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Magic represents an expression of the belief that it is possible for man to exert an influence over his fellow human beings or to change the course of events. Witchcraft, the use of occult or supernatural forces to these ends, was practiced over the whole of the ancient world. Magic could be either ‘white’ or ‘black’. Black magic was alleged to produce malevolent results for the person or people against whom the spell was directed; with white magic the opposite was the case. A magician would pronounce a curse, cast a spell, or break an image made to look like the person or people against whom the magic was directed, or with their name written on it. The Execration Texts are an example of this. Another method of achieving the same result was for the sorcerer to associate with evil spirits that were alleged to be able to help him. Magicians performed according to specific formulae by which they attempted to influence the gods, the demons or natural forces to act on their behalf.
The Bible contains many references to witchcraft, but is strongly opposed to it. A person who practices this art is called a ‘witch’ (Deut. 18:10) or a ‘magician’ (Exod. 7:11, etc.). One of the terms by which the Egyptian magicians are referred to is hartum (Gen. 41:24; Exod. 8:3–15 Authorized Version: ‘magicians’), the equivalent of the Egyptian hrtyp, the name given to the most famous magicians. In Daniel (5:7) Chaldeans are mentioned together with astrologers and soothsayers, the reference being both to an ethnic group and to a class of magicians. Sorcery and witchcraft are also mentioned in the New Testament (Acts 8:9–11, etc.). The ‘wise men’ (Matt. 2:7), magi in the Greek, were an ethnic group (the term comes from Medes or Madai) and, like the Chaldeans, became synonymous with witchcraft.
The biblical view of witchcraft is quite clear: ‘There shall not be found among you any one … that useth divination, or an observer of times, or enchanter, or a witch, or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer’ (Deut. 18:10–21). All of these were considered to be sworn enemies of true religious belief, at the center of which stands a belief in one God and adherence to his ways. The true believer will accept whatever God has destined for him and will not make any attempt to change it. In complete opposition to this stands the belief that witchcraft may influence the supernatural. Even the wearing of amulets, a common practice, was condemned by Isaiah (3:18–23; Authorized Version: ‘bracelets’.The attitude towards witches is laconically expressed: ‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live’ (Exod. 22:18). Saul had ‘put away those that had familiar spirits’, but in the end he had to resort to one himself (1 Sam. 28:3, 7–25).
The attitude towards witchcraft expressed in the Bible had one purpose: to put a sharp distinction between Israel and the ways of the Canaanites, as encountered by the Israelites in the land of Canaan. In practice it seems that this purpose was not always achieved. Jezebel was known for her ‘witchcrafts’ (2 Kgs. 9:22); Micah (5:12) mentions witchcraft and soothsayers; Manasseh, who ‘reared up altars for Baal’, also ‘observed times, and used enchantments, and dealt with familiar spirits and wizards’ (2 Kgs. 21:3, 6); and the methods of a female sorcerer are described by Ezekiel (13:17–23). But these seem to be isolated instances, and when witchcraft is mentioned it is mostly being practiced by other nations, as with the prophecy of Isaiah (47:9–13) on Babylon. Still more typical is the prophecy of Ezekiel, who saw that ‘the king of Babylon he stood at the parting of the way, at the head of the two ways, to use divination: he made his arrows bright, he consulted with images, he looked in the liver. At his right hand was the divination for Jerusalem …’ (21:21–2). This military divination was resorted to by the Romans at a later date.
Witchcraft in Egypt: The Egyptians resorted to witchcraft in all cases where natural methods were of no avail, using very complicated and exact formulae that involved much study. Witchcraft and religion were closely linked and black magic was hardly used. The welfare both of those in the land of the living and of those who had passed to the nether world was protected by witchcraft. As early as the 3rd millennium bc witchcraft has its special deity: Thot, god of wisdom, and Isis were its patrons. The art of witchcraft as practiced in Egypt was divided into several main classes:
Protective Magic: This kind of magic was the gift of the sun god, who created the charms by which mankind was protected from certain mischief, such as the bites of snakes, scorpions and wild beasts. It was very close to medicine, and in fact Egyptian medicines were administered with certain charms.
Fertility Magic: This was practiced to ensure fertility, to assist in childbirth and to ensure success in love. It also afforded protection against the effects of storms and bad weather.
Divination: People were always anxious to know their future. This type of witchcraft developed first of all in Mesopotamia and appeared relatively late in Egypt.
Black Magic: Generally forbidden in Egypt; those who practiced it without authority were punished by the state.
Magic connected with the dead This was closely related to the cult of the dead, which was highly developed in Egypt. It was intended to provide assistance to the deceased, in order to help them to overcome the obstacles that awaited them on their way to the world of the dead.
Performing of Miracles: The Egyptians left a large number of stories in which the deeds of the wizards are described. One book, ascribed to the four great wizards of Egypt and dated to about 2700 bc, includes the story of how a crocodile made of wax was brought to life and was subsequently turned into wax again. Another book, of the Hyksos period, tells about animals and birds being revived after their heads had been cut off. These stories were still being related in Egypt in the 1st century AD.
The Egyptian wizard used certain rituals in which the desired results were imitated. For instance, wax images of one’s enemies would be burnt in a fire, which would ensure victory over them. The words of the charms had to be pronounced very carefully and the body must be moved in a strictly prescribed way. This art involved much study. The books that dealt with it were kept in the temples and were accessible only to the priests. The wizard-priest would first invoke the help of the gods, sometimes identifying himself with the bad spirit against whom he was acting, at the same time ordering, threatening, and trying hard to free the afflicted man from the evil spirit. The wizard-priests were trained in the ‘House of Life’, in which the books were compiled and kept.
Interpretation of Dreams: This was one of the main preoccupations of Egyptian magicians. In Genesis (41:8) we are told that Pharaoh summoned the magicians and wise men to interpret his dreams. There were also special books in which dreams and their interpretations were recorded. One such book, of the 19th–18th centuries bc, arranges dreams in tabular form, according to the predictions that may be inferred from them. The first list contains dreams that predict good, followed by those that foretell all kinds of calamities. There is a fixed formula: ‘If a man did so-and-so in his dream it is a good omen, and such-and-such will happen to him’.
Lekanomancy: This term refers to divination by means of a cup (cf. Gen. 44:2, 5 12). This practice originated in Babylon (see below).
Magic in Mesopotamia: The aims of magic in Assyria and Babylon were the same as those in Egypt. Here too the practice of magic necessitated much learning. As in Egypt, it was accompanied by specific rituals, certain movements of the body and prescribed incantations. The following are some of the main types of magic practiced in Mesopotamia.
Protective and Curative Magic: By this kind of magic, different illnesses were cured and demons and spirits were cast out. If the laws of one of the gods had been violated or one of the laws of the moral code transgressed, the magician would read out from a book a list of all possible sins and transgressions and in this way the afflicted man was cured. The effects of an evil spell cast by another magician could also be eradicated by making a wax image of the malign wizard and melting it in the fire, to the accompaniment of an incantation: ‘May the wizard melt, as melts this image’.
Divination: This was based on the assumption that every event, good or bad, could be foretold by certain signs discernible to the eye of a connoisseur. Such signs were recorded in books, one of which contains no less than 170 clay tablets filled with them. They included such things as a halo round the sun or moon, eclipses, certain constellations of the heavenly bodies, atmospheric phenomena, the flight of birds or insects, births of humans and animals, especially unnatural ones. Hepatoscopy was much used in divination. For this purpose, a lamb’s liver was used. Lekanoscopy, divination by cups, also belongs to this group. A few drops of oil were added to a cup full of water: the shape that the oil produced on the water enabled the diviner to foretell the future. Predictions could also be made from a cup full of oil on to which water was poured. In the times of the Mishna, the Jews of the Roman period used wine instead of oil. (Today coffee is used in the east.)
Interpretation of Dreams: The library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh contained numerous clay tablets referring to this class of literature. Some list incantations for the purification of the effects of bad dreams, while others contain no less than 2,000 ‘signs for the future’. The portents of dreams are grouped under certain items such as ‘eat’, ‘drink’ or ‘meat’, and each line in a table carries a description of a dream.
Malevolent Magic: As in Egypt, this type of magic was performed by ‘unofficial’ magicians, and it was the duty of the official magicians to cure the effects of their spells.
In Mesopotamia, the art of magicians was the special province of a special category of priests, centered round the temples and in the custody of the chief gods Ea and Marduk.
Avraham Negev, The Archaeological Encyclopedia of the Holy Land (New York: Prentice Hall Press, 1990).