Magical beliefs and practices were and are an integral and accepted part of the daily life of the people of many cultures, ancient and modern. The religious beliefs and practices of these people are inextricably interlinked with some form of magic. But magic is a topic of no little controversy today among modern scholars. A variety of negative societal attitudes have been inherited from Christianity, the so-called Age of Enlightenment, science and psychology. Many scholars avoid the issue of magic altogether in discussing cultures of antiquity. Others seek to denigrate it by contrasting religion and magic or science and magic, so that, bounded by religion on the one hand, and by science on the other, magic is considered inferior to both. Such neat distinctions between religion, magic, and science did not exist in antiquity except, perhaps, among a few intellectuals.
Because the peoples of the ancient Near East were people of the written word, they recorded their official spells and, wherever circumstances permit, their records have survived. This is particularly true of the spells of Mesopotamian cultures, written on baked clay tablets, and of Egypt, where texts, inscribed or painted on massive temple walls, tomb walls and tomb furnishings, and writings on papyrus scrolls have been preserved in the almost constantly dry desert, although a number of incompletely documented tomb sites have been destroyed by flooding from dam projects.
The Hebrews were famous as magicians from antiquity well into the Renaissance, Old Testament admonitions against magic notwithstanding. Biblical allusions indicate widespread acquaintance, with magic, including the methods of the Canaanites, reinforced by importations from Babylon and Egypt. Ensconced in Hebrew lore are beliefs and practices emanating from the entire Mediterranean world - ancient Babylonian & Egyptian, Graeco-Roman, Helleno-Egyptian, through the later Chaldean and Persian.
"Whether the gods are old or new, whether they come from Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Levantine, Greek, Jewish, or Christian traditions, religion is an awareness of and reaction against human dependency on the unfathomable scramble of energies coming out of the universe...How could ordinary men and women . . . get something out of their lives? It is at this point that [magic] became a necessity to the lives of ordinary people. . . [F]rom time immemorial [magic] has survived throughout history, through the coming and going of entire religions, the scientific and technological revolutions, and the triumphs of modern medicine."
(Hans Dieter Betz, The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, pp. xlvii-xlviii.)
Over the course of time, the last two thousand years especially, there has been such a great misunderstanding of, or even unwillingness to understand, what magic is. As previously noted, magic was inextricably linked with religion in the cultures of the Ancient Near East. Beginning with the rise of Judaism in the Levant, but more especially with the advent of Christianity, also of Levantine origin, certain people tried to differentiate magic from religion for various reasons. Competition for status and for converts drove some religious leaders to claim that when their holy men turned wooden staves into snakes it was a miracle of "God" and a sacred religious act, but when some other religion's holy men did the same thing, it was through the agency of false gods or demons and merely low magic. I am reminded of a popular saying "What I believe is religion, what you believe is superstition." Even the Pagan Romans condemned magia, but accepted other practices which we consider magic, primarily for reasons of political and social control.
Even today, many practices of accepted religion are not really different from magic. It is merely in the eyes of the adherent that the act is not magical but religious. For example, in the transubstantiation of the wine and wafer in a Catholic mass or the creation of so-called holy oil or holy water - the prayer over it can be construed as a spell, and the sign of the cross for protection from evil or harm a magical gesture. Acts such as these are among the complaints of Martin Luther who began the Protestant Reformation, criticism that many Catholic practices were not much more than magical mumbo-jumbo, and the veneration of saints - praying to them, claiming they performed miracles, using their desiccated body parts or bits of wood or cloth associated with them as amulets - was not much different than worshipping Pagan deities. Nonetheless, there are practices among Protestants, especially among the Charismatic sects, which vie with Pagan practices as magical acts - such as talking in tongues, snake handling, faith healing, group prayer sessions for healing and also for what is essentially cursing, when they call on their god to bring his wrath down on people who are doing something with which the church members disagree.
Because people everywhere internalize the beliefs of their culture without a great deal of questioning, many modern scholars dismiss magic as a serious topic even when discussing cultures of antiquity. They may avoid the topic altogether, refusing to discuss magical texts and archaeological finds. Some have even gone so far as to edit texts to remove any mention of magic when translating from the ancient original into a modern vernacular, if the scholar does not want the work "tainted" with magic. This has even been done to the works of Plato and Aristotle.
In looking at the beliefs and practices of different cultures, such as those of the past, it is helpful try to understand how the people of those ancient cultures thought about them. I do not mean to imply that we should blindly accept antique magical practices, but we should remember that science, magic, and religion form a continuum with no clear boundaries between them. It is a modern trait to separate into various systems that which in reality is interconnected.
It also helps to remember that most of the terminology one runs into in dealing with cultures of antiquity has been translated. What were the original words? what did they mean? and why have particular words been chosen to translate them? "Witch" has often used to translate a variety of different words, especially those applied to female magical practitioners. In our own culture, this word is "loaded," rife with negative connotations, yet rather vague in what it denotes as to actual practice, while the original terms in the foreign language may have been more neutral in tone or more specific in meaning.
Let us take the word "Magic." As is relatively common knowledge, it derives from the Persian magus, a priest of the Zoroastrian religion. As magos in Greek and magus in Latin, it quickly took on the meaning of charlatan in the ancient Pagan world. In fact, there was no one overarching word to cover the wide variety of practices which we today consider magic. There were, however, numerous terms to describe specialists in various types of divination, incantation, exorcism, astrology, healing, herbalism, etc., each denoting clearly what they did. Quite often these people filled official roles in the religious hierarchy in the temples of the great cities. Many legitimate temple practices, such as astrology or divination by inspecting the livers of sacrificial animals, were not even considered magic, they were so normal within the culture.
The people to whom terms with negative connotations were most often applied by the people of the ancient Mediterranean world were those who were in competition with the established priestly specialists, or who performed practices which were not considered entirely legitimate within a particular culture. A number of stories describe women, depicted either as disreputable and disgusting or obsessed and misguided, involved in trying to obtain the love of someone or cursing them for being uninterested. They are referred to in terms usually translated into English by witch. Yet love charms are incredibly commonplace both in the Graeco-Hellenic papyri and in archaeological finds in Greek and Roman sites. Therefore, although the priestly establishment may have frowned upon this sort of work, the general populace practiced it - it was entirely normal. Then, too, the Roman government sought to control practices we today consider magical, primarily for reasons of political stability and social control, particularly any sort of divination concerned with the time of death of the Emperor. It was also in the interest of the State to make freelance magical workers appear scurrilous. In fact, some authors of tales of unpleasant magical workers were known to have important political connections and their work may be considered propaganda to some extent.
But we must return again to the question "What is magic?" If we want to relate to another culture we cannot apply our modern assumptions. We need to understand the cultural context. First, some common definitions of magic today assume that magic is used to control superhuman powers, those outside the human realm, forcing them to comply with human will. In the ancient Near East, it is the deities especially who are the source of the power that allows humans to effect change, the deities who are the creators and producers of magic. In many cases, the magician must identify with the deity in order to be successful, saying, essentially,"It is not I, Mr. or Ms. A. Human, who does this, but Deity X." That the deities are responsible for magic, and the assimilation of the practitioner to the deity, make it impossible to separate magic from religion. This is not to say that there are no purely religious acts in the ancient Near East, but that magic is not a discipline entirely cut off from religion; rather, they are integral to each other.
A second issue occurs in definitions that assume that magic involves supernatural powers or forces. In the ancient Near East, as in many other cultures, even today, there exists no such dichotomy as natural and supernatural. We live in the world of nature which is the creation of the deities and everything that exists involves the deities to a greater or lesser degree. A force may be outside the human realm, but it is not outside the realm of nature.
Third, from a Christian point of view, magic involves demons or Satan. This argument is entirely irrelevant. It represents the perspective of one religion applied to another. In fact, for large periods of time, even Christians have performed magic, the Church considering certain types of magic acceptable, or at least tolerable, if the magic was thought "natural," involving energies inherent in nature or the products of nature. The debate concerning natural vs. demonic magic lasted over at least half a millenium, and was not resolved until most theologians agreed that magic was a delusion, not a demonic force, by the time of the "Enlightenment."
Religions, which are human creations, serve to give people a sense that the energies we feel and the events we experience are not chaotic or unfathomable but have a cause, if not a reason. Magic gives humans a feeling that they can be personally involved with these energies and events, not merely as passive recipients, but actively, with the ability to influence them in ways to benefit humanity, or at least individual humans. In modern terms, the magician is effectively
"a religious functionary who operated as a power and communications
expert, crisis manager, miracle healer and inflicter of damages, and all-purpose therapist and agent of worried, troubled, and troublesome souls,"
That is why magic in some form or another has persisted through time and all the various religious, technological, and scientific changes in human culture. It gives humans yet another way to be active participants in their own fate.
(Hans Dieter Betz, The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation)