Birthdays are despicable, and none more so than your own. Of all the accomplishments mankind foolishly claims for itself, there’s none more comically out of reach than the passage of time, a divine torrent beyond our control that we burden with milestones and commemorations we pretend are meaningful. Last week, with yet another birthday rushing upon me and summoning forth a damp, drizzly November in my soul, I sought refuge in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, hoping to hide out for a while among the eternals. I was there to see the new Michelangelo retrospective, which, I soon learned, was a bloodless bore, designed by and for the scholastic sort of cat for whom the minor insights gleaned from comparing two drafts of a study for a masterpiece are just as pleasurable as the masterpiece itself. In search of meaning, I wandered to the galleries of the ancient Near East.
I was nudged, perhaps, by the same invisible heavenly hand that moves time itself, because there, amid the miniature statutes, I stumbled on a terrifying insight into our current moment: Our crisis isn’t only political, or social, or economic. It’s theological. And it’s taken us from the complicated comforts of monotheism to an earlier, thornier, more savage era, to the days of demonology and its discontents. Put bluntly, the message is this: We’re all Mesopotamians now.
To understand this seemingly preposterous claim and its devastating implications, it helps to be familiar with two colorful characters that excited the ancient imagination. The first is Lamashtu: With the head of a lioness, the talons of an eagle, and the hairy body of a bear, this malevolent demigoddess was the scourge of expecting women, haunting the bedsides of Mesopotamia in search of newborn flesh. She was particularly fond, those who feared her believed, of abducting babies as they fed at their mothers’ breasts, which is why Lamashtu herself is often depicted with a puppy and a piglet suckling at her hideous teats. How to defend against such a monstrosity? The answer, to the ancients, was obvious: Call upon Pazuzu, the malicious devil with the head of a dog, the tail of a scorpion, and a penis that’s a venomous snake. Wear his talisman and you may not score any points for aesthetics, but you would guarantee a good defense against the wicked Lamashtu. Want to defeat a demon? Only a wilder demon would do.
Apply the same logic to any major news story from the past two years, and you’ll be shocked by how firmly it holds. Pazuzu’s hobbies may include grabbing women by their privates, but at least he’s not Lamashtu, what with her emails and all. Brexit may be a hideous idea, but isn’t the EU more terrifying? And as uncomfortable as we may be with Linda Sarsour’s calls to take away other women’s vaginas, deny Jews their right for self-determination, and apply Sharia Law, don’t we need her energy to defeat the greater evil of the demon-in-chief, Donald Trump?
To civilized people—and I apply the term here in the narrowest, most literal way—the answer to the questions above is always no. Of the many pleasures of monotheism, none, perhaps, is greater than abandoning the mad-making idea that the world is not much more than the sum of its malevolent forces and that the best we mortals can hope for is not to get caught in the crossfire of the war between the deities. Believing in one shared God also means accepting one shared horizon; we may still fight bitterly about divergent interpretations of the heavenly will (see under: Crusades, The), but we’ve also, if we choose to open our hearts, a sturdy blueprint for reconciliation. We were all made in his image, and that’s a pretty good opening line for a peace talk.
The poor Mesopotamians had very different ideas. To them, the kind of unity human beings, stiff-necked creatures us all, can find only by succumbing to the will of the creator was still the stuff of futuristic fancies. Instead of one God sitting in judgment up above, they had a hundred demons gnawing on our bones down below. And now we do, too, which means we, like them, now care much less about morality and much more about ritual. There’s no point in talking about absolute virtue when you’re praying to the wicked Pazuzu for protection; the best you can do is make sure to recite the spells and incantations as accurately as you can.
Where this mind-set is leading us is anyone’s guess, as is what, if anything, might be done to curb it. You can call for a rekindling of faith, which may be lost on us neo-pagans, blinded as we are by our joyful bloodlust. Or you can try and find meaning in the madness. If you’re so inclined, you may want to take a page out of the Surpu, a series of Mesopotamian confessional incantations that offer a touch of beauty amid the savagery. “Do not return evil to the man who disputes with you, requite with kindness your evil-doer, maintain justice to your enemy,” goes one ancient exhortation. “Let not your heart be induced to do evil. … Give food to eat, beer to drink, the one begging for alms honor, clothe; in this a man’s god takes pleasure, it is pleasing to Shamash, who will repay him with favor. Be helpful, do good.” You hardly need to believe in Shamash, the god of sun and justice, to say a hearty amen to that.
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