (96)

Heka was a mystical, invisible, intangible force that permeated the universe according to the Ancient Egyptians—Gosden likens it to the Force from Star Wars. Everything in the universe was subject to heka, including the gods themselves, who were manifestations of it. This mystical force could be wielded by skilled practitioners, but ordinary people could wield it too, if needed:

In Egypt, as with Mesopotamia, magic was part of the official fabric of the state and a crucial set of techniques for averting danger or ensuring well-being (92)...Ancient Egyptians made little distinction between the sacred and secular worlds: daily life is infused with the actions of gods and demons. As a consequence, there is no notion of a cosmic realm above nature. The separation we have come to make between science and religion did not exist in the same way in Egypt.

Furthermore, magic and religion were continuous: the gods were subject to heka, as well as being instantiations of its power, and some humans had greater control over of heka than others. From this it follows that magic was not supernatural...There was a spectrum of practitioners, from the priests of major temples, with long training in how to wield heka, to men and women in villages who might protect the cattle herd from crocodile spirits when crossing a river, or a newborn baby from demons.

For temple priests, written transmission of spells was vital; for more humble magic, oral transmission sufficed, so that we now know more about the former. The priests were also not moral teachers but paid specialists with defined duties. Temple priests could undertake private magical practice, for a fee, and the better-off could employ them in cases of real need, making private use of long state-funded training. (97)

Spells were an essential part of Egyptian magical practice. Words, especially written ones, had magical powers for those who were able to read them (recall that hieroglyphics means 'sacred writing'). The Pyramid Texts are some of the oldest forms of writing anywhere in the world, and were magical spells designed to aid the dead in their passage to the afterlife. Names had special powers—if you knew the true name of something, you could gain power over it. The Egyptians extensively used apotropaic items like amulets and "magic wands" made from hippo tusk ivory inscribed with magical symbols. Motifs like scarab beetles and the Eye of Horus were very common.

An important element of magical knowledge was to name things truly and to understand a deeper level of reality and connections behind that of appearances. Egyptian society differed from our own in the relationship between words, images and objects...For Egyptians, words were very powerful, in their written forms and particularly when spoken. Speaking was an act that could cause things to happen. Reciting or singing a spell out loud was an integral part of magic. Powerful knowledge involved knowing the true names of things, with the real names of the gods, which were kept secret, obviously most important. If something could be called by its real name, resistance was difficult (101)

Ancient Egyptian religious beliefs and funerary practices are maddeningly complex, and entire books have been written about them, so we won't dwell on them here. We'll only mention two myths that played a key role in Egyptian society: the stories of Osiris and those connected with the Sun. The universe was composed of a series of powers in a state of tension and flux between the forces of chaos and order, the latter of which was personified as the goddess Maat.

The pervasiveness of these myths, which were known by all levels of Egyptian society, indicated a major difference from many cultures today. To understand your subjective experience by means of widely shared myths produced a different balance between the individual and the group. Individual and group experience was joined in this way, but also the events of people's lives were linked to the movements of the Sun, Moon and other aspects of the cosmos. (99)

Because Egyptian society was so extremely ancient—the pyramids were as ancient to Cleopatra as she is to us—the magicians of ancient Egypt were thought by many to possess some sort of "secret" esoteric knowledge over and above all others. This perception played a role in the development of later Western magical movements such as Hermeticism, Neoplatonism, and occult movements like Aleister Crowley's Thelema (as well as more recent notions of aliens building the pyramids). You can also detect various elements of Near Eastern magic surviving into Biblical times, from the magical power of certain words, to extispicy, to the casting out of demons.

Although both Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia were literate, urban, hierarchical societies, there were significant differences between them and their use of magic. For instance, in Egypt the pharaoh was seen as a living god descended from Osiris, while Mesopotamian rulers—at least at first—were high priests who mediated with the gods rather than gods themselves. But in both cultures magic was absolutely essential to the maintenance and running of the state, even if these ancient peoples had no conception of what a “state” was. In both societies, magic and religion fused together into a single, undifferentiated whole. There could be no separation of church and state because they were one in the same. Shared myths united the common people together with their rulers.

Mesopotamia and Egypt are the two oldest urban state cultures in the world. In both magic was central to the operations of the state, and integral to the nature of power, but it also shaped the existential conditions of life for all. Both believed the cosmos was alive and sentient, with people as an articulate element of an intelligent whole. Both civilizations developed a great range of specialist functions and specialist practitioners, including magicians, who picked up signs of how the cosmos was unfolding, developed appropriate courses of action, warded off harm and promoted well-being.

The āšipu and those wielding heka were highly trained and prominent in the political activities of the ruler and state. A crucial aspect of the ruler's claim to power was they they could guarantee fertility, wellness and positive relations with other powers, human or not; and the ruler relied on the magician in these matters, as did the populations more broadly in questions of life, health and death. (107-108)

Gosden describes the Chinese relationship to magic as one of "deep participation." Rather than a pantheon of well-defined gods as in Ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia, Chinese magic was based on the elemental forces of the universe. Of course ancestor worship played the preeminent role in Chinese magic—departed ancestors didn't vanish from the scene but continued to live on in a metaphysical realm from where they could influence the present on behalf of their living descendants: "It is possible that, for the Bronze Age Shang, the divine creative force—Di—was seen as the most senior and powerful of all ancestors and not a power totally beyond the human realm." (115) China also practiced its own form of shamanism.

Further what we now call China, Korea and Japan, the worlds of belief were quite differently constituted: gods were less developed and defined. The Bronze Age states of China, from the era before the Shang through to the Late Zhou (roughly 2000-250 BCE), developed broad principles of creation and destruction, but not a defined panoply of gods. In East Asia the moving spirits were often the human dead, gradually transformed into ancestors through burial and sacrifice. They could then be communicated with by means of divination...

People presently alive were links in a moving chain of connections stretching between the long-term dead and the generations yet to come. The chain of lineages moved inexorably forward: generations were born, matured, and died, not passing out sight but into a new realm of power inhabited by the dead. Responsibility fell on the living to honour the dead, but in turn the prestige of the ancestors depended on their ability to care for their descendants.

Together, the living and the dead could influence the powers of the universe. Local spirits in the landscape were understood by analogy with human chains of being; the universe was always humanized, in part at least. Similar lineage structures remain important in Asia to this day. The ancient rulers of Eastern Eurasia stood at the head of all local lineages, holding the greatest responsibility for sacrifice and communication with the ancestors by divination. (75-76)

Like the Mesopotamians, the Chinese also practiced divination in order to foretell the future. In China, however, the ancestors were petitioned rather than the gods. A common method was heating bones and shells with fire and interpreting the cracks that formed (pyromancy). This technique formed the basis of mystical texts like the I-Ching, as well as becoming the basis for the characters which eventually became Chinese writing. Later divination techniques used yarrow stalks (or coins) based on interpretations of the hexagrams of the I-Ching. Dream interpretation and astrology were also commonly used techniques for divination. Gosden informs us of the art of hemorology, which is the determination of auspicious and inauspicious dates and times for undertaking particular activities. This practice was common in Chinese astrology, and even today certain dates are considered especially "lucky" in Chinese culture.

Time, seen through a procession of days, months and years, in Ancient China, was not a measurable quantity, as it has become more recently, but a series of qualities, with various periods being auspicious for some actions and less good for others. The Shang, Zhou and later groups mapped out past, present and future in immense detail though patterns of good and bad days. People tried to adjust their behavior accordingly, following ancestral advice. (133)

Gosden describes two important sites in Neolithic China: Shimao, in the north of China near the steppe frontier; and Liangzhu, near the mouth of the Yangtze River. Both of these sites were instrumental in the development of Bronze-Age Chinese civilization. Human skulls along with elaborate jade objects have been discovered inside the rammed-earth walls of Shimao indicating some sort of rituals perhaps connected to human sacrifice, causing Gosden to speculate that, "Both were polities in which connections with the forces of the cosmos appear crucial to power." (p. 122)

Gosden contrasts between Western cultures with a tradition of roasting meat—where the smoke from the meat carries prayers up to the gods—and the Eastern tradition of boiling food such as rice and millet, where the steam produced by boiling these foods carried supplications up to departed ancestors. This tradition of boiling rather than roasting food is why Asian cultures developed highly sophisticated pottery early on—the earliest hot pots. This tradition of boiling food also lay behind the development of sophisticated bronze casting, which was developed into a high art form in China long before anywhere else in the world: " is likely that the process of producing what were the world's most sophisticated bronzes was in itself seen as requiring powers beyond the human. Each bronze vessel embodied a complex system of magic, being both the product of magical powers and the conduit for magical activity." (143)

These elaborately decorated bronze vessels featured in lavish feasts and sacrifices given in honor of the sacred ancestors by the heads of powerful families seeking to consolidate their authority. It's interesting to contemplate that cooking techniques during the Neolithic period may have played a role in the differential development of cultural and religious traditions between western and eastern Eurasia:

The longevity of boiling as a primary means of cooking in East Asia was one of the factors that led to the domestication of rice around 7000 BCE (after many millennia of use of wild rice), which was then boiled or steamed in the main...we are starting to realize that changes in cooking and cuisine were part of cultural forms and forces in which cosmological values were central....the boiling cultures of the East contrast with a different culinary tradition in the West, which placed greater emphasis on roasting and baking, so that from South Asia to Europe breads in all their variety became the staples...the ritual systems of East and West differed: boiled and steamed food or drink, which sent vapours up to the ancestors, were crucial to Eastern, and especially Chinese, ritual. The Greeks...roasted the meat of sacrificed animals, with the smoke from a roast sheep or cow as a primary means of gaining the attention and favour of the gods. (121)

The Chinese developed their own zodiac, which established correlations between things like dates, direction, numbers, colors, animals, and the human body: "Astrology was liked to the five-element theory and to various colours and animals. The life course of an individual and the nature of their character could be understood from knowing the hour, day and year of their birth." (141) Chinese magic was based on continuities and relationships between things, and this has carried though to the present. This can be seen, for example, in Feng Shui, where there are relationships between the physical space, one’s life course, and shapes, colors, seasons, numbers and elements. Chinese magic is suffused with these sort of complex interlinked relationships. Chinese medicine is based on these relationships as well, along with flows of energy (qi) inside the body connected with the wider world. Chinese magic offers a fundamentally different way of looking at reality:

Chinese thinkers looked for resemblances and correlations between varied types of things, together with an emphasis on energy flows linking the whole cosmos, from planets to people. The manner in which an ox shoulder blade cracked due to heat or the numerical sequences revealed by throwing milfoil stalks in the Yi Jing might be seen as linked to whether the harvest would be good, if the king’s consort would give birth to a male heir, or if victory might be expected in a forthcoming battle. Correspondences of number, direction of substance were revealing about broader features of the universe, but were not seen to cause them. Magical practices teased out similarities, regularities or contradictions, and could help to ease an advantageous path through a highly networked universe. (117)

...starting in the Warring States (475-221 BCE) but really crystallizing the so-called 'Han Synthesis', Chinese cosmology comes to be based around an infinitely complex set of correlations between the Five Elements, colours, directions and times, animated too by the balancing forces of yin and yang. Wood, Fire, Metal, Water, and Earth comprise the five basic elements, linked also to green, red, white, black, and yellow respectively, which then correlate to the organs of the human body and directions (liver with east and Wood, heart for south and Fire, lungs for west and Metal, kidneys for north and Water, spleen or stomach for centre/union and Earth). All these aspects are dynamically related to both the yearly seasonal cycle and they life cycles of human beings: winter, north, Water and birth give way to spring, east, Wood and puberty, maturing into south, Fire and adulthood, and lastly something of a decline into autumn, the West, Metal and old age. (128)

It's tempting to see a connection between aspects of Chinese magic and Asian thought even today. Chinese thought is much more concerned with holistic connections and relationships between things than about reductionist views and placing things into discrete categories. Numerous psychological experiments over the years have borne this out. For example, one study showed complex images to American and Chinese test subjects. Eye scans revealed that the Chinese subjects spent more time scanning the background of the image, while Americans focused more on the objects. In addition, Chinese subjects in psychological experiments are more likely to group things by relationships and not by category. For example, given a truck, a train and a rail, Western subjects would group the truck and train together as both are types of vehicles, whereas Chinese subjects would group the train and the rail together based on their relationship.

How East and West think in profoundly different ways (BBC)

A journey into Chinese magic is, for outsiders, a voyage into a novel universe, which was huge, strange, structured and logical…Chinese thought and its deeply magical basis was rooted in the presumption that people are enmeshed in the world, participating in it for good or evil, rather than emphasizing gods or developing abstract scientific theory that might distance them from their surroundings…(116-117)…Science stands back from the world, which an older Chinese culture refused to do, because it felt deeply involved. (145)…It is not strictly true to say that Ancient China had no religion, but the emphasis of Chinese life was always on this world and the powers within it. Crucially, these powers included the human dead, and supplication to the ancestors was central to the well-being of the living. A stress on family lineage is still present today…China does not divide but instead sees continuities, tensions or stacked similarities (of substance, colour, direction, etc.). One aspect of life could transform into another…(144-145)