In October, Peopling the Past brings you interviews and reflections from scholars whose work investigates monsters and demons in the ancient world, examining their meaning and symbolism and their deeper connections to human experiences past and present.
What brought you to write about ancient demons and monsters?
My work is a little different from many of the other people featured by Peopling the Past; I don’t carry out much in the way of original research. Instead, what I do is work to make information about Mesopotamia accessible and available to non-academics. While I haven’t, strictly speaking, written about Mesopotamian monsters and demons in the traditional sense, I have written Twitter threads and video scripts on the subject. I find them personally fascinating, and judging by the responses I’ve received, I’m not alone! For me, I think their appeal lies in both the scale of their power, and in the fact that they can be forces for good and for ill. They have a place in the natural order of the world, and much of their monstrosity comes out in Mesopotamian texts when they work against that natural order. That’s not to say that they can’t also just be forces of destruction; demons were also thought to bring sickness and misfortune.
What types of demons and monsters do we encounter in Mesopotamia?
All kinds! Though, Mesopotamia seems to specialize in hybrid-type demons. You’ve got the Anzu bird (a lion-headed eagle); Ugallu (a lion-headed demon with bird feet); the lamassu (a human-headed winged bull); Pazuzu, a lion or dog-headed male figure with bird feet, wings, and a scorpion’s tail; and Lamashtu, a lion-headed woman with the teeth of a donkey, and bird talons. Ugallu and the lamassu are really only monstrous in form, and have more in protective roles. Pazuzu, similarly, was invoked to ward off Lamashtu, who was a danger to pregnant women.
Which monster or demon fascinates you the most?
Tiamat holds a special place for me. She’s a primordial embodiment of the ocean, and is seen in the Babylonian creation epic, Enuma Elish. I find her to be an incredibly sympathetic character; she’s actually the one who gives birth to the Mesopotamian gods, and her monstrous nature is kind of forced to the fore when her children conspire to kill her husband. Ultimately she’s defeated and killed by the god Marduk, and he uses her body as the building blocks for the creation of the physical world that the Babylonians knew. Her eyes become the sources of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and her breasts are transformed into mountains.
She also illustrates what I see in a lot of Mesopotamian demons and monsters, which is their nature as god-adjacent beings. Sometimes – as with Tiamat – we see deities acting in a monstrous fashion, and sometimes we see monsters wielding power that is really only meant for the gods, like when the Anzu bird steals the Tablet of Destinies (the Mesopotamian Infinity Gauntlet).
What kinds of ideas, fears, or relationships to animals/nature do you think are behind the creation of monsters and demons in ancient Mesopotamia?
I think that a lot of it is probably connected to the Mesopotamian practice of attributing any misfortune one experiences to a supernatural cause. You fall sick? A god must have taken a dislike to you, or a demon invaded your home. As I mentioned above, demons and monstrous deities can also be used as protective guardians, despite (or because of) their terrifying nature. One of the best-known examples of this is the god Erra; a literary text describes how he goes on a violent rampage because he thinks he’s being disrespected. Fragments of that text have been found inscribed on amulets, suggesting that people were trying to utilize his violent power as protection for themselves.
Why do you think ancient monsters and demons are so fascinating for audiences today?
I think that as humanity understands more and more of the physical world, there’s always that sense of something just out of reach. Something we can’t (yet) explain, something that makes us a little uneasy. In that unknown space, our imagination can take over and fill in the gaps. I think the knowledge that ancient cultures invented monsters to explain their unknowns is highly relatable, and speaks to our own unnerving sense that something is out there in the dark.
List of Mesopotamian Deities (University of Pennsylvania Museum)
Translations of the Anzu Myth (University of Pennsylvania Museum)
Ancient Plagues with Eli Tadmor (YouTube)
Recommended reading: Black, Jeremy A., Anthony Green, and Tessa Rickards. 1992. Gods, demons, and symbols of ancient Mesopotamia: an illustrated dictionary. London: Published by British Museum Press for the Trustees of the British Museum.
Megan Lewis has a B.A. from Birmingham University (UK) in Ancient History, an M.Phil. from the same in Assyriology, and an M.A. in Near Eastern Studies from the Johns Hopkins University. She attained ABD status in a Ph.D. program at The Johns Hopkins University, before deciding that her energies would be better spent elsewhere. She hopes to return to school and obtain her doctorate at a later date. Megan serves on the board of directors for H.A.P.S., and takes care of the day-to-day running of the Digital Hammurabi YouTube channel and Podcast.