Monday, June 12, 2017

Sources for Witchcraft: Psalm 109

Regular readers of this blog will know that, in true INFJ fashion, I both claim to be a completely untaught witch, and also to have a degree of learning about my witchcraft. I don't really see a conflict here - I'm only unlearned because nobody else has said that my studies are acceptable to them. I have never done any formal courses, and certainly never been initiated by anyone else. On the other hand, the time I have spent in academic learning has made me unafraid of book learning, happy to apply it in reality, and also given me a nose which can smell bullshit a mile off. Of course the fact that a lot of it is bullshit is what gives much of the modern witchcraft movement's literature a bad reputation - it is ahistorical, fanciful, imaginery claptrap. That said, that is the name of the game in magic, so I suppose it is to be expected, and you will certainly read a lot of my own imaginings on here (all except for the one where Andrew Lincoln knocks on my door, but I'm still working on that one).
Despite my repeated assertion that the witch's hedge ill teach her all things, I am also a firm believer that the resource the witch needs at the time will appear from whatever source, and this post is largely inspired by a visit in my hedge which then led on to a more academic study. Last weekend I went round the Birmingham Back to Backs for the first time - and in historically accurate fashion they had set up the older houses as Jewish households, since the area around Hurst Street was the Jewish quarter before anyone else got hold of it. Pondering the connection I picked up the only bible in the house, which happens to be a Jewish bible - the Jewish Study Bible (Oxford University Press, New York, 2004), and turned to a psalm very familiar to me for its use in magic - Psalm 109, one of the scarier ones. In fact it's used in several different forms of magic -
This one is powerful enough that merely chanting it while focusing on an enemy should cause him or her some distress.  However, before simply writing this particular Psalm off as evil, I should point out that it also gets interpreted in more positive ways.  Ray T. Marlbrough says it is used “To protect from an enemy, persisting in bothering you” (Magic Power of the Saints).  In this light, it is not so much of a curse as a barrier against harm.  Braucher Chris Bilardi recognizes its power to be used “against a tenacious enemy,” but also says it is useful “for acquiring friends” (The Red Church).  So even the “cursing Psalm” has its upside. Source
One of the things I like about the Jewish Study Bible is that it turns the kind of scholarship on its head that I have known from a degree in theology from a Christian perspective. In fact reading this bible for a post-Christian is about as illuminating as it can be, because it shows how the Christian reading of the Hebrew bible is far divorced from the Jewish one. As it happens, the commentary illuminated something about this psalm, which begins with an invocation of God (the translation is the Jewish Publication Society Tanakh Translation):
'O God of my praise,
do not keep aloof.'
I can't believe how I had never noticed the divisions within this psalm (which believe me, when you're reciting it as a monk at 5am in the morning just comes across as a protracted moan), but it then goes on to narrate what the psalmist's enemies have said against him:
'for the wicked and the deceitful
open their mouth against me;
they speak to me with lying tongue.
They encircle me with words of hate;
they attack me without cause.
They answer my love with accusation
and I must stand judgment.
They repay me with evil for good, with hatred for my love.'
Magically the most important part of this psalm is the next section - and what made me realise this is the commentary here 'The psalm, particularly this section, resembles the Mesopotamian "namburbi," lit. "untying," a type of prayer intended to undo a magic spell'. The magic spell is of course the attack outlined in the section above, and this is its untying:
'Appoint a wicked man over him;
may an accuser stand at his right side;
may he be tried and convicted;
may he be judged and found guilty.
May his days be few;
may another take over his position.
May his children be orphans,
his wife a widow.
May his children wander from their hovels,
begging in search of [bread].
May his creditor seize all his possessions;
may strangers plunder his wealth.
May no one show him mercy;
may none pity his orphans;
may his posterity be cut off;
may their names be blotted out in the next generation.
May God be ever mindful of his father's iniquity,
and may the sin of his mother not be blotted out.
May the Lord be aware of them always
and cause their names to be cut off from the earth,
because he was not minded to act kindly,
and hounded to death the poor and needy man,
one crushed in spirit.
He loved to curse - may a curse come upon him!
He would not bless - may blessing be far from him!
May he be clothed in a curse like a garment,
may it enter his body like water,
his bones like oil.
Let it be like the cloak he wraps around him,
like the belt he always wears.
May the Lord thus repay my accusers,
all those who speak evil against me.'
I was of course familiar with the magical practice of undoing as a way of averting other people's ill will. There is a spell excactly like this in my book where you begin by tying nine knots in string to represent the evil done to you, undo them one at a time and burn the string at the end. I knew that this felt old, but didn't realise that it went back to the ancient culture of Sumer (modern day Iraq), the first urban civilisation, which means that this magical method dates back to around 4000 BCE. It looks very much as if the Hebrew bible has picked up a local magical  text, because up until I read the commentary on that psalm I had no idea it followed exactly the form of these spells. They were called namburbi because that means '[ritual for] undoing it', i.e. undoing what had already been done, exactly as in the psalm. What I find particularly interesting is also that the form of the ritual has so many commonalities with pretty much every other magical reitual ever invented, but also has the exact same end of all magic - being free of something. Here is the ritual:
Colophons of namburbi tablets and letters from writers and astrologers of the Assyrian kings Esarhaddon and Assurbanipal show that it was the role of the ašipu, “exorcist,” to plan and implement the apotropaic rituals. If a sign had been recognized as foreboding, the gods Ea and his son Asalluḫi, Šamaš, the sun god and god of justice (mīšaru), and often the deity, in whose sphere of influence the prognostication had occurred, were invoked, and offered a meal of bread, meat, dates, incense, water and beer to appease the source of the portent and effect a change in outcome. Clay figurines were fashioned and a Šuilla, or “show of hands prayer,” was delivered to implore divine mercy.[4]
During the preliminary purification stage, the subject and conjuror conducting the ritual abstained from eating watercress, onions, leeks or fish. Water was consecrated under the stars and with all manner of cleansing substances. Small altars were erected by the riverside in a “place difficult of access.” The person infected with the evil (lumnu) was led to a spot strewn with garden herbs (šammū kirî) behind one of the altars and a clay figurine representing the harbinger of the omen was laid before them. The conjuror then performed the incantation, often climaxing by shattering a clay pot, and the subject was washed with the consecrated water, which was afterward poured over the figurine, to return the impurity to its source. A variety of symbolic actions could follow, including cutting the subjects hair, fingernails, stripping off his coat, peeling an onion or unwinding a thread to represent the dissolution of the fate. The figurine was then cast into the river, "down to the apsû." Measures were taken to avoid reinfection, with the subject perhaps wearing an amulet and returning home via a different route from that taken prior to the ritual.
The profound psychological effect of the release ritual cannot be underestimated. For the private individual it would have had a deep impression, akin to absolution, but to a monarch it may have altered his behavior. By ridding the impending evil inherent in a bad omen, a namburbi “bolstered the king’s self-confidence, strengthened his resolution, and steeled his will to fight.” An entire staff of conjurors organized like a ministry poured over omen collections and prepared rituals to counter any portent that was diagnosed.[7] A namburbi was a central part of the substitute king ritual. Source
That said, I'm not necessarily going to go to so much trouble myself. I was inspired by a cow's tongue on the Bull Ring this afternoon. When the witch is ready the resources *always* appear.
Oh buggrit - better put in some music to entertain hoi polloi.

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