Myths of Babylonia and Assyria

Page: 45


The Labartu, to whom we have referred, was a female who haunted mountains and marshes; like the fairies and hags of Europe, she stole or afflicted children, who accordingly had to wear charms round their necks for protection. Seven of these supernatural beings were reputed to be daughters of Anu, the sky god.

The Alu, a storm deity, was also a spirit which caused nightmare. It endeavoured to smother sleepers like the Scandinavian hag Mara, and similarly deprived them of power to move. In Babylonia this evil spirit might also cause sleeplessness or death by hovering near a bed. In shape it might be as horrible and repulsive as the Egyptian ghosts which caused children to die from fright or by sucking out the breath of life.

As most representatives of the spirit world were enemies of the living, so were the ghosts of dead men and women. Death chilled all human affections; it turned love to hate; the deeper the love had been, the deeper became the enmity fostered by the ghost. Certain ghosts might also be regarded as particularly virulent and hostile if they happened to have left the body of one who was ceremonially impure. The most terrible ghost in Babylonia was that of a woman who had died in childbed. She was pitied and dreaded; her grief had demented her; she was doomed to wail in the darkness; her impurity clung to her like poison. No spirit was more prone to work evil against mankind, and her hostility was accompanied by the most tragic sorrow. In Northern India the Hindus, like the ancient Babylonians, regard as a fearsome demon the ghost of a woman who died while pregnant, or on the day of the child's birth.[92] A similar belief prevailed in Mexico. In Europe there are many folk tales of dead mothers who return to avenge themselves on the cruel fathers of neglected children.

A sharp contrast is presented by the Mongolian Buriats, whose outlook on the spirit world is less gloomy than was that of the ancient Babylonians. According to Mr. Jeremiah Curtin, this interesting people are wont to perform a ceremony with purpose to entice the ghost to return to the dead body--a proceeding which is dreaded in the Scottish Highlands.[93] The Buriats address the ghost, saying: "You shall sleep well. Come back to your natural ashes. Take pity on your friends. It is necessary to live a real life. Do not wander along the mountains. Do not be like bad spirits. Return to your peaceful home.... Come back and work for your children. How can you leave the little ones?" If it is a mother, these words have great effect; sometimes the spirit moans and sobs, and the Buriats tell that there have been instances of it returning to the body.[94] In his Arabia Deserta[95] Doughty relates that Arab women and children mock the cries of the owl. One explained to him: "It is a wailful woman seeking her lost child; she has become this forlorn bird". So do immemorial beliefs survive to our own day.

The Babylonian ghosts of unmarried men and women and of those without offspring were also disconsolate night wanderers. Others who suffered similar fates were the ghosts of men who died in battle far from home and were left unburied, the ghosts of travellers who perished in the desert and were not covered over, the ghosts of drowned men which rose from the water, the ghosts of prisoners starved to death or executed, the ghosts of people who died violent deaths before their appointed time. The dead required to be cared for, to have libations poured out, to be fed, so that they might not prowl through the streets or enter houses searching for scraps of food and pure water. The duty of giving offerings to the dead was imposed apparently on near relatives. As in India, it would appear that the eldest son performed the funeral ceremony: a dreadful fate therefore awaited the spirit of the dead Babylonian man or woman without offspring. In Sanskrit literature there is a reference to a priest who was not allowed to enter Paradise, although he had performed rigid penances, because he had no children.[96]

There were hags and giants of mountain and desert, of river and ocean. Demons might possess the pig, the goat, the horse, the lion, or the ibis, the raven, or the hawk. The seven spirits of tempest, fire, and destruction rose from the depths of ocean, and there were hosts of demons which could not be overcome or baffled by man without the assistance of the gods to whom they were hostile. Many were sexless; having no offspring, they were devoid of mercy and compassion. They penetrated everywhere:

The high enclosures, the broad enclosures, like a flood
they pass through,
From house to house they dash along.
No door can shut them out;
No bolt can turn them back.
Through the door, like a snake, they glide,
Through the hinge, like the wind, they storm,
Tearing the wife from the embrace of the man,
Driving the freedman from his family home.[97]

These furies did not confine their unwelcomed attentions to mankind alone:

They hunt the doves from their cotes,
And drive the birds from their nests,
And chase the marten from its hole....
Through the gloomy street by night they roam,
Smiting sheepfold and cattle pen,
Shutting up the land as with door and bolt.
R.C. Thompson's Translation.

The Babylonian poet, like Burns, was filled with pity for the animals which suffered in the storm:

List'ning the doors an' winnocks rattle,
I thought me o' the ourie cattle,
Or silly sheep, wha bide this brattle
O' winter war....
Ilk happing bird, wee, helpless thing!