Corpus of Mesopotamian Anti-witchcraft Rituals online

    Anti-witchcraft Rituals


    Reversal of fate

    In general terms, the basic goal of most Babylonian anti-witchcraft rituals is a simple reversal of the patient’s and the witches’ fate. The witchcraft that warlock and witch employed against their victim is removed from the latter and returned to its originators: warlock and witch are destroyed by having their witchcraft sent back to them and by the ritual destruction of their representations. The patient regains his former position in life, while those who wished him ill are brought down by their own evil schemes.

    Naturally, the ritual enactment of this reversal within the anti-witchcraft ritual bears much resemblance to the evil ritual activities that warlock and witch are accused of in the diagnoses and, more elaborately, in anti-witchcraft incantations; often the anti-witchcraft ritual gives the impression of being a mirror-image of the acts that the witches are accused of having performed. The difference between an anti-witchcraft ritual and actions that would have been regarded as evil witchcraft may therefore seem to be merely a matter of perspective. But in fact there are some significant differences between anti-witchcraft rituals and the actions commonly imputed to warlock and witch.

    Lawsuit before the gods

    Many anti-witchcraft rituals, and certainly most texts of this group addressed to Šamaš, the divine judge, are clad in the language of a ritual lawsuit. Within this image, the patient takes the role of a wronged party who has been unfairly attacked by the evildoers. He argues his case, and, at the end of the ritual, he is purified and acquitted, while the witches suffer the evil they had intended for their innocent victim; their punishment thus conforms with one of the basic principles of ancient Mesopotamian law.

    Time and place

    Anti-witchcraft rituals usually involved only the patient and the exorcist as active participants and were performed in a private setting. Their performance was not restricted to a specific locale or time. Typical places where these rituals were performed include the patient’s house (often on the roof), the uninhabited ‘steppe’ outside the city or the bank of a river or canal. When the ritual was performed in the patient’s house the impure remains of the performance were disposed of in the ‘steppe’ or thrown into the river.

    The time of the performance largely depended on which deity was invoked in the ritual. If Šamaš, the divine sun, was addressed, the time when the sun-god leaves or enters the netherworld to judge the living and the dead, sunrise or sunset, usually plays an important role in the ritual proceedings. If an astral deity was addressed, the performance took place after sunset, when the stars illuminate the night sky.


    Typical elements of a ceremonial anti-witchcraft ritual include offerings presented to the deities invoked in the ritual, prayers and incantations, the fabrication and manipulation of substitutes representing the witches or their witchcraft and various rites of purification of the patient.

    The offerings of an anti-witchcraft ritual were usually presented at the beginning of the proceedings. After the purification of the locale by sweeping and sprinkling water, a portable altar and a censer with juniper incense were set up. The altar was loaded with bread and with a confection made of date syrup and ghee; dates and fine flour were strewn on top. If a sheep was sacrificed, the various meat portions were put on the altar as well. A libation of beer was made. The destructive rites carried out at a later point in the ritual would often take place at some distance from the offering arrangement.

    Prayers and incantations

    Besides recitations addressed to deities (prayers), anti-witchcraft rituals also use incantations addressing the witch directly. During the performance of the extensive anti-witchcraft ritual Maqlû, recitations of both types were used; at the beginning of the ritual various prayers are to be recited, many of them addressed to Girra, the divine fire that is asked to destroy the witches (just as fire is used during the ritual to destroy figurines representing the witches). In addition, there are standard incantations that are not witchcraft-specific and were spoken as accompaniment to certain common ritual actions, such as dousing the fire, stripping off impure clothes or removing the impure ritual remains from the house. Also extemporized prayers are sometimes employed.

    Figurine magic

    A regular feature of anti-witchcraft rituals is the use of substitute figurines representing the warlock and witch. A number of prayers explicitly justify the use of figurines with the fact that the warlock and witch themselves were not present during the performance of the ritual. Most commonly, the rituals – in line with the rhetoric of the incantations – use pairs consisting of a male and a female figurine; often the rituals prescribe employing a whole series of such pairs of palm-sized, anthropomorphic figurines, each pair made of a different material. The typical materials used for making these figurines include, among others, clay, tallow, wax, bitumen, dough, sesame pomace, wood and reed.

    Burning, burying, piercing, defiling

    Burning and burying were the most common ways of destroying the figurines and ritually killing the sorcerers represented by them. Burning symbolizes the complete annihilation of the evildoers, while burying symbolizes their banishment to the netherworld. If the figurines were exposed to the fire, their burnt remains had to be eliminated at the end of the ritual; usually they were either thrown into a river or carried out to the uninhabited steppe.

    The final destruction of the figurines was often preceded by other actions which served to humiliate, defile and hurt the evildoers: twisting their arms behind them or binding them symbolized their imprisonment; they were smeared with malodorous fish oil or black paste; the patient washed himself over the figurines, thereby transferring the impure witchcraft back to the warlock and witch; the figurines were pierced with thorns of the date palm or beaten with an iron spike; the patient crushed them under his foot symbolizing the victorious triumph over his enemies.


    Washing was the most common purification rite that was performed by the patient, often over figurines of the warlock and witch. Alternatively, the patient achieved purification by chewing purifying substances or just taking them into his mouth or his hands. Standing on black stone or on tar pitch purified the patient, as did looking onto silver or gold. More conventional purification rites involve donning a clean garment, moving a censer, torch and holy water vessel past the patient or fumigating the patient.

    © Daniel Schwemer 2014 (CC BY-NC-ND license)