May 11, 2023

Unravelling the Mysteries of Mesopotamian Beliefs About Ghosts: An In-Depth Look at Magic, Incantations, and Rituals

Unravelling the Mysteries of Mesopotamian Beliefs About Ghosts: An In-Depth Look at Magic, Incantations, and Rituals

Have you ever wondered how our ancestors dealt with the mysteries of the supernatural world? Ancient Mesopotamian society held a treasure trove of beliefs and practices related to ghosts, spirits, and the unseen. Delving deep into the world of magic, incantations, and rituals in ancient Mesopotamia not only satisfies our historical curiosity but also enriches our understanding of human culture and the common threads that bind us all. In this immersive journey, we'll dive into primary sources like cuneiform tablets, consult expert translations, and analyze rituals to uncover the roles of exorcists, shamans, and the fascinating beliefs that shaped this ancient society.

I recently had the chance to chat and record a podcast with Professor Irving Finkel from the British Museum. Irving Finkel is an esteemed British philologist and Assyriologist with a love for unraveling the mysteries of ancient Mesopotamia. As the Assistant Keeper of Ancient Mesopotamian Script, Languages, and Cultures at the British Museum, he has spent decades studying cuneiform inscriptions on clay tablets, bringing to life the stories and beliefs of long-gone civilizations. In his captivating book, The First Ghosts, Irving delves into the world of Sumerian, Babylonian, and Assyrian ghost stories, exploring how these ancient cultures viewed the afterlife and the spirits that inhabited it. Through his work, we gain a deeper understanding of the human experience and our enduring fascination with the supernatural. 

"For the ancient Mesopotamia person, ghosts were part of daily life". - Professor Irving Finkel

You can listen to his podcast here: Podcast Episode

Professor Irving Finkel, brings with him a wealth of knowledge on ancient scripts, languages, and cultures. Together, in the podcast we dive into the spells and rituals that held sway over ancient people and their fascination with the supernatural. By the end of this blog post, I hope you'll have a greater understanding of the magic and mysticism that drove our ancestors and the enduring power of ancient beliefs as well as have the chance to get a glimmer of what the podcast shares as well as allowing you to see some of the discussion points raised. 

Mesopotamian culture and beliefs
To gain an in-depth understanding of ancient Mesopotamian beliefs about ghosts, including the use of magic, incantations, and rituals, it is essential to first research the culture and beliefs of that time. Mesopotamia, often referred to as the Cradle of Civilization, was home to many advanced societies that flourished thousands of years ago. These societies, such as the Sumerians, Babylonians, and Assyrians, had their unique religious practices, languages, and societal structures. Investigating their way of life sheds light on the complex web of beliefs and customs that ruled the lives of people in ancient Mesopotamia. A significant part of these beliefs centered on the supernatural realm, specifically the existence of ghosts and spirits. To fully comprehend how magic, rituals, and incantations were woven into their daily lives, one must first delve into ancient Mesopotamian beliefs and mindsets. In the interview, Professor Irving Finkel provides fascinating insights into Mesopotamian beliefs about ghosts and how these ancient people attempted to manage their interactions with them. The supernatural was an integral part of their lives, manifesting in various ways such as rituals, incantations, and magical practices. According to Professor Finkel, people in ancient Mesopotamia used these methods to banish or appease spirits that were causing them harm or felt threatening. One example he cites involves a person who must perform a ritual to curse a malevolent spirit causing harm to them. These practices were not just utilized by ordinary citizens. Even kings and shamans relied on incantations and rituals, as seen in the tablets they would consult to understand dreams, visions, and perform vital religious practices. By exploring the wisdom and insights of someone like Professor Finkel, we can further understand the significance of magical practices and rituals in ancient Mesopotamian beliefs surrounding ghosts. Understanding the use of magic, incantations, and rituals in ancient Mesopotamian beliefs about ghosts is vital for several reasons. Firstly, it helps paint a complete picture of life in this region during ancient times. By examining their practices and beliefs, we gain valuable insight into how these people lived, thought, and interacted with the supernatural world they believed in. Secondly, studying these ancient beliefs allows us to draw connections and parallels to other cultures and time periods. Supernatural beliefs, in one form or another, have persisted throughout human history; studying the Mesopotamian perspective can help trace the evolution of such ideas and understand their lasting impact. Lastly, recognizing the importance of magic, incantations, and rituals in ancient cultures increases our respect and appreciation for their complexities and intricacies. By understanding these practices' significance, we expand our knowledge of human history and connect with a long-lost world where the line between the natural and supernatural was intricately entwined.

Identify magic and incantation practices in the texts
To understand the intricacies of ancient Mesopotamian beliefs about ghosts and spirits, it is essential to examine the numerous magical practices, rituals, and incantations that played a significant role in their perception of the supernatural world. This complex belief system was embedded in their daily lives and influenced everything from religious customs and offerings to the interpretation of dreams and messages from the otherworldly realm. Furthermore, the extensive study of magical practices and incantations in the ancient texts provides valuable context and insight into how our ancestors perceived and interacted with the spiritual world, their efforts to appease or banish malevolent spirits, and their attempts to gain insight into the divine or unknown. By identifying the magical and incantation practices in these texts, we can delve deeper into the intricate weave of human experience and the fascinating world of ancient supernatural beliefs. 2: In the interview with Professor Irving Finkel, his vast knowledge and expertise in deciphering ancient Mesopotamian tablets offer several examples and insights into magic and incantation practices prevalent in those societies. He shares fascinating anecdotes of how these tablets, filled with rituals and incantations, were critical in understanding dreams, visions, and religious ceremonies among ancient people. For example, he mentions a specific tablet that he discovered that described the detailed process of banishing a troublesome ghost using complex rituals and incantations, a testament to how seriously the ancients regarded these supernatural influences. Moreover, he highlights the importance of exorcism in their society, evidenced by the grave goods and elaborate burial rituals that were thought to be instrumental in safeguarding the deceased's journey to the underworld. 3: Examining the use of magic, incantations, and rituals in ancient Mesopotamian beliefs about ghosts offers a unique opportunity to explore the shared human experience across different times and cultures. By understanding the commonalities and complexities of these beliefs, we can gain a deeper appreciation for the vast diversity of human thought and practice. Furthermore, studying these ancient texts helps us understand the essential role the supernatural world played in ancient societies and how it shaped their view of their environment and everyday lives. Consequently, this understanding enriches our perspective on the human experience, allowing us to reevaluate our own beliefs and experiences with the supernatural, and expanding the narrative of our shared humanity through the unexplored depths of antiquity.

Analyze rituals related to ghosts and spirits
In ancient Mesopotamian culture, there was an intricate web of beliefs and practices surrounding ghosts and the supernatural. Magic, incantations, and rituals played a critical role in comprehending and controlling the interactions between the living and the spiritual realm. These practices were vital for maintaining the balance between our world and the supernatural one, and many of these rituals were carefully preserved in ancient tablets. Studying these tablets provides insight into the depth and complexity of the Mesopotamian worldview, where divine and supernatural beings were an ever-present reality in daily life. Professor Irving Finkel, an expert in ancient Mesopotamian script, languages, and cultures, speaks extensively on this topic in his interview with Michelle Fisher. During their conversation, Finkel shares his expertise on deciphering tablets related to rituals and incantations designed to banish, appease, or communicate with spirits and ghosts. He mentions the example of a tablet containing a ritual to ritually curse a harmful spirit. Finkel also discusses how the supernatural played an essential role in the daily lives of ancient Mesopotamians, including the importance of dream interpretation and the consultation of these tablets by kings and shamans in performing religious ceremonies. The study of these ancient beliefs and rituals involving ghosts and spirits is important for modern audiences because it encourages us to broaden our perceptions of the dynamics between our world, the afterlife, and the supernatural entities that may exist within it. It also highlights humankind's ongoing fascination and engagement with the complexities and mysteries of the supernatural realm, spanning across various languages, cultures, and time periods. By exploring the rich and diverse beliefs and customs of the ancient Mesopotamians, we not only learn about the unique perspectives and experiences of this specific culture, but we may also gain a deeper appreciation for the enduring and universal nature of our interactions with and understanding of the spiritual dimensions of life, death, and the afterlife.

During the podcast Professor Finkel described the discovery within the British Museum of the world's oldest drawing of a ghost. You can view it here:

It is part of an exorcist’s guide to getting rid of unwanted ghosts by addressing the particular malaise that brought them back to the world of the living – in this case, a ghost in desperate need of a companion. He is shown walking with his arms outstretched, his wrists tied by a rope held by the female, while an accompanying text details a ritual that would dispatch them happily to the underworld. While half the tablet is missing and it is small enough to fit in a person’s hand, the back bears an extensive text with the instructions for dealing with a ghost that “seizes hold of a person and pursues him and cannot be loosed”. The ritual involves making figurines of a man and a woman: “You dress the man in an everyday shift and equip him with travel provisions. You wrap the woman in four red garments and clothe her in a purple cloth. You give her a golden brooch. You equip her fully with bed, chair, mat and towel; you give her a comb and a flask.

“At sunrise towards the sun you make the ritual arrangements and set up two carnelian vessels of beer. You set in place a special vessel and set up a juniper censer with juniper. You draw the curtain like that of the diviner. You [put] the figurines together with their equipment and place them in position… and say as follows, Shamash [god of the sun and judge of the underworld by night].”

The text ends with a warning: “Do not look behind you!”

Finkel believes the tablet was part of a library of magic in the house of an exorcist or in a temple.

You can listen and watch Professor Irving Finkel give a short presentation here on some of this subject manner again to dive deeper into this ancient civilisation and their beliefs around magic, incarnations and rituals: Ancient Demons with Irving Finkel

Understanding how these beliefs and practices were connected to their daily lives, and comparing them to other cultures, allows us to gain a unique perspective on the human experience throughout time. So embark on this thrilling adventure into antiquity, and let the mysteries of Mesopotamia reveal themselves to you. 


You can Order The First Ghosts by Professor Irving Finkel here

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