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In the myth and folklore of the Near East and Europe, Abyzou is the name of a female demon. Abyzou was blamed for miscarriages and infant mortality and was said to be motivated by envy (Greek: φθόνος phthonos), as she herself was infertile. In the Jewish tradition she is identified with Lilith, in Coptic Egypt with Alabasandria, and in Byzantine culture with Gylou, but in various texts surviving from the syncretic magical practice of antiquity and the early medieval era she is said to have many or virtually innumerable names.
Abyzou (also spelled Abizou, Obizu, Obizuth, Obyzouth, Byzou etc.) is pictured on amulets with fish- or serpent-like attributes. Her fullest literary depiction is the compendium of demonology known as the Testament of Solomon, dated variously by scholars from as early as the 1st century AD to as late as the 4th.
A.A. Barb connected Abyzou and similar female demons to the Sumerian myth of primeval Sea. Barb argued that although the name “Abyzou” appears to be a corrupted form of the Greek word abyssos ("the abyss"), the Greek itself was borrowed from Assyrian Apsu or Sumerian Abzu, the undifferentiated sea from which the world was created in the Sumerian belief system, equivalent to Babylonian Tiamat, or Hebrew Tehom in the Book of Genesis. The entity Sea was originally bi- or asexual, later dividing into male Abzu (fresh water) and female Tiamat (salt water). The female demons among whom Lilith is the best-known are often said to have come from the primeval sea. In classical Greece, female sea monsters that combine allure and deadliness may also derive from this tradition, including the Gorgons (who were daughters of the old sea god Phorcys), Sirens, Harpies, and even water nymphs and Nereids.
In the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Hebrew scriptures, the word Abyssos is treated as a noun of feminine grammatical gender, even though Greek nouns ending in -os are typically masculine. Abyssos is equivalent in meaning to Mesopotamian Abzu as the dark chaotic sea before Creation. The word also appears in the Christian scriptures, occurring six times in the Book of Revelation, where it is conventionally translated not as “the deep” but as “the bottomless pit” of Hell. Barb argues that in essence the Sumerian Abzu is the “grandmother” of the Christian Devil.
In the late antique Testament of Solomon, Abyzou (as Obizuth) is described as having a “greenish gleaming face with dishevelled serpent-like hair”; the rest of her body is covered by darkness. The speaker (“King Solomon”) encounters a series of demons, binds and tortures each in turn, and inquires into their activities; then he metes out punishment or controls them as he sees fit. Put to the test, Abyzou says that she does not sleep, but rather wanders the world looking for women about to give birth; given the opportunity, she will strangle newborns. She claims also to be the source of many other afflictions, including deafness, eye trouble, obstructions of the throat, madness, and bodily pain. Solomon orders that she be chained by her own hair and hung up in front of the Temple in public view. The writer of the Testament appears to have been thinking of the gorgoneion, or the icon of the Medusa’s head, which often adorned Greek temples and occasionally Jewish synagogues in late antiquity.
Envy is a theme in the Testament, and during his interrogation by the king, Beelzebub himself asserts that he inspires envy among humans. Among the succession of demons bound and questioned, the personification of Envy is described as headless, and motivated by the need to steal another's head: "I grasp in an instant a man's head … and put it on myself." As with Envy's Sisyphean efforts to replace his head, Abyzou (Obizuth) cannot rest until she steals a child each night.
On the inscribed healing amulets of the Near Eastern and European magico-medical tradition, illness or affliction is often personified and addressed directly; the practitioner may be instructed to inscribe or chant a phrase that orders the ailment to depart: for example, “Flee, Fever!” The ailment may also be conceived of as caused by a demon, who must be identified correctly by name and commanded to depart. In this mode, magico-healing practice bears comparison to exorcism.
Abyzou is depicted and named on several early Byzantine bronze amulets. With her hands tied behind her back, she kneels as she is whipped by a standing figure, identified as Solomon or Arlaph, called Afarof in the Testament of Solomon and identified with the archangel Raphael. On one amulet, the figure is labeled as Arlaph, but an inscription reads “The Seal of Solomon [is] with the bearer; I am Noskam.” The reverse inscription is written within an ouroboros, the symbol of a snake biting its tail to form a circle: “Flee, flee, Abyzou, [from] Sisinios and Sisinnia; the voracious dog dwells here.” (St. Sisinnios sometimes takes the Solomon role on Christian amulets.) Although Abyzou is regarded mainly as a threat to child-bearing women and to infants, some of the names of those seeking protection from her on extant amulets are masculine.
Medieval amulets show a variation on this iconography, with Abyzou trampled underfoot by a horseman. The rider is identified again either as Solomon or Arlaph; one example depicts the rider as Sisinnios, with the demon named as both Abizou and Anabardalea, and an angel named Araph (for Arlaph) standing by with one raised wing. The medieval lead amulets that show the rider subduing the female often have a main image that resembles a gorgoneion and is likely a womb symbol (hystera).
In one magic-related text, the archangel Michael confronts Abyzou and compels her to tell him the 40 names that can control her. In magico-religious practice, the knowledge of the secret name of a deity, divine force, or demon offers power over that entity.
In the Testament of Solomon, the demon herself declares that she has ten-thousands of names and forms, and that Raphael is her antithesis. She says that if her name is written on a scrap of papyrus when a woman is about to give birth, “I shall flee from them to the other world.”
The female childbirth demon appears frequently in magical texts under her Babylonian name Gyllou or Gylou. In one Greek tale set in the time of “Trajan the King,” Gyllou under torture reveals her “twelve and a half names”:
|“||My first and special name is called Gyllou; the second Amorphous; the third Abyzou; the fourth Karkhous; the fifth Brianê; the sixth Bardellous; the seventh Aigyptianê; the eighth Barna; the ninth Kharkhanistrea; the tenth Adikia; (…) the twelfth Myia; the half Petomene.||”|
In medieval texts, one of Gylou’s twelve and a half names is given as Anabardalea, a name also associated with Abyzou.
Antaura is a female demon who causes migraine headaches. She is known primarily from a 2nd/3rd century silver lamella (inscribed metal leaf) found at the Roman military settlement Carnuntum in present-day Austria. Antaura, whose name means something like “Contrary Wind,” is said to come out of the sea. In the inscription, she is confronted by the Ephesian Artemis, who plays the role assigned to the male figures Solomon, Arlaph, and Sisinnios in Judaeo-Christian magic.
At the monastery of St. Apollo in Bawit, Egypt, a wall painting depicts the childbirth demon under the name Alabasandria (or Alabasdria) as she is trampled under the hooves of a horse. The rider wears a belted tunic and trousers in the Parthian manner, and an inscription, now faded, was read at the time of its discovery as Sisinnios. This central image is surrounded by other figures, including a centaur, the piercing of the evil eye, and the demon's daughter, winged and reptile-tailed, identified by an inscription.
For similar or related figures, see:
Barb, A.A. “Antaura. The Mermaid and the Devil’s Grandmother: A Lecture.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 29 (1966) 1–23.
Fulgum, Mary Margaret. "Coins Used as Amulets in Late Antiquity." In Between Magic and Religion (Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), pp. 139–148 limited preview online.
Spier, Jeffrey. “Medieval Byzantine Magical Amulets and Their Tradition.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 56 (1993) 25–62, online.