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

Chapter Five:
The Importance of Purity and Purification
Questions of Evil and Contagion


Purification is an essential part of religion and magic throughout the Near East. It is required for calling on the deities, participating in ritual, curing ill-health, or ending bad fortune. It survives today among Moslems in the ablutions performed before prayer in a mosque, where the fountain for washing is the counterpart of the ancient purificatory pools in the Pagan temples, and among Jews with hand-washing often ritually performed at the dinner table for sacred feasts.

A word of caution, when reading translations of ancient texts. Often modern authors use the word "evil," as an adjective when the original word implies "unfortunate" in the sense that this brings misfortune or refers to someone afflicted with misfortune, or as a noun when the word implies "misfortune."

The monotheisms of the world today are essentially dualistic, viewing things, events, etc. as either/or: Good or Evil, Light or Dark, Sacred or Profane. This apparently represents the influence of Manicheanism, a Persian religion of the late ancient period which described the world thus divided into two halves in conflict. In much of the Ancient Near East, however, things were not so neatly or simply defined.

What might be potentially dangerous could also be potentially helpful, spirits of the dead, for example. Or the Mesopotamian kashshapu (masc.)/ kashshaptu (fem.), who was not solely the cause of harmful magic, but might also be a source of useful magic as well. Many of the untamed spirits dwelling in the wilderness, possible causes of misfortune, could also be used to assist one in achieving one's ends. Furthermore, if Person X worked magic which affected Person Y in a way that Y did not like, it was bad, but if Person Y retaliated by performing magic to afflict Person X, the same sort of magic X had done, this was not bad, from the perspective of Y.

A second warning. Scholars also sometimes use the work "sin" to translate words which actually have a different connotation in the original language. Frequently, this is something which has caused one to become impure. If one discovers the cause and performs the appropriate ritual and cleansing, one is no longer impure. This is rather different than the implications of the Christian use of "sin." One may need to offer some sort of sacrifice, but one's soul is not mortally sullied, unless one does nothing to rectify the situation. One is not damned, temporarally or eternally, in any case, although one may die from pollution. Generally, one suffers in life for one's mistakes. All souls go ultimately to the same place after death in the Mesopotamian and Levantine world-views.

Maintaining the Purity of the Priesthood in Egypt

During his time of service, an Egyptian priest lived a restricted life in the temple. Then he would have three months off, during which he lived in the lay community in a way not very different from the average layman. While in temple service, he purified himself before he came in contact with the deity. To be pure, or clean in a religious sense, even the most common order of priest, the wab priest, had to shave off all the hair on his body. Washing also was an important part of purification. Herodotus says that priests bathed four times a day, twice during the day and twice in the evening. Many temples had sacred lakes where purification was performed.

In addition to shaving and washing, priests were circumcised and prohibited from eating certain foods. The forbidden foods varied from nome to nome (district), but the most universally proscribed food seems to have been fish. This prohibition held only for the priests, as fish was a staple of the commoner. There were also clothing restrictions. Priests were not permitted to wear wool. They wore only fine linen, stored in special rooms of the temples and cared for by other priests whose function it was to assure their cleanliness. The sem-priest, or high priest, did wear a leopard skin at important occasions as the sign of his office.

Another condition of purity was sexual abstinence, which extended only for the time during which he was actually in service in the temple.

from Bob Beier, Ancient Egyptian Magic

Causes of Impurity

Impurity was considered one of the primary causes of bad fortune or ill health. One could become impure by a number of means.

is something which just comes to pass, not caused by any action on the part of the individual. One could determine if this was the source through the interpretation of dreams or omens.
is contact with someone or something impure. Often the source was female: A man would become polluted if he was touched by a menstruating woman or one who had recently given birth, or if he walked between two women. Other sources could include coming in contact with someone who had recently handled a corpse or had even looked at one. And pollution could be caused by contact with someone unclean in some other way, especially someone who recently had sex but hadn't washed afterwards.
Neglect of One's Ancestors
It was one's duty to feed one's dead relatives, which was often accomplished by pouring foodstuffs down a tube directly into the grave or sarcophagus. Also there were annual rituals for dead ancestors. If one did not perform these, the offended ghost would be the source of the problem.
One's Own Actions
could cause a state of impurity. Perhaps one did something one shouldn't have, even unwittingly; or one neglected to do something one should have. Just what caused this must be determined by consulting a diviner, if one was not aware oneself of any misdeed.
could cause pollution. In Sumerian/Babylonian/ Assyrian this edimmu could make a visible appearance or an invisible attack. Among the possible types were
  • the wandering ghost returned from land of dead
  • the spirit of one who had died before his time
  • the ghost of one whose body was unburied
  • a spirit who wasn't being fed by his descendents, but unrelated to the person attacked
  • the ghost of one who was an evil-doer in life
  • one whose bones were removed from their grave

Evil Spirits
such as were known later in the Arab world as djinn or efrit. They were often classified in clusters in the Akkadian literature. Remember, most spirits are perhaps a bit chaotic, but not evil. Through you actions, however, you may attract one that is, or cause a basically neutral spirit to hazardous to you.

First is the group referred to in the Utukku limnu texts: "utukku limnu, alu limnu, edimmu limnu, gallu limnu, ilu limnu, rabitsu limnu":
Utukku = "evil," i.e. causing misfortune or harm.
  • Utukku Limnu = evil spirit that lurked in the graveyard or in the wild places - such as the desert, mountains, or sea
  • Utukku Alu = evil demon
  • Utukku Edimmu = evil ghost
  • Utukku Gallu = evil devil, is without gender
  • Utukku Ilu = evil god
  • Utukku Rabitsu = evil fiend, a particualr lurking demon which sets the hair of the body on end

A second group of evil spirits is a specific associated trio: Labartu, Ahchazu, and Labasu: The Labartu is female, lives in mountains or marshes, and attacks children. A baby could be protected by wearing a specially inscribed stone amulet, and never letting the new mother and infant be alone during the first nine days after birth. Second in the group is the Ahchazu, "Seizer," who can fill a person with Ahchazu disease. About the third, the Labasu, little of a specific nature is known.

Third are the Seven Evil Spirits: Storm, Flood, Drought, Earthquake, War, Disease, and Death, who all show a predilection for human blood.

These spirits were more often merely uncivilized, or perhaps chaotic, like Nature, than truly evil. Often the words for them have been translated by the words "devil" or "demon." Even if perceived as neutral, they are something to fear, for if they are attrated to you, your well-being will suffer.

Demons frequented uninhabited places, deserts and forests and fields, as well as unclean places. Demons consort in the shade of trees and in the shadows cast by the moon. Nut trees in particular were to be shunned as meeting places of the spirits. A special connection exists between the storm-winds, tempests, whirlwinds, and the evil spirits. The home of all is in the north, which indeed is the source of all evil. Privies especially were believed to be haunted and even the Jewish Talmud prescribed special incantations invoking the protection of guardian angels in these places.

Evil spirits, sometimes called "spirits of uncleanness," and once identified by the name bat melech in Hebrew, "the daughter of Moloch", rest upon unwashed hands, contaminate foods handled with them, and endanger the lives of those who eat such food. Seven occasions which require a ritual washing of the hands (which destroys or dislodges the demons) were enumerated; most important among these was upon arising in the morning, for the night creates a special susceptibility to spirit contamination. Touching the eyes, ears, nose and mouth with unwashed hands spells trouble; no doubt it was feared that the evil spirits would enter the body through these orifices.

Night time in particular is spirit time. Therefore, liquids left standing overnight must not be drunk, nor should one drink from a well at night. Foods placed under a bed for safekeeping during the night are undoubtedly contaminated by evil spirits, even a covering of iron (a potent anti-demonic agent) is no security against nocturnal invasion. Similarly garlic, or onions, or eggs which have been peeled and left overnight are no longer fit for consumption. "If anyone goes out alone before cock-crow his blood is on his own head." Even in the privacy of his own home, a man was hardly safe.

(adapted from Joshua Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition)

It is important for several reasons to maintain your personal spiritual purity. Foremost, of course, is for your own well-being. If you are impure/unclean, bad things are likely to happen to you. Two, if you are unclean, you is contagious, and can contaminate other people who come in contact with you. Three, being in an unclean condition is dangerous. Not only are you risking your own well-being, but the well-being of your family, and potentially, even your city or state. Rarely does it get to the upper level of hazard, unless you are an important person in your community. You can draw more harmful spirits to you, your household, and your community. You will potentially be abandoned by your gods - you can see how bad it can get. Of course, there is hope. You can contact your Guardian Spirits and through ritual purification you can return to a state of harmony.

Guardian Spirits

In Mesopotamian belief, one was also accompanied by a group of Good Guardian Spirits and personal souls.

The ilu
masculine, is one's personal god, who imparts luck and good fortune, and seems to be the divine element within one, one's own god-self.
The ishtaru
feminine, is one's personal goddess. She determines one's lot in life, including one's talents and powers, the length of one's days, and the events occurring in them. She seems to be one's personality as an endowment and one's death as a fulfillment, especially one's natural death. Scholars sometimes translate this as "fate" or "destiny."
The shedu
masculine, is one's protective spirit, who is connected with the spirits of the dead, that is, one's ancestors. This spirit represents the vitality of the individual, one's sexual potency and elan vital.
The lamassu
feminine, is essentially one's guardian angel. She determines the essential aspects of an individual, one's distinctively individual characteristics. She seems to represent one's external soul manifested in the likeness of the individual.

It is important to keep these Guardian Spirits in harmony with you, and you with them. Of course, maintaining "cleanliness" is one important method. You also need to make offerings to these spirits, to assure that they are strong and content. You must never forget them nor forget to thank them for their continued beneficial presence, or they may become alienated, and the quality of your life will suffer as a consequence. You must never assume that because you "have" these spirits, that they will always be there to protect you. If you behave too badly too often, they may well abandon you. Their purpose is to oversee the harmony and well-being of your life, but if you are not also being responsible for your life, you may lose their protection.

Methods of Purification

Purification by Water

The foremost method of purification is by Water - which can necessitate bathing the whole body, washing parts of the body, pouring water over parts of the body, or sprinkling with blessed water. The use of water serves a dual purpose, as it both cleanses away evil and purifies the person being washed. A potent source for the Assyrian healer was water from a place where two streams run together, mimicking the place where the chief god resides at source of thedouble world oceans. Depending on the culture or the illness, herbs may be added to the water.

Purificatory example:
My city is Tzappan, my city is Tzappan
Of my city Tzappan there are two gates
One to the east and one to the west
One towards the rising of the sun,
the other towards its setting.
I bear a box, a pot, a mashtakal-plant
To give water to the gods of heaven.
As I have brought ye purification,
So do ye purify me.
Exorcistic example:
May Marduk, eldest son of Eridu,
Sprinkle him with pure water,
Clean water, bright water, limpid water,
with the water twice seven times;
May he be pure, may he be clean;
Let the evil rabitzu go forth and stand away from him;
May a kindly shedu-geni, may a kindly lamassu-geni
be present near his body.

Purification by Blood

A second potent form of purification is the Blood Sacrifice. The most common sacrifice was usually a sheep or goat, and only sometimes bovine, such as a bull, ox, or cow. Fowl were rarely used, and only deemed commonly acceptable much later. Often the ritual participants and/or the place to be sanctified were sprinkled with the blood of the sacrificed animal. Blood is multipurpose: it can cleanse, purify, and sanctify. The sacrificial animal could also be used as a substitute for an ailing patient: the magician would transfer the illness to the animal, then sacrifice it to the "demons," the cause of the disease, thus removing the source of the ailment.

It is rare today that we have access to animals. I am not here recommending animal sacrifice, which is a concept fraught with disturbing connotations and almost guaranteed to arouse powerful negative emotions among Euro-American Jews and Christians. However, in most cases in the past, the animal sacrificed was a domesticated animal, raised to be killed and eaten, the very beasts mentioned above which are still our primary sources of meat. Anyone who eats meat today is a cause of the sacrifice of animals. The biggest difference is that most of us are at such a remove from it that we do not have to think about the terrible suffering the animals endure before being slaughtered.

There are still religions today which utilized sacred animal sacrifice, usually sharing the butchered animal in a ritual feast. Devout Jews and Moslems require that their animals be ritually slaughtered after inspection by a trained specialist to ensure that the animal and both the methods of death and of butchering follow religious law. Torture of an animal is nowhere encouraged in any of the religions of which I am aware. In many cases the animal is fêted, specially fed, decorated, often massaged or carressed, before its spirit and blood are sent to the Divine Ones.

Purification by Fire

A third method was by Fire. The magician would pass through the smoke of incense or of sacred wood whatever or whoever needed to be purified. Alternately, the magician would burn an image of the source of illness as a sacrificial offering. This sacred and magical purification by fire could the source of the intentionally misinterpreted Moloch rite in the Old Testament.

Purification by Other Means

Other types of purification may also be required before undertaking certain types of magic or rituals. These include eating only ritually pure foods, fasting, sexual abstinence, carefully following rules of behavior, etc.

One thing to bear in mind, fasting usually does NOT mean doing without food and water. It can often mean eating and drinking only a very limited set of foods. Going on a purifying fast in ancient times oftem meant doing without rich or desirable foods and eating a restricted set of the most common foods, such as only one type of grain, no meat, a few limited vegetables, and drinking only water. One is generally not asked to starve for one's benefit, merely observe restrictions.

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1997 Lilinah biti-Anat
Modified 18 December 2007

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