Apotropaic Pazuzu?: Evil vs. Evil

by Edmund P. Cueva

Note: Page numbers from the print version are indicated in brackets and should not be considered part of the text of the article. 

[page 15] Abstract: This article explores the complexities surrounding Pazuzu and his significance in both ancient Mesopotamian mythology and The Exorcist, both book and film. By examining his origins and sources of power through the ceramic images of the demon, the article offers an analysis of his character to clarify his role in The Exorcist. The demon, which has a nature at odds with itself, is an intriguing figure with a fascinating place in ancient lore.

Keywords: Pazuzu, sculpture, clay, demon

This article discusses the demon Pazuzu as depicted in The Exorcist, both William Peter Blatty’s novel (1971) and William Friedkin’s movie (1973), with the book serving as the article’s primary text and the film providing visuals to supplement my reading and interpretation. Pazuzu is an ancient Mesopotamian demon that served a dual function as an agent of evil and an apotropaion—it both causes and wards off evil. The book and film initially cast some doubt about whether it is Pazuzu alone or with some other demons that has taken possession of Regan’s body.

There is no doubt that the entity that possesses Regan is the demon Pazuzu. While Father Karras questions his faith and deliberates on the reality of possession and the need for an exorcism, Father Merrin has no doubts about Pazuzu, whom he appears to recognize almost immediately. When Karras attempts to give him “‘some background on the different personalities that Regan has manifested,’” noting that “‘So far, there seem to be three,’” Merrin replies:

“There is only one,” … slipping the stole around his shoulders. For a moment, he gripped it and stood unmoving as a haunted expression came into his eyes. Then he reached for the copies of The Roman Ritual and gave one to Karras. (Blatty, The Exorcist 299; emphasis added) [page 16]

Although not explicitly named when the two Jesuits meet, “There is only one” refers to the demon Pazuzu, whom the author introduces, unnamed, as the novel opens on an archaeological dig: “The dig was over. The tell had been sifted, stratum by stratum, its entrails examined, tagged and shipped: the beads and pendants; glyptics; phalli; ground-stone mortars stained with ocher; burnished pots” (4, emphasis added). Merrin, also unnamed, is preoccupied with one of the artifacts,

his eyes still fixed upon something on the table. The Arab watched him, vaguely troubled. What was in the air? There was something in the air. He stood up and moved closer; then felt a vague prickling at the base of his neck as his friend at last moved, reaching down for an amulet and cradling it pensively in his hand. It was a green stone head of the demon Pazuzu, personification of the southwest wind. Its dominion was sickness and disease. The head was pierced. The amulet’s owner had worn it as a shield.1 (5–6, emphasis added)

Merrin then encounters another artifact, which Blatty describes as “a limestone statue hulking in situ: ragged wings; taloned feet; bulbous, jutting, stubby penis and a mouth stretched taut in feral grin. The demon Pazuzu” (7).

While Merrin is sure of the demon’s identity shortly after he arrives in Georgetown, Karras is slower to recognize the demon, who attempts to mislead Karras by claiming to be the devil (204). Karras 

leaned forward in his chair with professional interest. “You say you’re the devil? … Then why don’t you just make the straps disappear?”

“That’s much too vulgar a display of power, Karras. Too crude. After all, I’m a prince! ... I much prefer persuasion, Karras; togetherness; community involvement. Moreover, if I loosen the straps myself, my friend, I deny you the opportunity of performing a charitable act.”

“But a charitable act,” said Karras, “is a virtue and [page 16] that’s what the devil would want to prevent; so in fact I’d be helping you now if I didn’t undo the straps. Unless, of course”—he shrugged—“you’re really not the devil. And in that case, perhaps I would undo the straps.” (204–205, emphasis added)

Karras doubts whether Regan is possessed, as he reveals to Chris MacNeil after his initial encounter: “‘Come on, now. Possession by demons, all right: let’s assume it’s a fact of life, that it happens. But your daughter doesn’t say she’s a demon; she insists she’s the devil himself, and that’s the same thing as saying you’re Napoleon Bonaparte! You see?’” (211). In addition to creating doubt through misidentification, Pazuzu feeds Karras’s skepticism by exhibiting signs associated with mental illness and fake possession, such as “[s]peaking in an unknown tongue” (237), spewing obscenities, and reacting to tap water as though it were holy water. However, Pazuzu gives hints of his identity even while he toys with the priest.

This encounter between the priest and demon is fascinating because the entity possessing the young girl is a demon in the original and ancient sense of the word. In ancient Greek, the word “δαίμων” (demon, daimōn) was not exclusively pejorative: in the ancient Mediterranean world, demons were understood to be generally evil, but this evil could be used against evil, as with the artifact mentioned earlier. One often-overlooked clue that the demon gives about his real identity is supplied during the second encounter between Karras and the possessed Regan, when the demon says, “How pleasant to chat with you, Karras. ... I feel free. Like a wanton. I spread my great wings” (235). As Theodore J. Lewis explains, demons depicted with wings, like Pazuzu, can be malevolent in nature and “stand in contrast to winged genii. ... Whereas the wings on the former may symbolize the fear of how disease and evil can travel widely and unexpectedly, the wings on the latter seem to symbolize a protective and apotropaic nature” (22–23). The reference to “wings” combined with the visibly diseased nature of Regan’s possessed body is a clear sign of the demon’s nature and power. The winged, flying, and wind demons in [page 18] antiquity did not always have the ferocious aspect of Pazuzu. As Naama Vilozny comments, the belief in these demons was widespread in the Ancient Near East and passed down from the Sumerians to the Assyrians and the Babylonians and had a tradition that was “dense and varied, and is evidenced in many magic texts and in visual-artistic manifestations” (136–137); Pazuzu, in his earliest artistic manifestations, was generally but not always depicted thus. 

Pazuzu, known to infect and attack human flesh via disease, was often depicted as having a “naked, exaggeratedly thin body is a monstrous head with goat’s horns on the fore-head” and with four “wings and the claws of a beast of prey” that indicated “the speed with which it dives down on its victim, plunging sharp nails into his flesh” (Lefère 54). This description is from the book titled Satan that Karras consults on the phenomenon of possession, which includes an image of the demon Pazuzu. Another essay in Satan notes that the demon Pazuzu also appears in bronze as statuettes that “in the seventh century B.C. symbolised as the south-west wind bringing fever and delirium” and having “all the characteristics of the devil of the Judeo-Christian tradition as he is to be seen on the wooden panels of our cathedrals and in our illuminated manuscripts” (Bazin 356–357).

Winged Sculptures

At the start of the novel, Merrin sits at a chaykhana: “He sipped at his tea. The dig was over. What was beginning? He dusted the thought like a clay-fresh find but he could not tag it” (4); this simile anticipates events in Georgetown, where Regan has been sculpting figurines resembling ancient clay demons from the Near East.2 For example, in the film, even though Regan’s sculptures are much more visible and identifiable in the film, the book emphasizes that the sculptures are made of clay. Regan (Linda Blair) is eager to complete one particular sculpture for her mother. This orange-colored winged figurine resembles the statue of Pazuzu that [page 19] Merrin (Max von Sydow) encountered in the ancient ruins of Nineveh (see Figure 1).3 When Detective Kinderman attempts to solve the murder of movie director Burke Dennings  and a series of desecrations at area Catholic churches, including “a massive phallus sculpted in clay [that] had been found glued firmly to a statue of Christ on the left side altar” (65), he secretly acquires a sample of the clay that Regan uses in her sculpting—the orange-colored bird in the book and a different sculpture, one of a turtle, in the movie—which he then compares to the clay used to desecrate a statue of the Virgin Mary; he finds that not only is the clay the same but “a spectrographic analysis [shows] that the paint from Regan’s sculpture matched a scraping of paint from the desecrated statue” (164).

Historically, clay figurines like the one Merrin finds were used as apotropaic instruments to combat evil, sickness, and misfortune. They could be worn as amulets; in the case of Pazuzu, the demon’s head was most often used (Saggs 122–123). P.R.S. Mooney noted in 1965 that 

[c]omplete figures of this demon are not nearly so commonly reported as the well known detached-head pendants; but all representations of him, whether free-standing or in low relief on plaques, have a striking [page 20] similarity. Even when represented kneeling or crouching the main characteristics are clearly recognisable. The demon is ithyphallic, with wings, bird’s thighs, legs and claws, scorpion’s tail and the horned, leonine head also familiar from the common head pendants. These iconographical features agree well with the textual evidence for Pazuzu’s character. The wings suggest his association with the winds; the grotesque expression, the poisonous scorpion’s tail, the serpent’s head and the talons, his vicious nature. When standing or kneeling his arms are normally represented with the right hand raised along the upper right wing and the left extended downwards along the lower left wing. (34)

Often, if the demon is shown as having wings, some type of text accompanies the amulet. For example, H. W. F. Saggs supplies a translation of a text found with one of the Pazuzu amulets: “I am the god Pazuzu, son of the god anbi, [king] of the evil [l]ilû-demons. [I come blust]erring mightily from the Mountain (of the Underworld ) (so that) they come up: it is I. (As to) their [wind]s which go in the(ir) midst, the west wind is set at their front. The [wind]s, the(ir) wings are broken” (123). The demon’s association with the west wind is unclear since it is debatable whether Pazuzu represents

the chief of the malevolent winds controlled by the demons or, contrariwise, the instrument employed by Pazuzu for nullifying the malevolence of the demons. The furious wind of the Akkadian text is unnamed, but has certain striking characteristics which make it feasible to attempt an identification. Its approach brings darkness (nanduru) and it is so violent that it can not only toss down fruit but even uproot trees. (127)

Often, apotropaic Pazuzu representing the west wind (126) would be placed at the neck of a woman in childbirth against the female demon Lamaštu (Saggs 123; Moorey 35).4 [page 21]

The Aspects and Origins of Pazuzu

This Mesopotamian incantation gives an all-encompassing view of Pazuzu: 

You, mighty one, who ascends the mountains,

Who faces all the winds,

Angry wind, whose rising is terrible,

Fierce one, raging one, who comes on furiously,

Who roars at the world regions, who wrecks the
high mountains, 

Who parches the marshland, who withers its reeds.

He confronted the wood, felled its trees,

He passed to the garden, dropped down its fruit, 

He descended to the river, poured out ice,

He went up to the dry land, covered it with hoarfrost, 

He struck the young man, hunched him over,

He knocked the young woman, hit her womb, 

He descended to the river, poured out ice,

He went up to the dry land, covered it with hoarfrost.

Agony of mankind, disease of mankind, suffering of mankind,

Do not enter the house I enter, do not come near the house I come near, do not approach the house I approach!

Be conjured and stay conjured by Anu and Antu, Enlil and Ninlil, Ea and Damkina, heaven and earth! (Heeßel, “Mesopotamian” 21)

The aspects of the demon enumerated in this text compared with the actions of the possessed Regan in The Exorcist demonstrate a similarity between the ancient text and the modern representation. “Angry wind” is often felt in Regan’s bedroom, and the icy nature of the demon is represented by the frigid temperatures that the characters also experience in Regan’s bedroom. Powerful emotions like fury, rage, and environmental degeneration and disease appear in the film. Notwithstanding the portrayals in incantations like this one as well as in the book and movie, it should be remembered that Pazuzu, though terrifying, is a reliable and favored apotropaion (Heeßel, “Mesopotamian” 21). More importantly, though, these texts provide no physical description of Pazuzu: “he is described simply as ‘fierce’ or ‘furious,’ while corporeal details are conspicuously lacking. … In general, references to the demon’s [page 22] physical form are either vague or nonexistent and, in this regard, the literary evidence therefore shares little in common with the idealized iconography” (Maiden 106).

Additionally, the demon appeared seemingly out of nowhere during the Iron Age, and the uncertainty about his appearance is not due to a lack of preserved evidence (Wiggermann, “Four” 125–163). Frans A. M. Wiggermann hypothesizes that the origins of the demon must be found in “a conscious act, in a purposeful break with the past, necessitated presumably by the observation of a gap in the fabric of Mesopotamian magic and its visual expression” (125–126). Moreover, 

It is precisely this break with the past that stands in the way of a simple and straight-forward solution to the problem of Pazuzu’s origins; any solution will somehow suffer from the discontinuity implied by invention, from the gap between the deduced forerunners and the actual novelty. The gap can be narrowed, and the creative moment defined, by investigating the historical conditions for Pazuzu’s existence, and by deriving the motives for his creation from his nature and use. (125–126)

The nature and use of the demon, according to Wiggermann, is composed of two parts: the domestic (in this sphere, he serves as the protector of women who are about to give birth) and the wind-demon (in this external or natural sphere, the demon personifies the worst that nature can throw at humans). In the former sphere, Pazuzu’s “apotropaic power resides in his head, in its malformed inhuman ugliness deterring unwelcome visitors,” while as king of the wind-demons, his “himself his task is to pacify his unruly subjects and to order them back to where they came from” (125–126). This duality, Wiggermann declares, can be found in a Lamaštu amulet: “The domestic apotropaion is represented by the head on top, staring into the sick-room where the amulet was posted, while the wind-demon is shown in the ‘narrative’ scene below, chasing the demoness back to the netherworld” (126). In other words, the depiction of the demon was created with [page 23] practical use in mind, which is to frighten away his demonic adversaries, which are “the evil wind-demons (lilû), over whom he has power by virtue of the fact that he is their king” (135).

The demon’s power has been defined as composed of two parts that are never thoroughly combined and integrated: on the one hand, the demon “is a domestic spirit, a permanent guest in the houses of man, and on the other he is a wind demon, an untamed loner roaming mountains and deserts” (Wiggermann, “Pazuzu” 372). This refusal or inability to integrate fully may stem from his conflict with the other wind demons since there can never be peace between the demon-king and his infernal subjects. This contradictory, chaotic, or conflicting being also manifests itself, as mentioned previously, in its apotropaic use against other demons, as in the images of Pazuzu are frequently “depicted on amulets against the Lamaštu … the main baby-snatching demon in Mesopotamian tradition” (Verderame 64). Lamaštu and Pazuzu are also contradictory in their frightening appearances: they are complex creatures, hybrids, anthropomorphic and yet zoomorphic. As Brett Maiden states: “It would be an understatement to say that the iconographic representation of the demons is marked by a high degree of anatomical complexity” (87). Given Pazuzu’s apotropaic association, a question that could be posed about his role in The Exorcist is that of why Pazuzu does not protect mother and child; while the clay figurines that Regan was sculpting may have been aspirationally apotropaic, the child trying to avert evil, Pazuzu is not, Eckart Frahm explains, inherently an agent of white magic whose “frightfulness was put to good use” (273): it is not out of character that the demon does not prevent the child-snatching by chasing away Lamaštu but instead snatches Regan away from her mother. Pazuzu is “a destructive force … matched by his frightening appearance,” and “malevolent demons other than Pazuzu do not figure as allies of the ritual client in Mesopotamian defensive magic;” although “there are specific contexts within anti-witchcraft rituals where exorcist and patient deploy creatures that are generally regarded as [page 24] evil or potentially dangerous in defense against the witches that have attacked the patient” (Schwemer 174), the demon does not serve this function in the book or film.

Reasons for Possession

The possession of the young girl by the demon in The Exorcist, particularly the film version, has been interpreted in many ways. For example, Nick Cull offers the possibility that the theme of a young girl being possessed by a demon played into the “growing fear” that America had of its youth in the 1960s and 1970s, as evidenced by the name Regan, which, for Cull, is an allusion to “literature’s original ‘thankless children’ in Shakespeare’s King Lear” (48). The film also “touches a second nerve: the guilt of the middle-aged over the neglect of their parents. The priest, Father Karras, is wracked by guilt after seeing his mother committed to a mental hospital. His guilt becomes a principal avenue of attack for the demon during the climactic confrontation” (48). Cull also suggests that the evil in the film is “doubly disturbing for erupting” in the domestic sphere, the American home, which “had been uniquely privileged in American post-war culture” (48). In a similar vein, Allison M. Kelly argues that the demon Pazuzu “is actually a combination of dark forces” (66) and the child’s anger, which may stem from her resentment of her father after he neglected to call her on her birthday. The juxtaposition of her absent father and the appearance of the demon is evident in that “her bedroom has pictures of him on her nightstand, and her imaginary friend (Pazuzu in one of its initial forms of contact with her) is called ‘Captain Howdy’—an allusion to her father’s name: Howard” (66). 

Tony Magistrale suggests that the two Jesuit priests are a substitute for the missing Howard MacNeil and appear at a critical moment in Regan’s life, not only because a demon possesses her but also because she is very vulnerable. This may be an unconscious connection that is “underscored in Regan’s crayon drawing of a winged animal that Karras and Chris dis-[page 25]cover in the basement anticipating the arrival of the winged demon Pazuzu: Devil and abandoned child share a profound correspondence before the actual possession even manifests itself” (114). In other words, the bonding of the demon and the child is the consequence of the abandonment of the child by at least one of her parents. Magistrale comments on the domestic sphere and The Exorcist:

The opening of the film, where Pazuzu appears to be unearthed in Iraq from the natural world, suggests the possibility that evil has cycles of dormancy followed by periods of wakefulness (the two dogs fighting in front of Pazuzu’s statue) as well as from the domestic sphere. The film seems content to allow these two realms of transgression to co-exist, in fact, to imply that they are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The Devil finds his power in the weaknesses and failings of the human animal during moments of despair that neither the structures of the family nor the strength of the individual can altogether forego. (117)

Carol L. Fry suggests that the two images of the demon foreshadow an invasion of the domestic sphere at the film’s start and describes the opening scene as a primal narrative “of invasion and defense of territory by an Other” (18). For Fry, the demon is an aggressive invader with its sights set on “a pubescent girl”—“a girl on the threshold of womanhood”—and uses the Ouija board as the vehicle for “invasion and possession” (18). The battlefield is the young girl’s darkened bedroom, which resembles the “netherworld between earth and Hell”; the fact that it is a bedroom also implies the sexual nature of the invasion, and the horror that results from this implication originates in both “the defense of territory and the threat of pollution of the gene pool. In the Satanic film, the possessed is often a child; and the threat to a child, from Dickens’ Little Dorrit to Danny in The Shining—the carriers for the group’s and species’ genetic future—is a perennially powerful theme” (18–19).  [page 26]

Jens Kjeldgaard-Christiansen posits that the possession’s evil and sadistic nature aims to claim ownership of Regan and make everyone involved “miserable.” It is an evil that “threatens to infiltrate our communities at every moment, and it can only be defeated through prosocial resistance and self-sacrifice” (116). Octavia J. Cade also uses the word “invasion” in her analysis of The Exorcist movie and notes that the “presence of the demonic intelligence within Regan is also an intrusion, not naturally part of the conscious or unconscious (subconscious) layers of the child’s mind” as well as that Regan’s “posture mimics that of the large winged statue faced down by Merrin in the prologue—and to underline the connection, the statue appears briefly in the bedroom” (71). The Exorcist is the foreign Otherness invading a wholesome American young girl.

The invasion causes chaos, confusion, and disorder that spiritual warfare can only resolve. Like Fry, Mark Kermode views the initial contact between the Jesuit and the demon at the start of the film as symbolic of the common conflict: “As Merrin climbs the mound to confront the giant statue of the demon Pazuzu, angry dogs snarl and scuffle in the dust, providing an aggressive aural accompaniment to Merrin’s High Noon-style stand-off with an ancient enemy” (27). Pazuzu, the king of the wind demons, depicted as a clay amulet at the beginning of the film and book, has made its way into the Mac Neil household, as noted by Kinderman in his initial interview with Chris when he refers to drafts as bearers of illness Having asked to speak to Regan about Blake Dennings’ death, he is told that she is “heavily sedated” and that her illness is serious. However, they “still don’t know” what is wrong. He warns Chris to “‘[w]atch out for drafts. … A draft in the winter when a house is hot is a magic carpet for bacteria. My mother used to say that. Maybe that’s folk myth. Maybe. … But a myth, to speak plainly, to me is like a menu in a fancy French restaurant: glamorous, complicated camouflage for a fact you wouldn’t otherwise swallow’” (137–138). The fact that the detective is touching the sculpture as he introduces the [page 27] correlation between drafts and illness points to Pazuzu and his airborne malignancy. However, given Regan’s condition, his warning is much too late, and in fact, this is not the first attribution of blame for Regan’s condition to “draft.” When Regan asks after the dinner party, ‘“Mother, what’s wrong with me?’” Blatty writes, “Chris abruptly noticed goose pimples rising on her forearm. She rubbed it. Good Christ, it gets cold in this room. Where’s the draft coming in from?”‘ (69, italics in original). The “draft,” of course, is Pazuzu’s presence. 

Toward the end of the exorcism, but before Karras finds the body of Merrin, the molding of clay makes its last appearance in a poem Regan had written to her mother before the events of the book/movie.

If instead of just clay 

I could take all the prettiest things 

Like a rainbow.

Or clouds or the way a bird sings,

Maybe then, Mother dearest,

If I put them all together,

I could really make a sculpture of you. (326–327)

This handwritten poem is an incantation to a figurine that would be more than just a sculpture. Perhaps Pazuzu’s function is apotropaic, protecting the child even while the demon is being exorcized.


The mother was susceptible to attack by demons throughout her pregnancy and for a period after she gave birth. During the early months of pregnancy the greatest fear was miscarriage. The texts are not clear as to which demon or demons, if any, were responsible [page 29] for early miscarriage, but there are numerous rituals to prevent or arrest miscarriage. These rituals are performed directly on the woman and seem to establish disease or sorcery as the causal agent. It seems possible that demons do not enter the picture until later in the pregnancy and that miscarriage in the early stages of pregnancy is attributable solely to disease or sorcery.

At any rate, in the later months of pregnancy and at the time of birth itself the woman and child come under danger from the demon Pazuzu. The full range of activities of this demon is not clear, but he came to attack either the mother or child. In order to defend against him an amulet was made and given to the mother. The amulets were either complete winged figures of Pazuzu or simply heads of the demon. In the case of the heads many were pierced through the ears so they could be worn. Often the amulets were inscribed with either an incantation against Pazuzu or an abbreviated myth about the demon. (23)

Works Cited

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Verderame, Lorenzo. “Demons at Work in Ancient Mesopotamia.” Demons and Illness from Antiquity to the Early-Modern Period, edited by Siam Bhayro and Catherine Rider, Brill Nijhoff, 2017, pp. 61–78.

Vilozny, Naama. “Lilith’s Hair and Ashmedai’s Horns: Incantation Bowl Imagery in the Light of Talmudic Descriptions.” The Archaeology and Material Culture of the Babylonian Talmud, edited by Markham J. Geller, Brill, 2015, pp. 133–152.

Wiggermann, Frans A. M. “The Four Winds and the Origins of Pazuzu.” Das geistige Erfassen der Welt im Alten Orient [page 31] Beiträge zu Sprache, Religion, Kultur und Gesellschaft, edited by Joost Hazenbos, et al, Harrassowitz Verlag, 2007, pp. 125–163.

---. “Pazuzu.” Reallexikon der Assyriologie und Vorderasiatischen Archäologie 10, edited by Dietz O. Edzard and Michael P. Streck, de Gruyter, 2003–2005, pp. 372–381.

Ed Cueva is Distinguished Professor of Classics and Humanities at the University of Houston-Downtown. His research interests include the ancient Graeco-Roman novel, ancient literature/the occult, and myth and film. He is currently focused on the intersection of horror and ancient Graeco-Roman literature, e.g., “Classical Myth, Stephen King, and René Girard,” GIF 73, 2021, 291–322; and “Cannibalism and the Ancient Novel Revisited,” Interdisciplinary Essays on Cannibalism: Bites Here and There, Routledge, 2021, 67–82. He has two forthcoming books: Horror in Antiquity, U of Wales P, Spring 2024, and The Hunger, Liverpool UP, Winter 2024 (a monograph in the Devil’s Advocate Series on Tony Scott’s 1983 film). 

MLA citation (print): 

Cueva, Edmund P. "Apotropaic Pazuzu?: Evil vs. Evil." Supernatural Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Art, Media, and Culture, vol. 9, no. 1, 2023, pp. 15-31.