THE ATHLONE HISTORY OF WITCHCRAFT AND MAGIC IN EUROPE SERIES: Volume 1 - Biblical and Pagan Societies
Edited by Frederick Cryer and Marie-Louise Thomsen, published by Athlone Press at £17.99. 180pp. ISBN: 0-485-89101-8 (Reviewed by Brian Hoggard)
This series of Athlone volumes on the history of witchcraft and magic in Europe is excellent and this latest volume (vols 2, 5 and 6 have already been reviewed in issues 27 and 28 of WD) is no exception. The book covers Babylonian magic and culture, and also magic in the area now known as the Middle East during the biblical period. The book consists of two major articles; Marie-Louise Thomsen who looks at ‘Witchcraft and Magic in Ancient Mesopotamia’ and Frederick H Cryer who examines ‘Magic in Ancient Syria-Palestine – and in the Old Testament’.
I found Thomsen’s section on Mesopotamia truly fascinating. I hadn’t realised just how similar some of the magic they used is to magic which occurred in the period I study (a difference of some 2000 years!). Sympathetic magic appears to have been the order of the day and effigies were used widely for a large variety of reasons. Whether to ward off witchcraft, attract luck or love, petition the gods or anything – effigies of wax, clay or dough seem to have been a very normal part of magic here. Dust from buildings that carry out certain types of business or from particular people’s houses appears to have been very useful too in all spells related to attracting certain qualities – all obviously sympathetic magic. Practices like these can be found all over the world.
In Mesopotamia the gods are invoked during some spells, like the saints which were invoked here in Britain. There was a range of levels of magic from the highest royal magic which was more complex and ritualised than that which occurred in the lower ranks of society – very similar, again, to what happened here with folk magic and elite, intellectual magic. Babylon was a key centre in knowledge of the stars and there was similarly a ‘high’ and ‘low’ division in interpretation of them – just like there was here in Britain with elite and popular astrology.
Cryer’s paper on magic in the ancient Middle East and the Old Testament is a long awaited critique of biblically interpreted archaeology in that region and much more. His focus on magic helps to redress the simply vast quantity of literature which has been published concerning Christian events in the region and provides an enormously illuminating angle on the peoples, places and events which we have all heard of.
In this paper he systematically reviews the widely held assumptions about there being a well-developed empire of Israel in the area during the Old Testament period as well as re-appraising the later evidence of the Dead Sea Scrolls to demonstrate that the area was actually far more fragmented, and Christianity much less well developed than has been assumed up to now. After this re-appraisal (which must be done in order to properly present the information about magic – there being so much ‘fog’ of work commissioned through the Christian interest in the area) he then sets about describing what is known about magic in the area.
The magic in this area (a little west of Mesopotamia) appears to have focused more particularly on divination and interpretation of omens. Interpretation of dreams, signs in nature and the use of casting of lots to aid decision making, seems to have been the main core of magic in this area. There was a belief in witchcraft and the evil eye and spirits could be conjured for various purposes. It also appears that there was some influence from Mesopotamia and other regions on the magic which was performed in this area. Obviously the magical events in the Old Testament also indicate the kind of magical beliefs which were held in this area.
This book and it’s two excellent papers by Thomsen and Cryer should be required reading for all budding historians or archaeologists of witchcraft and magic. Both papers were a revelation to me in their various ways and, along with the other volumes in this excellent series, have given me a breadth of knowledge about magic which I previously did not have. I can’t wait to see the final two volumes – on the Middle Ages and the Witch Trials. Buy these books!