Devils and Demons

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Devils and Demons

Theme Overview

In myths, legends, and various religions, devils and demons are evil or harmful supernatural beings. Devils are generally regarded as the adversaries (enemies) of the gods, while the image of demons ranges from mischief makers to powerful destructive forces. In many religions, devils and demons stand on the opposite side of the cosmic balance from gods and angels . Although devils and demons have been pictured in many different ways, they are usually associated with darkness, danger, violence, and death.

Some people, including many Christian writers, have used the terms devil and demon almost interchangeably. Although devils and demons sometimes seem to be closely related or even identical, they also appear in myth and religion as two quite different creatures.

In most mythologies and religions, a devil is a leader or ruler among evil spirits, a being who acts in direct opposition to the gods. The general view is that devils are trying to destroy humans, to tempt them into sinning, or to turn them against their gods. Monotheistic religions, which recognize only a single supreme God, also often speak of one devil.

Devils and gods may be opposites, but they are also usually linked in some way. Many religious and mythological explanations say that devils are related to the gods or that they are gods of evil.

A demon (sometimes spelled daemon) is generally thought to be a harmful or evil spirit or supernatural being, sometimes a god or the offspring of a god. Demons may be the messengers, attendants, or servants of the Devil. They are often monstrous in appearance, combining the features of different animals or of animals and humans.

Demons were not always regarded as evil. The ancient Greeks spoke of a person's daimon as his or her personal spirit, guardian angel, or soul. In many cultures, demons were merely inhuman supernatural powers that could be evil or good at various times, depending on whether their actions harmed or helped people. Human witches, wizards, and sorcerers were thought to gain some of their abilities by summoning and controlling demons through magical practices.

Major Myths

Devilish and demonic forces have taken many shapes and forms around the world. Frightening and dramatic stories and images of them have always had considerable appeal.

Egyptian Mythology The devil could be seen in the evil god Set in ancient Egyptian mythology . Once a helpful god who ruled the kingdom of the blessed dead, Set's place in the Egyptian pantheon—or collection of recognized gods—changed after he murdered his brother. Followers of the supreme god Horus conquered Set's followers, and the priests of Horus made Set the enemy of the other gods and the source of evil.

The Egyptians believed in the existence of demons. One such demon was Nehebkau (pronounced neh-HEB-kah), who appeared at times as a powerful earth spirit, a source of strength for the other gods. At other times, though, he was a menacing monster, a serpent with human arms and legs who threatened the souls of the dead. Like many demons, Nehebkau had more than one role.

Persian Mythology In the mythology of Persia, now known as Iran, two opposing powers struggled for control of the universe. Ahura Mazda (pronounced ah-HOO-ruh MAHZ-duh) was the god of goodness and order, while his twin brother, Ahriman (pronounced AH-ri-muhn), was the god of evil and chaos (disorder). The Zoroastrian religion that developed in Persia pictured the world in terms of tension between opposites: God (Ahura Mazda) and the Devil (Ahriman), light and darkness, health and illness, life and death. Ahriman ruled demons called daevas that represented death, violence, and other negative forces.

Judaism and Christianity Hebrew or Jewish tradition, later adopted by Christians, calls the Devil Satan , which means “adversary.” Satan took on qualities of Ahriman, becoming the prince of evil, lies, and darkness. Jewish tradition also includes a female demon known as Lilith . Said to be the first wife of Adam, Lilith was cast out when she refused to obey her husband and was replaced by Eve.

In Christian belief, the Devil came to be seen as a fallen angel who chose to become evil rather than worship God. Satan rules the demons in hell , the place of punishment and despair. In the Middle Ages, some Christians believed that a separate devil—or a separate aspect of the Devil—existed for each of the seven deadly sins. In their view, Lucifer (pronounced LOOS-i-fur) represented pride, Mammon (pronounced MAM-uhn) greed, Asmodeus (pronounced az-MOH-dee-us) lust, Satan anger, Beelzebub (pronounced bee-ELL-zuh-bub) gluttony, Leviathan (pronounced luh-VYE-uh-thuhn) envy, and Belphegor (pronounced BEL-feh-gore) sloth.

The common image of the Devil in Western culture is drawn from many sources. The Devil's pointed ears, wings, and sharp protruding teeth resemble those of Charu (pronounced CHAH-roo), the underworld demon of the Etruscans of ancient Italy. The Devil's tail, horns, and hooves are like those of satyrs (half-man, half-goat creatures) and other animal gods of ancient Greece, and Cernunnos , the ancient Celtic lord of the hunt. The trident he is often shown brandishing is similar to those carried by the Greek gods Poseidon (pronounced poh-SYE-dun), god of the sea, and Hades (pronounced HAY-deez), lord of the underworld. The Hindu god Shiva (pronounced SHEE-vuh), who represents the powers of destruction, also carries a trident. The Devil sometimes appears in other forms, such as a winged snake or dragon.

Islam In the Muslim religion of Islam, which shares many elements of Jewish and Christian tradition, the Devil is called Iblis (pronounced IB-liss) or Shaitan (pronounced SHAY-tan). Like Satan, he is a fallen angel. He commands an army of ugly demons called shaitans, who tempt humans to sin. The shaitans belong to a class of supernatural beings called djinni (pronounced JEE-nee) or jinni (génies). Some djinni are helpful or neutral toward the human world, but those who do not believe in God are evil.

Hinduism and Buddhism In the earliest form of Hinduism in India, the gods were sometimes called Asuras (pronounced ah-SOO-rahs). But as the religion developed the Asuras came to be seen as demons who battled the gods. Another group of demons, the Rakshasas (pronounced RAHK-shah-sahs), served the demon king Ravana. Some were beautiful, but others were monstrous or hideously deformed. One demon, Hayagriva (pronounced hah-yah-GREE-vah) (meaning “horse-necked”), was a huge and powerful enemy of the gods whose troublemaking constantly threatened to overturn the cosmic order.

The Buddhist religion incorporated many elements of Hinduism, including the demon Hayagriva. It turned the Hindu demon Namuchi (pronounced nah-MOO-chee) into Mara, the Evil One who tempts people with desires and deceives them with illusions. Mara tried to tempt the Buddha. He failed—but he still tries to keep others from reaching enlightenment.

A Deal with the Devil

Christians of the Middle Ages and afterward believed that humans occasionally made bargains with the Devil, selling their souls to him in exchange for riches, power, or other benefits they would enjoy before they died. Witches were said to have made such bargains, an act that condemned them to death in the eyes of the church. An obscure German schoolmaster-turned-magician named Faust, who lived in the 1500s, gave rise to one of the most famous stories about a deal with the Devil. The legend of Dr. Faustus has been the subject of many plays, books, and operas. Two of the most famous were the 1564 play Doctor Faustus by British playwright Christopher Marlowe, and the 1808 play Faust, by German Johann von Goethe. The story was adapted as a successful Broadway musical, Damn Yankees, in 1955, in which a middle-aged man sells his soul to the devil to become a successful baseball player.

Chinese and Japanese Mythology Although traditional Chinese and Japanese religions did not recognize a single powerful devil, they had demons. In Chinese legends, the souls of the dead become either shen, good spirits who join the gods, or gui, malevolent ghosts or demons who wander the earth, usually because their descendants do not offer them the proper funeral ceremonies.

Japanese mythology includes stories about demons called Oni, generally portrayed with square, horned heads, sharp teeth and claws, and sometimes three eyes. Oni may have the size and strength of giants . Although these demons are cruel and mischievous, some tales tell of Oni who change their ways and become Buddhist monks.

African Mythology The Bushpeople of southern Africa say that Gauna, the ruler of the underworld, is the enemy of Cagn, the god who created the world. Gauna visits the earth to cause trouble in human society and to seize people to take to the realm of the dead. He also sends the souls of the dead to haunt their living family members.

Robert Johnson at the Crossroads

Legendary blues guitarist and song writer Robert Johnson (1911-1938) wrote several songs that mention the devil. The circumstances of his life and death are a bit hazy, and over time the myth developed (probably based on jealous gossip by his musical rivals) that Johnson got his talent from the devil, whom he met at a crossroads in Mississippi. A crossroads has particular unholy significance in several cultures. In parts of Europe, the bodies of those who could not be buried in consecrated (holy) ground (suicides and executed criminals, for example) were often buried at a crossroads. In the folklore of the southeast United States, the devil could be met at a crossroads at midnight. The crossroads symbolizes a choice between two very different paths.

Devils and Demons in Context

The spread of religions has had an interesting effect on demons in world mythology. When one religion replaces another, the gods of the former religion may become demons in the new faith. For example, as Islam spread through West Africa, Central Asia, and Indonesia, some local deities (gods) did not disappear but were transformed into demons within a universe governed by the god of Islam. Similarly, as Christianity spread through Europe and the eastern Mediterranean area, local gods and goddesses were adapted. The ancient Celtic god of the hunt, Cernunnos (pronounced ker-NOO-nohs), for example, who had the body of a man and a great stag's head, may even have been the basis of the traditional Christian image of a devil as a man with horns.

Devils and Demons in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life

Devils and demons were frequendy depicted as grotesque figures in ancient and medieval art. More recently, some of the most recognizable traits of devils and demons—such as red skin, pointed tails, and horns— have been incorporated into pop-art imagery. Devils and other demonic imagery are commonly associated with certain types of music, such as heavy metal. Devils and demons are also common in horror films and comic books, such as the Vertigo Comics series Hellblazer. The Dark Horse Comics character Hellboy spawned a movie, Hellboy, in 2004. The devil appears frequently in films as a character; both Peter Cook and Tim Curry have played the devil in movies—Cook in the 1967 comedy Bedazzled, and Curry in the movie Legend (1985).

In the realm of technology, the daimons of ancient Greece have given rise to daemons of computer programming. Like the helpful household spirits of ancient Greece, daemons are processes that run in the background of a computer operating system and perform mundane tasks for the user, such as responding to network requests. The idea of daemons as souls, not evil creatures, plays a prominent part in Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy (published between 1995 and 2000), in which some characters have animal-formed daemons that live with them and cannot be separated from them without dire consequences.

The Demonata #1: Lord Loss by Darren Shan (2006) is the first book in the Demonata series of horror novels for young adults. It is about a boy whose family is killed by a demon and who narrowly escapes death himself. After he goes to live with his uncle Dervish, he discovers dark secrets about his family and the supernatural world that exists around him.

Read, Write, Think, Discuss

The United States was first referred to as “the Great Satan” in 1979 by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic government of Iran. Since then, the term has been used by many groups and leaders throughout the Middle East to describe the United States. Why do you think so many people believe the United States deserves this label?

SEE ALSO African Mythology; Ahriman; Angels; Buddhism and Mythology; Chinese Mythology; Génies; Hell; Hinduism and Mythology; Japanese Mythology; Lilith; Persian Mythology; Satan; Set; Witches and Wizards