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“Magic in Mesopotamia”: a lecture by Dr. JoAnn Scurlock

24 March, Dr. JoAnn Scurlock (Elmhurst College, emerita) presented her lecture “Magic in Mesopotamia” at the seminar “Traditions of Magic in the Near East and Caucasus” (moderator: Alexey Lyavdansky, Senior Lecturer, IOCS HSE).

Urmahlilu protective spirit. A relief from the Nineve palace of Ashurbanipal.

Urmahlilu protective spirit. A relief from the Nineve palace of Ashurbanipal.
Creative Commons

Ancient Mesopotamia is a laboratory for understanding magic as actually practiced since we have full instructions for the performance of magical ritual, both the actions that were to be performed and the words that were recited to accompany those actions. From these we learn that what differentiates magic from religion is that religion involves creating a permanent relationship with powerful spirits that is intended to be of benefit to an entire community whereas magical rituals are intended to form short term contracts with the full range of spirits, and are designed to bring benefit to a single person or group of persons.

Magical rituals fall roughly into three categories. At the top of the scale and fully legitimate are those that heal the sick, give luck to hunters and fishermen, protect against witchcraft, disease and death in battle and resolve domestic quarrels. At the bottom of the scale and totally illegitimate are practices intended to harm others out of spite or to achieve personal gain. We know about these in some detail from the measures taken to protect against them. Last but by no means least there is what I have termed conditional magic that is intended to control other people's behavior, to make them do something or to stop doing something. This sort of magic has legitimate uses but begs to be turned to less than noble ends.

JoAnn Scurlock is one of the few world experts in the fields of medicine and magic of Ancient Mesopotamia. She received her BA and PhD from the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago in Assyriology. She is the author of “Diagnoses in Assyrian and Babylonian Medicine” (2005, with co‑author Burton Andersen), “Magico‑Medical Means of Treating Ghost‑Induced Illnesses in Ancient Mesopotamia” (2006), and “A Sourcebook for Ancient Mesopotamian Medicine” (2014). She is the author of over one hundred articles on the magic, religion, medicine, history and culture of Ancient Mesopotamia and its impact on surrounding regions such as ancient Israel. Among the research projects led by her is “Uruanna: An Ancient Mesopotamian Herbal Handbook”. She is now retired, having taught in the history department at Elmhurst College.