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Demon, Demoniac, Demonology

DEMON, DEMONIAC, DEMONOLOGY. The Eng. word “demon” is derived from the Gr. δαίμων, G1230, which was used of rather anonymous influences whether of a good or bad variety. When the concept of a supernatural spirit or intelligence subsequently developed in Gr. circles, the word gradually acquired a malign connotation, and was used as a general designation of malevolent powers which were commonly assigned individuality and characteristic functions.


1. Use in Greek thought. The most common occurrence of daímōn in Homer was in connection with the idea of divinity, deity or divine power, as contrasted with θεός, G2536, which denoted a god in person. A daímōn was thus treated as a personification of the vague powers which were associated in the Gr. mind with the activities of the major deities, and which in consequence exerted some influence upon human life. The term was also employed of an individual’s genius, and thus of one’s lot or fortune in life. In Hesiod the daímōn was sometimes regarded as one of the souls of men from the golden age who formed a connecting link between the gods and mortals. One result of this was that when δαίμονες and θεοί were mentioned in association with one another, the former were thought of as gods of inferior rank. Because the general fortunes of human life appeared to incline to a preponderance of evil, the term daímōn in the sense of one’s lot acquired an increasingly malign connotation, esp. at the hands of the Attic poets. Despite this however, the term never completely lost its associations with the rather ill-defined powers which were believed to govern the circumstances of life, and for this reason the Greeks could think consistently of good as well as evil spirits. The latter were often thought of as ghosts, and it is interesting to note that the ghosts of heroes were commonly believed to be particularly dangerous, since for some unexplained reason they were capable only of working evil. The Greeks gave consistent credence to the idea of a guardian spirit which watched over an individual from his birth, and which could be either friendly or malign in character. Quite independently of this, evil demons were represented as attaching themselves to an individual in order to insure his untimely end. A demon which was given the title of ἀλάστωρ was credited with special powers of vengeance for the punishment of specific transgressions. Among the Gr. philosophers Thales maintained that “all things are full of gods,” and the Pythagoreans made this animism more specific by teaching that all the air was filled with souls, which they described in terms of demons and heroes. These disembodied entities were responsible for sending health and disease alike to both animals and men. Beneficial relations could be established with them through rituals of purification and expiation as well as by divinatory acts and omens. Heraclitus refined the popular concept of an indwelling, controlling deity by the remark that “character is each man’s demon,” while to Empedocles was credited the dubious distinction of describing the rehabilitation of wicked demons by means of various phases of reincarnation. Socrates gave the impression that he was not infrequently dissuaded from following a particular course of action through receiving a divine sign or warning, and this must have suggested to his hearers the operation of that kind of fate or destiny by which individual lives were popularly supposed to be controlled. Plato held that demons, which he identified with the souls of the dead as did his contemporaries, served as interpreters between the gods and men. Reflecting the thought of Heraclitus he believed that the true guiding genius within each man was the soul, which was the gift of God. Aristotle had a rather less exalted view of the demonic situation, however, merely assenting to the popular theory that all men had demons which accompanied them consistently through life. The most convinced exponents of demonism in ancient Greece were the Stoics, whose pantheism and fatalism enabled demons to be represented as experiencing human passions and emotions, pains and pleasures. Being composed of the same substance as the human soul they enjoyed a permanent existence, and we re located in an area beneath the moon. Epicurus went to the other extreme in denying the very existence of demons, and maintained that even if they did exist they could not possibly communicate with human beings in any way.

2. Mesopotamian demons. From their beginnings the Mesopotamian peoples were highly superstitious in character, due in no small measure to the influence of their natural environment and conditions of living upon their religious projections. Whereas in Egypt the quiet, regular inundations of the Nile gave a sense of order and stability to life, in Babylonia the formulation of an ordered civilization was only the result of a prolonged struggle against the unpredictable and devastating floods to which the Tigris and Euphrates were subject. The Sumerians gave definition to the religious traditions of Mesopotamia, and in formulating the concepts which were to become normative for many centuries they took a low view of the significance of human life, regarding man as constituting little more than an afterthought of divine creativity. Sumerian mythology contained numerous allusions to the underworld gods or anunnaki and the seven evil asakki or demons, which also inhabited the nether regions. The demons were popularly held to be responsible for all the misfortunes which overtook men, and were esp. credited with causing the onset of disease. In Mesopotamian thought sickness occurred when demons entered the apertures of the head and penetrated the internal organs. To forestall this activity it was necessary to resort to magical incantations, amulets, jeweled ornamentation and the like. The modern earrings and necklaces are survivals of an age when such adornments were endowed with magical power as a means of guarding the ears, nostrils and mouth against invasion by disease demons. Thus Ea, the god of the waters, was esp. invoked in incantations and spells, being venerated as the ally of humanity in its conflict with the malevolent forces of existence. Ea thus became the patron deity of those priestly orders which were trained in exorcism, the knowledge of spells, the formulating of incantations and the interpreting of dreams and omens. The spirits most dreaded by the Sumerians and their religious successors were the wraiths of those defunct persons who had not had the appropriate burial rites performed over them, or who had died under mysterious or violent circumstances. Such ghosts were popularly known as etimmu, and a special kind of exorcist-priest, the ashipu, was required to recite the proper incantations for dispelling their attacks. Such priestly activities involved a substitute for the sufferer, and the appropriate object, whether an animal, a clay image, or some other inanimate substitute, was regarded as being dead and already in the underworld. The offerings and rituals were made to the malign powers suspected of occasioning the disease, and when an incantation invoking such life-giving gods as Ea or Marduk had been pronounced, the sick person was regarded, often in an act of faith, as having risen from the dead, and by this means liberated from the malevolent power of the demon, ghost or evil deity.

The Mesopotamians gave names to the demons which they feared, some of the designations being those of actual diseases while others were the names of hostile natural powers. One demon was known as Rabiṩu or “the croucher,” because he was thought to lie in wait secretly for his enemies (cf. Gen 4:7). Apparently the reason why demons and evil spirits were given names was that the Sumerians and the Semites of Babylonia generally laid great stress on the belief in the magical power of names. If a demon was to be expelled properly it was necessary for the exorcist-priest to know its name and use it properly in a conjuration or spell (cf. Mark 5:9; Luke 8:30). While the incidence of sickness was widely attributed to demons, almost any other kind of human activity could also be threatened by malign supernatural forces. For example, the laying of a foundation provided an occasion when demons could infiltrate the planned structure and bring about the subsequent collapse of the fabric. The Sumer. practice of making foundation deposits in all public and sacred buildings was marked by rituals which were designed to forestall the activities of the malevolent underworld powers and insure the stability of the structure against internal or external onslaught. Among the Babylonians, Assyrians and later Sem. peoples, there existed a great many non-human demons for whose creation mankind had no responsibility. The asakki of the Sumerians were known to the Babylonians as utukku, and were frequently mentioned in exorcism texts. Over the centuries the demons were accorded a realistic form, so that by the time of Ashurbanipal (669-627 b.c.) it was common for pictures or figurines of these evil powers to be made and employed for protective purposes. The utukku seem to have originated in the concept of ghosts, but in a developed form they were regarded as devils who lur ked in the desert areas, ready to pounce upon the unwary or solitary traveler. A female demon named Lamashtu was an object of particular dread. The daughter of Anu, the Sumer. high god of heaven, she frequented mountainous regions or marshy areas looking for unprotected or straying children. Equally feared was the deity Namtar, the herald of death, who controlled sixty diseases which he was able to inflict at will upon mankind. Another deadly enemy of mankind who was associated with Namtar was Irra, the god of plagues, against whom many incantations were formulated. Another spirit of pestilence was named Ura, who was prominent in Babylonian apotropaic or protective tablets. These contained a representation of the deity in human form on one side, while on the other was inscribed an exorcist ritual or formula designed to discourage the attentions of the demon. Well known among Sem. peoples of a later age was the Babylonian female demon Lilitu, who was in effect a succuba, a ghostly lecher who tempted men by means of sexual dreams. The Assyrian ardat lili, for whom there was also a male counterpart, was supposed to roam at night until she found an unmarried man with whom to mate.

3. Egyptian demons. As with other peoples of the ancient Near E, the Egyptians believed in the presence of a multiplicity of demons against which the powers of magic had to be marshaled if everything was not to be blotted out by their malign influences. Despite a belief in demonic forces, the ancient Egyptians did not catalog their devils and evil spirits in the same way as so many other peoples did. Furthermore, such celestial phenomena as floods and storms which elsewhere were regarded as the work of demons, were attributed by the Egyptians to the gods themselves. As in Mesopotamia the incidence of disease was generally ascribed to demons, who would steal at night into the inert form of the sleeper to bring pain, fever, and perhaps even death. Powerful magical agencies in the form of charms and incantations were needed to combat such dreaded demonic influences. Demons were also thought to inhabit the air itself, hence the need for periodic fumigation of temples and palaces, esp. on the occasion of a funeral. More than any other demons the Egyptians feared the disembodied dead, who in ghostly form could devise all sorts of malicious deeds against humanity. They could only be held in check by powerful magical spells, and in the Book of the Dead they were depicted as ready even to harm souls which had newly arrived in the nether world. Insofar as demons were named in Egyp. lit. they were described functionally by such epithets as “the cutter,” “the archer,” “the ripper,” and so on, while specifically female demons were spoken of as “the lady of the sword thrusts,” “she who is violent,” and the like. Because of the difficulty of distinguishing clearly in ancient Egyp. thought between a god and a demon, there is some ground for the view that the possession of a proper name served to identify a god as such. The situation is somewhat complicated by the fact that anonymous groups of demons were accorded superstitious veneration by sections of the populace from time to time, as well as by the process of development through which it was imagined that demons could become gods. Popular demonology in Egypt, however, manifested many of the characteristics found in the demonism of other nations, including the superstitious influence of days and horoscopes, the response of demons to chants, and the ability to control demons by the use of their correct names. Egyptian lit. never mentioned demons which attacked children or who were wantonly bloodthirsty, unlike the writings of the Babylonians.

A number of demons referred to either by name or title in lit. from the ancient Near E are also mentioned in certain OT passages. There is a problem of interpretation, since the fact that all such allusions occur in poetic sections raises the question as to whether they are actually anything more than mere figures of speech. (Isaiah referred to the familiar Akkad. female demon Lilitu by the Heb. name of לִילִ֔ית, LXX ὀνοκένταυρος; Vulg. Lamia; Isa 34:14.) In Mesopotamian lit. Lilitu appeared as an alluring female wraith who tempted men in sexual dreams, but by the 8th cent. b.c. she had tended to become confused in Pal. with the child-stealing hag Lamashtu. In popular thought Lilith was believed to be a night demon who prowled among ruins and lurked in desolate places, but despite this the name is not derived from the root for “night,” as was once imagined. Instead it comes from the Sumer. term lil meaning “wind.”

Some interpreters have seen further allusions to demonic influences in references to “the destruction that wastes at noonday” (Ps 91:6). The affliction in question may have been sunstroke, or possibly acute spinal meningitis, but the description is of a general nature, and although the LXX rendered קֶ֗טֶב by daimónion, there is no obvious personification in the Heb. While it is true that many ancient Near Eastern peoples regarded the onset of dizziness in the heat of the day as the result of demonic activity, the nature of the Heb. expression makes it more probable that an empirical medical description, and not a demonic one, was being contemplated. Of a rather more substantial nature is the allusion in Psalm 91:5 to a phenomenon described as the “terror of the night” (פַּ֣חַד לָ֑יְלָה; LXX φόβος νυκτερινός), which may reflect the universal dread of “things that go bump in the night.” It is uncertain, however, from a straightforward reading of the v., whether the terror is of an external order which produces fright or of a purely internal kind due to the mild state of shock which accompanies an unexpected disturbance of sleeping patterns. Certainly there is insufficient evidence, particularly against a poetic background, for the assumption that the author had in mind one of the many malign spirits which in ancient Near Eastern demonology were popularly supposed to perpetrate their assaults under cover of darkness.

During the period of the Apoc. and Pseudep., popular thought gave fuller expression to the concepts concerning good and evil spirits which had appeared in the canonical lit. This development was not uniform, for there are books such as Ecclesiasticus and Maccabees which contained almost no allusions at all to spiritual beings (cf. Ecclus 48:21; 1 Macc 7:41; 2 Macc 11:6; 15:22, 23). The Wisdom of Solomon made no reference to demons or angels except in the description of the Exodus (Wisd Sol 18:15), in which the divine word was spoken of as an active vengeful angel. Some of the Apocalypses carried the belief in good and evil spirits to great extremes, though a more moderate estimate appeared in works such as Tobit, the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, the Apocalypse of Baruch, 2 Esdras and the Book of Jubilees. The author of the latter composition tended to attribute a spirit to the various natural forces (cf. Jub 2:2; 10:5), while in the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs it was the immoral tendencies of human nature which were given demonic status. Seven “spirits of deceit” were enumerated, and to these wicked elements were subsequently added sleep and the human senses. These evil forces led men into sin and then exacted retribution from them. In popular thought the demons became a distinct order of malign spirits operating under the control of Belial or Satan, the former term indicating an extremely wicked person (cf. Ps 18:4). The Apocalyptists generally thought of Satan and his allies as being overthrown by God and the powers of goodness before the new creation was ushered in (cf. Test. XII Pat; Test. Asher 1:9; 6:2; Test. Dan 1:6, 7; Test. Judah 13:3; 14:2; Test. Levi 19:1, etc.). This idea was also clearly formulated in the DSS, one section of the Manual of Discipline attributing all mortal plagues and difficulties to the “spirit of perversity” (1QS III, 22-24), whose control of evil forces was a continual embarrassment to the spirituality of the sons of light and righteousness (cf. 1QS IV, 12, 13), but who would be vanquished at the dawn of the Messianic age. This perverse spirit and his allies depicted in the Qumran writings have a great deal in common with the Iranian druj and the daevas, whose malign influences were greatly feared in Persia and elsewhere in the ancient orient.

Despite the impact of pagan thought, orthodox Jewish beliefs consistently challenged any dualistic tendencies which would cast doubt on the complete sovereignty and supremacy of God. In order to explain the ills which afflicted human beings some writers thought of Satan as the archdemon who tempted man and led him astray (cf. Wisd Sol 2:4; Slavonic Enoch 3:31). Such writers called Satan by his Gr. name diábolos or devil and identified him with the serpent of Eden. In the Book of Enoch another view of the origin of evil involved a presentation of a theory of demonic beginnings. Devils, it was assumed, had at one time been angels who had rebelled against God and had caused mischief on earth by mating with human wives (cf. Gen 6:1-4; Ezek 28:13-17). Because matter was thought to be evil, following Iranian dualism, these spiritual beings had thereby corrupted themselves, and could only look forward to ultimate destruction by fire. Further Pers. influence is seen in the Book of Tobit, where a specific demon named Asmodeus was regarded as a male counterpart of the Babylonian succuba. It is uncertain, however, whether the name is a variation of the demonic Shamedon, found in Palestinian Jewish midrashim, or whether it was actually a representation of the familiar Pers. demon Aeshma. In any event other aspects of the work exhibit clear traces of Pers. demonology. Perhaps the most rational demonology in pre-Christian times occurred in the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs and The Ascension of Isaiah, where the evil propensities of man were personified and placed under the control of Beliar (a variant form of Belial). This avoided the fanciful practice of associating “fallen angels” with human mating procedures, and related most of the evil in the world to aberrant behavior.

During the intertestamental period most people, including the Jews of Pal., believed that the world was full of supernatural agencies working for good or ill. Just as angels were able to accomplish beneficent deeds, so demons or devils were always at hand to perpetrate calamity, sickness or misfortune. So pervasive had Near Eastern superstitions become that Jews and Gentiles alike regarded the onset of disease as the work of demonic powers. In Israel, in particular, the physician was of comparatively low repute, since God was regarded as the dispenser of sickness and health alike. When superstitious beliefs in demons arose, the best the physician could do was to treat the patient by means of charms, incantations, and the like, which was a far cry from the non-magical, empirical therapy of the Mosaic law.

The nature of these references makes it clear that the evangelists did not treat evil as impersonal, a fact which is further substantiated by the intensely personal character of the temptations experienced by Christ (Matt 4:1-11; Mark 1:12, 13; Luke 4:1-13). Here as elsewhere the identity of the demonic force was revealed (cf. Legion, Mark 5:9; Luke 8:30), and this was done to make evident its metaphysical reality as well as to confront it by an even more powerful force which also partook of a personal character. This latter, expressed in the divine name, enabled the demons to be expelled (cf. Matt 7:22).

Evidences of contemporary survivals of the Biblical type of demon possession have been described from oriental countries by medical and other missionaries. Generally the phenomenon assumed the form of characteristic personality possession, and when the individuals concerned had been exorcized they subsequently led normal healthy lives. A modern psychiatrist would describe many cases of “possession” by quite different terms, which, however, prove to be no more meaningful than those of the Bible. The soundest approach to the situation is ultimately a theological one, which recognizes that because of the depravity of human nature the mind is peculiarly liable to the influence of evil. In imbalance this constitutes a form of possession, however mild, since the personality is then at the disposal of the powers of darkness to some extent.

Bibliography R. C. Thompson, The Devils and Evil Spirits of Babylonia (1903); Semitic Magic (1908); H. Kaupel, Die Dämonen im AT (1930); J. Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition (1939); L. D. Weatherhead, Psychology, Religion and Healing (1951), 62-70; T. H. Gaster, IDB, I, 817-824; R. K. Harrison, IDB, I, 853, 854.