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The Demons Named

” … The existence of several elaborate incantation series in Ashurbanapal’s library, prescribing a large number of formulas to be recited in connection with symbolical rites to get rid of the demons, furnishes the proof for the practical significance attached to incantations in both Babylonia and Assyria.

These series, Babylonian in origin, revert to Sumerian prototypes and represent compilations stretching over a long period, with additions intended to adapt them to conditions prevailing in Assyria.

The scribes of Ashurbanapal were not indulging in a purely academic exercise in copying the archives of Babylonian temples ; their purpose, as was also the aim of the king, was to make Nineveh the central religious authority as well as the political mistress by having in their control the accumulated experience of the past, in dealing with the religious needs and problems of their own age.

A feature which these incantation series [1] have in common is the recognition of a large number of demons, with special functions assigned in many cases to the one class or the other.

So, for example, there is a demon Labartu, represented as a horrible monster with swine sucking at her breasts, [2] who threatens the life of the mother at childbirth; a group known as Ashakku who cause varieties of wasting diseases, another demon Ti’u, whose special function was to cause diseases, manifesting themselves by headaches accompanied by fever, and so on through a long list. It will be apparent that there is no differentiation between the demon and the disease. The one is the synonym of the other, and accordingly in medical texts the demons are introduced as the designations of the diseases themselves.

The names given to the demons in many cases convey the “strength” or “size” ascribed to them, such as Utukku, Alu, Shedu, Gallu, or they embody a descriptive epithet like AkKkhazu, “seizer” (also the name of a form of jaundice); ‘Eabisu, the one lying-in-wait; Labasu, “overthrower”; Lilu and the feminine Lilitu, “night-spirit;” Etimmu, ghost or shade, suggesting an identification of some demons with the dead who return to plague the living, Namtar, “pestilence,” and more the like.

The descriptions given of them, cruel, horrible of aspect, blood-thirsty, flying through space, generally invisible though sometimes assuming human or animal shape or a mixture of the two, further illustrate the conceptions popularly held.”

Morris Jastrow, The Civilization of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915, pp. 241-3.

Assyro-Babylonian Demonology

“From this point of view it is therefore significant to find the large place taken in the practice of the religion by incantation rituals and divination practices. It is inconceivable that the hymns and the incantations should be the product of the same order of thought, and as we proceed in our study of the religion of Babylonia and Assyria the evidence increases for the thesis that the incantation texts, growing by accumulation from age to age, represent the older products which are retained by the side of compositions expressive of more advanced thought.

The power appealed to to furnish relief must be addressed, and naturally the priests will endeavor to embody in this address the conceptions of the god or goddess that have been developed as a result of their speculations and attempts at systematization. The technical term shiptu for “incantation” is therefore attached to the hymns as a further indication that they form an ingredient part of this subdivision of the religious literature.

Taking up the incantations proper, we find the basic idea to be the theory that sickness and all forms of bodily suffering are due to the activity of demons that have either of their own accord entered the body of the victim, or that have been induced to do so through the power exercised by a special class of sorcerers or sorceresses who are able to bewitch one with the aid of the demons. This theory of ailments of the flesh is of course the one commonly held among people in a primitive stage of culture, and which is carried over to the higher phases.

That aches and fevers should be ascribed to the activity of demoniac forces within one is a natural corollary to the animistic conception controlling the religion of Babylonia and Assyria, and which ascribes life to everything that manifests power. A cramp, a throbbing of the head, a shooting pain, a burning fever naturally give the impression that something to speak indefinitely is inside of you producing the symptoms; and modern science curiously enough with its germ theory to account for so many diseases comes to the aid of the primitive notion of demoniac possession.

To secure relief, it was therefore necessary to get rid of the demon to exorcise the mischievous being. It was also natural to conclude that the demons, ordinarily invisible, lurking in the corners, gliding through doors, hiding in out of the way places to pounce upon their victims unawares, should be under the control of the gods as whose messengers they thus acted. The presence of a demon in the body was therefore a form of punishment sent by a deity, angered because of some sin committed.

But besides the gods, certain individuals were supposed to have the power over the demons to superinduce them to lay hold of their victims.

Giants and dwarfs, the crippled and deformed, persons with a strange expression in their eyes, inasmuch as they represented deviations from the normal, were regarded as imbued with such power, and curiously enough women were more commonly singled out than men, perhaps because of the mysterious function of the female in harboring the new life in her womb. As a survival from this point of view, we find the witch far down into the Middle Ages a commoner figure than the sorcerer, and in fact surviving the belief in the latter.

In whatever way the demon may have found his way into the victim, the appeal had to be made to a god or goddess to drive him out; nor was the theory that the demon represented the punishment sent by an angered deity affected by the power ascribed to certain individuals to bewitch individuals, for it was also in this case because the deity was offended that the sorcerer or sorceress could exercise his or her power. With the good will and favor of the gods assured, one was secure from demons and sorcerers alike.”

Morris Jastrow, The Civilization of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915, pp. 239-41.

Ishtar

” … Both phases of the goddess, as the gracious mother and as the grim Amazon, are dwelt upon in one of the finest specimens of the religious literature of Babylonia in which a penitent sufferer, bowed down with sickness and misfortune, implores Ishtar to grant relief. [3] The hymn is addressed to the goddess of Uruk but she has become the general mother-goddess and is instead of Nana addressed as Ishtar. Ishtar is here identified with the planet Venus and assigned to a place therefore in the heavens.

As such she is called “the daughter of Sin,” the moon-god. She is thus the daughter of Anu, of Enlil and of Sin at one and the same time, a further indication that such epithets merely symbolize a relationship to various gods, according to the traits assigned to her. The composition, too long to quote entirely, begins:

“I pray to thee, mistress of mistresses, goddess of goddesses,
Ishtar, queen of all habitations, guide of mankind,
Irnini [4] praised be thou, greatest among the Igigi [5]
Powerful art thou, ruler art thou, exalted is thy name,
Thou art the light of heaven and earth, mighty daughter of Sin,
Thou directest the weapons, arrangest the battle array,
Thou givest commands, decked with the crown of rulership,
lady, resplendent is thy greatness, supreme over all gods.

Where is thy name not! Where is thy command not!
Where are images of thee not made! Where are thy shrines not erected!
Where art thou not great? Where not supreme!
Anu, Enlil and Ea have raised thee to mighty rulership among the gods,
Have raised thee aloft and exalted thy station among all the Igigi.
At the mention of thy name, heaven and earth quake,
The gods tremble, the Anunnaki quake.
To thy awe-inspiring name mankind gives heed,
Great and exalted art thou!
All dark-headed ones, [6] living beings, mankind pay homage to thy power.

I moan like a dove night and day,
I am depressed and weep bitterly,
With woe and pain my liver is in anguish.
What have I done, my god and my goddess — I ?
As though I did not reverence my god and my goddess, am I treated.

I experience, my mistress, dark days, sad months, years of misfortune.”

As the planet Venus, the movements of Ishtar in the heavens form a basis for divining what the future has in store. [7] The prominent part taken by the observation of Venus-Ishtar in Babylonian-Assyrian astrology is reflected in many of the hymns to her. The influence of the priestly speculations in thus combining the popular animistic conceptions of the gods and goddesses with points of view derived from the projection of the gods on to the starry heavens is one of the features of the religion of Babylonia and Assyria.

Ishtar under one name or the other becomes a favorite subject for myths symbolizing the change of seasons, her period of glory when the earth is in full bloom being the summer followed by the rainy and winter months when nature decays, and which was pictured as due to the imprisonment of the goddess in the nether world. She takes her place in popular tales, half legendary and half mythical, and we have a number of compositions [8] further illustrating how the popular myths and tales were embodied into the cult.”

Morris Jastrow, The Civilization of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915, pp. 234-6.

Mother Goddess of Love, Goddess of War

” … The oldest cult of the mother goddess, so far as our material goes, appears indeed to have been in Uruk where she is known as Nana, but we may be quite sure that the cult was never limited to one place. The special place which Nana has in the old Babylonian pantheon is probably due to the peculiar development taken by the chief deity of that centre, Anu, who as we have seen became an abstraction, the god of heaven, presiding over the upper realm of the universe. Her temple at Uruk known as E-anna “the heavenly house” and revealing the association of the goddess with Anu as a solar deity became one of the most famous in the Euphrates Valley.

It is in connection with the cult of Nana that we learn of a phase of the worship of the mother-goddess which degenerates into the obscene rites that call forth the amazement of Herodotus. [1] As the mother-goddess, Nana or Ishtar is not only the source of the fertility displayed by the earth and the kind, gracious mother of mankind, but also the goddess of love, the Aphrodite of Babylonia. The mysterious process of conception and the growth of the embryo in the mother’s womb gave rise at an early period to rites in connection with the cult of the mother-goddess that symbolized the fructification through the combination with the male element.

There is, however, another side to Ishtar which comes particularly to the fore in Assyria, though it is also indigenous to Babylonia. She is not only the loving mother but, as the protector of her offspring, a warlike figure armed for the fray and whose presence is felt in the midst of the battle. She appears to her favorites in dreams and encourages them to give battle. It is she who places in the hands of the rulers the weapons with which they march to victory. To Ashurbanapal she thus appears armed with bow and arrow and reassures him: “Whithersoever thou goest, I go with thee”. [2] As far back as the days of Hammurapi, Ishtar is thus viewed as the one who encourages her followers for contest and battle.”

Morris Jastrow, The Civilization of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915, pp. 223-4.

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