Exorcism in Mesopotamia


Exorcism in Mesopotamia was a mix between religion, magic and traditional medicine. The ancient inhabitants of Mesopotamia considered that any physical or mental misfortune or discomfort was due to the presence of a demon or ghost and its possession. So medical treatments were closely linked to religious beliefs and rituals.

In Akkadian, the āšipu or mašmaššu, and in Sumerian, lú-maš-maš, has generally been translated as "exorcist", but the function of these individuals was actually a kind of doctor-magician, although for the doctor proper it seems that there was another name, asû, who evidently collaborated in the diagnosis. However, from the testimonies we have, although the exorcist was a low-ranking priest, he was equally or more in demand than the first liturgy priests. It is also known that many exorcism ceremonies requested personally (for example, a purification of a new home or a suspicion of someone), were paid for by the affected person, as payment for more work. The exorcistic works took place in special rooms in the temples. One thing was clear, the exorcist himself was not something the demons feared, but his ability to interact with the gods. In the invocations and spells themselves, the exorcists openly indicate this:

<<This spell is not mine, it is the spell of Ea and Asalluh>> (Farber, 2014, pp. 152-153).

These exorcisms, gr. ἐξορκισμός (to conjure outward, to draw out through spells), do not share the models of Christian exorcism to which we have become accustomed through the audiovisual world. They are much more linked to the praxis of the magical-religious rituals of antiquity, with purifications and destruction of evil. And they had very specific prescriptions, for example, they had to be done at the right moments for it, adannu. There is also evidence of so-called "substitute exorcisms", that is, second exorcisms if the first, for some reason (there were hundreds of possibilities) had not worked.

The first texts on exorcisms date from ca. 2500 B.C.E., but it was from 1000 B.C.E. when formal texts and instructions were compiled in an orderly manner. All of these texts were compiled under the name Exorcist's Manual.

Belief in spirits was a reality within the ancient world, and very specifically throughout the territory of what is today called the Middle East. In Mesopotamia, the spirits were divisible according to their origin: on the one hand we would have the general ghosts of the deceased, the spirits of the prematurely deceased or ekimmu ("the trapped", since they were prohibited from entering the underworld), condemned to wander through the earth; the vampire-like alû; the utukku, spirits of the underworld invoked through necromancy; the gidim or etemmu ("the sick"). All of these spirits were cared for through offerings to quench their hunger and thirst, although they tried to stay as far away as possible, because if they were disturbed or not honored properly, they would return to harass and torture their relatives, generally with diseases.

On the other hand we would have the demons, who, although they were not considered spirits per se, did share the underworld with them. As already said in the article on the origins of Lilith, in the Sumerian and Akkadian world the name "demons" as such did not exist, nor as a set of supernatural entities. These spirits were simply harmful forces. The best known were the Annunaki, children of Anu, who were basically minor beings; later, the Gallu, companions of the goddess Innana -Ishtar, as well as the spirits of the deceased. We also find the so-called spirits of the night, the lilû, among whom was precisely Lilith. There were many generic names such as "fever", "dizziness", "pain", "nausea", etc. Other names, as occurred in Egyptian demonology, referred to the "specialty" of demons, such as Aḫḫazu, "she who catches", dedicated to poisoning and diphtheria.

There were different types of rituals depending on the evil identified, which we can divide into kišpū, black magic, and māmītu, a type of magical-religious binding, which has been interpreted as a taboo. The doubts regarding the latter come from the fact that Mamitu is also the name of a goddess, wife of the God Nergal, whose etymology moves between "ice" and "divine wife." Mamitu also refers to a humanoid deity with the head of a goat.

Instructions for expelling demons

Exorcism in Mesopotamia went through different phases that involved the purification and protection of space, the elimination of evil, and the purification of the affected person, so that they would not "contaminate" their environment. It must be taken into account that in this generic model of evil caused by demons, the gods were not always claimed, but rather magic was mostly used.

A model ritual consisted of preparing a torch with seven reeds (7 as a magical number) and placing on it a figurine of the enemy to be neutralized, that is, of the demon, animal or symbol that one seeks to expel and destroy.

While the figure is consumed by fire, the hands were placed on the affected person or on the specific area that was affected and the virtues of the demon were praised, thus calling its attention, and then letting it know of the spell that was being performed on it. , and threaten him with the help of other divine entities ("The Hand of Enlil", for example), so that he would leave the place or body before the statuette disappeared. Its remains were usually buried or thrown into the river to ensure its complete inactivity in the future.

There was also the šurpu (combustion) ritual, in which the figure representing "perjury, taboo" was burned up to eight times, that is, the evil that affected the person, called, as already said, mamîtu, and all objects that could be considered contaminated were also burned, thus eliminating even evils or sins that could still be unknown. (Bottero, 1985).

Religious and moral faults

In ancient Mesopotamia they believed that a moral, religious or even social fault could provoke the wrath of the gods (kimiltu or uzzu), and therefore that their evils came from demons who had been allowed to act to punish them. the humans.

There are an infinite number of terms for human "sins": arnu is the most common. Ennetu and hititu would be the "faults", while gillatu is related to blasphemy, and sertu to an act worthy of punishment.

Against these evils, identified as such, the solution was to appease divine anger through prayers and supplications that asked the evils committed, Mina-arni (what is my sin); or go to a specific god, and list his virtues in the face of his cruel moments: Ludlul bel nemequi (I glorify the good Lord...). An example would be this prayer to Marduk (god of the sky and storm):

<< I glorify the good Lord Marduk, reasonable god, who gets irritated at night, but calms down during the day (...) the heavens cannot bear the clash of his fists, but then his hand calms down and reaches out towards the desperate... >> (Lambert, 1960, 342 f.)

Purifications and protections

The decisions of the gods could be predicted through oracles or the interpretation of certain symbols, of which very long lists have been found. This type of exorcism was called Namburbû (rite of cleansing bad omens), and basically consisted of performing rituals in which the bad was "eliminated", as happened in other religions, everything considered "against nature" ( for example, an abortion, a deformed animal, a found object...) getting rid of it.

We have some texts from which it is deduced that a complete ritual was carried out,

<< (...) isolating the space with a fence of reeds of lustral plants, on the edge of the river, and an altar of reeds will be built there in which seven loaves of offering, beer, dates and flour-sasqu will be arranged; A cauldron of juniper-burâsu will be prepared, and three jugs will be filled with beer (...), bread-pannigu, bread with earflaps, a grain of silver and a grain of gold>> (Bottéro, 1985)

The evil element is decorated with gold pins, flowers and jewels, as if it were a sacrifice, and is placed on top of the reed altar. The affected person will recite prayers to the gods and the River as a deity, repeating them at least three times, begging to take away the evil. Next, the evil element was placed on a small raft made of the same reeds, in the river, along with its offerings and gifts, and the course of the river was allowed to carry it away, praying that it would sink it and thus the contaminated person would remain. free. Lustrations and purifications with water or incense could be added to these rites, and in addition,

<<(…) once the ceremony apparatus has been dismantled, the person affected will be able to return home safely. But first and always out of prudence, she will make a necklace of carnelian, lazulite, serpentine, speckled stone, "shaded" stone (?), bright flint, breccia and small breccia stones (?), and wear it around the neck for seven days.>> (Bottéro, 1985)

Illness: fevers and epilepsies

A discomfort identified as demonic received a specific name: qāt amēlūti, "hand of man." In case of physical discomfort, once the central point of said discomfort was identified, the exorcist placed a series of amulets on the body of the affected person, requested the help of the gods, especially Marduk and Enki-Ea, and then shouted and ordered them to leave. to the demons. He could also request the help of other demons, as was the case with Pazuzu, who had a double function as an evil demon but also a beneficial demon, being included in apotropaic amulets, and being useful, as the husband of the demon Lamashtu, to ward off her and others. female demons of the night.

<< I am Pazuzu, son of Hantu, king of the evil wind-demons. I ascended a mighty mountain that trembled, and the evil winds I encountered were heading westward. I broke his wind. >> (Borger, 1987; Wiggermann, 2007b, p. 126).

The most dangerous were the Seven Spirits of the Abyss, responsible for diseases, each of them, according to the exorcistic texts, responsible for a part of the body, so it was relatively "easy" to identify who was responsible, and therefore , apply the corresponding remedy. There is also an exorcism that was prayed against all seven at the same time:

<< There are seven, there are seven / in the underground abyss, there are seven. / In the bowels of the abysses they grew, / neither male nor female. / They are the destructive whirlwinds, / they do not take wives, nor bear children, / they do not know mercy nor have compassion (…) >> (Tokarev, History of religions, p. 311)

Likewise, if it was known that the origin of evil was the venom of a scorpion or a snake, they were named generically as "evil entities", and figurines with their shapes were created and destroyed. Let's look at an example of an incantation that served not only against bites, but also to prevent them:

<<Behold the scorpion, his tail is torn off (...) His body and his tail are now like separated arm and hand.>> (Krebernik, 1984, 9 et seq.)

Judging by the tablets found, it seems that these rites were little by little replaced by rituals related to purification, such as sprinkling water, or performing a Mushu'u or massage in the area considered affected, in circles. centrifugal, thus expelling the spirit from the human body. And although there are not many written references about the use of amulets and phylacteries, they have been found and their magical use is known, in which it was a tool to support medicinal treatment.

Witches and warlocks

There are authors who consider that the expression "witches", translated, does not comply with the true meaning of the Akkadian words, which rather refer to other evil spirits, derived from the souls of deceased witches and wizards. Witchcraft (kišpu) in Mesopotamia is a kind of "cosmic" witchcraft; it is an entity in itself, a universal evil, and the sorcerer or witch, kaššapu, is the one who uses it.

There were different prescriptions depending on the evil that the witches had caused. There were generic purifications with river water and preparations of altars to the divinities. Against respiratory diseases – remember that witches used to make people sick – it is recommended to mix "sacred" herbs with flour to make a poultice, etc.

If they considered that the spirit had been locked into the body through evil magic, then the appeals were made against the sorcerer or sorceress and against her spell, with expressions such as: << I break your bond >>, or

<<Šamaš! May their sorceries turn against those who turned against me>> (Corpus of Mesopotamian Antiwitchcraft Rituas vol. 1, text 1.5, 1:11)

and listing in a generic and varied manner all the exorcists, doctors and gods who can repel the spell, such as consecrated magicians or animal charmers. Perhaps the model of an exorcistic spell against witchcraft is the so-called Kišpū zērūtu incantation, against a spell that has caused paralysis. While the invocations were being made, sprinkling of cedar resin, juniper, sulfur, sweet cane, wax and other herbs had to be done:

<<Hateful sorceries, go out into the field! They have paralyzed the person. They have snatched the young woman from her husband's arms, the young man from the girl's lap and the girl from the young man's lap (...) May Marduk, the exorcist, take you out of the body, and may Ningirima, the mistress of the spell, I imprisoned you! Get out, get out, paralysis!

You went to meet the young man and when the young man saw you, bonds entered his body. May Ea undo what has been tied against the young man and the girl! May the exorcist of the gods, Assalluhi, undo it!>> ( Kišpū zērūtu, 1.7.4:1 – 12)

Other methods are the symbolic destruction of the demons and witches that are influencing the patient: The texts of Maqlu and Šurpu, where both terms mean "burn", develop rituals where images of the witches and demons that torment are burned, tied and destroyed. to the sick one. However, despite its interpretation of fire, it was much more common to throw the figure or tablet far away, in the middle of the jungles, desert or sea, leaving it to the gods to destroy them. Still, it seems that with regard to witches it was logical to burn them, since magic could return in multiple forms, while when burned, the smoke rose to the heavens, where the gods would eliminate it completely.

These burning rites should not be confused with other words related to heat and fire, called išātu, which refer to fever caused by demons such as the aforementioned Lamashtu; The word Šuruppû, for its part, was the fever "that cools", related to malaria and the demon Assaku. There was another type of fever or illness known as The Hand of God, to qāt il abīšu, understood as the intervention of the personal god, but also of a ghost or a curse... in short, the direct intervention of a supernatural entity, but not necessarily a demon, who used to be the biggest interveners.

Witchcraft in Mesopotamia, however, is not persecuted as it happens in other cultures, against specific people, perhaps because of this universal conception of it. Yes, there is evidence of specific accusations and laws that even punished false accusations, so we are aware that the belief was common and witchcraft acts were identified.

In the environment of Mesopotamia and Babylon, everything was meticulously measured and noted, there was always a solution to a problem, an interpretation for a prodigious event, and this was applicable even to ordinary people. It is known that they were very superstitious, to the point of having special clothes for certain disastrous days, food taboos in certain seasons, days in which certain acts could not be performed (including prescribing not leaving the house, as well as carrying multiple amulets and talismans. Even certain winds were considerable demons that could be used to marry, and eating certain foods such as garlic "attracted" the death of family members or the bite of poisonous animals. It is not surprising, then, that exorcisms were not seen as something. exceptional, as occurs today, but as one more act within daily life in coexistence with myriads of spirits. As for the exorcist, dedicating himself to such a difficult job had as a divine reward a protective genius throughout his life, and eternal fame even after death.

Pietro V. Carracedo Ahumada – pietrocarracedo@gmail.com


-Bottéro, J. La religión más antigua: Mesopotamia. Ed. Trotta.

-Durán Velasco, J.F. Tratado De demonología. De Prometeo a Malak Tâwûs, de Ahrimán a Iblîs. Editorial Almuzara. 2013.

-Konstantopoulos G. Demons and exorcism in ancient Mesopotamia. ReligionCompass, 2020;14:e12370. https://doi.org/10.1111/rec3.12370

-Servier, J. (dir.) Diccionario crítico de esoterismo (vol. I) Akal 2006

Related Posts:

>  Lilith's origins

> Egyptian demonology

> Christian demonology in Middle Ages

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