One the topics I am exploring extensively right now is the topic of magic. It is a hotly debated topic, with a wealth of data to draw from an develop our understanding of it. So, I am currently reading one of the most well known “magic” texts from the ancient world, namely the anti-witchcraft ritual. It is more commonly referred to as Maqlu.
What I find interesting, though, is the way that language is employed in the text. Near the beginning of the text, we read the following:
I have made an image of my witch and my warlock
Of the one who made my image and the one who performs (witchcraft) against me.
(Tablet 1, Lines 15-16)
What I find interesting in these lines is the parallelism at play. In line 15, a G Preterite 1CS form describes the patients as “making” an image of the witch and warlock. Here, the verb epēšu is used in relation to the creating an image of the respective witches.
In line 16, the verbal form switchs from a preterite to two participial forms from the root epēšu. On each form is a 1CS possessive suffix. What is not identified is an object concerning what is epēšu-ed in line 16. Because line 15 uses a finite form of the verb in relation to creating a image, this notion appears to carry over from line 15 into line 16.
Moreover, in line 16, the participial forms function as substantivized participles, denoting an agent noun (cf. Huehnergard 20.1). So, the implication is that the participles communicate “the one made my image,” albeit without explicitly stating “image.”
Now, what is particularly interesting about this is that the patient performs the same basic activity which is performed by the witch and warlock. This is evident because of the parallelism in the lines. What this points towards, then, is something well-developed in scholarship: “magic” is problematic category for describing certain phenomenon because it historically carries an negative connotation. In reality, when we look at texts like Maqlu, the afflicted patient appears to be performing rituals similar to that of the “witches” themselves, or at least employing the same material means for rituals.
Therefore, while “magic” is a necessary category for interpreting texts, people, events, and things in history, we must always be conscious of what we mean by “magic.” Do we assume certain things about magic, which ultimately causes us to misrepresent the texts or cultures on hand? So, by being attentive to what we mean when we say “magic,” we can have (a) a better appreciation for other cultures and societies and (b) a more precise and accurate understanding of other cultures and societies.