Magic and Demons in Sumer

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The Sumerians thought that demons could make them ill, carry them off to the Netherworld, or protect their children. The demons flew in the wind and came through windows. To ensure good luck, families did rituals to keep the demons away. Moreover, Sumerians employed doctors who were also diviners, since disease could be also caused by curses.

According to Sumerian myths, Nergal, the God of Death, would send seven demons to kill people. These seven demons (the Maskim) lived on human blood. They were the South Wind, who brought the plague, the Dragon Monster who inflicted death, and the Leopard who ate children. Meanwhile, the Horned Serpent infected people while the Wolf-man drank their blood. The other two were the Shapeshifting Demon, who brought chaos of the mind and the Serpent-human, possessing black wings, who brought violence.

Meanwhile, the Galla (Underworld demons) would haul hapless humans into the Underworld. Once the gates were closed, no one (not even Gods) freely could leave the Underworld. Only the Galla could come and go. Nergal had his demons keep the gates open so that He could leave. The other Gods could leave temporarily, if another would take their place for the duration. An ordinary person could leave as a ghost (gidim) only during certain times of the year.

Adding to the demon-infested world were the magicians who could command them. Called witches (kassaptu) or warlocks (bel dabadi), these magicians practiced witchcraft (kispu) and laid curses (mamitu) on people. They ordered gidim to haunt people or flies to infect them. The magical collection (of tablets) named Surpu (“The Burning”) listed curses such as scorpion bites, frothing at the mouth, and seizures of the body.

Meanwhile, the exorcists (ashipu) studied and wrote incantations to help people. Furthermore, they owned manuals (collections of tablets) that contained useful lore from other ashipu. Some of the rituals to remove curses required burning garlic while reciting prayers. A common element of many rituals involved burning figurines of the witch (kassaptu) and warlock (bel dabadi) seven times in seven bonfires.

During the summer, the ghosts left the Underworld. (They would exit and enter through the Sacred Mound (Duku) outside the city.) In the summer, people lit braziers to guide the gidim to their families. Ghosts who were ignored would seize a person through the ear. (This was called the “hand of the ghost” (Qat etemmi) which caused mental illness. Seizures was known as “seizure by the ghost” (sibit etemmi). Meanwhile, angry gidim demanded that they be fed hot soup before promising to leave.

For the people of Sumer, various animals were representatives of the Gods. For example, the flies of Nergal would tell people where to find missing loved ones. Fish-men would heal people, as did the dogs sent by Gula, the Goddess of Doctors. Frogs would stop boats, if Enki, the God of Waters, so wanted it. The Sumerians lived in a world of magic and magicians.

Works Used:
Black, Jeremy and Anthony Green, “Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia.” University of Texas: Austin. 1992.
Dickie, Lloyd and Paul Boudreau, “Awakenings Higher Consciousness: Guidance from Ancient Egypt and Sumer.” Inner Traditions: Rochester (VT). 2015.
Jacobsen, Thorkild, “The Treasures of Darkness.” Yale University Press: New Haven. 1976.
Koutrafouri, Vasiliki G. and Jeff Sanders, eds. “Ritual Failure: Archaelogical Perspectives.” Sidestone Press: Leiden. 2013.
Radner, Karen and Eleanor Robson, ed. “The Oxford Handbook of Cuneiform Culture.” Oxford University Press: Oxford. 2011.
Van Buylaere, Greta, Daniel Schwemer, et. al. “Sources of Evil: Studies in Mesopotamian Exorcistic Lore.” Koninklijke Brill NV: Leiden. 2018.

5 thoughts on “Magic and Demons in Sumer

  1. I love Mesopotamian demonology and magical practices. I was surprised at how much magic and demons survived into the modern day from 5000 years ago. I would hypothesize that Sumerian magical practices survived in the West due in part of the influence of the Middle East and Greece.

    Things such as casting circles, destroying images to remove demons/curse, and sympathetic magic survived in modern traditions. Demons also survived the transit; Evil Eye and Lilitu are the most notable examples.

    I also find a lot of Mesopotamian demonology and classification similar to Buddhist thought and Hindu lore. They use different terms but the concepts are similar. It’s also surprisingly similar to Japanese folklore and mythology. (a mix of Shinto and Buddhist) both types of yokai and mazoku.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Pingback: Babylonian July/August: Month of the Dead | Neptune's Dolphins

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