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.
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;
Some interpreters have seen further allusions to demonic influences in references to “the destruction that wastes at noonday” (
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.
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.
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 (
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.