An image showing the path to the Underworld and to Heaven.

Most Feared Gods and Demons Across Ancient Polytheisms

Ancient religions depicted manifestations of sacred power as gods and goddesses, and where there was good and trustworthy, there was wickedness and malice in the form of evil gods and demons.

The universe was made to have good and evil, day and night, land and sea. As it was created as such, there were good gods and evil gods, each with their own vision of how the world should truly be. Even if the latter were content with the world, they had other reasons for the strife and destruction they caused.

An Overview of Polytheism

An artistic depiction of the good and evil gods of ancient Greece, an example of polytheism.
image source: amechanicalart.blogspot.com

Ancient religions believed that manifestations of sacred power provided meaning, order and ethics to the world. They felt that sacred power came in close contact with real life in the form of divine beings.

How divine beings were imagined and their functions and personalities depended on the cultural context of a community. Nonetheless, they fit into a polytheistic culture. Divine reality had not been unified into monotheistic or monistic systems.

Monotheistic systems absorb the functions of the gods and goddesses as attributes of the one God, such as Christianity, Islam and Judaism, or placed them as His helpers, like saints and angels. Monistic systems place gods and goddesses as manifestations of one divine being, such as Hinduism and Buddhism.

Apophis (Ancient Egypt)

An artist's image of the god Set battling the evil god, Apophia, while on Ra's barge.
Set VS. Apophis on Ra’s barge. image source: mythiccomicsandart.tumble.com

He was the demon of chaos, darkness, destruction and evil, the Great Serpent, the enemy of Ra and associated with earthquakes, thunder, darkness, storms and death.

Also known as Apep, Aapep and Apepi, Apophis was a malevolent force born out of chaos and came in the form of a large serpent. The origins of Apophis, however, are surrounded by mystery.

Mythical Origins

Atum, the god of pre- and post-existence, stood at Melipolis, the primordial mound, the first land to emerge at creation from the primeval waters, amongst the waters of chaos.

With Atum was Heka, the personification of magic. From the agency of magic, order rose from the water of chaos and thus brought the sunrise.

In this myth, Apophis always existed and swam in the waters of chaos. When creation began, it angered Apophis that there was order and duality. The world before was once unified and now had opposites; water and land, light and dark and male and female.

Therefore, his enemy was Ra, the sun god, as he represented the created world and divine order. Apophis planned to swallow the sun god and return the world to a unity of darkness.

Followers and Worship

As the true embodiment of chaos, Apophis never had followers or relatives. Those who wanted to be close to him died or were mentally, physically and spiritually disfigured.

He was the only god considered to be all powerful, which is why people feared him rather than worshipped him. Apophis represented everything the Egyptians feared: darkness, oblivion and the loss of one’s identity. He required no nourishment and could never be completely vanquished.

The Gods VS. Apophis

Many of the important and powerful gods fought alongside the justified dead against Apophis.

The justified dead had hearts that weighed the same as a feature, meaning they were just and achieved immortality. If not, they were devoured by the goddess Amemet, the personification of divine retribution, they would not survive the afterlife.

The gods and the justified dead sailed on the sun god’s barge to protect him from Apophis. Even Set, whom Apophis linked to for his associations with chaos and disorder, steered the ship.

Each night, the gods battled Apophis and victoriously killed the large snake and cut it into pieces. The next day, Apophis regenerated and attacked again that night.

Due to his incredibly large size, Apophis managed to eat the sun in one bite. His success only lasted a short while and, according to Egyptian mythology, caused solar eclipses.

Warding off Apophis

The gods enlisted humanity to defend light against darkness and life against death. In doing so, they  maintained duality and individuality against unity and collectivity. In their ceremonies, humans created wax figures of the serpent, hacked it into pieces, spat on it, even urinated on it, before burning it.

Humans helped the gods in their struggle against the serpent, associated with the justified dead and made sure the sun would rise again the next morning.

Lamashtu (Mesopotamia)

A depiction of the demon, Lamastu, pregant, weilding two swords with two skulls covering her breasts.
image source: worldhistory.org

She was the most terrible of all female demons and associated with the worst of crimes and deeds.

Lamashtu was the bearer of seven names, described in incantations as the ‘seven witches’: Child of Heaven; Watchful One of the Gods of the Streets; Decapitator; Fire-Starter; Wild-Countenance; Trusted; Oathbound, Free to Fly.

Origin of Lamashtu

Akkadian for ‘she who erases’; she was the daughter of the sun god, Anu.

What separated her from other deities who obeyed the rules and regulations is that she obeyed no one and had her own rules.

Evil Deeds of an Evil Goddess

Lamashtu terrorized pregnant women and their children. She took the babies right after they were born or while they were being breastfed. After she took them, she sucked the babies’ blood and gnawed on their bones.

Often, she cashed women to lose their babies or abort them.

Her other deeds included drinking the blood of men, disturbing sleep, bringing nightmares, slaying foliage, infesting rivers and being a source of disease, sickness and death.

Appearance

Lamashtu had varied appearances that differed in peculiar ways.

One suggests that she was a hybrid creature with human and animal features, covered in black, coarse hair with the head of a lioness, a donkey’s teeth and ears and the feet of a bird with sharp, long crooked nails.

She is also portrayed holding snakes in her hands and accompanied by dogs and pigs.

Another depiction is that she was heavily pregnant and two skulls covered her breasts.

Worship of Lamashtu

The majority of her followers worshipped her out of fear. They believed that she enjoyed the praise and assisted them rather than terrorize them.

Others worshipped her because they were impressed by her work and deeds. They wanted to be like her and harm those they hated.

There were no temples for Lamashtu. Instead, her followers worshipped her in a ring of stones, pillars, trees, wooden blocks, a pit in the ground or on a flat rock. Often, these congregations were on the outskirts of civilization or in the wilderness.

Followers stained themselves with blood and the remains of failed births and Lamashtu’s victims. They sacrificed their animals and anything that was dear to one’s life. Human priests wore a leather or metal jackal mask, swords or knives and a cloak of black feathers.

Warding of Lamashtu

The Assyrians and Babylonians relied on magic figurines, amulets, rituals and incantations.

To protect the house, they made figurines of magic dogs with their names scratched on their thighs. They buried the figurines beneath the threshold or placed them by the windows to frighten away demons.

Another method was to exorcise her through sympathetic magic.

A figurine of Lamashty, made of purified potter’s clay, was placed at the head of the child, filled with ashes that were stabbed with a dagger. On the third day, in the evening, the figurine was taken outside and struck with the dagger and buried under the corner of a wall.

Then, a magical circle of flour must be drawn around it. The individual must then walk away and never look back.

Lilith – Jewish Folklore

An artistic image of Lilith depicted as a beautiful woman rather than a demon monster.
image source: jwa.org

Although a demon of Jewish folklore, her name and personality are from a class of Mesopotamian demons, lilû, meaning ‘night monster’.

Origin of Lilith

According to Judaic mythology, Lilith was the first wife of Adam.

Some accounts say she was made from the same clay as Adam. However, she refused to be subservient to her husband and left him and the Garden of Eden.

Certain stories mention that she gave birth to her and Adam’s children. Others say that her offspring, identified as incubi and succubi, were from the archangel, Samuel, the King of Demons.

Before Judaic mythology, Lilith was a raven-haired demon who preyed on hopeless newborn infants and seduced men, using their ‘wasted seed’ to spawn hordes of demons.

In ancient Sumerian, Assyrian and Babylonian mythologies, Lilith-like demons haunted nightmares. These were seductive creatures of the night who waited until nightfall to steal babies and young children.

Additionally, she traced back to the ancient Mesopotamian Lamashtu.

The Curse of Lilith

When Lilith left the Garden of Eden, God sent three angels to bring her back, but she told them she would never return. As punishment for her disobedience, the angels promised to kill 100 of her demon children every day. In retaliation, she found her new purpose: to cause illness and sickness to the infants of others.

After the children were born, she claimed dominion over them; eight days for boys and 20 days for girls. She stopped only if she saw one of the three angels’ names inscribed on a medallion or an amulet.

In other stories, Lilith sought to harm Adam and Eve’s offspring. She would not harm them if they wrote her name on an amulet and wore it during the birth. If not, she would claim dominion over the newborn in their first weeks of life.

Warding Off Lilith

Between the 5th – 8th centuries, the most popular form of protection was an incantation bowl. Made by Babylonian ‘Jewish wizards’, the bowls trapped a specific demon associated with a specific illness or condition. The bowl, buried under the front door, blocked entry by otherworldly baby snatchers.

When that method fell out of favor, Jewish families purchased metal or paper amulets inscribed with the image of a bound Lilith and prayers for divine protection.

A Sign of Feminism

In the 20th century, female writers and activists interpreted Lilith as a role model for their own emancipation from their male counterparts.

Today, varied depictions place her from a beautiful woman to a sinister demon.

Some see her as a snake in the Garden of Edgen who tempted Eve with the forbidden fruit, a final act of revenge against God for giving her the initial, subservient status.

Certain folklore depicts her as a demon queen paired with Asmodeus, who many viewed as the King of Demons. They had thousands of demon offspring that traveled from village to village, causing chaos and destruction.

Whiro-Te-Tipua (Māori Mythology)

An artistic image of the evil god, Whiro, ready to engulf the deceased that comes to the underworld.
image source: tearz.ovt.nz

Whiro was the lord of darkness, the personification of sickness, disease and death. He was the son of Ranginui, the sky father, and Papatūānuku, the earth mother, and brother of Tāne, god of forests and birds.

The children of Ranginui and Papatūānuku were unhappy because of the unbearable lack of space they shared.

Tāne wanted to separate their parents by forcing their father upward. Whiro, however, disagreed because he wanted to remain in the darkness. His anger towards his Tāne’s actions led to him becoming the embodiment of darkness and evil, resulting in his dissension and the separation of Earth and the Sky.

Moreover, it is the moment when evil first entered the world.

Due to his demonic guidance knowing no bounds, he is responsible for humans committing wicked deeds.

Ruler of the Underworld

Bodies of the deceased descended into the Underworld, where Whiro devoured them. With every body that he ate, Whiro became stronger. Eventually, he would be strong enough to break free of the Underworld, return to the surface and devour everything and everyone.

The only way to ward off this fate is cremation as he cannot gain strength from ashes.

Taiwhetuki

The house of Whiro is the House of Death, Taiwhetuki. It is a deep, dark cave that preserves all things evil, where the personifications of illnesses and diseases dwell.

Significance to Cultural Anthropology

An image showing the path to the Underworld and to Heaven.
image source: blog.myparea.com

There is always a purpose for everyone’s deeds and actions. While the malicious and evil gods contribute to the illnesses and plagues of the world, there is a reason behind their actions. We disagree with them, yes, but at least it shows that it is not only because of deluded and egocentric attitudes.

They have their reasons for destroying the diverse world, wanting it to return to the unity of darkness, just as the good gods want to protect it.

It is fascinating, however, to know that we once came from cultures and communities that once believed in such beings.

 

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.

– C.S. Lewish, author.

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