Thursday, May 5, 2011

Jeudi: Great Spirits

When modern Westerners think of demons we tend to think in terms of Hollywood.  Specifically: that thing in “The Exorcist”
that made the girl’s head spin around.  It doesn’t help our understanding of World religions that historians of various disciplines all too frequently tag ancient spirits with the word demon.  It is usually done for classification purposes – a demon is distinguishable, for instance, from a deity or an ancestor – but it tends to confuse people.  Particularly fundamentalists.

Two classic examples of the ancient spirit to modern demon formula are the rivals Lamastu and Pazuzu.  These two, the former female and the latter male, came to Assyrian mythology through Babylonian folklore.  They were probably born in the Sumerian culture as possible variations – Ardat Lili and Huwawa specifically – are often mentioned in early writing. 

Lamastu was thought of as a demigoddess in Assyria.  She was the daughter of the sky god An and therefore at the very least a cousin to more familiar goddesses such as Inanna/Ishtar and Erishkigal.  She was not one of the simple galu who chased down sinners for the underworld queen but in fact seems to have been a force unto herself, doing evil because she liked to.  The primary targets of her cruelty were women and children, particularly unborn and newborn babies.  Lamastu was blamed for miscarriages and crib deaths almost universally in Assyrian culture.  It was imagined that if she could manage to enter a house and touch the stomach of a pregnant woman seven times the child would be stillborn.  If she could touch the woman at all, the child would not see a second year of life.  In Babylonian folklore Lamastu is thought of as a “frustrated bride” in the mold of the Sumerian Ardat Lili.  Her lack of a husband and bareness make her hate wives and mothers whom she then attacks without remorse.  Similar malice would later be attributed to Lilith, the first wife of Adam in Jewish folklore.

The best way to keep Lamastu away from mothers and babies was to fight fire with fire.  Enter another demigod, Pazuzu.  Known now as a wind or desert demon Pazuzu was more caretaker than bringer of misery.  Though his statues were frightening to look at, he was considered a guardian.  He kept away the hot winds from the west, which ancient Mesopotamians believed brought disease with them.  People routinely kept small votive statues of the winged Pazuzu in their dwellings as charms against misfortune.  Most importantly, amulets in the shape of the demigod’s head were worn by pregnant women to keep the jealous gaze of Lamastu from targeting them and their unborn child.  This tradition’s origin may be seen in the Sumerian habit of placing the frightening visage of the forest giant Huwawa, who was killed by the hero Gilgamesh in the famous poems, on buildings to keep them safe.

Curiously, both Lamastu and Pazuzu live on in modern religious thought, if one can call it that.  Lamastu has morphed into the “lust demon” Alkala, feared by fundamentalist Christians for her ability to possess you and addict you to drugs, alcohol and Internet porn.  Pazuzu, taking a more glamorous road to fame, became that thing that made the girl’s head spin around in “The Exorcist”. 

Header: Assyrian statuette of Pazuzu 7th century BCE


Timmy! said...

I guess I'm possessed by the “lust demon” Alkala, Pauline... "drugs, alcohol and Internet porn"... sounds good to me.

But I just like saying "Pazuzu".

Pauline said...

Pazuzu has the quirky destinction, perhaps among all ancient spirits, of having a name that sounds even better when spoken in the voice of Beavis from "Beavis and Butthead". I'd like to think he has the sense of humor to match.