Virtually all cultures have believed in good and evil spirits at some point. The belief dates back to Babylonian and Assyrian religions, predating Judaism.
There are generally 2 types of evil spirits:
- Departed human spirits – Spirits of humans that died were thought to haunt the living. These spirits could be friendly or hostile, depending on the nature of their death or burial and whether they return to haunt friends or strangers. In some cases, a spirit of a friend or loved one could turn hostile after death. Or in some cases, they could be friendly at points and hostile at others – with no rhyme or reason to their actions.
- Non-human spirits – Aside from departed human spirits that could turn hostile, many cultures believed in spirits that had never been human. Again, these could be friendly or hostile, and in many cultures, they took the form of animals like reptiles, serpents, antelopes, gazelles, anthropoids, crocodiles, lizards, hawks, and jackals. Apep, the serpent-devil of Egypt, and Hebrew beasts like Leviathan and Behemoth are examples.
Demons in Babylon and Assyria
The Babylonians and Assyrians borrowed had many names for spirits including utukku (‘spirit), Alu (‘demon’), Lilu (a ghost, the feminine versions include Lilitu and Ardat Lili), and Gallu (‘devil’). They believed that there were many evil spirits and they swarmed everywhere.
According to Morris Jastrow’s Religion of Babylonia and Assyria (Download free at Project Gutenberg), these demons lurked in remote or hidden places like graves, mountain tops and in the shadows of ruins. They would go out at night, enter homes through holes and crevices, and torture their victims. They were responsible for anything bad that happened from destructive winds, pestilent fevers, and disease to headaches, petty quarrels, hatred and jealousy.
Classes of Demons
In Sumerian lore, there were three distinct types of demons:
- disembodied human spirits who couldn’t rest
- half human/half demon entities
- demons that were of the same nature as the gods
Here are a few of the subclasses of demons.
- Utukku – Utukku was a spirit of a dead human (a ghost). Initially, Utukku was the term used to refer to the spirit of Eabani in the Epic of Gilgamesh who was raised up by the god Nergal at Gilgamesh’s request. Eventually, the term came to mean a class of demons who haunted deserted places and could cause injury to man.
- Alu – Alu is a translation of the Sumerian ‘Gallu’ which means ‘tempest.’ Alu were half humans and half animals that roamed the streets hiding in dark corners or deserted places. Alu was also the name of the celestial bull that Anu created to avenge his daughter Ishtar which Gilgamesh and Eabani eventually killed.
- Ekimmu – Ekimmu were departed spirits who wandered aimlessly over the earth, unable to find rest. They are able to leave the underworld to torment the living if a body has not been properly buried or relatives have not made the proper offerings.
- The Gallu – The Gallu was said to take the form of a bull and roamed the streets at night.
- Rabisu – The Rabisu is said to be so frighteningly hideous and hairy that it was associated with nightmares.
- Ilu Limnu (‘Evil God’) – Few details about this demon are known. He may have been related to Taiwaith (the primordial sea who gave birth to everything).
- Labartu – Labatu is the daughter of Anu. She has the head of a lion, the teeth of an ass, and is said to drink the blood and devour the flesh and bones of her victims.
- Lilu – There are three figures closely related in Babylonian mythology. Lilu is a male demon while Lilitu and Ardat Lili are females. Lilitu eventually became known as Lilith in Isaiah 34:14.
- Shedim – See my article on Shedim
- Langton, Edward, and Charles Ryder Smith. Essentials of Demonology: a Study of Jewish and Christian Doctrine, Its Origin and Development. Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2014.