A family to fear

The top female demons (and one bloke) of the ancient and medieval world, which all happen to be related

Hero image

In her new book Sarah Clegg walks readers through 4,000 years of serpents, sirens and succubae. Here she writes about the the top female demons (and one bloke) of the ancient and medieval world, which all happen to be related

A terrifying monster from ancient Mesopotamia (south-west Asia), Lamashtu first appeared four thousand years ago in the early second millennium BC. With the head of a lion, hideously long fingers, and talons instead of feet, Lamashtu specialised in murdering expectant mothers and their infants, stalking women who were about to give birth, drowning babies in amniotic fluid, strangling them with umbilical cords and feeding them poisoned breast milk. The subject of multiple incantations, spells and amulets, Lamashtu was one of the most feared creatures in the Mesopotamian pantheon of monsters – the demon cast as responsible for the horrifyingly high child and maternal mortality rates that plagued the world prior to the advent of modern medicine.

A rather sad type of ancient Mesopotamian monster, these creatures were said to be the ghosts of girls who had died as virgins before marriage and children. Desperate to have in death what they could not have in life, they hunted down mortal men at night, and had sex with them while they slept, causing wet dreams and nocturnal emissions. Although the original incantations against Lilitus present them as tragic figures – more to be pitied than feared – eventually Lilitus would blend with Lamashtu, so they became one horrendous monster who would both seduce men (and women) and murder mothers and their infants.

A creature with a leonine head, bulging eyes, wings and a lion’s tail, Pazuzu was an ancient Mesopotamian demon of the winds. Owing to a similarity between the ancient Sumerian word for “wind” and the name “Lilitu”, Pazuzu eventually became a protective entity who could be used against Lilitu and Lamashtu, able to control them both and drive them away from their potential victims. Amulets were made of him to be held by women in labour, or to stand in the room with the patient, and occasionally depicted little scenes showing Pazuzu forcing Lamashtu into the wilderness, away from anyone she would harm. Pazuzu is best known now as the antagonist demon of The Exorcist, where, slanderously against character, he spends the entire film attacking a little girl and her mother.

The ancient Greek descendant of Lamashtu, also blamed for killing pregnant women and their children. Lamia was said to have been a beautiful queen, before Zeus seduced her, and an angry Hera forced Lamia to eat her own children. Driven mad by grief and guilt, Lamia became a serpentine monster, who devoured children and murdered their mothers out of furious envy that they had what she had lost. Eventually, Lamia also took on a seductive role, and was said to beguile young men so she could eat them alive. Lamia was also closely related to the water, and was often thought of as a sea creature. In one case, she is said to have a serpentine tail and sit by the edge of the sea, luring in shipwrecked sailors with her beautiful bare chest, before devouring them when they came close.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

In late antiquity and into the medieval period, the monstrous Lilitu/Lamashtu became Lilith – a seducer of men and women who also killed mothers and their children. She would eventually become an important demoness in Kabbalistic Jewish lore, where the male authors tended to concentrate on her propensity to sexually harass men, largely ignoring her murdering of mothers and their children (and her seduction of women). In around the 8th century BC she first appeared in the legend of the Garden of Eden, where she was the first wife of Adam, made from the same clay at the same time. When her husband tried to insist that she lie below him during sex, she pointed out that they were equal (since they were made from the same substance at the same moment), and she had no reason to bend to his will. She fled the Garden (where God made Eve from Adam’s rib, so there could be no more claims of equality), and fled to the sea, proclaiming that she planned to murder children. Three angels were sent to fetch her back, and succeeded only in extracting from her a promise that she would not attack any infants where the angels’ names were pronounced.

St Sisinios
Technically a saint rather than a demon, but very closely related to one. The main story told about this figure is that his sister (often called Melitene) had every one of her infants killed by a child-stealing monster. When she fell pregnant again, she locked herself in a sanctuary built of metal, and refused to let anyone enter. St Sisinios and two of her other brothers insisted they be permitted inside, and the child-stealing demon crept in with them, disguised as a fly on the saint’s spear. Emerging at night, the demon snatched the child and fled to the sea, but was hunted down by the brothers, who rescued the infant and forced the demon to promise it would never harm a child where their names were spoken. This legend was eventually attached to Lilith – in fact, the three angels who chase her to the sea in the story told above were called Snsvi, Snvi and Smnglof, all variations on Sisinios. Fascinatingly Sisinios is in fact Pazuzu, recast as a saint rather than a protector-monster, whose name had shifted in late antiquity, but whose desire to protect infants and their mothers from murderous child killing monsters remained.

The story of Lamia sitting by the sea with a scaly snake tail, luring in sailors before eating them alive sounds distinctly mermaid-esque, and this isn’t a coincidence – Lamia forms the basis for our mermaids. In late antiquity, she blended with the Sirens, the bird-bodied singers of the ancient world (who were not remotely sexual: their famous song promised knowledge, rather than carnal pleasures). The Sirens lent Lamia their name and their song, so that Lamia no longer had to rely on her bare chest alone to drawn in her victims, and in this form she became a monster especially feared by the not particularly sex-positive medieval Christian Church – a demon that stood for the horrors of sex, and the dangers of sexual temptation that women supposedly posed.

Melusine appeared in medieval European legends as a beautiful, mysterious woman, sitting in a wood or by a stream. A knight or nobleman encounters her, falls in love with her and asks to marry her, and Melusine agrees – on the condition that her husband cannot see her when she bathes. He agrees, and for years their marriage is joyously happy. One day, however, he breaks his vow and spies on her in the bath – revealing that she has a serpent tail instead of legs. She sees him looking and immediately leaves him, after which he can only mourn the beautiful wife who he betrayed, and who he will never see again. A cousin of the mermaids by way of some slightly more positive influences (including the Queen of Sheba and the prophetess Sibyl), Melusine is a creature whose legend contains the all-important lesson of leaving people alone when they’re in the bath, making her, without doubt, the best demon going.

If you liked this article, we think you’ll enjoy these:

Interact: Responses to A family to fear

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.