Skip to main content

Demons, Demonology


A demon is an evil spirit, or devil, in the ordinary English usage of the term. This definition is, however, only approximate. In polytheistic religions the line between gods and demons is a shifting one: there are both good demons and gods who do evil. In monotheistic systems, evil spirits may be accepted as servants of the one God, so that demonology is bound up with angelology and theology proper, or they may be elevated to the rank of opponents of God, in which case their status as diabolic powers differs from that of the demons in polytheism. Moreover, in none of the languages of the ancient Near East, including Hebrew, is there any one general term equivalent to English "demon." In general, the notion of a demon in the ancient Near East was of a being less powerful than a god and less endowed with individuality. Whereas the great gods are accorded regular public worship, demons are not; they are dealt with in magic rites in individual cases of human suffering, which is their particular sphere.

Demonology in the Ancient Near East

Defense against evil spirits was a concern in Mesopotamia from earliest times, beginning with the Sumerians, to whom much of the terminology and praxis connected with demons may be traced. There is no qualitative difference between great gods and demons; one name for demon is "an evil god." Demons, however, have less power, though occasionally myths depict them as rebelling against the great gods, with some success. Incantations often list four, or even seven, classes of demons. Demons are messengers of the lord of the underworld, and march before him. They live in deserts and near graves, and many of them are ghosts, spirits of the dead, especially of those who died by violence or were not properly buried. Sickness may be thought of as caused by demonic possession, and some demons have the name of the specific disease they bring, thus "Headache," or "Fever." Lamashtu is the hag who kills children in the womb and newborn babies. Like many other demons, she is depicted as a composite monster. Lilitu, the Mesopotamian succubus, is mentioned once in the Bible as *Lilith (Isa. 34:14; see below), and in later Jewish demonology. Good demons are mentioned much less frequently.

In general features Canaanite demonology probably resembled that of Mesopotamia, to judge from the rather meager evidence preserved. In a mythological text from Ugarit, the father of the gods, El, is frightened almost to death by a demon "having two horns and a tail," like the devil in later representations. A Phoenician amulet of the seventh century b.c.e., from Arslan Tash, begins: "Incantations: O Flying One, O goddess, O Sasam… O god, O Strangler of Lambs! The house i enter you shall not enter; the court i tread you must not tread." Intended to protect women in childbirth, it goes on to invoke the protection of the gods, and contains depictions of the demons mentioned: a winged sphinx, labeled "Flying One, Lil[ith]," and a wolf devouring a child. Details of the text and iconography have close parallels in Mesopotamian, Arabic, classical, and later Jewish folklore, and illustrate the wellnigh universal character of many superstitions about demons (Gaster, in: Orientalia, 11 (1942), 41–79).

Demonology in the Bible

Israel's official religion contrasts sharply with contemporary polytheisms in the role assigned to demons, which in the Bible is practically nil. Magic was prohibited among the Israelites from very early times, for already the oldest collection of laws, the Book of the Covenant, contains the command: "You shall not tolerate a sorceress" (Ex. 22:17 [Eng. 22:18]; cf. Deut. 18:10–12), and Saul put the practitioners of necromancy out of the land (i Sam. 28:3). Since much of pagan magic was protective – intended to keep demons away or to expel them – obviously Israel's religion aimed at a very radical extirpation of traffic with demons. Calamities and illnesses were not from demons but from the Lord. "Shall there be evil in a city, and the Lord has not done it?" (Amos 3:6). Although God does not always accomplish His will immediately, but uses angels and spirits as agents, it is ordinarily made explicit that the spirits are under His control. The evil spirit which troubles Saul is "an evil spirit from the Lord" (i Sam. 16:14). Therefore, one must not overestimate the importance of the numerous small traces of belief in demons which survive in the Bible, or underestimate the difficulties involved in interpreting them. Most of the passages in question are poetic, and it is often impossible to be certain whether the demon named is part of living religious belief, or only part of traditional literary language. Just as some Mesopotamian demons have names which are also common nouns, so in biblical cases like dever and mavet (mawet; see below) it is hard to be sure when these are proper names and when not.

The Israelite conception of demons, as it existed in the popular mind or the literary imagination, resembled in some ways that held elsewhere. Demons live in deserts or ruins (Lev. 16:10; Isa. 13:21; 34:14). They inflict sickness on men (Ps. 91:5–6). They trouble men's minds (Saul; i Sam. 16:15, 23) and deceive them (i Kings 22:22–23) – but nevertheless these evil spirits are sent by the Lord. The mysterious being who attacks Jacob in Genesis 32:25ff. exhibits a trait which a very widespread belief associated with certain demons, who are spirits of the night and must perish at dawn. Even in Israelite popular religion, however, there seems to have been relatively little fear of the spirits of the dead. The Bible often mentions the shades of the dead, but "the congregation of the shades" (Prov. 21:16) carries on a shadowy existence below, and does not seem to trouble the living. Some features of the Israelite cult bear a formal resemblance to apotropaic measures employed in other religions. Thus, the bells on the robe of the high priest (Ex. 28:33–35) recall the use of bells in other cultures in the belief that their tinkling keeps off demons. So, also, horns (Ex. 19:16; Lev. 25:9; et al.), incense (Lev. 16:12–13), smearing of doorposts (Ex. 12:7), the color blue (Num. 15:38), written scripture-texts (phylacteries; Deut. 6:8; 11:18) – all have parallels elsewhere as devices to ward off evil spirits. In a given case, however, it is often extremely difficult to say to what extent any of these devices were consciously used for protection against demons at a particular period.

Specific Demons

Foreign gods are called shedim (Deut. 32:17; Ps. 106:37; cf. i Cor. 10:20), rendered "demons" or "devils" in most translations. The word is related to Akkadian šêdu ("demon"; good or evil).

seʿirim ("hairy demons, satyrs") is also applied contemptuously to foreign deities (Lev. 17:7; ii Chron. 11:15). These creatures haunt ruins, along with Lilith (Isa. 13:21; 34:14).

lilith (Isa. 34:14; ultimately from Sumerian lil, "air," not Heb. layl(ah), "night") was originally a succubus, believed to cohabit with mortals, but in the Arslan Tash incantation quoted above she is identified with the child-stealing demon, a character she retains in later folklore. The tradition that the name means "screech-owl" (in so many translations) reflects a very ancient association of birds, especially owls, with the demonic.

mavet (Mawet), the ordinary Hebrew word for death, is also the proper name of a Canaanite underworld god (Mot), the enemy of Baal in a Ugaritic epic. The proper name, not the common noun, should probably be understood in Isaiah 28:15, 18: "We have made a covenant with Death," and Jeremiah 9:20 [Eng. 9:21]: "For Death is come up into our windows" (cf. Hos. 13:14; Job 18:13, "the firstborn of Death"; 28:22).

resheph is another major god of the Canaanite religion who becomes a demonic figure in biblical literature. Resheph is known as the god of plague over much of the ancient Near East, in texts and artistic representations spanning more than a millennium from 1850 b.c.e. to 350 b.c.e. In Habakkuk 3:5, yhwh on the warpath is said to be preceded and followed by respectively Dever and Resheph. (This is similar to the picture of two divine attendants who escort major gods in ancient myths.) Just as some other names of deities are used as common nouns in biblical Hebrew (Dagon (dagon, "grain"); Ashtaroth (ashtarot, "increase [of the flock]"), etc.) so Reshef (reshef) has come to mean simply "plague" (Deut. 33:29; Ps. 78:48), and the fiery darts of the bow (Ps. 76:4 [Eng. 76:3]; Song 8:6), apparently from the common association of plagueand arrows.

dever ("Pestilence") is the other demonic herald who marches with yhwh to battle (Hab. 3:5). Dever is also mentioned in Psalms 91:5–6: "Thou shalt not be afraid for the Terror (Paḥad) by night; Nor for the Arrow (Ḥeẓ) that flieth by day; Nor for the Pestilence (Dever) that walketh in the darkness; Nor for the Destruction (Ketev) that wasteth at noonday." Not only Dever but also the other words italicized above have been plausibly identified as names of demons. The "Arrow" is a familiar symbol in folklore, for disease or sudden pain, and Ketev (Qetev; cf. Deut. 32:24; Isa. 28:2; Hos. 13:14) is in this instance the personification of overpowering noonday heat, known also to Greek and Roman demonology.

*azazel (ʿAzʾazel) occurs in the ritual for the *Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:8, 10, 26). Aaron casts lots over two goats, and the one "for ʿAzʾazel" is presented alive before the Lord, and then released into the wilderness. The ancient Greek and Latin versions understood ʿAzʾazel as "goat that departs," hence "the scapegoat" of some English versions. Most of the rabbinic commentators and some moderns take Azazel as the name of the place to which the goat is driven. The great majority of moderns regard Azazel as the personal name of a demon thought to live in the wilderness.

The vampire may be mentioned in Proverbs 30:15: "The alukah (ʿaluqah) hath two daughters, crying, 'Give, Give.'" Hebrew ʿaluqah may simply mean "leech," but since ʿaulaq occurs in Arabic literature as a name of a vampire, this fabulous creature and her two daughters may be referred to in this rather difficult passage.

Demons in Intertestamental Literature, Including the Dead Sea Scrolls

A great change had taken place in *angelology and demonology, at least in certain circles within Judaism, by the last centuries b.c.e. In this period the religion, while safeguarding its monotheistic character in various ways, nevertheless took on many traits of a dualistic system in which God and the forces of good and truth were opposed in heaven and on earth by powerful forces of evil and deceit. This seems to have been under the influence of Persian religion, with its opposition of Ormuzd the good god and Ahriman (Angra Mainyu) the evil god, but at the same time Jewish *dualism drew on older, native resources in constructing a more elaborate demonology. Ancient mythological themes, and figures from the Bible only potentially demonic, like Satan, were drawn in to fill out the enlarged conception of the role of evil spirits in the cosmos. It is characteristic of this period that the evil spirits are led by a prince, often called *Belial but also Mastemah, *Satan, or other names. The spirits of good and evil also struggled within the human soul, for in this period the role of demons is often conceived of as that of tempting men to evil rather than of inflicting physical harm. As a result, in many passages it is difficult to say whether "spirit" refers to a demon external to man or to a trait within the human soul. Belial (or Beliar, a corruption of the original form) is the most common name for the leader of the demons in the Dead Sea Scrolls, and occurs in other intertestamental literature and in ii Corinthians 6:15. Belial (Heb. Beliyya'al) is a Hebrew compound word which etymologically means "no benefit" or "no thriving" and in liberal usage is often equivalent to "scoundrel." But already in the Bible "streams of Beliyya'al" means "streams of destruction" (ii Sam. 22:5; Ps. 18:5). In the intertestamental literature Belial is "the spirit of perversion, the angel of darkness, the angel of destruction" and other spirits are subject to him. Mastemah, which as a common noun means approximately "enmity, opposition" in Hosea 9:7, 8 and in some passages in the Five Scrolls, is a demon "Prince Mastemah" in Jubilees (11:5, 11; 17:16; et al.), and perhaps also in the Damascus Document (16:5). Watchers (Aram. ʿirin) are a type of angel mentioned in Daniel 4:10, 14, 20. To this class the intertestamental literature assigns the angels who, according to Genesis 6:2, 4, cohabited with women before the flood and fathered the race of giants (Test. Patr., Reu. 5:6–7; Test. Patr., Napht. 3:5; cf. Genesis Apocryphon, ii 2:1, 16). *Asmodeus (Tobit 3:8, 17) is a demon who had slain the first seven husbands of Sarah, who becomes the wife of Tobias son of Tobit.

Demons in the New Testament

New Testament demonology in part reflects contemporary popular belief, which turns up also in rabbinic literature, and in part the dualism attested in the sectarian literature from Qumran. Demons are called "unclean spirits" or "evil spirits," as in rabbinic literature. They are believed to inhabit waste places. Possession by demons causes, or is associated with, various sicknesses, especially those in which there is a perversion of the human personality, so that the demon, not the man himself, directs his acts and speech (Mark 1:23, 26; 9:17–29). The story of how Jesus cured a demoniac by sending a legion of unclean spirits into a herd of swine (Matt. 8:28–34; Mark 5:1–20; Luke 8:26–39) illustrates vividly the persistence of very ancient popular belief, as does the parable of Matthew 12:43–45, in which the unclean spirit after wandering through the wilderness takes seven devils with him. On the other hand, in the New Testament lesser demons have little independent personality or power, but are subject to a prince, Beelzebul or Satan, and the demonic is often presented, not as something occasional and relatively harmless, but as a cosmic reality of great importance, the enemy of God and man (Eph. 6:12). Beelzebul (Beelzebub) is a name applied to the chief demon by both Jesus and his opponents (Matt. 10:25; 12:24, 27; Mark 3:22; Luke 11:15–19). The correct explanation of the name is much disputed, and new evidence from Ugarit has not completely cleared up the etymology. The spelling Beelzebub reflects identification of Beelzebul with Baal-Zebub, god of Ekron (ii Kings 1:2). Possibly there were two different original forms, Beelzebul meaning "Baal is prince" or "Lord of the shrine," and Beelzebub "Lord of flies" (cf. Ugaritic il dbb [in Gordon, Textbook, ʿnt 3:43]).

[Delbert Roy Hillers]

In the Talmud

References are made to a belief in demonology during the tannaitic period. The mazzikim ("harmful spirits") are said to have been created on the eve of the Sabbath of creation (Avot 5:6) but this late reference is the only one made to demons in the entire Mishnah. Among the accomplishments of both Hillel (Sof. 16:9) and his disciple R. Johanan b. Zakkai was their knowledge of "the speech of the shedim" ("devils," Suk. 28a). The latter also gave the analogy of a ru'ah tezazit ("the demon of madness") entering a man and being exorcised, in order to explain to a heathen the anomaly of the laws of the *red heifer, although he agreed with his wondering disciples that it was but "putting him off with a straw" and that he himself did not accept it (PR 40a; Num. R. 19:4). Although these statements refer to Erez Israel, the Jerusalem Talmud is markedly free from demonology, and in fact mentions only three general names for them – mazzikim, shedim, and ruhot. A passage in the Babylonian Talmud specifically states that various beliefs connected with demons which were current in Babylon were ignored in Erez Israel. Whereas in Erez Israel they translated shiddah and shiddot (Eccles. 2:8) as "carriages," in Babylon they rendered them "male and female demons" (Git. 68a). The Palestinian R. Johanan stated that the mazzikim which used to hold sway in the world disappeared with the erection of the sanctuary in the wilderness (Num. R. 12:30). Demonology, however, is more prominent in the Palestinian Midrashim than in the Jerusalem Talmud. On the other hand the Babylonian Talmud is replete with demonology, obviously under the influence of the belief in demons which was widespread in Babylonia. In fact, in a responsum (published in Lewin, Ozar, p. 20; cf. Assaf, Geonim, p. 262) *Hai Gaon states that the belief in demons was widespread in *Sura, since it was near to (old) Babylonia and to the house of Nebuchadnezzar, whereas in the more distant *Pumbedita they were far from such ideas. The Babylonian Jews lived in a world which was filled with demons and spirits, malevolent and sometimes benevolent, who inhabited the air, the trees, water, roofs of houses, and privies. They are invisible; "If the eye could see them no one could endure them. They surround one on all sides. They are more numerous than humans, each person has a thousand on his left and ten thousand on his right" and they are responsible for various inconveniences. Yet, by taking certain steps, in the morning one can see their footprints in the shape of those of a cock (Ber. 6a). Whereas in the Kabbalah there is an attempt to systematize demonology (see below) there is no sign of such an attempt in the talmudic literature. The material is vast and inchoate, scattered in profusion and without system throughout the whole Talmud and in the Midrashim. The following details, taken except where otherwise indicated from one passage of the Talmud (Pes. 110a–112b), may be taken as indicative.

Asmodeus is the king of the demons. The queen is *Agrath bat Mahalath, who has 10,000 demon attendants, each of whom can do harm. She haunts the air. Originally she held sway at all times, but Hanina b. Dosa, threatening to ban her from populated areas, relented in answer to her pleas and permitted her to be active on Wednesday nights and Sabbath eves. The Babylonian amora Abbaye later banished her from populated areas but she still lurks in the narrow alleys. Doing things in pairs, especially drinking an even number of cups, invites the malevolent activities of demons; an exception is the four cups enjoined in the seder on *Passover for which reason that occasion is called "a night of guarding" (Ex. 12:42), i.e., of protection from demons. Demons are especially harmful in and around palm trees, and their malevolent attention is invited by easing oneself between a palm tree and the wall, by passing between two palms, or by sleeping in the shadow of a palm tree. The demon Palga will affect a man easing himself on the stump of a palm tree; the demon Zereda him who leans his head on one. In general one should avoid many-branched or prickly trees, but there are special trees which are the favorite haunts of the spirits. In the caperbush there resides the eyeless Ruhe. Every sorb tree harbors demons in its shade and is especially dangerous when it is in the vicinity of a town. At least 60 demons haunt it, and they can be exorcised only by a "60 demon amulet." Demons called Rishpe live in the roots of trees. The demon Ketev Meriri (Deut. 32:34) is active in the mornings. It was seen by Abbaye when he was in the company of Papa and Huna b. Joshua. In the afternoon, its place is taken by Ketev Yashud Ẓohorayim (Ps. 91:6) which looks like a goat's horns, and has wings. Both these demons are particularly active from the 1st to the 16th of Tammuz.

According to the Midrash, however, Ketev Meriri is active during the period of mourning from the 17th of Tammuz to the Ninth of Av, between the fourth and ninth hours of the day. As late as the 13th century Zedekiah *Anav reports that in Rome pupils were not punished during these days and hours because of Ketev Meriri which held sway then (Shibbolei ha-Leket, 1:203). It is covered with scales and hairs; it has one eye in its heart and rolls like a ball between the sunlight and the shade. Whoever sees it, collapses and falls to the ground (Mid. Ps. 91:3; from the context however it appears that the reference should be to the Ketev Yashud Ẓohorayim). R. Joseph and R. Papa had friendly conversation with a demon called Joseph.

Demons are prone to infest food and drink left under the bed, and one should refrain from drinking water on Wednesday and Sabbath eve or from pools and rivers at night. The demon Shabriri ("blindness" – cf. Targum Onkelos, Gen. 19:11) wreaks harm on those so doing, but an incantation, consisting of an abracadabra whereby the word is repeated, successively deducting one letter from the word (Shabriri, briri, riri, etc.), is an effective antidote. Solomon made use of male and female demons to build the Temple (Git. 68b) and to bring him water from India with which he was able to grow all kinds of exotic plants not otherwise growing in Erez Israel (Eccles. R. to 2:5). Scholars were immune to the evil machinations of demons while they were engaged in study, but Rashi explains a passage of the Talmud to mean that, on the contrary, they are in need of special protection since the demons are envious of them (Ber. 62a). Psalm 91 is called "the Psalm of [protection against harmful] visitations." Moses is stated to have recited it when he ascended Mount Sinai "because of his fear of mazzikim… and angels of destruction." It is enjoined to be recited "because the whole world is full of evil spirits and mazzikim" (Tanh., Mishpatim, end) and the midrashic interpretations of this Psalm are a veritable treasure store of demonology lore (e.g., Mid. Ps. 91; Tanh., Mishpatim, end; Num. R. 12:3–4). The power of demons over man and his helplessness in face of it is illustrated by the fact that the talmudic metaphor for an act performed through force majeure is "as though a devil [shed] had compelled him" (e.g., rh 28a). The talmudic commentators and codifiers accepted the belief in demons; Maimonides alone opposed it.

[Louis Isaac Rabinowitz]

In Kabbalah

The kabbalists made use of all the motifs current in the Talmud and Midrash with regard to demons. New elements were developed or added, mainly in two directions: (1) the kabbalists attempted to systematize demonology so that it would fit into their understanding of the world and thus to explain demonology in terms derived from their understanding of reality; (2) new and varied elements were added from external sources, mainly from medieval Arabic demonology, from Christian demonology, and from the popular beliefs of the Germans and Slavs.

At times these elements were linked, more or less logically, to Jewish demonology and were thus "Judaized" to some extent. However, frequently the link was only external; material was incorporated into Jewish demonology with almost no explicit Jewish adaptation. This is particularly true with regard to the sources of practical Kabbalah. There, real kabbalistic beliefs mingled with folk beliefs which in fact originally had no connection with the beliefs of the kabbalists. This combination gives the late Jewish demonology its markedly syncretistic character. The material pertaining to this kind of demonology can be found in innumerable sources, many still in manuscript. Extensive research in this field and its development is one of the important desiderata of Jewish studies.

The works of the kabbalists also contain contradictory conceptions of the demons and the power of imagination. Traditions of the past as well as the cultural environment and the intellectual outlook of each individual kabbalist contributed toward the diversification of their beliefs. The ideas of the early Spanish kabbalists on this subject were formulated clearly in *Nahmanides' commentary on Leviticus 17:7 and their influence is visible in all subsequent literature. In Nahmanides' opinion the demons (shedim) are to be found in waste (shedudim), ruined, and cold places such as in the North. They were not created out of the four elements but only out of fire and air. They have subtle bodies, imperceptible by the human senses, and these subtle bodies allow them to fly through fire and air. Because they are composed of different elements, they come under the laws of creation and decay and they die like human beings. Their sustenance is derived from water and fire, from odors and saps; hence necromancers burned incense to demons. Despite the element of subtle fire which they contain, they are surrounded by a coldness that frightens off the exorcisers (this detail is singled out only in later sources). By means of their flight through air they are able to approach the "princes" of the zodiac who dwell in the atmosphere and thus hear predictions of the near but not the distant future.

Naḥmanides also hints (Comm. to Lev. 16:8) that the demons belong to the patrimony of Samael, who is "the soul of the planet Mars and Esau is his subject among the nations" (the angel of Edom or Christianity). The Castilian kabbalists, *Isaac b. Jacob ha-Kohen, Moses of *Burgos, and Moses de Leon (in his Hebrew works and in the *Zohar), linked the existence of demons with the last grade of the powers of the "left-side" emanation (the sitra ahra, "other side," of the Zohar) which corresponds in its ten Sefirot of evil to the ten holy Sefirot. Their writings contain detailed descriptions of the way in which these powers emanated and explain the names of the supervisors of their hosts. Their ideas are mainly based on internal development in kabbalistic circles. In the various sources entirely different names are given to the upper grades of these demonic or Satanic powers. However, they all agree in linking the hosts of demons in the subhuman world, i.e., on earth, under the dominion of Samael and *Lilith who appear for the first time in these sources as a couple. Numerous details about these grades are found in Sefer Ammud ha-Semali by Moses of Burgos (Tarbiz, 4 (1933), 208–25).

In contrast, the Zohar, following a talmudic legend, stresses the origin of the demons in sexual intercourse between humans and demonic powers. Some demons, such as Lilith, were created during the six days of Creation, and in particular on the Sabbath eve at twilight, as disembodied spirits. They sought to take on the form of a body through association with humans, at first with Adam when he separated from Eve and then with all his descendants. However, the demons who were created out of such unions also long for this kind of intercourse. The sexual element in the relationship of man and demons holds a prominent place in the demonology of the Zohar, as well as that of several later kabbalistic works. Every pollution of semen gives birth to demons. The details of these relationships are remarkably similar to the beliefs current in Christian medieval demonology about succubi and incubi. They are based on the assumption (contrary to the talmudic opinion) that these demons have no procreating ability of their own and need the human semen in order to multiply. In the later Kabbalah it is pointed out that the demons born to man out of such unions are considered his illegitimate sons; they were called banim shovavim ("mischievous sons"). At death and burial they come to accompany the dead man, to lament him, and to claim their share of the inheritance; they may also injure the legitimate sons. Hence the custom of circling the dead at the cemetery to repulse the demons and also the custom (dating from the 17th century) in a number of communities of not allowing the sons to accompany their father's corpse to the cemetery to prevent their being harmed by their illegitimate step-brothers.

The terms shedim and mazzikim were often used as synonyms, but in some sources there is a certain differentiation between them. In the Zohar it is thought that the spirits of evil men become mazzikim after their death. However, there are also good-natured devils who are prepared to help and do favors to men. This is supposed to be particularly true of those demons who are ruled by Ashmedai (*Asmodeus) who accept the Torah and are considered "Jewish demons." Their existence is mentioned by the *Hasidei Ashkenaz as well as in the Zohar. According to legend, Cain and Abel, who contain some of the impurity of the serpent which had sexual relations with Eve, possess a certain demonic element and various demons came from them. But, in practice, the mating of female devils with human males and of male devils with female humans continued throughout history. These devils are mortal, but their kings and queens live longer than human beings and some of them, particularly Lilith and Naamah, will exist until the day of the Last Judgment (Zohar 1:55a). Various speculations were made on the death of the kings of the demons, in particular of Ashmedai (Tarbiz, 19 (1948), 160–3). One popular view is that Ashmedai is merely the title of the office of the king of the demons, just as Pharaoh is the title of the office of the king of Egypt, and "every king of the demons is called Ashmedai," as the word Ashmedai in gematria is numerically equivalent to Pharaoh. Long genealogies of the demons and their families are found in Judeo-Arabic demonology.

Apparently, the author of the Zohar distinguishes between spirits that have emanated from the "left-side" and were assigned definite functions in the "palaces of impurity" and devils in the exact sense who hover in the air. According to later sources, the latter fill with their hosts the space of the sky between the earth and sphere of the moon. Their activity takes place mainly at night, before midnight. Devils born out of nightly pollutions are called "the stripes of the children of men" (ii Sam. 7:14). Sometimes the demons poke fun at men. They tell them lies about the future and mingle truth and lies in dreams. The feet of the demons are crooked (Zohar 3:229b). In numerous sources four mothers of demons are mentioned: Lilith, Naamah, Agrath, and Mahalath (who is sometimes replaced by Rahab). The demons under their rule go out in their hosts at appointed times and constitute a danger to the world. At times, they gather on a particular mountain "near the mountains of darkness where they have sexual intercourse with Samael." This is reminiscent of the Witches' Sabbath in Christian demonology. Male and female witches also gather at this place, devote themselves to similar deeds, and learn the art of witchcraft from the arch-devils, who are here identical with the rebellious angels who have fallen from heaven (Zohar 3:194b, 212a). The author of the Ra'aya Meheimna in the Zohar (3:253a) distinguishes between three types of demons: (1) those similar to angels; (2) those resembling humans and called shedim Yehuda'im ("Jewish devils") who submit to the Torah; (3) those who have no fear of God and are like animals.

The distinction of demons according to the three main religions is found also in Arabic demonology as well as in sources of practical Kabbalah; it is mentioned in the full, uncensored text of a section of Midrash Rut ha-Ne'lam in the Zohar. Another division distinguishes between demons according to the various strata of the air in which they rule – an opinion common to the Zohar and to Isaac ha-Kohen who mentions details about this. On the other hand, the Zohar mentions nukba di-tehoma rabba, "the maw of the great abyss," as the place to which the devils return on the Sabbath when they have no power over the world. According to *Bahya b. Asher, the devils also found refuge in Noah's ark, otherwise they would not have been saved from the Flood.

The kings of the devils were given names, but not the members of their hosts, who are known by the kings' names: "Samael and his host," "Ashmedai and his host," etc. Ashmedai is generally considered as the son of Naamah the sister of Tubal-Cain, but sometimes also as the son of King David and Agrath, the queen of the demons. Numerous names of demons have come from Arabic tradition. Among them should be mentioned Bilar (also Bilad or Bilid), the third king who succeeded Ashmedai. Bilar is merely a misspelling of *Satan's name "Beliar" in several Apocalypses and in early Christian literature, which thus returned to Jewish tradition via foreign sources. He plays an important role in "practical kabbalistic" literature and from it, disguised as Bileth, he came into German magic literature associated with the story of Doctor Faust. The seal of this king is described in detail in the book Berit Menuhah (Amsterdam, 1648, 39b). The other demons too have seals, and those who know them can make them appear against their will. Their drawings are preserved in manuscripts of practical Kabbalah. The names of the seven kings of the demons in charge of the seven days of the week, very popular in later Jewish demonology, were derived from Arabic tradition. Prominent among them are Maimon the Black and Shemhurish, judge of the demons. Other systems originating in the Spanish Kabbalah put the three kings Halama, Samael, and Kafkafuni at the head of the demons (Sefer ha-Heshek, Ms. in Brit. Mus.; cf. A. Freimann Jubilee). Other systems of demonology are connected with lists of the angels and the demons in charge of the night hours of the seven days of the week, or with the demonological interpretation of diseases such as epilepsy. Such sources are Seder Goral ha-Holeh and Sefer ha-Ne'elavim (G. Scholem, Kitvei Yad be-Kabbalah (1930), 182–5). These systems are not necessarily connected with kabbalistic ideas and some obviously preceded them. A complete system of kabbalistic demonology was presented, after the period of the Zohar, in Sibbat Ma'aseh ha-Egel ve-Inyan ha-Shedim (Ms. Sassoon 56), which develops internal Jewish motifs. A combination of the Zohar and Arab sources characterizes the book Ẓefunei Ẓiyyoni by Menahem Zion of Cologne (Ms. Oxford, late 14th century); it enumerates a long list of important demons and their functions while preserving their Arabic names. This book was one of the channels through which Arab elements reached the practical kabbalists among the Jews of Germany and Poland, and they recur often, albeit with errors, in collections of demonology in Hebrew and Yiddish. One of the most important among these is Schocken manuscript 102, dating from the end of the 18th century. Among North African and Near Eastern Jews, elements of kabbalistic and Arabic demonology were combined even without literary intermediaries; of particular interest is Sassoon manuscript 290. The collections of remedies and amulets composed by Sephardi scholars abound in this kind of material. An outstanding example of a complete mixture of Jewish, Arab, and Christian elements is found in the incantations of the book Mafte'ah Shelomo or Clavicula Salononis, a collection from the 17th century published in facsimile by H. Gollancz in 1914. King Zauba'a and Queen Zumzumit also belong to the Arab heritage. A rich German heritage in the field of demonology is preserved in the writings of *Judah he-Hasid and his disciples and in Menahem Zion's commentary on the Torah. According to the testimony of Naḥmanides, it was the custom of the Ashkenazi Jews to "dabble in matters concerning the demons, to weave spells and send them away, and they use them in several matters" (Teshuvot ha-Rashba ha-Meyuhasot la-Ramban, no. 283). The Ma'aseh Bukh (in Yiddish; English translation by M. Gaster, 1934) lists numerous details about this Jewish-Ashkenazi demonology of the later Middle Ages. In addition to current popular beliefs, elements originating in scholarly magic literature as well as the names of demons whose origins were in Christian *magic were introduced from Christian demonology. These spread, not later than the 15th century, among the Jews of Germany. Demons such as Astarot, Beelzebub (in many forms), and their like became fixtures in incantations and lists of demons. A detailed kabbalistic system of demonology is found at the time of the expulsion from Spain in the book Ha-Malakh ha-Meshiv. These revelations were attributed to the kabbalist Joseph *Taitazak of Salonika. In this system, the hierarchy of the demons is headed by Samael the patron of Edom and Ammon of No (Alexandria), patron of Egypt, who also represents Islam. Ammon of No recurs in numerous sources in this period.

Ḥayyim *Vital tells about devils who are composed from only one of the four elements, in contrast to the opinion of Nahmanides mentioned above. This view probably has its origin in the European demonology of the Renaissance. Isaac *Luria's Kabbalah often mentions various kelippot ("shells") which have to be subdued via observance of the Torah and mitzvot, but it does not generally give them proper names or make them into devils as such. This process reached its peak in Sefer Karnayim (Zolkiew, 1709) by *Samson of Ostropol, who gives to many kelippot names which were not found in any ancient source. This book is the last original text in kabbalistic demonology.

Some details: according to *Isaac of Acre the devils have only four fingers and lack the thumb. The book Emek ha-Melekh (Amsterdam, 1648) mentions demons called kesilim ("fooling" spirits) who misguide man on his way and poke fun at him. Hence presumably the appellation lezim ("jesters") occurring in later literature and in popular usage for the lower type of demons, those who throw about household goods and the like (poltergeists). From the beginning of the 17th century the demon called Sh. D. (ש״ד) is mentioned, i.e., Shomer Dappim ("guard of the pages"); he injures a man who leaves a holy book open. According to a popular belief of German Jews, the four queens of the demons rule over the four seasons of the year. Once every three months at the turn of the season, their menstrual blood falls into the waters and poisons them, and it is therefore forbidden to drink water at the change of the seasons. A special place in demonology is allotted to the Queen of Sheba, who was considered one of the queens of the demons and is sometimes identified with Lilith – for the first time in the Targum (Job, ch. 1), and later in the Zohar and the subsequent literature (Tarbiz, 19 (1948), 165–72). The motif of the battle between the prince and a dragon or a demonic reptile, representing the power of the kelippah who imprisoned the princess, is widespread in various forms in the demonology of the Zohar. Dragon is the name of the king of the demons who is also mentioned in Sefer Hasidim. According to Hayyim Vital, four queens of the demons rule over Rome (Lilith), over Salamanca (Agrath), over Egypt (Rahab), and over Damascus (Naamah). According to Abraham Galante, until the confusion of the languages there existed only two: the holy language (i.e., Hebrew) and the language of the demons. Belief in demons remained a folk superstition among some Jews in certain countries.

[Gershom Scholem]


in the bible: idb, 1 (1962), 325–6, 332, 374, 3–24 (incl. bibl.); E. Ebeling and B. Meissner (eds.), Reallexikon der Assyriologie, 2 (1938), 107–13; I.J. Gelb et al., The (Chicago) Assyrian Dictionary, 1, pt. 1 (1964), 375–7 (s.v.alâ A); 4 (1958), 397–401 (s.v.etemmu); F.M. Cross, Ancient Library of Qumran (1958), 156–61 (incl. bibl.); W. Foerster, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (1964), s.v.daimon; S. Paul, in: Biblica, 49 (1968), 373–6. in the talmud: J. Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition (1934); E.E. Urbach, Hazal, Pirkei Emunot (1969), 142–4. in the kabbalah: M. Margalioth, Malakhei Elyon (1945), 201–94; G. Scholem, in: Madda'ei ha-Yahadut, 1 (1926), 112–27; idem, in: KS, 10 (1933/34), 68–73; idem, in: Tarbiz, vols. 3–5 (1932–34); idem, in: jjs, 16 (1965), 1–13; i. Tishby, Mishnat ha-Zohar, 1 (1957), 361–77; J.A. Eisenmenger, Das entdeckte Judenthum, 2 (1700), 408–68 (a mixture of talmudic and kabbalistic ideas); P.W. Hirsch, Megalleh Tekufot… oder das schaedliche Blut, welches ueber die Juden viermal des Jahrs kommt (1717); Mitteilungen fuer juedische Volkskunde (1898–1926) especially M. Grunwald, in vols. for 1900, 1906, 1907; Jahrbuch fuer Juedische Volkskunde (1923 and 1925); M. Weinreich, in: Landau-Bukh (1926), 217–38.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Demons, Demonology." Encyclopaedia Judaica. . 19 Aug. 2018 <>.

"Demons, Demonology." Encyclopaedia Judaica. . (August 19, 2018).

"Demons, Demonology." Encyclopaedia Judaica. . Retrieved August 19, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.