Demons: An Overview

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Except in some monotheistic religions, all demons are not assumed to be evil. Many kinds of spiritual beings who are not obviously gods may be described as demons. Demons are far more powerful than humans, though their powers are limited and they are longer-lived, though not necessarily immortal. Demons often seem to be the anthropomorphic conceptualization of discrete, invisible natural forces that are perceptible mainly through their effects, such as wind or specific diseases. In prescientific cosmologies, air, wind, and the "breath" (spiritus) of life are usually conceived as invisible or even immaterial. As spirits, demons are normally invisible, becoming perceptible either through their effects on humans, or through language or signs. When becoming visible, demons may exhibit their own inherent shapes or assume familiar or monstrous forms.

Demonic spirits may protect or inhabit places, bodies of water, or vegetation. Demons may also inhabit or be guardians of an underworld, and may torment human souls there. At times ghosts have demonic characteristics. They may be the ancestors of the culture that describes them, or recently deceased family members who, it is feared, could return to claim surviving relatives or neighbors.

In some religions (particularly Judaism, Christianity and Islam), demons may be identified with or compared to angels or devils. However, in English and other modern languages, the three terms, all derived from ancient Greek, have differing implications. Daimon, and its derivatives daimonios, daimonion (daemon, daemonium in Latin), denote a suprahuman spiritual being that interacts directly with humans. The daimon 's character may be good, evil, or changeable, but late Judaism and Christianity eventually define demons as profoundly, irredeemably evil.

Angel (aggelos or angelos; Latin angelus) denotes a messenger, and was originally applicable to human as well as suprahuman envoys. In Judaism and Christianity, the angel is a spirit messenger sent to humans by the god, but the term could include other functions, such as rewarding or punishing humans.

The noun devil (diabolos; Latin diabolus) derives from a verb meaning "to throw across" and by extension to attack, accuse, or slander. The devil is the sworn enemy of the god, and attempts to harm, subvert, or seduce the god's worshippers. The devil is inferior in power and wisdom to the god; in the three principal monotheistic religions, he is a renegade creature of the god. Devil and demon can thus be synonymous common nouns, particularly in Christianity, which defines the Devil as leading an army of subordinate demons. (In fully dualistic religions deriving from the ancient Iranian prophet Zarathushtra [c. 600 bce], the evil opponent of the god is not his inferior but his inverted twin, fully as divine and powerful.)

Aside from ruling certain phenomena for all or many members of a society, demons may dedicate continuous attention to a single individual. A spiritual guardian protects the interests of his devotee. Conversely, a demon can afflict or even "possess" humans, entering their bodies and creating disease or an alien, transgressive personality.

Demons' invisibility implies that they either have bodies of finer matter than that composing the visible world, or else lack bodies altogether. Yet demons are in many cultures thought to behave like ordinary embodied humans: they may have sexual relations among themselves or with humans, and procreate demonic or semi-demonic children who are superhumanly powerful, charismatic, or evil.

Tribal Cultures

The belief in invisible beings who control or strongly affect the conditions of human life is universal. It appears to be an essential trait of humanity to think of its own interactions with the physical world in anthropomorphic terms, considering forces and even objects as if they had personalities and desires. From the point of view of cultures possessing writing, demonic modes of thinking resemble the literary and ethical device of allegory, wherein psychological and physical phenomena are described as well-defined "people." According to the critic Angus Fletcher, demons "share [a] major characteristic of allegorical agents, the fact that they compartmentalize function," explaining limited aspects of the world: "Constriction of meaning, when it is the limit put upon a personified force or power, causes that personification to act somewhat mechanistically" (Fletcher, 1964, 40, 55). This relative predictability expresses a desire to tame or domesticate the world: "Coming from the term that means 'to divide,'; daemon implies an endless series of divisions of all important aspects of the world into separate elements for study and control" (Fletcher, 1964, 59). The need to understand the conditions of life leads to a belief that goodand especially, badfortunes are due to the agency of spirits. Demons give shape to inchoate fears of sudden vulnerability, dependence or victimization, triggered by solitary wastelands, darkness, or sexual anxieties. Attempts to control or placate these invisible forces take the form of exorcism, trickery (e.g., substituting effigies for potential human victims), or worship.


In Hinduism the question of gods and demons reflects a complex, multimillennial history of religious and cultural beliefs. In the Vedas and epics, suprahuman beings are mentioned whose exact nature, and their differences from everyday humans, are often unclear. Rakshasa s, pisaca s, and vetala s are demon-like beings that haunt graveyards, threaten the living, and feed on human flesh; some are ghosts, others are suprahuman. Pitr s are ancestral spirits. In Hinduism reincarnation eliminates the absolute ontological barrier between humans and suprahumans that modern western cultures take for granted. The term deva refers to godlike beings, but even they are subject to reincarnation; moreover, humans may be reincarnated as deva s. Deva s are in conflict with asura s or "not-gods" (cf. Greek Titans). Yet asura s are neither radically evil nor the dedicated opponents of a single supreme deity, unlike demons of Judaism and, especially, Christianity. Nor is the enmity of the deva s and asura s a historic constant; it appears that asura corresponds to "god" in some Vedic texts. When its meaning evolved to approximate "demon," the word sura was coined as its antonym. Though occasionally opposed to divinities and humans, Hindu "demons" are not inimical to them inherently or by definition.

In Iranian religion, which apparently descended from the same "parent" religion as Hinduism, a similar conflict existed between beings called daeva s and ahura s. "In Iran, the ahuras defeated the daevas, the leader of the ahuras became the high God, Ahura Mazda, the god of light, and the Iranian daevas, consigned to the ranks of evil spirits, became minions of Ahriman, the lord of darkness. In India, the devas defeated the asuras" (Russell, 1977, p. 58). In both cases, "One group of deities was vanquished by another and relegated to the status of generally evil spirits" (Russell, 1977, p. 58). In Iranian religions, however (Zoroastrianism, Zervanism, Mazdaism), the "demonization" of the defeated gods created a dualistic system, a dichotomy between the forces of good and evil more absolute than in Christianity, Islam, or Judaism (Russell, 1977, 104ff.).


Many of the suprahuman beings important to Buddhist ontology were inherited from Hinduism. The asura is a jealous or hostile god/demon, while the preta is a ghost condemned to constant hunger; they are two of the unhappy destinies to which persons who have lived badly can be reborn in the world of sense experience. The asura s have been ejected from a divine realm of contentment ruled by its King, Indra. Māra, whose name means "death," promotes illusory thinking and vice, and behaves as a sort of Devil-figure in Buddhism. He tempted the Buddha with doubt as the latter was approaching enlightenment, even sending his own daughters and other minions to frighten and seduce him. Evil, however, is not personified by Māraas it is by Iranian evil gods or by the Judeo-Christian Devil, since evil, defined as suffering, is inevitable and necessary in the Buddhist world view. Mārais not responsible for cosmic evil as Satan is.

Greece and Rome

Theos (god) and daimon are near-synonyms in Homer (c. 800 bce); daimon denotes more the power or agency of a god, rather than personality (cf. Latin numen ). From Hesiod (c. 700 bce) on, demons were considered inferior to the gods. Socrates' (d. 399 bce) daimon was a kind of tutelary instinct, not necessarily external to him. In the Symposium, Plato (d. 347 bce) held that the gods, who have no direct contact with humans, use daimon s as their messengers (aggeloi ). Greek gods had no fixed good or evil character; nor did demons until the late Hellenistic period, when they were generally considered evil. Other spirits, not always explicitly called daimon s, might have either fixed or changeable character. Keres were fate-like powers of evil and death for individuals; heroes were spirits of the dead; Lamia, Empusa, Gello, and Mormo were names for a female spirit that killed infants and (in some cases) coupled with sleeping men. The Erinyes and the alastor were spiritual avengers of the dead. Other figures, more important to mythology than to ordinary experience, were probably demons at their origin: the Harpies may have been wind-demons, and the Gorgons underworld- or sea-demons.

Roman spirits (lares, manes, penates and genii ) were not unambiguously godlike or demonic or ghostly. The Lamia, however, had the same characteristics as her Greek namesake, while the stryx, a nocturnal demon who appeared as a screech-owl or a human shapeshifting witch, also assaulted sleeping babies (or according to some authors, suckled them with her own milk). Roman religion adopted the Etruscan death-demon Charun, making him the ferrier of souls to the underworld.

In Hellenistic demonology the Jew Philo of Alexandria (d. 40 ce) distinguished between angels and demons as good and evil spirits, although he classified some Gentile gods as angelic, against traditional Jewish "demonization" of them (see below). The Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible begun in the third century, also made the angel/demon distinction. The Middle Platonist Plutarch (d. c. 120 ce) distinguished demons from gods and agreed that demons were entirely evil. In his Platonic Theology, Proclus (d. 485 ce) rationalized the system of gods, goddesses, heroes, and demons in Hellenistic religion, building on the Neoplatonism of Plotinus (d. 270 ce). But Proclus's concept of the Good as the highest principle, transcending all being, minimizes the distinctions between gods and demons, making Neoplatonic theology seem a de facto demonology. Accordingly, when Marsilio Ficino (d. 1499), Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (d. 1494), and other European philosophers of the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries revived Neoplatonic and Hermetic theology, guardians of Christian orthodoxy often suspected them of demon-worship.


There are few recognizable demons in pre-exilic texts of the Hebrew Bible. Several beings mentioned there resemble spirits, and seem traceable to evil spirits of the Mesopotamians, Canaanites, and other neighbors, who believed that demons frequented remote and dangerous places. Desert demons were assimilated to or described as wild animals (Isa. 13:21; 34:14). Hebrew words for these spirits were ren-dered as daimon and daimonion by the translators of the Septuagint.

Lilith appears in the Hebrew Bible only once, as a nocturnal demon (Isa. 34:14); her name probably derives from Akkadian demonology. In middle Babylonian times, words related to Hebrew līlīt designate sterile, sexually frustrated, or uninitiated female demons, or a succubus demon (Lilitu). Later, Rabbinic commentators describe Lilith as the rebellious first wife of Adam, who, vainly claiming parity with him, left him and bore endless broods of demons. Lilith threatens newborn Jewish children with crib death, and must be warded off by an inscription invoking three angels God originally sent to subdue her. Saint Jerome (d. 420 ce) translated līlīt in Isaiah 34 as Lamia; his commentary identified the two infanticidal demons, maintaining that other Hebrew sources identify Lilith as an Erinys, or Fury.

Yahweh himself sometimes sent entities defined as or resembling evil spirits to punish erring Israelites or destroy their enemies (1 Sam. 16:14; Judg. 9:2223; 1 Kings 22:19ff.; Exod. 12:23; Sirach 39:28f.). But these agents had no more specificity or character than is implied by the tasks they performed for Yahweh; they were his "projections," and he could even accompany them (as in Exod. 12).

The role of Satan as chief of the demons evolved gradually. In pre-exilic texts, Hebrew satan was a common noun, designating any opponent or adversary. During the exile, the Israelites became acquainted with dualistic theologies deriving from the teachings of Zarathushtra, wherein divine rivals of equal power compete for human allegiance. Post-exilic texts (1 Chron. 21:1; Job 1:11; 2:5) describe a unique demonic adversary or satan of Israel or individual humans. This personage has an ambivalent relation to Yahweh, relieving him of responsibility for evil, but furthering, rather than opposing, his designs. The Septuagint translated this usage of satan as diabolos.

Post-exilic texts dismissed the gods and tutelary spirits worshipped by rival civilizations as empty idols. The Septuagint rendered the Hebrew terms for such foreign deities (especially shedim) as daimon even when translating pre-exilic texts (Deut. 32:17; Ps. 95:5, 105:37; Isa. 65:11).

The Jewish apocrypha and pseudepigrapha accelerated the dualistic process that turned all demons into the enemies of God. Notable is the demon Asmodeus of Tobit 3:8 and 17, who killed the first seven husbands of Sarah, and whose name may reflect a Persian phrase, aeshma daeva, or "demon of wrath." He was defeated by Raphael, an angel of the Lord.

Ancient tradition related that, on the Day of Atonement, the scapegoat, laden with the sins of the Israelites, was sent into the desert wastes "for Azazel" (Lev. 16:828). In 1 Enoch and other pseudepigrapha, Azazel became a recognizable Devil-figure: ringleader of demons, enemy of God, and tempter of humans. According to these texts demons were originally holy angels, or "Watchers" (egregori) who rebelled because of their lust for human women (see below). Aside from Azazel, other texts named the demons' leader as Belial, Mastema, Satanael, Sammael, Semyaza, and Satan.

Pseudepigraphic and Talmudic sources identify some demons as the souls of deceased evil giants, who were born when the Watchers, also called bene haelohim or "sons of God," mated with the "daughters of men" (1 Enoch 6:2, etc.; cf. Gen. 6:14; Deut. 1:28; Num. 13:22, 33). The title "sons of God" reflects an older, semipolytheistic view of Yahweh as the sovereign of a heavenly court (cf. Job 1; Ps. 82). The dead-giant demons were numerous; one text counts 409,000 giants drowned by Noah's Flood (3 Maccabees 2:4; Wisdom 14:56; 1 Enoch 15:816:1; Jubilees 10:13; Testament of Solomon 17:1; 3 Apocalypse of Baruch 4:10). Demons are more frequently discussed in the Babylonian Talmud and the Midrashim than in the Jerusalem Talmud. Demons are important to Qabbalah, which drew on Christian and Muslim demonologies, including folklore, pursuing a systematic understanding of the subject. Although long-lived, demons are mortal, and may have been saved from extinction by Noah's Ark. The Zohar and later works of Qabbalah describe demons having natural bodies of fire and air and an inherent (rather than fictive or virtual) gender. Mating between male demons and women, and between female demons and men, is common, and produces demonic or hybrid children. Demons may depend on human semen even to reproduce their own species. Demons are organized into hosts, and control or meddle in most areas of human life; they must be carefully avoided or approached through incantations or by learning and using their individual seals.


As with Judaism, the Christian scriptural canon was formed gradually, creating an eclectic and evolving body of doctrine about spiritual beings. Like the contemporary Jewish apocrypha, new Testament demonology elaborated on canonical Hebrew texts. It also shows resemblances to various strains of Hellenistic religion and philosophy. Christian innovations took place mainly on two fronts, exorcism and the role of Satan. The Gospels describe demons or evil spirits (daimon, daimonion, pneuma akatharton, pneuma poneron ) who possess or afflict humans, but fear and obey Jesus. Demons proclaim Jesus's power before witnesses by obeying his adjurations (Matt. 8:32; Mark 5:13; Luke 8:33), and through explicit verbal declarations (Luke 4:41; Mark 1:2325, 34; Matt. 8:29; cf. Mark 5:7). By affirming his power, both miraculous healing and demonic utterances prove Jesus's divinity (cf. Matt. 8:1617). Saint Paul (d. 65/67 ce) refers infrequently to demons (1 Cor. 10:2021 [cf. Deut. 32:17]; 1 Timothy 4:1); other New Testament books concentrate on Satan and (in Revelation ) the host of fallen angels.

Jesus and the Gospel writers present Satan as Jesus's declared personal adversary (Mark 3:23; Luke 11:1821), paralleling the representation of Satan as Yahweh's adversary in Jewish apocrypha and further confirming Jesus's divinity. The rivalry between Jesus and Satan is developed in Saint Paul's Epistles and the Book of Revelation ; the latter provides dramatically explicit visualizations of the divine Christ and the demonic hordes arrayed against him. Luke, John, Paul, and Revelation (e.g. chapter 12) consolidate the portrait of Satan as the leader of numerous evil angels who fell from Heaven because of their rebellionnot against Yahweh but against Christ (Luke 10:18; Eph. 2:12; 6:1113; 2 Cor. 6:1416; Col. 2:15). "By the end of the New Testament period, Christian tradition made no distinction between fallen angels and demons" (Russell, 1977, p. 236).

Subsequent Christian literature internalized and spiritualized the danger of demonic persecution. Christian writers continued to see demons as responsible for human physical and psychological suffering, but also developed the notion of temptation: Satan tempts every Christian to oppose God through sin, just as he tempted Jesus in the desert (Mark 1:1213; Matt. 4:111; Luke 4:113). All temptation, from Adam and Eve onward, was eventually credited to Satan. For most of the Middle Ages, demons were assumed to be ubiquitous and constantly tempting Christians and others. Such temptation usually happened privately and invisibly, though demons could act visibly and even publicly. The early monastic desert fathers regularly encountered demons who tempted them extravagantly, an experience detailed in Athanasius's (d. 373 ce) Life of Saint Anthony and elsewhere. The incubus demon was a sexual predator who polluted or violated sleeping women. The magician Merlin was supposedly born to a nun thus impregnated, while Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153) allegedly defeated another incubus who tormented a pious laywoman. The popular legend of Theophilus (ninth to thirteenth centuries) described a priest who, disappointed in his career, contracted his soul to the Devil but was eventually rescued by the Virgin Mary.

After 1100, Western Christian interest in demons increased dramatically. The Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 declared that "the Devil and the other demons" (diabolus et alii daemones) were created good but became evil through free choice. The Book of Job, whose sophisticated theodicy explicitly portrayed "the satan's" responsibility for human suffering, became highly influential for both writers and visual artists. The apocryphal Book of Tobit, novelistically recounting the archangel Raphael's defeat of Sarah and Tobias's demonic persecutor Asmodeus, also evoked interest. Peter Lombard (d. 1160), Saint Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274), Saint Bonaventure (d. 1274), and many other theologians devoted systematic attention to good andespeciallyevil angels, inventing angelology and demonology as a scientific subdiscipline of Christian theology. Treatises discussed the moral qualities of angels but also their history, social organization, psychology, physiology, and sexuality. Demonic corporeality became a major concern: since demons were thought sometimes to interact visibly and tangibly with humans, the question arose whether they had bodies, and if so, of what sort. Aquinas's solution prevailed: demons are pure spirit without matter, but can fabricate virtual bodies; thus they can afflict humans both internally (by possession and other invisible means) and in external reality (through apparition "in person"). Visual representations of demons became progressively more horrific after 1200, emphasizing a grotesque hybrid corporeality that seemed increasingly "real" rather than a visual allegory of spiritual perversity. This process was particularly notable in depictions of the Last Judgment and Hell, which were practically ubiquitous by the late Middle Ages. In these pictures, the interaction of spiritshuman souls and demonswas portrayed as physical, corporeal violence.

Detailed literary and visual representations of the biblical demonic world relate to a growing interest in narratives about more recent human encounters and interactions with demons. About 1225, Caesarius of Heisterbach collected several dozen such tales in his Dialogue on Miracles; other collections of miracles and saints' biographies did likewise. In this period, exorcism, which had become formalized over the centuries, inspired intense interest in necromancy. This form of "black magic" arose in what Richard Kieckhefer (1989) has called the "clerical underworld" (pp. 153ff) of relatively learned professional exorcists. Originally defined as persons who commanded the souls of the dead (as in Odyssey, book 11 and the biblical story of Saul and the "Witch" of Endor [1 Sam. 28]) necromancers were redefined by Christian authorities as necessarilyand often willinglycontacting demons. While proponents defined necromancy as effected in the name of God, ecclesiastical consensus countered that it necessarily involved unholy alliances with demons.

"Demonization" of individuals and social groups, based on the notion of the demon as satan or diabolos adversarybecame a major vehicle of political and religious persecution during the Christian Middle Ages. Jews, heretics, "infidels," political enemies and vulnerable targets of opportunity (e.g., the Templars) were defined as unremittingly evil, and as literally in league with the Devil; their destruction was incumbent on the pious or orthodox. Between the twelfth and the fifteenth centuries, Catholic enforcers of orthodoxy, becoming sensitized to the spread of necromancy, also encountered widespread and alarming heresies among the laity (e.g., Catharism, Waldensianism, Hussitism). They thus began attempting to verify rumors, dating to the eleventh century, that even unlettered heretics had regular demonic encounters. Stereotypical "confessions" of such experiences, extracted under torture from real or suspected heretics, were cited to explain the origin and appeal of heretical doctrines. Confessions further stimulated officials' curiosity by portraying demons with vivid and shocking immediacy, creating a vicious cycle of inquiry and confirmation.

By the 1430s both ecclesiastical and secular judges were pursuing a new variety of super-heretic, the Witch, created by this process. Unlike previous heretics, witches were not considered merely deluded about doctrine. The Witch voluntarily sought to encounter Satan and his demons "in person," attending vast but secret mass meetings (the Sabbat or "Witches' Dance") where humans worshiped Satan as their god and had orgiastic sex with demons. Official theories about witches grew exponentially more sensational and complicated, making witchcraft responsible for society's most intractable problemscrop failure, disease, infertility, infant, adult, and animal mortality, religious and political turmoil.

In fact, the Witch was a phantom of the inquisitorial imagination, evoked by a coercive dialogue between tortured defendants and demon-obsessed prosecutors and judges, but the witch stereotype resisted facts, proof, and compassion until after 1700, killing some 50,000 to 60,000 defendants in western Christendom. Thanks to this "witch craze," narratives of human-demon interaction are an important preoccupation of western culture and a major subgenre of its literature. From Christopher Marlowe's Dr. Faustus (1590s), John Milton's Paradise Lost (1674), and Johann Wolfang von Goethe's Faust (1790), to Aldous Huxley's Devils of Loudun (1952), Arthur Miller's Crucible (1953) and Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby (1967), the Devil and the demonization of his accused allies have retained their fascination.

Nor is the phenomenon of demonization limited to Christianityor to religion. The perception of an imperfect natural or social order leads in extreme cases to a kind of collective paranoia: disasters are blamed on powerful saboteurs, who mask their immense malignant power beneath a pretense of marginality or benignity. Like demons, they are imagined as powerful, omnipresent, and immune to conventional methods of discovery or ordinary human justice. Extraordinary, extralegal measures are required to unmask and neutralize the threat, or legality itself must be redefined. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the Holocaust, and aspects of more recent genocides (e.g., Rwanda, Kosovo) bear witness to the powerful appeal of this myth. Evidence of its appeal also appears in the "show trials" and gulags of Stalinism (1930s), Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution (1960s), Pol Pot's Cambodia (1970s), and the House Un-American Activities Committee under Joseph McCarthy (1950s). When "things go wrong," and no external enemy is clearly to blame, the evil will be sought inside the afflicted social body. Manifest powerlessness or a clear record of benignity offer no protection from persecution: as was often proclaimed in early modern Europe, the devil's subtlest trick is to convince us that he doesn't exist. Demonization occurs interculturally as well: a society's internal cohesion is enhanced by a dualistic world-view that identifies foreign antagonists as completely evil. It is more important that the antagonist be completely wrong and evil than for "us" to be completely right and good.


The most widespread figures in Islamic demonology are the jinn or jinns. They are ontologically intermediate, somewhat like the Greek daimonia and the Judeo-Christian angels and devils. According to the Qurʾān (LV, 14), their bodies were created of smokeless flame, while human bodies came from clay and angelic bodies from light. Jinns are of both sexes. Given their ethereal composition, jinns are normally imperceptible to humans, but may become perceptible in a variety of guises, including giants, dwarves, or animals. In pre-Islamic Arabia, jinns were desert beings like nymphs and satyrs, and hostile to humans; they were gradually "spiritualized." By Muammad's time, Arabs of Mecca were sacrificing to them and seeking their favor (Qurʾān VI, 128; LXXII, 6).

Jinns have a social organization and family life, and interact variously with humans, including through romantic love and intermarriage. They can be contacted through various forms of magic, and may respond favorably, but can also be easily offended and will react accordingly. At times they behave playfully, teasing and tricking humans. Jinns are prominent in folklore, popular magic, and literature, from the Thousand and One Nights onward. The notion of the jinn has been transmitted from Arabia to non-Arabic centers of Islamic culture, where it blends variously with local traditions about spirits.

Subclasses of the jinn are the Gūl, the siʾlat, and the ʿifrīt. For ancient Arabs, the Gūl (etymon of English ghoul ) was a shape-shifting being who lived in desert wastes and led travelers astray. The Gūl may be male or female; according to differing traditions, the siʾlat may be either a female Gūl or a kind of witch among the ghouls; some writers maintain that men can sire children on a siʾlat but not on a Gūl. In popular usage Gūl may designate a human or demonic cannibal; this usage has inspired English and French concepts of ogres and vampires (ghoul, goule ). The ʿifrīt is a powerful, cunning, frightening jinn, and may also be thought identical to a marid; alternatively, one may be more powerful than the other.

The saytān for pre-Islamic Arabs was a jinn, a kind of "genie" or "genius" or guardian spirit who was sometimes good, sometimes evil; as tutelary spirit it was also called the karin. It was responsible for inspiration of all sorts, and human progress in general, but particularly for poetic inspiration. The saytān could also be a rebellious jinn, thus an "evil spirit" or "demon."

In Islamic usage, the singular al-Saytān is a personal name paralleling Jewish and Christian references to Satan. This figure is also named Iblīs (possibly a contraction of diabolos). His epithets include ʿAduww Allāh (Enemy of God) and al-ʿAduww (The Enemy). The Islamic Satan resembles the Christian and late Jewish figure, as portrayed in the two Testaments and in apocrypha such as the Life of Adam and Eve. Areas of uncertainty or disagreement about Iblīs/al-Saytān remain in Muslim commentary, especially regarding whether he is an angel (malʾak ) or a jinn. Angels are considered ontologically sinless by some, and have other characteristics incompatible with Iblīs's fundamental rebelliousness and even his physical makeup as presented in the Qurʾān. Also unclear is the exact nature of his sin, particularly the relation between his pride and his disobedience.

Doubt, Skepticism, Unbelief

Since demonic beings are by definition invisible most or all of the time, belief in their responsibility for human welfare or sufferingand belief in their very existencevaries considerably over time.

Until recently, the narrative of progress by which western societies define themselves inspired confident assertions that these societies were "outgrowing" or had already abandoned the belief in demonic reality. However, developments since the 1980s belie such a facile scenario. In the United States, polls register a majority of persons claiming to believe in spirit phenomena. The literal, personal existence of the Devil has been strongly affirmed by charismatic and fundamentalist Protestants and by Catholics alike. Meanwhile, exorcism, which the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s had de-emphasized, has become a divisive issue, even in the Pope's own diocese of Rome. In the United States and elsewhere, the same period has witnessed panics over alleged Satanic cults and "satanic ritual child abuse," along with enthusiastic New Age variants of angelolatry, benign or "white" witchcraft and magic, and the space-age demonology of "alien abduction syndrome" and "multiple personality syndrome." These movements variously express a lost sense of religious connection or "spirituality"a term that defies precise definition and often seems not to require belief in actual spirits.

On the other hand, the assumption that, before the advent of scientific thinking in the seventeenth century, all Christians and Jews, or the overwhelming majority of them, believed in the literal existence of demons and angels, is equally erroneous. Skepticism about spirit did not arise suddenly in the 1600s; Aquinas himself had recognized the need to rebut it. Skepticism provoked the earliest treatises by militant witch-hunting demonologists (1460s), and remained a constant anxiety of Christian demonology even after 1700, when widespread witch-hunting had ceased.

The Sadducees, a Jewish sect in the time of Jesus, refused to believe in spirit (Mark 12:18; Acts 23:8). As detailed above, the oldest books of the Hebrew Bible make no mention of angels and demons as beings distinct from and subordinate to Yahweh, or to an individual named "Satan." The Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides (d. 1204) opposed the belief in demons. Among Muslims, the question of the real existence of jinn was problematic. Ibn Sina (Avicenna, d. 1037) denied their existence, and Ibn Khaldūn (d. 1406) opined that only God knew the truth, while other philosophers variously evaded the question. Scholars also debated the nature or the real existence of the gūl, which does not appear in the Qurʾān. It is uncertain to what extent the Buddha believed in the empirical reality of demons.

Epicurean and other ancient materialistic philosophies, which asserted the perishability of the human soul, remained familiarmostly through hostile paraphrasesthroughout the "Age of Faith," or Christian Middle Ages. Thomas Aquinas observed that some contemporary Aristotelian philosophers denied the reality of angels and devils; on one occasion he attributed the attitude to Aristotle himself. Accusations of philosophical skepticism were periodically leveled at innovative thinkers during the thirteenth and following centuries, at times with apparent justification. The philosopher Pietro Pomponazzi argued exhaustively between 1516 and 1520 that Aristotle's philosophy lent no support to the reality of angels, demons, magic, or human immortality, while the Fifth Lateran Council of 1513 dogmatically reaffirmed human immortality as an article of faith. From Aquinas until nearly 1800, Christian apologists regularly invoked the phenomena of witchcraft and exorcism as proof that angels, demons, and the immortal soul were not imaginary.

Between about 1550 and 1700, epidemics of demonic possession among Western Christians, often linked to accusations of witchcraft, provided compellingly theatrical arguments for demons' reality, but also provoked widespread skepticism. As demonic witchcraft was progressively discredited, interest shifted to ghosts (in the eighteenth century) and spiritualism (in the nineteenth) among those interested in defending the reality of spirit and human immortality. Yet purported demonstrations continued to produce skepticism and ridicule.

The enduring controversies over the reality of demons and spirits provide ample evidence that the drive to understand cosmic forces in human terms is not restricted to "primitive," "medieval," or "unscientific" societies.

See Also

Angels; Devils; Monsters.


Still useful is the entry "Demons and Spirits" in The Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, edited by James Hastings, vol. 4 (Edinburgh, 1911), a series of twenty articles concerning as many cultures. Although they concentrate on the figure of the Devil in Christian religion, the books by Jeffrey Burton Russell (below) contain frequent and useful discussions of demonology in several cultures from the ancient Near East to modern times. Karel van der Toorn, Bob Becking, and Pieter W. van der Horst, Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible: (DDD), 2d ed. (Leiden, 1999) has in-depth articles regarding not only the Hebrew and Christian Bible but also its ancient sources and analogous demonological lore elsewhere.

Tribal Cultures

Collins, John J. Primitive Religion. Totowa, N.J., 1978. Chap. 8, "Supernatural Beings and Myths," pp. 190227, includes cross-cultural examples and bibliography.

Fletcher, Angus. Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode. Ithaca, N.Y., 1964.

Tylor, E. B. Primitive Culture, vol. 1, Religion in Primitive Culture (1871; reprint [of chaps. 1119], Gloucester, Mass., 1970). One of the founding texts for the topic.


Lochtefeld, James G. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Hinduism. 2 vols. New York, 2002. See articles "Ancestral Spirits," "Deities," "Demons," "Deva," "Rakshasa," "Vetala."

Witzel, Michael. "Veda and Upaniads," in The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism. Edited by Gavin Flood, pp. 6898, esp. 7173, "gvedic Mythology." Oxford, 2003


Bunce, Fredrick W. An Encyclopaedia of Buddhist Deities, Demigods, Godlings, Saints and Demons: With Special Focus on Iconographic Attributes. Illustrations by G.X. Capdi. 2 vols. New Delhi, 1994.

Buswell, Robert E., gen. ed. Encyclopedia of Buddhism. 2 vols. New York, 2004. See articles "Ancestors" (Mariko Namba Walter); "Divinities" (Jacob N. Kinnard); "Evil" (Maria Heim); "Ghosts and Spirits" (Peter Masefield); "Hells" (Stephen F. Teiser); "Hells, Images of" (Karil J. Kucera); "Local Divinities and Buddhism" (Fabio Rambelli); "Māra" (Jacob N. Kinnard); "Realms of Existence" (Rupert Gethin); "Sasāra" (Bryan J. Cuevas); "Yaka" (Jacob N. Kinnard).

Greece and Rome

Luck, Georg. Arcana Mundi. Magic and the Occult in the Greek and Roman Worlds. Baltimore, 1985. A now-classic collection of texts; see pp. 163175 for a succinct analysis of kinds of spirits.

Ogden, Daniel. Greek and Roman Necromancy. Princeton, N.J., 2001. See esp. pp. 219230.

Ogden, Daniel. Magic, Witchcraft, and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds. Oxford, 2002. Another excellent anthology of texts.

Price, Simon, and Emily Kearns, eds. The Oxford Dictionary of Classical Myth and Religion. Oxford, 2003.


Jung, Leo. Fallen Angels in Jewish, Christian and Mohammedan Literature. New York, 1974.

Langton, Edward. Essentials of Demonology: A Study of Jewish and Christian Demonology, Its Origin and Development. London, 1949.

Rappoport, Angelo S. Ancient Israel: Myths and Legends. 1928. Reprint, New York, 1987.

Roth, Cecil, and Geoffrey Wigoder, gen. eds. Encyclopaedia Judaica. 16 vols. Jerusalem, 1971. See articles "Asmodeus" (Editorial Staff, 3.754755); "Azazel" (Shmuel Aituv, 3.9991002); "Demons, Demonology" (Delbert Roy Hillers, Louis Isaac Rabinowitz, Gershom Scholem, 5.15211533); Lilith (Gershom Scholem, 11.245249); "Samael" (Gershom Scholem, 14.719722); "Satan" (Louis Isaac Rabinowitz and Editorial Staff, 14.902905).


Clark, Stuart. Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe. Oxford, 1997.

Cohn, Norman. Europe's Inner Demons: An Enquiry Inspired by the Great Witch-Hunt. New York, 1975.

Flint, Valerie. "The Demonisation of Magic and Sorcery in Late Antiquity: Christian Redefinitions of Pagan Religions." In Witchcraft and Magic in Europe. Ancient Greece and Rome. Philadelphia, 1999, pp. 277348.

Keck, David. Angels and Angelology in the Middle Ages. Oxford, UK, 1998.

Kieckhefer, Richard. European Witch Trials: Their Foundations in Popular and Learned Culture. Berkeley, Calif., 1976.

Kieckhefer, Richard. Magic in the Middle Ages. Cambridge, U.K., 1989.

Russell, Jeffrey Burton. The Devil: Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity. Ithaca, N.Y., 1977.

Russell, Jeffrey Burton. Satan: The Early Christian Tradition. Ithaca, N.Y., 1981.

Russell, Jeffrey Burton. Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, N.Y., 1984.

Russell, Jeffrey Burton. Mephistopheles: The Devil in the Modern World. Ithaca, N.Y., 1986.

Strickland, Deborah Higgs. Saracens, Demons, and Jews: Making Monsters in Medieval Art. Princeton, N.J., 2003. Comparison of negative stereotypes and demonizations.


Gibb, H. A. R., B. Lewis, E. van Donzel, C. E. Bosworth, P. J. Bearman, et al., eds. The Encyclopedia of Islam, New Edition. Leiden, 19602002. 11 vols. plus supplements. See articles "jinn" (P. Voorhoeve 2.546550); "Gūl" (D. B. Macdonald, Ch. Pellat, 2.10781079); "Iblīs" (A. J. Wensinck, L. Gardet, 3.668669); "ʿIfrīt" (J. Chelhod, 3.10501051); "Malāʾika" (D. B. Macdonald, W. Madelung, 6.216219); "al-Saytān " (T. Fahd, A. Rippin, 9.406409).

McAuliffe, Jane Dammen, ed. The Encyclopaedia of the Qur'ān. 3 vols. issued. Leiden, 2001. "Angel" (Gisela Webb, 1.8492); "Devil" (Andrew Rippin, 1. 524527); "'Ifrīt" (Thomas Bauer, 2.486487); "Jinn" (Jacqueline Chabbi, 3.4350); "Spiritual Beings" (as yet unreleased).

Doubt, Skepticism, Unbelief

Popkin, Richard H. The History of Skepticism: From Savonarola to Bayle. New York, 2003. The standard text in this field; the third rev. ed. of a book first published in 1960.

Stein, Gordon, ed. The Encyclopedia of Unbelief. 2 vols. Buffalo, N.Y., 1985. See especially "Devil, Unbelief in the Concept of" (George V. Tomashevich); "Evil, Problem of" (Peter H. Hare); "Immortality, Unbelief in" (Leon J. Putnam); "Skepticism" (Richard H. Popkin). Though it purports to describe phenomena of unbelief, this work often dedicates most of its attention to belief. There are no entries for unbelief in spirits, demons, or angels.

Stephens, Walter. Demon Lovers: Witchcraft, Sex, and the Crisis of Belief. Chicago, 2002. Argues that early modern European demonic witchcraft was an invention of literate Christian elites, and that it constituted "resistance to skepticism," reinforcing their own faltering belief in the reality of spirits, sacraments and divine benevolence by providing supposed evidence of human-demon encounters.

Walter Stephens (2005)