Under-Appreciated Monsters of the Ancient World #3 – Rabiṣu (The Lurker)

Rabisu_Poster_22x28

Film poster for ‘Resurrection: Rise of the Rabisu’, which I can’t find much information about and definitely doesn’t look rubbish.

For this little-known monster we head out to Bronze Age Mesopotamia. The Rabiṣu appears in a wide assortment of cuneiform texts, but it’s not exactly clear what it is (this amorphousness is pretty characteristic of Mesopotamian demons). Its name seems to come from the verb rabāṣu – to lie down or lurk, and many texts describe it lying in wait to strike unfortunate men who venture across its path, whether it’s hiding in a dark and dank well or has found its way into your own home.

 

They seem to be a rather patient, cunning variety of demon, content to lie in wait for prey and sometimes described as watching or tracking. This watchfulness can of course be a good thing too, and occasionally they seem to be alluded to almost as supernatural guard-dogs. One Babylonian text, for example, says:

MAŠKIM šulmi itti amēli rakis’ – A Rabiṣu for good is attached to the man (MAŠKIM is a Sumerian logogram that can stand for the Akkadian word rabiṣu).

Another says that the god Nergal

Rābiṣa ina šešši … bābi iltakan’ – placed Rabiṣu at the sixth gate.

We get occasional hints as to the abilities and appearance of this class of demon, such as its coming in different colours, like a palette-swapped video-game baddie. One text offers advice for what to do if a white, black, red or green Rabiṣu has found its way into a house. Another talks of a Rabiṣu inflicting palsy upon a man. Apotropaic and prophylactic magical texts often discuss it alongside the spirits of the uncared-for dead, who have turned into malevolent ghosts, and one text even describes the sun-god as

rābiṣ dingiruggê ina qereb Aralli’ – Rabiṣu of the dead gods in the Underworld.[1]

Should we see it as some sort of creature of the dead, then?

But there’s a complication. Rabiṣu also has a second meaning – it’s the title of a type of official: what Oppenheim calls ‘a subaltern official acting mainly as the representative of authority’. This isn’t at all obscure, but is actually an extremely common rank that existed all over the Near East. So what’s the connection? Unfortunately, it’s not clear. Oppenheim would like to see it as a term of abuse – people felt spied-upon by this official and called him a Rabiṣu in the same way someone today might complain about tax officials as vampires. It’s an appealing idea, but if it was indeed originally the case then it soon seems to have lost its pejorative sense – it’s a standard term used in official documentation across the Near East.

Like many older Near Eastern gods and demons, Rabiṣu even seems to have skulked its way into the Bible. Genesis 4:7 says ‘sin lurks at the door’. The word for lurk is ‘rōbeṣ’ – the Hebrew cognate of rabāṣu. The very similar use of the word has led some scholars to see this as a survival of the old Rabiṣu myth.

[1] Oppenheim 1968 – ‘The Eyes of the Lord’. Journal of the American Oriental Society 88, 173-180

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