Lamashtu (also known as Dimme or Lamastu) is a demoness of Sumerian and Akkadian mythology infamous for murdering unborn and newborn infants. She is the daughter of the sky god Anu (known as An in Sumerian mythology). The demoness's name, Lamashtu, is Akkadian for "she who erases." Incidentally, she was said to have seven names and incantations frequently referred to her as "the seven witches." Grotesque in appearance, she had the head of a lioness, the teeth and ears of a donkey, long fingers and fingernails and the legs of a taloned bird. She is often represented standing or kneeling beside a donkey, holding a pig and a dog, or nursing snakes.
Her modus operandi was to sneak into the house of an unlucky pregnant woman and touch the victim's stomach seven times to kill the unborn child. Lamashtu would also steal newborns from their wet nurses and allow them to suckle the toxic milk from her own breasts, which would cause the infant to die. She slaughtered mothers as well, and sometimes dined on the flesh and blood of adult males, although it is unknown whether these men were fathers or just arbitrarily picked. Lamashtu's less lurid exploits include poisoning water with disease, spreading nightmares, killing plants, and causing tetanus and fever. What a woman!
Lamashtu was the enemy of the demon Pazuzu, king of the wind demons, who once defeated her in battle. Although Pazuzu was a being of evil, expectant mothers often wore amulets bearing his image to protect themselves against Lamashtu. She was also traditionally bribed away with combs and fibulae (safety pins) which mothers set adrift in model boats along with a small clay statue of Lamashtu, in hopes the boat would carry the demoness back to the Netherworld.
One of the primary purposes of Ancient mythology was to explain mysterious natural phenomena, and Lamashtu's place in Sumerian mythos is fundamentally to account for miscarriage, infant death and maternal mortality.
Many scholars believe that some aspects of the the demoness Lilith (such as her penchant for infanticide) were borrowed from Lamashtu.
The following (taken from W. Smith's Lectures on the Religion of Semites) is a Mesopotamian incantation prayer against Lamashtu that was discovered on a stone tablet:
Great is the daughter of Heaven who tortures babies
Her hand is a net, her embrace is death
She is cruel, raging, angry, predatory
A runner, a thief is the daughter of Heaven
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.
Green A, Black J. Gods, demons and symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia: an
illustrated dictionary. Texas: University of Texas Press, 1992:115–16.
www.howstuffworks.com, "How Vampires Work."
Smith W. Lectures on the Religion of Semites. New York: KTAV Publishing House, 1969.
2005 Museum of Fine Art, Boston's website http://www.mfa.org/.