Polytheism: Views on Good and Evil


Pazuzu from the Louvre

One belief in Christianity is that the material world is inherently evil. People live in a “fallen world.” Therefore, the cosmos is a battleground between the forces of good and evil. The Devil tempts people to sin to separate them from God. A Christian’s only hope is through the Blood of Christ.

When the Church was assimilating Pagans (Note 1), they cast the various Gods as spawns of Satan to discourage belief in Them. However, because of their popularity, some Gods became saints such as Bridgit. Eventually, the Polytheist pantheons were divided into “good” and “evil” Gods. (Note 2)

In contrast, Polytheism regards the universe (including the material world) to be whole. Humans, Gods, Spirits and Others live together in a cosmic ecosystem. What each one does effects the others and their respective worlds. The web of the cosmos has each thread crossing another one or several. It is a tapestry of wholeness. Gods, Spirits, Others and humans meet at the nodes, the liminal places.

An example of this rich complexity is Pazuzu, the demon featured in “The Exorcist” (1973). This Mesopotamian demon (Note 3) is the son of Hanbi, the King of the Evil Wind Demons. Although Pazuzu brings the Wind of Famine, He protects against the West Wind of Pestilence. Meanwhile, newborns and pregnant women are protected by Pazuzu as well. (In Babylon, women wore amulets of his head for protection.)

As I noted, Christians saw demons as evil. Demons like Pazuzu, who have a connection with the Underworld, became agents of Satan, God’s Adversary. Thus the Pagan Underworld was transformed into the Christian Hell, with the Gods and demons as tormentors.

Gaius Florius Aetius, Priest of Apollo, writes in his essays on good and evil (Note 4) that the Gods can be thought in terms of order or chaos. He notes that Plato wrote about destructive forces that oppose the ordering known as Logos. In the Roman Polytheistic sense, order creates civilization, chaos the wilderness.

Aetius writes, “Paganism (Note 5) always revolves around the idea of change. For a Pagan perspective, creation exists always, it merely changes its status and herein lies a hint to the Pagan concept of Evil. There are two different kinds of order, or chaos versus order…The world before the Gods is the original state of the cosmos as a place hostile to life and to civilization…the Gods now come into being and make a new space inside the chaotic cosmos, as a place of order and harmony, wherein life and culture can develop.” (Note 6)

Aetius grapples with the role of the Gods of Chaos. He writes “Seth (Set, Egyptian God) symbolizes the other, the alien, the enemy and the disturbance of harmony, that which is anti-natural. His very existence is contrary to the natural order.” He continues, “Seth sheds some light on the Pagan idea of Evil, as He is the non-defined animal, like one who would not want to be one thing or another, not decide, while culture and personal development requires decision.” (Note 7)

In my reading, Set (Seth) is not evil in the Christian sense. What this Egyptian God does is to ensure that order does not stagnate or overwhelm the cosmos. Raven Kaldera, Northern Tradition shaman, expands on this by explaining that the “troublemaking” Gods have a sacred duty to battle complacency and extreme order.

Because everything is a combination of order and chaos, balance between the two is essential for life. Balance is harmony of the two, for within chaos is order, and vise versa. The excess of order is oppression, the excess of chaos is anarchy.

Note 1. The Church coerced the conversion of many European Pagans.

Note 2. This is reflected in how modern Pagans regard Underworld or Trickster Gods. Loki of the Norse is viewed as “evil.” Therefore, when approaching various Pantheons of Gods, be mindful of the unconscious bias of “good” or “evil” Gods.

Note 3. In Mesopotamian nomenclature, “demons” are human-hybrids. “Monsters” are the combinations of animals. Pazuzu, a demon, has a human body with scales, a penis of a snake, the talons and wings of a bird.

Note 4. His essays are “Demons, Spirits and Miasma,” “The Roles of Evil in Paganism,” The Gods of Madness – Danger of the Logo-Centric Western Culture,” and “Concept of Evil.”

Note 5. He refers to Polytheism as Paganism.

Note 6. Gaius Florius Aetius, “Schola Aetii – Reformed Roman Paganism.” P. 126.

Note 7. Gaius Florius Aetius, “Schola Aetii – Reformed Roman Paganism.” P. 127.

Works Used:
Gaius Florius Aetius, “Schola Aetii – Reformed Roman Paganism.”
Jeremy Black and Anthony Green, “Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia.”
Tess Dawson, “The Horned Altar”
Thorkild Jacobsen, “The Treasures of Darkness.”
Raven Kaldera, “Dealing with Deities.”

Magic and Demons in Sumer

adult black coat conceptual

Photo by OVAN on Pexels.com

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.