The ancient Mesopotamians believed that the world was populated by powerful demons—semi-divine spirits—that affected many aspects of human life. Sometimes these demons were identified with natural phenomena, such as winds or thunderstorms, but they could also represent the devastating illnesses that afflicted the population. Men and women, unable to understand the cause of diseases, viewed them as supernatural attacks or punishment from the gods and looked for ways to cure or counteract them.
A demon of frightening form, who first appeared in the Neo-Assyrian period from 934–610 B.C., can be seen on a variety of protective amulets that people wore on their bodies or hung on the walls of their homes. He had a monstrous head resembling that of a fierce lion or dog with horns, an emaciated human body with clawed hands, a scorpion tail, and two sets of wings. His name was Pazuzu.
I am Pazuzu, the son of Hanbu, king of the Lilu demons; I have scaled the powerful mountains; they trembled; the contrary winds were headed west; one by one, I broke their wings.
Pazuzu’s presence on amulets shows that his fearful strength could be used to keep away other harmful demons. Although a powerful wind demon himself (as signified by his wings) he served as guardian of the home. Another incantation found on his amulets commands the evil demons to keep away from the house he protects:
Agony of mankind, disease of mankind, suffering of mankind, do not enter the house I enter, do not come near the house I come near, do not approach the house I approach!
Perhaps the greatest universal human fear is that harm might come to children, and in Mesopotamia, this dread was embodied in the form of the evil demon known as Lamashtu, who was thought to harm pregnant women and kill babies. She was a hideous creature, with the head of a lion (or perhaps a dog or wolf), long donkey ears, and straggly hair. Her human body had heavy breasts that suckled a dog and a pig. Her feet were talons, and, according to the inscribed spells, “her hands are a net, her grip means death.”
Pazuzu in particular was invoked to fight Lamashtu, but other protective spirits also opposed her. In the amulet below, the patient, likely a pregnant woman, is shown lying on her bed, accompanied by a doctor and an exorcist, who would recite the spells to keep Lamashtu away.
They in turn are flanked by the protective spirits Lulal, who has a human form, and Ugallu, a lion-headed figure who was sometimes viewed as a symbol of roaring storms. Ugallu is familiar from the Assyrian palace reliefs, including one in the current Getty Villa exhibition Assyria: Palace Art of Ancient Iraq, as protector of the king himself.
On the other side of the Lamashtu amulet a procession of seven animal-headed figures, also protective spirits, come to assist.
Lamashtu and other demons caused many frightening troubles, from nightmares to fever and even death. In opposing these demons, doctors often worked alongside professional exorcists, who made use of a range of amulets and formulaic spells, many of which are preserved on cuneiform tablets. A frequently used incantation appeals to the gods to keep the evil demon away: “who transgressed the privacy of my bed, made me shrink for fear, and gave me frightening dreams.”
Doctors also called upon the gods for intervention: the statuette of a dog below was dedicated by a physician to Ninisina (also known as Gula, goddess of health and medicine).
As the current pandemic has shown us, fear of disease can greatly impact everyday life. With no ability to manufacture vaccines, the Mesopotamians sometimes turned to demons for help.