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Myths of Babylonia and Assyria

Page: 49

In the Egyptian Book of the Dead the kindly spirits are overshadowed by the evil ones, because the various magical spells which were put on record were directed against those supernatural beings who were enemies of mankind. Similarly in Babylonia the fragments of this class of literature which survive deal mainly with wicked and vengeful demons. It appears probable, however, that the highly emotional Sumerians and Akkadians were on occasion quite as cheerful a people as the inhabitants of ancient Egypt. Although they were surrounded by bloodthirsty furies who desired to shorten their days, and their nights were filled with vague lowering phantoms which inspired fear, they no doubt shared, in their charm-protected houses, a comfortable feeling of security after performing magical ceremonies, and were happy enough when they gathered round flickering lights to listen to ancient song and story and gossip about crops and traders, the members of the royal house, and the family affairs of their acquaintances.

The Babylonian spirit world, it will be seen, was of complex character. Its inhabitants were numberless, but often vaguely defined, and one class of demons linked with another. Like the European fairies of folk belief, the Babylonian spirits were extremely hostile and irresistible at certain seasonal periods; and they were fickle and perverse and difficult to please even when inclined to be friendly. They were also similarly manifested from time to time in various forms. Sometimes they were comely and beautiful; at other times they were apparitions of horror. The Jinn of present-day Arabians are of like character; these may be giants, cloudy shapes, comely women, serpents or cats, goats or pigs.

Some of the composite monsters of Babylonia may suggest the vague and exaggerated recollections of terror-stricken people who have had glimpses of unfamiliar wild beasts in the dusk or amidst reedy marshes. But they cannot be wholly accounted for in this way. While animals were often identified with supernatural beings, and foreigners were called "devils", it would be misleading to assert that the spirit world reflects confused folk memories of human and bestial enemies. Even when a demon was given concrete human form it remained essentially non-human: no ordinary weapon could inflict an injury, and it was never controlled by natural laws. The spirits of disease and tempest and darkness were creations of fancy: they symbolized moods; they were the causes which explained effects. A sculptor or storyteller who desired to convey an impression of a spirit of storm or pestilence created monstrous forms to inspire terror. Sudden and unexpected visits of fierce and devastating demons were accounted for by asserting that they had wings like eagles, were nimble-footed as gazelles, cunning and watchful as serpents; that they had claws to clutch, horns to gore, and powerful fore legs like a lion to smite down victims. Withal they drank blood like ravens and devoured corpses like hyaenas. Monsters were all the more repulsive when they were partly human. The human-headed snake or the snake-headed man and the man with the horns of a wild bull and the legs of a goat were horrible in the extreme. Evil spirits might sometimes achieve success by practising deception. They might appear as beautiful girls or handsome men and seize unsuspecting victims in deathly embrace or leave them demented and full of grief, or come as birds and suddenly assume awesome shapes.

Fairies and elves, and other half-human demons, are sometimes regarded as degenerate gods. It will be seen, however, that while certain spirits developed into deities, others remained something between these two classes of supernatural beings: they might attend upon gods and goddesses, or operate independently now against mankind and now against deities even. The "namtaru", for instance, was a spirit of fate, the son of Bel-Enlil and Eresh-ki-gal, queen of Hades. "Apparently", writes Professor Pinches, "he executed the instructions given him concerning the fate of men, and could also have power over certain of the gods."


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