Assyrian demonology

From certain cuneiform texts, which are more especially described as “religious”, it appears that besides the public and official cult of the “twelve great gods” and their subordinate divinities, the Assyrians indulged in magic and sorcery.

These “religious” texts together with a mass of talismanic inscriptions on cylinders and amulets prove the presence of an exceedingly rich demonology. Below the greater and lesser gods there was a huge lore of spirits, some of them good and beneficent and some of them evil and hurtful. Moreover, these spirits were described and classified with an exactness and method, which leads some to liken the arrangement to that of the choirs and orders of our own angelic hierarchy.

The antiquity and importance of this secret religion, with its magic and incantations of the good spirits or evil demons, may be gathered from the fact that by order of King Assurbanipal his scribes made several copies of a great magical work according to an exemplar which had been preserved from a remote antiquity in the priestly school of Erech in Chaldea.

This work consisted of three books, the first of which is entirely consecrated to incantations, conjurations, and imprecations against the evil spirits.

These cuneiform books, it must be remembered, are really written on clay tablets. And each of the tablets of these first books which has come down to us ends with the title, “Tablet No. – of the Evil Spirits”. The ideogram which is here rendered as kullulu — “accursed” or “evil” — might also be read as limuttu — “baneful”.

Besides being known by the generic name of udukku — “spirit” — a demon is called more distinctly ecimmu, or maskimmu. One special class of these spirits was the sedu, or divine bull, which is represented in the well-known figure of a man-headed bull so common on the Assyrian monuments.

This name, it may be remarked, is probably the source of the Hebrew word for demon. The Assyrian sedu, it is true, was more commonly a beneficent or tutelary spirit. But this is hardly an obstacle to the derivation, for the good spirits of one nation were often regarded as evil by men of rival races.