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 Ḫanbi, [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
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.
As Nils P. Heeßel notes, “There is a scene in the 1973 Hollywood block-buster ‘The Exorcist’, in which an elderly American archaeologist studies some recently excavated objects in the Mosul office of the Iraqi Antiquities Department and his Iraqi colleague remarks as he takes up the ferocious looking clay representation of a demon: ‘evil against evil.’ It would be difficult to find more suitable and shorter words to capture the essence of the demon Pazuzu, whose image the archaeologists are discussing. Pazuzu, a Babylonian and Assyrian demon of the first millennium B. C., was considered to represent a violent wind that brought [page 28] destruction to nature and humankind, but on the other hand, he was effective to repel other demons, which made his image a popular apotropaion of his time” (“Evil” 357). This duality, a demon that could be used to ward off evil, is often neglected in studies of The Exorcist.
In the book, Regan is not the only possessed sculptor; in his research on possession, Karras comes across the case of the spirit of a woman named Tia who possessed a sculptor, initially with no negative impact: “[w]hen possession was voluntary … the new personality was often benign. Like Tia … the spirit of a woman who’d possessed a man, a sculptor, intermittently and for only an hour or so at a time, until a friend of the sculptor fell desperately in love with Tia and pleaded with the sculptor to permit her to permanently remain in possession of his body” (222).
In the movie, Karras also finds a drawing of a chalky earth-colored flying animal that resembles a dog or perhaps a lion with wings in his initial visit to the MacNeil basement.
As can be imagined, birth and maternity were fraught with all types of challenges in the ancient Babylonian and Assyrian empires, such as the lack of “proper medicine and medical knowledge, the lack of proper diet, and the lack of sanitation, miscarriages, stillbirths, and infant mortality” (Lichty 23). According to Erle Lichty, the high infant mortality rate and the fear that one’s child may die were attributed to disease, demons, or sorcery. Consequently, to prevent harm and death, the ancient Mesopotamians “built up an extensive collection of incantations, charms, amulets and prescriptions aimed at the protection of both mother and child. Of the three threats, the demons are by far the most interesting” (23). Lichty continues:
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)
Bazin, Germain. “The Devil in Art.” Satan, Sheed & Ward, 1952, pp. 351–367.
Blatty, William Peter. The Exorcist. Harper & Row, 1971.
---. “There is Goodness in The Exorcist.” America Magazine, Feb. 1974, pp. 38–41.
Cade, Octavia J. “Sifting Science: Stratification and The Exorcist.” Horror Studies, vol. 7, no. 1, 2016, pp. 61–72.
Cull, Nick. “The Exorcist.” History Today, May 2000, pp. 46–51.
The Exorcist. Directed by William Friedkin, Warner Bros., 1973.
Frahm, Eckart. “A Tale of Two Lands and Two Thousand Years: The Origins of Pazuzu.” Mesopotamian Medicine and Magic: Studies in Honor of Markham J. Geller, edited by Markham J. Geller, Strahil V. Panayotov, Luděk Vacín, and Gene Trabich, Brill, 2018, pp. 272–291.
Fry, Carrol L. ‘“We Are Legion’: Primal Dreams and Screams in the Satanic Screen.” Journal of Religion & Film, vol. 19, no. 2, 2015, pp. 1–31.
Heeßel, Nils P. “Evil against Evil: The Demon Pazuzu.” SMSR, vol. 77, 2011, pp. 357–368. [page 30]
---. “Mesopotamian Demons–Foreign and Yet Native Powers?” Entre dieux et hommes: anges, démons et autres figures intermédiaires: Actes du colloque organisé par le Collège de France, Paris, les 19 et 20 mai 2014, edited by Thomas Römer, et al, University of Zurich University Library, 2017, pp. 15–29.
Kelly, Allison M. “A Girl’s Best Friend Is Her Mother: The Exorcist as a Post-Modern Oedipal Tale.” Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, vol. 25, 2004, pp. 64–69.
Kermode, Mark. The Exorcist. BFI Publishing, 2020.
Kjeldgaard-Christiansen, Jens. “Evil Origins: A Darwinian Genealogy of the Popcultural Villain.” Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, vol. 10, no. 2, 2016, pp. 109–122.
Lefère, A., S.J. “Angel or Monster?” Satan. Sheed & Ward, 1952, pp. 52–66.
Lewis, Theodore J. “The Identity and Function of Ugaritic Sha’ tiqatu: A Divinely Made Apotropaic Figure.” Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religions, vol. 14, 2014, pp. 1–28.
Lichty, Erle. “Demons and Population Control.” Expedition, vol. 13, no. 2, 1971, pp. 22–26.
Magistrale, Tony. Abject Terrors: Surveying the Modern and Postmodern Horror Film. Peter Lang, 2005.
Maiden, Brett. “Counterintuitive Demons: Pazuzu and Lamaštu in Iconography, Text, and Cognition.” Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religions, vol. 18, 2018, pp. 86–110.
Moorey, P. R. S. “A Bronze ‘Pazuzu’ Statuette from Egypt.” Iraq, vol. 27, no. 1, 1965, pp. 33–41.
Saggs, H. W. F. “Pazuzu.” Archiv für Orientforschung, vol. 19, 1959–1960, pp. 123–127.
Schwemer, Daniel. “Evil Helpers: Instrumentalizing Agents of Evil in Anti-witchcraft Rituals.” Sources of Evil: Studies in Mesopotamian Exorcistic Lore, edited by Greta van Buylaere, et al, Brill, 2018, pp. 173–191.
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.