Devils and demons have been ingrained in cultural and religious beliefs for thousands of years. Throughout time, the struggle between good and evil has been expressed through a belief in spirits, a belief that influences the manner in which we live our lives. Certain faiths expressed this theoretical concept as a tangible entity. Subsequently, demons were part of the physical and ethereal worlds and became both an explanation and advertence for certain human behaviors.
Demons initially referred to any spirits, whether or not they acted maliciously. The Greek word daemon (Saipov) was often synonymous with Theos (gods). In pre-Islamic Arabic cultures no discrimination between gods and demons existed; instead the term jinn was used to describe inferior divinities. In the Islamic tradition, jinn are believed to be made of smokeless fire, whereas humans are made of clay. Evil jinns are shayatin, or devils, and are led by Iblis (Satan), a former servant of God who became envious, arrogant, and defiant after the creation of humankind. Although God condemned Iblis to hell, He was additionally granted the ability to live to the end of eternity, misleading humankind and jinns. In addition to the jinns, the guls consume the bodies of the dead, the sealah inhabit the forests, and skikks are half-human creatures.
Within the Hindu faith there existed three classes of beings: devas (demigods), manushyas (humans), and asuras (demons). Asuras lived in Patala, the dimension between Naraka (hell) and Bhu loka (earth), and were constantly in conflict with devas over supremacy. Asuras were once looked upon as divine creatures; when translated into early Iranian languages asuras becomes Mahura, the god in the Zoroastrian religion. However, the term asuras eventually became a reference to demons solely. In keeping with their belief in reincarnation, Hindus hold that if humans commit sinful and harmful acts in their lives, their souls (Atman) will be turned into evil spirits, such as vetalas (animate corpses), pishacha (vampires), or bhutas (ghosts). These Asian demons are depicted as being hideous creatures, with an extreme hatred of loud noises. A common practice to ward off oriental demons is to adorn hideous masks and light fireworks. This ritual is demonstrated during the Chinese New Year celebrations.
The modern Judeo-Christian system of demonology originates from the teachings of the prophet Zoroaster. One of Zoroastrianism’s main influences upon demonology is with the concept of Ahura Mazda (the sole God figure) defeating his antithesis, Angra Mainyu or Ahriman (the Devil figure), in an epic battle of good versus evil. Alongside Ahriman is the queen of the demons, Lilith, “Mother of Ahriman.” Lilith was later portrayed in the Jewish faith as having brought the demons, lilin, and evil spirits into the world with Adam while he was separated from Eve for 130 years out of penance for his sin. Later Lilith would be portrayed in certain texts as Adam’s original wife.
Judaism incorporated the Zoroastrian class systems of demonology and angelology into the Hebrew Bible with the notions of the se’irim and the shedim. The se’irim (hairy ones) are satyr creatures, comparable to the Eastern religions’ jinn. Shedim are spirits acting either in a benevolent or malevolent fashion. Three forms of shedim exist: Rabbi Loew’s Golem is an example of the benevolent variety, mazikin (harmers) are the malevolent form often responsible for bodily possessions, and ruhot are evil spirits. The term shedim refers back to the shedu, the seven evil deities of the Chaldean mythology. These shedu are often depicted as protective winged bull figures outside royal places. Under some rabbinic sources, a king of the demons existed. This individual was either Samual “the angel of death,” as described in older versions of the haggadah, or Asmodai. Satan is mentioned as well, though not as the king of the demons.
As Judaism and Christianity spread, the past religions and concepts were built upon and constructed into their own faiths. Their template for the devil comes from the Persian devil, whereas Lilith and winged angels are both copied from Babylonians. Due to the incorporation of Zoroastrian dualism, Satan changes from being the servant of god, distributing evil on behalf of God, to becoming God’s adversary. As Christians overtook new lands, they also overtook the old temples. They integrated their own icons into the temples, changing the statues of Venus and Cupid into the Blessed Mother and Baby Jesus, and demonized the gods of their enemies. This demonization is apparent in the iconography of certain demons. Regularly a demon is portrayed with horns, hooves, and a pointed tail; this is evocative of the satyr god-creature Pan. Past gods are not the only demonized figures; the opponents of early Christianity were also labeled as being allied with the devil. Even Zoroaster himself was demonized as being Ham, the wicked son of Noah.
With the Judeo-Christian faith, new stories relating to the genesis of demons were introduced. The most widely known of these tales is that of the fallen angels. It is said that all those that sided with Lucifer were banished from heaven and became demons. The Book of Enoch provides another story: When the fallen angels slept with the daughters of man, giants and demons were produced. As the dynamic of the devil as the adversary grew, new religious beliefs resulted. On August 12, 1950, Pope Pius XII declared, in the Humani Generis, that Roman Catholics must regard the devil as a true person walking upon the earth. To resist Satan and his demonic forces, a strict adherence to cultural orthodoxy and religious dogma followed.
See also Angels; Christianity; Evil and Time; Islam; Judaism; Satan and Time; Sin, Original; Vampires; Zoroaster
Ashley, L. L. N. (1996). Complete book of devils and demons. Fort Lee, NJ: Barricade Books.
Collin de Plancy, J.-A.-S. (1965). Dictionnaire infernal. London: Peter Owen.
Pagels, E. (1996). Origin of Satan. London: Allen Lane.