If you have seen the classic horror movie The Exorcist, you might be familiar with the name “Pazuzu.”
In that movie, a young girl is implied to be possessed by Pazuzu, an ancient Mesopotamian demon of the wind, who faces a fierce struggle with two priests who attempt to exorcise him.
But who was Pazuzu in the original mythology, and why did he become associated with such a terrifying role? In this article, we will explore the origins, attributes, and stories of Pazuzu, one of the most intriguing figures in the ancient Near Eastern pantheon.
Pazuzu: Origin and Iconography
The name Pazuzu comes from the Sumerian word pazuzu, meaning “the fierce wind.” His image reflects this association, as he has a rectangular head with caprine horns, large eyes, canine jaws, a human beard, and round bulges that resemble ears or horns. He also has a thin body with a bird’s wings, talons, and claws, a penis ending in a snake’s head, and a scorpion’s tail. His head is the most distinctive feature of his image, and it is often used as a symbol or an amulet to represent him.
However, Pazuzu’s origin is uncertain, but he may have been influenced by the Egyptian god Bes or other Mesopotamian demons. Bes was a dwarf-like god of protection, fertility, and childbirth, who also had a leonine face, large ears, and a feathered crown. Other Mesopotamian demons, such as Lamaštu and lilitu, were female entities that threatened pregnant women and infants, and Pazuzu was sometimes invoked to ward them off.
Pazuzu: Role and Function
Pazuzu’s body was derived from the West wind, one of the four winds that were personified as supernatural beings in Mesopotamian art and literature. The other three winds were the North wind, the South wind, and the East wind. Each wind had a distinct appearance, character, and association with a deity.
The North wind was cool and clear and often helped the king in battle or hunting. The South wind was hot and humid and sometimes brought rain or storms. The East wind was the wind of prosperity and a friend of Narām-Sîn. The West wind was crooked and not straight up and lived in the same distant mountain as Huwawa, an earlier apotropaic monster found in the Epic of Gilgamesh.
Pazuzu first appeared as a guardian of the dead in the royal tombs of Nimrud in the late 8th century B.C. He was also invoked as a protector against other evil spirits, especially those that caused diseases or plagues. Pazuzu had a paradoxical role: he could bring harm or help depending on his mood or intention. He was both feared and revered by the people who sought his aid.
Pazuzu The Protector
Many people in Mesopotamia made amulets and statues of Pazuzu during the mid-first millennium B.C., when he was especially popular. In incantations found on these artifacts, Pazuzu claimed to be the son of Hanbu, the king of the lilu-demons, a name that may have been derived from West Semitic words meaning “impetuous” or “limping.”
I am Pazuzu, the son of Hanbu, king of the evil lilu-demons.
I ascended the mighty mountains that quaked.
The winds that I went amongst were headed towards the west.
One by one I broke their wings.
His origin reflects the changing dynamics of the demonic world in the Middle Assyrian period when Lamaštu became a member of the lilû-class and a new counter-demon was needed to oppose her
People wore Pazuzu heads or figures as personal ornaments, such as necklaces, seals, or fibulae, to ward off harm from themselves or their loved ones. Some of these Pazuzu amulets were also buried with the dead, as part of their personal belongings. Larger Pazuzu statues or heads were hung on walls or placed in rooms to protect buildings and entrances from evil forces. There are also texts that describe how Pazuzu was used in healing rituals, either by holding him in the hands or by fastening him at the head of the sick person, to prevent any evil from approaching them.
Pazuzu & Lamashtu
Pazuzu’s role as an evictor of demons is also evident in his special connection to Lamaštu, who threatened pregnant women and infants. He is often depicted on amulets as a protector against her. On some amulets, Pazuzu is shown beside Lamaštu in an attacking posture, while on others he appears on the back of the amulet with his head reaching over the edge and looking directly at the viewer.
Additionally, a Pazuzu head can appear near Lamaštu on the front of the amulet, either in place of or in addition to the full figure representation. These amulets were worn by pregnant women or placed in houses or graves to ward off Lamaštu’s harm.
Pazuzu & Apotropoaion
Pazuzu was a powerful and ambiguous demon, who could be both a protector and a destroyer. He was feared and wanted at the same time, as he could be used to ward off other demons but also cause harm and havoc with his winds. Therefore, people who invoked Pazuzu had to be careful not to unleash his destructive force on themselves or their surroundings.
One of the ways to control Pazuzu’s power was to use his image and name as apotropaic devices, that is, as a means of protecting against evil or bad luck. Pazuzu’s image, usually in the form of a statuette or a head, was worn as an amulet or placed in houses or graves. Pazuzu’s name was also recited in incantations that aimed to expel demons or heal diseases. However, these methods were not without risks, as Pazuzu’s presence could also attract his wrath or jealousy.
To prevent this, another type of incantation was used to conjure and restrain Pazuzu, by reminding him of his deeds and threatening him with the names of higher gods. These incantations expressed the paradoxical nature of Pazuzu, who was both a hero and a villain, a friend and a foe, a blessing and a curse. Pazuzu represented the ambivalence and complexity of evil, as he could fight evil with evil, but also turn evil against good.
Pazuzu in The Exorcist
One of the most famous examples of Pazuzu’s role in modern media is his role in The Exorcist, a novel by William Peter Blatty published in 1971 and adapted into a movie by William Friedkin in 1973. The story revolves around Regan MacNeil, a 12-year-old girl who becomes possessed by an evil spirit after playing with an Ouija board. Two priests, Father Merrin and Father Karras, are called to perform an exorcism on her.
The evil spirit that possesses Regan is never explicitly identified in the novel or the movie, but it is implied to be Pazuzu. This is based on several clues, such as Regan’s ability to speak ancient languages, her knowledge of obscure facts about Merrin’s past, and her display of superhuman strength and telekinesis. The most obvious clue is the appearance of a small statue of Pazuzu’s head that Merrin finds in an archaeological site in Iraq at the beginning of the story. The statue is identical to one that was discovered in the ancient city of Nimrud in 1971 and is now in the British Museum.
However, Pazuzu’s portrayal in The Exorcist differs from his portrayal in Mesopotamian texts and images. In Mesopotamia, Pazuzu was not only a demon of destruction, but also a demon of protection, who could ward off other evil spirits, especially Lamaštu. He was also a hybrid of different elements and forces, not a pure embodiment of evil. In The Exorcist, Pazuzu is depicted as a malevolent and powerful entity, who seeks to corrupt and destroy Regan’s soul. He is also associated with satanism and blasphemy, which are not part of his original mythology.
The authors and filmmakers may have chosen Pazuzu as the demon of possession for several reasons. First, Pazuzu’s image is striking and terrifying, with his animalistic features and menacing expression. Another reason is that Pazuzu’s name and origin are obscure and mysterious, which adds to his allure and fear factor. A third possible reason is that Pazuzu’s role as a wind demon fits with the theme of possession, as he can enter and exit the body like a breath of air.
Pazuzu’s image conveys a sense of horror and dread that resonates with modern audiences. He represents the unknown and unpredictable nature of evil, as he can appear anywhere and anytime, without warning or reason. He also represents the challenge and struggle of faith, as he tests the priests’ courage and conviction in their battle against him.
Pazuzu: The Enigma
Pazuzu represents the ambivalence and paradox of evil, as he can be both a destroyer and a defender, a foe and a friend, a curse and a blessing. He also reflects the human condition, as he is a hybrid of different elements and forces, a mixture of order and chaos, light and darkness, and life and death.
Pazuzu has captured the imagination of many writers and artists throughout history. He is a demon who fights evil with evil but also has aspects of benevolence and protection. He is a symbol of the power and mystery of the wind, but also of the ambiguity and complexity of human nature.
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- Blatty, William Peter. The Exorcist: A Novel. United States, HarperCollins, 2011.
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- Gabbay, Uri. “A Collection Of Pazuzu Objects In Jerusalem.” Revue d’Assyriologie et d’archéologie Orientale, vol. 95, no. 2, 2001, pp. 149–54. JSTOR.
- Mark, Joshua J.. “Pazuzu.” World History Encyclopedia, 01 Feb 2017.
- The Exorcist. Directed by William Friedkin, Performances by Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, Max von Sydow, and Jason Miller, Warner Bros., 1973.
- Wiggermann, Frans. “The Four Winds and the Origins of Pazuzu.” “Das Geistigen Erfassen Der Welt Im Alten Orient,” edited by J Hazenbos, 2007, pp. 125–66.
- The image was modified to remove the background. ↩︎