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Mysteries of Mesopotamia and Persia: A Demon-Plagued Universe

A Mesopotamia religion, many spirits occupied the space separating the gods from humankind. Some had semi-divine status in their own right, while others were simply servants or emissaries of the higher divinities, sent to the human world to do their bidding. They took many forms-some hideous, others alluring - and wielded their considerable influence in a variety of ways.

Mysteries of Mesopotamia and Persia: A Demon-Plagued Universe

By Mr Ghaz, December 8, 2010

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Mysteries of Mesopotamia and Persia: A Demon-Plagued Universe

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People actively sought the protection of those spirit beings they thought to be benevolent, doing so through prayers and offerings. However, many beings were fearsome-some owing to their natural malevolence and others because their mission was to punish erring humans for the sins that they had committed.

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Most fearful of all was the dreaded Lamashtu, a demoness who specialized in killing babies in or out of the womb. In a culture with high infant mortality, it was natural enough that miscarriages, stillbirths, and cot deaths should be blamed on a malevolent spirit. Lamashtu was truly frightful in aspect: she had the head of a lion, asses’ teeth, naked breasts, a hairy body, blood-stained hands with claw-like like fingernails, and talons in place of feet. Besides snatching infants, which she did by slipping into the houses of pregnant women and touching them seven times on the belly, she was also a bringer of disease. People wore amulets for protection from her wiles; some also sought to buy her off with offerings, particularly of centipedes.

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The surest safeguard against Lamashtu, however, was to call on the help of her male equivalent, the equally terrifying Pazuzu. Like her he was talon-footed, although his body was scaly and his penis tipped with a serpent’s head. A spirit of the desert winds, Pazuzu bore wings. He alone was thought to have the power to drive Lamashtu back to the underworld, so plaques showing his doglike face and bulging eyes occupied space in many homes, placed there by the householder to curry favor.

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The blood-curdling figure of Lamashtu appears on this early 9th century BCE amulet designed to ward off evil. She is shown in her customary pose, standing on her sacred animal, the donkey, while suckling a piglet and a whelp and holding a snake in each hand.

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Other nightmare beings haunted the Mesopotamian imagination. There was Namtaru, the plague demon; Rabisu, “the Croucher,” a bogeyman who lurked in doorways and dark alleys; the utukku, which frequented deserts and wild places; and Lilitu, the original of the Hebrew Lilith, a female succubus who seduced men in their sleep. Particularly terrible were the spirits jokingly known as galas or “constables.” These were emissaries of the dread queen Ereshkigal, who sent them to the upper world to drag transgressors down to her dark realm. One of the best-known Mesopotamian poems told how galas were sent to track down Dumuzi, husband of the love goddess Inana, after his wife had made an ill-advised visit to Erishkigal’s domain. Its lines described how the galas clustered around Inana on her return, hungry as the Greek Furies to find their prey:

Devils are fastened

To her thighs, devils walk beside her,

Meagre as reeds, thin as pikestaffs,

There goes in front of her a thing

With a scepter, but it is no minister.

One walks besides her wearing a weapon

On its hip, but it is not a warrior....

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Faced with such terrors, householders went to considerable lengths to protect their homes from evil influences. Archaeologists in Ur and elsewhere have found small clay figurines buried under the floors of dwellings whose function was magically to drive away demons. Some were dragonlike creatures with a dog’s head on a serpent’s body; others were fish-men, wearing cloaks covered in scales. There were even magical guard-dogs, their names inscribed on their backs: “Loud Barker,” “Don’t Stop to Think! Bite!”

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Such humble defenders had their grand counterparts in the magnificent winged bulls and lions that stood on guard at the gateways of Assyrian palaces. These hybrid creatures were similarly thought of as protective spirits, charged with the responsibilities of keeping out malevolent djinns (spirits) and protecting the royal occupants from spiritual harm.

Ghosts

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Sumerians were firm believers in ghosts-“those whose towns are the ruins,” as one text called them. They thought that dead people’s spirit roamed restlessly if their bodies were left unburied, or if they had no kin to provide them with food and drink through regular funerary offerings. These who had died violent deaths or who had offended the gods by breaking taboos were particularly at risk.

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Malevolent ghosts could harm the living by “seizing” their minds or bodies, which they entered through the ear. Their victims would then be stricken down by disease. The only cure in such cases was to employ the services of an exorcist, who would perform elaborate rituals involving incantations and clay images. Sometimes an animal was used to tempt out the spirit, in the hope that it might choose to possess the beats in place of the afflicted man or woman. Memories of this practice in the biblical story of the Gadarene swine, which recounts how Jesus cured a man possessed by evil spirits, which then entered a herd of pigs, causing them to bolt into the sea and drown.

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Comments (7)
Ranked #4 in History

Super article! You could probably make a fortune selling amulets back then.

Ranked #96 in History

Nice presentation!

Ranked #1 in History

Excellent work. I've seen the equestrian statues in the British Museum and I know Pazuzu from The Exorcist.

Ranked #13 in History

Sumerians really are firm believers of ghost and evil spirit, Lamashtu is indeed a vicious demon. In the Vedas also described the Rakshasas, as powerful evil ghosts and Hiranya kasipu, a powerful demon king that enable pregnant women to have miscarriage simply by his shout. Very well presented article Mr. Ghaz

Interesting post. Its amazing how superstitions change the way people behave.

What a fascinating overview and thank you for sharing...

revivor

very good mix of pics and words on a rarely discussed subject

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