Ancient Mesopotamia, often hailed as the cradle of civilisation, was a land steeped in myths, rituals and complex spiritual traditions. Among these traditions, the presence of demons, complex beings that were unseen but ever-present, played a huge part in society. Often associated with the enigmas of the human mind, demons were the subject of both reverence and deep fear and everything from erratic behaviour to what we would recognise as depression was attributed to these forces.
As we delve into this fascinating intersection of demons and mental illness in Ancient Mesopotamia, we will explore a world where the line between the psychological and the paranormal was perhaps more blurred than you might imagine.
An ethereal realm of the ancients
Ancient Mesopotamia, with its bustling city-states like Ur, Uruk and Babylon, was a melting pot of various beliefs, rituals and daily practices. Here, where the majestic Tigris and Euphrates rivers meandered in what is now Iraq, the people held a worldview in which the natural and the supernatural intermingled seamlessly.
The Mesopotamians saw the world as a realm infused with a plethora of deities and supernatural entities, with every mountain, river and star believed to have a divine essence. In this pantheon, demons occupied a position of deep significance. Far from the wholly malevolent beings of later traditions, these entities could bring both blessings and curses, protection and peril. Their influence extended to all spheres of existence, from the prosperity of crops to the health of individuals.
For the people of this time, life was an intricate dance with these supernatural forces. They wore amulets to ward off evil, performed rituals to appease the gods and lived with an acute awareness of the unseen world around them. This dynamic interplay between the mortal and the ethereal set the stage for their unique understanding of disturbances in human behaviour, often attributed to the unseen forces that swayed their lives. As we delve deeper into this mesmerising world, we find a myriad of connections between the spiritual beliefs of the Mesopotamians and their perspectives on mental illness.
Deities, demons and the daily dance
To understand the pervasive influence of demons in Mesopotamia, we must first explore their origins and characteristics. Fortunately, the epics and religious texts of the era vividly describe each demon’s unique nature and attributes.
A fearsome demoness, Lamashtu was known to cause harm during childbirth, bring about disease in infants and even kidnap children. She was often depicted with a lion’s head, bird’s feet and a hairy body.
One of the most iconic Mesopotamian demons, Pazuzu was the demon of the southwest wind and bearer of storms and drought. Despite his malevolent nature, he was also invoked as a protector against other evil forces, particularly against Lamashtu, a demoness known to harm pregnant women and infants.
Statuette of the Demon Pazuzu, about 934–610 B.C., Neo-Assyrian. Musée du Louvre, Department of Near Eastern Antiquities.
Often associated with the Hebrew Lilith, Lilitu was a demoness of the night. While some stories depict her as a seductress, others associate her with night terrors and child mortality.
These were demons of the underworld. They would drag unfortunate souls into the depths and were sometimes involved in disease and plague outbreaks.
Spirits of the dead, the Utukku were believed to have wandered the earth, causing all manner of mischief and harm. Rituals were performed to keep them at bay, especially during ceremonies for the dead.
Also known as the “Vagabond”, this demon was believed to hide in dark corners, waiting to attack unsuspecting victims. It was associated with sudden, unexpected misfortunes.
This demon was particularly nightmarish. Described as being faceless, it would attack in the night, pinning its victims down in bed and enveloping them, making them unable to move or scream.
In daily life, warding off these entities was paramount, so amulets, incantations and ritual ceremonies were part and parcel of the Mesopotamian experience. A successful harvest, safe childbirth or the health of the livestock all depend on appeasing the right demon, so the people took it incredibly seriously.
Here is one recorded incantation against Lilitu, which shows the fear the ancient people had for the demon:
Her hand is a net, her embrace is death
She is cruel, raging, angry, predatory
A runner, a thief is the daughter of Heaven
She touches the bellies of women in labor
She pulls out the pregnant women’s baby
The daughter of Heaven is one of the Gods, her brothers
With no child of her own.
Her head is a lion’s head
Her body is a donkey’s body
She roars like a lion
She constantly howls like a demon-dog.”
Yet, as integral as these beliefs were, they had profound implications when it came to understanding and addressing mental health.
Ancient descriptions of mental disturbances
Mental afflictions in Mesopotamia, like in most ancient cultures, weren’t diagnosed with the detailed classifications we recognise today. Instead, signs of what we might call depression, schizophrenia or PTSD were often lumped together under broad categories and linked to supernatural causes. This perspective, while far from our contemporary understanding of mental health, offered a framework for the ancients to make sense of phenomena that they couldn’t otherwise explain.
Cuneiform tablets, the primary record-keeping medium of the time, provide glimpses into how mental disturbances were perceived. Terms like šimmu, which can be translated as “fright” or “consternation,” could refer to a range of symptoms from anxiety to more severe mental disorders. Another term, miqtu, describes a state of stupor or despair, which can be loosely related to what we might understand as depression today.
Early writing tablet with a cuneiform recording of the allocation of beer, 3100–3000 B.C.E, Late Prehistoric period, clay, probably from southern Iraq. Trustees of the British Museum
But perhaps the most compelling evidence comes from detailed case studies found in these ancient texts. For example, a tablet from the first millennium BCE recounts the tale of a man who displayed erratic behaviour, believed to be from drinking tainted water. His symptoms, as described, could align with modern definitions of psychosis or severe delirium. While the exact terminologies differ, the human experience of mental distress, as captured in these texts, feels hauntingly familiar.
However, where our paths with the Mesopotamians diverge starkly is in the interpretation of the root causes of these afflictions. The prevailing belief of the time was that such disturbances often indicated the influence or possession of a malevolent entity. Therefore, when someone displayed signs of distress or unusual behaviour, the Mesopotamians often sought answers in the spiritual realm and wondered which demon might be at play.
Rituals, incantations and exorcisms
The deeply ingrained belief in demons as influencers of mental health led to a repertoire of spiritual treatments. When a person was believed to be under the influence of a demon, they became the subject of a series of rituals meant to diagnose, appease or expel the offending entity.
One such ritual involved the use of a bārû or diviner, who would perform extispicy – the examination of animal entrails. By interpreting the patterns and shapes found within, the bārû could identify the demon causing the affliction and suggest an appropriate course of action.
Beyond divination, incantations played a crucial role. These were not merely recitations; they were performed with an almost theatrical flair, involving specific gestures, material and sometimes even music. The idea was to appease, bind or banish the demon to relieve the victim of their mental distress.
In more severe cases, exorcisms were also performed. These were intricate affairs, combining ritualistic actions, incantations and the use of specific tools and talismans to draw the demon out and protect the afflicted individual from future possession.
These practices may seem arcane to use today, but they underscore a fundamental human urge: the need to understand, categorise, and ultimately control the inexplicable aspects of our existence, including the complexities of the human mind.
Evolving beliefs and influences
It is important to understand that Mesopotamian belief systems weren’t stagnant; they evolved over millennia. Both internal developments and external interactions with neighbouring cultures influenced this evolution.
Trade routes facilitated not only the exchange of goods but also of ideas. As merchants travelled, they shared stories and beliefs, leading to a cross-pollination of religious practices and medical knowledge.
While Assyrians and Babylonians, two dominant groups in Mesopotamia, had their own complex approaches to demons and mental health, their perspectives were also shaped by interactions with neighbouring civilisations like the Hittites, Elamites and, later on, the Persians. Each had its own spiritual and medicinal practices, which came to merge with Mesopotamian traditions.
Over time, as Mesopotamia underwent various conquests and rulership changes, certain beliefs became more emphasised, while others fell out of fashion. However, the core notion of the supernatural being closely intertwined with mental and physical well-being remained persistent.
From ancient beliefs to modern perceptions
While the direct practices and rituals of ancient Mesopotamia may not have survived into the contemporary era, the legacy of their beliefs still lingers. The modern world, with its advanced scientific understanding, still grapples with societal stigmas surrounding mental illness. Today’s behavioural addictions and mental health conditions are understood in medical and psychological terms, but cultural beliefs and superstitions continue to shape perceptions, especially in regions where traditional beliefs remain strong. Occasionally, these stigmas can even tie back to notions of possession or divine punishment, albeit in modified forms.
For example, voodoo traditions in parts of West Africa and the Caribbean often perceive mental disturbances as spiritual afflictions. Individuals exhibiting signs of what might be diagnosed in the West as schizophrenia or severe anxiety might be seen in these cultures as being marked by spirits, either for good or ill. Sometimes, these ‘marks’ or possessions can be believed to endow the individual with unique spiritual powers or insights, transforming them into respected figures within their communities.
In other instances, they might be perceived as cursed or in need of spiritual intervention, which can include rituals, dances or ceremonies designed to appease or exorcise spirits. In the worst case scenarios, as with the witch trials in the 17th century European and American witch trials, those who exhibit unusual behaviours or symptoms might be ostracised, persecuted or even killed out of fear and misunderstanding. This is why it is crucial to grow modern mental health understanding around the world and provide effective treatment for those suffering from psychological conditions.
Reflecting on Mesopotamian perspectives can offer a humbling reminder. Our ancestors, in their quest to understand the human psyche, leaned on the tools and beliefs available to them. As we advance in our understanding of mental health, acknowledging the long shadow of history can make us more empathetic, fostering a deeper appreciation for the intricate journey of human understanding.
Mesopotamia’s demon-centric view on mental health showcases an essential facet of human nature: the need to rationalise the unknown. Today, as science provides us with clearer insights into mental disorders, it’s worth noting that the journey to these understandings was paved by countless generations before us, each grappling with the same core questions. By studying and respecting the past, we can approach the future with greater empathy, insight and wisdom and ensure that all those who need help can get it.
If you are struggling with mental health, contact UKAT today. Together, we can pave a path towards healing and understanding.
(Click here to see works cited)
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- Said, Miriam. “Mesopotamian Magic in the First Millennium B.C. | Essay.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2018, https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/magic/hd_magic.htm. Accessed 1 November 2023.
- Spier, Jeffrey. “Meet the Mesopotamian Demons.” Getty, 11 May 2021, https://www.getty.edu/news/meet-the-mesopotamian-demons/. Accessed 1 November 2023.