Lilinah's Introduction to Magic
Focus on the Ancient Near and Middle East

Chapter Two
**** Workers of Magic: Official versus Free-Lance ****


What we know about these ancient Near Eastern cultures in their own words comes primarily from clay tablets, cracked, crumbled, and abraded, dug from the ruins of ancient temples and royal libraries; and from inscriptions on monuments and in tombs. These represent only a tiny fraction of all that was written, and certainly they represent only the point of view of the officials and nobility who commissioned these writings, not necessarily the attitudes of the common people.

In Egypt and Mesopotamia, the temples are complex bureaucracies. People enter temple service, not out of great spiritual calling, but because it is a good and prestigious job. The reasons are similar to those which compelled families in Europe during the Middle Ages to send their children to Christian monasteries and convents: too many mouths to feed at home, not enough money for dowries for all the family's daughters, to achieve status in the community by having a family member within the temple, sometimes even as "payment" for a requested boon from the deities.

Not everyone in a temple is a priest or priestess. Many of the workers associated with the temples hold administrative, clerical, and menial positions. There are buildings to construct and maintain, farms and gardens to tend, animals to foster. Temple workshops manufacture necessary goods and garments. Temple herbaria produce plants for anointing oils, incense, unguents, and medications. Slaves are common-place in the ancient world - whenever a city was conquered, many of the populace were taken as slaves - and they are used for the jobs entailing the worst drudgery. I am in no way condoning the practice - merely stating that at this time and place it is an accepted and unquestioned common practice. Naturally, like modern corporations, the temples need higher status classes of managers and administrators to over-see the many in their employ.

And, of course, there are scribes to write the clay tablets or the papyrus rolls which contain all kinds of information, from the absolutely mundane, such as records and accounting, to sacred rituals and magical spells. Many temple documents are lists of offerings and sacrifices in specific years, or lists of odd phenomena with divinatory meaning. In Egypt and Mesopotamia, few people could read or write and most who could were temple-trained. Even those few in upper echelon government positions who could read gained their literacy in temple-run schools or from temple-trained tutors.

Thus, most of the writings that have been preserved present a biased point of view. In this view, only those priests and priestesses trained and employed within the temples were "good" magicians, the ones who worked the legitimate magic; for even many thousands of years ago, the working of magic was a commercial enterprise as well as a spiritual exercise.

The Officially Approved Priestly Workers of Magic


In Babylon, Bab-ili in the Akkadian language in which the information is recorded, there are several different kinds of officially sanctioned "magicians," temple affiliated priests and priestesses.

At the head of the Priesthood is the high priest - generally an administrator, not necessarily one who performs rites, although he probably has been trained in their performance. He knew to call on when there were repairs to be make, misfortune to conjure, health to reestablish, a god or goddess to appease, a decision to take, and a time to address the faithful. All goods coming into the temple are managed by the clergy; one must not underestimate the important place of priesthood in the financial and economic life of the community, even of the state. Although they were connected with the temple and its sacred functions, the administrators must manage, slaves, herds, lands. In the Ancient Near East, the temporal and the spiritual are always linked.

The king-priest, performs certain sacred rites, usually on a monthly cycle and an annual cycle. He may not be trained as a priest, but is coached in his duties.

Within the priesthood are cultic, sacrificial, therapeutic, instructional, judicial, administrative, and political functions. Among the clergy are the following categories - this does not encompass all specialists, it is just to give an idea of the degree of specialization!

Of extreme importance is the Ashipu. This priest is an Exorcist, Healer, and Purifier. His job is to force evil spirits, which are believed to cause illness and misfortune, out of contact with humans, thus cleansing and healing them. He fights the magical battle against the kashshapu, the male magic worker beyond temple control, and kashshaptu, the female magic worker beyond temple control

Also of primary importance is the Baru, the Diviner, the Seer of Omens. This is the priest who can interpret patterns made by oil floating on water or by the smoke of burning incense, read the meaning of the casting of dice, or examine the livers of sacrificial animals.
Specific types of baru are:

  • dagil itstsuri - observator of birds
  • zaqiqu - meteorologue - who predicts weather
  • sha'ilu - a consultant

The Zammaru (masc.), zammertu (fem.) is the Cantor, the Psalmist, the Sacred Poet, the one who chants the myths. While essential for temple religious ceremonies, the Zammaru also has a place in magical ritual. Often, after the deities are invoked for aid, they are reminded of their abilities and previous assistance to humankind by hearing their stories recited, before being called into action to help a specific client.

Other Priestly Specialists included:

  • purificater - ishipu
  • incantators - mashmashu
  • singers, chanters - masc. naru; fem. nartu
  • lavers - nartu - perform ablutions in the bet rimki, the house of ablution
  • libator - nksakku
  • anointer - pashishu - make unctions
  • lamentators - kalu - accompany with tympanum, balaggu, & timbale, lilissu
  • surru - role not exactly known
  • scribes, copiers of texts and reports on rituals, magic, astrology, divination, theology, responses to consultations with important personages; keep records
Subaltern personnel included:
  • mare ummani, the artisans who make the statues

Novices, urigallu, who execute the rites of the deities, make libations, homages, sacrifices

Eunuchs were of more than one type:

  • kurgaru - castrato
  • assinnu - the "effeminite" - "who sends to the door/gate of the earth without return" - could the assinnu have been a homosexual priest?


  • entu - high priestess
  • naditu - infertile priestess - can marry, but can't have children
  • sinnishat zikrum - "the female male, who dresses as man among the priestesses" - could the sinnishat zikrum have been a lesbian priestess?
  • qadishtu (Akk.), qadiltu (Assyr.), qadashat (Canaanite), qedeshah (Heb.)- sacred courtesans

Oblates - shirku (m.)/shirktu (f.) - who were given or vowed to the temple

West Semitic

This rubric includes the Canaanites, Hebrews, and Arameans, with perhaps a few other related tribes thrown in, since their languages were so similar, especially in the beginning.

'insh 'ilim are the personnel of the cult most often named, apart from, of course, the king. Yet their precise function is impossible to determine. The sacrifices offered them are quite modest. As 'ish 'el–ohim, a Hebrew term, it is usually translated as "man of god," believed to have been a professional holy man according to some, but the scholars of Ugarit, where this term occurs, preceding the Hebrew, find its etymology unclear. At the later time, it is still an imprecise term, but he seems to be some kind of "miracle worker" due to personal contact with the Divine.

The '–ash epin, from Aramaic, are a class of professional exorcists.

The g–azerin, also Aramaic, are diviners, from the root meaning "to cut," "to divide," "to determine," and "to decide." It occurs in an earlier text from the eighth century BCE concerning magical rites with wax models, which say, "[As] this calf [of wax] is cut up, so shall Mati'el be cut up, and his nobles shall be cut up" [if they break the treaty].

chober chaber, an expression of West Semitic origin, seems to mean "spell binder." It is related to a root meaning "to bind." The practitioner may be someone who uses knot tying as a spell binder. But there is another root meaning "sound" or "noise" to which the term is possibly related, and this idea of muttering, whispering, or pronouncing spells under one's breath makes sense in a number of texts in which it is found, so the chaber may have bound his victims by the use of incantations. The root is also the source of the word meaning "comrade," in the sense that the comrades are linked together by sworn oaths. Chaberim are included in the Ugaritic inscription of Ras Ibn Hani, a list of evil doers, where it may mean those who magically bind people to do them harm. The word hbry also occurs in a Phoenician inscription form Spain dating from about 730 BCE regarding the "bny s'f l'astrt hbry tnt," translated as either "the oracle priests of Astarte, the companions of Tanit, or "the mediums of Astarte and spell-casters of Tanit."

The ch–ozeh is a professional seer connected to court or temple. Its Aramaic root means "to see," while its related Hebrew root includes seeing in some supernatural sense, in a vision, as well as with the eye. The term appears on a stele from the 8th century BCE in which King Zakir of Hamat invokes his patron god, Ba`al shamayin, who speaks to him through his "ch–ozin (seers) and `adadin (messengers, revealers). `adadin reveal the message (related Ugaritic verb, to tell, and noun, herald), and a connection of `adadin with the use of musical instruments to bring him close to ecstatic phenomena.

chak–amim are a professional class of wise magicians. While the word literally means "wise men," the term has a particular meaning beyond merely having knowledge. It implies special kinds of wisdom and ways of using that knowledge, wisdom connected with nature and creation and the ability to apply that knowledge, especially to deal with crisis. Their function appears to be as courtly counselors versed in the interpretation of signs and dreams.

The chartummim are some type of professional magicians associated with the royal court. There are several possible etymologies for the word chartom. A Hebrew root means 'a chisel to cut with or a sharp metallic instrument to write with,' thus chartummim would likely be some kind of scribe or inscriber. An Arabic root has been also suggested, meaning "to snuffle or to speak through one's nose," another mutterer or whisperer of incantations. The chartummim are associated with other types of magical workers in a wide range of activity, including interpreting natural phenomena, examining livers for omens, analyzing dreams, and divining by various means, although their exact nature is not specified. I suspect his specialty was the creation of talismans and/or magic gems.

The term char–ashim comes from a root whose meaning is unknown, occurring in Ugaritic, Aramaic, Syrian, and Arabic, but which has a general association with magic. It seems to indicate medicine men who by means of cleansing and herbs remove sickness caused by spells. The term occurs in the Ugaritic story of King Keret, where the god 'El fashions a magical creature from mud or clay, named Sha'taqat. She is responsible for healing the king by washing his body clean of sweat and restoring his appetite.

Khnm, priests, is at least as frequent as 'insh 'ilim. The word is often attested in the texts of practice, but never in the rituals, properly speaking. That is surprising. The priests are named in the administrative lists, among the other professional categories which are far from being religious. In the list, one often finds khnm side by side with qdshm. They are not RITUAL priests. Perhaps they consult oracles (statues, objects)

Ka'sdim is a term of Akkadian origin. It is translated in the Old Testament as Chaldeans, a nonspecific term implying some magical training. However the text has them specifically ask King Nebuchadrezzar to tell them his dream so that they give interpretation. It is likely, then, that the kasd m are dream interpreters, although by what techniques is unknown.

L–ewi, source of the Jewish name Levy or Levi, is a term of uncertain etymology. The meaning of lw' (fem. lw't) is "a person pledged for a debt or a vow," therefore, someone consecrated to the temple. In Deuteronomy, it appear that the lewiyyim are consulted (the Hebrew term implies a consultation with the divinity) concerning crimes and act as judges through their contact with the divine ark of the covenant, in some oracular form, as the text specifies that they will declare the judgment from a place which their god will choose. The lewiyyim are also the official consultors of the will of their god through the 'urim and tummim, another divination device. But in an earlier text, the story of Micah and the Danites, the l–ewi is a mobile professional who moves from temple to temple, and who is necessary to consult the oracular devices.

Mekashshepim is a word of vague use in extant texts in the Levant. The term occurs in Ugaritic texts from Ras Shamra and Ras Ibn Hani, where kashapim are considered harmful and dangerous. It may be related to the Assyrian kasshapu, magic worker, usually translated pejoratively in English as sorcerer. The Old Testament texts always relate them to royal courts, generally as non-Hebrews, but since the Deuteronomic texts are so vehemently opposed to their functions, it is apparent that the Hebrew people utilize their skills. There is a suggested link to their use of medicinal and magical herbs and plants. So they are magic workers NOT attached or associated with the temples, but sanctioned at court.

Melachashim has a root meaning "to whisper" or "to charm." It occurs in Ugaritic lchashat, Phoenician and Aramaic lhascha, with the same basic meaning. The term occurs in Ugarit in the Serpent Incantation KTU 1.100, where the term may have multiple meanings implied, relating hissing, whispering, and charming or chanting, and in the Phoenician Arslan Tash incantation plaques (recently declared to be fakes). In most cases the melachashim serve a beneficial function, their whispered charming keeping away evil and sickness, however in the Psalms, the term implies causing illness by enchantment.

Menach-esh means one who observes and determines lucky and unlucky omen. It is linguistically related to an Aramaic root meaning to discover, research, learn by omens and is also related to an Arabic root nachisha, meaning unlucky things or signs. It is probably linked to a root chsh, to make noise softly, whisper or another Semitic root nchsh, to bewitch. In the story of Joseph, the term is used during a case of hydromancy, divination by water.

Other terms for magic workers (i will be adding descriptions):

  • me`onen = soothsayer
  • nabi` = channel of god's power, "prophet"
  • qosem = one who obtains an oracle by drawing lots
  • ro`eh = a seer

Other terms whose meanings are still disputed, are used for people who might have been involved in magical and divinatory practices but where there is not enough data to be certain of the nature and extent of their involvement, include:

The nqdm are translated generally as "shepherds." But the sense must be something other. The importance of nqdm in a post like Ugarit is not well understood if it really concerns shepherds, leaders of flocks. That there were shepherds in the outskirts of Ugarit is highly probable, but in the city itself, and what is more, in the high spheres of the State, seems unlikely. The word shepherd must have another, more symbolic significance. The problem is identical concerning the prophet Amos and for Mesha, the king of Moab, who both bore this title. It might signify a hepatoscopist, but this meaning is still disputed. These people might have been involved in magical and divinatory practices but there is not enough data to be certain.

Other tentative terms include:

  • 'ari'el = an oracle attendant
  • minnezarim = diviners
  • po`al 'awen = evil doers
  • tipsar = astrologer
  • socharim = those who ensnare
  • re`a-im = the wicked ones
  • rokel = magician or trader

Outside the Official Hierarchies

Unofficially there are numerous magic workers. For the needs of the average city-dweller, these are the "Bazaar Magicians," men and women who work outside the temples. Some are priests or priestesses who have time off from their regular duties. Others are those who have dropped out of training or service or who have been expelled from the temples for some reason. Still others are tribal or traditional practitioners not sanctioned by the official priesthood, but employed by the populace. Some official records call them "wild witches" and "black magicians" to disparage their abilities. For a price, generally less than the official temple would demand, these magical workers will perform divinations, exorcisms, purifications, and healings, as well as create amulets and inscribe talismans.

They are in direct economic competition with official temple magicians. To discourage people from doing business with bazaar magicians, the official priests say that they curse or cast evil spells and must be combated by "legitimate" magicians. Kasshapatu (fem.) and Kasshapu (masc.) is one of the most common terms used to refer to them. It is often translated as witch (fem.) or sorcerer (masc.) in English with a pejorative meaning. However, it is essentially a neutral term for "a magic worker not sanctioned by the temple," whether of negative or positive implication to be determined by context.

These free-lance magical workers also perform a type of magic which was frowned upon by the official hierarchy: necromancy. This is not the raising of the dead, zombie-like, to do one's bidding. Instead, necromancy is communicating with the dead, usually the spirit of a relative or friend, asking them to give advice, to help a relative, or to describe the future. The Babylonian term for such a magic worker is Meshelu Edimmu = Raiser of Ghosts or Departed Spirits. In the ancient Near East, contact with the dead and with ghosts was considered to make one impure, which might explain the ambivalence of the population's attitude toward necromancers.

The Magical Responsibilities of the Individual

Finally, individuals had magical work which was their own responsibility or within their own capability. All people were responsible for maintaining their state of purity through their own behavior. Each person could decide the meaning of hiser own dreams and the portents which s/he saw. Finally, everyone could perform minor acts of magic on her/his own behalf.

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1997 Lilinah biti-Anat
Modified 18 December 2007

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