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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]).


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.