Goddesses and Demons: Some Thoughts
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.
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.
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.
Though not obviously sexed, he is understood as male, whereas Rangda is
always female and human.
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.
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 www.flickr.com.
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
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).
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.
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.
This demon might be the origin of the Jewish child-stealer and temptress
Lilith (Black and Green 2003: 118; Patai
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:
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
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
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).
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
Drawing © S. Beaulieu,
from image provided by JBL Statues to the Pantheon web site www.pantheon.org
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
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.
- Apparently the name means
- Good photos of her as
she appears in the ritual can be found at www.answers.com/topic/rangda
www.flickr.com/photos and www.fotosearch.com
- 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."
- In the ritual, the part
of Rangda is taken by a man.
- I am aware that earlier
male deities also suffered similar fates.
- 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.
- See my article in Matrifocus
archives, vol. 4-4, Lammas 2005.
- 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.
- 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
- 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." http://web.rollins.edu/~hedge/Extraordinary
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:
- 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 &
- 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