ⓘ Concepts of magic per society


ⓘ Concepts of magic per society

The ancient Mesopotamians believed that magic was the only viable defense against demons, ghosts, and evil sorcerers. To defend themselves against the spirits of those they had wronged, they would leave offerings known as kispu in the persons tomb in hope to appease them. If that did not work, they also sometimes took a figurine of the deceased and buried it in the ground, demanding for the gods to eradicate the spirit, or force it to leave the person alone.

The ancient Mesopotamians also used magic to protect themselves from evil sorcerers who might place curses on them. They had no distinction between "light magic" and "black magic" and a person defending him or herself from witchcraft would use exactly the same techniques as the person trying to curse someone. The only major difference was the fact that curses were enacted in secret; whereas a defense against sorcery was conducted in the open, in front of an audience if possible. One ritual to punish a sorcerer was known as Maqlû, or "The Burning". The person afflicted by the witchcraft would create an effigy of the sorcerer and put it on trial at night. Then, once the nature of the sorcerer’s crimes had been determined, the person would burn the effigy and thereby break the sorcerer’s power over him or her.

The ancient Mesopotamians also performed magical rituals to purify themselves of sins committed unknowingly. One such ritual was known as the Surpu, or "Burning", in which the caster of the spell would transfer the guilt for all his or her misdeeds onto various objects such as a strip of dates, an onion, and a tuft of wool. He or she would then burn the objects and thereby purify him or herself of all sins that he or she might have unknowingly committed. A whole genre of love spells existed. Such spells, which usually invoked the aid of the goddess Ishtar, were believed to cause a person to fall in love with another person, restore love which had faded, or cause a male sexual partner to be able to sustain an erection when he had previously been unable. Other spells were used to reconcile a man with his patron deity or to reconcile a wife with a husband who had been neglecting her.

The ancient Mesopotamians had no distinction between "rational science" and magic. When a person became ill, doctors would proscribe both magical formulas to be recited as well as medicinal treatments. Most magical rituals were intended to be performed by an āsipu, an expert in the magical arts. The profession was generally passed down from father to son and was held in extremely high regard and often served as advisors to kings and great leaders. An āsipu probably served not only as a magician, but also as a physician, a priest, a scribe, and a scholar. He would have likely owned a large library of clay tablets containing important religious texts and hymns.

The Sumerian god Enki, who was later syncretized with the East Semitic god Ea, was closely associated with magic and incantations; he was the patron god of the bārȗ and the asipū and was widely regarded as the ultimate source of all arcane knowledge. The ancient Mesopotamians also believed in omens, which could come when solicited or unsolicited. Regardless of how they came, omens were always taken with the utmost seriousness. The Mesopotamians also invented astrology.


1. Ancient Egypt

Magic was an integral part of ancient Egyptian religion and culture. The ancient Egyptians would often wear magical amulets, known as meket, for protection. The most common material for such amulets was a kind of ceramic known as faience, but amulets were also made of stone, metal, bone, and wood. Amulets depicted specific symbols. One of the most common protective symbols was the Eye of Horus, which represented the new eye given to Horus by the god Thoth as a replacement for his old eye, which had been destroyed during a battle with Horus’s uncle Seth. The most popular amulet was the scarab beetle, the emblem of the god Khepri. Pregnant women would wear amulets depicting Tauret, the goddess of childbirth, to protect against miscarriage. The god Bes, who had the head of a lion and the body of a dwarf, was believed to be the protector of children. After giving birth, a mother would remove her Tauret amulet and put on a new amulet representing Bes.

Like the Mesopotamians, the ancient Egyptians had no distinction between magic and medicine. The Egyptians believed that diseases stemmed from supernatural origins and ancient Egyptian doctors would prescribe both magical and practical remedies to their patients. Doctors would interrogate their patients to find out what ailments the person was suffering from. The symptoms of the disease determined which deity the doctor needed to invoke in order to cure it. Doctors were extremely expensive, so, for most everyday purposes, the average Egyptian would have relied on individuals who were not professional doctors, but who possessed some form of medical training or knowledge. Among these individuals were folk healers and seers, who could set broken bones, aid mothers in giving birth, proscribe herbal remedies for common ailments, and interpret dreams. If a doctor or seer was unavailable, then everyday people would simply cast their spells on their own without assistance. Although most Egyptians were illiterate, it was likely commonplace for individuals to memorize spells and incantations for later use.

The main principle behind Egyptian magic seems to have been the notion that, if a person said something with enough conviction, the statement would automatically become true. The interior walls of the pyramid of Unas, the final pharaoh of the Egyptian Fifth Dynasty, are covered in hundreds of magical spells and inscriptions, running from floor to ceiling in vertical columns. These inscriptions are known as the "Pyramid Texts" and they contain spells needed by the pharaoh in order to survive in the Afterlife. The Pyramid Texts were strictly for royalty only; the spells were kept secret from commoners and were written only inside royal tombs. During the chaos and unrest of the First Intermediate Period, however, tomb robbers broke into the pyramids and saw the magical inscriptions. Commoners began learning the spells and, by the beginning of the Middle Kingdom, commoners began inscribing similar writings on the sides of their own coffins, hoping that doing so would ensure their own survival in the Afterlife. These writings are known as the "Coffin Texts".

Eventually, the Coffin Texts became so extensive that they no longer fit on the outside of a coffin. They began to be instead recorded on scrolls of papyrus, which would then be placed inside the coffin with the deceased’s own corpse. The writings on these scrolls are now known as The Book of the Dead. There were hundreds of different versions of The Book of the Dead, all of them containing different spells. Egyptologists have identified more than four hundred different spells belonging to The Book of the Dead collectively. Egyptologists have codified and classified these spells, assigning them specific numbers based on their content and purpose.

As The Book of the Dead became more popular, a whole industry of scribes arose for the sole purpose of copying manuscripts so that customers would be able to buy copies of the spells to be buried with them in their tombs. The quality of manuscripts was highly variable. Some editions were ninety feet long and contained beautiful, color illustrations to illuminate the text; others were short with no illustrations whatsoever. The scrolls were copied before they were bought, meaning that the name of the owner was unknown. As such, the scribes would leave the places for the person’s name blank and fill in the persons name after the scroll was purchased. Sometimes scribes would accidentally misread or miscopy what they were writing. Sometimes the spells would be abbreviated in order to avoid running out of space. Such mistakes could render the texts unintelligible.

After a person died, his or her corpse would be mummified and wrapped in linen bandages in order to ensure that the deceaseds body would survive for as long as possible because the Egyptians believed that a persons soul could only survive in the Afterlife for as long as his or her physical body survived here on earth. The last ceremony before a persons body was sealed away inside the tomb was known as the "Opening of the Mouth". In this ritual, the priests would touch various magical instruments to various parts of the deceaseds body, thereby giving the deceased the ability to see, hear, taste, and smell in the Afterlife.

Before dead person was buried, his or her mummified corpse would be stuffed full of magic amulets and protective charms in order to ensure that he or she would be safe in the next world. The family would also place important grave goods inside the person’s tomb in order to ensure that he or she had everything he or she would need in the next life. Among these grave goods were small figurines made of faience or wood known as shabti. The shabti were intended as slaves for the deceased. The ancient Egyptians believed that physical labor was just as necessary in the Afterlife as it was in the present one. As such, they believed that the deceased could cast a spell to animate these figurines so that he or she would be able to order them to perform tasks and chores in the Afterlife so that the deceased him or herself would not be forced to perform any labor.


2. Classical antiquity

Ancient Greek scholarship of the 20th century, almost certainly influenced by Christianising preconceptions of the meanings of magic and religion, and the wish to establish Greek culture as the foundation of Western rationality, developed a theory of ancient Greek magic as primitive and insignificant, and thereby essentially separate from Homeric, communal polis religion. Since the last decade of the century, however, recognising the ubiquity and respectability of acts such as katadesmoi "binding spells", described as magic by modern and ancient observers alike, scholars have been compelled to abandon this viewpoint. The Greek word mageuo "practise magic" itself derives from the word Magos, originally simply the Greek name for a Persian tribe known for practising religion. Non-civic "mystery cults" have been similarly re-evaluated:

the choices which lay outside the range of cults did not just add additional options to the civic menu, but. sometimes incorporated critiques of the civic cults and Panhellenic myths or were genuine alternatives to them.

Katadesmoi Latin: defixiones), curses inscribed on wax or lead tablets and buried underground, were frequently executed by all strata of Greek society, sometimes to protect the entire polis. Communal curses carried out in public declined after the Greek classical period, but private curses remained common throughout antiquity. They were distinguished as magical by their individualistic, instrumental and sinister qualities. These qualities, and their perceived deviation from inherently mutable cultural constructs of normality, most clearly delineate ancient magic from the religious rituals of which they form a part.

A large number of magical papyri, in Greek, Coptic, and Demotic, have been recovered and translated. They contain early instances of:

  • the use of mysterious symbols or sigils which are thought to be useful when invoking or evoking spirits.
  • the use of "magic words" said to have the power to command spirits;

The practice of magic was banned in the late Roman world, and the Codex Theodosianus 438 AD states:

If any wizard therefore or person imbued with magical contamination who is called by custom of the people a magician.should be apprehended in my retinue, or in that of the Caesar, he shall not escape punishment and torture by the protection of his rank.


3. Middle Ages

Ars Magica or magic is a major component and supporting contribution to the belief and practice of spiritual, and in many cases, physical healing throughout the Middle Ages. Emanating from many modern interpretations lies a trail of misconceptions about magic, one of the largest revolving around wickedness or the existence of nefarious beings who practice it. These misinterpretations stem from numerous acts or rituals that have been performed throughout antiquity, and due to their exoticism from the commoners perspective, the rituals invoked uneasiness and an even stronger sense of dismissal.

One societal force in the Middle Ages more powerful than the singular commoner, the Christian Church, rejected magic as a whole because it was viewed as a means of tampering with the natural world in a supernatural manner associated with the biblical verses of Deuteronomy 18:9-12. Despite the many negative connotations which surround the term magic, there exist many elements that are seen in a divine or holy light.

The various yet sparse healers of the Middle Ages were among the few, if not the only, proponents of a positive impression of magic. One of the most famous healers of this time was Saint Hildegard of Bingen. Her healing abilities were so sought after that many individuals, healthy and ill alike, would travel great distances to be blessed by her.

Modern historians of medicine along with the people of the Middle Ages both possess no straightforward answer as to where her abilities derived from; however, many of these historians argue or speculate that they are related to mental visions of which recorded documents, such as her three volumes of visionary theology, depict. The volumes include: Scivias, "Know the Ways", Liber Vitae Meritorum, "Book of Lifes Merits", and Liber Divinorum Operum "Book of Divine Works".

Diversified instruments or rituals used in medieval magic include, but are not limited to: various amulets, talismans, potions, as well as specific chants, dances, prayers. Along with these rituals are the adversely imbued notions of demonic participation which influence of them. The idea that magic was devised, taught, and worked by demons would have seemed reasonable to anyone who read the Greek magical papyri or the Sefer-ha-Razim and found that healing magic appeared alongside rituals for killing people, gaining wealth, or personal advantage, and coercing women into sexual submission. Archaeology is contributing to a fuller understanding of ritual practices performed in the home, on the body and in monastic and church settings.

The Islamic reaction towards magic did not condemn magic in general and distinguished between magic which can heal sickness and possession, and sorcery. Magic is therefore a special gift from God, while the latter is achieved through help of Jinn and devils. Ibn al-Nadim hold, Exorcists gain their power by their obedience to God, while sorcerers please the devils by acts of disobedience and sacrifices and they in return do him a favor. According to Ibn Arabi Al-Hajjāj ibn Yusuf al-Shubarbuli was due to his piety able to walk on water. Based on the Quran, regarding Islamic legends of Solomon, magic was taught by devils to the humans. Solomon took the writings of the sorcerer away and hid them under his throne. After his death, Iblis, unable to get close to Solomons court, told the people, they will find a treasure under the throne and thus lead them to sorcery. Another account hold, sorcery came with the fallen angels Harut and Marut to mankind.


4. Renaissance

Renaissance humanism saw a resurgence in hermeticism and Neo-Platonic varieties of ceremonial magic. The Renaissance, on the other hand, saw the rise of science, in such forms as the dethronement of the Ptolemaic theory of the universe, the distinction of astronomy from astrology, and of chemistry from alchemy.

There was great uncertainty in distinguishing practices of superstition, occultism, and perfectly sound scholarly knowledge or pious ritual. The intellectual and spiritual tensions erupted in the Early Modern witch craze, further reinforced by the turmoil of the Protestant Reformation, especially in Germany, England, and Scotland.


5. Modernity

Sorcery is a legal concept in Papua New Guinea law, which differentiates between legal good magic, such as healing and fertility, and illegal black magic, held responsible for unexplained deaths.