Mesopotamian ‘Demon of Epilepsy’ Discovered on 2700-Year-Old Tablet
A researcher studying an ancient Assyrian cuneiform tablet has found an image of a demon. The demon was believed to have been the cause of epilepsy. The tablet was used to treat health conditions, and the discovery of this ‘epilepsy demon’ is allowing us to better understand the era when medicine and magic were one.
The ‘epilepsy demon’ was found by Troels Pank Arbøll of the University of Copenhagen, during research work sponsored by the Edubba Foundation. He is a noted Assyriologist, who studies the ancient Assyrian people, who lived in what is now Northern Iraq, south of the modern city of Mosul. The Assyrians created an important ancient civilization that established two Empires and the first professional army. The civilization flourished between 2000 and 600 BC.
The ‘epilepsy demon’ can be seen at the bottom of the image, horns and face to the left and legs to the right. Source: Troels Pank Arbøll / University of Copenhagen
Epilepsy Demon Discovered
The researcher was re-examining a cuneiform tablet that is dated to 2700 years ago. It is written in a variant of Akkadian, a Semitic language, which was once widely spoken in the Mesopotamian region, but is now extinct. The cuneiform system of writing uses symbols to represent a complete word or sound. Cuneiform is notoriously difficult to interpret, and only a small number of specialists can read it accurately.
Full shot of the cuneiform tablet showing the ‘epilepsy demon’ circled in red. (Olaf M. Teßmer / Staatliche Museen zu Berlin - Vorderasiatisches Museum)
As he was studying the tablet, the expert discovered a partially damaged image on its back. He investigated the crude drawing and he soon made out that it was a figure. The figure had horns, a lizard’s or snake’s tongue, and more than one tail. Arbøll realized that he had found a demon and after reading some more of the cuneiform, he found that it “was the cause of the dreaded illness Bennu-epilepsy,” according to Futurity.
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Demonic Possessions and Exorcisms
The Assyriologist identified the demon, which the ancient civilization believed to cause epilepsy. The Assyrians and other cultures referred to epilepsy as Bennu. This was a widely feared condition that is described in the cuneiform writing. On the tablet, the symptoms included seizures, unconsciousness and mental illness. Another symptom was that those afflicted would cry like a goat.
The researchers drawing of the ‘epilepsy demon’ based on the cuneiform tablet. (Troels Pank Arbøll / University of Copenhagen)
Ancient people such as the Assyrians believed that diseases and illnesses were caused by supernatural beings, gods or black magic. They believed, like the Sumerians, that certain spirits caused people to fall ill, and these could be identified by specific symptoms. Curing illness was concerned with exorcizing people of evil spirits, such as the demon Pazuzu or the evil goddess Lamashtu.
Arbøll stated that “healers were responsible for expelling these supernatural forces and the medical symptoms they caused by drugs, rituals, or incantations,” according to Futurity. In ancient Mesopotamia, skills such as exorcism were taught in temple-schools, which could possibly be the world’s first medical schools. They would have routinely used cuneiform tablets in their treatments.
Drawings of demons and spirits are very rare on cuneiform tablets, although they often appear on bronze plaques thought to help to expel demons. The University of Copenhagen quotes Arbøll as saying that “this is the first time that we have managed to connect one of the very rare illustrations of demons in the medical texts with the specific disease epilepsy.”
Lunacy Through History
Typically, the healer would not have drawn the figure of the demon who caused a specific illness, and this makes the find so important. The tablet also gives us some insights into the beliefs regarding the demon. Arbøll stated that the tablet suggests that the demon “acted on behalf of the lunar god Sîn when it inflicted a person with epilepsy,” reports The University of Copenhagen. The Assyrians believed that there was a link between the moon and this condition, and this influenced many other cultures. The words lunatic or lunacy in English are ultimately derived from lunar, an adjective relating to the moon.
This chance discovery shows that ancient ideas about healing were very influential down the centuries. Moreover, it adds to our knowledge of Assyrian beliefs about the supernatural and healing. The findings of the research are published in the Journal des Médecines Cunéiformes.
Top image: Ancient demon. Credit: pixelleo / Adobe Stock
By Ed Whelan