Assyro-Babylonian Demonology

by Esteban

“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.