Hello, and welcome to the Thin End of the Wedge. The podcast where experts from around the world share new and interesting stories about life in the ancient Middle East. My name is Jon. Each episode I talk to friends and colleagues and get them to explain their work in a way we can all understand. Today I’m joined by someone who enjoys a challenge. She learned Japanese before taking on Sumerian and Akkadian. She’s published a range of interesting articles, some addressing specialists, others addressing a wider readership. She has also contributed to digital resources that make ancient texts more easily accessible.
Our guest has particular expertise in the demons of Mesopotamia. Her doctoral dissertation focused on a chaotic group of seven demons. Now, you might think that you know nothing about Mesopotamian demons, but many of you will have seen at least one of them, although you probably didn’t realise it at the time. Demons were very much part of life in ancient Iraq. They bridged the natural and supernatural worlds, and had the power to affect the well being of individuals and kingdoms alike. Our guest earned a doctorate in the USA. Since then, she’s worked as a researcher in Finland and currently in Japan. In this episode, she takes us on a journey through the demon haunted world of Mesopotamia, a world not so far in the past as we might imagine.
So get yourself a cup of tea, make yourself comfortable. And let’s meet today’s guest.
Hello, and welcome to Thin End of the Wedge. Thank you very much for joining us.
Thank you for having me on, Jon. It’s good to see you virtually.
Could you tell us please: who are you? And what do you do?
So I’m Gina Konstantopoulos, Assistant Professor in the History of Ancient Western Asia. I’m affiliated with the Research Center for West Asian Civilisation, which is in Japanese (speaks Japanese) at the University of Tsukuba, which is just north of Tokyo, here in Japan.
Now you’re an expert in demons, aren’t you? Can we start with some fundamentals please? In the Mesopotamian world, there’s a whole pantheon of gods, there are magical creatures, and of course, there’s man and the animals. Where did the demons fit into all of this?
One of the interesting things when we study demons in Mesopotamia is our first big hurdle is actually this hurdle of terminology. And this is something we approach with demons, but also something with related concepts like magic, and even religion and ritual. And what we think of as demons falls under a lot of these terms that have very much, to be honest, Christian baggage. The idea of a demon to most of our modern conceptions is something that is inherently malevolent, is inherently dangerous and aggressive. And certainly there were creatures that fall under that rubric in Mesopotamia. But what we call a demon, which to them would most likely have been considered by the word udug in Sumerian or utukku, its Akkadian equivalent, would be, say, a creature capable of impacting the world, through powers or abilities that would be beyond necessarily what a general person might interact with. That’s a very vague definition, I’m aware.
So it’s a kind of nebulous thing. It’s not like there’s a list where you could look up all the demons.
There are certainly fuzzy edges to the demonic in Mesopotamia. One of the things I find interesting is that we have this whole discussion, for example, of how we define magic, and there’s a lot of scholarship on this. And one of the key problems we have is that a lot of our approaches fall under this rubric that we call … the descriptive definitional approach. So we define magic not by necessarily what it is, but by the tools that characterise magic and ritual in Mesopotamia. This is problematic immediately, you can see: we define magic, by the things that are used to conduct magic, which are themselves magical, because they’re used to conduct magical ritual. It’s a little bit of a snake eating its own tail.
When I grew up, I don’t remember ever believing in demons. And I don’t remember anyone ever telling me that they believed in demons either. So it’s slightly tricky for me to get my mind into the head of a Mesopotamian, and to imagine what it’d really be like to experience a world full of demons. This summer, though, there was a story from American politics that went viral, and it was related to demons and how they can influence the world. And that perhaps helps us form a bridge. So could you maybe just touch on that story, please? And explain to us what it would have been like for someone in ancient Mesopotamia to live a life in a demon haunted world.
Yes, so demons rise and fall in modern popularity. One of the things we saw this summer was, of course, that when Trump was touting the virtues of one or another certain approach to treating the COVID pandemic that had not necessarily been backed by science, he quoted a doctor by the name of Stella Immanuel, who, when the internet dug a bit deeper, realised that one of the things she’s also known for is a certain belief in the impact of demons, particularly on illnesses that would strike people, usually women and gynecological ailments. So this idea suddenly reintroduced of a medical doctor, still espousing a belief in the quote unquote reality, shall we say, of demonic attacks, and their effect on the body is something that to our modern mind is very much removed from how we would think of the world. But interestingly, when we hop back to Mesopotamia, the idea of demons and illness, or demons affecting people and affecting society, is very present in their texts and how they’re talking about and interacting with the world. Yeah, we are not so far removed from Mesopotamia in some regards. Actually, they were probably a lot more, I think, scientific and methodical in their approach, then, you know, demonic STDs.
How many demons are there? Is it just one or two particularly malignant creatures? Or is their whole world of them out there?
The term I’m fond of is something a scholar, an assyriologist, Frans Wiggerman, who calls it the Mesopotamian pandemonium. I believe he’s stealing this from Paradise Lost in point of fact. So we do have this full host of demonic creatures that were very much an accepted and integrated part of the Mesopotamian worldview. And when I talked a bit before about demons being fuzzy categories, part of the problem is that a lot of these creatures can be malevolent. But they can also act benevolently in texts. We can have a text where the udug who is a demon, but is also a word for demons as a whole. The evil udug, the udughul, hul being the Sumerian word for evil or malevolent actions, is opposed by the good udug, the udugsaga. And this can happen within the same incantation. So for them, this idea of a supernatural being or being with this ability to impact the world, doing so negatively, but also positively, was not something that caused any theological internal debate or angst. This was perfectly acceptable for many of these creatures, at least.
So there are not just bad demons, there are good demons as well, and they can help you fight the bad ones.
Yes, I mean, there are some that are fairly unambiguously malevolent. I try and avoid using the word “evil”. I think it has a lot of Bible baggage that doesn’t really apply to the Mesopotamian point of view. But if we think of them in terms of their actions, rather than their nature, it’s an easier way to approach them.
Can a single demon be both malevolent and benevolent, depending on the situation?
Very much so. The three that we see swap the most are the udug, which is probably the most shapeless and the most malleable. We also have a demon called the alad, or the shedu in Akkadian, that does also seem to move back and forth. And then a third figure called the lama is almost always benevolent, but we have a few texts where they appear much in this malevolent capacity. One of the things to remember is that these incantations have a literary structure. So if we think of them as stories in their own way, there’s a sense of what figure is going to act here in what way. All of this said, these are only three demons out of again this pandemonium, so we have demons that might be times of day. We have demons that are weather phenomena. We have demons that are unlucky incidents or unlucky periods. We have demons with much more qualified personalities, the two big ones there are Lamashtu and Pazuzu, which are probably the demonic figures that people might know in Mesopotamia.
Where do we know them from?
So Pazuzu is our much maligned demonic antagonist from the Exorcist book that was then turned into a sequence of films. And recently a show on Fox, actually. Unfortunately, it was cancelled. But Pazuzu is this figure in Mesopotamia. And I say he’s much maligned, because while he’s turned into a demon in the film and possesses a child and her head spins around, and she vomits up pea soup–these are scenes people are probably familiar with, they’ve seen horror films–in Mesopotamia, he was actually–even though very much described as demonic–was the counter to the much more dangerous figure of Lamashtu. So Lamashtu has her own genealogy. She’s originally a goddess, and then she, to be blunt, likes eating babies a bit too much, and is kicked out of the heavens and is forced to roam about on Earth as a demon. So Lamashtu is very much both an inversion of this idea of motherhood. She has many fingered hands or talents, but she grasps snakes in them. She has pendulous breasts, but she suckles wild animals at them, she creeps in to strangle children. She talks about wanting to feed them at her breasts, but her milk is poison. This complete version of the idea of how infants and children should be fostered in Mesopotamia. And also a convenient way of explaining, we imagine, a quite prevalent early childhood death rate in a pre-modern society.
That’s pretty scary. How about Pazuzu? How do you scare off something as terrifying as Lamashtu?
Well, a lot of demons are fairly agendered. They’re even described in texts as neither male nor female. Lamashtu, who is very feminine in her characteristics, is opposed by Pazuzu, who is similarly quite masculine. So Pazuzu has this snarling, bestial face. He often has four wings, taloned hands and feet. He has an erect snake-headed penis …
A trouser snake?
Yes, exactly, quite literally in point of fact. And we see pendants of him either in full form, or more often just his snarling head with a loop where they could clearly be threaded and then worn, we assume primarily by pregnant women, which was also a favorite target of Lamashtu. So Pazuzu, who has also all of this male iconography, very much attached to him. He describes himself as, you know, “I am Pazuzu. I am king of the evil wind demons”. And in one of his incantations, he speaks always in the first person, he talks about climbing a mighty mountain that quaked. And while it’s difficult to say with absolute certainty, some of the arguments I’ve seen–and I agree with them–think that this might have been a woman, you know, heavily gravid, probably in difficult labour. So the mighty mountain being her … her heavily pregnant belly going through this labor, and Pazuzu opposing the threat Lamashtu poses, quite literally sat atop her.
You mentioned some of the different types of demon, with some of them related very closely to specific times. But where do they live in relation to the physical world as we would understand it? Is there a specific demon realm? Do they live, you know, at the outskirts of the city? Or are they just everywhere?
When we talk about these figures in Mesopotamia, there’s often a divide between, you know, monsters, which also posed a threat to society and mankind, but then, monsters tend to be attached to specific places, the distant wilderness. If we think about the text of Gilgamesh, when they fight Huwawa or Humbaba, he’s off in the cedar forest. And a bit like Odysseus, if you don’t go to where these creatures are, they’re not going to bother you as much. So demons are also located on the edges by nature. One of the things we see with Lamashtu when she’s being driven away by Pazuzu, we have these great amulets where he’s driving her away from the city where people live. And she’s set atop a donkey, which is itself on a boat crossing a river, the idea that she’s being driven out of the city, away from the cultivated fields and lands into the desert, and then across the river and eventually into the nether world itself, which if we were to give the demons a home, would be the closest equivalent. In Mesopotamia, one of the many words for the netherworld was KUR, which is also the Sumerian word, literally for “mountain”. So the mountains that bordered Mesopotamia directly to the north were seen as a natural gateway to this netherworld location. Demons have the ability to drift in and out a bit more than monsters did, so they could pose a threat in a way that the more geographically bound creatures could not.
Who controls these creatures, then? Do they make their own decisions? Are they sent by the gods? Or could you invoke them as an ordinary person?
Generally, we see this happen, I would say in a few different ways. So while the gods have this ability to also impact the world, they’re seen as doing it through these legitimated supernatural or, or magical means. They’re an expression of their own divine ability. Demons do this as well, but it’s an un-legitimate power. Most demons, it does seem, act on their own authority. We have texts where demons even threaten society. The demons who are sometimes gods–I wrote my dissertation on the Sebettu, there are seven of them, and that’s what the word means. They in certain texts even threaten the gods themselves, and the gods appear frightened of them. When we have figures such as Lamashtu, even though she’s in some traditions operating outside of divine authority, we do see some variant traditions such as the flood myth, Atrahasis, where she almost is described as being put on Earth as a check against population. So there’s more of this idea that demons even though they’re chaotic, might be a part of how the world is meant to function. I think another good example of this is the demon / ghost, we could say, the Ardat lili, who is a young woman who dies unmarried, and this is something of a perversion of the natural order in Mesopotamia. So to tie back to our earlier mention of Trump and demon sex, the Ardat lili becomes a succubus-like figure when she dies. She’s driven by this desire for a spouse of some kind, and she drifts in on the wind to haunt young men while they sleep. There’s also a male version, but he’s not nearly as popular in Mesopotamia. So by and large, I would say we do see demons operating on their own volition and posing a threat that’s unchecked, but a few do seem to fall under a sort of order to the universe.
Once they arrive in the earthly realm, from wherever it is they come from, do they attack at random? Or do they have specific targets?
For some, such as the Ardat lili I mentioned, there’s very much a specific prey. For Lamashtu, even though she can be fairly equal opportunity, she tends to target pregnant women, infants, young children.
But do we see specific individuals targeted? Is it like you could do something wrong and the demon would be a punishment for that? Are they just looking for, say, the first pregnant woman they come across?
We do see individual people targeted by demonic figures. Whether there’s specifically a, you know, if you do this wrong, a demon will come and strike you down, that’s not a causal relationship we see as much. One of the figures, straddles the line of being a demon, is this figure of the witch. Who even though it … she’s attached individual people we have rare, but still present witchcraft accusations in Mesopotamia. Most often she’s described as this chaotic and demonic figure. And there she seems to attack individuals in a number of different and creative ways.
How would you tell if you were being possessed by a demon? How would you work out which one of them it was and what it wanted?
So if you’re suffering from ill fortune, persistently, it could be the result of a demon. If you’re ill, demons are often a vector for illness. Illness itself could be demonised or it could be seen as a demonic cause. When we look at how someone identifies a demonic attack, and then opposes it, generally this falls under the purview of a figure called the ashipu, who is best translated, I think, as the Mesopotamian exorcist. But for us that word has a lot of connotations, which in Mesopotamia, wouldn’t necessarily translate. The ashipu was a learned and trained professional. He was almost always a male. He went through quite extensive scribal and professional training. And through this would deal with both the effects of the demonic affliction, which were very often physical ailments, as well as removing the demon itself that was causing them. We do have another figure in Mesopotamia, the asu, who is more of a physician pharmacologist, which is mostly seen or at least interpreted as treating the effects, but not the demon that would be causing them, whereas the ashipu targets the source. Those borders, like many things, I’ve described are a bit fuzzy, but that’s generally the line we draw.
It’s reassuring that there’s professional help out there for this kind of problem. But how did they fight demons? Do you really need specialist help? Or could you learn a particular spell and do it on the cheap?
No, it’s very dangerous to do so ,if you were not professionally trained. We actually have a few references. For example, this one incantation that talks about how a man without the protection of his personal god–in Mesopotamia, you had a patron or personal deity that not only protected you, but also interceded on your behalf to the big gods, because they had better things to do than care about you–and it describes how this man without a personal deity tried to approach and oppose the Ardat lili, and in doing so he was attacked and beset upon by other demons, and he’s dragged off to presumably a grisly fate. The ashipu had this host of abilities, but also of tools. So he had divine legitimation. He was linked into the power of other gods, particularly the god we know as Enki or Ea, Sumerian and Akkadian, who is seen as our god of what we could call protective or curative magic. He had divine helpers. When I mentioned that the udug and lama could be benevolent, when we see them that way, they’re very often helping the ashipu. They’re described in texts as flanking him on each side and creating a space of protection around him, or around the afflicted. He had incantations, lots of incantations in his toolkit.
Do we have any of these magic spells? Have they survived?
Oh, yes, we have loads. We have incantations as early as the third millennium. And all the way pretty much to the end of cuneiform tradition in Mesopotamia. So down into the late first millennium.
Okay, give us our best one. What have we got?
I’ll give you a format. And then one that I particularly like, which falls under that rubric. So we have a formula that shows up in exorcism incantations a lot is called the Marduk-Ea formula, which is where our aforementioned god, Ea or Enki, is approached by the divine stand-in for the exorcist, who is Marduk or Asalluhi. And he presents … we talked about, you know, how do we know what the demon is and how to oppose them, and this is a big way that the demon is identified. The divine stand-in approaches and enters before his father, “My father, I do not know, I do not know. Here is …” and he presents the problem, which is basically an overview of the symptoms of the afflicted. And he then responds, “What can I add for you. All that you know, I know” [all that I know, you know!]. And then what happens, which is really neat, I think, is that Enki then goes “Go, my son!” and commends the divine stand-in to leave the temple. But in doing so, he also relays a set of ritual instructions that are what the exorcist is then to follow in order to cure the patient. So he identifies what the problem is, and then also delivers the solution. And in doing so, directly connects the ashipu, the exorcist, to this divine legitimation. So it’s not his incantation–and this phrase even shows up in texts–“the incantation is not mine, it is of Enki”. So always the ashipu is rooting himself in this divine power. This formula, which is so rote in certain texts that the scribes will say, “we’ll just write the first few signs of each line as a sort of, ‘Oh, you know what happens here. I don’t need to bother'”. One incantation I’m a fan of … we see … it’s Old Babylonian, so it’s around the early second millennium BC. It describes this demon called the asag, that’s inhabiting the man. It talks about how the evil asag-demon covers his body like a garment. Here’s a great mental image, this idea that it’s literally living inside his skin. And then Enki, the lord of incantations, delivers the solution which is a scapegoat incantation. So here this phrase, which we use in English of “scapegoating someone” tracks back to this idea of taking, in this case, a goat, and substituting it for the man. And so here in this text, it goes into great detail, says “He set a scapegoat as a substitute. He set the head of the goat for the head of the man, the neck for the neck, the chest for the chest, blood for blood and innards for innards, right side for right side, left side for left side, rib for rib and limb for limb. And once all of this has been done…”, and then unfortunately, the text breaks off because this is often what happens when we’re reading tablets that are 4000 years old, more or less, just when it’s getting good, but we do see at the end of it that the demon seems to have been driven away, that he’s burned away from the person. Very often we assume that the goat–from parallel rituals, as well as those in other related societies–would either be driven into the wilderness or might have been ritually killed. But there’s this idea that we’ve taken the demon and quite literally shoved it into this substitute for the person. And then after doing so, the person is freed of the affliction. And the poor goat is not, but that’s its purpose in the text as a whole.
I can imagine if I wasn’t feeling particularly well, if somebody turned up and did that, I’d be reassured that something was being done to help me. But it does seem like a system that’s potentially open to abuse. Is there any way you could check the credentials of your exorcist?
When we talk about the ashipu, he very much is a learned and trained professional. And he’s someone that’s present in … could think of as the state architecture of Mesopotamia, particularly in the first millennium. So there’s ashipus that are attached to the king. One of my favorite examples from the Neo-Assyrian period is actually from the northern city of Ashur, where we have a family of exorcists. We have texts that talk about one individual, and then his son, and then his grandson, all of whom are described as the exorcist, the ashipu, or another term, the mashmashu, which is a parallel figure in this period, of the city. So these are very highly qualified and trained individuals. That said, whether it’s possible that you had someone who is offering some sort of, what we could think of is almost like a hedgewitch, a less official, but perhaps something that might still be seen to work. It’s certainly possible. But since our records tend to come from people who are operating in this more professional sphere, in large part, because those are the people writing the incantations that we’re then finding millennia later and translating. It’s not something that we necessarily see direct evidence for. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t present. But we don’t have tablets that indicate it one way or the other.
Okay, so there’s some quality control involved. It does sound potentially expensive, though, if every time you’re ill, you have to hire this highly trained specialist to come and check you over to see if you’ve been possessed by a demon or not. The bills could mount up quite quickly. How often would you actually consult an exorcist?
We see more records that indicate people consulting diviners, particularly about more common events, than people consulting exorcists as to when they had to deal with ailments. I would say certainly not necessarily a daily event. But nor is it something that would be seen as unusual. The fun thing I think about a lot of these texts is that the way that they thought about demons is causing illness, you can see how it actually would have worked to a degree. So if we look at some of these texts, they talk about the demon that is within the body of the man is causing the ailment. So the man himself is contaminated by this demonic presence as is all of the things that he has touched as, as the space he inhabits. So these texts create a quarantine essentially, of this afflicted individual, which in its own way, would have from what we understand of illness from our modern scientific perspective, helped limit its spread to a certain degree.
You’ve really whet our appetite for demons. I believe you have a book coming out soon, don’t you? Can you tell us about that?
Hopefully next year. We’ll see. It feels like time itself has a has become something of a fuzzy concept. So I did my dissertation on a group of seven demons known as the Sebettu, which are interesting because they’re not necessarily things … they’re not threats to individuals, as much as they are to society as a whole. They’re much more cosmic-level threats. But at the same point, they also eventually become integrated into the divine sphere and the divine hierarchy. They move over from the category of demonic to eventually the pantheon of Mesopotamia, first in the south, and then eventually the Assyrians get a hold of them, and they become these sort of attack dogs of the Assyrian empire, but they maintain this very dangerous and chaotic quality. It’s part of what makes them useful, but you just have to keep them occupied or they turn on Assyria itself. In certain texts, we see this happen, actually. They get bored, they don’t have enough to do. There isn’t enough campaigning. There’s a great line where they complain that their blades are corroded for want of a slaughter.
We can also keep up with you on social media, can’t we?
I do have academic Twitter as I like to say, which except for when I’m crossing over into angry politics is mostly focused on Mesopotamia.
Well, thank you very much for your time, Gina. That was very enlightening.
Thank you for having me.
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