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DEVILS . The definition and derivation of the term devil need to be carefully delineated. This need for care in defining devil arises from the fact that the very class of creatures being designated as malign may have been originally benign or may be capable of acting in either a benign or malign way. One species of devils in classical Hinduism consists of the asura s, also called pūrvadeva s, or "those who were formerly gods or benign beings." In Zoroastrianism, the same asura s, by contrast, are called ahura s, or "lords." In Christianity, Satan, the Prince of Darkness, is regarded as a fallen angel. According to Origen (whose view is considered heresy by orthodox Christians), he will, in time, be reinstated in his "pristine splendor and original rank." There are, however, also classes of intermediate beings whose association with evil is equivocal. In Islam, genies or, more properly, jinn provide a useful illustration: "They were vaguely feared, but were not always malevolent" (Watt, 1970, p. 153).

Biblical Terminology

The problem is also, in part, etymological. The English word devil derives from the Greek diabolos, which has the original sense of "accuser" or "traducer" (from diaballein, "to slander, traduce," lit., "to throw across"). The Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) uses the word satan in the sense of "adversary," and it was translated in the third century bce by Egyptian Jews as diabolos. When the Greek Septuagint (Old Testament) was translated into Latin, diabolos was rendered as diabolus (in the early translations) or as saan, in the standard Vulgate text (Robbins, 1959, p. 130). In the New Testament, on the other hand, the name Satanas is used to mean not just any adversary, as is often the case in the Old Testament, but the adversary of God. Throughout the New Testament, Satanas refers to the Devil, and Revelation 12:9 describes "the great dragon that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan." As Robbins points out (p. 130), English translations generally render both the saan of the Hebrew scriptures and Satanas of the New Testament as "Satan."

Thus two different conceptions were fused, and this idea of an evil demigod became the common heritage of Judaic and Christian traditions. The word devil as used in the New Testament fuses two elementsthe Greek and the Judaic. The Greek element is provided by the inclusion of the sense of daimōn ("demon"), which referred to a guardian spirit or a source of inspiration. The description of the Devil as the "prince of the demons" (Mt. 9:35) is particularly significant in this respect, for, according to Russell (1977, p. 229), the association of the Devil with the demons is paralleled by his association with the fallen angels (see Rv. 12:4, 12:7ff.; Eph. 2:12). However, the Greek Septuagint "used demon for the Hebrew words meaning 'vengeful idols' (schedim ) and 'hairy satyrs' (seîrim ). The Vulgate Latinized accordingly and the English authorized version (1613) translated both by 'Devil,' while the revised version (1881) substituted 'demon' in Deuteronomy and the Psalms [and] retained 'Devil' in the New Testament." The overall result of these philological developments was that "originally distinct species of spirits were unified by interchangeable translations of Devil, demon, fiend. All these terms devolved on Satan" (Robbins, 1959, p. 131). This explanation should clarify the use of the terms demon and devil as they are employed here. The word demon denotes spirits in general while the word devil denotes evil spirits, malign beings viewed as embodiments of evil.


Several typologies of devils are possible, and consideration may be limited to those that proceed by habitation and function. Psellus (eleventh century ce) distinguishes devils by habitat as fiery, aerial, terrestrial, aqueous, subterranean, and heliophobic. A simpler scheme may be applied in the case of Africa and Oceania, where devils could be associated with animals, waters, forest, and mountains. The former scheme has the merit of being comparable with those of otherworld religions, wherein, however, the site of habitation may not be described in terms of elements but may be located in space. Islam provides a link between the two types. The jinn are created out of a single element, fire, but are "associated with deserts, ruins and other eerie places, and might assume such forms as those of animals, serpents, and other creeping things" (Watt, 1970, p. 153). But the jinn are not necessarily evil like the devils, or shayān s, who prompt human beings to evil.

According to one tradition the species (for which we may use "genies" as a convenient westernized rubric) is made up of five orders, namely, jānn, jinn, shayāns, ʿifrīt s, and mārid s. The last are said to be the most powerful and the first the least; shayān is generally used to signify any evil genius; an ʿifrīt is a powerfully evil genius, while a mārid, as indicated, is an evil genius of the most powerful class. At this point it should be noted that sources admit to some confusion between jānn and jinn; while it is held that jānn are transformed jinn, just as certain apes and swine were transformed men, it is also admitted that the two are often used indiscriminately as names for the whole species, whether good or bad (jinn is the more common term, however). As for the characteristics of jinn, they are of different shapes, appearing as serpents, scorpions, lions, wolves, jackals, and so on; they are of land, sea, and air; and either have wings that allow them to fly, move like snakes or dogs, or move about like men. Other embodiments of evil in Islam may also be mentioned: qurub, gharrār, siʿlah, shiqq, and nasnās. Of these, the gharrār is comparable to the ogre inasmuch as the latter is also a figure of folklore who feeds on human beings.

In the Indic worldview the devils have been provided with a habitation and a name. Jainism provides an example of the many typologies of devils in Indic religions. The seven netherworlds contain the hells, one of which, the Vyantaras, includes demons, goblins, ghosts, and spirits, which are divided into eight rankskinnara s, kimpurua s, mahoraga s, gandharva s, yaka s, rākasa s, bhūta s, and piśāca s, all of which are found in Hindu mythology in nearly the same forms (Jacobi, in Hastings, 1911, p. 608).

Anthropological studies of Buddhism, particularly as practiced in Burma (Spiro, 1978) and Thailand (Tambiah, 1970), have led to the identification of devilish beings in Buddhism. Thus it has been noted in the case of Burmese Buddhism that nat s, witches, ghosts, and demons, though substantively different, share the functional attribute of causing pain (Spiro, p. 40). It is noteworthy that although Hinduism does not acknowledge a specific devil, which Buddhism does in the form of Mara, it acknowledges the existence of devilish beings, who are also functionally differentiated. Hindu lore distinguishes between asura s, a class of supernatural beings continually opposed to the gods; rākasa s, demonic beings who roam about at night, disturb the penances of ascetics, and harass and kill people; piśāca s, who frequent cremation grounds; vetāla s, or vampires; and preta s and bhūta s, phantoms of the dead who bother human beings on occasion. Sometimes the word bhūta is inclusive of preta and piśāca (Crooke, in Hastings, 1911, p. 608). The Hindu god Śiva, incidentally, presides over his own gaa s, or malevolent troopers, who include some of the abovementioned creatures and can act in extremely unpleasant ways when incensed.

By contrast, in Islam, the various functions of the one and same class of demonsthe shayān smay be distinguished: they teach humans magic, lead them to unbelief, try to eavesdrop on heaven, and accompany obstinate unbelievers. An intermediate form of functional differentiation, between the Hindu one, organized by class as well as function, and the Islamic one, where different functions are performed by members of the same class, is provided by Zoroastrianism, where the devil, Angra Mainyu, rallies around his standard Aka Manah ("evil thought"), Indra, Saurva, Nanhaithya, (parallel with three Indian deities who are opposed), Taurvi ("hunger") Zairich ("thirst") and Aēshma ("fury"), so that one finds closely allied devil figures performing several diabolical functions, only some of which have been listed. One of the clearest formulations of devilish functions in Christianity is found in the Admirable History (1612) of Sebastien Michaëlis, which is set forth in three sets of hierarchies, each specifying the name of the devil, his function, and his adversary (Robbins, 1959, p. 129).

Another way in which devils could be typologized is by gender differentiation, for female devils are not unknown. In popular Hinduism the Churalin, a demoness regarded as the composite spirit of women who have died in childbirth (Babb, 1975, p. 248), is referred to as identifiable by an inverse foot formation. Islam speaks of beings called ghūl in general, though properly speaking it is said to apply only to the female, whose male counterpart is the gharrār. She is supposed to lead a solitary existence in the deserts, to waylay travelers and practice cannibalism. The case of the lamia, a vampire or (night-)mare, may also be discussed here. The word serves a dual sense, which may cut across gender differentiation: it could mean a succubus demon or a witch. It was suggested in the fifteenth century in Germany and Czechoslovakia that lamiae were demons in the shape of old women who stole children and roasted them.


As universal as belief in evil spirits is belief in the phenomenon of possession of the body by these evil spirits. The history of Christianity records epidemics of possession, and a distinction is drawn between possession and obsession, the former being more grave inasmuch as it involves actual residence by the evil spirit in the body of the possessed.

Exorcism has been associated with Christian evangelization since its inception. This is also true of other religions. Tambiah (1970) clearly distinguishes between possession by benevolent and malevolent spirits (phī ) in the context of Thailand, and notes how the distinction figures in Buddhist mortuary rites. Although the Thai beliefs about such evil spirits are so free-floating as to resist typologizing, certain kinds of devilish spirits most often cited as attacking people may be mentioned. Spirits of the rice field (phī rai phī naa ) can attack villagers; so can the spirit that lives on a mountain (phī pu loob ) but the attack of the phī paub, a malevolent disembodied spirit, is to be feared most as it may be hosted by some living being. Its origin is attributed to the transformation of spells into an evil force inside a magical expert, either a man or a woman. The force then acquires an existence of its own and can possess others.

Debate on Origins

Speculation regarding the origin of belief in devils has proceeded along several routes. According to one view, belief in devilish beings may have its roots in the experience of prehistoric man. At this time wild animals of strange shapes and sizes roamed the earth, and it would have been easy for early human beings to assume that nonhuman evil spirits abounded and assumed animal forms. Alongside this explanation may be placed the anthropological view, according to which beliefs in all classes of spiritual beingsbenign or malignare derived from belief in the disembodied spirits of the dead. Considerable controversy surrounds this view, but it may be safe to affirm that among many peoples the hostile spirits of the dead would be identified as devils. Psychological explanations for the origin of devils include the ideas of hallucinations and projection with various degrees of sophistication. As early as 1218, Gervase of Tilbury suggested that belief in lamia or nightmare was simply nocturnal hallucination, and some modern scholars would argue that man manufactures his devils out of his fears. It is often considered self-evident that the "conception of such beings doubtless stems from man's instinctive fear of the unknown, the strange and horrific. It is significant that belief in evil spirits or Devils can exist without the idea of the Devil, i.e. the personification of the principle of evil in a single being" (Brandon, 1970, p. 229).

In addition to the historical (i.e., prehistorical); anthropological (i.e., animistic); and psychological (i.e., psychoanalytical) explanations, one must consider also the theological aspect, for what is really involved is an explanation of the problem of evil. How is its existence to be reconciled with belief in a benevolent God? Evil creatures that defy God, despite his potential supremacy, may offer the scaffolding for some kind of a theological explanation. Given the existence of evil, one can offer a certain range of justifications: (1) what is perceived as evil is necessary for greater good; (2) evil exists as a necessary part of a good creation; (3) the universe is not perfect but is being perfected, hence the existence of evil; and (4) evil is necessary to retain free will. The existence of devils, as of the Devil, can be reconciled in various ways, as representing the principle of evil either singly or collectively and emerging out of an attempt to come to existential grips with the fact that evil exists. Since most events are caused by an agent, one might assume that evil is also caused by an agent, which may itself be either intrinsically or instrumentally evil.

See Also

Ahuras; ʿĀshūrā˒; Demons, article on Psychological Perspectives; Evil; Satan; Spirit Possession; Theodicy.


Still useful are the articles grouped under "Demons and Spirits" in the Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, edited by James Hastings, vol. 4 (Edinburgh, 1911); see particularly the pieces by Edward Anwyl (Celtic), William Crooke (Indian), Hermann Jacobi (Jain), Arthur Lloyd (Japanese), P. J. Maclagan (Chinese), V. J. Mansikka (Slavic), Eugen Mogk (Teutonic), L. A. Waddell (Tibetan), and A. V. Williams Jackson (Persian). A Dictionary of Comparative Religion, edited by S. G. F. Brandon (London, 1970), also contains a useful entry under "Demons," and The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology (New York, 1959), by Rossell Hope Robbins, offers much information. In addition to these reference works, the following books provide information on devils in particular cultures and religious systems.

Awn, Peter J. Satan's Tragedy and Redemption: Iblis in Sufi Psychology. Leiden, 1983.

Babb, Lawrence A. The Divine Hierarchy: Popular Hinduism in Central India. New York, 1975.

O'Flaherty, Wendy Doniger. Women, Androgynes, and Other Mythical Beasts. Chicago, 1980.

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

Spiro, Melford E. Burmese Supernaturalism. Exp. ed. Philadelphia, 1978.

Tambiah, Stanley J. Buddhism and the Spirit Cults in North-East Thailand. Cambridge, 1970.

Watt, W. Montgomery. Bell's Introduction to the Qurʾān. Edinburgh, 1970.

Arvind Sharma (1987)