by Benjamin Welton
There is a story (most likely untrue) that begins with a team
of European archaeologists overseeing a dig in northern Iraq.
They are somewhere
near Mosul, the current stronghold of the Sunni extremist group
ISIS in Iraq...
They have come to this
part of the world in order to excavate relics from the bygone empire
of Assyria - a brutal, but effective state composed of warrior kings
and their dreaded armies.
For the archaeologists themselves, the importance of Assyria is
First, the Assyrian
state ruled for a time the world's largest and most powerful
They reigned by the
point of the sword, and tales of their shocking inhumanity on
their vanquished foes still have the ability to terrify even the
sternest of imaginations.
Assyrians, and the empire they created, were one of the great
foes of both the Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of
As such, Assyrian
villains are sprinkled throughout the Old Testament.
Book of Nahum details the fall
of the Assyrian capital of Nineveh, the most reviled fortress city
in the ancient Near East.
For the Jews, the early
prophecy that Nineveh, the:
"city of blood, full
of lies, full of plunder" (Nahum 3:1),
...would fall must have
seemed like a divine gift of salvation.
Besides this biblical
prophecy, our European archaeologists would have undoubtedly been
aware of the fact that Jesus Christ spoke the Aramaic
language, the lingua franca of the Near East.
This was a tongue which
had been used by the Neo-Assyrian Empire, along with the older
Akkadian language, as a tool for imperial unification in the realms
of trade and government.
While the European archaeologists rock themselves to sleep with
ideas of discovering some proof of the historical Jesus, or
maybe uncovering something that had been lost to recorded history
for thousands of years, their local workers, most of whom are
pious Muslims, pray for the expedition to not find anything.
After all, it would not
be wise to upset the old gods, which to them represent powerful
But in the morning, underneath the hot, arid sun of old Assyria, the
workers stumble upon something large.
frantically removing the earth,
they recognize a
The face has a
long, square beard,
three rows of curls.
Above his hair
is a crown of sorts.
More digging reveals wings...
My God, they've uncovered a statue of
Lamassu, a protective deity.
They have awakened
the old gods. They flee in terror.
Or so the story goes...
But you see, the old gods
of Mesopotamia are not to be taken lightly.
According to the famous
British Egyptologist Sir E.A. Wallis Budge's book
"literature of the
Sumerian and Babylonians... proves that the people who occupied
Mesopotamia from about 3000 BC downwards attached very great
importance to magic in all its branches, and that they availed
themselves of the services of the magician on every possible
A large part of this ancient magic involved protection against the
many demons who plagued them, from the spirits of the angry dead to
the archfiend Lamashtu, the female demon who lived in the mountains
and cane brakes and preyed upon pregnant women and children.
Again, Budge was succinct
when he stated that from the earliest moments of recorded time, the
people of Mesopotamia,
"were in perpetual
fear of the attacks of hosts of hostile and evil spirits which
lost no opportunity of attempting to do them harm."
In order to understand
Assyrian demonology, one must appreciate the peoples who came
before, for the Assyrian religion, and even the Assyrian way of war,
was inherited (although the Assyrians did add excessive cruelty, so
they can be credited with at least one innovation).
It started in Sumer, the
first great civilization in Mesopotamia (modern day southern Iraq).
They created not only writing, but also a whole pantheon that would
serve their successors up until the coming of Alexander the Great.
The Sumerian gods
Enlil, the Lord
of the Storm and the heroic head of the pantheon
the air goddess
female god of fertility, war, and wisdom...
The Sumerians built impressive
ziggurats, or stepped temples, for the purposes of worshipping these
Cities such as Uruk,
Nippur, and Eridu (which the Sumerians considered ancient - thus
making it arguably the world's oldest city) served as commercial and
There were city-specific deities, but also monsters, such as Tiamat,
the primordial chaos demon of the ocean who serves as the primary
antagonist in the Babylonian creation myth,
The Enûma Eli.
[Side Note: This
text, along with the Neo-Sumerian
Epic of Gilgamesh, were both
re-discovered in 1849 by the British archaeologist Sir Austen Henry
Layard at the Royal Library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh. Ashurbanipal
was the last great king of the Neo-Assyrian Empire.]
Likewise, dark, malevolent gods were present in their cosmology...
and none was more vile that Ereshkigal, the goddess of the
underworld, or Irkalla.
Along with Nergal,
the plague god, Ereshkigal acted as the tyrant of Irkalla and was
the chief judge of the dead.
The story of Inanna's descent into the underworld provides a glimpse
into Ereshkigal's wickedness:
Naked and bowed
low, Inanna entered the throne room.
from her throne.
toward the throne.
The Annuna, the
judges of the underworld, surrounded her.
judgment against her.
fastened on Inanna the eye of death.
She spoke against
her the word of wrath.
against her the cry of guilt.
She struck her.
Inanna was turned
into a corpse,
A piece of
And was hung from
a hook on the wall...
is more commonly known by her Akkadian name of Ishtar,
manages to defeat the machinations of Ereshkigal and returns to the
world of the living.
For her pain, Ereshkigal
threatens Inanna with a show of her power, to send her army of the
dead above ground as a moving pestilence bent upon destruction.
To their enemies, the Assyrian hordes must have seemed like
Ereshkigal's army of the ravenous dead; they were a nation of
And although their rise
was slow and their fall spectacular, the Assyrians left an indelible
mark on the regions that they conquered... More than anything else,
they spread fear.
Evidence of this can be found in the fact that the early Jews turned
the Assyrian gods into demons.
the Assyrian version of Ishtar, became Astaroth,
the Crowned Prince of Hell.
Assyrian Bel, who would be called Baal by
the Canaanites, would become Beelzebub, the demonic "Lord
of the Flies."
Although these later
Judeo-Christian interpretations form the Western world's view of the
Mesopotamian religion as being thoroughly evil, the Assyrians
themselves weren't without their own demons.
(Again, most Assyrian
demons were present beforehand, in the mythos of earlier
These include the
Sumerian ekimmu, a type of vampiric ghost, or the Akkadian lilu
and lili, who were male and female demons that more than likely
served as the inspiration behind Lilith in the Old Testament.
Demons that were
specific to the Assyrians - or at least more often used by them
- include Ilu Limnu, the "evil god" who is never given definite
characteristics, and the gallu, or bull demon.)
The Devils and Evil
Spirits of Babylonia,
the Assyriologist Reginald Campbell Thompson details the
vampires, hobgoblins, ghosts",
...that cursed the
regions around the Tigris and Euphrates... as well as the Babylonian
and Assyrian incantations that were used against them.
According to Thompson, the Assyrians held a great fear of sorcerers,
whom they called the "Raiser of the Departed".
However, they feared the ekimmu and wind spirits above all else.
The most famous Assyrian wind spirit known widely today is
Pazuzu, the son of the god Hanbi and the demon of the
With the body of a lion
or dog, a scorpion's tail, wings, talons, and a serpentine phallus,
Pazuzu brought famine and locusts during the dry seasons.
In an odd twist, Pazuzu
was the rival of Lamashtu (the goddess who preyed on
pregnant women and children), and as such, his image was often used
to combat other demons.
Of course, Pazuzu's notoriety is the result of William Peter
Although the film is more
obvious than the book in depicting the spirit of Pazuzu as a
monstrosity haunting young Regan MacNeil (neither, however, directly
state that the demon is indeed Pazuzu), the message is still clear.
Blatty's decision to make
the chief evil in The Exorcist a pre-Christian, Assyrian
demon is in keeping with the Western tradition of seeing all things
Mesopotamian as depraved.
Furthermore, by beginning his novel, and thus the film, in northern
Iraq, Blatty made the conscious decision to play upon his audience's
Namely, that the land
of the old Assyrians is indeed a land of demons...