Sunday 8 January 2012

Witchcraft and sorcery

Today's post was inspired by Apollodorosh's post here:

It is about magic in Hellenismos, and how it is viewed in Hellenic culture.  I want to attempt to tackle this controversial issue, and how it relates to the Canaanites. 

I'm aware that this post may offend some neopagans who consider themselves 'witches', but it must be understood that the Canaanite view is different to their own.

In Canaanite religion, there is magic.  This magic can be divided into three types: a more 'divine' sort of magic, related to reaching the gods; folk magic practiced among the people; and another type which is best described as 'witchcraft' or 'sorcery'.  Divination, oracles, prophesy, healing, astrology, and so on are more the former (and are often practiced by temple priests); while the latter is of a very different sort of nature.  It should be noted that there are various magical practices or superstitious practices common among Canaanites, which are probably best described as 'folk magic'.  These include amulets, talismans, curses, knots, dolls, necromancy, serpent charming, and so on.  Some of these are more positive while others are more negative.  Amulets and talismans are used to ward off evil, evil spirits, and the Evil Eye.  Curses are viewed as harmful, though even gods are prone to cursing others when in anger (Baal does this in one myth).  Necromancy is viewed as taboo, and necromancers (while often valued and called upon for their skill) are often avoided as well because contact with ghosts makes one impure and unclean. 

This is probably one major difference between Canaanite and Greek and Roman cultures, and it's probably what led the Greeks and Romans to view the Canaanites as extremely superstitious and impious.

Now that we have handled divine magic and folk magic, I want to now move onto witchcraft and sorcery.  Witches and sorcerors are not viewed positively in Canaanite religion, and they are not the same as priests or priestesses.  A temple exorcist priest will often be on guard against witchcraft, and he fights the battle against the evil spells of the kashapim (more on them later).  Witches are people who use black magic, consort with demons and evil spirits, and attempt to cast spells to harm others.  Temple healers ward off sickness caused by spells.  People who use spells to harm others are condemned and are seen as dangerous.  It is this idea (black magic) that is considered 'witchcraft'.  Things such as divination, healing, exorcism, prayer, and astrology are *not* witchcraft or sorcery.  They are ways to reach the divine.  The difference between the three types of magic are simple: divine magic is reaching the gods, folk magic is local customs and superstitions which may or may not invoke certain gods, and witchcraft is impious and to practice it is to commit evil before the gods.

Witches often do not show respect towards different gods or spirits, they instead attempt to summon and control them through magic words.  They also consort with demons and unclean spirits, something which is highly dangerous.  These attempts are often foolish, and numerous stories from the Near East indicate that spirits may become angry at attempts to summon and imprison them.  This does not please the divine, who are to be worshiped and respected, not 'used' or 'controlled'.  As it has been noted, the servants of the gods (the priests) are involved in battles against witches.

Near to Canaan, in Babylon, witches could be executed for casting spells on others.  Back in Canaan, they weren't viewed positively either.  In Ugarit, the chaberim (who magically bind others to cause them harm) are listed in a list of evildoers.  The kashapim are sorcerers who cast spells to harm others.  They sometimes use herbs for healing, but more often than not are shown negatively and as immoral and evil.  In Ugarit, they were seen as harmful and dangerous.  Among the Hebrews, a sorcerer was to be sentenced to death.  The sorcerers are not temple priests, but they do sometimes appear in royal courts.  Overall, though, they are condemned and seen as evil. 

Outside of cities, many tribes had witches or sorcerers who performed magical acts, especially women.  In the deserts to the south of Canaan, wandering tribes of Arabs like the Nabataeans often had female witches who would reveal the fortunes of men who payed them.  But in the cities, and in the temples, the priests condemned the witches as evil.  And among the more urban and educated people, these tribal witches were probably viewed as charlatans who used tricks to gain money from the uneducated (sort of like people today who try selling things on markets and threaten to kill you with black magic should you refuse to buy from them).

I personally am not a witch or sorcerer.  I do not practice black magic, I am against the craft of the kashapim, and I do not see casting spells as a way of honouring the deities.  Praying is not witchcraft or casting spells.  There are several deities who protect against witchcraft.  One is Milcom the fire-god.  Another is Shapash, the sun-goddess, as a goddess of exorcism and warding off evil.

So, to finish off: divine magic is the first type.  This is used mainly by temple priests, and among wise men and women, and it involves reaching the deities or determining the will of the deities.  It reveres the deities.  These practices are not witchcraft and those who practice them are not witches.  The second type is folk magic.  This includes several folk customs and superstitions like making amulets to ward off evil spirits.  It reveres the deities, and may be either benevolent or malevolent (though even malevolent magic like cursing is often used in self-defense or in retaliation).  Witchcraft is the third type.  It is not respectful towards the gods or spirits, and is unclean and dangerous,


  1. Actually, necromancy is not taboo, but that depends on how one defines necromancy. “Necro-ˮ applies to “death,” while “-mancy” often applies to divination. There is an ancient Ugaritic text—RS 24.272—in which a mage calls upon Ditanu, the (divinized, demi-divinized?) kingly ancestor. He is called upon for his skill in healing and that he would impart that skill and knowledge. Arguably, this is a form of necromancy. Seeking the ancestors’ advice is necromancy. Sleeping on the grave of an ancestor or leaving them a note in the hopes that they will impart their guidance: all arguable examples of necromancy. However, it should be noted that these actions only seek the advice of the ancestors: they do not seek to have power over death itself. Taking and listening to deceased loved ones is acceptable. But controlling death or magic meant to bring someone back from the grave is khats’a: this would be taboo.

    I agree with you, however, in regards to magic which seeks to have power over the deities: definitely khats’a, and certainly an offense. I can find no example of any mage using these means in the Ugaritic texts, although one has to assume that the unofficial magic which was written in tablets was probably performed by free-lance priests (because they’re literate), not by laypeople (who aren’t literate). The freelance priests likely thought twice before using methods displayed in the PGM.

    I do not consider myself a “witch” either, for it would offend the ʼIluma.

  2. In regards to necromancy, I was speaking more specifically about people who attempt to summon ghosts up from the underworld (a biblical example being the witch of Endor). Contact with ghosts would make them ritually impure. But I agree that there are ways to communicate with the shades which aren't taboo, and they could technically be considered necromancy.

  3. I think the intention of sorcery is to be evil, to deliciously do harm, and those rotten goody goodies will never prevail over me, muahahahaha! However to be on the fair side I favour freedom over anything else, hence my anti-morality, selfishness from self-actualisation. My $68.91 classic black trench coat, which is expensive, is the fashion for my evil schemes. Should anyone try to stop me I hide my necronomicon where you'll never find it, I'll remain in your mind, you'll never be able to sense me, bwahahahaha!