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Goddesses and Demons: Some Thoughts

ferocious demon/goddess Rangdo

A somewhat damaged Rangda in her most ferocious pose, her foot on a stone carved with sea waves. Time has removed some of the paint, and her left hand has lost its long nails. Painted stone or wood (?). Bali, probably in the Archaeological Museum.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu, after Charlé 1990: 119

There is no ignoring Rangda.[1] Her appearance is shocking, terrifying. Her huge eyes protrude, her large breasts are pendulous, and her long red tongue hangs down her body almost to her knees. She has a mouth full of big teeth and curving fangs, her fingernails are extended to pointed claws, and her unkempt mop of gray hair hangs down her back.[2] According to her reputation, she likes to eat children, cause disease and pestilence, and lead of a horde of witches (Leeming 2005: 335). Today she is identified as an evil and vicious demon queen, but perhaps originally she was a goddess.

When I was a tourist in Bali some years ago, I met Rangda for the first time and have been fascinated with her ever since. All eyes focused on Rangda as she emerged from the inner part of the temple about a third of the way through the Barong dance, an exciting Balinese ritual drama (Charlé 1990: 66-67). The dance I attended at a village temple was shortened for tourists, but that did not change Rangda's charisma (Charlé 1990: 64-65). There was no doubt that she was power: electrifying, dangerous, and otherworldly.

The Barong ritual drama focuses on the ongoing battle between good and evil; in this case, the evil Rangda versus the good Barong (Edge 2007: 10 of 21). The Barong I saw was a somewhat silly-looking dragon-lion with a prominent and ornate feathery tail.[3] Though not obviously sexed, he is understood as male, whereas Rangda is always female and human.[4] Both are wielders of powerful magic. The Barong protects villages from plague and malicious magic, whereas usually Rangda menaces them with both. At the rite I witnessed, Rangda was explicitly associated with the Hindu goddess Durga, who was presented as the personification of evil. In another explanation, she was once an eleventh-century queen, exiled after using witchcraft against her husband's second wife (Charlé 1990: 30-31). Becoming Rangda, she exacted revenge by causing a plague that killed half the inhabitants of the realm. Whatever her origin, Rangda is an independent and autonomous female who makes me think about the demonization of earlier deities by later cultures.[5]

sea goddess Rangda

Rangda, with huge protruding eyes, unkempt long hair, prominent fangs, sharp nails, and lolling tongue. From Bali. Painted wood. Dating 1800-1900 C.E.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu, after photograph on web site

While the Barong is a benevolent forest creature, Rangda belongs to the dark, to graveyards and, most of all, to the sea. Bali's good spirits inhabit the heights, on or close to the sacred Mount Agung. The people live in the world between, in which they maintain the balance between good and evil by daily offerings and frequent rituals. Bali's evil spirits, on the other hand, infest the lower areas of the island, the lowest being the demonic sea (Edge 2007: 9, 17 of 21).

Rangda is associated with the sea, which most Balinese fear (Charlé 1990: 134). Perhaps the demon Rangda resulted from a Balinese Hindu reworking of an aboriginal sea goddess, as did a few other popular Balinese figures (Leeming 2005: 44). She is clearly more divine than mortal, for, although the Barong always defeats her, she never dies. In addition, in some parts of the island she has a beneficial side, like Kali and Durga, with whom she is often connected. It is not hard to see her as crone goddess who has been turned into witch.

Ancient Mesopotamia had many demons, among them a female and a male monster, one of whose stories presents a pattern eerily similar to that of Rangda and the Barong. The dog-faced male demon Pazuzu was the only one who could control the fierce female demon Lamashtu and force her to return to the Underworld.

Amulet from Mesopotamia. The back of the object shows the body of the male demon Pazuzu, his head peering over the top at the front. At the bottom left, Pazuzu drives Lamashtu back to the Underworld, to which she is lured by offerings. She is standing on her donkey, and both are in her boat on the river to the Underworld. She holds snakes and suckles the usual animals. The registers above show a sick person being attended by healers and protective beings, just above a row of protective spirits, and at the top the symbols of the main Babylonian deities. Bronze. 13.3 cms high. Dating to around 625-539 B.C.E.).
Drawing © S. Beaulieu, after Black and Green 2003: 181.

Great is the daughter of Heaven [the god Anu] who tortures babies,
Her hand is a net, her embrace is death.
She is cruel, raging, angry, predatory…
She touches the bellies of women in labor
She pulls out the pregnant women's baby
The daughter of Heaven is one of the Gods, her brothers
With no child of her own.
Her head is a lion's head
Her body is a donkey's body
She roars like a lion
She constantly howls like a demon-dog.
Mesopotamian incantation against Lamashtu

Like most Mesopotamian demons, Lamashtu, daughter of the supreme sky god Anu, was divine, but held a rank below that of most deities. Demons lived in graveyards, wastelands, and deserts. They were agents of the main deities and either helped or hindered humans. There were large numbers of them, especially bad or evil ones (Leick 1998: 30-31). Demons did not often occur in the mythology of Mesopotamia, but they abounded in magical texts and incantations. They were responsible for diseases and other afflictions, usually at the instructions of a deity. However, most demons could be either malevolent or beneficent. Those known by name had particular functions: for example, Pashittu's job was to carry off babies. Pazuzu was ruler of wind demons. As her main task, Lamashtu attacked babies (Stol 2000: 224; Riley in van der Toorn et al.1999: 236-237).

As depicted in Mesopotamian iconography, Babylonian Lamashtu (Sumerian Dimme) was a pale, ashen monster, her hairy body covered in blood. At her naked, drooping breasts, a black dog (or wolf) and a pig suckled. She dangled snakes from her long clawed fingers and fingernails. Her feet had the cruel talons of a predatory bird, and she had a lion or eagle head and the teeth of a dog or a donkey. Her sacred animal was the donkey, and she sailed the river of the Underworld in her own boat.

Independent and dangerous, Lamashtu was not only disrespectful, but she had a bad disposition. So her father threw her out of heaven (Stol 2000: 225). She proceeded to do evil on her own accord without instructions from other deities. Although she caused fevers and chills and killed adult men and women with diseases and plague, her particular malevolence was the provoking of miscarriages and the killing or kidnapping of newborns. She also tore babies from the womb to suckle them with poison. Complicated magic, rituals, and incantations could ward her off (Leick 1998:110). Further, amulets of the head of Pazuzu protected pregnant women against Lamashtu. Some plaques show Pazuzu in the process of forcing her back to the Underworld (Black and Green 2003:115-116; Wiggermann 2000; 244).

Lion-headed Lamashtu, holding snakes and with pig and dog at her breasts

Lion-headed Lamashtu, holding snakes and with pig and dog at her breasts. On one side there is a lamp, on the other a human head. On the back is a magical incantation. Yellow alabaster. Dating from around 605-562 B.C.E.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu, after Pritchard 1969: 215, Plate 657.

The Babylonian Lilitu, a wind spirit, was another female demon against whom Pazuzu was very effective (Black and Green 2003: 118). The Lilitu belonged to a group of demons with similar traits, especially their sexual appetites.[6] Their name derives from the Sumerian word lil, meaning "air, spirit." They haunted the open spaces and deserts. They were sexually predatory, but incapable of "normal" sexual activity. The Lilitu could not give birth or suckle a child, and she threatened pregnant women and infants. It was a Lilitu that made its home in the trunk of Inanna's huluppu tree and refused to leave.[7] This demon might be the origin of the Jewish child-stealer and temptress Lilith (Black and Green 2003: 118; Patai 1990: 221-222).[8]

So-called Lilith, but actually Inanna/Ishtar. She wears the multi-horned headdress of a great deity and, by analogy with the better-known but similar "Burney plaque" (Patai 1990: Figure 31), probably held in her hands symbols of power. She has wings and taloned feet and stands between two goat-like animals. Terracotta relief. Dating to about 2000 B.C.E.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu, after Gray 1982: 71.

Known from Jewish writings of the Talmudic period (second-fifth centuries C.E.) and later, Lilith was responsible for barrenness in women and impotence in men. Like Lamashtu, she also was a child-stealer. Because of a popular association of her name with layla, the Hebrew word for "night," Lilith was pictured as a demon of darkness. There is one possible reference to Lilith in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), Isaiah 34:14, where she inhabited a desolate wasteland.

According to later Jewish legend, Lilith, who had long hair and wings, was Adam's first wife. The pair quarreled over Adam's wanting sexual superiority over her. She said, "Why should you be on top when we are equals?" Then Lilith spoke the deity's magic name and flew away to the Red Sea area, where she bore innumerable demon children and started her malevolent career (Leeming 2005: 239; Patai 1990: 223-224). Against her, people needed amulets and used invocations (Hutter in van der Toorn et al. 1999: 520-521).

Aramaic incantation bowl from Iraq (Babylonia) with a sketch of Lilith in the center and a magical text around it. Lilith appears partly dressed, and her long hair hangs free. She seems to have small wings, and her ankles are chained, as the incantation intends. Dates from around 600 C.E.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu, after Patai 1990: figure 33.

One of the methods of dealing with Lilith and other demons was demonstrated in a group of Jewish "incantation bowls" found at Nippur in Mesopotamia and dating to the sixth century C.E. Several bowls dealt with Lilith (Patai 1990: 225, Plates 32, 33). A rough sketch of Lilith appears on the bottom inside of a couple of the bowls. Incantation texts accompanying the sketch tell us a good deal about the role of Lilith in Jewish popular religion. Lilith seduced men, did everything she could to prevent births, and killed children (Patai 1990: 225).

In Jewish popular belief of the Middle Ages, Lilith was the devil or his grandmother and also mother of witches and witchcraft (Patai 1990: 221-254). Eventually, in the Jewish mystical or Kabalistic tradition, which began in the Middle Ages, she became "queenly consort at God's side" (Patai 1990: 221). Demonic nature notwithstanding, it is clear that Lilith was also divine.

Another ancient demonized female, the Greek Medusa, provides an illuminating counterpoint to the demons already discussed. Unlike Rangda, Lamashtu, and Lilith, the Gorgon Medusa was mortal, though her sister Gorgons, Sthenno and Euryale, were immortal. According to one story, Medusa was a beautiful young woman whom the goddess Athena changed into a monster because Poseidon raped Medusa in one of Athena's temples. To punish her, Athena made her hair into writhing snakes, and afterwards her face was so hideous that it turned to stone any man who looked at her. She was eventually decapitated by the Greek hero Perseus. From her wound sprang the giant Khrysaor and the winged horse Pegasus, their father being sea god Poseidon. Thus motherhood came to Medusa only after death (Graves 1988: 127, 129; Leeming 2005: 158-159, 256).

Medusa in kneeling warrio pose with sword, shield, and lion

A guardian or warding-off (apotropaic) Medusa in kneeling warrior pose, with sword and shield, her hand on a lion. Around her waist two snakes are looped. She has large protruding eyes and curly hair, and her tongue lolls out of her mouth. The ancient Greeks used statues and masks (gorgoneia) of Medusa to protect temples and on warriors' shields. Thus she too had a beneficent side, but only after she was dead! Clay. Source unknown.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu, from image provided by JBL Statues to the Pantheon web site

winged Gorgon in warrior pose, holding her horse/son Pegasus

Winged Gorgon/Medusa with curly locks and protruding tongue. She has large protruding eyes and fangs and is in a warrior pose. Her son, the winged horse Pegasus, is under her left arm. Painted marble. Sixth century B.C.E. From the pediment of the temple at Syracuse in Sicily.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu, after Gadon 1989: Plate 1.

One tradition has it that Medusa and her sisters were daughters of Phorkys, a king of Libya in North Africa. Medusa succeeded her father as ruler. She fought battles to protect her country and was killed when her army encountered invading Greek troops led by Perseus (Graves 1988: 242, 244). Some say she was an Amazon queen and led an Amazon army. Barbara Walker describes her as "the serpent-goddess of the Libyan Amazons" and says that Athena was originally "the same goddess" (1983: 629).

These female demons from different cultures have much in common, and their commonalities reflect male-dominated societies' disapproval of females of the uppity sort, as well as implicit approval for their opposite, the feminine, biddable wives and daughters. The demons are all physically hideous. All are anti-mothers in one way or another, and all are childless or give birth in abnormal ways. All are dangerous and threaten humans with both diseases and death. All live in exile or, at least, are distanced from the cultures that produced them. All, eventually even the dead Medusa, partake to some extent of deity. All are independent of men and to a large extent autonomous. Finally, all are brought under control by males.

All possess characteristics that undermine or challenge male-dominated societies. War-like societies such as those of Mesopotamia could find a use for Inanna/Ishtar's warrior characteristics. So she became a war goddess, while her sexual self became a goddess of love. Thus divided, she was less of a threat to a developing patriarchy. Demonizing the dangerous elements of a minor goddess performed a similar function, and it also provided a scapegoat for when things went wrong, as they always would. Perhaps at one time Rangda was a sea goddess, who became evil because of where she came from. It seems likely that Lamashtu and Lilith were once minor deities who both caused infant death and disease and protected against them.[9] And Medusa — what do we make of her? Certainly male-dominated society co-opted her "malevolence" to serve its burgeoning state. Her snaky head became a powerful warding-off or apotropaic device on shields and on temples and other buildings to be protected. Such analysis is not new, I know, but I am surprised to find that it applies just as neatly to Balinese culture as it does to cultures that fed into ours. Still, perhaps this shouldn't surprise me.


  1. Apparently the name means "widow."
  2. Good photos of her as she appears in the ritual can be found at and
  3. His mask and thus personality vary from temple to temple and include lion, wild boar, tiger, and occasionally elephant. When he confronts Rangda, he wears the fantasy mask that designates him "Sovereign Lord of the Forest."
  4. In the ritual, the part of Rangda is taken by a man.
  5. I am aware that earlier male deities also suffered similar fates.
  6. Lilitu is a female form and there could be more than one of them. The masculine form is lil. The group is usually called lil demons.
  7. See my article in Matrifocus archives, vol. 4-4, Lammas 2005.
  8. Images such as that on the Burney plaque (Patai 1990: Plate 31) and that shown here are almost certainly depictions of the Mesopotamian great goddess Inanna/Ishtar. They were not images of Lilith.
  9. As population grew in urban situations, so disease must have grown. Faced with regular epidemics and high infant mortality, priests would have had to deflect anger from a beneficent/dangerous deity. What better way than to exile the dangerous half to the wastelands and get the benevolent half to run the hospitals?


  • Black, Jeremy and Anthony Green. 2003 (1992). Gods, Demons, and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press
  • Charlé, Suzanne1990. Collins Illustrated Guide to Bali. London: Collins
  • Edge, Hoyt, 2007. "Extraordinary Claims in a Cross-cultural Context." Claims.html . 21 pages
  • Gadon, Elinor, 1989. The Once and Future Goddess: A Symbol for Our Time. San Francisco: Harper & Row
  • Graves, Robert. 1988 (1955). The Greek Myths: Complete and Unabridged Edition in One Volume. Mt. Kisco, NY: Moyer Bell
  • Gray, John. 1982 (1969). Near Eastern Mythology. London: Hamlyn
  • Leeming, David. 2005. The Oxford Companion to World Mythology. New York: Oxford University Press
  • Leick, Gwendolyn. 1998 (1991). A Dictionary of Ancient Near Eastern Mythology. London/New York: Routledge
  • Patai, Raphael. 1990. The Hebrew Goddess. Third Enlarged Edition. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press
  • Pritchard, James B. 1969. The Ancient Near East in Pictures Relating to the Old Testament: Second Edition with Supplement. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press
  • Stol, M. 2000. Birth in Babylonia and the Bible: Its Mediterranean Setting. Groningen, The Netherlands: Styx
  • van der Toorn, Karel, Bob Becking, and Pieter W. van der Horst, editors. 1999. Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible: Second Extensively Revised Edition. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill and Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans
  • Walker , Barbara G. 1983. The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets. San Francisco: Harper & Row
  • Wiggermann, F.A.M. 2000. "Lama[sh]tu, Daughter of Anu: A Profile." Pp. 217-249 in Birth in Babylonia and the Bible: Its Mediterranean Setting. By M. Stol. Groningen, The Netherlands: Styx

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