Saturday, September 20, 2014

ISIS, Pazuzu, and Middle East Folklore in Popular Culture (CW: Disturbing Images)

The content warning is for those who don't like to look at possibly-scary pictures. If that's you, do not scroll down the page.

On Thursday, September 11 of this year, I decided to stop by Loren Coleman's blog Twilight Language to see if Coleman had added any interesting updates lately. As you know, I'm an amateur folklorist. For my own personal satisfaction, I enjoy looking at non-traditional media and what might be called "conspiracy theories" through the lens of modern folklore and urban legends. Coleman isn't a "conspiracy" blogger per se, but his explorations into predicting patterns of human behavior often touch on weird phenomena.

I read the post titled "Tridents, Pitchforks, and Satan in the News" dated September 10th. It mentions the terrorist group ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). You may recall that I mentioned ISIS, or ISIL, in my review of Religio Duplex the other day. Coleman's post talks about the persecution of the Yazidi (also spelled Yezidi) minority group by ISIS/ISIL.

According to Wikipedia, the Yazidis live primarily in northern Iraq and mainly speak the Kurdish language, although they consider themselves - and are considered by the United Nations - as an ethnic group separate from the Kurdish people. The article describes the Yazidi religion as combining elements of pre-Zoroastrian Iranian religion, Christianity, Gnosticism, Islam, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism, as well as an ancient nature-worshiping religion.

Quoting the U.K. newspaper The Guardian, Coleman mentions that the Yazidi's object of worship is a figure known as Melek Tawwus. To the radical ISIS group members, this makes the Yazidi people "devil worshipers" and, thus, legitimate targets. The cultural confusion may stem from the fact that another name for Melek Tawwus is Shaytan, which is the name the Koran uses to refer to Satan/the devil. However, the Yazidi people themselves do not use the word "Shaytan" and do not associate Melek Tawwus with evil acts.

Creative Commons image by PHGCOM
Coleman identifies an image similar to this one with Melek Tawwus, but also with "the same region's Assyrian demon Pazuzu."

The name Pazuzu rang a bell in my mind. Where, I thought, had I heard that name before? Then it occurred to me: Futurama. Pazuzu is the name of the dragon-like beast in Professor Farnsworth's care. The animated creature is rather cute.

Borrowed from
Coleman mentions that the ancient artifact above would be "familiar from the Exorcist movies." I've only seen the movie once, several years ago, but I do seem to recall that the early scenes involve an archaeological dig in which the demonic-looking (or angelic-looking, depending on your point of view) statue is found.

Apparently, the name of the demon that possesses the 12-year-old character Regan in The Exorcist is named Pazuzu. Although the creature's name is never used in the film, it's revealed in the sequels and also in William Peter Blatty's novel on which the film is based.

So, did Futurama name the Professor's living gargoyle after the demon in The Exorcist? Probably not. According to The Infosphere, Futurama is filled with references to the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons. In D+D, Pazuzu is the name of a demon prince - based, of course, upon a reference to Assyrian and Babylonian mythology. The Paris setting of the end of the episode, says the Futurama wiki, alludes to a graphic novel called The Demon of the Eiffel Tower by Jacques Tardi.
Encyclopedia Mythica's Mesopotamian mythology area describes Pazuzu thus:

"A winged demon, feared by the people of ancient Mesopotamia. It is a creature with a deformed head, the wings of an eagle, the sharp claws of a lion on its hands and feet, and the tail of a scorpion. This demon is the personification of the south-east storm wind, which brings diseases. The Mesopotamians believed that Pazuzu lived in the desert."

Wikipedia elaborates that the south-east wind is associated with bringing famine in the dry season and plagues of locusts in the rainy season. However, Pazuzu's name may be invoked on amulets used to protect human beings from harm, since Pazuzu wards off the evil goddess Lamashtu. (Lamashtu, a she-demon who menaces women in childbirth and kidnaps young children, treads some of the same folkloric ground as Lilith.)

And why might William Peter Blatty have been interested in Middle Eastern people's ancient folklore? Because the New York-born American writer has two Middle Eastern parents, both from Lebanon. His mother's uncle was a well-known Christian bishop in Lebanon, and Blatty went to a Jesuit school as a youth. So, he is both an Arab and a Roman Catholic.

Most Lebanese people identify as ethnically Arab, although they are technically a lovely melange of several related West Asian ethnicities that includes the Arab people. If you don't believe me that people of Lebanese descent are quite lovely, you need only look at Amal Ramzi Alamuddin, the British human rights lawyer who's engaged to George Clooney. The lady is of most exquisite beauty.

Now 86 years old, Blatty is still writing. His latest novel was published in 2011.

By the way, if you go to Tumblr and search for pictures of Professor Farnsworth's rather cute-looking gargoyle beast, prepare to have the excrement scared out of you. A search of the tag "Pazuzu" brings up this hideous-looking thing.

Borrowed from
The rational part of the brain knows that's just the actress Eileen Dietz, who appeared on the soap opera General Hospital, in a bald cap, makeup, and false teeth. The irrational part of the brain says DEAR GOD PLEASE GET THAT HIDEOUS MONSTROSITY AWAY FROM ME!

Dietz served as a body double for Linda Blair, the young actress who played Regan, in The Exorcist. She did the difficult "projectile vomiting" scene, for example. Images of Dietz in demonic makeup were inserted in key points in the film to heighten the viewer's discomfort and fear on an almost-subliminal level. These shots flash by so quickly, one is not really sure what one has seen, but it has still provoked a visceral fear reaction.

This post suggests the disturbing makeup was inspired by a Japanese film called Onibaba. According to IMDB, Onibaba is about a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law in feudal Japan who kill passing samurai and sell their possessions. The daughter-in-law takes an awful-looking, demonic mask off one of her victims and begins to wear it, only to find that soon it will no longer come off.

Blatty claims he based his fictional novel The Exorcist on a real-life exorcism that took place while he was a college student at Georgetown in 1949. (He says so in this opinion essay.) However, this does not mean that there was an actual documented case of demonic possession. The events that took place surrounding the 14-year-old boy who was believed to be "possessed" have been explained by psychology and possible trickery on the part of the adolescent in question. (He's referred to by the pseudonyms Roland Doe and Robbie Mannheim.)

Now, a personal note:

The Exorcist came out in 1973. My dad took my mom on a date to see it at a movie theater in downtown South Bend, Indiana. (The building is still there, but it's no longer a movie theater. It was most recently a venue for live music.) My mom, also raised as a Roman Catholic, was so terrified she hid her face in my dad's jacket for almost the entire thing. To this day, if she's flipping TV channels and happens to hear a bit of the theme music, she runs from the room.

No comments: