A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 1, chapter III
Science of Babylonia and Assyria
Chaldean magic
We turn now from the field of the astrologer to the closely allied province of Chaldean magic - a province which includes the other; which, indeed, is so all- encompassing as scarcely to leave any phase of Babylonian thought outside its bounds.

The tablets having to do with omens, exorcisms, and the like magic practices make up an astonishingly large proportion of the Babylonian records. In viewing them it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the superstitions which they evidenced absolutely dominated the life of the Babylonians of every degree. Yet it must not be forgotten that the greatest inconsistencies everywhere exist between the superstitious beliefs of a people and the practical observances of that people. No other problem is so difficult for the historian as that which confronts him when he endeavors to penetrate the mysteries of an alien religion; and when, as in the present case, the superstitions involved have been transmitted from generation to generation, their exact practical phases as interpreted by any particular generation must be somewhat problematical. The tablets upon which our knowledge of these omens is based are many of them from the libraries of the later kings of Nineveh; but the omens themselves are, in such cases, inscribed in the original Accadian form in which they have come down from remote ages, accompanied by an Assyrian translation. Thus the superstitions involved had back of them hundreds of years, even thousands of years, of precedent; and we need not doubt that the ideas with which they are associated were interwoven with almost every thought and deed of the life of the people. Professor Sayce assures us that the Assyrians and Babylonians counted no fewer than three hundred spirits of heaven, and six hundred spirits of earth. "Like the Jews of the Talmud," he says, "they believed that the world was swarming with noxious spirits, who produced the various diseases to which man is liable, and might be swallowed with the food and drink which support life." Fox Talbot was inclined to believe that exorcisms were the exclusive means used to drive away the tormenting spirits. This seems unlikely, considering the uniform association of drugs with the magical practices among their people. Yet there is certainly a strange silence of the tablets in regard to medicine. Talbot tells us that sometimes divine images were brought into the sick-chamber, and written texts taken from holy books were placed on the walls and bound around the sick man's members. If these failed, recourse was had to the influence of the mamit, which the evil powers were unable to resist. On a tablet, written in the Accadian language only, the Assyrian version being taken, however, was found the following:

 1. Take a white cloth. In it place the mamit, 2. in the sick man's right hand. 3. Take a black cloth, 4. wrap it around his left hand. 5. Then all the evil spirits (a long list of them is given) 6. and the sins which he has committed 7. shall quit their hold of him 8. and shall never return.

 The symbolism of the black cloth in the left hand seems evident. The dying man repents of his former evil deeds, and he puts his trust in holiness, symbolized by the white cloth in his right hand. Then follow some obscure lines about the spirits:

 1. Their heads shall remove from his head. 2. Their heads shall let go his hands. 3. Their feet shall depart from his feet.

Which perhaps may be explained thus: we learn from another tablet that the various classes of evil spirits troubled different parts of the body; some injured the head, some the hands and the feet, etc., therefore the passage before may mean "the spirits whose power is over the hand shall loose their hands from his," etc. "But," concludes Talbot, "I can offer no decided opinion upon such obscure points of their superstition."[15]

In regard to evil spirits, as elsewhere, the number seven had a peculiar significance, it being held that that number of spirits might enter into a man together. Talbot has translated[16] a "wild chant" which he names "The Song of the Seven Spirits."

 1. There are seven! There are seven! 2. In the depths of the ocean there are seven! 3. In the heights of the heaven there are seven! 4. In the ocean stream in a palace they were born. 5. Male they are not: female they are not! 6. Wives they have not! Children are not born to them! 7. Rules they have not! Government they know not! 8. Prayers they hear not! 9. There are seven! There are seven! Twice over there are seven!

The tablets make frequent allusion to these seven spirits. One starts thus:

 1. The god ( - -) shall stand by his bedside; 2. These seven evil spirits he shall root out and shall expel them from his body, 3. and these seven shall never return to the sick man again.[17]

 Altogether similar are the exorcisms intended to ward off disease. Professor Sayce has published translations of some of these.[18] Each of these ends with the same phrase, and they differ only in regard to the particular maladies from which freedom is desired. One reads:

"From wasting, from want of health, from the evil spirit of the ulcer, from the spreading quinsy of the gullet, from the violent ulcer, from the noxious ulcer, may the king of heaven preserve, may the king of earth preserve."

Another is phrased thus:

"From the cruel spirit of the head, from the strong spirit of the head, from the head spirit that departs not, from the head spirit that comes not forth, from the head spirit that will not go, from the noxious head spirit, may the king of heaven preserve, may the king of earth preserve."

As to omens having to do with the affairs of everyday life the number is legion. For example, Moppert has published, in the Journal Asiatique,[19] the translation of a tablet which contains on its two sides several scores of birth-portents, a few of which maybe quoted at random:

"When a woman bears a child and it has the ears of a lion, a strong king is in the country." "When a woman bears a child and it has a bird's beak, that country is oppressed." "When a woman bears a child and its right hand is wanting, that country goes to destruction." "When a woman bears a child and its feet are wanting, the roads of the country are cut; that house is destroyed." "When a woman bears a child and at the time of its birth its beard is grown, floods are in the country." "When a woman bears a child and at the time of its birth its mouth is open and speaks, there is pestilence in the country, the Air-god inundates the crops of the country, injury in the country is caused."

Some of these portents, it will be observed, are not in much danger of realization, and it is curious to surmise by what stretch of the imagination they can have been invented. There is, for example, on the same tablet just quoted, one reference which assures us that "when a sheep bears a lion the forces march multitudinously; the king has not a rival." There are other omens, however, that are so easy of realization as to lead one to suppose that any Babylonian who regarded all the superstitious signs must have been in constant terror. Thus a tablet translated by Professor Sayce[20] gives a long list of omens furnished by dogs, in which we are assured that:

 1. If a yellow dog enters into the palace, exit from that palace will be baleful. 2. If a dog to the palace goes, and on a throne lies down, that palace is burned. 3. if a black dog into a temple enters, the foundation of that temple is not stable. 4. If female dogs one litter bear, destruction to the city.

It is needless to continue these citations, since they but reiterate endlessly the same story. It is interesting to recall, however, that the observations of animate nature, which were doubtless superstitious in their motive, had given the Babylonians some inklings of a knowledge of classification. Thus, according to Menant,[21] some of the tablets from Nineveh, which are written, as usual, in both the Sumerian and Assyrian languages, and which, therefore, like practically all Assyrian books, draw upon the knowledge of old Babylonia, give lists of animals, making an attempt at classification. The dog, lion, and wolf are placed in one category; the ox, sheep, and goat in another; the dog family itself is divided into various races, as the domestic dog, the coursing dog, the small dog, the dog of Elan, etc. Similar attempts at classification of birds are found. Thus, birds of rapid flight, sea-birds, and marsh-birds are differentiated. Insects are classified according to habit; those that attack plants, animals, clothing, or wood. Vegetables seem to be classified according to their usefulness. One tablet enumerates the uses of wood according to its adaptability for timber-work of palaces, or construction of vessels, the making of implements of husbandry, or even furniture. Minerals occupy a long series in these tablets. They are classed according to their qualities, gold and silver occupying a division apart; precious stones forming another series. Our Babylonians, then, must be credited with the development of a rudimentary science of natural history.




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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.