Mesopotamian Ghostbusters: The Evil Acts of Assyrian Ghosts and How They Were Vanquished
Assyria, like Mesopotamia in general, has always excited the Western imagination. Assyrian beliefs about the spiritual world are no exception. The Assyrians believed that ghosts could return from the afterlife if not properly buried or if they had suffered a traumatic or unnatural death to haunt, harass, and even possess the living. Elaborate exorcisms had to be performed to expel or drive away the malevolent ghosts. Once a student of history learns about Assyrian ghost stories and exorcisms, the reason that ghosts are often feared in folklore becomes readily understandable.
Ghostly Fare: Dirty Food and Muddy Water
The ancient Assyrians, like other Mesopotamian cultures, believed that upon death, a person would become a gidim or etemmu, which are the Sumerian word and the Akkadian word, respectively, for a type of ghost which would live on in the underworld. The Mesopotamian underworld is often depicted as a dreary place where no one would leave. The food was little better than dirt and the only water was from muddy pools. Even though the deceased would live forever in the underworld, it was believed that they still needed food and water to be comfortable. Food and water came from funerary offerings from their living relatives. If their relatives neglected these funerary offerings, the deceased were condemned to an eternity of thirst and starvation.
The "Queen of Night Relief", which dates to the Old Babylonian Period and may represent either Ereshkigal, Ishtar, or possibly Lilith - Goddess of the underworld. ( Public Domain )
Although ghosts usually never left the underworld, there were circumstances in which spirits of the dead were permitted to return temporarily to the realm of the living. If a deceased person was not properly buried or if there had been some injustice or unnatural circumstance in their death, they were allowed to return to the realm of the living as ghosts to resolve the issue and make things right. Once this had been accomplished, they returned to the underworld.
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Since ghosts were usually vengeful spirits returning because they had been mistreated during or after death, an encounter with a ghost was rarely considered a pleasant thing. Ghosts would usually come to haunt and possess friends, relatives, or acquaintances. They probably also appeared to their enemies. Ghosts could present themselves to the living both as apparitions and through possession. Ghosts would possess living people by entering the head through the ears so that if a person started to experience pain or ringing in the ears, one possibility was that he had been visited by a ghost.
Ghost could return to the world of the living as apparitions or through possession. (Glass_House/ CC BY ND 2.0 )
Getting Rid of Ghosts
Typically, the only way to get rid of a ghost was to right whatever wrong had been committed. Doctors trained to perform exorcisms would always ask their patients to be honest about any offenses they may have committed against the ghost or the gods which could have triggered the haunting.
Assyrian exorcisms involved magical rituals, incantations, and invocation of deities such as the god Shamash. Shamash was the Mesopotamian sun god as well as the god of justice. He was believed to visit the underworld every night after sunset to judge the dead. Because of being the god of justice and a god associated with the dead, those suffering from haunting or possession would often invoke him in prayers or magical rituals hoping that he could resolve the matter by pacifying or restraining the ghost.
The king with a mace, who stands on a rectangular checked board dais, follows the suppliant goddess (with necklace counterweight), and the robed king with an animal offering. They stand before the ascending Sun god, Shamash, who holds a saw-toothed blade and rests his foot on a couchant human-headed bull. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )
Cunning Ghosts that Tricked the Gods
Although ghosts were usually spirits who had been wronged or had been sent to right a wrong, there are stories of ghosts being able to somehow trick the gods of the underworld and escape to the realm of the living and cause trouble and harass the living for no real reason.
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Ghosts of the latter type, once they were caught, would be punished by being sent back to the underworld and having any honors or offerings they had from their living relatives taken from them and given to those who had no children and no chance of being remembered. If the ghost was just there to cause harm and had no injustice to resolve, then the exorcism was a simple matter of expelling the ghost and bringing him to justice. If the ghost had suffered a wrong, then the process could be more complicated.
Assyrian Cylinder depicting an exorcism. (Wellcome Images/ CC BY 4.0 )
Ghost Stories to Teach the Living?
Assyrian ghost stories and exorcisms have themes in common with stories from many other cultures around the world. The idea of ghosts being spirits with unfinished business is also found in ancient China and Greece. It is also common across traditional cultures to blame sickness on possession by spirits such as ghosts, demons, and fairies which need to be exorcised.
In the ancient world, there was no social security so the only way the elderly could be cared for in their old age was if they had children. The Mesopotamian belief that the deceased would starve without being cared for by their relatives reflected a reality for the elderly still living. It could be that stories about ghosts coming to punish neglectful relatives who didn’t give them a proper burial also helped reinforce the imperative to be loyal to living family members.
Fragment of talisman used to exorcise the sick, Assyrian era. (Rama/ CC BY SA 2.0 )
Top Image: Detail of a bronze statuette of Pazuzu, circa 800 BC - circa 700 BC. Pazuzu was an Assyrian evil spirit believed to frighten away other evil spirits - protecting humans against plagues and misfortunes. Source: CC BY SA 3.0
By Caleb Strom
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