Thursday, April 7, 2011

Ancient Notions of Witchcraft

The whole concept of the persecution and trials of witches isn’t limited to the European witch trials that span from the 13th to 21st century (yes they are still going on). This notion of witches being of supernatural origins and in league with the devil actually stems from the very cradle of civilization itself: Ancient Mesopotamia.

There are many ancient accounts of these so called witches especially both in Sumeria and Babylon. It was thought back then that there were evil spirits and demons that inhabited the earth and each person was supposed to have their own spirit to help protect them. They also had to use their own skills to eradicate these spirits such as incantations, protective amulets and even exorcisms. These notions though were thought to be perpetuated by the use of witchcraft and sorcery and the protecting methods were thought to be dark magic (

There shortly became laws set up against these practices that laid out the punishments for the accused. Most honestly make no sense at all to me. Take this law that appeared in one of the first law documents written in the 1800s BCE, The Code of Hammurabi:

If a man has put a spell upon another man and it is not justified, he upon whom the spell is laid shall go to the holy river; into the holy river shall he plunge. If the holy river overcome him and he is drowned, the man who put the spell upon him shall take possession of his house. If the holy river declares him innocent and he remains unharmed the man who laid the spell shall be put to death. He that plunged into the river shall take possession of the house of him who laid the spell upon him (Hammurabi).

So basically what this passage is saying is that as long as the person was justified in their spell work then they remained unpunished, but then the person who had the spell cast on them is dead, drowned in the river. It would be really interesting to see how many of these people survived the rivers and how many didn’t.

Like many other places in the world there were many different groups in Ancient Mesopotamia that had their own ideas on what witchcraft was and if it was indeed a punishable act. Since I am a big studier of mythologies I would be remise if I didn’t mention that use of witchcraft and sorcery in the first known story ever written: The Epic of Gilgamesh. Now one thing that many people don’t know is that there are many different accounts of this tale some even being rooted in actual historic context (for example using the actual king Gilgamesh) and some that add on to the basic story. I’m partial to the original version of Gilgamesh that has the whole epic told in 12 “books (Gilgamesh).

The character in Gilgamesh who practices sorcery and witchcraft is Shamhat. She is constantly referred in the epic a the “harlot Shamhat.” Shamhat is the one who took care of both Gilgamesh and Enkidu when they were in the pine forest, providing them with food, shelter and clothing. Still at one point Enkidu lashes out against Shamhat for her nature being that of sorcery (Gilgamesh).

Also the metamorphosis of Enkidu into a wolf-like creature was also supposed to be linked to witchcraft. The idea that him putting on the cloak from Shamhat and then “shifting” into this animal is rooted deep in the notions of werewolves and other shape-shifters that are results of witchcraft (Gilgamesh). In fact in some parts of the world werewolves and witches became synonymous (To learn more about werewolves see my older post on the Pre-Modern Werewolf).

These ancients notions where they were mostly outlandish and in some cases were void of rational thought, there were many a peoples who believed in them. In fact many of the practices against witchcraft and punishment for the accused come from these ancient concepts. For example the passage from the Code of Hammurabi greatly influenced punishing the accused during the Salem Witch Trials.


The Code of Hammurabi. English translated version, 1800 BCE

Gilgamesh. Oxford World’s Classic English translation, 1989 CE

Photo of Relief of Gilgamesh on the side of a temple from


Lilac Wolf (Angie or Angela) said...

That was a great entry today...I want to read that now too. :)

Sam Curtin said...

Thanks Angie! Gilgamesh is a great epic and I think one of the greatest pieces of literature of all times! Of course I love anything from Ancient Mesopotamia!

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