Corpus of Mesopotamian Anti-witchcraft Rituals online

    Subject Glossary


    Aetiology: The source or cause of the evil that was to be dispelled.

    Aggressive magic: Magic by which the ritual client gains superiority, strength and attractiveness over his adversaries.

    Anti-witchcraft rituals: The basic goal of most Mesopotamian 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.

    Asalluḫi-Marduk: Divine exorcist and purification expert, son of Enki-Ea. For more information on Asalluḫi and Marduk, originally two different deities, see Asalluḫi and Marduk on the site Ancient Mesopotamian Gods and Goddesses. Together with Šamaš and Ea, Asalluḫi-Marduk forms the divine exorcistic triad; they are regularly called upon in anti-witchcraft rituals.

    apsû: The subterranean ocean, the abode of Enki-Ea, was not only the source of incantations and purification rites, but was also considered a place from which demons, diseases and witchcraft had emerged.

    asû: "Physician; pharmacist". This expert was originally concerned with ailments whose cause was evident (like heat stroke, external injuries, fractures, common coughs and sneezes); he would set bones, perform (hit and miss) surgery and employ medications whose preparation and application could include the recitation of incantations and the use of other techniques and ideas that we would regard as ‘magic’.

    asûtu: "Lore of the physician"; roughly 'medicine'.

    āšipu and mašmaššu: "Exorcist". He performed purification rituals for houses, stables and fields, participated in temple rituals and was competent in the ceremonies associated with the induction of people into office, the initiation of divine statues and the foundation of temples. He was also trained to treat severe illnesses by the performance of ceremonial rituals and the application of drugs in various forms.

    āšipūtu: "Exorcistic lore"; roughly 'magic'.


    bēl dabābi: “opponent in court; adversary". His female counterpart is the bēlet dabābi. He represents the stereotypical opponent and competitor of a man who is actively involved in business, public affairs and at court. A group of anti-witchcraft rituals whose symptomologies focus on social failure and degradation holds a bēl dabābi responsible for the witchcraft performed against the patient.

    Bewitchment techniques: The incantations of anti-witchcraft rituals accuse the (usually anonymous) warlock and witch of all kinds of evil actions and, in doing so, describe in detail the ideas Babylonians and Assyrians associated with witchcraft practices: Warlocks and witches bewitch the patient and recite their evil spell against him. They chase, seize and destroy him. They scheme, they are angry, and slander their victim before gods and men. They bind and sully the victim and cause him to suffer all kinds of ailments. They transfer their sorceries to the victim by means of food, drink, bathwater, ointments and presents; they send messages of witchcraft. They fashion figurines and identify them with the patient by pronouncing his name and by using materials that have been in contact with him. They gag the figurines, dirty them, pierce them, burn and dissolve them in different ways. They immure them in a wall; they inter them in a grave (symbolizing the death of the victim) or under a launderer’s mat (making sure that all the dirty laundry water constantly runs over the figurine); they bury them under a threshold, in a gate, on a bridge or under a crossroads, places where people constantly trample over them. They make funerary offerings for the patient by pouring out water; they perform evil rituals before the stars or other deities, including the Sun-god Šamaš. They can also incite the ghost of a deceased person to pursue the patient.

    Bīt rimki: Literally, the “bath house". This royal purification ritual contains a number of ritual sections that are directed against witches and adversaries threatening the king. The ritual is closely connected to Maqlû.

    Burning and burying: The most common ways of destroying the figurines and ritually killing the sorcerers represented by them. Burning symbolizes the complete annihilation of the evildoers; burying symbolizes their banishment to the netherworld.


    Ceremonial rituals typically include offerings, prayers and/or incantations addressed to one or several deities; in addition, they often include the manipulation of substitute figurines representing the sorcerers and, occasionally, the patient.


    Defensive magic: Magic by which an evil that has beset (or threatened to beset) the ritual client is removed and repelled.

    Diagnostic texts: These texts associate brief descriptions of symptoms with a diagnosis that provides either the name of the given illness or information on the cause of the illness (aetiology); diagnostic texts usually also offer prognoses on the further prospects of the patient and the treatability of his illness. Therapeutic texts often begin with diagnostic sections.

    dibalû (Akkadian; Sumerian: di.bal.a) or ‘distortion-of-justice’ magic made its victim helpless and unable to defend himself before judges and superiors.


    Ea: see Enki-Ea.

    Enki-Ea: God of wisdom and exorcism, who resides in the subterranean ocean (apsû); father of Asalluḫi-Marduk (see also Enki on the site Ancient Mesopotamian Gods and Goddesses).

    Exorcist: see āšipu.


    Figurines: 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 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. While substitute figurines of the warlock and witch are the most common feature of anti-witchcraft rituals, the evildoers are not the only beings that can be represented by figurines. Some rituals use figurines as a representation of the patient. Besides anthropomorphic figurines, the witch would sometimes be represented by the model of a tongue or other items, such as a wax hand or a sherd. Both anthropomorphic figurines and tongue models could be placed in boats and sent across the waters of death to the netherworld.


    Gibil-Girra: The divine fire, who represents both the destructive and purifying force of fire, plays an important role in anti-witchcraft rituals (see also Girra on the site Ancient Mesopotamian Gods and Goddesses).

    Girra: see Gibil-Girra.

    Gula: Healing-goddess (see also Gula/Ninkarrak on the site Ancient Mesopotamian Gods and Goddesses).


    Incantations: There are standard incantations that are not witchcraft-specific but were spoken as accompaniment to certain common ritual actions, such as dousing the fire (Attunu mû), stripping off impure clothes (Ašḫuṭ ašḫuṭ) or removing the impure ritual remains from the house (Udugḫul edinnazuše), but other incantations addressed the witch directly.


    kadabbedû (Akkadian; Sumerian: ka.dab.bé.da) or ‘seizing-of-the-mouth’ magic made its victim helpless and unable to defend himself before judges and superiors and was held responsible for actual speech disorders.

    kaššāptu: Primarily the female “witch"; her male counterpart is the kaššāpu “warlock". Sometimes, the kaššāptu is described not as a mere human who has employed evil rituals or bewitched substances against the patient, but as a demonic superhuman figure who roams the earth and bewitches humans and gods alike.

    kišpū: This is the main term for illegal, evil witchcraft, translated in our corpus as “witchcraft". It is derived from the corresponding verb kašāpu, which also forms the basis of the agent nouns kaššāpu “warlock" and kaššāptu “witch". kišpū designates both the evil actions performed by the witch and the resulting evil which takes possession of the patient, making him impure and binding him.

    Kusu: Purification god, who is foremost associated with the censer.


    Liminal magic: Magic by which the ritual client or the ritual object is transformed and taken to another status (rite de passage).


    mageía and mágos: The Greek word mageía was often used as a derogatory label for ritualistic activities that are characterized as obscure, irrational and impious; mágos is a pejorative term for ritualists whose practices, in the author’s view, lack piety.

    Magic: An activity that consists in symbolic gestures, usually accompanied by recitations, performed by an expert (relying in his performance on transmitted knowledge) with the goal of effecting an immediate change and transformation in the object of the activity.

    Maqlû: The most extensive Mesopotamian anti-witchcraft ritual was called Maqlû “Burning." Its performance stretched over one night and included the recitation of almost a hundred incantations. The composition has nine tablets: eight tablets give the full text of the incantations that were to be recited; the ninth tablet gives brief instructions on the performance of the ritual and the actions that accompanied the recitation of the individual incantations.

    Marduk: see Asalluḫi-Marduk.

    mašmaššu: see āšipu.


    Ningirima: Incantation goddess who is in charge of the holy water vessel.


    Pharmacological texts: These texts list individual plants, parts of plants, minerals and stones, supplying information on their appearance, therapeutic effects and application.

    Prayers: Incantations/recitations addressed to deities. The deity or deities invoked in the ritual were addressed in a prayer with a fixed text that asked for divine presence and help, for a just — that is, favourable — verdict for the patient; the witches were accused of their evil deeds, and the petitioner asked that they be convicted of their crimes.

    Prescriptions: Instructions for the preparation of remedies, in our corpus specifically against witchcraft. Besides the introductory passage containing a symptom description (phrased as a conditional clause), a diagnosis and/or a purpose clause, prescriptions for remedies against witchcraft-induced illnesses provide information on the ingredients to be used, usually botanical or mineral substances, instructions on how these basic ingredients should be processed, advice on the application of the finished medication and a short prognosis regarding the patient’s recovery.

    Purification: 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.


    rāmu (Akkadian; Sumerian: ki.áĝ.ĝá) or love-magic was thought to make its object fall in love with another person.

    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.

    ruḫû: A general term for witchcraft, translated in this corpus as “magic". The term is derived from reḫû “to beget, inseminate", also “to overcome", and refers to the image of the casting of the evil spell or spittle upon the body of the victim, where it then unfolds its evil power just as the male semen grows in the female body; probably also the more general notion of being overcome by a superior force is implied.

    rusû: A general term for witchcraft, translated in this corpus as “sorcery". The meaning of the verb russû that underlies rusû is more difficult to establish. The standard dictionary CAD (R 425b) argues for a meaning “to sully", “to wet", which would tally nicely with the well-attested image of witchcraft as the spittle of the witch. But there is also evidence for a verb russû “to bind" (whether or not connected with russû “to wet"), and this meaning would fit the context of witchcraft as well.


    Siriš: The divine beer, “releaser of god and man".

    Spittle: The Sumerian term for witchcraft is uš, with its basic meaning “spittle" (then also “poison"). Spittle is regarded as an ambivalent substance. On the one hand, probably on analogy to the ejaculation of male semen, the casting of spittle by the gods grants life and recovery; on the other hand, the witch’s spittle and spell spread contamination and illness.

    Substitute figurines: see Figurines.


    Šamaš: see Utu-Šamaš.


    Therapeutic texts: These texts detail instructions for the cure of specific illnesses or crises; they give directions either for the execution of a ritual or for the preparation and application of a medicine. Usually, one of the functions of a therapeutic ritual was to convince the invoked gods of the patient’s innocence and to make them change their mind with regard to the patient.


    Utu-Šamaš: The Sun-god, god of justice and light; as divine judge, Utu-Šamaš frees the patient, brings light into his darkness and favourably revises the divine verdict manifest in the patient’s suffering. Accordingly, Utu-Šamaš is the most frequently petitioned god in anti-witchcraft rituals (see also Utu/Šamaš on the site Ancient Mesopotamian Gods and Goddesses).


    Witchcraft: An illegal and aggressive form of magic by which the ritual client has been harmed. Witchcraft was one of the explanations for evil that befalls the individual; it imputes illness and misfortune to the actions of other humans. See also Bewitchment techniques above.


    zikurudû (Akkadian; Sumerian: zi.ku5.ru.da) or ‘cutting-of-the-throat’ magic: an especially dangerous and often deadly form of witchcraft whose performance regularly involved the invocation of astral deities and the sending of evil-portending omens against the victim.

    zīru (Akkadian; Sumerian: ḫul.gig) or hate-magic caused the victim to become the object of social isolation and hostility.