While the recent rise in exorcisms is blamed by some on a rise of demons and demonic possessions, others see the ‘victims’ instead as people suffering from some form of epilepsy, the family of neurological diseases that can cause seizures which have long been mistaken (even to this day) for possession. A recent discovery of a drawing hidden on the back of a cuneiform tablet from ancient Mesopotamia links demons and epilepsy visually in the form of a drawing of a demon the Assyrians and Babylonians at that time believed was the cause of Bennu – the disease now known as Bennu-epilepsy. The text associated with the drawing also links the demon and the disease to lunacy.
“Drawings of supernatural powers are very rare on cuneiform tablets with magical and medical treatments. When there is a drawing, it usually depicts one of the figures that the healers used in their rituals, not the demon itself. But here we have a presentation of an epilepsy demon as the healer who wrote the text must have imagined it.”
In an article published in Journal des Médecines Cunéiformes, Assyriologist Troels Pank Arbøll of the University of Copenhagen which announced the discovery, describes finding the drawing four years ago at the Vorderasiatisches Museum in Berlin on the back of a 2,700-year-old cuneiform tablet whose cuneiform-covered front he was studying as part of his research on ancient medical treatments. The drawing was of a demon with horns, a snake’s tongue, a goat’s face and more than one tail. The text around it stated this was the cause of the dreaded illness Bennu, whose symptoms included seizures, loss of consciousness or sanity, and occasionally sounding like a goat. (The tablet and the drawing can be seen here.)
“We have known for a long time that the Assyrians and Babylonians regarded diseases as phenomena that were caused by gods, demons, or witchcraft. And healers were responsible for expelling these supernatural forces and the medical symptoms they caused with drugs, rituals, or incantations.”
Does that sound like an exorcism? While the causes of epilepsy are unknown, most of the seizures can be controlled with medication (including marijuana and CBD) but the treatments are unavailable or expensive in many parts of the world and the mysterious seizures carry stigmas and cause fears in other, resulting in victims and families turning to unconventional reasons and ‘cures’ for the ‘demon’ disease. The Assyrians linked the disease to a demon who worked for the lunar god Sîn.
“The text also states that the demon acted on behalf of the lunar god Sîn when it inflicted a person with epilepsy. So the Assyrians and Babylonians believed that there was a connection between the moon, epilepsy and insanity. In the following millennia, this idea became widespread, also in our part of the world, and it can still be detected in the English word ‘lunacy’.”
“Lunacy” is derived from the Latin word lunaticus, which referred to diseases like epilepsy which were thought to be controlled by the Moon, or in this case, the god of the Moon. While that has long been disproved, as has demons causing diseases, old beliefs — especially concerning mysterious illnesses that even modern medicine can’t cure – die hard.
If you’re looking for a modern usage for ‘lunacy’, THAT is a good one.