views updated Jun 27 2018


Some years ago, Richard Cavendish, an eminent demonologist and student of the so-called black arts, observed that "[b]elief in the existence of evil supernatural beings" is so widespread that it "seems to be instinctive" (p. 8). Whether, as Cavendish suggests, these beliefs are in fact instinctive is still very much an open question. However, human beings do indeed appear to have a deep-seated penchant for explaining misfortune by attributing it to evil and malicious spirits and deitiesthat is, to demons. Such beliefs can be documented in virtually every known human society for which adequate information exists. This essay explores some of the more salient manifestations, modern as well as ancient, of this well-nigh universal component of several belief systems.

In the great majority of cases, demonic figures occur in conjunction with their opposites, that is, beneficent deities to whom worshipers turn for succor when misfortune strikes or when in need of assurance that crops will grow, illness will be avoided, and prosperity will continue. One of the earliest documented examples of such a pair can be found in ancient Egypt in Osiris and his demonic brother Seth.

Osiris and Seth

Dating from Old Kingdom times (27002200 b.c.e.), this pair of opposites was defined in the Pyramid Texts and other ancient Egyptian mythological texts as brothers. While Osiristogether with his sister/wife Isiswas the incarnation of fertility and, eventually, life everlasting, Seth was evil personified. He was also a reflection of the arid desert that presses in on either side of Osiris's domain: the fertile Nile Valley. Seth was jealous of his brother and, through trickery, caused his death. However, with the help of Isis and their son Horus, who was iconographically represented as a falcon-headed man, Osiris was resurrected and ascended to heaven to become the judge of the dead. Meanwhile, Horus and Seth struggled mightily. It was one of the first examples of a supernatural conflict between good and evil, between a demon and his diametric opposite (Horus later became identified with the pharaoh, who was worshiped as a god incarnate). The falcon-headed god finally prevailed, and Seth was killed and dismembered. But the latter remained a quintessential demon, the template, as it were, for a great many later Western demonic figures.

Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu

Another extremely important ancient demon can be found in the Iranian figure Angra Mainyu, or "Evil Spirit," later known as Ahriman, who was paired in early Iranian mythology, especially as shaped by the prophet Zarathustra (or Zoroaster, as he was known to the ancient Greeks), with the beneficent deity Ahura Mazda, the "Wise Lord," called Ormazd in Middle Persian. Although they were not held to be siblings, Angra Mainyu and Ahura Mazda were believed to be engaged in an ongoing cosmic struggle, both for world hegemony and for each individual soul. Angra Mainyu/Ahriman was a true "Prince of Darkness," the diametric oppositeand eternal opponentof the light-filled Ahura Mazda/Ormazd. The most extreme variant of this good-evil dichotomy was promulgated during the third-century c.e. by the Iranian religious reformer Mani (ca. 216276 or 277 c.e.), founder of the Manichean sect, which, for a time, was a serious rival to nascent Christianity. According to the Manicheans, who emphasized free will, one could choose to follow the evil Ahriman, who might ultimately defeat Ormazd in their final, apocalyptic confrontation.


The origins of Satan and related figures are complex. The word satan itself simply means "adversary" in Hebrew; in his earlier manifestations as Lucifer, the "Light-Bearer," who rebelled against God and was cast out of heaven (cf. Isaiah 14: 1215), he is not unlike the Greek figure Prometheus, albeit negatively valued. However, as the Zoroastrian theology of evil incarnate came to permeate post-exile Judaism, the Rebel evolved into a full-fledged evil adversary, in effect a malevolent twin of Yahweh who presided over the corrupt world of the senses.

Several centuries later, this evolution was greatly facilitated by the emergence of Gnosticism (from Greek gnosis, "knowledge"), a heretical movement that emerged in Alexandria and elsewhere in the early years of the common era. Gnosticism held that the mortal realm was created by a fool called the Demiurge, a corrupt if not totally malevolent pseudo-deity the Gnostics identified with the God of the Old Testament. This rejection of God linked Manichaeism to Gnosticism, but for the Gnostics the "real" world, that is, the world of the senses, was evil, and their goal in life was to escape it and return to the Pleroma, or "Fullness," a light-filled spiritual realm that was the antithesis of corrupt mortality. These ideas, although roundly condemned by the early church fathers, from Athanasius to Augustine, lingered on and reappeared in the twelfth century in southern France in the Cathay heresy, which was brutally suppressed during the infamous Albigensian Crusade (1208). It was out of this heretical crucible, which also came to include the "pagan" witchcraft beliefs that incited such intense persecutions between the mid-thirteenth century and the end of the seventeenth century, that Satanism as we know it today emerged. Indeed, the idea that a divine adversary who governs the sensate world is the "true" god still persists in cults such as the late Anton Szandor LaVey's (19301997) Church of Satan, founded in San Francisco in 1966, and the Temple of Set, founded in 1975 by Michael Acquino (b. 1946). The idea that people are susceptible to possession by demons persists in the Roman Catholic ritual of exorcism, so graphically depicted in the film The Exorcist (1973).

Non-Western Demonology

Such beliefs are, of course, by no means limited to the West. Islam conceives of the demon Iblis as Allah's prime adversary, aided by a host of malevolent spirits called jinn (the English word "genie" derives from this Arabic word), who are capable of all manner of mischief. Moreover, a great many non-Western cultures also share a belief in demonic figures. In Japan, demonic figures that have the ability to possess human beings and cause them great harm are called oni. There are a great many varieties of oni, not all of whom are really evil; however, most of them are at least mischievous. Among the more dangerous oni are animal spirits, including fox spirits, who are believed to be especially malevolent and are held responsible for a wide variety of personal misfortunes. Moreover, they are extremely difficult to exorcise. Similar folk beliefs can be found throughout East Asia, Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent, Africa, the Caribbean, and Oceania, as well as the Americas.

Hindu mythology is replete with demonic figures, the most famous of whom is the evil raksha, or demon, Ravanna, king of Sri Lanka, and abductor of Sita, the devoted wife of the demigod Rama. Indeed, the plot of the ancient Indian epic known as the Ramayana, which spread throughout much of Southeast Asia during the early centuries of the common era, turns on Rama's conflict with Ravanna and Sita's eventual rescueonce again, an account of an epic struggle between good and evil, although Ravanna and Rama are not conceived as siblings.

In the high Andean plateau, or altiplano, of Bolivia, as June Nash reports, the local miners believe that the mountains are haunted by a demon called Huari, whom they refer to as Tio, or "Uncle," and who must be propitiated to avoid cave-ins and other calamities. This reflects another important dimension of demonology: the propitiation of evil forces and beings so as to preclude disaster and misfortune.

A further example of this ambiguous attitude toward evil figures can be found in Afro-Caribbean religions such as Santeria and Voodoo, where the orishas, or deities, are considered both evil and beneficent, depending on the context. Both good and evil manifestations of the gods are found in the pantheon and are regularly the recipients of sacrifices. Although for the most part absent in fully evolved Judeo-Christian demonology, this ambiguous attitude toward evil and the propitiation of what we might consider demons is an integral element of folk religious beliefs in a great many parts of the non-Western worldas well as in classical antiquity, where, for example, the ancient Greek god Pan was both benevolent and capable of creating havoc, whence the English word panic.

She-Devils and Female Demons

Although the majority of demons in most cultures tend to be male, female demons, she-devils, and the like are also common. One of the oldest examples of such a figure can be found in the Sumero-Babylonian demon Tiamat, wife of the primordial being Apsu. The supreme Babylonian god Marduk engaged in an epic struggle with Tiamat and, after finally defeating her, created the world from her corpse. Ancient Greek mythology abounds with evil female creatures, from the Gorgons, the most famous of whom was snaky-locked Medusa, whose glance could turn a mortal into stone, to the monster Python, whom Apollo killed at the site of Delphi, to the equally bloodthirsty female Sphinx, whose riddle Oedipus managed to solve, causing her to drop dead.

In Shinto mythology, Izanami-no-Mikoto, the wife of the primeval male figure Izanagi-no-Mikoto, changed into a raging demon after she died giving birth to the Fire-god, Kagu-Tsuchi, and descended into Yomi, the land of the dead. When Izanagi visited Yomi in order to bring her back to life, she led a band of female demons, the so-called Hags of Yomi, against him and almost succeeded in killing him. More recently, medieval European folklore knew the succubus, a demon or evil spirit who seduced unwitting mortal men and produced demonic offspring.

Space Aliens as Demons

In recent years, since accounts of UFOs and space aliens have become widespread in Europe and especially the United States, some fundamentalist Christians have asserted that these presumed extraterrestrial visitors are in fact manifestations of Satan and his demonic horde. Indeed, according to this contemporary "school" of demonology, those persons who claim to have been abducted by aliens and forced to have sex with them are believed to be victims of the same demonic possession that was reported in premodern times, which also frequently had a strong sexual component. In sum, demonology continues to persist in this otherwise secular age, just as it has since the dawn of human culture.

See also Evil ; Syncretism ; Witchcraft .


Cavendish, Richard. The Black Arts. New York: Berkeley Publishing Group, 1967.

Duchesne-Guillemin, J. The Western Response to Zoroaster. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1959.

Fairman, H. W., ed. and trans. The Triumph of Horus: An Ancient Egyptian Sacred Drama. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974.

Gettings, Fred. Dictionary of Demons: A Guide to Demons and Demonologists in Occult Lore. North Pomfret, Vt.: Trafalgar Square Publishers, 1988.

Littleton, C. Scott. "Japanese Religions." In Religion and Culture: An Anthropological Focus, edited by Raymond Scupin. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2000.

Marrs, Jim. Alien Agenda: Investigating the Extraterrestrial Presence among Us. New York: Harper Paperbacks, 1997. See pp. 548555.

Murphy, Joseph M. Santeria: An African Religion in America. Boston: Beacon Press, 1988.

Nash, June. "Devils, Witches, and Sudden Death." In Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion: An Anthropological Study of the Supernatural, edited by Arthur C. Lehmann and James E. Myers. 3rd ed. Mountain View, Calif.: Mayfield, 1993.

O'Flaherty, Wendy Doniger. The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.

The Ramayana of Valmiki. Translated by Hari Prasad Shastri. London: Shanti Sadan, 1962.

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

. Witchcraft in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1972.

Wilson, Colin. The Occult: A History. New York: Vintage, 1973.

C. Scott Littleton


views updated May 29 2018


The study of demons or evil spirits; also a branch of magic that deals with such beings. In religious science it has come to indicate knowledge regarding supernatural beings that are not deities. The Greek term daimon originally indicated "genius" or "spirit," and Socrates claimed to have had intercourse with his daimon. However, with the advent of Christianity it came to mean a malevolent spirit entity. Demonology was especially developed during the Middle Ages.

Ancient demonology is discussed in the entries Egypt, Semites, Genius, and Devil Worship, and the demonology in pre-industrial societies is examined in the entries on the various countries and peoples of its origin.

According to Michael Psellus (1018-ca. 1079), author of De Operatione Daemonum Dialogus, demons are divided into six main bodies: the demons of fire; of the air; of the earth; those of the waters and rivers, who cause tempests and floods; the subterranean who prepare earthquakes and excite volcanic eruptions, and the shadowy ones who are somewhat like ghosts. (St. Augustine (354-430 C.E.) considered all demons under the last category.) Psellus's classification is not unlike the system of the Middle Ages, which divided all spirits into those belonging to the four elements: fire, air, earth, and water (salamanders, sylphs, gnomes, and undines, respectively).

Early Concepts of Demonology

The medieval idea of demons, of course, evolved from ancient Christian and Gnostic belief, especially from the accounts of demons in the Bible. Among the Jews, the gods of the surrounding nations were called demons, and those nations were condemned for making sacrifices to demons instead of to the one God, Yahweh (Deut. 32:17; Ps. 106:37). The Christian New Testament speaks of demons as inferior spirits who operate as subjects of the devil. Such demons can take possession of a human being causing various illnesses and physical ailments. Demons were named as causative factors in disease in a prescientific age.

Demons have an expansive role in the biblical record. They can affect the behavior of swine (Matt. 8:30-32) and speak with a knowledge beyond that of an ordinary person (Mark 1:23-24). Biblical authors did understand demons as objectively present in the world and pictured the apostles as trying to drive them away. Considering demons as having an objective existence placed many questions about the nature of their origin, existence, operation, and habitation on the theological agenda. By the third century, the angel Lucifer, who fell from heaven (Isa. 14:12), was identified with Satan, and the fallen angels with demons.

The Gnostics (who competed for members with the early Christians), imitating Plato's classification of the orders of spirits, attempted a similar arrangement with respect to a hierarchy of angels. The first and highest order was named seraphim; the second, cherubim; the third was the order of thrones; the fourth, dominions; the fifth, virtues; the sixth, powers; the seventh, principalities; the eighth, archangels; and the ninth, and lowest, angels.

This classification was censured by the Christian church, yet almost outlived the pneumatologists of the Middle Ages. These scholarsstudying the account in which the angel Lucifer rebelled against heaven (Isa. 14:12), and that in which Michael, the archangel, warred against him (Rev. 12:7)long asked the momentous question, "What orders of angels fell on this occasion?"

At length it became the prevailing opinion that Lucifer was of the order of seraphim. It was also asserted, after laborious research, that Agares, Belial, and Barbatos, each of whom deposed angels of great rank, had been of the order of virtues; that Bileth, Focalor, and Phoenix had been of the order of thrones; that Goap had been of the order of powers; that Purson had been of both the order of virtues and the order of thrones; and that Murmur had belonged to both the order of thrones and the order of angels. The pedigree of many other noble devils was likewise determined.

As the centuries progressed, theologians began to inquire, "How many fallen angels were engaged in the contest?" This was a question of vital importance, and it gave rise to the most strenuous research and to a variety of discordant opinions.

Others asked, "Where was the battle foughtin the inferior heaven, in the highest region of the air, in the firmament, or in Paradise?" and "How long did it last?" These were difficult questions, but the notion that ultimately prevailed was that the engagement was concluded in exactly three seconds, and that while Lucifer, with a number of his followers, fell into hell, the rest were left in the air to tempt man.

A newer question rose out of these investigations: whether a greater number of angels fell with Lucifer or remained in heaven with Michael. Noted scribes were inclined to think that the rebel chief had been beaten by a superior force, and that consequently devils of darkness were fewer in number than angels of light.

These discussions, which for centuries interested the whole of Christendom, exercised the talents of some of the most erudite persons in Europe. The last objective of demonologists was to assess Lucifer's routed forces and reorganize them into a decided form of subordination or government. Hence, extensive districts were given to certain chiefs who fought under the general Lucifer.

There was Zimimar, "the lordly monarch of the north," as Shakespeare calls him, who had his distinct province of devils; Gorson, the king of the South; Amaymon, the king of the East; and Goap, the prince of the West. These sovereigns had many noble spirits subordinate to them whose various ranks were settled with all the preciseness of heraldic distinction. There were devil dukes, devil marquises, devil counts, devil earls, devil knights, devil presidents, and devil prelates.

As a picture of the infernal kingdom was constructed, it was determined that the armed host under Lucifer had been composed of nearly twenty-four hundred legions, of which each demon of rank commanded a certain number. Beleth for instance, who has been described as "a great king and terrible, riding on a pale horse, before whom go trumpets and all melodious music," commanded 85 legions; Agares, the first duke under the power of the East, commanded 31 legions; Leraie, a great marquis, 30 legions; Morax, a great earl and a president, 36 legions; Furcas, a knight, 20 legions. The forces of the other devil chieftains were enumerated after the same manner.

The Appearance of Demons

The strange and hideous forms connected with the popular image of demons were derived from the descriptive writings of the early demonologists, who maintained that demons possessed a decidedly corporeal form and were mortal, or that, like Milton's spirits, they could assume any sex and take any shape they chose. In the Middle Ages, when conjuration was regularly practiced in Europe, devils of rank were supposed to appear under characteristic forms by which they were as well recognized as the head of any ancient family would be by his crest and armorial bearings.

Along with their names and characters were registered the shapes they were said to adopt. A devil would appear like an angel seated in a fiery chariot or riding on an infernal dragon and carrying a viper in his right hand; or he would assume a lion's head, a goose's feet, and a hare's tail; or put on a raven's head and come mounted on a strong wolf.

Among other forms taken by demons were those of a fierce warrior, or of an old man with a hawk in his hand riding upon a crocodile. A human figure would arise having the wings of a griffin or sporting three heads, two of them like those of a toad and one like a cat's; or displaying huge teeth and horns and armed with a sword; or exhibiting a dog's teeth and a large raven's head; or mounted upon a pale horse and exhibiting a serpent's tail; or gloriously crowned and riding upon a dromedary; or presenting the face of a lion; or bestriding a bear while grasping a viper.

Other forms were those of a goodly knight, or of one who bore lance, ensigns, and even a scepter, or of a soldier, either riding on a black horse and surrounded by a flame of fire, or wearing a duke's crown and mounted on a crocodile.

Hundreds of such varied shapes were assumed by devils of rank. In his Sketches of the Philosophy of Apparitions (1824), Dr. S. Hibbert comments:

"It would therefore betray too much of the aristocratical spirit to omit noticing the forms which the lower orders of such beings displayed. In an ancient Latin poem, describing the lamentable vision of a devoted hermit, and supposed to have been written by St. Bernard in the year 1238, those spirits, who had no more important business upon earth than to carry away condemned souls, were described as blacker than pitch; as having teeth like lions, nails on their fingers like those of a wild-boar, on their fore-head horns, through the extremities of which poison was emitted, having wide ears flowing with corruption, and discharging serpents from their nostrils. The devout writer of these verses has even accompanied them from drawings, in which the addition of the cloven feet is not omitted. But this appendage, as Sir Thomas Brown has proved, is a mistake, which has arisen from the devil frequently appearing to the Jews in the shape of a rough and hairy goat, this animal being the emblem of sin-offering."

The form of the demons described by St. Bernard (1090-1153) differs little from that which was no less carefully portrayed by English writer Reginald Scot 450 years later, and, perhaps, by the demonologists of modern times. "In our childhood," says Scot, "our mother's maids have so terrified us with an ouglie divell having horns on his head, fier in his mouth, and a tail on his breech, eies like a bason, fangs like a dog, clawes like a beare, and a voice like a roaring lion."

The Powers of Demons

Although the leading tenets of the occult science of demon-ology may be traced to the Jews and early Christians, they matured through communication with the Moors of Spain, who were the chief philosophers of the early Middle Ages. There was much intercultural exchange between the moors and the natives of France and Italy. Toledo, Seville, and Salamanca became the great schools of magic. At Salamanca discourses on the black art were, in keeping with the solemnity of the subject, delivered within the walls of a vast and gloomy cavern.

The instructors taught that all knowledge and power might be obtained from the fallen angels. They were skilled in the abstract sciences, in the knowledge of precious stones, in alchemy, in the various languages of mankind and of the lower animals, in belles lettres, in moral philosophy, pneumatology, divinity, magic, history, and prophecy, it was told. The demons could control the winds, the waters, and the influence of the stars; they could raise earthquakes; induce diseases or cure them; accomplish vast mechanical tasks; and release souls from purgatory. It was said that they could influence the passions of the mind, procure the reconciliation of friends or foes, engender mutual discord, induce mania and melancholy, or direct the force and objects of sexual affection.

Hierarchy of Demons

According to Johan Weyer, the prominent sixteenth-century Protestant demonologist, demons were divided into a great many classes, into regular kingdoms and principalities, and into mobility and commoners. According to Weyer, Satan was by no means the great sovereign of this monarchy; this honor was held by Beelzebub. Satan was alluded to by Weyer as a dethroned monarch and chief of the opposition; Moloch was called chief of the army; Pluto, prince of fire; and Leonard, grand master of the sphere. The masters of these infernal courts were Adramelech, grand chancellor; Astaroth, grand treasurer; Nergal, chief of the secret police; Baal, chief of the satanic army.

Weyer maintained that each state in Europe also had its infernal ambassadors. Belphegor is assigned to France, Mammon to England, Belial to Turkey, Rimmon to Russia, Thamuz to Spain, Hutjin to Italy, and Martinet to Switzerland.

According to Weyer's calculations the infernal regions contained an army of 7,405,926 devils and demons, organized into 1,111 divisions of 6,666 each.

One of the strangest authorities on demonology was surely Alexis Vincent Charles Berbiguier, known as "the Scourge of the Demons," author of the three-volume encyclopedic work Les Farfadets, ou tous les démons ne sont pas de l'autre monde (1821). In this great study, he describes the infernal court: "This court has representatives on earth. These mandatories are innumerable. I give nomenclature and degree of power of each: Moreau, magician and sorcerer of Paris, represents Beelzebub; Pinel, a doctor of Saltpétrière, represents Satan; Bouge, represents Pluto; Nicholas, a doctor of Avigum, represents Moloch." But Berbiguier was not just a theorist, since he claimed to have caught thousands of demons, impaling them on pins like a butterfly hunter and sealing them in bottles.

Modern Demonology

Belief in demons possibly reached its lowest ebb in the nineteenth century, though occultists such as William Barrett proposed their own demonic hierarchies. By the beginning of the twentieth century, demonology was unfashionable, even in occult circles, but during the occult boom of the 1960s and 1970s, the theme of demonic possession was revived in conservative Christian circles and given widespread coverage in books and movies like The Exorcist, by William P. Blatty. The idea of demons became a divisive force in the church, with some churchmen reviving rituals of exorcism and others remaining adamant in their unwillingness to endorse ancient concepts of demonology. At any rate, the sensationalist aspect of possession by demons is in keeping with the apocalyptic character of modern life, and demons have once again become part of theological discourse.


Bodin, Jean. De la démonomania des sorciers. Paris, 1580.

Conway, Moncure D. Demonology and Devil-Lore. 2 vols. London: Chatto & Windus, 1879.

Ebon, Martin, ed. Exorcism: Fact Not Fiction. New York: New American Library, 1974.

Irvine, Doreen. From Witchcraft to Christ. London: Concordia Press, 1973.

Nauman, St. Elmo, Jr. Exorcism Through the Ages. New York: Philosophical Library, 1974.

Neil-Smith, Christopher. The Exorcist and the Possessed. Corn-wall, England: James Pike, 1974.

Remy, Nicolas. Demonolatry. 1595. Reprint, New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1974.

Robbins, Rossell Hope. The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology. New York: Crown Publishers, 1959.

Scott, Sir Walter. Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft. London, 1830. Reprint, New York: Citadel Press, 1970.

Shepard, Leslie. How to Protect Yourself Against Black Magic and Witchcraft. New York: Citadel Press, 1978.

Strachan, Francoise. Casting Out the Devils. London: Aquarian Press, 1972.

Wall, J. Charles. Devils. London, 1904. Reprint, Detroit: Singing Tree Press, 1968.

Weyer, Johan. Witches, Devils and Doctors in the Renaissance: Johan Weyer, De Praestigiis. Edited by George Mora. Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1991.


views updated May 21 2018


In the teachings and traditions of all world religions, demons are spiritual entities without physical bodies that roam the Earth seeking to torment whomever attracts them through a wide variety of meansfrom weakness to wizardry. According to these ancient traditions, demons have supernatural powers; they are numerous; and they are organized. They can inflict sickness and mental disorders on their victims. They can possess and control humans and animals. Demons lie and deceive and teach false and misleading doctrines of spirituality. They oppose all teachings and actions that seek to serve the good and God.

According to the great teachers of the world religions, the main tasks of demons are to disseminate error among humans and to seduce believers into forsaking good for evil. Since they are such skilled deceivers, it is nearly impossible to develop an adequate litmus test that will unfailingly distinguish between good spirits and bad ones. Unless one is truly pure in heart, mind, and soul and has the ability to maintain only clean thoughts and good habits, it is very difficult to discern with unfailing accuracy the true nature of demon spirits.

Theologians remind their followers that as mortal beings they are in the midst of a great spiritual warfare between the angels of light who serve God and the fallen angels who serve the forces of darknessand that their souls may be the prize for the victors. Accomplished spiritual teachers of all faiths advise their congregants that the good spirits will never try to interfere with the free will of humans or seek to possess their bodies. On the other hand, the evil spirits desire the physical host body of a human being. In fact, they must have such a vehicle if they are to experience earthly pleasures. When a demon invades a human body, it is said that possession has occurred and an exorcism by a priest or shaman may be required to free the victim from the evil spirit's grasp.

Demonic entities are credited with will and intellect, but these attributes are invariably directed toward evil as they exert their malevolent powers. When these evil spirits penetrate the material world and the circumstances of human life, they conceal themselves in every aspect of human existence.

In many instances, the gods of the old religions become the demons of the new. The Asuras, a race of gods in the early Vedas (sacred Hindu texts composed around 1500 to 1200 b.c.e.), are transmuted to powerful evil beings with the advent of the new deities of Indra and Vishnu. The raksasas are a class of entities who attack humans with the intended goal of driving them insane or causing them material ruin. As in many theologies, there is an ambivalence concerning certain deities. In Hinduism, the most terrifying of the gods, such as Kali, Durga, and Shiva, although seemingly demonic and destructive, often perform deeds that ultimately turn out to be good.

In the scriptures of the world religions, the chief of the legions and hordes of demons is known by various names: Satan, Lucifer, Iblis, Mara, and Angra Mainyu, among others. The word "devil" is derived from the Greek diabolos, which means "accuser" or "slanderer," and is one of the names for Satan. Daimon, the Greek word from which "demon" is derived, originally meant a tutelary spirit or a spirit guide, but it is frequently, and incorrectly, translated as "devil" or "demon."

In the traditions of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, the animosity between demons (the fallen angels) and the human race can be traced to the moment when God granted his earthly creations of dust and clay with the priceless gift of free will. In the biblical and qur'anic traditions are found references to the jealousy that afflicted certain angels regarding the attention that God displayed toward his human creation. In the Qur'an (17:6164), Iblis (Satan), the leader of the rebellious angels, refuses to bow to a creature that God has created of clay, and he threatens to make existence miserable for the descendants of the being that the Creator has honored above them. Because of the declared animosity of the fallen angels against those heavenly beings who remain faithful to the Creator and against those mortals who seek to follow the higher teachings of revealed truth, the epistle writer Paul (d. 6268 c.e.) gave counsel when he warned that humans not only engage in spiritual warfare with those of flesh and blood who serve evil, "but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places" (Ephesians 6:12).

Although Buddhism generally rejects a cosmological dualism between good and bad, angels and demons, there is an aspect within the traditional lives of the Buddha which echoes the jealousy motif of various entities toward humans. Mara, who tempted the Awakened One on the night of his enlightenment, is said to be an asura or a Deva (a being of light) who was jealous of the power that was about to be bestowed on a human, for to become a Buddha would be to achieve spiritual status greater than they possessed. Tibetan Buddhism borrows its demons from Hinduism and adds a number of indigenous entities, who are ambivalent toward the inhabitants of the Himalayas, sometimes appearing as fierce and malevolent creatures, other times manifesting as teachers of enlightenment.

Various scriptures state firmly that regardless of their strength, power, and majesty, angels are not to be worshipped, and religious teachers advise that true heavenly beings will immediately discourage any humans from attempting to bow their knees to them. On the other hand, the fallen angels, the demons, are motivated by their own selfish goals and delight in corrupting humans. They encourage mortals to express greed and to seek the acquisition of material, rather than spiritual, treasures. As a general spiritual law, these negative entities cannot achieve power over humans unless they are somehow invited into a person's private spaceor unless they are attracted to an individual by that person's negativity or vulnerability.

According to certain Christian teachers, there was an outburst of demonic activity upon the occasion of Jesus' coming to Earth, which was perceived as a great threat to Satan's material kingdom. Other church scholars state that another such outburst is expected just before the Second Coming of Christ. Some fundamentalist Christians believe that that time has begun.

Regardless of the general view of the vast majority of contemporary scientists and psychologistsand even many members of the clergyto regard a belief in demons as a superstitious holdover from the past and to attribute the traditional accounts of possession by evil spirits as primitive ways of describing mental illness, there are professional caregivers and clerics who maintain that these evil creatures are as much a part of the twenty-first-century world as they were in the Middle Ages. And the results of a Gallup poll released in June 2001 reveal that 41 percent of adult Americans believe that people can be possessed by the Devil or his demons.

Professor Morton Kelsey, an Episcopal priest, a noted Notre Dame professor of theology, and the author of DiscernmentThe Study of Ecstasy and Evil (1978), states that demons are real and can invade the minds of humans. "Most people in the modern world consider themselves too sophisticated and too intelligent to be concerned with demons," he commented. "They totally ignore the evidence around them. But in thirty years of study, I have seen the effects of angels and demons on humans."

Kelsey insists that a demon is not a figment of the imagination. "It is a negative, destructive spiritual force. It seeks to destroy the person and everyone with whom that person comes into contact. The essential mark of the demonand those possessed by demonsis total self-interest to the exclusion of everyone and everything else."

Agreeing with many other contemporary religious scholars, Kelsey expressed his concern that most people in today's world offer little challenge for demons. "They find it easy to enter and operate in the unconscious parts of the mind, taking control of the person and his character," he said. In offering advice for those who may fear themselves to be under demonic attack, Kelsey said that they should not despair. They must focus their thoughts on God, and "try to reach out to Him and find His light."

There are numerous admonitions in the New Testament to be cautious of any manifesting entity and to test it to determine its true motives. "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God" (1 John 4:1).

While such a passage is easily quoted, its admonition is much more difficult to put into practice when warned in 2 Corinthians 11:14, "Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light."

Dr. Wilson Van Dusen is a university professor who has served as chief psychologist at Mendocino State Hospital in California. Based upon his decades of research, Van Dusen has stated that many patients in mental hospitals may be possessed by demons and that people who hallucinate may often be under the control of demonic entities. Van Dusen also affirms that he has been able to speak directly to demons that have possessed his patients. He has heard their own guttural, otherworld voices, and he has even been able to administer psychological tests to these tormenting entities.

An accomplished psychologist, Van Dusen has lectured at the University of California, Davis; served as professor of psychology at John F. Kennedy University; and published more than 150 scientific papers and written several books on his research, such as The Presence of Other Worlds: The Psychological/Spiritual Findings of Emanuel Swedenborg (1974) and The Natural Depth in Man (1974).

In a landmark research paper, the clinical psychologist noted the "striking similarities" between the hierarchy of the unseen world described by the Swedish inventor-mystic Emanuel Swedenborg (16881772) and the alleged hallucinations of his patients in a state mental hospital. Van Dusen began to seek out those from among the hundreds of chronic schizophrenics, alcoholics, and brain-damaged persons who could distinguish between their own thoughts and the products of their hallucinations. He would question these other supposed entities directly and instruct the patient to give a word-for-word account of what the voices answered or what was seen. In this manner, he could hold long dialogues with a patient's hallucinations and record both his questions and the entity's answers.

On numerous occasions the psychologist found that he was engaged in dialogues with hallucinations that were above the patient's comprehension. He found this to be especially true when he contacted the higher order of hallucinations, which he discovered to be "symbolically rich beyond the patient's own understanding." The lower order, Van Dusen noted, was composed of entities that were consistently antireligious, and some actively obstructed the patient's religious practices. Occasionally they would even refer to themselves as demons from hell, suggest lewd acts, then scold the patient for considering them. They would find a weak point of conscience and work on it interminably. They would invade "every nook and cranny of privacy, work on every weakness and credibility, claim awesome powers, lie, make promises, and then undermine the patient's will."

Van Dusen also found that the "hallucinations" could take over a patient's eyes, ears, and voice, just as in traditional accounts of demon possession. The entities had totally different personalities from his patients' normal dispositions, which indicated to him that they were not simply products of his patients' minds. Some of the beings had ESP and could predict the future. Often they would threaten a patient and then cause actual physical pain. The demons were described in a variety of shapes and sizes, but generally appeared in human form, ranging from an old man to alleged space aliens, but any of them could change form in an instant. Some were so solid to the victims that they could not see through them. At times the patients would become so angry at the apparitions that they would strike at themonly to hurt their hands on the wall.

Van Dusen made detailed studies of 15 cases of demonic possession, but he dealt with several thousand patients during his 20 years as a clinical psychologist. In his opinion, the entities were present "in every single one of the thousands of patients." He even admitted that some of the entities knew far more than he did, even though he tried to test them by looking up obscure academic references.

One of Van Dusen's conclusions was that the entities took over the minds of people who were emotionally or physically at a low ebb. The beings seemed to be able to "leech on those people because they had been weakened by strains and stresses with which they could not cope."

Considering once again some of the implications of Swedenborg's thoughts and works, Van Dusen commented that it was curious to reflect that, as Swedenborg has suggested, human lives may be "the little free space at the confluence of giant higher and lower spiritual hierarchies." The psychologist finds a lesson in such a consideration: "Man freely poised between good and evil, is under the influence of cosmic forces he usually doesn't know exist. Man, thinking he chooses, may be the resultant of other forces."

Delving Deeper

Crim, Keith, ed. The Perennial Dictionary of World Religions. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1989.

Karpel, Craig. The Rite of Exorcism: The Complete Text. New York: Berkley, 1975.

Kinnaman, Gary. Angels Dark and Light. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Servant Publications, 1994.

Mack, Carol K., and Dianah Mack. A Field Guide to Demons, Fairies, Fallen Angels, and Other Subversive Spirits. New York: Owl Book, Henry Holt, 1999.

Montgomery, John Warwick. Powers and Principalities. Minneapolis: Dimension Books, 1975.

Van Dusen, Wilson. The Psychological/Spiritual Presence of Other Worlds: The Findings of Emanuel Swedenborg. New York: Harper & Row, 1974.

Evil Spirits

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Evil Spirits

According to occultist and Spiritualist philosophy, evil spirits do exist. There are many intelligent entities in the higher and lower spheres that may not be of human origin and may not be benevolent. But the evil spirits commonly spoken of are the spirits of bad people and inhabit the lower spheres, from which, either owing to the locality to which they are earthbound or to the attraction of bad, immoral séance sitters, they may easily reach the medium. Their appearing may be accidental. They may see the "light" of the medium and attempt to oust the control. The controls, as a rule, are able to keep evil spirits away; but sometimes, for unknown reasons, their power fails. In such cases they urgently ask for the breaking of the circle and the suspension of the sitting.

On the other hand, if an evil spirit has already taken possession of the medium, it is considered imperative to maintain the circle unbroken until the invader can be ousted. Possession by evil spirits is usually manifested by fits, violent convulsions, and uncouth ravings, which may cause harm to the medium.

J. J. Morse, lecturing in trance, asserted in a speech later printed in Light (July 11, 1903):

"So long as evil men live on earth, pass from it at death, and live beyond, so long will it be possible for them to obtrude among you. What then is the preventive? The cultivation of your will power; the absolute determination to be master of yourself; the assertion of your unquestionable right to select your own associates among the people of either world. The exercise of your duty 'to try the spirits' as you do men before deferring to their advice or leading. And, most of all, in this connection to refuse entrance, or harbour, to unclean thoughts of any kind into your minds. The complete discontinuance of gross living, intoxicants and narcotics and a rigid obedience to personal cleanliness must also be adopted. Purity of mind must have its complement in purity of body. By aspiration, prayer and cleanliness men may not only ward off but prevent the influence of undesirable spirits and in conjunction with a steadfast will no better exorcism can be practised."

If, in spite of all, an evil spirit has gained possession, how should it be exorcised? A curious experiment was recorded by G. H. Lock in Light (November 28, 1903). It occurred to him that through the ages some mystic power had been associated with the Cross as a symbol, and that the very common belief in the virtue of the sign of the cross may have had its origin in the spirit world. He therefore tried the efficacy of this sign on the spirit plane with remarkable success. But, he affirmed, the mere wearing of a material cross upon the person is useless for the purpose. The mediumor, if the medium is in trance, the leader of the circlemust will the sign at or toward the spirit or draw the sign mentally upon the spirit, at the same time willing it or adjuring it to stand revealed, or to go.

Should the request be unavailing, the sign of the cross should be made firmly and deliberately upon the breast of the medium and on the back about the region of the shoulders. At a first attempt only a cringing may result, but, stated Lock, "I have never known failure at the third attempt."

An early case of control by an evil entity was recorded by Ernesto Bozzano from the mediumship of "L.D." The medium was controlled by his father, Luigi. Once he declared in terror that evil spirits were near the medium. Before the sitting could be closed, L.D. began to glare and, foaming at the mouth, assaulted a sitter and tried to strangle him while shouting, "I have found you at last, wretch. I was a soldier of the royal marines. Do you remember Oporto? You murdered me and I will avenge myself and strangle you." The sitter had to be rescued. His story was that he had killed a drunken sailor who attacked him in Oporto and was sentenced to six years' detention for the deed.

Willie Reichel, in his Occult Experiences (1906), described the sudden intrusion of a female spirit that went around the circle of 14 persons striking and spitting on nearly all of them and using horrible language.

Besides injuring the medium or the sitters, the danger of an enduring possession is possible. Such possession, or obsession, would be called demoniacal. As a rule, however, cases of obsession do not originate in the séance room. It would be unwise, however, to deny the possibility.

Regarding the issue of evil influences on this life from the other world, Andrew Jackson Davis, in commenting on a book, The Great Psychological Crime, is very emphatic:

"I deny utterly and for all time that individuals are led into evil and crimes by persons in the other world. I know the pranks and college-boy mischievousness of the Diakka but even for them and all such, I know that the police regulations of the other world are adequate and universally effective."

During the 1870s Spiritualist Carl Wickland and his wife began to treat evil spirits believed to be possessing mental patients. The publication of his book Thirty Years Among the Dead in 1924 led to the spread within Spiritualism of rescue circles, to which evil spirits were invited to attend and then sent toward the Spiritualist equivalent of heaven.


Davis, Andrew Jackson. The Diakka, and Earthly Victims. Boston: Colby & Rich, 1880.

Wickland, Carl. Thirty Years Among the Dead. Los Angeles, 1924.


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Here the term "demonology" is taken to mean the occult and superstitious lore that has grown up about the subject of evil spirits, and especially the art and practice of seeking their intervention in human affairs. The term could signify the science concerned with demons or evil spirits. In this sense the subject is dealt with in the article demon (theology of).

There are two ways of seeking the help of evil spirits: to attempt to obtain preternatural knowledge from them; and to seek their aid in producing effects that are above human capabilities. The seeking of assistance from evil spirits may be either formal or explicit. It is formal when Satan (or any other evil spirit) is expressly called upon for help; when a formal pact is made with the devil, in which the petitioner promises his soul or certain services if his request is granted; or when religious homage is paid to evil spirits in the form of genuflections or other ceremonies in order to obtain some favor. It is implicit when a person does not expressly ask the devil for a favor, but from the nature of the thing sought or the way in which it is to be obtained, it can only be concluded that the devil is tacitly invited to grant the request. In such a case, a kind of knowledge, or the performance of a kind of deed, is sought that could not be achieved by human powers alone. Supposing it to be evident that the favor is not sought from God, we presume that the petitioner is invoking the aid of a superhuman power of evil.

In genuine religion, we recognize God to be all good and all holy. Therefore, the only attitude of man confronted with an all good, all holy God is one of reverence, gratitude, and submission; but throughout history there have been those who rebel at their obligation of subjection to God, and who are impatient because God will not gratify their every whim and caprice. In their pride, they do not want to fit into the plans of Divine Providence; rather, they expect God to be at their beck and call.

The moral appraisal of particular cases of the invocation of evil spirits is complicated, so far as subjective responsibility is concerned, by the fact that a willingness to traffic with evil spirits suggests the possibility of paranoid delusions and hallucinations. Where a person is a responsible human agent and knows what he is doing, theologians are agreed that any pact with an evil spirit is a mortal sin. The same is true of any attempt to elicit enlightenment or aid from the devil. Even to ask for a small favor would be a mortal sin, for the reason that the evil spirits are the enemies of God and of mankind, and to invoke their help would involve grave dishonor to God.

Objectively, even the implicit invocation of the devil is gravely sinful; but there is more probability, where the invocation is tacit or implicit, that the act is less deliberate, or that it is not performed with a clear awareness that one is really calling upon the evil spirits for assistance.

A question can be raised about the permissibility of performing an experiment in which there is a possibility of diabolical intervention. Must such experiments be avoided? The more common answer to this is that if there is only a possibility of diabolical intervention, it is permissible, for a just cause, to conduct such experiments; but prudence would seem to require the experimenter to disavow any intention of seeking diabolical aid, and to state that he positively does not want it. However, in cases in which, instead of a possibility, there is a notable probability of diabolical intervention, it is evident that there is no moral justification for such experimentation.

Bibliography: b. de jÉsus-marie, ed., Satan (New York 1952). b. j. kelly, God, Man and Satan (Westminster, MD 1950). l. cristiani, Who Is the Devil?, tr. d. k. pryce (New York 1958); Evidence of Satan in the Modern World, tr. c. rowland (New York 1962). e. a. grillot de givry, Picture Museum of Sorcery, Magic and Alchemy (New Hyde Park, NY 1963). s. lyonnet et al., Dictionnaire de spiritualité ascétique et mystique. Doctrine et histoire, ed. m. viller et al. (Paris 1932) 4:141238. l. ruland, Foundations of Morality, tr. t. a. rattler, ed. n. thompson (St. Louis 1936). l. gardette, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., (Paris 190350) 9.2:151050. p. sÉjournÉ, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., (Paris 190350) 14.2:27632824.

[m. d. griffin]


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114. Demons

See also 117. DEVIL ; 146. EVIL ; 182. GHOSTS ; 203. HELL ; 384. SPIRITS and SPIRITUALISM .

one who denies the existence of the devil or demons.
bogyism, bogeyism
recognition of the existence of demons and goblins.
a mania that causes a person to believe himself possessed and controlled by an evil spirit. Also cacodemonomania . cacodemonic , cacodemoniac, adj.
1. a belief in the possibility of possession by a demon.
2. demoniac possession. Also demoniacism . demonian , adj. demoniac , n., adj.
1. the belief in demons.
2. the worship of demons. Also demonolatry . demonist , n.
1. the power of demons.
2. government or rule by demons. demonocratic , adj.
demonology. demonographer , n.
the worship, through propitiation, of ghosts, demons, and spirits. Also demonism .
1. the study of demons or superstitions about demons.
2. the doctrine of demons. Also demonography . demonologist , n. demonologic, demonological, adj.
Obsolete, forms of magie that require the invocation or assistance of demons.
a form of divination involving a demon or demons.
Obsolete, a person who is possessed by demons.
Obsolete, the sway or dominion of demons.
an abnormal fear of spirits and demons.
the working of magie with the aid of demons. demonurgist , n.
qualities and doctrines that are diabolical. devilish , adj.
a demoniac; a person possessed by an evil spirit. See also 150. FADS
1. the ceremony that seeks to expel an evil spirit from a person or place.
2. the act or process of exorcising. exorcist , n. exorcismal, exorcisory, exorcistic, exorcistical, adj.
a demon alleged to lie upon people in their sleep and especially to tempt women to sexual relations. incubi , n. pl.
1. an ecstatic variety of demonic possession believed by the ancients to be inspired by nymphs.
2. a frenzy of emotion, as for something unattainable. nympholeptic, adj.
Rare. the worship of spirits dwelling in all forms of nature.
1. the abode of all demons; Heil.
2. any scène of wild confusion or disorder.
polydemonism, polydaemonism
a devotion to a multitude of demonic powers or spirits. polydemonistic , polydaemonistic, adj.
succubus, succuba
a demon that assumes a female form to tempt men to intercourse, especially appearing in their dreams. succubi , succubae, n. pl .


views updated Jun 11 2018

172. Demon (See also Devil.)

  1. Aello Harpy; demon carrying people away, personifying a whirlwind. [Gk. Myth.: Jobes, 40]
  2. afreet or afrit gigantic jinn, powerful and malicious. [Muslim Myth.: Benét, 13]
  3. Apophis the snake god; most important of demons. [Ancient Egypt. Rel.: Parrinder, 24]
  4. Ashmedai king of fiends. [Hebrew Myth.: Leach, 83]
  5. Asmodeus king of the devils. [Talmudic Legend: Benét, 58]
  6. bat bird that is the devil incarnate. [Western Folklore: Mercatante, 181]
  7. cat evil being, demonic in nature. [Animal Symbolism: Mercatante, 46]
  8. crocodile feared as spirit of evil. [African Folklore: Jobes, 382; Mercatante, 9]
  9. Demogorgon mere mention of his name brings death and destruction. [Western Folklore: Benét, 263]
  10. Dives ferocious spirits under sovereignty of Eblis. [Persian Myth.: LLEI, I: 326]
  11. Fideal evil water spirit; dragged men under water. [Scot. Folklore: Briggs, 175]
  12. Great Giant of Henllys ghost of dead man turned demon. [Br. Folklore: Briggs, 199200]
  13. incubus demon in the form of a man. [Western Folklore: Briggs, 232]
  14. jinn (genii ) class of demon assuming animal/human form. [Arab. Myth.: Benét, 13, 521]
  15. Old Bogy nursery fiend invoked to frighten children. [Br. Folklore: Wheeler, 265]
  16. succubus demon in the form of a woman. [Western Folklore: Briggs, 232]
  17. whale former symbol of demonic evil. [Animal Symbolism: Mercatante, 26]


views updated Jun 11 2018

de·mon1 / ˈdēmən/ • n. 1. an evil spirit or devil, esp. one thought to possess a person or act as a tormentor in hell. ∎  a cruel, evil, or destructive person or thing. ∎  [often as adj.] a forceful, fierce, or skillful performer of a specified activity: a demon cook a demon for work.2. another term for daemon1 (sense 1).de·mon2 • n. variant spelling of daemon2 .

Evil spirits

views updated May 29 2018

Evil spirits. The sense of evil being a consequence of active agents is common in all religions. They may be synonymous with demons (q.v. for examples), but evil spirits take on many other forms. In Zoroastrianism, as daevas, they form a fundamental part of the dynamic of the whole system. Evil spirits are frequently the spirits of the dead who have not received appropriate care from the living, and who are therefore restless until they receive support: for examples, see KUEI, PRETA. Evil spirits may take possession of other lives, not least those of humans. They are then contested through exorcism or other rituals. They may also be contested by exclusion from the existing human community, a strategy which resulted in the execution of witches and others believed to have been possessed.


views updated May 21 2018

de·mon·ic / diˈmänik/ • adj. of, resembling, or characteristic of demons or evil spirits: demonic possession | her laughter was demonic. ∎  fiercely energetic or frenzied: in a demonic hurry.DERIVATIVES: de·mon·i·cal·ly / -ik(ə)lē/ adv.