Protecting Against The Supernatural: Demons, Ghosts and Witches in Ancient Mesopotamia.

Content Warning: Miscarriage, Infant Mortality.

This week we are going to briefly explore how Assyrians and Babylonians conceptualised illnesses and the people responsible for attending to physical, mental, and supernatural ailments. 

First of all we need to understand how ancient Mesopotamians interacted with religion. The crucial element to keep in mind is that there was never anything called ‘religion’ in the 3rd, 2nd, and 1st Millennium BC ancient Near East. Instead, everyone accepted and understood the supernatural influences in their lives. Of course, your position in society would have affected how much you would have interacted with the ‘magical’. For instance, if you were a priest in charge of looking after and feeding a god in the temple, your exposure to the divine would have been much more intense than a farmer or a labourer. 

Nevertheless, dealing with diseases, physical ailments and mental illness was an opportunity to experience the divine. Many of these conditions were believed to be caused by demons, ghosts, and witches. Specialists would be required to conduct rituals or incantations to rid these patients of their infections. āšipus and asûs are the most documented of these specialists and they are mostly responsible for the upper echelons of society. The āšipus tend to deal with the more ‘supernatural’ and abstract conditions, whereas the asûs were known more for treating physical conditions such as the flu or even broken bones. 

Here is an example of an asû’s response to a Neo-Assyrian King’s question. In this instance the king wants to know more about how to treat nose bleeds:  

(1) [To the ki]ng, my lord: [your servant] Urad-Nanaya. The very best [of healt]h [to the ki]ng, my lord! May Ninurta and Gula give [happin]ess and physical well-being [to the king], my [lo]rd!
(7) (The prince) Aššur-ete]llu-šamê-erṣeti-muballissu [is doing very well.
(8) As to the tampo]ns [of mar]takal-[seed] about which [the king], my lord, wrote to me, [those which] are (intended) to stop nasal hemorrhage are prepared [as follo]ws:
(13) [They cru]sh it, [mix] it with cedar resin, [wra]p (the mixture) in red wool, and [reci]te an incantation [over it] and insert (the tampons) [in the nostrils].
(b.e. 18) (Break)
(r 1) [… magne]tite
(r 2) [… they thr]ow away
(r 3) […] of styrax
(r 4) They recite [an incantation ove]r it and insert it [in the nostril].
(r 6) They wrap [… dust] from crossroads [……] and very […… in a tuf]t of wool, [reci]te [an incantation over it, and inser]t it in the nostril.
(r 10) [They take] martakal-seed and […] which are not crushed, […] as it is, recite [an incantation] over it, wrap [it in a t]uft of wool and insert it [in the opening of the n]ostril.
(r.e. 16) They should act according to the prescription I have sent.
SAA 10 238
The clay tablet with SAA 10 238 inscribed on to it.

Here is an example of an āšipu advising the king about a ritual to rid a patient of a demon and epilepsy:

(1) Concerning the rites accompanying the incantation “Verily You are Evil” about which the king, my lord, wrote to me, they are performed to drive out the evil demon and epilepsy.
(10) As soon as something has afflicted him (= the patient), the exorcist rises and hangs a mouse and a shoot of a thornbush on the vault of the (patient’s) door. The exorcist dresses in a red garment and puts on a red cloak. He (holds) a ra[ven on] his right, a falcon on [his left], and po[urs …] on the censer of the ‘7 gates,’ grasps a […], holds a t[orch in his han]d, stri[kes] with a [w]hip and recites [the incantation] “Verily You are [Evil].
(r 5) [After] he has finished, he makes another exorcist go around the bed of the patient, followed by a censer and a torch, recites the incantation “Begone Evil hultuppu” (going) as far as to the door and (then) conjures the door.
(r 11) Until (the demon) is driven out, he does (this) (every) morning and evening.
(r 13) Concerning (the fact) that on the 13th instant the moon and sun were seen together, there is a ritual to be performed against it. Let Nabû-gamil come and perform it according to my instructions; [he] should also perform (the ritual) for Urad-Ea.
SAA 10 321

Sometimes the boundary between āšipus and asûs would overlap and the distinctions between the two professions become blurred. In many archives of asipus we find material that extends beyond their professional purview. This is likely because āšipus needed to have a comprehensive understanding of the Akkadian language and its religious material.

One of the most fierce demons that plagued the ancient Near Eastern world was Lamaštu. She was most-commonly known for the threat that she posed to young infants and pregnant women and was therefore constantly feared. In the later 2nd millennium BCE she began to have a more consistent iconography with a lion head, bird of prey feet, human hands, and large breasts. She appears on amulets, cylinder seals, and other items of personal adornment and was often accompanied by an inscribed incantation. 

In some of these incantations we learn about Lamaštu’s background: 

“She is evil (although) of divine descent, the daughter of Anu, For her malicious ideas her improper spirit her father Anum threw her out of heaven (threw her down) to earth”

(Farber, 2011, p. 281)

In this Old Assyrian incantation, found on a singular tablet, we are given a mythology of the infamous demon. We learn that she is the daughter of the sky-god, Anu, who is believed to be the supreme deity of the Babylonian Pantheon. She is thrown “out of heaven” because of her “evil” nature. 

Her threatening reputation is made clear with the wonderful line; “she made limp 20 the muscles of (even) a lion”. Her devastating powers would surely not be countered with mere physical strength, instead citizens needed to seek metaphysical defences. 

Demons such as Lamaštu could travel from the mountains, swamps, and plains where they resided, to the houses of unsuspecting mothers and children by using the wind. They could easily go through doors, windows, and walls, so protection was paramount.

Sometimes families would bury protective figurines of spirits underneath doorways to stop lamastu from entering their house. Additionally, preemptive incantations and rituals could be recited to ward off the evil spirit. 

Tablets reveal in detail some of the strategies used by āšipus to help remove Lamaštu’s influence or to guard pregnant women or anyone from the long list of ailments that she can inflict at her will. Following a recital of an incantation (whose performance may have included a production of a tablet) a ritual would have been performed. One example includes making a clay figurine of Lamaštu and some donkeys before providing them with travelling provisions and placing them in the uncultivated wilderness. 

If you would like to explore the world of demons, witches, ghosts or the specialists in charge of defending against them then check out the following resources!

For a longer overview of Lamaštu’s mythology and her evolution through Mesopotamian history, see Frans Wiggermann’s excellent profile: https://www.academia.edu/2393886/Lamastu_Daughter_of_Anu

For letters from asûs and āšipus then head over to the Assyrian State Archives (Specifically SAA 10).

Here is a superb YouTube video on demons in the ancient Near East: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sgFHcSmTLgk

If you want to learn more about Mesopotamian Gods: http://oracc.museum.upenn.edu/amgg/index.html

Check out our short story competition. Deadline April 4th 2021 @ 23:59 GMT. 

References: 

Farber, W. (2014) Lamaštu: An Edition of the Canonical Series of Lamaštu Incantations and Rituals and Related Texts from the Second and First Millennia B.C. United States: Eisenbrauns.  Buy Here → https://amzn.to/3riB08s

Schwemer, D. (2011) “Magic Rituals: Conceptualization and Performance.” In The Oxford Handbook of Cuneiform Culture, Radner, K and Robson, E. (eds.) Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Want even more? See last week’s post on Ancient Office Politics

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