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

Chapter Three
**** Magic: Why Do People Want to Do It? ****


People in ancient times performed acts of magic for a variety of reasons. These can be broken down into four primary categories: Success, Protection, Retrieval, and Vengeance. In fact, these are the factors that still motivate us today, although we frown upon personal vengeance, preferring the state to carry out legal vengeance.


Personal improvement: Spells of Success

These serve the urge to Satisfy one's Needs and Desires. Success can be acquiring money or making useful connections with influential people. Getting love is a form of success. So is attaining fame or a desired position. Or it can be something on a smaller scale, like getting an object, being invited to an party, or completing a project. Basically, it is getting something one did not have before, be it physical or emotional, social or personal.

Common Motives in the Ancient Past would be to:

  • Win in War/Battle
  • Succeed in Business
  • Succeed in Love
  • Acquire Good Luck or Good Fortune
  • Win in Sporting Competitions
  • Achieve Promotions or Honors
  • Accomplish Fertility of a Woman
  • Find hidden or lost Treasure

These Ends Could Be Achieved Through:

  • Understanding the meaning of omens, dreams, etc.
  • Knowing the best days or times to do things
  • Keeping or regaining purity
  • Performing magic

Counter-spells: Spells of Protection

These are to Prevent the Loss of What One Already Has. This can mean keeping one's material possessions, one's health, one's good position, or one's relationships. It is protecting oneself and one's loved ones from emotional and psychological trauma, as well as from physical harm.

Common Motives in the Ancient Past would be to:

  • Safeguard one's own Possessions, Status, Health, & Well-being
  • Safeguard those of Family Members and Significant Others
  • Maintain Advantageous Relationships

These Ends Could Be Achieved Through:

  • Knowing the best days or times to do things
  • Understanding the meaning of omens, dreams, etc.
  • Keeping or regaining purity
  • Divination: To find what one has done or has neglected to do that might cause problems and then do what is right to prevent problems
  • Performing magic

Serpent Charmer's [melakhash] Story
a protective poem from Ugarit, tablet RS 24.244

* Note: a period (.) between consonants means that the appropriate vowel sound is not known.

Verse 1.

  1. The mother of the Stallion, the Mare,
  2. daughter of the Spring, daughter of the Stone,
  3. daughter of the Heaven and of the Ocean,
  4. Called to Shapshu, her mother [Shapash = the Sun Goddess]
  5. Shapshu, the mother of Q.l-b.l:
  6. With 'El of the confluence of the rivers in the gathering of the Two Oceans
  7. is the incantation for the bite of the serpent,
  8. for the sting of the serpent, the scaly.
  9. From him, the conjurer shall destroy,
  10. from him, he shall eradicate the venom.
  11. There he shall bind the serpent,
  12. shall feed the serpent, the scaly,
  13. shall set up a chair and sit down.

In each succeeding repetition of the verse, indicated below by number, substitute for line 6 the following line:

2nd time: With Ba`al of the Heights of Tsaphon
3rd time: With Dagan in Tuttul
4th time: With `Anat and 'Ashtart on Mount Inbubu
5th time: With Yarikh at Larugat
6th time: With Reshep at Babut
7th time: With `Ashtart of Mari
8th time: With Tat and Kamush at Churyat
9th time: With Melek of `Ashtartu
10th time: With Kothar-wa-Chasis at Kaphtor/Crete
11th time: With Shachar and Shalam in Shamim
12th time: With Choron in Matsad

Verse 13.

To Choron she inclined her face
and she bereaved of his virility.
He estranged himself from the city of Qedem the East,
Then indeed he headed toward Arashshich the great,
yea Arashshich abounding in water.
He uprooted among the trees a tamarisk, [to perform the namburb ritual]
yea among the shrubbery, a tree of Death.
The tamarisk shook the evil off,
the date palm shoot eliminated it,
the fragrant reed bulb removed it,
the yblt -plant carried it away.
Choron arrived at his house,
yea entered his court.
His vitality became strong like a torrent
it streamed lke a stream.

Verse 14.

Behind him are houses of incantation
behind him are houses of chambers
behind him is an edifice of bronze.
"Open the house of incantation!
Open the house, and I shall follow,
the palace, and I shall enter!
Give, as the (marriage price), serpents!
An adder give as my marriage price,
and sons of asp, as my love gift!"
"I will give serpents as thy marriage price,
sons of asp, as thy love gift."

Although the spell has an even number of verses, notice that there are actually a shabbattum, a double seven, i.e., fourteen in all.

Compare Verse 13 with this prayer from the Babylonian ritual text Maqlu:

May the tamarisk whose branches grow high purify me
may the date palm that faces every wind absolve me,
may the mashtakal which fills the earth cleanse me
may the pine cone that is full of seeds absolve.

The above verse from Maqlu may be related to a ritual from another Akkadian table, text K 3365:

You go to the river bank, you dig a well.
At the edge of the well you draw seven designs with flour.
Upon them you throw tamarisk, mashtakal-plant, date shoots and qan-shalali.
You have the man kneel over them
The liturgist stands over him,
and three times that man raises his eyes.
You recite the incantation 'you angered the god.'

After this there are sprinkling the plants with water from the well and more incantations and fumigations. Finally, the plants are, in all probability, thrown into the river. This action is based on the following, from R. Caplice's Text No. 10 - after a complicated performance and incantation:

"you throw tamarisk, dil.bat-plant (= mashtakal), qan-shalali, a date palm shoot and the izbu (the abnormal animal )
together with its provisions and its gifts, into the river"

from Arslan Tash, the ancient Khadattu
which was on the main road from Harran to Carchemish

Engraved on a limestone plaque 8.5 X 7 cm. with a rounded upper edge pierced by a hole for hanging, in an undetermined Canaanite dialect, in Aramaic writing, seeming to date from the 7th C. BCE. Ssm is possibly a mythological being of Anatolian or Egyptian provenance, but not a full-fledged god such as is pictured on the reverse of the plaque. The incantation is directed against a winged sphinx and a she-wolf devouring a human being, both pictured on the obverse and collectively called the 'stranglers,' female demons who cause the death of infants and children. However, some scholars in the 1990's have begun to believe it is a forgery.

The Obverse Side:

translation by Franz Rosenthal:Alternate translation by H. Torczyner:
1. An incantation for the female flying demon,Incantation (conjuration) for the `Ephata,
2. The bond of Ssm, son of Pdrsh :the curse of Ssm, son of Pdrsh :
3. Take theseTake up the curse
4. and to the strangling femalesand to the she-stranglers
5. say: The house I enter,[Ssm ben Pdrsh] say: The house which I enter
6. ye shall not enter, ye shall not enter,
7. and the courtyard I tread, and the court which I tread
8. ye shall not tread. ye shall not tread; thou [Ssm ben Pdrsh]
9. An eternal bond has been established for us.hast concluded for us [the people invoking SSm] a covenant of eternity,
10. Ashshur has established itwhich thou hast concluded
11. for us, and all the divine beings,with us, and every divine being
12. and the majority of the group of all the holy ones,and chief & officer [prince, angel], all our holy ones:
13. through the bond of heaven and earthwith the curse by heaven and earth
14. for ever, through the bond of Ba`al,above, with the curse of Ba`al
15. the lord of the earth, through the bondbelow the earth ['master of that which is below the earth' is possible], with the curse
16. of the wife of Chauron, whose utterance is pure,Spoken by Sz the she-wolf, addressing the god Choron:
17. and her seven co-wivesPut, Choron, six [of the strangling `Ephata] into my mouth [and I shall devour them],
and [if I can devour only those 6] 7 [will] my co-wife [devour],
18. and the eight wives of Ba‘aland [even] 8 [will] the wife of my holy husband [eat]!
Du Mesnil reads:Albright translates:
16. Spouse of Choron Qsh (she) whose mouth is whole saying:Wives of Chauron, whose utterance is true,
17. Seven are my rivals,and his seven concubines
18. but the eighth women is the legitimate spouse of my Lord (= my husband) Qsh!and the eight wives of Ba`al.

[`Ephata - Aramaic plural feminine name of the nightly shadows, seen in popular belief as she-demon flying in the dark, and called in targumic Aramaic also (Heb. i.n.l.t), “shadow-demons” These shadow-demons themselves are seen in human form, for they are originally the spirits of the dead who, according to popular belief, return into their bodies and haunt the earth in the darkness of the night]

[SSM - The name Ssm, from which are also derived the proper names Shashmai in Akkadian, (Heb. i.m.s.s.) in the Bible, (Heb. m.s.s d.b.‘a) in Ugaritic inscriptions, is therefore the name of a god, and it is he who is represented on the reverse of the tablet, threatening the demons.]

[She-strangler - Heb. (t.q.n.h), Aramaic incantations texts from Nippur, spelled (’a.t.q.n.‘a) or (’a.t.q.n.’a) ?honeqot, modern Arabic name of the feminine demon Qar nah, chanouq al-hamal, “strangler of the lamb”]

[Chauron - Gaster points out that since CHoron is the god of the underworld, the reference to his consort would accord perfectly with the frequernt invocation of Ereshkigal, wife of Nergal, even in late Greek charms. Moreover, it is significant that in Lamashtu I iii 41 the sorcerer similarly calls upon Ninkarrak, “mistress of the underworld” (abarakkat Ekur ). Then, too Torczyner's elimination of the epithet (Heb. read right to left: i.p m.t sh.’a) overlooks the point that this is the perfect equivalent of the Accadian sha pushu ellu, so common in incantations when “saving deities” are invoked.]

On the “sphinx” :

[H. Torczyner says: "a winged lion (called in Hebrew Ariel or Cherub with a human head and a pointed helmet - I find in CHoron the name of the deity represented in our tablet in the figure of the winged lion"]:

translation by Franz Rosenthal:

To the female demon that flies in the dark chamber say: 19
Pass by, time and again, Lili(t)! 20

Alternate translation by H. Torczyner: Spoken by the conjurer to the demons:
19. To the ‘Ephata -demons in the chamber of darkness say:
20. Go away, terror, my nightly terror!

On the she-wolf:
21. To the robbing slaying female say: Go Away! 21
22. The god's reply to the conjurer:
23. With olive oil thou hast washed, and it is gone.

[She-wolf - description by H. Torczyner:
a she-wolf with a scorpion's tail, devouring what looks like a human figure of which only the legs project from her jaws the she-wolf is not one of the demons threatened by our incantation If such a demon or evil spirit is shown in the drawing, he [sic] (as on Aramaic incantation bowls) is bound and fettered hand and foot and thus made incapable of harming anybody. the she-wolf is shown in the act of devouring other beings, she is a helpful deity, devouring the evil spirits, and not herself one of them ]

[Torczyner expands: "Thou (who lieth here in the chamber of darkness) hast washed (thy body) with (cleansing) olive oil, (and already the nightly terror) has gone..."]

The Reverse Side:

On and around the deity:

[description by W. F. Albright: a marching god, brandishing a small axe in his right hand; he wears the short Assyrian tunic and long cloak, opened so as to leave the left leg free; to his girdle is attached a short sword and on his head is a turban surmounted by a lily]

22. Sz zt, may his [mouth] not (?) open
23. Let the sun rise, eternally, eternally!
Spoken by the conjurer to the she-wolf:
Sz, open an olive for me, that we shall have light,
until the sun rises, the morning shines.

[Sz zt - Sz zt defended by Gaster as representing ‘that hissing and spitting which was a frequent element of incantations - such a name as Sz is nowhere known, and to say that it may be Hurrian is simply to resort to that elusive factor which is coming, unfortunately, to be employed as a virtual synonym of the unknown or inexplicable’]

[open an olive - and since the whole incantation is invoked against the spirits of the darkness, and since in the continuation the rising of the sun is mentioned, the opening of an olive certainly serves to make oil and light; kindling a lamp filled with olive oil until the sun rises expels the spirits of the night, which are not allowed to remain after daybreak. Until then, the lighting of such a magic lamp has the power to drive away the evil demons]

Alternate translation by other scholars, but according to Franz Rosenthal, based upon the doubtful reconstruction of missing words and upon an uncertain and, it seems, unwarranted emendation of what is actually written:

22. May her womb be opened and may she give birth!
23. When the sun rises, travail, and give birth!

Spells of Retrieval

These are to Regain What One Has Lost. Most obviously, this would be getting back one's own material goods which one has lost or which have been stolen. It would apply to one's own health. And it also includes one's broken relationships.

But it includes a type of magic not commonly thought of today. Finding lost treasure was a common magic goal in ancient through Renaissance times. Those searching for it were not the ones who lost it. In fact, the valued commodity may never have been lost, merely hidden. Finding it would be like finding the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow or winning the lottery getting something for nothing, or at least for very little. Here is a situation in which necromancy was used in Renaissance and Reformation times: to ask the spirits of the dead where in life they had hidden their wealth, since in those days most people didn't have access to banks.

Common Motives in the Ancient Past would be to Regain:

  • Physical well-being, i.e., to Heal
  • Spiritual well-being, i.e., to Purify
  • Possessions, lost or stolen
  • Love

These Ends Could Be Achieved Through:

  • Medicine: herbal, animal, and mineral substances, as well as spells (physical)
  • Purification, symbolic (physical and spiritual)
  • Cleansing, actual (physical and spiritual)
  • Divination: Find what one has or hasn't done that is causing problems and do the right thing to correct it

Exorcisms: Spells of Disbursal

Spells are also needed to get rid of something one may have that one doesn't want: contact with a spirit entity which is causing personal harm or illness. Many illnesses and ailments were considered to be caused by spirit entities, which translations often term "demons." These entities were of various sorts, some purely evil, some generally neutral, but somehow one has "gotten on their bad side." One could also have attracted an unhappy ghost, who was not at rest as should be, but wandering about. An exorcism could include many other types of magic as well: counter-spells, chanting, anointing, knotting, burning of knotted cords or images, magic circles, censing, aspersing, bathing, and numerous others.

Common Motives in the Ancient Past would be to:

  • Regain Physical well-being, i.e., to Heal
  • Regain Spiritual well-being, i.e., to Purify
  • Regain general well-being, reputation, etc.

These Ends Could Be Achieved Through:

  • Divination: Find what one has or hasn't done that is causing problems and do the right thing to correct it
  • Exorcism, Dispelling (physical and spiritual)
  • Purification, symbolic (physical and spiritual)
  • Cleansing, actual (physical and spiritual)
  • Medicine: herbal, animal, and mineral substances, as well as spells (physical)

Curses: Spells of Vengeance

These are used to Avenge Irretrievable Loss or Unforgivable Hurt. We have been taught by Christianity to turn the other cheek. We are also told by modern society to obey the law, go through official channels, and let the legal and penal systems take care of punishing offenders. Wanting to get back at someone who has done you wrong is a common feeling. And magic for this purpose was very common form of throughout entire world. In ancient times, one often did not have recourse to such systems, or the systems demanded payments by the plaintiff or were prejudiced by gender or class. There would then be good reason to take the righting of perceived wrongs into one's own hands.

A spell can be for more than one purpose. One ancient spell included both the desire to have a stolen object returned to its owner and a curse on the thief.

Common Motives in the Ancient Past would be:

  • Justified: to cause someone, sometimes name unknown, pain and suffering through loss of health, well-being, money, relationships, or status, whom one believed caused one injury, either through physical, emotional, or material loss or pain; Example: Love: break up others' relationships from jealousy and grief
  • Just Plain Cussedness: many Latin defixiones do not include reasons why. Perhaps some people just like the catharsis of cursing.

These Ends Could Be Achieved Through:

  • Complex ritual
  • Verbal Curses
  • Leaving Magically Charged Items in or near the Home of the intended recipient
  • Dolls
  • Defixiones -curses written on lead, leather, paper - left in an appropriate place, usually down a well or into a grave

Some Common Forms of Magic

  • Potions
    • drink
    • touch
  • Amulets (various materials) and Talismans
  • Incantations
  • Dolls
  • Miscellaneous ritual items
  • Spell-books
  • Defixiones (curses)

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1997 Lilinah biti-Anat
Modified 18 December 2007

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