Monday, January 9, 2012

Charshu: Types of Canaanite Magic

16 Khiyyaru (month), Shanatu (year) 84; Malatu (Full Moon)

Liver models from
Mesopotamian city of
Mari, circa 19-18th
Centuries BCE
From liver and lung models to animal fetus divination, magic was a part of life in ancient Canaanite religion. Before I can delve deeper into these mysteries, it behooves us both to contemplate the very basics of charshu, Canaanite magic. Archaeological record includes Bronze Age Ugaritic texts regarding health, protection, cleansing, purification, blessing, and divination. A broader collection of amulets from the ancient Near East in Classical times attest to many of the same concerns. Charshu derives from a word that means “craftsmanship, creation, technology, skill.”
Like any other skill, a person can put charshu to good use or not. The ancient Canaanites distinguished between charshu and witchcraft. I use the word “witchcraft” here to mean malicious unlawful magic—this is the term scholars use when translating Canaanite words and concepts indicating undesirable magic. The word “witchcraft” has a long history in the English language of indicating undesirable magic, and its use here does not indicate any “earth-centered” religion like Wicca, nor does it indicate “good witchcraft” which would be a contradiction in terms to the Canaanites.
There are four types of magic typically used in the Canaanite world, and these overlap.

  • Official Magic is magic performed by priests in the temple setting, in an official religious capacity. This magic is always lawful. In this type of magic, the priest relied upon his own purity and vitality, his standing in the community, and his relationship with the deities. Official magic usually involved the deity’s assistance.
  • Unofficial Magic is magic performed outside of the temple setting. This type of magic is performed by professional priests wanting to make extra income and working outside the temple on a freelance basis; or it can be worked by laypeople who pick up a few skills in an non-professional setting. This magic can be either lawful or unlawful, depending on the magical acts, the goal, and the setting. In this type of magic, the charash (mage) had the option of relying only upon his vitality, strength, and charisma, or he could involve his strength plus the aid of the deities. Granted, if the charash had cultivated sound relationships with the deities, this would aid his magic more so than if he simply relied on his own means.
  • Lawful Magic includes magic done for benign reasons, such as healing, protection, conception, childbirth, abundance, and purification. Any magic performed by priests in a temple setting had the official sanction of the community and was, by definition, lawful. Aggressive magic is lawful if used for protection, in either a defensive or offensive capacity, especially in concerns of the city-state. In a private context, protection of the home and family through aggressive magic was completely acceptable: for example, a spell sending the Eye back to the person who originally sent it is typical in Canaanite magic.
  • Unlawful Magic includes any act performed by magic which would be considered unlawful even if accomplished through non-magical means; acts in this category constitute witchcraft. For example, it is unlawful (and grossly unethical) to poison a person out of dislike or a desire to take their property; therefore doing a spell to sicken and weaken that person for the same reasons is also unlawful. Magic performed out of the official context could be either lawful or unlawful. This category includes malicious, unethical magic done for harm, greed, envy, spite, and any number of self-serving purposes done at the expense of the community. Mesopotamian laws indicate that unlawful magic, witchcraft, could be subject to stiff punishments depending on the infringement.
Most people who perform Canaanite magic in the modern day do so outside of any official setting, and thus it is of great importance that any charash (Canaanite mage) carefully examine ethics, consult with the deities and ancestors through divination, and listen to the wise counsel of others before engaging in magic. Unlawful magic constitutes khats’a, misdeed.
A miscreant in ancient times would have had to contend with punishment under the law for these acts, and would be held accountable before the deities. In modern times, a person is held accountable to the deities and to the community. Performing witchcraft causes a person to lose face—and thereby lose strength and charisma. It accrues khats’a which mars a person’s “beauty,” serves as a barrier between the person and the deities, and weakens the person’s napshu. These factors limit the charash’s ability to do magic effectively.
Canaanite magic functions on a different paradigm entirely than New Age magic is often thought to work today. Napshu—not “energy”—is the key component in Canaanite magic: the napshu of the charash (mage, the one making the magic), and the napshu of a deity. Napshu is a concept-word that indicates a collection of ideas in English: soul, vitality, strength, power, charisma, appetite, and throat. The strength and efficacy of the magic at the very least depends on the charash’s own napshu. If the mage calls upon the deities to aid the magic, then the magic’s potency relies on the charash’s relationship with the deities and the charash’s purity.


  1. I'm eagerly awaiting your post on the Canaanite concept of napšu... I'm interested to see whether fit is similar to the Hellenic psúkhē :-)

  2. And it looks as if you get your wish sooner than expected: Happy reading :)